The Bridges Of Madison County (Chapter 2)
Deep autumn was birthday time for Francesca, and cold rain swept against her frame house in the south Iowa countryside. Sbe watched the rain, looked through it toward the hills along Middle River,thinking of Richard. He had died on a day like this, eight years ago, from something with a name she would rather not remember. But Francesca thought of him now and his sturdy kindness, his steady ways, and the even life he had given her.
The children had called. Neither of them could make it home again this year for her birthday, though it was her sixty-seventh. She understood, as she always did. Always had. Always would. They were both in midcareer, running hard, managing a hospital, teaching students, Michael getting into his second marriage, Carolyn struggling with her first. Secretly she was glad they never seemed to arrange a visit on her birthday; she had her
own ceremonies reserved for that day.
This morning her friends from Winterset had stopped by with a birthday cake. Francesca made coffee, while the talk ran to grandchildren and the town, to Thanksgiving and what to get for Christmas for whom. The quiet laughter and the rise and fall of conversation from the living room were comforting in their familiarity and reminded Francesca of one small reason why she had stayed here after Richard’s death.
Michael had touted Florida, Carolyn New England. But she had remained in the hills of south Iowa, on the land, keeping her old address for a special reason, and she was glad she had done that.
Francesca had watched them leave at lunchtime. They drove their Buicks and Fords down the lane, turned onto the paved county road, and headed toward Winterset, wiper blades pushing aside the rain. They were good friends, though they would never understand what lay inside of her, would not understand even if she told them.
Her husband had said she would find good friends, when he brought her here after the war, from Naples. He said, “Iowans have their faults, but one of them is not lack of caring.” And that was true, is true.
She had been twenty-five when they met– – out of the university for three years, teaching at a private school for girls, wondering about her life. Most of the young Italian men were dead or injured or in POW camps or broken by the fighting. Her affair with Niccolo, a professor of art at the university,who painted all day and took her on wild, reckless tours of the underside of Naples at night, had been over for a year , done in finally by the unceasing disapproval of her traditional parents.
She wore ribbons in her black hair and clung to her dreams. But no handsome sailors disembarked looking for her, no voices came up to her window from the streets below. The hard press of reality brought her to the recognition that her choices were constrained. Richard offered a reasonable alternative: kindness and the sweet promise of America.
She had studied him in his soldier’s uniform as they sat in a cafe in the Mediterranean sunlight, saw him looking earnestly at her in his midwestern way, and came to Iowa with him. Came to have his children, to watch Michael play football on cold October nights, to take Carolyn to Des Moines for her prom dresses. She exchanged letters with her sister in Naples several times each year and had returned there twice, when each of her parents had died. But Madison County was home now, and she had no longing to go back again.
The rain stopped in midafternoon, then resumed its ways just before evening. In the twilight, Francesca poured a small glass of brandy and opened the bottom drawer of Richard’s rolltop desk, the walnut piece that had passed down through three generations of his family She took out a manila envelope and brushed her hand across it slowly, as she did each year on this day.
The postmark read “Seattle, WA, Sep 12 ’65.” She always looked at the postmark first. That was part of the ritual. Then to the address written in longhand: “Francesca Johnson, RR 2, Winterset, Iowa.” Next the return address, carelessly scrabbled in the upper left: “Box 642, Bellingham, Washington.” She sat in a chair by the window, looked at the addresses, and concentrated, for contained in them was the movement of his hands, and she wanted to bring back the feel of those hands on her twenty-two years ago.
When she could feel his hands touching her, she opened the envelope, carefully removed three letters, a short manuscript, two photographs, and a complete issue of National Geographic along with clippings from other issues of the magazine. There, in gray light fading, she sipped her brandy,looking over the rim of her glass to the handwritten note clipped on the typed manuscript pages. The letter was on his stationery, simple stationery that said only “Robert Kincaid, Writer- Photographer” at the top in discreet lettering.
September 10, 1965
Enclosed are two photographs. One is the shot I took of you in the pasture at sunrise. I hope you like it as much as I do. The other is of Roseman Bridge before I removed your note tacked to it.
I sit here trolling the gray areas of my mind
for every detail, every moment, of our time together. I ask myself over and over,
“What happened to me in Madison County, lowa?” And I struggle to bring it together. That’s why I wrote the little piece, “Falling from Dimension Z,” I have enclosed, as a way of trying to sift through my confusion.
I look down the barrel of a lens, and you’re at the end of it. I begin work on an article, and I’m writing about you. I’m not even sure how I got back here from Iowa. Somehow the old truck brought me home, yet I barely remember the miles going by.
A few weeks ago, I felt self-contained, reasonably content. Maybe not profoundly happy, maybe a little lonely, but at least content. All of that has changed.
It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty humming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.
The road is a strange place. Shuffling along, I looked up and you were there walking across the grass toward my truck on an August day.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable— it could not have been any other way— a case of what I call the high probability of the improbable.
