She's always laughing. That's the thing he notices, first off. And later, the thing he doesn't let himself remember.
He meets Bea - Beatrice - at a church social. He's standing on his own, feeling stiff and awkward in his new uniform. Most of the other guys have been living it up since they enlisted, enjoying the notoriety that comes with being heroes. (They're heroes just for signing up, before they even embark for overseas, or that's the way most people see it.) But the scratchy, starchy weight of the material feels all wrong on him, making him feel like a little boy dressing up in his father's suit, and he doesn't know how to play the role people seem to expect.
He's out at the edge of the crowd when he catches sight of her. She's pouring a glass of lemonade for Ben Swinbank, and just as his eye falls on her someone makes a joke and she throws back her head and laughs, a rich, throaty laugh that makes other people join in. He must have seen her before - their town's large, but not that large - but if he has he doesn't remember. Chances are, the last time they met she was a flat-chested middle schooler and he was a gawky sophomore more interested in making the basketball team than in talking to girls, especially girls two years younger than him.
Now, though, he's definitely noticing her. She's wearing a blue sundress, her breasts high and perfect underneath the embroidered fabric, and she's laughing her heart out completely unselfconsciously. He still feels shy and awkward, but he's wearing the uniform of a hero, and he can't miss the chance to talk to a girl like that.
When he plucks up the courage to ask her to dance, she looks him up and down and laughs again. Then she takes his hand and leads him out onto the dance floor.
He's sent overseas not long after, but the war doesn't last more than a few months longer. He sees enough of it to know to be glad of that.
When he makes it home, he looks her up again, and they start dating pretty regularly: polite church socials and freer, more exciting trips to the movies and - once he makes enough money for a truck of his own - further afield. Whatever the date, it invariably ends the same way: the two of them standing breathless in the shadows at the end of her road. She presses her body up tight against his, and his heart jumps with excitement and with the slight fear of getting caught.
One night he slides his hand up from where it rests on her waist, working his fingers under her blouse to feel warm, soft skin. Her breath comes faster, and he works his way up a little further, pressing his hand briefly against the warm swell of her breast before she pulls away and says, "Nuh-uh, Mister. You want those kinds of privileges, you better have a marriage proposal in mind."
She laughs her full-bodied laugh at the expression on his face and dances off down the street, disappearing into the shadows of her own front porch before he has a chance to close his mouth.
Within three months he's bought her a ring - gold, with a creamy pearl that matches the richness of her skin - and within six he's earned the promotion her father insists on before he'll give his consent to their marriage.
On their wedding night, he undoes the lacy bodice of her nightgown, hardly believing the weight and softness of her breast in his hand. They neither of them really know what to do, fumbling inexpertly at each other, dry-mouthed and terrified, until she catches his eye and they both dissolve into laughter. Within a year she births their first child - a boy, dark-eyed and beautiful - and two more follow. Another boy, Edward, only a year after the first, and then their girl Michelle four years after him - a long enough space that they'd both started to worry, a little.
He makes another two promotions, earning enough to let them move to a bigger house, a nicer one. Bea picks out new carpets, a thick, lush pile that she likes to sink bare toes into. As a surprise, he buys her a new vacuum cleaner to go with it, and she throws her head back and laughs in delight.
"Maybe you can even try this one out," she says, and to please her he does, surprised at the heft and weight of the thing under his hands.
When George - their oldest boy - gets sick, there's plenty of money to pay the medical bills. It doesn't even occur to him to worry until the night he comes home to find Beatrice flushed and feverish, the telltale red rash of measles spreading up her chest. He helps her to bed, but within hours she's weak and incoherent, bedclothes soaked through with sweat, and within the week she's dead.
"I lost my wife," he tells people in the months and years that follow. Time and again the same words, when he has to meet a new teacher at a parent-teacher conference, or explain why it is that he takes the kids to the church socials alone. "I lost my wife," and it never stops feeling like that: like she's just lost, dropped out of their lives with sudden, aching completeness.
The day of the funeral dawns hot and bright, the sky obscenely blue, and he can't take it in. His boys cry when the coffin's lowered into the ground - soft, bewildered tears that stream down their faces unchecked until their grandmother gathers them to her, muffling their sobs in her embrace.
Michelle doesn't cry. She just looks on, face set and angry. When everyone else has filed away from the grave he looks up to find her still standing there, her fists balled furiously at her sides.
