Marilyn’s gone. Alec’s sitting down. “I went to the sea, and took a boat up the coast. Did some fisherman duties for a while, then back inland and logged. Spent time in the bush. I got all the way to Alaska, Anthea. You know what it is to be in Alaska, when you’re used to the heat? I saw snow and ice, the coldest plains. I got into the oil. There’s money in oil, Anthea, but it’s easy to spend it when you’re up there, on things that aren’t good for your body or your mind. You meet girls, you see them the next day and you don’t even know who they are, and they don’t know you either. You get your pay and you do it again, as you suck the guts out of the earth. I thought maybe one day I’d prospect for gold, that I’d have the money to do that instead, but the money’s all gone. It went away as soon as it came. That’s the way it is, Anthea.”
“What are you doing here?” she asks him. He’s still handsome. Still strong.
“I’m your husband, Anthea,” he says.
“You were my husband. For all of three months.”
“We never got divorced,” he reminds her.
“No, you left, so yeah we never got divorced.”
“I left,” he says, serious man that he is, “and that’s what it is. But you’re still owed to me and I’m still owed to you.”
“Even though you knew of other girls? You think I’m owed to you despite all that?”
He looks at the floorboards. “It’s a strange home you’ve got here, Anthea, next to a river that won’t run. But it’s fine.” He looks up at her. “And you’re still fine. And I came back to find you. You think in all this world that I couldn’t have found some other place to go? Some other soul to be around? I came back for you. That’s got to mean something. Let me show you.”
He resets the chess pieces on the board. He moves first. White.
She looks at him, as he waits. He’s older, worn. Beaten up a little, like she is. Maybe wiser, maybe dumber, it’s hard to tell. I don’t want you, she wants to tell him, but instead she moves a pawn. His next move makes no sense, but she doesn’t tell him that. Back and forth they go, removing pieces from the board.
When he takes her queen, she gets up and goes outside. There the river runs, or rather doesn’t, and she finds that she’s breathing hard. Inside, she finds a bottle that Marilyn has left lying around. The vodka tastes terrible, but she chugs it. Alec watches her, wide-eyed. “I didn’t think you did that. Your friend says you don’t do much of anything.”
“Don’t I?” she asks, sitting down. Her hand is on the bottle. “How would you know?”
“You were always the sweetest girl,” he says, moving a piece. “Sweetest girl I ever knew. Up and down the coast, in the forests deep as you can go, up to the snowy places and all, still never met anyone like you. It’s funny the places you got to go to if you want to understand what people are like, and how the folks you’ve known compare. I had time to think on it, Anthea.”
“Sixteen years!” she barks, moving a piece. She’s not interested in showing him mercy now, she thinks. She’s just not. Now and then, she sips from the bottle as he, wide-eyed and gorgeous, watches.
The game ends badly for Alec. She takes his king and smacks it onto its side. Then she stands up. Takes a drink.
You don’t know this and maybe you won’t believe it, but everything you do in your life is for love. Even the bad things that you do, that’s for love too, because you’re looking for something that your present life isn’t giving up. The breaths you take, the beats of your heart, the little whispers, the songs on the radio, the way you walk on the sidewalk and let your hand touch a bush. It’s all love, nothing more.
In that shack, Anthea takes off her blouse as he watches. Then takes off the rest of her clothes. She stares at him, sitting there all gorgeous, as they think about love and if they ever had it at all. Maybe, maybe not, but everything they did was for love anyway, right? Get up, she tells him. Just get up. Take off your clothes and just stand there so that I can look at you. Yeah, same body I remember. Same beauty. I know this game. I remember these moves. Do you remember what it is to touch me? Your sweet little bride? Don’t come near me, no not yet.
He stands there, like a little boy who doesn’t know what the hell to do, there in that shack next to that unflowing river.
Don’t move a muscle, she tells him. Then she drops to her knees and swallows him whole, as he moans in surprise. Don’t touch my head. Don’t feel my hair. Just stand there and take what I do to you. Sixteen years later, this is what we’ve come to. Doing all these things for love. She releases him, stands up. “Pick me up now,” she says. “That’s right. Take me to my bed.”
He puts her on the mattress. “Now what?” he asks.