So here I am walking around with another person
inside of me. Though I think I put it better the want can to
day we parted when I said there is a third person we have created from the two of us. And I am stalked now by that other entity.
Somehow, we must see each other again. Any place, anytime.
Call me if you ever need anything or simply to see me. I’ll be there, pronto. Let me know if you can come out here sometime— anytime. I arrange plane fare, if that’s a problem. I’m off
southeast India next week, but I’ll be back in late October.
I Love You, Robert
P. S., The photo project in Madison County turned if out fine. Look for it in NG next year. Or tell me you want me to send a copy of the issue when it’s published.
Francesca Johnson set her brandy glass on the wide oak windowsill and stared at an eight- by-ten black-and-white photograph of herself.
Sometimes it was hard for her to remember how she had looked then, twenty-two years ago. In tight faded jeans, sandals, and a white T-shirt, her hair blowing in the morning wind as she leaned against a fence post.
Through the rain, from her place by the window, she could see the post where the old fence still circumscribed the pasture. When she rented out the land, after Richard died, she stipulated the pasture must be kept intact, left untouched, even though it was empty now and had turned to meadow grass.
The first serious lines were just beginning to show on her face in the photograph. His camera had found them. Still, she was pleased with what she saw. Her hair was black, and her body was full and warm, filling out the jeans just about right. Yet it was her face at which she stared. It was the face of a woman desperately in love with the man taking the picture.
She could see him clearly also, down the flow of her memory. Each year she ran all of the images through her mind, meticulously , remembering everything, forgetting nothing, imprinting all of it, forever, like tribesmen passing down an oral history through the generations. He was tall and thin and hard, and he moved like the grass itself, without
effort, gracefully. His silver-gray hair hung well below his ears and nearly always looked disheveled, as if he had just come in from a long sea voyage through a stiff wind and had tried to brush it into place with his hands.
His narrow face, high cheekbones, and hair falling over his forehead set off light blue eyes that seemed never to stop looking for the next photograph. He had smiled at her, saying how fine and warm she looked in early light, asked her to lean against the post, and then moved around her in a wide arc, shooting from knee level, then standing, then lying on his back with the camera pointed up at her.
She had been slightly embarrassed at the amount of film he used but pleased by the amount of attention he paid to her. She hoped none of the neighbors were out early on their tractors. Though on that particular morning she hadn’t cared too much about neighbors and what they thought.
He shot, loaded film, changed lenses, changed cameras, shot some more, and talked quietly to her as he worked, always telling her how good she looked to him and how much he loved her . “Francesca, you’re incredibly beautiful.” Sometimes he stopped and just stared at her, through her, around her, inside of her .
Her nipples were clearly outlined where they pressed against the cotton T-shirt. She had been strangely unconcerned about that, about being naked under the shirt. More, she was glad of it and was warmed knowing that he could see her breasts so clearly down his lenses. Never would she have dressed this way around Richard. He would not have approved. Indeed, before meeting Robert Kincaid, she would not have dressed this way anytime.
Robert had asked her to arch her back ever so slightly, and he had whispered then, “Yes, yes, that’s it, stay there.” That was when he had taken the photograph at which she now stared. The light was perfect, that’s what he had said— “cloudy bright” was his name for it- — and the shutter clicked steadily as he moved around her.
He was lithe; that was the word she had thought of while watching him. At fifty-two his body was all lean muscle, muscle that moved with the kind of intensity and power that comes only to men who work hard and take care of themselves. He told her he had been a combat photographer in the Pacific, and Francesca could imagine him coming up smoke-drenched beaches with the marines, cameras banging against him, one to his eye, the shutter almost on fire with the speed of his picture taking.
She looked at the picture again, studied it. I did look good, she thought, smiling to herself at the mild self-admiration. “I never looked that good before or after. It was him.” And she took another sip of brandy while the rain climbed up and rode hard on the back of November wind.
Robert Kincaid was a magician of sorts, who lived within himself in strange, almost threatening places. Francesca had sensed as much immediately on a hot, dry Monday in August 1965, when he stepped out of his truck onto her driveway. Richard and the children were at the Illinois State Fair, exhibiting the prize steer that received more attention than she did, and she had the week to herself.
She had been sitting on the front porch swing, drinking iced tea, casually watching the dust spiral up from under a pickup coming down the county road. The truck was moving slowly, as if the driver were looking for something, stopped just short of her lane, then turned up it toward the house. Oh, God, she had thought. Who’s this?
She was barefoot, wearing jeans and a faded blue workshirt with the sleeves rolled up, shirttail out. Her long black hair was fastened up by a tortoiseshell comb her father had given her when she left the old country. The truck rolled up the lane and stopped near the gate to the wire fence surrounding the house.
Francesca stepped off the porch and walked unhurriedly through the grass toward the gate. And out of the pickup came Robert Kincaid, looking like some vision from a never- written book called An Illustrated History of Shamans.
