As soon as they get home to Florida for the off season, he disappears for two days.
Maggie tries not to worry about him. Joe’s a grown man. She knows that. She knows it’s likely that he’s taking the opportunity to go off on one hell of a bender now that the carnival isn’t keeping him anchored. He’s done it often enough before and always come through it just fine. At least he’s not driving.
But no matter how much she tells herself she’s not worried she still keeps an eye on the house across the street. Still goes over to check on him when she sees him get out of a taxi late on the second day. She doesn’t bother making up an excuse because they’re long past that stage by now.
Oddly enough, he’s almost entirely sober. He’s had a few, but he’s sober.
They have a quiet dinner with Cathy, who’s also spent the last two days pretending not to worry about her father. He refuses to tell them exactly what he’s been up to, and growls at them when they ask too many questions. He had some business to take care of, that’s all.
The three of them spend the evening watching television together, as they’ve been doing for years. As soon as the news is over Cathy says goodnight and goes to her room, and Joe asks Maggie to spend the night.
She hesitates, but not for long. The sex can be great when he’s sober and on his game, and it has been a few weeks.
Tonight, he’s on his game. Tonight, he sets her on fire like he hasn’t in months. She forgets that she’s fifty-something and has severe money problems and a carnival that’s always on the edge of going under. She forgets that he’s nearly as old as she is and losing his hair and that he’s a notorious drunk with a personality that even she can’t love sometimes.
Nights like this, she forgets all that and only remembers that he’s her lover and her best friend and that’s why she puts up with him the rest of the time.
She’s almost asleep when he eases his arm out from under her head and sits up. He switches on the lamp and reaches for the bottle he keeps on his nightstand. He pours himself a more than generous glassful and takes a swig as Maggie, blinking against the light, watches.
She pulls the sheet over herself modestly and sits up, reaching out to touch his arm. She drops a kiss on his bare shoulder, saying, “Joe? What’s wrong, dear?”
He doesn’t respond at first. He drains the glass and picks up his boxers from the floor and puts them on. “What’s wrong? Well, I’ll show you what’s wrong,” he says, padding across the room to put on the robe that hangs from the bathroom door.
In a few minutes he comes back from the living room with a bunch of papers he hurls onto the bed.
Maggie has put on his discarded shirt, buttoned all the way up to the throat so that it won’t fall off her completely. She picks up the most important looking paper first, the one with the official-looking blue backing paper on it.
“Elaine’s filed for divorce?” She looks up at him in wonder. “What got into her after all these years?”
“Not much,” he replies. He drops down heavily on the bed, making the mattress shake under his weight. “Can’t be that urgent. Been sitting there in the post office for nearly six months.”
“Now, what’s her game, I wonder? She knows damn well how to find you if she wants to.”
Joe nods, pours himself another drink.
“She gets half the house,” he says, almost conversationally. “Legally, I mean. It’s in her name, too. I have to either buy her out or sell up and give her her half.”
“Leaving you where, exactly?” Maggie demands, spitting mad now. “Out on the street? Not to mention her own daughter.”
He smiles at her fierceness; he’s told her more than once how attractive he finds that in her. “I’m not sure she remembers she even has a daughter,” he says. “Make her feel too old.”
“Good!” she says, and Joe gives one of his rare laughs and hugs her.
“I don’t see any demand for alimony here.”
“Nah. She wants to marry that rich guy she’s been shacked up with for the last coupla years.”
The other papers are more mundane. Papers from some yellow pages divorce lawyer he’s hired and brochures from real estate brokers and forms from the bank revealing he’s transferred the entirety of his meager savings into his daughter’s name to keep it safe from Elaine’s grasping paws.
“Have you told Cathy yet?” she asks. “About any of this?”
“Not yet. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell her. ‘Hey, kid, remember your mother, you know, the woman you’ve seen about three times since your 16th birthday? Yeah, thanks to her you’ll either have to live at the Y from now on or hope I can find a good deal on a trailer park repo someplace.’”
She hears the bitterness and resignation in his voice. Even for Joe it’s bad, and being more or less sober makes it worse. How he’s managed to stay that sober is a miracle she’ll never understand.
Maggie pats his hand. “We’ll figure out something, Joe.”
