The Bridge Of Madison County (Chapter 5)
Room to Dance Again
On that Tuesday evening in August of 1965, Robert Kincaid looked steadily at Francesca Johnson. She looked back in kind. From ten feet apart they were locked in to one another,solidly,intimately,and inextricably.
The telephone rang. Still looking at him, she did not move on the first ring, or the second. In the long silence after the second ring, and before the third, he took a deed breath and looked down at his camera bags. With that she was able to move across the kitchen toward the phone hanging on the wall just behind his chair.
“Johnson’s…. Hi, Marge. Yes, I’m fine. Thursday night?” She calculated: He said he’d be here a week, he came yesterday, this is only Tuesday.The decision to lie was an easy one.
She was standing by the door to the porch, phone in her left hand. He sat within touching distance, his back to her. She reached out with her right hand and rested it on his shoulder,in the casual way that some women have with men they care for. In only twenty-four hours she had come to care for Robert Kincaid.
“Oh, Marge, I’m tied up then. I’m going shopping in Des Moines. Good chance to get a lot of things done I’ve been putting off. You know, with Richard and the kids gone.”
Her hand lay quietly upon him. She could feel the muscle running from his neck along his shoulder,just back of his collarbone. She was looking down on the thick gray hair, neatly parted. Saw how it drifted over his collar. Marge babbled on.
“Yes, Richard called a little while ago…. No, the judging’s not till Wednesday, tomorrow. Richard said it’d be late Friday before they’re home. Something they want to see on Thursday. It’s a long drive, particularly in the stock truck…. No, football practice doesn’t start for another week. Uh-huh, a week. At least that’s what Michael said.”
She was conscious of how warm his body felt through the shirt. The warmth came into her hand, moved up her arm, and from there spread through her to wherever it wanted to go, with no effort —indeed, with no control— from her. He was still, not wanting to make any noise that might cause Marge to wonder. Francesca understood this.
“Oh, yes, that was a man asking directions.” As she guessed, Floyd Clark had gone right home and told his wife about the green pickup he had seen in the Johnsons’ yard on his way by yesterday.
“A photographer? Gosh, I don’t know. I didn’t pay much attention. Could have been.” The lies were coming easier now.
“He was looking for Roseman Bridge…. Is that right? Taking pictures of the old bridges, huh? Oh, well, that’s harmless enough.
“Hippie?” Francesca giggled and watched Kincaid’s head shake slowly back and forth. “Well, I’m not sure what a hippie looks like. This fellow was polite. He only stayed a minute or two and then was gone…. I don’t know whether they have hippies in Italy, Marge. I haven’t been there for eight years. Besides, like I said, I’m not sure I’d know a hippie if I saw one.”
Marge was talking on about free love and communes and drugs she’d read about somewhere. “Marge, I was just getting ready to step into my bath when you called, so I’d better run before the water gets cold…. Okay, I’ll call soon. ‘Bye.”
She disliked removing her hand from his shoulder,but there was no good excuse not to remove it. So she walked to the sink and
turned on the radio. More country music. She adjusted the dial until the sound of a big band came on and left it there.
“The song. It’s called ‘Tangerine.’It’s about
an Argentinian woman.” T alking around the edges of things again. Saying anything, anything. Fighting for time and the sense of it all, hearing somewhere back in his mind the faint click of a door shutting behind two people in an Iowa kitchen.
She smiled softly at him. “Are you hungry? I have supper ready whenever you want.”
“It was a long, good day. I wouldn’t mind an-other beer before I eat. Will you have one with me?” Stalling, looking for his center, losing it moment by moment.
She would. He opened two and set one on her side of the table.
Francesca was pleased with how she looked and how she felt. Feminine. That’s how she felt. Light and warm and feminine. She sat on the kitchen chair,crossed her legs, and the hem of her skirt rode up well above her right knee. Kincaid was leaning against the refrigerator , arms folded across his chest, Budweiser in his right hand. She was pleased that he noticed her legs, and he did.
He noticed all of her. He could have walked out on this earlier,could still walk. Rationality shrieked at him. “Let it go, Kincaid, get back on the road. Shoot the bridges, go to India. Stop in Bangkok on the way and look up the silk merchant’s daughter who knows every ecstatic secret the old ways can teach. Swim naked with her at dawn in jungle pools and listen to her scream as you turn her inside out at twilight. Let go of this”— the voice was hissing now— “it’s outrunning you.”
