Discover more from Joyce Carol Oates: A Writer's Journal
A Short Story
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
In late March, there’d been a sleet storm throughout north-central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. But since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glistening to the air. Often, she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside, not remembering how she’d got there. For long minutes, she would stare as the colors faded and a glassy light emerged from the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light, and in weak moments she thought, This is the crossing-over time. She watched, not knowing what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glistening to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.
This October evening, before the sun had entirely set, a pair of headlights turned in to the driveway, some distance away by the road. She was startled into alertness—at first not sure where she was. Then she remembered: Anton Kruppev was dropping by to see her.
Dropping by, he’d said. Or maybe she’d said, Why don’t you drop by?
She couldn’t make out his face. He was driving a pickup truck with white lettering on one side. He climbed down from the driver’s seat in the high cab and lurched toward her on the shadowy path—a tall male scarecrow figure with a misshapen Halloween pumpkin for a head.
What a shock! Hadley backed away, not sure what she was seeing. A grinning pumpkin head on a man’s shoulders, its leering cutout eyes not lit from within, like a jack-o’-lantern, but dark, glassy. And the voice issuing through the grinning slash-mouth in heavily accented English: “Ma’am? Is correct address? You are—lady of the house?”
She laughed, nervously. She supposed she was meant to laugh.
With grating mock gravity, the voice persevered: “You are—resident here, Ma’am? I am—welcome here? Yes?”
It was a joke. One of Anton Kruppev’s awkward jokes. He’d succeeded in frightening Hadley, though probably that hadn’t been his intention—probably he’d just meant to make her laugh. It was embarrassing that she’d been genuinely frightened, for she had known perfectly well that Anton was coming. And who else but Anton Kruppev would show up like this, with a Halloween pumpkin for a head?
At the co-op, Anton was the most eager and courteous of workers. He was the one who joked with customers, and laughed at his own jokes; he was boyish, vulnerable, and touching. His halting speech was itself a kind of laughter, not fully intelligible yet contagious. For all his clumsiness, you could tell that he was an exceptionally intelligent man. Hadley could see that he’d gone to painstaking trouble carving the pumpkin head: it was large, bulbous, weirdly veined and striated, twice the size of a normal man’s head, with triangular eyes, a triangular nose, and a mouth studded with fang-teeth. Somehow, he’d managed to force the thing over his head—Hadley couldn’t quite see how.
“How ingenious, Anton! Did you carve it yourself?”
This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppev. For you had to say something to alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh. Hadley recalled the first time Anton had come by to see her, which had been the previous week—the strained and protracted conversation between them when, after Hadley had served him coffee and little sandwiches on multigrain bread, Anton hadn’t seemed to know how to depart; his lurching over her, his spasm of a handshake, and his clumsy wet kiss on her cheek which had seemed to sting her, and to thrill her, like the brush of a bat’s wings.
“Yes, Ma’am. You think—you will buy?”
“That depends, Anton. How much . . . ”
“For you, Ma’am, no charge!”
This forced joke, how long would it be kept up? Hadley wondered in exasperation. In middle school, boys like Anton Kruppev were snubbed—Ha ha, very funny!—but once you were an adult how could you discourage such humor without being rude? Hadley was thirty-nine. Anton couldn’t have been more than twenty-nine. He’d been born in what was now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, had lost his parents, and was brought to the United States by a surviving grandparent. He’d gone to American schools, including M.I.T., and yet in all those years had not become convincingly American.
Trying too hard, Hadley thought. The sign of the foreign-born.
In a kind of anxious triumph, sensing his hostess’s exasperation yet determined not to acknowledge it, Anton swung the lurid pumpkin head down from his shoulders, holding it in his chafed-looking, big-knuckled hands. Now Hadley could see that the pumpkin was only two-thirds of a shell. It had been gutted and carved and its back part cut away—the back of what would be, in a human, the cranium. So the uncanny pumpkin head was a kind of pumpkin mask set on Anton’s shoulders and held in place by hand. Yet it was so lifelike; as the scarecrow figure had lurched up the walk in her direction, the face had appeared alive.