His tan military-style shirt was tacked down to his back with perspiration; there were wide, dark circles of it under his arms. The top three buttons were undone, and she could see tight chest muscles just below the plain silver chain around his neck. Over his shoulders were wide orange suspenders, the kind worn by people who spent a lot of time in wilderness areas.
He smiled. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a covered bridge out this way, and I can’t find it. l think I’m temporarily lost.” He wiped his forehead with a blue bandanna and smiled again.
His eyes looked directly at her, and she felt something jump inside. The eyes, the voice, the face, the silver hair , the easy way he moved his body, old ways, disturbing ways, ways that draw you in. Ways that whisper to you in the final moment before sleep comes,
when the barriers have fallen. Ways that rearrange the molecular space between male and female, regardless of species.
The generations must roll, and the ways whisper only of that single requirement, nothing more. The power is infinite, the design supremely elegant. The ways are unswerving, their goal is clear. The ways are simple; we have made them seem complicated. Francesca sensed this without knowing she was sensing it,
sensed it at the level of her cells. And there began the thing that would change her forever. A car went past on the road, trailing dust behind it, and honked. Francesca waved back at Floyd Clark’s brown arm sticking out of his Chevy and turned back to the stranger.”You’re pretty close. The bridge is only about two miles from here.” Then, after twenty years of living the close life, a life of circumscribed behavior and. hidden feelings demanded by a rural culture, Francesca Johnson surprised herself by saying, “I’ll be glad to show it to you, if you want.”
Why she did that, she never had been sure. A young girl’s feelings rising like a bubble through water and bursting out, maybe, after all these years. She was not shy, but not forward, either.The only thing she could ever conclude was that Robert Kincaid had drawn
her in somehow, after only a few seconds of looking at him.
He was obviously taken aback, slightly, by her offer. But he recovered quickly and with a serious look on his face said he’d appreciate that. From the back steps she picked up the cowboy boots she wore for farm chores and walked out to his truck, following him around to the passenger side.
“Just take me a minute to make room for you; lots of gear ‘n’ stuff in here.” He mumbled mostly to himself as he worked, and she could tell he was a little flustered, and a little shy about the whole affair.
He was rearranging canvas bags and tripods, a Thermos bottle and paper sacks. In the back of the pickup were an old tan Samsonite suitcase and a guitar case, both dusty and battered, both tied to a spare tire with a piece of clothesline rope.
The door of the truck swung shut, banging him in the rear as he mumbled and sorted and stuffed paper coffee cups and banana peels into a brown grocery bag that he tossed into the truck box when he was finished. Finally he removed a blue-and-white ice chest and put that in the back as well. In faded red paint on the green truck door was printed “Kincaid Photography,Bellingham, Washington.”
“Okay, I think you can squeeze in there now.” He held the door, closed it behind her, then went around to the driver’s side and with a peculiar,animal-like grace stepped in behind the wheel. He looked at her, just a quick glance,
smiled slightly,and said, “Which way?” “Right.” She motioned with her hand. He turned the key, and the out-of-tune engine ground to a start. Along the lane toward the road, bouncing, his long legs working the pedals automatically, old Levi’s running down over leather-laced, brown field boots that had seen lots of foot miles go by.
He leaned over and reached into the glove compartment, his forearm accidentally brushing across her lower thigh. Looking half out the windshield and half into the compartment, he took out a business card and h a n d e d i t t o her . ” R o b e r t K i n c a i d , W r i t e r – Photographer.”His address was printed there, along with a phone number.
“I’m out here on assignment for National Geographic,” he said. “You familiar with the magazine?”
“Yes.” Francesca nodded, thinking, Isn’t everybody?
“They’re doing a piece on covered bridges, and Madison County , Iowa, apparently has some interesting ones. I’ve located six of them, but I guess there’s at least one more, and it’s supposed to be out in this direction.”
“It’s called Roseman Bridge,” said Francesca over the noise of the wind and tires and engine. Her voice sounded strange, as if it belonged to someone else, to a teenage girl leaning out of a window in Naples, looking far down city streets toward the trains or out at the harbor and thinking of distant lovers yet to come. As she spoke, she watched the muscles in his forearm flex when he shifted gears.
Twoknapsacks were beside her. The flap of one was closed, but the other was folded back, and she could see the silver-colored top and black back of a camera sticking out. The end of a film box, “Kodachrome II, 25 36 Exposures,” was taped to the camera back. Stuffed behind the packs was a tan vest with many pockets. Out of one pocket dangled a thin cord with a plunger on the end.
Behind her feet were two tripods. They were badly scratched, but she could read part of the worn label on one: “Gitzo.” When he had opened the glove box, she noticed it was crammed with notebooks, maps, pens, empty film canisters, loose change, and a carton of Camel cigarettes.
“Turn right at the next corner,” she said. That gave her an excuse to glance at the profile of Robert Kincaid. His skin was tanned and smooth and shiny with sweat. He had nice lips; for some reason she had noticed that right away.And his nose was like that she had seen on Indian men during a vacation the family had taken out west when the children were young.