But the slow street tango had begun. Somewhere it played; he could hear it, an old accordion. It was far back, or far ahead, he couldn’t be sure. Yet it moved toward him steadily. And the sound of it blurred his criteria and funneled down his alternatives toward unity. Inexorably, it did that, until there was nowhere left to go, except toward Francesca Johnson.
“We could dance, if you like. The music’s pretty good for it,” he said in that serious, shy way of his. Then he quickly tacked on his caveat: “I’m not much of a dancer,but if you’d like to, I can prob-ably handle it in a kitchen.”
Jack scratched at the porch door, wanting in. He could stay out.
Francesca blushed only a little. “Okay. But I don’t dance much, either…anymore. I did as
a young girl in Italy, but now it’s just pretty much on New Year’s Eve, and then only a little bit.”
He smiled and put his beer on the counter. She rose, and they moved toward each other. “It’s your Tuesdaynight dance party from WGN,
Chicago,” said the smooth baritone. “We’ll be back after these messages.”
They both laughed. T elephones and commercials. Something there was that kept inserting reality between them. They knew it without say-ing it.
But he had reached out and taken her right hand anyway, in his left. He leaned easily against the counter,legs crossed at the ankles, right one on top. She rested beside him, against the sink, and looked out the window near the table, feeling his slim fingers around her hand. There was no breeze, and the corn was growing.
“Oh, just a minute.” She reluctantly removed her hand from his and opened the bottom right cupboard. From it she took two white candles she had bought in Des Moines that morning, along with a small brass holder for each candle. She put them on the table.
He walked over, tilted each one, and lit it, while she snapped off the overhead light. It was dark now, except for the small flames
pointing straight upward, barely fluttering on a windless night. The plain kitchen had never looked this good.
The music started again. Fortunately for both of them, it was a slow rendition of “Autumn Leaves.”
She felt awkward. So did he. But he took her hand, put an arm around her waist, she moved into him, and the awkwardness vanished. Somehow it worked in an easy kind of way. He moved his arm farther around her waist and pulled her closer.
She could smell him, clean and soaped and warm. A good, fundamental smell of a civilized man who seemed, in some part of himself, aboriginal.
“Nice perfume,” he said, bringing their hands in to lie upon his chest, near his shoulder .
They danced, slowly. Not moving very far in any direction. She could feel his legs against hers, their stomachs touching occasionally.
The song ended, but he held on to her, hummed the melody that had just played, and they stayed as they were until the next song began. He automatically led her into it, and the dance went on, while locusts complained about the coming of September.
She could feel the muscles of his shoulder through the light cotton shirt. He was real, more real than anything she’d ever known. He bent slightly to put his cheek against hers.
During the time they spent together, he once referred to himself as one of the last cowboys. They had been sitting on the grass by the pump out back. She didn’t understand and asked him about it.
“There’s a certain breed of man that’s obsolete,” he had said. “Or very nearly so. The world is getting organized, way too organized for me and some others. Everything in its place, a place for everything. Well, my camera equipment is pretty well organized, I admit, but I’m talking about something more than that. Rules and regulations and laws and social conventions. Hierarchies of authority, spans of control, long-range plans, and budgets. Corporate power; in ‘Bud’ we trust. A world of wrinkled suits and stick-on name tags.
“Not all men are the same. Some will do okay in the world that’s coming. Some, maybe just a few of us, will not. You can see it in computers and robots and what they portend. In older worlds, there were things we could do, were designed to do, that nobody or no machine could do. We run fast, are strong and quick, aggressive and tough. We were given courage. We can throw spears long distances and fight in hand-to-hand combat.
“Eventually, computers and robots will run things. Humans will manage those machines, but that doesn’t require courage or strength, or any characteristics like those. In fact, men are outliving their usefulness. All you need are sperm banks to keep the species going, and those are coming along now. Most men are rotten lovers, women say, so there’s not much loss in replacing sex with science.
“We’re giving up free range, getting organized, feathering our emotions. Efficiency and effectiveness and all those other pieces of intellectual artifice. And with the loss of free range, the cowboy disappears, along with the mountain lion and gray wolf. There’s not much room left for travelers.
