The bridges of Madison County (Chapter 6)
The Highway and the Peregrine
Robert Kincaid gave up photograpby for the next few days. And except for the necessary chores, which she minimized, Francesca Johnson gave up farm life. The two of them spent all their time together, either talking or making love. Twice,when she asked, he played the guitar and sang for her in a voice somewhere between fair and good, a little uncomfortable, telling her she was his first audience. When he said that, she smiled and kissed him, then lay back upon her feelings, listening to him sing of whaling ships and desert winds.
She rode with him in Harry to the Des Moines airport, where he shipped film to New York. He always sent the first few rolls ahead, when it was possible, so the editors could look at what he was getting and the technicians could check to make sure his camera shutters were functioning properly.
Afterward he took her to a fancy restaurant for lunch and held her hands across the table, looking at her in his intense way. And the waiter smiled, just watching them, hoping he would feel that way sometime.
She marveled at the sense Robert Kincaid had of his ways coming to a close and the ease with which he accepted it. He could see the approaching death of cowboys and others like them, including himself. And she began to understand what he meant when he said he was at the terminus of a branch of evolution and that it was a dead end. Once, in talking about what he called “last things,” he whispered: “‘Never again,’ cried the High- Desert Master. ‘Never and never and never again.'” He saw nothing beyond himself along the branch. His kind was obsolete.
On Thursday they talked after making love in the afternoon. Both of them knew this conversation had to occur. Both of them had been avoiding it.
“What are we going to do?” he said.
She was silent, torn-apart silent. Then, “I don’t know,” softly.
“Look, I’ll stay here if you want, or in town, or wherever.When your family comes home, I’ll simply talk with your husband and explain how it lies. It won’t be easy, but I’ll get it done.”
She shook her head. “Richard could never get his arms around this; he doesn’t think in these terms. He doesn’t understand magic and passion and all those other things we talk about and experience, and he never will. That doesn’t neces-sarily make him an inferior person. It’s just too far removed from anything he’s ever felt or thought about. He has no way of dealing with it.”
“Are we going to let all of this go, then?” He was serious, not smiling.
“I don’t know that, either. Robert, in a curious way, you own me. I didn’t want to be owned, didn’t need it, and I know you didn’t intend that, but that’s what has happened. I’m no longer sitting next to you, here on the grass.
You have me inside of you as a willing prisoner .”
He replied, “I’m not sure you’re inside of me, or that I am inside of you, or that I own you. At least I don’t want to own you. I think we’re both inside of another being we have created called ‘us.’
“Well, we’re really not inside of that being. We are that being. We have both lost ourselves and created something else, something that exists only as an interlacing of the two of us. Christ, we’re in love. As deeply, as profoundly, as it’s possible to be in love.
“Come travel with me, Francesca. That’s not a problem. We’ll make love in desert sand and drink brandy on balconies in Mombasa, watching dhows from Arabia run up their sails in the first wind of morning. I’ll show you lion country and an old French city on the Bay of Bengal where there’s a wonderful rooftop restaurant, and trains that climb through mountain passes and little inns run by Basques high in the Pyrenees. In a tiger preserve in south India, there’s a special place on an island in the middle of a huge lake. If you don’t like the road, I’ll set up shop somewhere and shoot local stuff or portraits or whatever it takes to keep us going.”
“Robert, when we were making love last night, you said something that I still remember. I kept whispering to you about your power—
and, my God, you have that. You said, ‘I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.’ You were right. That’s what you feel; you feel the road inside of you. No, more than that, in a way that I’m not certain I can explain, you are the road. In the crack where illusion meets reality, that’s where you are, out there on the road, and the road is you.
“You’re old knapsacks and a truck named Harry and jet airplanes to Asia. And that’s what I want you to be. If your evolutionary branch is a dead end, as you say it is, then I want you to hit that end at full speed. I’m not sure you can do that with me along. Don’t you see, I love you so much that I cannot think of restraining you for a moment. To do that would be to kill the wild, mag-nificent animal that is you, and the power would die with it.”
He started to speak, but Francesca stopped him.
“Robert, I’m not quite finished. If you took me in your arms and carried me to your truck and forced me to go with you, I wouldn’t murmur a complaint. You could do the same thing just by talking to me. But I don’t think you will. You’re too sensitive, too aware of my feelings, for that. And I have feelings of responsibility here.
“Yes, it’s boring in its way. My life, that is. It lacks romance, eroticism, dancing in the kitchen to candlelight, and the wonderful feel of a man who knows how to love a woman. Most of all, it lacks you. But there’s this damn sense of responsibility I have. To Richard, to the children. Just my leaving, taking away my physical presence, would be hard enough for Richard. That alone might destroy him.
“On top of that, and this is even worse, he would have to live the rest of his life with the whispers of the people here. ‘That’s Richard Johnson. His hot little Italian wife ran off with some long-haired photographer a few years back.’ Richard would have to suffer that, and the children would hear the snickering of
Winterset for as long as they live here. They would suffer,too. And they would hate me for it.