He wasn’t handsome, not in any conventional sense. Nor was he homely. Those words didn’t seem to apply to him. But there was something, something about him. Something very old, something slightly battered by the years, not in his appearance, but in his eyes.
On his left wrist was a complicated-looking watch with a brown, sweat-stained leather band. A silver bracelet with some intricate scrollwork clung to his right wrist. It needed a good rubbing with silver polish, she thought, then chastised herself for being caught up in the trivia of small-town life she had silently rebelled against through the years.
Robert Kincaid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one halfway out, and offered it to her. For the second time in five minutes, she surprised herself and took the cigarette. What am I doing? she thought. She had smoked years ago but gave it up under the steady thump of criticism from Richard. He shook out another one, put it between his lips, and flicked a gold Zippo lighter into flame, holding it toward her while he kept his eyes on the road.
She cupped her hands around the lighter to hold the wind in abeyance and touched his hand to steady it against the bouncing of the truck. It took only an instant for her to light the cigarette, but that was long enough to feel the warmth of his hand and the tiny hairs along the back of it. She leaned back and he swung the lighter toward his own cigarette, expertly forming his wind cup, taking his hands off the steering wheel for no more than a second.
Francesca Johnson, farmer’s wife, rested against the dusty truck seat, smoked the cigarette, and pointed. “There it is, just around the curve.” The old bridge, peeling red in color, tilting slightly from all the years, sat across a small stream.
Robert Kincaid had smiled then. He quickly looked at her and said, “It’s great. A sunrise shot.” He stopped a hundred feet from the bridge and got out, taking the open knapsack with him. “I’m going to do a little reconnaissance for a few minutes, do you mind?” She shook her head and smiled back.
Francesca watched him walk up the country road, taking a camera from the knapsack and then slinging the bag over his left shoulder.He had done that thousands of times, that exact movement. She could tell by the fluidity of it. As he walked, his head never stopped moving, looking from side to side, then at the bridge, then at the trees behind the bridge. Once he turned and looked back at her, his face serious.
In contrast with the local folks, who fed on gravy and potatoes and red meat, three times a day for some of them, Robert Kincaid looked as if he ate nothing but fruit and nuts and vegetables. Hard, she thought. He looks hard, physically. She noticed how small his rear was in his tight jeans —she could see the outlines of his billfold in the left pocket and the bandanna in the right one– and how he seemed to move over the ground with unwasted motion.
It was quiet. A redwing blackbird sat on fence wire and looked in at her. A meadowlark called from the roadside grass. Nothing else moved in the white sun of August.
Just short of the bridge, Robert Kincaid stopped. He stood there for a moment, then squatted down, looking through the camera. He walked to the other side of the road and did the same thing. Then he moved into the cover of the bridge and studied the beams and floor planks, looked at the stream below through a hole in the side.
Francesca snuffed out her cigarette in the ashtray, swung open the door, and put her boots on the gravel. She glanced around to make sure none of her neighbors’ cars were coming and walked toward the bridge. The sun was a hammer in late afternoon, and it looked cooler inside the bridge. She could see his silhouette at the other end until he disappeared down the incline toward the stream.
Inside, she could hear pigeons burbling softly in their nests under the eves and put the palm of her hand on the side planking, feeling the warmth. Graffiti was scrawled on some of the planks: “Jimbo—Denison, Iowa.” “Sherry + Dubby.” “Go Hawks!” The pigeons kept on burbling softly.
Francesca peeked through a crack between two of the side planks, down toward the stream where Robert Kincaid had gone. He was standing on a rock in the middle of the little river, looking toward the bridge, and she was startled to see him wave. He jumped back to the bank and moved easily up the steep grade. She kept watching the water until she sensed his boots on the bridge flooring.
“It’s real nice, real pretty here,” he said, his voice reverberating inside the covered bridge.
Francesca nodded. “Yes, it is. We take these old bridges for granted around here and don’t think much about them.”
He walked to her and held out a small bouquet of wildflowers, black-eyed Susans. “Thanks for the guided tour.”He smiled softly. “I’ll come back at dawn one of these days and get my shots.” She felt something inside of her again. Flowers. Nobody gave her flowers, even on special occasions.
“I don’t know your name,” he said. She realized then that she had not told him and felt dumb about that. When she did, he nodded and said, “I caught the smallest trace of an accent. Italian?”
“Yes. A long time ago.”
The green truck again. Along the gravel roads with the sun lowering itself. Twice they met cars, but it was nobody Francesca knew. In the four minutes it took to reach the farm, she drifted, feeling unraveled and strange. More of Robert Kincaid, writer-photographer , that’s what she wanted. She wanted to know more and clutched the flowers on her lap, held them straight up, like a schoolgirl coming back from an outing.
The blood was in her face. She could feel it. She hadn’t done anything or said anything, but she felt as if she had. The truck radio, indistinguishable almost in the roar of road and wind, carried a steel guitar song, followed by the five o’clock news.