“Lie down,” she says, and he does. And she’s on top of him, him inside her, like he’s her husband, she his wife. She’s fighting him, or so she thinks. She’s a queen, a consort. A whore. A wife. She curls up against his body and puts her lips on his, the only lips she’s ever known, and he’s so surprised he barely knows what to do – but she’ll show him. Sixteen years later, she’ll tell him exactly what’s to happen now. When it’s time, she flips him over and lets him put his weight onto her, the comforting strength of his body, all that muscle, no matter how beaten up. “Get off me!” she says, when she feels like it, and he retracts, like a dog that’s just been kicked. She wants to slap him, but it’s not in her. “Lie down, I told you,” she says, and he does just that, she does what she wants to him, with her mouth, with her hands, with the rest of her.
The night goes along, aware that day’s going to break it apart. But everything we do, we do for love, and even the night’s aware of that, giving of itself as it is, to the day that’s going to come.
“I can get a job at your factory,” says Alec, two days later. He puts a pan of eggs on the table, next to the beans.
“You mean to work?” she asks him.
“I mean to try.”
She stares at him. “You know, people here won’t be comforted by you and me together.”
He shrugs. “We’re married, you and I. And I know you, Anthea. These last two days, I’ve seen that you’re still that girl I met.”
She wonders if he’s right. Sixteen years is a long time to stay the same. We all have to change, she thinks. We have to. Suddenly, the shack seems small. The river seems ugly. And the forest all around the land, it doesn’t seem as big as it did before, as though it’s not that far to the mountains, wherever they may be.
But she says, “Okay. I’ll get you in there. You have to work hard, Alec.”
He nods, like he means it. “I know that.”
Marilyn comes to visit, to make sure she’s okay. Anthea says yes, but she won’t call Alec her husband again, not just yet.
A week later, they play chess and she lets him beat her. When the game’s over, she takes him to the river and consumes him on the mud. The earth is warm, and moves as they do, under starlight. She never imagined lying in the dead river, underneath this gorgeous man, staring at stars like that. She wonders if someone will walk by and see them, but there is no one that comes here, no one who ever will. The mud comes off in the shower, and they huddle in the bed, spent, but Anthea wakes up later and goes to her chess board, and recreates the moves of their game by memory. This time, she wins.
Alec gets a job at the marble factory. He’s strong, big, able to do serious work. She puts him on the back of the scooter in the mornings, he holding onto her hard as they bounce over the gravel road. She bought him a white helmet, too, and he looks like a strange little kid with that gear on.
“When are you going to leave again?” she asks him often, like he’s going to disappear suddenly.
“I’m not going,” he tells her.
“Is it today you’re leaving?” she asks him.
“No. Stop asking me that. You should know I’m staying.”
Three weeks after he appeared, she stops the scooter on the way to the factory. “Get off.” He does. “Tell me straight. When are you going to leave again?”
He looks ridiculous in his little white helmet, but she won’t tell him that just now, because love is not a laughing matter – and everything we do is for love, even though we often laugh about it. This big strong black man in a white helmet at the side of a road is for laughter – and he’s also for love. He looks at her, eyes staring, and she can’t help but laugh when he responds, “When you want me to.” She takes him at his word and packs him onto the scooter, then drives him into work. A day later, they buy a television set, and get it wired up with a satellite so that they can watch anything.
“Are you keeping him?” asks Marilyn, when they’re down at the river one night.
“We’re married,” she returns. Rain has come. A small stream is flowing in the big river now, waiting to grow and get bigger.
“Doesn’t mean you have to keep him.”
But the river grows bigger. The rain doesn’t even have to fall nearby, it just has to fall somewhere. Upriver, rains come and wash off the land towards the river, molecules drawn like it’s a game towards each other, little unions of near-randomness that assembles and multiplies, like this is love and you are, too. Unions, assemblies, that draw towards the bed, sliding in and rushing together into the stream, the stream that grows and multiplies until it gets downriver and slides by that shack not far from the banks.
She keeps him. That’s just the story. She keeps him for no reason she can say, other than that he’s so beautiful and so ridiculous in that white bike helmet. That he’s so strong, and does what she tells him to do when he’s in her bed. That she can have him in the river, growing as it might be, if that’s what she wishes. They play her game there in the shack as the rain pounds outside. She’s never let him win again. She’s never allowed it, but she teaches him the tricks and the ways of the game, and how it’s meant to be. This is what you do for love, she thinks, staring at his fingers as he moves pieces across the board, trying to figure out what she will do next.
Just in case you need to forget about the election, here’s the third part of this story.