The Bridges of Madison County (Chapter 3)

The Bridges of Madison County

Robert James Waller

Chapter 3

Ancient Evenings, Distant Music

Now what? thought Francesca. Super over, sitting there.

He took care of it. “How about a walk out in the meadow? It’s cooling down a little.” When she said yes, he reached into a knapsack and pulled out a camera, draping the strap over his shoulder.

Kincaid pushed open the back porch door and held it for her, followed her out, then shut it gently.They went down the cracked sidewalk, across the graveled farmyard, and onto the grass east of the machine shed. The shed smelled like warm grease.

When they came to the fence, she held down the barbed wire with one hand and stepped over it, feeling the dew on her feet around the thin sandal straps. He executed the same maneuver,easily swinging his boots over the wire.

“Do you call this a meadow or a pasture?” he asked.

“Pasture, I guess. The cattle keep the grass short. Watch out for their leavings.” A moon nearly full was coming up the eastern sky, which had turned azure with the sun just under the horizon. On the road below, a car rocketed past, loud muffler . The Clark boy . Quarterback on the Winterset team. Dated Judy Leverenson.

It had been a long time since she had taken a walk like this. After supper,which was always at five, there was the television news, then the evening programs, watched by Richard and sometimes by the children when they had finished their homework. 

Francesca usually read in the kitchen —books from the Winterset library and the book club she belonged to, history and poetry and fiction— or sat on the front porch in good weather.The television bored her.

When Richard would call, “Frannie, you’ve got to see this!” she’d go in and sit with him for a while. Elvis always generated such a summons. So did the Beatles when they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Richard looked at their hair and kept shaking his head in disbelief and disapproval.

For a short time, red streaks cut across part of the sky. “I call that ‘bounce,’ ” Robert Kincaid said, pointing upward. “Most people put their cameras away too soon. After the sun goes down, there’s often a period of really nice light and color in the sky, just for a few minutes, when the sun is below the horizon but bounces its light off the sky.”

Francesca said nothing, wondering about a man to whom the difference between a pasture and a meadow seemed important, who got excited about sky color, who wrote a little poetry but not much fiction. Who played the guitar, who earned his living by images and carried his tools in knapsacks. Who seemed like the wind. And moved like it. Came from it, perhaps.

He looked upward, hands in his Levi’s pockets, camera hanging against his left hip. “The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.” His midrange baritone said the words like that of a professional actor.

She looked over at him. “W. B. Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Ængus.’ “

“Right. Good stuff, Yeats. Realism, economy , sensuousness, beauty , magic. Appeals to my Irish heritage.”

He had said it all, right there in five words. Francesca had labored to explain Yeats to the Winterset students but never got through to most of them. She had picked Yeats partly because of what Kincaid had just said, thinking all of those qualities would appeal to teenagers whose glands were pounding like the high school marching band at football halftimes. But the bias against poetry they had picked up, the view of it as a product of unsteady masculinity, was too much even for Yeats to overcome.

She remembered Matthew Clark looking at the boy beside him and then forming his hands as if to cup them over a woman’s breasts when she read, “The golden apples of the sun.” They had snickered, and the girls in the back row with them blushed.

They would live with those attitudes all their lives. That’s what had discouraged her, knowing that, and she felt compromised and alone, in spite of the outward friendliness of the community. Poets were not welcome here. The people of Madison County liked to say, compensating for their own self-imposed sense of cultural inferiority, “This is a good place to raise kids.” And she always felt like responding,

“But is it a good place to raise adults?” Without any conscious plan, they had walked slowly into the pasture a few hundred yards, made a loop, and were headed back toward the house. Darkness came about them as they crossed the fence, with him pushing down the wire for her this time.

She remembered the brandy.”I have some brandy.Or would you like some coffee?”

“Is the possibility of both open?” His words came out of the darkness. She knew he was smiling.

As they came into the circle inscribed on grass and gravel by the yard light, she answered, “Of course,” hearing the sound of something in her voice that worried her. It was the sound of easy laughter in the cafes of Naples.

It was difficult finding two cups without some kind of chip on them. Though she was sure that chipped cups were part of his life, she wanted perfect ones this time. The brandy glasses, two of them back in the cupboard, turned upside down, had never been used, like the brandy. She had to stretch on her tiptoes to reach them and was aware of her wet sandals and the jeans stretched tight across her bottom.

He sat on the same chair he had used before and watched her. The old ways. The old ways coming into him again. He wondered how her hair would feel to his touch, how the curve of her back would fit his hand, how she would feel underneath him.

The old ways struggling against all that is learned, struggling against the propriety drummed in by centuries of culture, the hard rules of civilized man. He tried to think of something else, photography or the road or covered bridges. Anything but how she looked just now.

But he failed and wondered again how it would feel to touch her skin, to put his belly against hers. The questions eternal, and always the same. The goddamned old ways, fighting toward the surface. He pounded them back, pushed them down, lit a Camel, and breathed deeply.

She could feel his eyes on her constantly, though his watching was circumspect, never obvious, never intrusive. She knew that he knew brandy had never been poured into those glasses. And with his Irishman’s sense of the tragic, she also knew he felt something about such emptiness. Not pity.That was not what he was about. 

Sadness, maybe. She could almost hear his mind forming the words:

the bottle unopened,

and glasses empty,

she reached to find them, somewhere north of Middle River, in Iowa.

I watched her with eyes

that had seen a Jivaro’s Amazon and the Silk Road

with caravan dust

climbing behind me,

reaching into unused

spaces of Asian sky.

