eorge’s first thought on opening his eyes in his dark bedroom was: Taryn.
That was always George’s first thought when he woke up: Taryn.
Then he heard the phone ring, realized why he was awake to begin with, and thought again: Taryn. A ringing phone always made him think of Taryn too.
Shit: Taryn. Breath caught short, he lurched out of bed and fumbled for the phone. It was so black out tonight, barely a sliver of a new moon in the sky, and no street lights out here on the lake, only the lap of the water against the varnished wood of the houseboat and, from up in the hills, the hoot of an owl.
Something had happened to her this time, he could feel it. An overdose. Beaten up in the parking lot by some yahoo frustrated that all he could do was watch. Raped by some monster more than frustrated.
“Hello,” he said, grabbing the receiver. “Hello.”
He heard a woman’s voice, yelling, pleading, not making sense.
“Wait,” he said, the outlines of the houseboat’s only room taking shape through the darkness. “Taryn? Has something happened to Taryn?”
There was a pause at the other end and then the woman said, “Who’s Taryn?”
“Who are you?”
“This is Cora McAdams. I’m Senior McAdams daughter, from down at the MAL….”
He knew who Cora McAdams was. How could he forget, after what happened between them? Dark hair. Slender, bordering on scrawny, back in high school. Lips plump and mouth always open, just a little bit, An air of being perennially pissed off, which she probably had been, considering she’d hightailed it to London, Paris, one of those places, and never come back.
“What’s going on, Cora?” he asked.
“It’s my father,” she said, her voice panicky. “Listen, you’ve got to come quick, there’s something wrong with my father and I really think I need to call an ambulance but he’ll only let me call you.”
“Okay,” George said. “Hold tight. Just let me ask you a few questions.”
He was already groping for his glasses, bending to retrieve the chinos he’d dropped on the floor after he’d gotten Beth to sleep and before he’d passed out himself. He’d had to put down a gelding yesterday, broken leg, and that always put him into a near-coma once he got in bed, his brain working to scrub the experience clear, he supposed.
He asked Cora the litany of questions, the ones he used to determine whether the old-timer or the addict or the prostitute on the other end of the line — the kind of people who called a horse doctor rather than a physician or a hospital when they were in serious health trouble — was in danger of dying in the next ten minutes. If it sounded as if Senior was that far gone, George would have called the ambulance himself and the police chief while he was at it.
But it seemed like the old coot, despite subsisting on Jim Beam, Chesterfields, and beef jerky, was going to make it to another day of two-dollar bets at the track.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” George said. He could see now as well as if it were daylight, make out where the water of the huge lake outside his window stopped and the wooden docks and grassy banks started. “Keep him comfortable and make sure he’s covered and warm. Don’t give him anything by mouth.”
Cora didn’t remember him, he could tell, as he pulled on his pants, shrugged his favorite old shetland sweater, ragged all down the arms, over his head. But they’d gone all the way through school together, been lab partners in chemistry, and then, fairly knocking with anxiety, he’d asked her to the Winter Dance.
It had been the first time he’d ever been out with a girl, ever. It had been soon after his mother died, he remembered, and his sister Ginny helped him with his bow tie, and picked out the corsage, yellow roses, to match Cora’s dress. He hadn’t been able to think of a single thing to say to Cora all night, but she didn’t seem to mind that, just chattered away about the strawberry cake with marshmallow icing she’d made that afternoon and how she wanted to go to college back east and how she wanted to travel to Europe and India and Hawaii.
He’d smiled and nodded and tried, surreptitiously, to push down the boner that Cora McAdams always seemed to inspire. When “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” came on and she wanted to slow dance, he was so mortified that it might poke into her that he held her literally at arm’s length, as if they were waltzing in 18th century Vienna.
“Beth.” He shook his little daughter awake. This was the worst thing about these middle-of-the-night calls, having to wake up Beth and drag her along. But what choice did he have? “Come on, sweetheart.”
He lifted the child in his arms, taking quilt and bunny with her.
That night after the dance, he’d walked Cora to her door and then, just when he was deciding that he couldn’t do it, couldn’t work up the nerve to kiss her, she’d leaned in and kissed him. Her lips, he remembered so clearly he could almost taste them now, tasted exactly like marshmallows. Drinking hot chocolate still reminded him inexorably of Cora McAdams, those lips, that first kiss after which there was no other.
He was about to leave the houseboat, bag in one hand, keys in the other, Beth snuggled against him, when the phone rang again. Thinking it was Cora calling back, maybe saying Senior had taken a turn for the worse, or even — please God — that her father was just fine and there was no need for George to come after all, he made his way across the room and answered.
This time. it was Taryn.