“Is good? Is—surprise? ‘Happy Halloween’ is right?”
Was it Halloween? Hadley was sure it was not. October 31st wasn’t for several more days.
“Is for you, Hedley. To set here.”
He was red-faced now and smiling in a shyly aggressive manner. On his angular face and in the stiff, wiry hair that receded sharply from his forehead were bits of pumpkin flesh and seeds, at which Anton wiped, surreptitiously, the way a boy might wipe at his runny nose. Hadley thought, If he kisses me, he will smell of pumpkin.
Her husband had died and abandoned her. Now other men would drop by the house.
Anton presented Hadley with the misshapen pumpkin. The damned thing must have weighed fifteen pounds. It almost slipped from her hands. Hadley thought it would have served Anton Kruppev right if she’d dropped the pumpkin and it had smashed on the brick. No doubt, he’d have offered to clean it up.
“Anton, thank you! This is very. . . ”
Their hands brushed together. Anton was standing close beside her. He was several inches taller than Hadley, though his posture was slouched, his back prematurely rounded. Perhaps there was something wrong with his spine. And he breathed quickly, audibly, as if he’d been running. Or as if he’d been about to declare something and then thought better of it.
Lanky Anton Kruppev had appeared perhaps a year earlier at the organic-food-and-gardening co-op where Hadley had once shopped regularly—back when she’d prepared elaborate meals for herself and her husband—and now shopped only from time to time. He’d always been alert and attentive to Hadley. Since late March, she’d been in a trance of self-absorption that was like a narcotic to her—in fact, to get through the worst of her insomniac nights Hadley had had to take sleeping pills, which left her dazed and groggy throughout the day—and she’d scarcely been aware of Anton Kruppev except as a helpful and persistent presence, a worker who seemed always to be waiting on her. It was only recently that he’d dared to be more direct, asking if he might come by her house after the co-op closed one evening, to bring her several bags of peat moss that were too heavy and cumbersome for Hadley to remove from the trunk of her car by herself. He’d offered to spread the peat moss wherever she wanted it spread.
Hadley had hesitated before saying yes. It was true, she was attracted to Anton Kruppev, to a degree. He reminded her of the foreign-born classmates she’d known in middle school, in north Philadelphia; skinny, pasty-faced boys with round eyeglasses and tortured ways of speaking, as if their tongues were malformed. Hadley had been drawn to them, but she’d never befriended them. But now, in weak moments, she was grateful for anyone who was kind to her; since her husband’s premature death, she’d felt eviscerated, worthless. There is not one person to whom you matter now. This is the crossing over. In a sort of hypnotic state, she found herself listening to a voice not her own yet couched in the cadences of her own most intimate speech. This voice did not accuse her, or pass judgment, and yet she knew herself judged, contemptible. Not one person. This is the crossing over. She had signed the paper for her husband’s cremation. In her memory, distorted and blurred by tears, her own name had been printed on the contract, beside her husband’s name. She’d felt that, signing for him, she’d signed for herself as well. It was finished for her—the life of the emotions, the ability to feel.
Yet with another part of her mind Hadley remained alert, prudent. She was not an adventurous woman, nor was she reckless. She’d been married to one man for nearly twenty years; she was childless and had virtually no family. She had a circle of friends in whom she confided sparingly. Normally, she would never have consented to a stranger dropping by her house, but she’d learned that Anton Kruppev was a postdoc fellow at the prestigious Molecular Biology Institute. He had a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and he’d taught at Caltech; his area of specialization was microbial genetics. She’d once seen him at a string-quartet recital on campus. Another time, she’d seen him walking along the canal towpath, alone. He’d been wearing headphones, and he’d kept his head sharply bowed, working his mouth as if he were arguing with someone. He’d been so lost in concentration that his gaze had drifted over her without seeing her—his favorite co-op customer in a cable-knit sweater, wool slacks, and boots, invisible to him. She’d liked it that Anton Kruppev hadn’t noticed her. That she could observe the young man without his observing her. She’d thought, He’s a scientist. He won’t see anything that isn’t crucial for him to see.