As Francesca stripped the Iowa liquor seal from the top of the brandy bottle, she looked at her fingernails and wished they were longer and better cared for. Farm life did not permit long fingernails. Until now it hadn’t mattered.

Brandy, two glasses, on the table. While she arranged the coffee, he opened the bottle and poured just the right amount into each glass. Robert Kincaid had dealt with after- dinner brandy before.

She wondered in how many kitchens, how many good restaurants, how many living rooms with subdued light he had practiced that small trade. How many sets of long fingernails had he watched delicately pointing toward him from the stems of brandy glasses, how many pairs of blue-round and brown-oval eyes had looked at him through foreign evenings, while anchored sailboats rocked offshore and water slapped against the quays of ancient ports?

The overhead kitchen light was too bright for coffee and brandy . Francesca Johnson, Richard Johnson’s wife, would leave it on. Francesca Johnson, a woman walking through after-supper grass and leafing through girlhood dreams, would turn it off. A candle was in order, but that would be too much. He might get the wrong idea. She put on the small light over the kitchen sink and turned off the overhead. It was still not perfect, but it was better.

He raised his glass to shoulder level and moved it toward her. “To ancient evenings and distant music.” For some reason those words made her take a short, quick breath. But she touched her glass to his, and even though she wanted to say, “To ancient evenings and distant music,” she only smiled a little.

They both smoked, saying nothing, drinking brandy, drinking coffee. A pheasant called from the fields. Jack, the collie, barked twice out in the yard. Mosquitoes tested the window screen near the table, and a single moth, circuitous of thought yet sure of instinct, was goaded by the sink light’s possibilities.

It was still hot, no breeze, some humidity now. Robert Kincaid was perspiring mildly, his top two shirt buttons undone. He was not looking at her directly, though she sensed his peripheral vision could find her, even as he seemed to stare out the window. In the way he was turned, she could see the top of his chest through the open buttons of his shirt and small beads of moisture lying there upon his skin.

Francesca was feeling good feelings, old feelings, poetry and music feelings. Still, it was time for him to go, she thought. Nine fifty-two on the clock above the refrigerator. Faron Young on the radio. Tune from a few years back: “The Shrine of St. Cecilia.” Roman martyr of the third century A.D., Francesca remembered that. Patron saint of music and the blind.

His glass was empty. Just as he swung around from looking out the window, Francesca picked up the brandy bottle by the neck and gestured with it toward the empty glass. He shook his head. “Roseman Bridge at dawn. I’d better get going.”

She was relieved. But she sank in disappointment. She turned around inside of herself. Yes, please leave. Have some more brandy. Stay. Go. Faron Young didn’t care about her feelings. Neither did the moth above the sink. She didn’t know for sure what Robert Kincaid thought.

He stood, swung one knapsack onto his left shoulder, put the other on top of his cooler. She came around the table. His hand moved toward her, and she took it. ‘”Thanks for the evening, the supper,the walk. They were all nice. You’re a good person, Francesca. Keep the brandy toward the front of the cupboard; maybe it’ll work out after a while.”

He had known, just as she thought. But she wasn’t offended by his words. He was talking about romance, and he meant it in the best possible way. She could tell by the softness of his language, the way he said the words. What she didn’t know was that he wanted to shout at the kitchen walls, bas-reliefing his words in the plaster: “For Christ’s sake, Richard Johnson, are you as big a fool as I think you must be?”

She followed him out to his truck and stood by while he put his gear into it. The collie came across the yard, sniffing around the truck. “Jack, come here,” she whispered sharply, and the dog moved to sit by her, panting.

“Good-bye. Take care,” he said, stopping by the truck door to look at her for a moment, straight at her. Then, in one motion, he was behind the wheel and shutting the door after him. He turned the old engine over, stomped at the accelerator,and it rattled into a start. He leaned out the window, grinning, “T une-up required, I think.”

He clutched it, backed up, shifted again, and headed across the yard under the light. Just before he reached the darkness of the lane, his left hand came out of the window and w a v e d b a c k a t her . S h e w a v e d , t o o , e v e n though she knew he couldn’t see it.

As the truck moved down the lane, she jogged over and stood in shadow, watching the red lights rising and falling with the bumps. Robert Kincaid turned left on the main road toward Winterset, while heat lightning cut the summer sky and Jack slumbered toward the back porch.

After he left, Francesca stood before the bureau mirror, naked. Her hips flared only a little from the children, her breasts were still nice and firm, not too large, not too small, belly slightly rounded. She couldn’t see her legs in the mirror,but she knew they were still good. She should shave more often, but there didn’t seem much point to it.

Richard was interested in sex only occasionally, every couple of months, but it was over fast, rudimentary and unmoving, and he didn’t seem to care much about perfume or shaving or any of that. It was easy to get a little sloppy.

She was more of a business partner to him than anything else. Some of her appreciated that. But rustling yet within her was another person who wanted to bathe and perfume herself… and be taken, carried away, and peeled back by a force she could sense, but never articulate, even dimly within her mind.

She dressed again and sat at the kitchen table writing on half a sheet of plain paper. Jack followed her out to the Ford pickup and jumped in when she opened the door. He went to the passenger side and stuck his head out the window as she backed the truck out of the shed, looking over at her, then out the window again as she drove down the lane and turned right onto the county road.

Roseman Bridge was dark. But Jack loped on ahead, checking things out while she carried a flashlight from the truck. She tacked the note on the left side of the entrance to the bridge and went home.

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