“We?” he says with a scowl.
She purses her lips and gives him a stubborn look. “We,” she says firmly. “You know I’ll help any way I can.”
“Maggie…” he begins, with just a trace of pleading in his voice. Then he shakes his head and throws all the papers angrily against the wall. He turns to look at her. “You help me too damn much as it is,” he tells her. Then he snaps off the light and lies down on his side, facing away from her and breathing hard.
Just as it’s starting to get light outside he has the dream again.
He couldn’t say if it’s the stress or the lack of booze that’s caused it, but suddenly there he is on the ground, looking up at the Ferris wheel and yelling at that idiot teenager to stop rocking the damn car back and forth. They all do it, all the kids, but this one’s worse about it and this time the thing starts to tilt and fall to the side and the safety bar flies open and the kid’s falling down to the base below…
Joe wakes up breathing hard. Automatically he reaches for the bottle on the nightstand and drains the few sips that remain in a single gulp. He eases his head back down on the pillow that’s drenched with his cold sweat and lies there listening to the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.
He wonders if there’s another bottle of something, anything, in the house, but he knows it’s not worth getting up to check. He hasn’t been home long enough to replenish his supply, and he always loads up everything in the liquor cabinet to take with him when it’s time to go back on the road again. Waste not, want not.
Maggie’s still sleeping peacefully by his side, face turned away from him. All he can see in the beam of light coming in through the crack in the shade is her silver hair on the pillow and the dark blue of his shirt enveloping her skinny, bony body. She looks ridiculous and adorable, like she always does when she puts on something of his. The sight calms him, somehow.
It occurs to him suddenly that he could marry her if he wanted to, now that Elaine will soon be out of the picture. Legally, that is. In reality, she’s been out of the picture for nearly a decade.
Wouldn’t that be funny, after all these years? He’s not sure what it would even change if they did, other than trying to share the same trailer every night instead of once every week or two. At this point they’ve been together for so many years that they’re long since past the honeymoon phase. How long has it been now? Six years, seven? Eight? With the exception of his daughter, there’s not a single person in that entire carnival who’s been there long enough to ever know them as separate individuals instead of MaggieandJoe, JoeandMaggie. There’s no one, Joe and Maggie included, who doesn’t think of them as an old married couple.
No, marrying Maggie wouldn’t do a thing except tie her to him so that she couldn’t get loose if she were to ever finally come to her senses and toss him out the way she should have done a long time ago.
He’s told her that more than once since the accident. Other people have told her that. Insurance people, bank people, people from other carnivals … they’ve told her over and over. Get rid of the drunken bum whose negligence helped get that kid killed. And yet she keeps refusing. It can’t just be because she loves him, though he knows she does. No, it’s because for some reason she believes in him. Believes that there’s still something worthwhile in him, something that the booze and the temper hasn’t managed to kill yet.
Well, that’s Maggie, though. Always taking in strays with broken wings.
If he wasn’t such a damned coward he’d take the decision out of her hands. More than once he’s started packing his things, getting ready to sneak away in the middle of the night. Once he even made it a few steps outside of his trailer. He’s not sure he would have gone ahead and left that time if he hadn’t looked in the direction of Cathy’s trailer, but he might have.
Yeah, and he might not. Fact is he didn’t. Fact is he knows perfectly well that if he loses the two people he loves most in the world, he’ll have absolutely nothing left. There won’t be any reason for him to go on at all anymore. Joe knows that, and he knows that Maggie knows it. And that’s why she keeps holding on to him, her favorite and most damaged stray.
Joe sighs. He shakes his head and looks at her with an almost desperate fondness. “You crazy lady,” he whispers, and curls his body around hers. He closes his eyes and tries to will himself back to sleep, tries to ignore the craving for booze.
The housing market is good in Florida, even in a town known to be friendly to carnies. Joe has a firm offer on the house by Thanksgiving and a couple more backup offers if that one falls through. Either way he and Cathy will have to be out of the house by early in the new year at the latest.