Now, in her house, Hadley felt a frisson of power over her awkward visitor. She was certain that Anton hadn’t known her husband and wasn’t aware that she was recently widowed. (Hadley still wore her engagement ring and wedding ring, of course.) Her power, she thought, lay in her essential indifference to the man, to his very maleness, his sexuality as clumsy as an odd-sized package he was obliged to carry, to proffer to strangers like her. He had the malnourished look of someone who has been rebuffed many times yet remains determined. There are men of surpassing ugliness with whom women fall in love, but Anton Kruppev was not one of them. His ugliness was not charismatic; his maleness was of another species altogether. Thinking of this, Hadley felt a swell of elation. If he kisses me tonight, he will smell of—garbage.
Hadley was smiling. She saw how Anton stared at her, as if her smile were for him.
She thanked him for the pumpkin yet again. Her voice was warm, welcoming. What an “original” gift it was, and so “cleverly” carved.
Anton’s face glowed with pleasure. “W-wait, Hedley! There is more.”
“Hedley,” he called her. At the co-op, it was “Mrs. Schelle,” with an emphasis on the final “e.” Hadley felt no impulse to correct him.
Anton seized Hadley’s hand—her fingers must have been icy, unresponsive—and pulled her with him out to the driveway. In the rear of the pickup was a large pot of what appeared to be cream-colored chrysanthemums, past their prime, and a long narrow cardboard box of produce: gnarly carrots with foot-long untrimmed greens, misshapen peppers and pears, bruised McIntosh apples that the co-op couldn’t sell, even at reduced prices. And a loaf of multigrain bread that Anton insisted had been baked only that morning but hadn’t sold and so would be labelled “day-old” the next morning. “In this country, there is much ignorant prejudice of ‘day-old.’ Everything has to be ‘new,’ ‘perfect shape.’ It is a mystery to me why to 6 P.M., when the co-op closes, this bread is good to sell but tomorrow by 8:30 A.M., when the co-op opens, it is ‘old.’ In the place where we come from, my family and neighbors. . . ” Moral vehemence thickened Anton’s accent; his breath came ever more audible.
Hadley would have liked to ask Anton more about his background. He’d lived through a nightmare, she knew. Ethnic cleansing. Genocide.
Yet she felt uneasy in his presence. Very likely, it had been a mistake to allow the eccentric young biologist to drop by her house a second time; she didn’t want to mislead him. She was a widow who had caused her husband to be burnt to ashes and was unrepentant, unpunished. Since March, she’d been declining invitations from friends who had known her and her husband for years. She felt impatient with their solicitude, their concern for her, which she did not deserve. I’m sorry! I don’t want to go out. I’m very tired. I go to bed and can’t sleep and at 1 A.M. I take a sleeping pill. At 4 A.M., I take another. Forget me! I am something that is finished.
She thought now that possibly she didn’t have to invite her visitor into the house, that Anton might not notice her rudeness, might not know enough to interpret it as rudeness. He set the mums and the box with the produce on a white bench near Hadley’s front walk. He’d boasted of being “Mister Fix-It”—and he was quick to see that the terrace behind Hadley’s house contained a number of broken flagstones, which he offered to replace for her. Next he examined the garden gate, which had become warped. He managed to fix it with several deft motions of his hands. “There. It is good as ‘new,’ eh?” he said. He laughed as if he’d said something unexpectedly witty. Hadley was grateful that for all his clumsiness Anton had made no mention of the terrible profusion of weeds amid a lush tangle of black-eyed Susans, Russian sage, and morning-glory vines in Hadley’s husband’s garden, which had been allowed to go wild.