“I’m one of the last cowboys. My job gives me free range of a sort. As much as you can find nowadays. I’m not sad about it. Maybe a little wistful, I guess. But it’s got to happen; it’s the only way we’ll keep from destroying ourselves. My contention is that male hormones are the ultimate cause of trouble on this planet. It was one thing to dominate another tribe or another warrior. It’s quite another to have missiles. It’s also quite another to have the power to destroy nature the way we’re doing. Rachel Carson is right. So were John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
“The curse of modern times is the preponderance of male hormones in places where they can do long-term damage. Even if we’re not talking about wars between nations or assaults on nature, there’s still that aggressiveness that keeps us apart from each other and the problems we need to be working on. We have to somehow sublimate those male hormones, or at least get them under control.
“It’s probably time to put away the things of childhood and grow up. Hell, I recognize it. I admit it. I’m just trying to make some good pictures and get out of life before I’m totally obsolete or do some serious damage.”
Over the years, she had thought about what he’d said. It seemed right to her , somehow, on the surface of it. Yet the ways of him contradicted what he said. He had a certain plunging aggressiveness to him, but he seemed to be able to control it, to turn it on and then let go of it when he wanted. And that’s what had both confused and attracted her— incredible intensity , but controlled, metered, arrowlike intensity that was mixed with warmth and no hint of meanness.
On that T uesday night, gradually and without design, they had moved closer and closer together , dancing in the kitchen. Francesca was pressed close against his chest, and she wondered if he could feel her breasts through the dress and his shirt and was certain he could.
He felt so good to her. She wanted this to run forever. More old songs, more dancing, more of his body against hers. She had become a woman again. There was room to dance again. In a slow, unremitting way, she was turning for home, toward a place she’d never been.
It was hot. The humidity was up, and thunder rolled far in the southwest. Moths plastered themselves on the screens, looking in at the candles, chasing the fire.
He was falling into her now. And she into him. She moved her cheek away from his, looked up at him with dark eyes, and he kissed her, and she kissed back, longtime soft kissing, a river of it.
They gave up the pretense of dancing, and her arms went around his neck. His left hand was on her waist behind her back, the other brushing across her neck and her cheek and her hair. Thomas Wolfe talked about the “ghost of the old eagerness.” The ghost had stirred in Francesca Johnson. In both of them.
Sitting by the window on her sixty-seventh birthday , Francesca watched the rain and remembered. She carried her brandy into the kitchen and stopped for a moment, staring at the exact spot where the two of them had stood. The feelings inside of her were overwhelming; they always were. Strong enough that over the years she had dared do this in detail only once a year or her mind somehow would have disintegrated at the sheer emotional bludgeoning of it all.
Her abstinence from her recollections had been a matter of survival. Though in the last few years, the detail was coming back more and more often. She had ceased trying to stop him from coming into her. The images were clear,and real, and present. And so far back. Twenty-two years back. But slowly they were becoming her reality once again, the only one in which she cared to live.
She knew she was sixty-seven and accepted it, but she could not imagine Robert Kincaid being nearly seventy-five. Could not think of it, could not conceive of it or even conceive of the conceiving of it. He was here with her, right in this kitchen, in his white shirt, long gray hair, khaki slacks, brown sandals, silver bracelet, and silver chain around his neck. He was here with his arms around her.
She finally pulled back from him, from where they stood in the kitchen, and took his hand, leading him toward the stairs, up the stairs, past Carolyn’s room, past Michael’s room, and into her room, turning on a small reading lamp by the bed.
Now, all these years later , Francesca carried her brandy and walked slowly up the stairs, her right hand trailing behind her to bring along the memory of him up the stairs and down the hallway into the bedroom.
The physical images were inscribed in her mind so clearly that they might have been razor-edged photographs of his. She remembered the dreamlike sequence of clothes coming off and the two of them naked in bed. She remembered how he held himself just above her and moved his chest slowly against her belly and across her breasts. How he did this again and again, like some animal courting rite in an old zoology text. As he moved over her, he alternately kissed her lips or ears or ran his tongue along her neck, licking her as some fine leopard might do in long grass out on the veld.
He was an animal. A graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dom-inated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at this moment.
But it was far beyond the physical, though the fact that he could make love for a long time without tiring was part of it. Loving him was— it sounded almost trite to her now, given the atten-tion paid to such matters over the last two decades— spiritual. It was spiritual, but it wasn’t trite.