Cathy isn’t worried about herself in the least, but she knows how hard this is on her father. She knows he’s only held onto that house as a lifeline all these years, paying off the mortgage bit by bit so that by the time he retires it will be free and clear and he won’t have to worry about not being able to live on his social security. For half the money the house brings it really will have to be a trailer of some sort. Maybe a nice one, though, nicer than the ones they all live in most of the year.
He talks about it a lot, in much less optimistic terms. So much that Maggie tells him to shut up just for the holiday.
They’ve shared almost every Thanksgiving Cathy can remember with Maggie. There are often others there - distant family members, local friends, people from the carnival - and of course in the old days there was Cathy’s mother (until she left) and Maggie’s husband (until he died). The last few years it’s been just the three of them.
They all deny it’s anything to do with Joe sometimes being awful to be around since the accident, but they know it is. Of course it is.
When he’s reminded that it’s supposed to be a day to be thankful for their blessings instead of concentrating on everything that’s wrong, he’s grouchy and says he can’t think of any.
Maggie pinches him under the table. Cathy smiles down at her plate and pretends not to notice the exchange, trying her best not to laugh.
While they’re eating, Maggie casually mentions that she has an idea she wants to run by them. “I want the two of you to move in here, with me,” she says. “At least for the rest of the winter. It’s better than having to rush to make a decision. Next year we’ll have a better idea what’s what.”
They just stare at her, amazed at the offer that’s come out of left field.
She takes another bite of turkey and continues, “I cleaned out that little storage room this week. You know, it’s actually supposed to be a second bedroom. Oh, I know it’s smaller than what you’re used to, Cathy, but ---”
Cathy jumps out of her chair and goes to hug her. “Oh, Maggie, thank you! It doesn’t matter how small it is. You know a good carnie always travels light!”
“And where the hell am I supposed to sleep?” Joe grouses. “That old dog house in the back yard?”
“If you want to,” she says mildly. “Or maybe that old couch in the living room that you’re so fond of. Or you could just be reasonable and share my room with me.”
He scowls and goes back to eating without saying anything. Eventually, he says, “Well, at least lemme think about it.”
The two women exchange a knowing smile, because for Joe that’s a solid agreement.
It’s actually kind of an odd moment for Cathy, a moment of feeling like she’s finally being allowed at the grownups’ table. She doesn’t even know when her father and Maggie crossed the line from being friends to being lovers. It might have been during that awful period when she was nine and Daniel died and her mother left for the first time. Or it could have been a few years later, when she and Joe joined the carnival because they knew Elaine was gone for good. All she knows for sure is that for years they’ve pretended for her sake that they’re just good friends and she’s pretended for their sake that she believes it.
At 22, it’s long past time for the all the pretending to stop.
Living with Maggie is pretty nice.
Really nice, if he’s honest with himself. Better than he expected. Better than he even hoped, really. It’s satisfying the way the three of them meld into one family. Even more of a family, that is.
It’s nice to eat together and watch TV together in the evenings. It’s nice to go to bed with Maggie afterwards, to watch the familiar routine she goes through every night as she gets ready for bed. The way she brushes her short hair in just a few quick strokes but takes ten minutes to rub in her hand lotion. The way she keeps her pajamas neatly folded under her pillow. The almost mechanical way she applies face cream, almost as if she can’t be bothered to use it at all.
He’s seen all of it before often enough, but he never knew it was such an absolutely unvarying routine. She’s so flexible in her everyday life, so quick to deal with anything that comes up, that this side of her provides an interesting contrast.
Even their sex life is better without the problem of having to decide who’s going to spend the night and when.
There has to be a downside, of course. In Joe’s experience there’s always a downside.
Objectively, it’s probably good that he doesn’t have anywhere near as much opportunity to drink as he does when he’s alone, but it doesn’t feel that way to him. He feels they’re always watching him. One or both of them, disapproving or grieving with every sip he takes. So… he drinks less.
The more sober he is, the more the dreams plague him. Oddly enough, when he’s sharing Maggie’s bed he finds it possible to sleep again afterwards. Even without taking a drink.
1965 gets off to a lousy start.
In January, Joe finds out what Maggie’s been hiding from him all winter. At least “hiding” is the word he uses. She just points out that she hasn’t bothered to mention it and if he’d given it the least bit of thought…
And it’s irritating because it’s absolutely true. He should have been smart enough to realize that during the winter when they technically have no income, it’s harder to keep up with the payments to the bank. Payments on the judgement against them because of the accident he caused.