She was impressed by her visitor’s energy; it brimmed and thrummed like rising yeast. She would have supposed that after a day presumably spent at the lab and several hours at the co-op Anton would be dazed with exhaustion. Yet there he was, tireless in his inspection of the exterior of Hadley’s house—checking windows and locks, dragging aside broken limbs and storm debris. You’d have thought that Anton Kruppev was an old friend of the family for whom the discovery that one of the floodlights on Hadley’s garage had burnt out was something of a coup, inciting him to immediate action. “You have a bulb to replace, yes? And a ladder with ‘steps’—‘stepladder’? I will put in—now—before it is too dark.”
So adamant that Hadley had no choice but to give in.
And no choice but to invite Anton Kruppev inside, for just a while.
Politely and with regret, she explained that she had a dinner engagement later that evening, but would he like to come inside, for a drink?
“Hedley, yes, thank you! I would like—yes—so much.”
Stammering with gratitude, Anton scraped his hiking boots against the welcome mat. The soles were muddy and stuck with leaves. Though Hadley insisted that it wasn’t necessary, Anton removed the boots with a grunt and carefully placed them on the front step, side by side. What large boots they were, like a horse’s hooves! The sodden shoelaces trailed out—left, right—in perfect symmetry.
Inside, most of the downstairs rooms were dark. Now that it was late October, night came quickly. Pleasantly excited, a little nervous, Hadley went about switching on lights. There was a curious intimacy between her and Anton Kruppev, in this matter of switching on lights. Hadley heard her voice warmly uplifted—no idea what she was saying—as her tall guest came to stand in his gray wool socks at the threshold of the living room, which he hadn’t seen previously. He stared into the long, beautifully furnished room with a shoulder-high stone fireplace at its far end, book-filled shelves, Chinese carpets on a gleaming hardwood floor. Above the fireplace hung an Impressionist Wolf Kahn landscape of gorgeous pastel colors.
Excitedly, Anton Kruppev asked if the painting was by Cézanne.
“Cézanne! Hardly.” Hadley laughed, the question was so naïve. Except for the surreal pastel colors and a high degree of abstraction in the rendering of massed tree trunks and foliage, there was little in the canvas to suggest the earlier master.
Outside, while Anton had been changing the floodlight, Hadley had thought, I will offer him coffee. That’s enough for tonight_._ But now that they were out of the October chill and inside the warm house she offered him a glass of dark-red Catena wine, from a bottle originally purchased by her husband. Anton thanked her profusely—a flush of pleasure rose into his odd, angular face. In his wiry hair that was the color of ditchwater a small pumpkin seed shone.
Hadley poured herself half a glass of wine. Her hand shook just slightly. She thought, If I don’t offer him a second glass. If I don’t ask him to stay_._
Since there was an opened jar of Brazil nuts on the sideboard, Hadley offered these to Anton, too. A cascade of nuts into a blue ceramic bowl.
Gratefully Anton drank, and Anton ate. Thirstily, hungrily. He drifted about Hadley’s living room, peering at her bookshelves. Excitedly he talked—he had so much to say! He reminded Hadley of a chattering bird, a large endearingly gawky bird like an ostrich, long-legged, long-necked, with a beaky face, quick-darting inquisitive eyes.
His upper body, now that he’d removed his nylon parka, was bony, concave. Hadley imagined that he would be waxy-pale beneath his shirt. A hairless chest. A little potbelly, and spindly legs.
Hadley laughed. Already she’d almost finished her wine. A warm sensation suffused her throat and spread to the region of her heart.
Politely she tried to listen—to concentrate—as her eccentric guest babbled rapidly and nervously and with an air of schoolboy enthusiasm.
How annoying Anton was! Like many shy people, once he began talking he seemed not to know how to stop; he lacked the social sleight of hand to change the subject, and he had no idea how to engage another person. Like a runaway vehicle, he plunged on, heedless. And yet there was something undeniably attractive about him.
He was becoming more incensed now, impassioned—though he seemed to be joking, too—speaking of American politics, American pop culture, and “American fundamentalist ignorance” about stem-cell research. And, how ignorant! More than ninety per cent of Americans believed in God—and in the Devil.
