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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."

Sanity lies in sliding the gun right back on the closet shelf where it goes, and to give sanity a chance James prowls his apartment--every radiator cold; he hates the cold--picking things up at random. His last radiator conversation with Silva ended with Silva's nonchalant, "I'll get to it when I get to it." James makes coffee, clicks off the kitchen fluorescence, and tilts back in his chair, the jacket over the chair's back, the gun weighing in with a plumb bob's unwearying love of down, down, down. James might as well be in a canyon. It's the same question of following not the sunrise but slow secondary dramas. Across the vague wall of the building opposite, a wedge of Mexican pink advances, streamerlike shadows unrolling from flaws in the stucco, crude and slapdash, like so much else about this place. In the pink wall is the second-story window that, across an elevator-shaft-shaped space bottoming out in rabbitbrush and trash, mirrors his, even to its kitchen table. Too early for the "Wide World of 4-Year-Olds," the red-haired single mother feeding her twins. James would love her for her composure alone. She doesn't let the twins throw her, and often enough she's smiled across at James. She can't smile long because the twins don't let her; they know when her attention's elsewhere. Counting other reasons to love her, James can list the fact that she's still smiling when she turns to her kids again, her habit of T-shirts for nightgowns and the geraniums rampant on her landing when nobody else bothers with more than a desert-parched rush doormat, if that. They've talked brightly in passing--the weather, the rent--without acknowledging that they recognize each other from these windows. James supposes there are rules for being each other's views, and that bright evasiveness is the right style. The twins are redheads, too, which makes the movie they star in a comedy. James is going to wake up one morning over there, in her little bedroom. He's going to deal with her twins at that kitchen table, a stranger lightened of all sadness during the night, grinning, bare-chested, mysteriously at ease: You kids give your mom a break. He'll find the Cheerios and pour the milk and let her sleep.

Twenty minutes pass without her T-shirt ghosting across that window, without her kitchen blinking into shiny space, 20 minutes in which he can't talk himself out of carrying the gun. Carrying it for no reason, purely to see how it feels, does that make the whim less insane? Moving in here he fell into a routine in which there are tiny checks to the headlong blues, minor consolations to the general mercilessness, all day long, and that's the routine he needs today, one with checks and consolations built in, little risk of anger and no spur-of-the-moment decisions. He's not brilliant at the spur of the moment--not necessarily bad, but not brilliant, not good enough to go carrying a gun while improvising. This has to be a day like any other, then. A rule, a measure of sanity, some peace of mind going in.

The gun was Theresa's, a gift from him to her because he was often gone. The gun-store clerk, resting the .32 on the blunt-needled rubber mat, promised, "Women think this is pretty." Pretty , gleaming, fine-proportioned, a very blue black, irresistible to hold; when sniffed, neutral cold never-used machine. During the divorce Theresa told him, "Take it," she couldn't forget it was in the house, so James keeps it, loaded, on the high closet shelf that otherwise holds, for weird camouflage, dozens of pairs of old-man shoes, the bequest of some tenant vanished or dead, so alone in the world nobody came to collect his shoes. James imagines him sometimes, one of those neat-shirted, gaunt old men, what hair he had left slicked like a beau's, a fragile walker, careful street crosser, James himself in 40 more years of not getting his life right.

He yearns for a cigarette, dry essence of clear-headedness. Half a pack, tucked behind a sofa cushion, has bided its time until this emergency, and if he's going to respect the rule of ordinariness James has to get out of there now. In the parking lot he flirts with two girls, roommates, just climbing into a new Rabbit for the commute to Los Alamos, where they get kitted out like astronauts and, with giant gloves wedged through holes in a glass, manipulate flasks of radioactive tinctures. They agree it is a gray day. For the first time he can recall, James is awkwardly aware of what is in fact old habit, keeping his hands deep in his pockets. It is gray, cold enough to justify the jacket, going to rain, which they agree they need.

"We need it." One girl.

"Yeah, we need it." James.

"We really need it." The other girl.

James thinks how, if any of them neglected to voice the need for rain, that omission would seem almost violent, a breach.

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