He turned the truck up the lane. “Richard is your husband?” He had seen the mailbox. “Yes,” said Francesca, slightly short of breath. Once her words started, they kept on coming. “It’s pretty hot. Would you like an ice tea?”
He looked over at her. “If it’s all right, I sure would.”
“It’s all right,” she said.
She directed him— casually, she hoped—
to park the pickup around behind the house. What she didn’t need was for Richard to come home and have one of the neighbor men say, “Hey,Dick; havin’ some work done at the place?
Saw a green pickup there last week. Knew Frannie was home so I did’n bother to check on it.”
Up broken cement steps to the back porch door. He held the door for her, carrying his camera knapsacks. “Awful hot to leave the equipment in the truck,” he had said when he pulled them out.
A little cooler in the kitchen, but still hot.
The collie snuffled around Kincaid’s boots, then went out on the back porch and flopped down while Francesca removed ice from metal trays and poured sun tea from a half-gallon glass jug.
She knew he was watching her as he sat at the kitchen table, long legs stretched in front of him, brushing his hair with both hands.
The lemon juice dribbled slowly down the side of a glass, and he saw that, too. Robert Kincaid missed little.
Francesca set the glass before him. Put her own on the other side of the Formica-topped table and her bouquet in water,in an old jelly glass with renderings of Donald Duck on it. Leaning against the counter,she balanced on one leg, bent over, and took off a boot. Stood on her bare foot and reversed the process for the other boot.
He took a small drink of tea and watched her. She was about five feet six, fortyish or a little older,pretty face, and a fine, warm body. But there were pretty women everywhere he traveled. Such physical matters were nice, yet, to him, intelligence and passion born of living, the ability to move and be moved by subtleties of the mind and spirit, were what really counted. That’s why he found most young women unattractive, regardless of their exterior beauty. They had not lived long enough or hard enough to possess those qualities that interested him.
But there was something in Francesca Johnson that did interest him. There was intelligence; he could sense that. And there was passion, though he couldn’t quite grasp what that passion was directed toward or if it was directed at all.
Later, he would tell her that in ways undefinable, watching her take off her boots that day was one of the most sensual moments he could remember. Why was not important. That was not the way he approached his life. “Analysis destroys wholes. Some things, magic things, are meant to stay whole. If you look at their pieces, they go away.”That’s what he had said.
She sat at the table, one leg curled under her, and pulled back strands of hair that had fallen over her face, refastening them with the tortoiseshell comb. Then, remembering, she rose and went to the end cupboard, took down an ashtray, and set it on the table where he could reach it.
With that tacit permission, he pulled out a pack of Camels and held it toward her. She took one and noticed it was slightly wet from his heavy perspiring. Same routine. He held the gold Zippo, she touched his hand to steady it, felt his skin with her fingertips, and sat back.
The cigarette tasted wonderful, and she smiled.
“What is it you do, exactly— I mean with the photography?”
He looked at his cigarette and spoke quietly . “I’m a contract shooter— uh, photographer— for National Geographic, part of the time. I get ideas, sell them to the magazine, and do the shoot. Or they have something they want done and contact me. Not a lot of room for artistic expression; it’s a pretty conservative publication. But the pay is decent. Not great, but decent, and steady. The rest of the time I write and photograph on my own hook and send pieces to other magazines. If things get tough, I do corporate work, though I find that awfully confining.
“Sometimes I write poetry, just for myself. Now and then I try to write a little fiction, but I don’t seem to have a feeling for it. I live north of Seattle and work around that area quite a bit. I like shooting the fishing boats and Indian settlements and landscapes.
“The Geographic work often keeps me at a location for a couple of months, particularly for a major piece on something like part of the Amazon or the North African desert. Ordinarily I fly to an assignment like this and rent a car. But I felt like driving through some places and scouting them out for future reference. I came down along Lake Superior; I’ll go back through the Black Hills. How about you?”
Francesca hadn’t expected him to ask. She stammered for a moment. “Oh, gosh, nothing like you do. I got my degree in comparative literature. Winterset was having trouble finding teachers when I arrived here in 1946, and the fact that I was married to a local man who was a veteran made me acceptable. So I picked up a teaching certificate and taught high school English for a few years. But Richard didn’t like the idea of me working. He said he could support us, and there was no need for it, particularly when our two children were growing. So I stopped and became a farm wife full-time. That’s it.”
She noticed his iced tea was almost gone and poured him some more from the jug.
“Thanks. How do you like it here in Iowa?”
There was a moment of truth in this. She knew it. The standard reply was, “Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.”
She didn’t answer immediately . “Could I have another cigarette?” Again the pack of Camels, again the lighter, again touching his hand, lightly. Sunlight walked across the back porch floor and onto the dog, who got up and moved out of sight. Francesca, for the first time, looked into the eyes of Robert Kincaid.
“I’m supposed to say, ‘Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.’ All of that’s true, mostly. It is quiet. And the people are nice, in certain ways. We all help each other out. If someone gets sick or hurt, the neighbors pitch in and pick corn or harvest oats or do whatever needs to be done. In town, you can leave your car unlocked and let your children run without worrying about them. There are a lot of good things about the people here, and I respect them for those qualities.