Hadley frowned at this. Ninety per cent? Was that so? It didn’t seem plausible that as many people would believe in the Devil as believed in God.
“Yes, yes! To believe in the Christian God is to believe in His enemy, the Devil. That is known.”
Anton drained his glass of wine and then helped himself to a second glass, scooping up another handful of the Brazil nuts. Hadley wondered if he meant to be rude, or if he simply didn’t know any better. “I really can’t think,” she persisted, “that as many Americans believe in the Devil as believe in God. I’m sure that isn’t so. Americans are—we are—a tolerant nation.”
How smug this sounded. Hadley paused, not knowing what she meant to say. The dark wine had gone quickly to her head.
With a snort of derision, Anton said, “A tolerant nation—is it? Such ‘tolerance’ as swallows up everything and what it cannot it makes of an enemy.”
“Enemy? What do you mean?”
“It makes of war. First is declared the enemy, then the war.”
Anton laughed, baring his teeth. Chunky yellow teeth they were, and the gums pale pink. Seeing how Hadley stared at him, he said, in a voice heavy with sarcasm, “First, there is the ‘tolerance’—then the ‘preëmpt strike.’ ”
Hadley’s face filled with the heat of indignation. This was insulting, deliberately so. Anton Kruppev, who’d lived in the United States for years, knew very well the history of the Iraq war, how Americans had been misled, deceived by the Republican leadership. Of course he knew. She opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it.
Surreptitiously, she glanced at her wristwatch. Only 6:48 P.M.! Her guest had been inside the house for less than half an hour, but the strain of his visit was such that it seemed much longer.
Still Anton was prowling about, snooping. Artifacts from trips that Hadley and her husband had taken, over the years—Indonesian pottery, Chinese wall scrolls and watercolors, beautifully carved wooden figures from Bali, a wall of brightly colored “primitive” paintings from Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala. Anton seemed particularly interested in the books on Hadley’s shelves, as if the hundreds of titles acquired years earlier by Hadley’s husband—who’d earned both a Ph.D. in European history and a law degree from Columbia University—possessed an immediate significance and were not simply relics of a lost and irretrievable private past.
“You have read all these, Hedley, yes?”
Hadley laughed, embarrassed. No, she had not.
“Then—someone else? All these?”
Hadley laughed again, uncertain. Was Anton Kruppev mocking her? He was peering at her, as at her art objects and bookshelves, with an almost hostile intensity; yet she could not help it, so American was her nature, so female, that she was still anxious that he like her, and admire her—if she could be sure that he did, then she would send him away in triumph.
She thought again of the foreign-born youths she’d known in school. In middle school, they had seemed pitiful—objects of sympathy, charity, and condescension, if not derision. In high school, they’d become A students, star athletes. There was a drivenness to them, something that the complacent Americans had initially mistaken for weakness.
In his soiled wool socks, Anton seemed more childlike than aggressive. Hadley supposed that his own living quarters, in university-owned housing, were minimal, cramped, somewhere in the row of subsidized apartments along the river. “Ah! This is solar room?” He had wandered into the glass-walled room at the rear of the stone house which had been added on by Hadley and her husband; the “solarium,” intended to be sun-warmed, was furnished with white wicker furniture, chintz pillows, and a white wrought-iron table and chairs, like an outdoor porch. But now the room was dark and shadowed, and the bright festive colors were almost invisible. Through the vertical glass panels shone a faint crescent moon, entangled in the tops of the tall pines.
“Such a beautiful house—it is old, is it?—so big, for one person. You are so very lucky, Hedley. You know this, yes?”
Lucky! Hadley smiled, confused. She tried to see this.
“Yes, I think so. I mean—yes.”
“So many houses in this ‘village,’ as it is called, they are so big. For so few people. On each acre of land, it may be one person—the demographics would show. Yes?”
Hadley wasn’t sure what Anton Kruppev was saying. A brash sort of merriment shone in his eyes, widened behind the smudged lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses.
