I mentioned previously that the only thing Drew's good at was hunting. That's not entirely true. He also has the uncanniest ability to turn normal conversation into a venue for vulgarity. During the hour or so he visited with Clarisse and I, he said such things as to make a sailor blush. While one of us would try to steer the conversation to safer ground such as the weather or last week's county fair, Drew would not relent.
By the time Drew and his jalopy roared off, the sun was just beginning to set. I knew enough at that point to understand that sunsets are the perfect settings for romantic interludes. I reclaimed my chair and dragged it close to Clarisse's. We sat in companionable silence for a time, together watching the sky set ablaze. In our small town we were required to know everyone whether we wanted to or not, so every several minutes a mother would push her stroller by, Mrs. Bates would hobble by on a walker, and we would have to call out a greeting and engage the passers-by in small talk. It's not that I minded these social niceties, but it was quite distracting when I was trying to work up the courage to romance Clarisse.
I guess after a while she noticed I was acting a bit strangely. Turning to me, she asked, "Cyrus, something wrong?" The look on her face was so warm and open that I couldn't have hidden anything from her if I wanted to.
"Well, not really wrong," I mumbled, picking at the chipped paint on the porch railing. "Not wrong as you'd call it, anyway. It's just that, well…" I paused for effect. Her interest, I saw, was piqued. "I like you a lot. That is, I've liked you a lot for a long time, but now more than ever before. Do you see where I'm going with this?"
It was a rhetorical question, but she failed to notice that. "Yes, I do think I see where you're going," she answered, dropping her eyes. Her hands were clasped in her lap, and her knuckles were turning white.
She looked so nervous I was afraid she thought I was about to propose to her. Quickly I set about clearing up any misconceptions. "I'm not suggesting anything, see, but I just want you to know I'm proud you're my girl."
That wasn't at all what I had planned on saying. Sure, I meant it, but I had hoped to say something more grandiose, more eloquent and romantic with a hint of something deeper in the future. With that little speech I'd just made, you'd think I was a schoolboy with his first crush, not a man of twenty-five.
But she didn't think that. She didn't laugh at me or my awkwardness. Instead, her eyes shone as though I had just said the sweetest, most romantic thing possible. "Thanks…and I'm-I'm proud to be your girl."
This was the first time we had really discussed our relationship. In fact, most wouldn't consider it really a relationship at all. We didn't treat each other as really anything more than friends, and heck-we hadn't even kissed. Our relationship was purely platonic: we considered ourselves spoken for, and that was just about the extent of things between us.
Clarisse was proud to be my girl. To be honest I wondered-I still wonder, actually- what it was about me that she liked. Pretty and sweet as she was, she could have had just about any guy in the world. She could have had men of intellect who showered her with compliments. Handsome men who made her laugh. But she didn't. She picked me. Me. Short, awkward, and not all that bright. Maybe it was pity, maybe it was love. I'll never know.
I took her hand and said nothing. There's times when you don't need words, and I think this was one of those times.
As I set about leaving that evening, getting my jacket, paying my respects to her folks, Clarisse's father asked to speak to me-alone. The look in his eyes told me I couldn't refuse-that is, if I wanted to leave that night in one piece. I was ushered into the basement, which, judging by the desk piled high with papers, served as an office to Dwight. It wasn't very welcoming, but then I suppose Dwight didn't intend it to be. We both seated ourselves-my chair had a broken spring in it-and for the longest time neither of us spoke. He just stared at me, looking something like a lion waiting for the right moment to seize its prey. Dwight McCormick was a big man, hulking and rugged, if not a bit battered-rumor had it that he used to be a cage fighter. He continued staring at me, looking as though he was trying to find just the right way to kill me.
Not wanting to look into those dark eyes any longer, I allowed myself to look around the room. It was sparsely furnished, but a few knick-knacks caught my eye. A small ivory elephant was displayed on the desk, right next to a figurine of some weird-looking woman with a lot of arms. In a brave attempt to break the silence, I nodded towards them and asked, "Where'd you get those?"