“But” —she hesitated, smoked, looked across the table at Robert Kincaid— “it’s not what I dreamed about as a girl.” The confession, at last. The words had been there for years, and she had never said them. She had said them now to a man with a green pickup truck from Bellingham, Washington.
He said nothing for a moment. Then: “I scribbled something in my notebook the other day for future use, just had the idea while driving along; that happens a lot. It goes like this: ‘The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out, but I’m glad I had them.’ I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll use it somewhere. So I think I kind of know how you feel.”
Francesca smiled at him then. For the first time, she smiled warm and deep. And the gambler’s instincts took over. “Would you like to stay for supper? My family’s away,so I don’t have too much on hand, but I can figure out something.”
“Well, I get pretty tired of grocery stores and restaurants. That’s for sure. So if it’s not too much bother,I’d like that.”
“You like pork chops? I could fix that with some vegetables from the garden.”
“Just the vegetables would be fine for me. I don’t eat meat. Haven’t for years. No big deal,
I just feel better that way.”
Francesca smiled again. “Around here that
point of view would not be popular. Richard and his friends would say you’re trying to destroy their livelihood. I don’t eat much meat myself; I’m not sure why, I just don’t care for it. But every time I try a meatless supper on the family, there are howls of rebellion. So I’ve pretty much given up trying. It’ll be fun figuring out something different for a change.”
“Okay, but don’t go to a lot of trouble on my account. Listen, I’ve got a bunch of film in my cooler.I need to dump out the melted ice water and organize things a bit. It’ll take me a little while.” He stood up and drank the last of his tea.
She watched him go through the kitchen doorway, across the porch, and into the yard. He didn’t let the screen door bang like everyone else did but instead shut it gently. Just before he went out, he squatted down to pet the collie, who acknowledged the attention with several sloppy licks along his arms.
Upstairs, Francesca ran a quick bath and, while drying off, peered over the top of the cafe curtain toward the farmyard. His suitcase was open, and he was washing himself, using the old hand pump. She should have told him he could shower in the house if he wanted. She had meant to, balked for a moment at the level of familiarity that implied to her, and then, floating around in her own confusion, forgot to say anything.
But Robert Kincaid had washed up under worse conditions. Out of buckets of rancid water in tiger country, out of his canteen in the desert. In her farmyard, he had stripped to the waist and was using his dirty shirt as a combination washcloth and towel. “A towel,” she scolded herself. “At least a towel; I could have done that for him.”
His razor caught the sunlight, where it lay on cement beside the pump, and she watched him soap his face and shave. He was— there’s the word again, she thought— hard. He wasn’t big-bodied, a little over six feet, a little toward thin. But he had large shoulder muscles for his size, and his belly was flat as a knife blade. He didn’t look however old he was, and he didn’t look like the local men with too much gravy over biscuits in the morning.
During the last shopping trip to Des Moines, she had bought new perfume— Wind Song— and she used it now, sparingly.What to put on? It didn’t seem right for her to dress up too much, since he was still in his working clothes. Long-sleeved white shirt, sleeves rolled to just below the elbows, a clean pair of jeans, sandals. The gold hoop earrings Richard said made her look like a hussy and a gold bracelet. Hair pulled back with a clip, hanging down her
back. That felt right.
When she came into the kitchen, he was sitting there with his knapsacks and cooler, wearing a clean khaki shirt, with the orange suspenders running over it. On the table were three cameras and five lenses, and a fresh package of Camels. The cameras all said “Nikon” on them. So did the black lenses, short ones and middling ones and a longer one. The equipment was scratched, dented in places. But he handled it carefully, yet casually, wiping and brushing and blowing.
He looked up at her, serious face again, shy face. “I have some beer in the cooler.Like one?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
He took out two bottles of Budweiser. When he lifted the lid, she could see clear plastic boxes with film stacked like cordwood in them. There were four more bottles of beer besides the two he removed.
Francesca slid open a drawer to look for an opener.But he said, “I’ve got it.” He took the Swiss Army knife from its case on his belt and flicked out the bottle opener on it, using it expertly .
He handed her a bottle and raised his in a half salute: “To covered bridges in the late a f t e r n o o n or , b e t t e r y e t , o n w a r m , r e d mornings.” He grinned.
Francesca said nothing but smiled softly and raised her bottle a little, hesitantly, awkwardly . A strange stranger , flowers, perfume, beer, and a toast on a hot Monday in late summer. It was almost more than she could deal with.
“There was somebody a long time ago who was thirsty on an August afternoon. Whoever it was studied their thirst, rigged up some stuff, and invented beer. That’s where it came from, and a problem was solved.” He was working on a camera, almost talking to it as he tightened a screw on its top with a jewelers screwdriver.
“I’m going out to the garden for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
He looked up. “Need help?”