He asked Hadley how long she’d lived in the house, and when she told him that she and her husband had moved there in 1988 he maintained his pained, fixed smile but did not ask about her husband. He must know, then, she thought. Someone at the co-op has told him.
Bluntly, Anton said, “Yes, it is luck. America is the land of opportunity—all that is deserved is not always granted.”
“But it wasn’t luck. My husband worked. What we have he earned.”
“And you, Hedley? You have ‘earned’ also?”
“I—I—I don’t take anything for granted. Not any longer.”
Anton peered at her closely. It was as if the biologist were trying to determine the meaning of her words by looking at her. A kind of perverse echolocation—was that the word?—like a bat following a trail of high-pitched beeps. Except that Anton was staring. Hadley saw that the pumpkin seed—unless it was a second seed, or a bit of pumpkin gristle—still glistened in his wiry hair, which looked as if it needed shampooing and would be coarse to the touch. She felt a reckless impulse to pluck the seed out, though she could not risk the intimacy.
He would misunderstand. He is such a fool, he would misinterpret.
But if I wanted a lover. A lover for whom I felt no love.
As if Anton had heard these words, his mood suddenly changed. His smile became startled, less strained. He asked Hadley if there were any more repairs for Mister Fix-It, and Hadley said quickly, “No. No more.”
“Your basement—furnace—that I could check. I am trained. You smile, Hedley, but it is so. To support myself in school—”
Hadley was sure that she wasn’t smiling. More firmly, she thanked Anton and told him she had to leave soon. “I’m meeting friends for dinner in town.”
This was clearly a lie. Hadley could lie only flatly, brazenly.
Anton took a step closer. “I would come back another day, if needed. I would be happy to do this, Hedley. You know this—I am your friend Anton—yes?”
“No. I mean—yes. Some other time, maybe.”
Hadley began to lead her guest back out into the living room, into the lighted gallery and the foyer near the front door. He followed in her wake muttering to himself—unless he was talking to Hadley, and meant her to hear, to laugh, for it seemed that Anton was laughing, under his breath. He’d drained his second glass of wine and his movements had become jerky, uncoördinated, like those of a partially animate scarecrow.
It was then that Anton began to confide in Hadley, in a lowered and agitated voice: the head of his laboratory at the institute had cheated him; he’d taken the discoveries of Anton Kruppev to claim for his own; he’d published a paper in which Anton was cited merely in a list of graduate assistants, and now that Anton had protested he was exiling Anton from the lab. He’d refused to speak to Anton at the institute and had banished him, and so Anton had gone to the university president—he had demanded to be allowed to speak to him, but of course he’d been turned away. Anton had returned the next morning, and when he was again told no he demanded to speak with the provost—and the university attorney. Their offices were near one another in the administration building. But they were all in conspiracy together, with the head of the institute and the head of Anton’s laboratory—he knew this! He was not such a fool, not to know this! Anton had become excited and someone had called security. The campus police had arrived and led him away protesting; they had threatened to turn him over to the town police, who would arrest him for “trespassing” and “threatening bodily harm.” Anton had been terrified—he would be deported by Homeland Security. He did not yet have his American citizenship—
“You are smiling, Hedley? What is the joke?”
Smiling? During this long, breathless, disjointed speech, Hadley had been staring at Anton Kruppev in astonishment.
“It is amusing to you, yes? That after all my work, my effort—I am most hardworking in the lab—our supervisor exploits my good nature. He was always saying, ‘Anton is the stoic among us’—what this means, this flattery of Americans, is that you can be used. To be used—that is our purpose, to the institute. But you must not indicate that you are in the know.” Anton spoke like someone whose grievances were so far in excess of his ability to express them that he might have been the bearer of an ancient, tribal burden. “And now, after three years, when my findings are cheated from me and I am of no more use, it is time to toss away into the Dumpster. That is good word, good joke, eh? ‘Dumpster’—very good American joke. The institute is saying my contract will not be renewed, for the federal grant is ended. And my supervisor has not ever got around to aiding me with my citizenship application—years it has been. Of course, I have been dialtory myself—I have been working so hard in the lab. Yesterday morning it was, the decision came to me by e-mail. You—you must not smile, Hedley! That is very selfish. That is very selfish and very cruel.”