“As much as I want you and want to be with you and part of you, I can’t tear myself away from the realness of my responsibilities. If you force me, physically or mentally, to go with you, as I said earlier,I cannot fight that. I don’t have the strength, given my feelings for you. In spite of what I said about not taking the road away from you, I’d go because of my own selfish wanting of you.
“But please don’t make me. Don’t make me give this up, my responsibilities. I cannot do that and live with the thought of it. If I did leave now, those thoughts would turn me into something other than the woman you have come to love.”
Robert Kincaid was silent. He knew what she was saying about the road and responsibilities and how the guilt could transform her. He knew she was right, in a way.
Looking out the window, he fought within himself, fought to understand her feelings. She began to cry.
Then they held each other for a long time. And he whispered to her, “I have one thing to say, one thing only; I’ll never say it another time, to anyone, and I ask you to remember it:
In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.”
They made love again that night, Thursday night, lying together until well after sunrise, touching and whispering. Francesca slept a little then, and when she awoke, the sun was high and already hot. She heard one of Harry’s doors creaking and threw on some clothes.
He had made coffee and was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, when she got there. He grinned at her. She moved across the room and buried her face in his neck, her hands in his hair, his arms around her waist. He turned her around and sat her on his lap, touching her.
Finally he stood. He had his old jeans on, with orange suspenders running over a clean khaki shirt, his Red Wing boots were laced tight, the Swiss Army knife was on his belt. His photo vest hung from the back of the chair,the cable release poking out of a pocket. The cowboy was saddled up.
“I’d better be going.”
She nodded, beginning to cry. She saw the tears in his eyes, but he kept smiling that little smile of his.
“Is it okay if I write you sometime? I want to at least send a photo or two.”
“It’s all right,” Francesca said, wiping her eyes on the towel hanging from the cupboard door. “I’ll make some excuse for getting mail from a hippie photographer,as long as it’s not too much.”
“You have my Washington address and phone, right?” She nodded. “If I’m not there, call the Na-tional Geographic offices. Here, I’ll write the number down for you.” He wrote on the pad by the phone, tore off the sheet, and handed it to her.
“Or you can always find the number in the magazine. Ask for the editorial offices. They know where I am most of the time.
“Don’t hesitate if you want to see me, or just to talk. Call me collect anywhere in the world; the charges won’t appear on your bill that way. And I’ll be around here for a few more days. Think about what I’ve said. l can be here, settle the matter in short order,and we could drive northwest together.”
Francesca said nothing. She knew he could, in-deed, settle the matter in short order.
Richard was five years younger than him, but no match intellectually or physically for Robert Kincaid.
He slipped into his vest. Her mind was gone, empty , turning. “Don’t leave, Robert Kincaid,” she could hear herself crying out from somewhere inside.
Taking her hand, he walked through the back door toward the truck. He opened the driver’s door, put his foot on the running board,
then stepped off it and held her again for several minutes. Neither of them spoke; they simply stood there, sending, receiving, imprinting the feel of each on the other, indelibly . Reaffirming the existence of that special being he had talked about.
For the last time, he let her go and stepped into the truck, sitting there with the door open. Tears running down his cheeks. Tears running down her cheeks. Slowly he pulled the door shut, hinges creaking. Harry was reluctant to start, as usual, but she could hear his boot hitting the accelerator, and the old truck eventually relented.
He shifted into reverse and sat there with the clutch in. First serious, then with a little grin, pointing toward the lane. “The road, you know. I’ll be in southeast India next month. Want a card from there?”
She couldn’t speak but said no with a shake of her head. That would be too much for Richard to find in the mailbox. She knew Robert understood. He nodded.
The truck backed into the farmyard, crunching across the gravel, chickens scattering from under its wheels. Jack chasedmone of them into the machine shed, barking. Robert Kincaid waved to her through the open passenger-side window. She could see the sun flashing off his silver bracelet. The top
two buttons of his shirt were open.
He moved into the lane and down it.
Francesca kept wiping her eyes, trying to see, the sunlight making strange prisms from her tears. As she had done the first night they met,
she hurried to the head of the lane and watched the old pickup bounce along. At the end of it, the truck stopped, the driver’s door swung open, and he stepped out on the running board. He could see her a hundred yards back, looking small from this distance.
He stood there, with Harry turning over impatiently in the heat, and stared. Neither of them moved; they already had said good-bye. They just looked— the Iowa farm wife, the creature at the end of his evolutionary branch, one of the last cowboys. For thirty seconds he stood there, his photographers eyes missing nothing, making their own image that he never would lose.
He closed the door, ground the gears, and was crying again as he turned left on the county road toward Winterset. He looked back just before a grove of trees on the northwest edge of the farm would block his view and sawmher sitting cross- legged in the dust where the lane began, her head in her hands.