He can’t even assuage his guilt by offering her money that she wouldn’t accept. His savings account is in Cathy’s name, and the money from the house is still tied up. All he has is a few hundred dollars in cash to help out with bills and pay his bar tab.
He adds a little more to his bar tab that night, and stumbles back to Maggie’s place near daylight. He’s hurt to find that she hasn’t waited up for him and annoyed to find that she isn’t furious with him.
“What’s wrong with you, Maggie?” he demands. “You deserve better than this.”
She just gives him that raised-eyebrow, somewhat condescending look she gives all her employees at one time or another, and says, “Yes, I do. And so do you.”
In February, Joe goes to his divorce hearing, an AA meeting, and jail. All in one day.
He expects to have no reaction to Elaine other than contempt. He’s grown so used to thinking of her as a fanged harpy that it catches him off-guard when he walks into the courthouse and sees only the woman he loved for many years. He looks at her and recognizes Cathy in her face, and the good times start to come back to him after all this time.
They exchange pleasantries before the hearing, and behave like civilized adults during. He doesn’t bring up her infidelities and she doesn’t bring up his drinking. Their only child is over 21 and therefore irrelevant to the case. The judge barely glances at the brief and grants them their freedom in a bored voice.
Afterwards, they share one last lunch together at the diner across the street from the courthouse.
They mostly talk about Cathy. Joe tells Elaine about the oily singer who may or may not be her boyfriend and who may or may not come back to the carnival in the spring. Elaine starts to tell Joe how much she regrets not being there for her, then she stops.
“Truth is, Joe, I’m glad I wasn’t there to be an example to her. I’d hate her to turn out like I was for a few years there.” She smiles suddenly. “Besides, you know perfectly well that even when Cathy was little, Maggie was a better mother to her than I was.”
He says nothing, because it would be crass to agree with her. Not that he minds being crass occasionally, but he doesn’t want an argument with her, not now.
“You know, it’s funny,” she continues. “I always figured when you decided to go to work for Maggie that the two of you would eventually get together.”
“How do you figure that?”
“I don’t know. For Cathy’s sake, maybe, or maybe because she’s your best friend’s widow.”
The logic is so ridiculous that it gives the game away. “Or maybe because I’m helpless and Maggie loves to take care of people?”
Elaine has the good grace to be embarrassed, looking down at her coffee cup to try and hide her expression, just the way Cathy does. “I don’t know that I’d go that far,” she says.
For some reason he believes that she actually means it, and it touches him as much as it surprises him. “Well,” is all he says.
She begins to talk of her fiance, and that surprises him even more. He does have a lot of money, she admits, but all she talks about is what a good man he is, how kind and gentle and understanding.
There’s a part of Joe that wants to be glad that she’s found someone she apparently loves, but he’s been so used to giving his cynical side free rein that he wonders just how genuine it all is. He’ll give Cathy the face value version of the story, though. He hasn’t said much good about her mother over the years and he figures she deserves it, whether Elaine does or not.
As they’re going their separate ways, possibly for the last time, he admits that he and Maggie are living together. Elaine laughs and says, “I knew it!” He feels generous and lets her have that last word. They part on surprisingly good terms.
He wonders the downtown streets for awhile, wanting to go home and yet not wanting to at the same time. Likewise, he wants a drink and yet he doesn’t.
On a lamppost outside a bar, there’s a handwritten notice about a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that night. What the hell, he thinks. They haven’t really done him much good before, but this is a day for fresh starts.
And fights, as it turns out.
He tells the group of strangers about his divorce and they’re properly sympathetic. He tells them about his odd apathy towards booze tonight and they’re properly encouraging. He tells them that what he’d really like to do is find some way to cut down some without quitting, and they’re properly horrified.
They argue with him and he argues back. He decks the guy who calls him a delusional crackpot and somebody calls the police.
When Maggie comes to bail him out, she laughs. Sore, he demands to know what’s so damn funny. “I don’t think I’d call you delusional,” she tells him.
“Yeah, ha ha.”
Joe’s in a good mood after making love.
