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James Was Here

July 18, 1993|ELIZABETH TALLENT | Elizabeth Tallent wrote "James Was Here," she says, because she was "really interested in that sense of American maleness connected to the West and with the prerogatives of maleness that are no longer right. It matters that 'James' takes place in Santa Fe; it's not New York City." Tallent, who teaches English and writing at UC Davis, moved to Northern California four years ago and now lives in Little River near Mendocino. Her third collection of stories, "Honey," which includes "James," will be out in November from Knopf. "It's very much New Mexico, about the nature of intrusion," she says. "I was thinking a lot about boundaries and metaphors for that. It's about relationships, about people who were immigrants and about really adult compromises."

Obediently he stands, back to her wall, painted with sky, the ceiling done in clouds with, even, a tiny airplane in whose windows Theresa claimed to have painted the three of them perfectly, though too small to see. He tells Cindy, "I never in a million years thought you'd be so beautiful."

She says with satisfaction, "But I am."

"Who is Jeff?"

"I'm not supposed to tell you who he is."

"Do we keep secrets?"

"Jeff my teacher."

"Oh, right, Jeff your teacher." Silence except for the TV. "Is he nice?"

"You are nice or you can't be a teacher."

James says, "Right? So really nice? Or regular nice?"

"He has no bottom teeth in front."

"Is he nice except for that?"

"When you look at him you just want him to have teeth."

They watch a half an hour's cartoons--James, to begin with, trying to regain equilibrium, to steady himself by intermittent hits of his flushed daughter's beauty. From Acme Trap Co., the coyote orders increasingly fantastic contraptions. Hope is like that, it loves winging it. A trap goes off in bells, explosions, billowing dust, Wile E. Coyote was ecstatic, but--beep beep. Cindy is, before he's entirely all right with this development, asleep. He wipes as tenderly as possible under her runny nose, then collects her from the bed, her arms and legs ungainly with deep sleep. He cradles her against his chest, swinging her artfully as he walks to ensure her sleep, but she wakes, as he's latching her seat belt, enough to ask, "Does Mommy know I'm leaving?" "She's sleeping. You and I are going for a ride." "Why?" "I wanted a little more time with you." "Why?" "I couldn't go out that door without you." "Why?" "Because I should have been able to but I wasn't, because you were so beautiful and I felt like I was leaving you so far behind me, like you were getting smaller and smaller on the horizon when all I wanted was to be right back with you and be your father."

"What's the horizon?"

"I drive, all right? And you sleep, all right?"

James loved sleeping while his father drove. He drove so tirelessly--his expertise matching, for once, what he was doing; the pitch of his concentration confined to what was actually before him, none of that dangerous excess, that spillover James associated with his father--that James could sleep with a lightened conscience, temporarily relieved of the burden of his father, leaving his father to himself, adult, awake, fine. James could sleep because his father was fine. On certain long drives James experienced himself as he was to have few occasions for experiencing himself, as the child , his father's child, and secure. Now let Cindy be the child , be, with surpassing security, his kid, James' baby, in whose presence he could do no wrong. He's pleased with her for the kid-like grace with which she's found a way to sleep in her corner. Because her face is turned from him, all he can see is the rise of her cheek and the modeling of her brow and the corner of her closed eye, and her ear with the tiny hole in its earlobe. He's struck by that minute hole. He didn't know her ears were pierced, and it summons up for him all that he's not going to know about her, the wilderness of her private life, the problem of her existing beyond his ken, his ignorance and bewilderment criminal, his love for her capable of flaring up to shock him.

By the time Cindy wakes it's nearly dark, and the distance has been covered aimlessly enough to make her wonder. All 5-year-olds, maybe, love purpose and are trying to take their bearings from adults hardly confident of their own motives: If the extent of everybody's uncertainty about everything were ever revealed, the blow would be crushing. She says, "Are we going to Granna and Grandpa's?"--Theresa's mother and father, who live in southern Colorado, and James is interested that Cindy got the direction right. Luck, or does she recognize the road? James tells her no. She says, "Are we going nowhere, then?"

"A kind of nowhere, uh-huh, except it's an all right nowhere, because you're with me, and I'm with you."

"Why would we go nowhere?"

"I needed to think," he tells her, not an explanation that can suffice, but she absorbs it gravely, and he says, "Look at that," of the big moon rising, the road arrowing through the desert right to where the moon lofts upward, and she says, "Daddy, can we get closer to take a good look?"

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