She’s visiting her sister in Largemont, a half a country from home. After a few days the crush of catching up subsides and the remaining half-week promises a more relaxed interaction. Her sister is the home team, where the pokes and tugs of responsibility cannot be completely ignored, and this afternoon she’s out knocking down the kinds of errands that keep the family floor level. Alice, on vacation, lacks that detached parental voice chiding her to be productive. She goes to the mall.
She enjoys the mild disorientation from seeing her favorite chain stores shuffled and re-dealt, in some cases hanging out with complete strangers — stores only available here, on the west coast. She browses the upper level, has just passed the Victoria’s Secret, in this mall scandalously broad, glass-walled and inviting, and is comparing it to the one back home — about the size of a country post office, where even grown women like herself feel giggly and furtive, cramped in there with all those undergarments built for intent — when a man’s voice from behind her says:
“Don’t turn around. Not yet.”
She freezes. It is a voice she is doomed to recognize, someone she would know even on a trawler radio, crackling static in a high storm. If a choir five hundred strong raised their voices to the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling, and Alice was standing blindfolded and alone ten rows back, she could say to herself, “Yes. That’s him, on the left about halfway up. Baritone.”
She doesn’t turn around (not yet) but she does move to the railing that keeps people from falling out into the atrium air. She lets her hands grip it, then pushes them apart, her arms spread like wings, and cranes her neck to watch the shoppers on the ground floor. She imagines how this looks from behind. He’s back three seconds and I’m already posing for him.
“I see a wedding ring,” he says, “and I’m going to guess you’ve had a baby.”
Two, in fact. She wonders if he was remembering her desire for children or making a joke about the size of her behind, which had about a dozen years added to it since the last time he saw it, storming out of a motel room north of Memphis.
“Twelve years,” she says. “I’m sure you’re fat and bald.” But the words go out to the open space ahead of her, where pop music drifting from hidden speakers meets the susurrus from the fountain below, so she can’t tell if he heard.
“You’ll probably never know how I look,” he says, much closer now, “because you probably won’t turn around.”
His hands, with a wedding ring of their own, come down on the rail outside of hers on either side, not touching, his upper arms disappearing out of her field of vision beyond her shoulders. His size is enough that he can do this without resting his chest on her back, but he must be only be inches away. She refuses to move her head, refuses to lift her eyes from the power walkers coming around the benches below.
When he speaks next, his breath is warm on the right side of her neck, tickling her ear.
“I have no idea what you’re doing in California,” he says, “and I’m only in Largemont by happenstance.” He switches to her left ear. “In this mall by a fluke.” He goes back to her right. “I have to assume God wants us to sin.”
She stares at the knuckles on his left hand, remembering them when she was sixteen, how they pressed against her navel, how strange it was to feel someone else unbuttoning her jeans. She moves her eyes to stare at his right hand, the one that smashed the night watchman’s nose when she was twenty-four.
“God doesn’t notice you,” she says. “Maybe when imps spun the wheel of chance this morning, the devil picked out ‘test Alice Carr’ and put it on his to-do list.”
He laughs then, a sweet, deep sound that quivers down her spine and settles low in her belly. His hands draw away, and she feels the rush of air as he steps back. She stays still as a rabbit in underbrush. On the floor of the mall is a casual replica of Big Ben. She stares at the clock facing them, and she knows he sees it too.
“I’m only in town a few days,” he says, and she thinks, maybe he’s right about God after all. “It’s a nice room downtown. Spacious. Lonely.”
She realizes that her head, craned out over the atrium, is the farthest point of her body from his, which is appropriate. Her feelings for him have always had more to do with her gut than her brain.
She imagines herself on a beach, at night, the roar of the waves masking her presence as she looks down the sand to a campfire — her marriage — glowing warm reds and yellows. Her husband and children are there. The man who approaches her in the night tells her to come away a moment.
No one will know.
You can always find your way back after.
The way home will stay lit.
“Fifteen seconds,” he says. “I’ll stand here fifteen seconds, and if you don’t turn around, I’ll leave.”
The Big Ben replica has long metal hands, like swords, and a thinner second hand that ticks off each second instead of gliding smoothly along the numbers. When he speaks, the hand has just arrived on the nine. As she watches it climb to twelve — high noon or the witching hour — she notices that at each jerk to the next second, when the hand stops, it shivers.
Whether in anticipation, or in fear, or in mourning the loss of all the seconds passed, it shivers.
And she decides.
John Jasper Owens lives in the South, where he offers unpublished fiction and humor at low, low prices.