Richard and the children arrived in early
evening with stories of the fair and a ribbon the steer had won before being sold for slaughter . Carolyn was on the phone immediately. It was Friday, and Michael took the pickup truck into town for the things that seventeen-year-old boys do on Friday nights— mostly hang around the square and talk or shout at girls going by in cars. Richard turned on the television, telling Francesca how good the corn bread was as he ate a piece with butter and maple syrup.
She sat on the front porch swing. Richard came out after his program was finished at ten o’clock. He stretched and said, “Sure is good to be home.” Then, looking at her, “You okay, Frannie? You seem a little tired or dreamy or somethin’.”
“Yes, I’m just fine, Richard. It’s good to have you back safe and sound.”
“Well, I’m turnin’ in; it’s been a long week at the fair , and I’m bushed. Y ou comin’, Frannie?”
“Not for a little bit. It’s kind of nice outmhere, so I think I’ll just sit awhile.” She was tired, but she was also afraid Richard might have sex in mind. She just couldn’t handle that tonight.
She could hear him walking around in their bedroom, above where she pushed back and forth on the swing, her bare feet on the porch floor. From the back of the house, she could hear Carolyn’s radio playing.
She avoided going into town for the next few days, aware all the time that Robert Kincaid was only a few miles away. Frankly, she didn’t think she could stop herself if she saw him. She might run to him and say,”Now! We must go now!” She had defied risk to see him at Cedar Bridge, now there was too much risk in seeing him again.
By Tuesdaythe groceries were running low and Richard needed a part for the corn picker he was getting back in shape. The day was low-slung, steady rain, light fog, cool for August.
Richard got his part and had coffee with the other men at the cafe while she shopped for groceries. He knew her schedule and was waiting out in front of the Super Value when she finished. He jumped out, wearing his Allis- Chalmers cap, and helped her load the bags into the Ford pickup, on the seat and around her knees. And she thought of tripods and knapsacks.
“I’ve got to run up to the implement place again. I forgot one more piece I might need.”
They drove north on U.S. Route 169, which formed the main street of Winterset. A block south of the Texaco station, she saw Harry rolling away from the pumps, windshield wipers slapping, and out onto the road ahead of them.
Their momentum brought them up right behind the old pickup, and sitting high in the Ford, she could see a black tarpaulin lashed down tight in the back, outlining a suitcase and guitar case wedged in next to the spare tire lying flat. The back window was rain-spattered, but part of his head was visible. He leaned over as if to get something from the glove box; eight days ago he’d done that and his arm had brushed across her leg. A week ago she’d been in Des Moines buying a pink dress.
“That truck’s a long way from home,” remarked Richard. “Washington State. Looks like a woman driving it; long hair, anyway. On second thought, I’ll bet it’s that photographer they been talkin’ about at the cafe.”
They followed Robert Kincaid a few blocks north to where 169 intersected with 92 running east and west. It was a four-way stop, with
heavy cross traffic in all directions, complicated by the rain and the fog, which had gotten heavier .
For maybe twenty seconds they sat there. He was up ahead, only thirty feet from her. She could still do it. Get out and run to Harry’s right door, climb in over the knapsacks and cooler and tripods.
Since Robert Kincaid had driven away from her last Friday, she realized, in spite of how much she thought she’d cared for him then, she had nonetheless badly underestimated her feelings. That didn’t seem possible, but it was true. She had begun to understand what he already understood.
But she sat frozen by her responsibilities, staring at that back window harder than she had ever looked at anything in her life. His left signal light came on. In a moment he’d be gone. Richard was fiddling with the Ford’s radio.
She began to see things in slow motion, some curious trick of the mind. His turn came, and… slowly… slowly… he moved Harry into the intersection— she could visualize his long legsworking the clutch and accelerator and the muscles in his right forearm flexing as he shifted gears— curling left now onto 92 toward Council Bluffs, the Black Hills, and the Northwest… slowly… slowly… the old pickup came around… so slowly it came around through the intersection, putting its nose to the west.
Squinting through tears and rain and fog, she could barely make out the faded red paint on the door: “Kincaid Photography— Bellingham, Washington.”
He had lowered his window to help him get through the bad visibility as he turned. He made the corner,and she could see his hair blowing as he began to accelerate down 92, heading west, rolling up the window as he drove.
“Oh, Christ— oh, Jesus Christ Almighty… n o ! ” T h e w o r d s w e r e i n s i d e o f her . ” I w a s wrong, Robert, I was wrong to stay… but I can’t go…. Let me tell you again… why I can’t go…. Tell me again why I should go.”
And she heard his voice coming back down the highway. “In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.”
Richard took the truck across the intersection heading north. She looked for an instant past his face toward Harry’s red taillights moving off into the fog and rain. The old Chevy pickup looked small beside a huge semitrailer rig roaring into Winterset, spraying a wave of road water over the last cowboy.
“Good-bye, Robert Kincaid,” she whispered, and began to cry,openly.
Richard looked over at her. “What’s wrong, Frannie? Will you please tell me what’s wrong with you?”
“Richard, I just need some time to myself. I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
Richard tuned in the noon livestock reports, looked over at her, and shook his head.