The indignant man loomed over Hadley, his angular face hardened with strain. His jaws were clenched. A sweaty-garbagey smell wafted from his heated body. Behind the smudged lenses his eyes were deep-socketed, wary. Hadley said nervously, “Maybe you should leave, Anton. I’m expecting friends. I mean . . . they’re stopping by, to take me with them. To dinner in town . . . ”
Hadley didn’t want her agitated visitor to sense how frightened she was of him. Her mistake was in turning away to lead him to the door. Insulting him. He looped an arm around her neck, and in an instant they were struggling off balance. He grabbed at her, and kissed her—kissed and bit at her lips, like a suddenly ravenous rodent. Both their wineglasses went flying, clattering to the floor.
She was trying to draw breath to scream but he’d pushed her down. She thought he was trying to strangle her, then it seemed that he was still kissing her, or trying to. Panicked, she jammed her elbows into his chest, his ribs; his mouth closed over hers and she thought that he would bite off her lip. With a kind of manic elation, he was murmuring what sounded like You like me! You want this! Grunting with effort, he straddled her, his face flushed with emotion; their struggle had become purely physical, and urgent, enacted now in near-silence, except for their panting. Hadley had no idea what she was doing, moving her head from side to side, trying to avoid the man’s mouth, his sharp yellow teeth, the smell of his breath. In a paroxysm of desperation, Hadley managed to squirm out from beneath him, like an animal crawling on hands and knees, and in that instant she almost believed that she might escape Anton Kruppev—but he had only to lunge after her, seize her ankle in his strong fingers, laughing and climbing over her, straddling her again, more forcibly this time, closing his fingers around her neck. In a choked voice, Anton was saying, “You want me here! You asked for this. You have no right to laugh at me. You and your ‘trustee’ husband.” Hadley had no idea what Anton was saying. Trustee? Her husband had served on an advisory board for the history department; he’d had no association with the molecular-biology institute. She could not have explained this; she had not the strength, or the breath, yet she had time to think, almost calmly, This can’t be happening. This is wrong. She seemed to see herself in that instant with a strange stillness and detachment, as she had during her marriage when while she was making love with her husband her mind had slipped free and all that was physical, visceral, and immediate was at a little distance. Though now, tasting the wine on Anton’s tongue, the sour-feral wine taste of a man’s mouth, Hadley knew that she was loathed by the man; his hatred was pure and fiery as she begged him, Please don’t hurt me, Anton. I want to be your friend, Anton. I will help you. It wasn’t wine she was tasting but blood from her upper lip. He disengaged from her roughly and got to his feet, looming over her, his shirt loose, splattered with blood. In a voice of anguish, rage, incoherence, he uttered something that she did not understand, then staggered away to the front door. Then—to her astonishment—he was gone.
She lay very still, her heart pounding, her body bathed in sweat and the smell of him, her brain blank, oblivious of her surroundings. After several minutes—it may have been as many as ten or fifteen—she understood that she was alone. It had not quite happened to her the way that she’d believed it would happen, the crossing over.
She managed to stand. She was dazed, sobbing. She leaned against a chair in the hall, touching the walls, then stumbled to the open doorway and stood, staring outside. The front walk was dimly illuminated by the moon overhead. There was a meagre light, a near-to-fading light. She saw that the pumpkin head had fallen from the step, or had been kicked. It lay shattered on its side. She could see that the innards had been scooped out, but negligently, so that seeds remained, bits of pumpkin gristle. She stepped outside. She wiped at her mouth, which was still bleeding. She would run back into the house and dial 911. She would report an assault. She would summon help. For she required help, badly; she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return. On the front walk, she stood gazing toward the road—what she could see of the road in the darkness. There were headlights there. An unmoving vehicle. It was very dark, a winter dark had come upon them. She called out, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” Headlights on the roadway, where his vehicle was parked.