"You've been to India?"
"I was stationed there back in '52."
So he had been in the Army. Clarisse hadn't told me that. Still looking at the figurines, I asked, "What's that one on the right?"
Dwight followed the direction of my eyes. "Oh, that. The Indians sell those things all over the place. It's a depiction of Shiva."
"Shiva," I repeated. Weird name.
"Yes. Indian goddess of destruction." Were my eyes playing with me, or did he start to smile as he said that last word? I squirmed in my chair, trying to avoid the spring that prodded at me, growing ever more uncomfortable. Surely he hadn't called me here just to tell me about those pagans on the other side of the globe.
Silence again. The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds, and the seconds turned into minutes. The door was beginning to look very inviting.
He spoke so abruptly that I jumped a bit. "Yes, sir."
"I expect you know why I want to speak to you?"
"I imagine not, sir." I wasn't lying.
Dwight sighed a long, drawn-out sigh and shook his head. Leaning forward, he clasped his hands in front of him and looked at me in earnest. "Cyrus, you're quite attached to my daughter, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir. I'd think that much is obvious."
"What are your intentions towards her?"
The question surprised me and for a moment I didn't know how to answer. "Well," I said slowly, "I guess I haven't thought about it that much."
He chuckled. "Well, one thing's for sure. You're not at all suave or rehearsed. I guess that's something I like about you." A pause. "But still, I want to know exactly what you feel towards my daughter. Sure, Clarisse obviously likes you a lot, and I know you like her. But will you be sticking around for long? I remember being young and thinking myself in love, only to have that feeling disappear over the course of a month or two." Dwight looked over at the little Shiva on his desk.
"If you're saying that I'd just ditch her-well, you're crazy." Oops. That didn't come out right. Oh well. There was no stopping now. "I happen to like her-a lot. I also respect her, and that's the very reason I'd never treat her bad. I don't want to ever hurt her, and I'll make sure that I won't." I felt a surge of some new kind of courage and looked him squarely in the eyes. "I promise I won't-not now, not ever."
He didn't say anything for the longest time. What was that in his eyes? I waited on the edge of my seat, expecting him to at any moment pull a gun out of his desk and do away with me. He did no such thing. After a few moments he stood and walked the length of the room. "Hm. So you're more of a man than I gave you credit for. Tell me, how old are you? Nineteen, twenty?"
That revelation seemed to surprise him a bit. "You don't look it. Well, that brings me to the next thing. Should your relationship with my daughter continue and eventually grow into something more, how would you provide for her?"
"Uh, work, I guess."
"What's your current occupation?"
My face brightened at that. "Oh, you know of the Eastvale Logging Co.? Yeah. I work there."
"I see. I don't suppose it pays much?"
What an interrogation this was turning out to be. "Well, not a whole lot, but my boss says he expects great things to come in the future-"
"I'll be frank with you, Cyrus. I have no intention of letting my daughter marry a man who has nothing, just dreams of what will come in the future. You have barely enough money to feed yourself, let alone another mouth. And what about when children come? You can't raise a family on what you make as a logger."
I reddened. Already he's talking about my marrying and having a family! Next minute he'd probably be talking about life insurance and college funds for my grandchildren. I opened my mouth, but he had no intention of letting me speak. He was leveling all guns at me, and perhaps relishing my discomfort. "You have no house. Do you expect her to live with you in that little dingy boarding house?" He stopped for breath, then continued. "In short, Cyrus, dreams don't pay the bills. I respect that you plan on advancing in life, but until you have tangible proof that you can support my daughter, I have no intentions of letting her see you."
Dwight sat down and began shuffling through some papers on his desk, and I knew I was dismissed. Just like that. He'd shamed me and wounded me, but he'd said nothing that wasn't true. I didn't look at Clarisse as I stormed out to my car.