She shook her head and walked past him, feeling his eyes on her hips, wondering if he watched her all the way across the porch, guessing that he did.
She was right. He watched her. Shook his head and looked again. Watched her body, thought of the intelligence he knew she possessed, wondered about the other things he sensed in her. He was drawn to her, fighting it back.
The garden was in shade now. Francesca moved through it with a dishpan done in cracked white enamel. She gathered carrots and parsley, some parsnips and onions and turnips.
When she entered the kitchen, Robert Kincaid was repacking the knapsacks, neatly and precisely , she noticed. Everything obviously had its place and always was placed in its place. He had finished his beer and opened two more, even though she was not quite done with hers. She tilted back her head and finished the first one, handing him the empty bottle.
“Can I do something?” he asked.
“You can bring in the watermelon from the porch and a few potatoes from the bucket out there.”
He moved so easily that she was amazed at how quickly he went to the porch and returned, melon under his arm, four potatoes in his hands. “Enough?”
She nodded, thinking how ghostlike he seemed. He set them on the counter beside the sink where she was cleaning the garden vegetables and returned to his chair,lighting a Camel as he sat down.
“How long will you be here?” she asked, looking down at the vegetables she was working on.
“I’m not sure. This is a slow time for me, and my deadline for the bridge pictures is still three weeks away.As long as it takes to get it right, I guess. Probably about a week.”
“Where are you staying? In town?”
“Yes. A little place with cabins. Something- or-other Motor Court. I just checked in this morning. Haven’t even unloaded my gear yet.”
“That’s the only place to stay, except for Mrs. Carlson’s; she takes in roomers. The restaurants will be a disappointment, though, particularly for someone with your eating habits.”
“I know. It’s an old story. But I’ve learned to make do. This time of year it’s not so bad; I can find fresh produce in the stores and at stands along the road. Bread and a few other things, and I make it work, approximately. It’s nice to be invited out like this, though. I appreciate it.”
She reached along the counter and flipped on a small radio, one with only two dials and tan cloth covering the speakers. “With time in my pocket, and the weather on my side…” a voice sang, guitars chunking along underneath. She kept the volume low.
“I’m pretty good at chopping vegetables,” he offered.
“Okay, there’s the cutting board, a knife’s in the drawer right below it. I’m going to fix a stew, so kind of cube the vegetables.”
He stood two feet from her, looking down, cutting and chopping the carrots and turnips, parsnips and onions. Francesca peeled potatoes into the sink, aware of being so close to a strange man. She had never thought of peeling potatoes as having little slanting feelings connected with it.
“You play the guitar? l saw the case in your truck.”
“A little bit. It keeps me company, not too much more than that. My wife was an early folkie, way before the music became popular, and she got me going on it.”
Francesca had stiffened slightly at the word wife. Why, she didn’t know. He had a right to be married, but somehow it didn’t fit him. She didn’t want him to be married.
“She couldn’t stand the long shoots when I’d be gone for months. I don’t blame her. She pulled out nine years ago. Divorced me a year later . We never had children, so it wasn’t complicated. Tookone guitar,left the el cheapo with me.”
“You hear from her?”
That was all he said. Francesca didn’t push it. But she felt better , selfishly , and wondered again why she should care one way or the other .
“I’ve been to Italy, twice,” he said. “Where you from, originally?”
“Never made it there. I was in the north once, doing some shooting along the River Po. Then again for a piece on Sicily.”
Francesca peeled potatoes, thinking of Italy for a moment, conscious of Robert Kincaid beside her.
Clouds had moved up in the west, splitting
the sun into rays that splayed in several directions. He looked out the window above the sink and said, “God light. Calendar companies love it. So do religious magazines.”
“Your work sounds interesting,” Francesca said. She felt a need to keep neutral conversation going.
“It is. I like it a lot. I like the road, and I like making pictures.”
She noticed he’d said “making” pictures. “You make pictures, not take them?”
“Yes. At least that’s how I think of it. That’s the difference between Sunday snapshooters and someone who does it for a living. When I’m finished with that bridge we saw today, it won’t look quite like you expect. I’ll have made it into something of my own, by lens choice, or camera angle, or general composition, and most likely by some combination of all of those.
“I don’t just take things as given; I try to make them into something that reflects my personal consciousness, my spirit. I try to find the poetry in the image. The magazine has its own style and demands, and I don’t always agree with the editors’ taste; in fact, most of the time I don’t. And that bothers them, even though they decide what goes in and what gets left out. I guess they know their readership, but I wish they’d take a few more chances now and then. I tell them that, and it bothers them.
‘That’s the problem in earning a living through an art form. You’re always dealing with markets, and markets— mass markets— are designed to suit average tastes. That’s where the numbers are. That’s the reality, I guess. But, as I said, it can become pretty confining. They let me keep the shots they don’t use, so at least I have my own private files of stuff I like.
“And, once in a while, another magazine will take one or two, or I can write an article on a place I’ve been and illustrate it with something a little more daring than National Geographic prefers.
