Starting Over

Before dawn this morning I was woken by a pounding on my back door. I got out of bed and went to see who it could be. When I opened the door a woman I had never seen before said, "Please, Mister, help me." I asked her what was wrong but she shook her head -- I could see that she was breathing hard and trying not to cry -- and asked if she could come in.

My wife used to say that I took too many chances, that I was reckless and that someday my luck would run out. My wife was a fine friend -- my best friend and I was never bored with her. She and I did everything together. We climbed mountains in Peru and hitchhiked through Europe in the 50's. In Montana we ran her father's calf ranch after he left it to us, and when that failed we opened a restaurant in Missoula -- which also failed. None of the setbacks ever mattered though. We were always starting over, as ambitious as ever. Sitting up late in the evenings, sometimes drinking rich, red wine, we'd laugh and talk and make plans. And really, it was all her doing -- in these years that she's been gone I've realized that she was the one who was reckless, chancy and lucky. Without her I've gone straight and true into the dull world of success.

So of course I let the woman in.

I turned on all the lights as I led her to the kitchen, and sat her down at the table. She was in her early 20's, and pretty. I leaned against the counter and asked her again what her trouble was. She started crying then, turning away from me, and I didn't know what to do. I was beginning to wake up and get upset. I was wearing my bathrobe but my feet were bare and cold. I was tired and had been soundly sleeping when her pounding had started. "Look," I said, "Can I call anyone for you? Call the police maybe?"

She turned back and faced me again. Still crying and said, "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do. I had to get away from him."

"From who," I asked.

"My husband," she answered.

I looked closely at her then. There were no blackened eyes, no obvious bruises, to torn clothing. She was wearing an old pair of jeans and a short-sleeved, cotton blouse, which was so thin that I could see her breasts through it. The I noticed that she was barefooted and her feet were muddy. Her small toe on her left foot was bleeding slightly, near the nail. As I looked at her she began to shiver, so I said, "Look, just wait a moment, OK?" She nodded and I went upstairs and dressed. When I came down I handed her a blanket -- she was still sitting exactly as before -- and I put the kettle on the stove. "Let's not say anything before we at least have some coffee," I said, which made her smile a bit. That smile was all I needed. I began to relax.

My wife died three years ago. One day she was out working in her garden, and the next day, with no warning at all, she was gone. The doctor explained it to me -- a burst vessel in the brain. He told me that arteries clog and weaken as we get older. He told me this while we where standing in the center of a dark office which had leather-upholstered chairs pushed against the walls. I had asked him the question, "Why?" but I didn't want an answer. I wanted something else -- perhaps I was hoping that he would start to talk about his garden, or his children, or even the weather. The doctor seemed to be my age. I didn't want to hear from him about an aneurysm, or about anything else so simple and shallow. Maybe I just wanted that man to tell me how it could be that any of us could end up living this damn long.

I remember meeting my wife when I was 23. It was at a large party in a small house and I had just come back from Italy. One woman had already asked me if I had brought back any souvenirs, and another stranger, complimented me on my success -- when I asked him what he meant he said that returned combat veterans where sure to get the best jobs. I was leaving, but the was house was so crowded that I didn't want to try to make it through to the front door. I went out the back door and into the yard. It was several miles from town, but I didn't want to wait for a ride from the person I had driven up with, so I was going to walk back. It was a clear, autumn night, and my coat was somewhere inside, so I felt that I had no choice but to go search through the parked cars for someone else's coat.

I just couldn't bring myself to go back into that house even for a moment. I was standing out there, about to become a thief, when my eyes got used to the darkness and I saw a woman sitting against a tree several feet away from. She was looking at me, and I embarrassed, thinking that maybe she realized what I was about to do, so I said hello to her and she said hello back to me. Then she asked if I knew anything about stars, so I began pointing out the constellations I knew and telling her stories about where their names came from. We talked -- beginning like that -- for a long time, so long that finally I was shivering badly enough that she noticed. She asked me if I was cold. It told her that I was, and then I told her what I had just about done. She didn't seem to mind, she just laughed a bit, and asked me what my coat looked like, and then went back into the house. She came back in a few minutes with my coat and several heavy blankets. She also had taken a bottle of wine from the dinning room table. We sat down together against that tree and got drunk. I said that the people of the house would be angry about their missing blankets. I still remember how she answered, "Sam, they'll be up all night talking. You and I will just sleep out here for a while. We might have a lot to say to each other so we had better get some rest first."

We got married two weeks latter. Once in a lifetime. Just once.

And when the coffee's done I bring it to the girl -- because she's become younger with the blanket wrapped around her -- and I sit down across from her. "Did you run here?" I ask.

She sips at the coffee and nods yes.

"How far?"

"From Toole street," she says, "That way," and she points.

I nod. The trailer court. Half a mile away, in the dark, Across the freight tracks, across the creek, into my backyard. "Why my house, why come to my door?"

She shrugs and looks at me and answers, "I saw his car coming. Yours was the closest." She sees some concern coming into my face and she says, fast and breathlessly, "oh, but don't worry. He wont come here. He's too afraid of other people."

So she tells me a whole story. Her husband sometimes beats her. Mostly, though, he threatens her. He's just started to keep her locked up. He hid her shoes. Disconnected the phone. I listen to this girl and look past her to the windows that are beginning to show the day through them, orange and foggy. My cat, Pascal, comes inside from a night of prowling and jumps up on the table, smelling like mice and dust. The girl pets him and Pascal arches his back in perfect contentment, purring. I listen to her talk on and on, maybe listening like no one has before, and she tells me about meeting him and how he brought her from Virginia to Missoula when she was 17. I listen, fix more coffee, and only ask simple questions. "Where did you grow up?" "What does he do?" Do you have a cat?" I don't tell her that her husband is a monster. I don't pass that judgment on; she's realizing it by herself, and just by sitting there talking with me, I know that she is leaving him, she knows, too, that somehow she will have help, that I will help her, that others will help her too. But now it is most important that we just talk.

I tell her a few things too, about my store, about how good business has been, but about how bored I am. She asks about my children and I show her pictures and tell her their names and tell her where they live. I tell her about my wife too, about a time in Spain when we couldn't get jobs. We became so poor that all we ate for two months were fish and potatoes. We used to go each day to the river and sit on large rocks, fishing. In the evenings we came back to the tiny apartment we lived in and read to each other by candlelight. We didn't make any plans and didn't worry, even when the landlord finally evicted us. "What did you do?" she asked. I laughed, shrugged, and said, "I guess we kept going. We just sort of ran away from what was bad and found better, much better places. We started over."