“Do you realize,” he says, “that this is the first time we’ve ever been together when we’re not technically adulterers?”
“Well,” says Maggie, who hasn’t actually thought about it. “I suppose that’s right. I didn’t notice much difference, though, I must say.”
“Nah. Not really.”
They both settle back, ready to sleep.
Without warning, he says something that jolts her back to full wakefulness. “Suppose we could even get married now if you wanted to.”
She lies there in shock, no idea how to even begin to respond to that statement. She doesn’t even know what to make of it. Judging by the tone it’s clearly not a proposal, but it doesn’t sound that much like an idle thought, either. Has he actually been thinking about this? In all these years it’s the first time the subject of marriage has been brought up by either of them.
“Do you want to?” she asks finally, carefully.
“I dunno. Do you?”
“Honestly, Joe, I really couldn’t say.”
He gives a sleepy chuckle. “Yeah. Same here.”
Within minutes he’s snoring. She lies there next to him and thinks about the possibility, but comes up with no more definite answers than before.
The unfairness of it all is staggering. She’d have married the old Joe in a heartbeat if that had been an option for them. She’s always understood his reasons for not divorcing Elaine years ago, the threat of alimony he’d never be able to pay and the all too real threat of losing custody of Cathy if he’d messed around too much with their unofficial arrangement.
And now suddenly it is a viable option and she’s not sure whether or not she’ll ever see the old Joe again.
Oh, she catches glimpses of him now and then in between the bouts of self-pity and grouchiness. Strangely enough, now that they’re sharing living quarters the glimpses are more common than they have been in the last couple of years, even considering he has more reason than usual to be negative. Maggie, an incurable optimist if there ever was one, desperately wants to see this as a sign that he’s getting better and that one day she’ll have the old Joe back again. It’s just that the realist in her can’t quite manage to believe it. Not yet.
The romantic in her misses the man she fell in love with, misses the man who’s been one of her dearest friends for almost twenty years. Oh, he’s always had a bit of the curmudgeon in him, and he’s always been a bit too fond of the booze, but he used to laugh and smile and joke around, and he used to be there to help out anyone who needed it. He used to be one of the best listeners she ever met. There’s still a lot of tenderness in Joe, but these days it’s harder even for the people who really know him to see, and nearly impossible for anyone else.
The savior in her, that part of Maggie that leads her to “collect strays” as so many people call it, wants to see the end of all that bitterness and self-hatred he’s carrying around. And yes, she wants it for her sake and for Cathy’s sake, but most of all she wants it for Joe’s sake. She wants him whole and happy again, no matter what.
Spring comes and they get ready to hit the road again. Inevitably, some of the people from last year are gone, replaced by brand new recruits or even experienced carnies they haven’t seen in a few years.
Charlie, their singer, their ace in the hole, is still performing at some nightclub in California. He still claims he’ll join them later on, and Joe still has his doubts. Part of him hopes that he does, because there’s no question he brings in paying customers, and part of him hopes that they never seen him again. He doesn’t want Cathy to get her heart broken by anyone, especially a greasy-haired idiot on a motorcycle.
Still, they don’t need him at all right now. The springtime is always their best season. They get one- or even sometimes two-day bookings at schools for the end of the year festivities. People who have been cooped up in their homes all winter long are so happy to be out and about and having fun again that they flock to any carnival in droves, even a small one like Morgan Shows.
In the summer, when there’s no shortage of entertainment around, that’s when things start to get a little tough. That’s when the guys from the bank start coming around again, demanding those payments that Maggie sometimes just can’t make.
The summer is when Joe starts worrying seriously. It’s when Maggie starts worrying seriously, too, but she usually won’t let on.
Now that he’s in his own trailer and she’s spending most of her nights in the trailer that functions as an office, she can hide her worries better and he can hide his drinking better. Neither one of them can hide it completely, though, at least not from the other.
And of course even the strongest person has moments when they just go to pieces for a little while, even Maggie. They’re rare, for her, but they do happen.
One of them happens on the last day of June, when someone shows up from the bank to find a nearly-empty midway and a vendor who is making trouble about his invoice. The two argue with each other about which debt has priority, and Maggie argues with both of them, insisting they’ll both get their money as long as the carnival can just be allowed to stay open.
