Hank heard voices as long as he could remember. Not the voices that crazy people hear, but the continual, incessant noise of his life. The only time he didn’t hear singing and monologs and radio ad scripts and endless jokes was when he was lying next to Susan. He could lie next to her in complete silence, look at the arcing line of her shoulder and hip turned toward the window, hair the color of burnt cinnamon repeating the line of her body in parallel waves, and his ears would ring with blessed silence.
Over her shoulder Hank could see limbs of a winter-bare tree, slanted roofline of the house next door, irregular rectangle of gray sky through Susan’s bedroom. The only sounds were birds, the occasional hiss of a car passing on the wet Venice street, the snap and creak of the old house, Susan’s breathing, and his own heart, pumping speedily in his chest as he thought about having to leave her.
Maybe he could stay here another hour. Maybe Joseph the brother would be late coming home from his shrink session at the VA. Three years ago the war ended. World War II, wars named like a serial. Episode 1, the Great War. Episode 2, an Even Greater War. Joseph would get over his shell-shock and get his own place and be out of Susan’s hair.
Maybe Susan would tell Hank he could move in.
Snagging a strand of Susan’s hair in his fingers, Hank put it to his nose, inhaled straw and sweat and roses, imagined mornings waking up beside her, making coffee and toast and bringing it back; outside the sun would always be bright. They would dine together, butter running down their chins, laughing. He could get her to laugh. He was the only one, she said, who made him laugh. But even when Susan laughed, it wasn’t a great belly laugh or a high giggle, it was a sort of huff huff; a smile grazed her cheek and he could see her teeth, a little crooked, that she always tried to hide. But this morning of his imagining, she was holding her stomach laughing. He would have a place in the den to write the novel he was going to write and she would go off to work at the factory, but not before they made love again.
He grew hard thinking about it. He always wanted more than she would give; Susan allowed him to come here on weekdays, when she got home, while Joseph was gone, but there wasn’t time for lovemaking more than once. He wanted to be here every day. He didn’t have a job; Mom and Dad didn’t yet press him to decide about college.
There was no way, he thought pleasantly, leaning back against the headboard, that he would follow Carl and Connie into the entertainment business. This was all he wanted.
Today, as rain started up and brought its own sounds of pattering and slapping, Hank lingered, knowing he would stay until the last second in this blessed silence, day-dreaming about a life that, if things were different, if Susan were different, they could have.
When footsteps sounded on the front porch and the screen door shrieked, Hank’s heart shivered with cold in his chest. Joseph was home early. Only this time, instead of the heavy stomp of Joseph’s feet through the vestibule, there came a sharp knock on the door.
Sitting up, Susan clutched the sheets to her, eyes wide. Looking at her, Hank’s skin crinkled with goosebumps. Scrambling to her feet, she snatched her robe from the closet door and whirled into it; seized a towel and wrapped it around her head. Hank had to admire her skill at improvisation. What better way to explain being in a bathrobe in the middle of the day than to be showering off the dust and smell of the Pottery?
Hank knew better than to follow but as she disappeared through the door he started to get dressed, pulling on slacks and shirt, running a comb through his unruly black hair, tying his shoes, listening to the voices.
A man’s, low, rumbling and slow.
“What happened?” Susan’s voice sounded anxious.
A reply came that Hank couldn’t quite make out as he walked to the door and listened; imagined Susan, tall and slender in her chenille robe, edges clutched close in her hand, the officer or official or Sargent or whomever he was knowing she was naked under that robe, looking her up and down and wondering if he should make a pass.
Her voice again. “Is he all right?”
Moving to the front window Hank saw a view of the Bermuda grass lawn, palm tree, and a corner of the front porch. The blind was down, of course, to hide their love-making activities from passersby, but if Hank angled his eye a certain way, he could make out a Los Angeles County police car parked on the street.
Joseph was in trouble again.
It happened regularly and Susan dealt with each occurrence in a calm, orderly fashion. But this time, her voice wasn’t resigned or angry or frustrated, but genuinely worried. An expert at voices, at timbre and inflection and the different ways a certain story could be told, Hank knew that Joseph had been hurt—not in jail or the crazy house.
The policeman went away, heavy tread sounding on the steps. Hank watched him saunter down the walk and around to the driver’s side of the cruiser, hesitate and look back at the house. Hank knew the policeman wasn’t looking back to check the grounds or look for clues. He was looking back because he had just been speaking to a beautiful woman in a bathrobe, and he was wishing he didn’t have to leave.
The bedroom door squeaked behind Hank. Susan came into the room, jaw set, eyes narrow with purpose. Without a word to Hank she swung out of her robe and let it fall to the floor. Hank was instantly hard, watching the flesh of her hips and butt jiggle as she yanked open her dresser drawer and pulled out her panties. He knew her like this, focused and intent whenever dealing with the issues of her brother Joseph. Hank wanted to ask her what had happened, but he knew better.
More than that, he wanted to touch her, run his hands across her bottom and up her curves and under her arms and onto her breasts. Before he knew what he was doing he had crossed the room, stood behind her and slid one hand under the elastic of her panties. She slapped it away.
“I have to go to the hospital,” she said, her voice like rasping insects. Hank loved everything about Susan, piercing, judging glare, firm, no-nonsense lips, little ears, bitten nails and rainbow of colored glazes staining her cuticles. Her crooked teeth. But her voice was hard to take.
Buckling her bra, she yanked a wrinkled yellow sweater from another drawer. Shrugging it over her head, she unloosed her hair from the neck and stopped. Hank waited, breathing in her complex aromas, trying to find himself in there.
She gazed at him in the mirror. “Joseph jumped off the streetcar while it was moving. Yelling something about an old man under the tracks. He broke both his ankles.”
“Wow”, was all Hank could think to say. He didn’t want her to leave to rescue her crazy brother. He wanted her here, with him. Hank wanted her to commit Joseph to Camarillo Nut House forever and let Hank move in with her. Marry her even.
As if she saw all this on his face, Susan’s look soured. “Hank, you are such a child. You have to go—wait, do you want a ride? I can drop you off.”
Swallowing, Hank shook his head. He didn’t want to act like a child. He wanted to act like the adult he was. He was the mature one, anyway, the steady one, the one, his mother said, who didn’t need as much attention.
“I have my bike.”
“Oh right. Your racing bike.”
Hank didn’t bother to correct her. The French racing bicycle was in the garage at home, oiled and cleaned and tuned, built for cross country racing. Around town he used the Raleigh, a 3 speed touring bike.
What would a mature guy do, an older guy like the policeman, burly and confident, who had looked Susan up and down?
“Do you want me to go with you? To the hospital, I mean?”
Susan was pulling on a pair of loose slacks. Zipping them up the side, she gave him a quizzical look.
“No, I’ll be OK. I’ve been doing this a long time now on my own.” She looked at him a second. “You’re such a boy.”