In the midst of it, the lovemaking, she had whispered it to him, captured it in one sentence: “Robert, you’re so powerful it’s frightening.” He was powerful physically, but he used his strength carefully. It was more than that, however.
Sex was one thing. In the time since she’d met him, she had settled into the anticipation– – the possibility , anyway— of something pleasurable, a breaking with a routine of hammering sameness. She hadn’t counted on his curious power.
It was almost as if he had taken possession of her, in all of her dimensions. That’s what was frightening. She never had doubted at the beginning that one part of her could remain aloof from whatever she and Robert Kincaid did,
the part that belonged to her family and life in Madison County.
But he simply took it away, all of it. She should have known when he first stepped out of his truck to ask directions. He had seemed shamanlike then, and her original judgment was correct.
They would make love for an hour, maybe more, then he would pull slowly away and look at her, lighting a cigarette and one for her. Or sometimes he would just lie beside her, always with one hand moving on her body. Then he was inside her again, whispering soft words i n t o h e r e a r a s h e l o v e d her , k i s s i n g h e r between phrases, between words, his arm around her waist, pulling her into him and him into her.
And she would begin to turn in her mind, breathing heavier,letting him take her where he lived, and he lived in strange, haunted places, far back along the stems of Darwin’s logic.
With her face buried in his neck and her skin against his, she could smell rivers and woodsmoke, could hear steaming trains chuffing out of winter stations in long-ago nighttimes, could see travelers in black robes moving steadily along frozen rivers and through summer meadows, beating their way toward the end of things. The leopard swept over her, again and again and yet again, like a long prairie wind, and rolling beneath him, she rode on that wind like some temple virgin toward the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.
And she murmured, softly , breathlessly ,
“Oh, Robert… Robert… I am losing myself.” She, who had ceased having orgasms years ago, had them in long sequences now with a half-man, half-something-else creature. She wondered about him and his endurance, and he told her that he could reach those places in his mind as well as physically, and that the orgasms of the mind had their own
She had no idea what he meant. All she
knew was that he had pulled in a tether of some kind and wound it around both of them so tightly she would have suffocated had it not been for the vaulting freedom from herself she felt.
The night went on, and the great spiral dance continued. Robert Kincaid discarded all sense of anything linear and moved to a part of himself that dealt only with shape and sound and shadow. Down the paths of the old ways he went, finding his direction by candles of sunlit frost melting upon the grass of summer and the red leaves of autumn.
And he heard the words he whispered to her, as if a voice other than his own were saying them. Fragments of a Rilke poem, “around the ancient tower… I have been circling for a thousand years.” The lines to a Navajo sun chant. He whispered to her of the visions she brought to him— -of blowing sand and magenta winds and brown pelicans riding the backs of dolphins moving north along the coast of Africa.
Sounds, small, unintelligible sounds, came from her mouth as she arched herself toward him. But it was a language he understood completely, and in this woman beneath him, with his belly against hers, deep inside her, Robert Kincaid’s long search came to an end.
And he knew finally the meaning of all the small footprints on all the deserted beaches he had ever walked, of all the secret cargoes carried by ships that had never sailed, of all the curtained faces that had watched him pass down winding streets of twilight cities. And, like a great hunter of old who has traveled distant miles and now sees the light of his home campfires, his loneliness dissolved. At last. At last. He had come so far… so far. And h e l a y u p o n her , p e r f e c t l y f o r m e d a n d unalterably complete in his love for her. At last.
Toward morning, he raised himself slightly and said, looking straight into her eyes, “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you. I know that now. I have beenfalling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all of those years, I have been failing toward you.”
When they came downstairs, the radio was still on. Dawn had come up, but the sun lay behind a thin cloud cover.
“Francesca, I have a favor to ask.” He smiled at her as she fussed with the coffeepot.
“Yes?” She looked at him. Oh, God, I love him so, she thought, unsteady, wanting even more of him, never stopping.
“Slip on the jeans and T-shirt you wore last night, along with a pair of sandals. Nothing else. I want to make a picture of you as you look this morning. A photograph just for the two of us.”
She went upstairs, her legs weak from being wrapped around him all night, dressed, and went outside with him to the pasture. That’s where he had made the photograph she looked at each year.