Joe arrives on scene just as she’s rubbing her head with the beginning of a bad headache. He puts his hand on her shoulder protectively and tells her that she’s needed urgently in the office. Then he tells the vendor to go pee up a rope and he’ll see his money when he sees it.
The banker tries to hide a grin at that. For that matter he even tries (not with any notable success) to hide his personal disdain for Joe. It’s been one of the major sticking points since the lawsuit. They might not come after Maggie quite so aggressively if only she didn’t insist on keeping around the man who caused the accident in the first place. But this time Joe keeps his temper, he’s not hung over, and he’s had surprisingly little to drink. And the conversation between the two men is the most civilized it’s ever been.
Afterwards he goes back to the office and finds Maggie lying down in the darkened bedroom, damp cloth over her eyes.
“Feel any better?” he asks, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Not a lot,” she admits. “But I’d feel worse if you hadn’t come in when you did. How’d it go?”
She sits up and switches on the light, putting the washcloth on the nightstand. “Thank you,” she says, and moves in close to put her arms around him. Joe holds her and for a long time neither of them makes a sound.
“This is nice,” she says finally. “Feels good. I think this may be the number one reason I keep you around.”
“Oh, really? And here I always thought it was because I’m big and strong enough to do anything that needs doing around here, and weak and needy enough to satisfy your protective instinct. Either that or I’m exceptionally good in bed.”
Maggie leans back and pushes away from him, stung by the joke. “Joe Lean, don’t you ever say anything like that to me again.”
He blinks in surprise. “What? It was a joke, Maggie.”
“Well, I don’t like jokes like that. You honestly think I don’t hear what gets said around here? Let me tell you, I hear everything, and I’ve heard that one a million times. I know people say you’re like some sort of wounded stray that I keep on trying to fix, no matter what the odds. And I know they paint me as some kind of sex-obsessed old broad who’s so desperate for a man she’ll put up with anything. I can’t stop what anybody else wants to say, but I won’t put up with it from you.
“You’re a good man. You’ve always been a good man, as long as I’ve known you. It might be easier to kick you out, but I don’t want to. You’re worth keeping around.” She huffs for a few moments longer, then adds one more barb. “And it’s not because you’re all that great in bed, either, you old goat, because you’re not.”
Joe lets out a roar of laughter. “Well, you’re not all that great yourself, ya old bag o’bones.”
Sometimes Maggie dreads opening the mail. The monthly invoice from the bank is the worst. That bottom line, the amount they still owe, just never seems to get much smaller. So when she opens up the envelope and sees “Total amount owed: $0.00” and “Paid in Full”, she can’t believe her eyes.
She knows it has to be a mistake, so the first thing she does is call the bank and ask them. She goes through the whole roster of bankers, each one more senior than the other, each one confirming that the debt is paid. The last has the information that payment was made six days earlier via a cashier’s check from a Florida bank.
She knows then what’s happened.
That damn fool has paid out most of his share of the sale of his house, and taken the millstone from around their necks. Joe has exchanged his future for Maggie’s present, and she doesn’t know quite how to take it.
For a long time she sits there stunned, until someone comes into the office with something that requires her attention.
Around lunchtime, she notices that there’s very little business at the dart stall where Joe is working. She heads over with three corn dogs in hand and offers him two of them. “Lunch break,” she says. “I need to have a word with you, Joe.”
They sit on the counter, facing one another.
“So what’s up?”
“You’ve gone crazy, that’s what’s up. I still don’t know whether I want to kiss you or kill you.”
He stares at her. “Do you have some pressing need to do either one?” he asks gruffly.
“Joe, the invoice from the bank arrived this morning.”
“Oh.” He concentrates on his lunch and has nothing else to say.
When she’s had enough, Maggie says, “What did you think you were doing? Where are you planning to live next winter?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me. And if you think I’m just going to automatically let you move back in with me, you can just…” She trails off, shaking her head. She looks away from him. It’s surprisingly hard not to just burst into tears, even though she’s not really much of a cryer.