“Sometime I’m going to do an essay called ‘The Virtues of Amateurism’ for all of those people who wish they earned their living in the arts. The market kills more artistic passion than anything else. It’s a world of safety out there, for most people. They want safety, the magazines and manufacturers give them safety, give them homogeneity,give them the familiar and comfortable, don’t challenge them.
“Profit and subscriptions and the rest of that stuff dominate art. We’re all getting lashed to the great wheel of uniformity.
“The marketing people are always talking about something called ‘consumers.’ I have this image of a fat little man in baggy Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat with beer-can openers dangling from it, clutching fistfuls of dollars.”
Francesca laughed quietly, thinking about safety and comfort.
“But I’m not complaining too much. Like I said, the traveling is good, and I like fooling with cameras and being out of doors. The reality is not exactly what the song started out to be, but it’s not a bad song.”
Francesca supposed that, for Robert Kincaid, this was everyday talk. For her, it was the stuff of literature. People in Madison County didn’t talk this way,about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box.
He finished chopping vegetables. “Anything else I can do?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s about under control.”
He sat at the table again, smoking, taking a drink of beer now and then. She cooked, sipping on her beer between tasks. She could
feel the alcohol, even this small amount of it. On New Year’s Eve, at the Legion Hall, she and Richard would have some drinks. Other than that, not much, and there seldom was liquor in the house, except for a bottle of brandy she had bought once in some vague spasm of hope for romance in their country lives. The bottle was still unopened.
Vegetable oil, one and one-half cups of vegetables. Cook until light brown. Add flour and mix well. Add water, a pint of it. Add remaining vegetables and seasonings. Cook slowly,about forty minutes.
With the cooking under way, Francesca sat across from him once again. Modest intimacy descended upon the kitchen. It came, somehow, from the cooking. Fixing supper for a stranger, with him chopping turnips and, therefore, distance, beside you, removed some of the strangeness. And with the loss of strangeness, there was space for intimacy.
He pushed the cigarettes toward her, the lighter on top of the package. She shook one out, fumbled with the lighter, felt clumsy. It wouldn’t catch. He smiled a little, carefully took the lighter from her hand, and flipped the flint wheel twice before it caught. He held it, she lit her cigarette. Around men she usually felt graceful in comparison to them. Not around Robert Kincaid, though.
A white sun had turned big red and lay just over the corn fields. Through the kitchen window she could see a hawk riding the early evening updrafts. The seven o’clock news and market summary were on the radio. And Francesca looked across the yellow Formica toward Robert Kincaid, who had come a long way to her kitchen. A long way, across more than miles.
“It already smells good,” he said, pointing toward the stove. “It smells… quiet.” He looked at her.
“Quiet? Could something smell quiet?” She was thinking about the phrase, asking herself. He was right. After the pork chops and steaks and roasts she cooked for the family, this was quiet cooking. No violence involved anywhere down the food chain, except maybe for pulling up the vegetables. The stew cooked quietly and smelled quiet. It was quiet here in the kitchen.
“If you don’t mind, tell me a little about your life in Italy.” He was stretched out on the chair,his right leg crossed over his left at the ankles.
Silence bothered her around him, so she talked. Told him about her growing years, the private school, the nuns, her parents—
housewife, bank manager . About standing along the sea wall as a teenager and watching ships from all over the world. About the American soldiers that came later . About meeting Richard in a cafe where she and some girlfriends were drinking coffee. The war had disrupted lives, and they wondered if they would ever get married. She was silent about Niccolo.
He listened, saying nothing, nodding in understanding occasionally . When she finally paused, he said, “And you have children, did you say?”
“Yes. Michael is seventeen. Carolyn is sixteen. They both go to school in Winterset. They’re in 4-H; that’s why they’re at the Illinois State Fair. Showing Carolyn’s steer.
“Something I’ve never been able to adapt to, to understand, is how they can lavish such love and care on the animals and then see them sold for slaughter. I don’t dare say anything about it, though. Richard and his friends would be down on me in a flash. But there’s some kind of cold, unfeeling contradiction in that business.”
She felt guilty mentioning Richard’s name. She hadn’t done anything, anything at all. Yet she could feel guilt, a guilt born of distant possibilities. And she wondered how to manage the end of the evening and if she had gotten herself into something she couldn’t handle. Maybe Robert Kincaid would just leave. He seemed pretty quiet, nice enough, even a little bashful.
As they talked on, the evening turned blue, light fog brushing the meadow grass. He opened two more beers for them while Francesca’s stew cooked, quietly. She rose and dropped dumplings into boiling water,turned, and leaned against the sink, feeling warm toward Robert Kincaid from Bellingham, Washington. Hoping he wouldn’t leave too early.
He ate two helpings of the stew with quiet good manners and told her twice how fine it was. The watermelon was perfect. The beer was cold. The evening was blue. Francesca Johnson was forty-five years old, and Hank Snow sang a train song on KMA, Shenandoah, Iowa.