Joe finishes up the second corn dog and throws the sticks in the dirt. He reaches out and takes Maggie in his arms and holds her, comforting her. One of the riders from the Wall of Death walks by and smirks at the unexpected sight and Joe glares at him until he turns his head and goes on about his business.
“You should never have done that,” she tells him.
He shakes his head. “No. I should have done it a long time ago,” he says. “If I’d done this right from the start then maybe I never would have… I dunno.”
Maggie knows, though. He thinks that if he’d just stepped up and taken responsibility, that he’d never have hit bottom as hard as he did. Who knows? There might be some truth to it at that. She doesn’t like thinking that maybe her overwhelming urge to protect him might have played a part in his fall. Joe’s the independent sort, always has been. Maybe he’ll be a lot better off now that he’s made the move to stand on his own two feet.
He interrupts her thoughts with a statement that seems unnervingly close to mind-reading. “Don’t think this means that I’m magically gonna be all better after this.”
“I think you’re better enough,” she says fervently. “I think you’re wonderful. Maybe you don’t let a lot of people see it, but you are, deep down.”
“And I think you’re crazy, deep down,” he says, but the expression on his face belies the insult. He doesn’t often tell her that he loves her, especially when he’s sober, but at this moment she can see it in his eyes, clear as can be.
Completely without premeditation, she hears herself saying, “A few months back, you said something about how we were free to get married if we wanted to."
“And I was just thinking, if you were to get down on one knee and give me a proper proposal, I’d probably say yes.”
“Woman, the shape these knees are in, if I got down on one of them I’d never get up again. So if you won’t marry me without me getting down in the goddamn dirt, you can just forget all about it.”
She lets out a snort. “Alright. We can forget about that part of it. But I still want a real proposal.”
“In the middle of a dirty midway?”
“Wherever,” she says. “Whenever. Surprise me.”
A slow grin creeps across his face, making him look so much like the Joe she used to know that her heart skips a beat. Just for the moment, there’s hardly a trace of the bitter, cynical man of the last couple of years. “I just might do that,” he tells her.
Maggie gets her proposal in the middle of a country lane in Kansas, a few miles from where the carnival is set up.
As is their habit sometimes, they make a trip into town for the Sunday papers. On the way back Joe takes the scenic route, and stops the jeep in the middle of nowhere.
He looks down at his hands on resting on the steering wheel. “Not a thing,” he says, and doesn’t add, “Yet.”
He invites her to take a walk with him. They walk along arm in arm for a long time, their silence the comfortable silence of longtime companions. At long last, he stops and pulls her around to face him. “Maggie, you know what you’d be taking on, right? The risk you’d be taking with me?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And you’re willing to face that? No matter what happens?”
“I’ve always been willing to face that with you, Joe.”
He smiles at her, one of those rare, genuine smiles that used to not be all that rare at all. “Yeah, I know. Look, Maggie, I may not be Daniel, but ---”
“I don’t want Daniel,” she interrupts. “Daniel’s gone. I loved him, but I buried my dead a long time ago, and I kept right on living.”
“That’s what I’ve always loved about you,” he says, and she feels herself go weak in the knees at the words. “No matter how bad things get, you just pick yourself up and get on with your life. You’re strong, Maggie. You make people stronger just by being around you. You make me stronger. You’re the only reason --- ah, hell, I’m messing this up.”
Maggie takes his shaking hand in hers and gazes up at him. “No, you’re not. Just say what you want, Joe. Right from the heart.”
“You know what I want,” he says roughly.
“I know. But I want you to tell me.”
He clasps her hand like a lifeline, bringing it up against his cheek. “You deserve the best man in the world,” he tells her. “But if you really think I won’t ruin your whole life, then I want you to spend that life with me.”
She leans against him and whispers, “But that’s what I’ve always wanted.”
It doesn’t turn out to be the fairy tale happily ever after (neither of them ever believed in fairy tales, anyway), but it’s happily ever after enough.
They go on spending most of the year on the road and wintering in Florida. Joe goes on drinking (though never as much, or as desperately, as at his lowest point) and Maggie goes on collecting strays.
Their carnival, like their relationship, endures. It grows creakier and a little shabbier, but it holds together until they decide to sell out and retire to spend some time with their grandchildren.
They have rough patches and smooth patches over the years, but they have no regrets.