She wears that same stance the day she starts school. He takes her to the door, kissing her goodbye like he imagines Bea would have done; waits for her nod that says she's okay. But when he looks back he sees her standing by the door, her little-girl legs thin and fragile-looking in their white bobby socks and her fists clenched by her sides. He moves to go back, thinking to reassure her somehow, but as he does she lifts her chin, high and proud, and marches into the building.
"You could marry again," his mother says mildly. She's got her back to him, hands busy, pouring out iced tea into the long glasses she's had as long as he can remember. "That girl needs a mother."
"Her grades are good," he objects. "She's smarter than both the boys put together."
His mother harrumphs and hands him a glass. "There's more things than grades," she says. "Think what Bea was like."
He mumbles something in reply and takes a long drink of the tea, because he doesn't know how to say what he's thinking. He does think of Bea, far too much to think of marrying again, but it doesn't help him make sense of his daughter. Truth is, his mother's right about Michelle, because he doesn't know what to do with her at all. She's smart and funny - has that same whole-hearted, surprising laugh that Bea did - but she doesn't talk to him, not really, and he doesn't know how to make her.
Michelle's sixteenth birthday, his mother holds a party for her: cake and lemonade and three of her friends invited. The kids sit formally around his mother's dining table with the family, smile yes sir, and no thank you and behave as perfect as can be.
As soon as the meal's over, Michelle kisses her grandmother, saying "Thanks, Gram. You mind if we go out a little while?"
The four girls are gone almost before the assent is out of his mother's mouth, and it's late that night before Michelle returns. Her laughing voice sounds from outside and he gets up from the bed where he's been lying sleepless and shuffles over to the window. He's just in time to see her being decanted from a car full of rowdy-looking youths - stealing a last drag from a cigarette before she glances regretfully up at the house and grinds it under her heel.
She sneaks quietly into the house, and he lets her do it: can't face the alternative. For the rest of the night he lies awake, wondering what Bea would have thought of her only daughter staying out all hours in the company of strange boys.
In the morning, Michelle's late to breakfast, drifting in bleary-eyed wearing a pair of jeans he doesn't remember agreeing she could buy.
"You were out late last night," he observes.
Michelle picks at the bagel on her plate, pulling out the raisins and lining them up alongside her knife. "Not that late."
"Too late," he insists. "I won't have it, Michelle."
"Sorry," she says, chin lifting with that characteristic defiant anger before she looks down again, shoves her chair back and flounces out.
It does happen again, and maybe his mother was right about him needing a wife, because he's got no notion of what to do about it. When he tries to talk to Michelle she just ignores him, or - more and more - flares up into incandescent rage that he can't help but meet with fury.
The summer after Edward leaves for college, they reach an uneasy truce. They skirt round each other, speaking only when necessary. Sometimes, sitting at the silent dinner table, he feels the words rise up in his mouth so thick they almost choke him, but he doesn't know how to start.
He comes home early one day, desperate for a cold beer after the day's oppressive heat. The house should be empty, but when he pushes the screen door open he hears creaking overheard, then the murmuring rise and fall of voices. He ascends the stairs with heavy footfalls, already knowing what he'll find, but it's still a shock when he pushes open Michelle's door to find her half-naked on the bed, rutting up against a boy with long hair.
He makes an inarticulate sound and the two spring apart, snatching up their tossed-aside shirts. Michelle's breast is the exact cream of Bea's, the pink glimpse of her nipple in the split-second before she crumples her blue blouse to her chest enough to send him raging across the room. He hauls the boy up and off the bed, too caught up in his fury to do more than register that the kid's familiar - one of the Hoopers, he thinks - before he flings him out into the hallway and slams the door.
Michelle's pulled on her blouse when he turns back, covering her nakedness. She listens stony-faced as he pours out his rage, made vitriolic by shock and grief.
"You won't behave like a little whore under my roof," he spits out, and her chin comes up.
"Fine," she snaps, surging up off the bed to grab a bag from the hook on the back of her door. She throws things into it with quick, angry movements - clothes and shoes jumbled up with favorite books and the make-up he hates her wearing.
When she's done she marches to the door. She pauses with her hand on the knob and says, "Don't come looking for me."
His heart clenches, and he opens his mouth to apologize, beg her to stay. Instead he hears himself say, "Don't come back unless you're prepared to behave like a decent woman."
She doesn't slam the door behind her.
When people ask, he feels the urge to tell them, "I lost my daughter", the same way he answers when they ask about Bea. Michelle's not dead, though, so instead he meets questions with silence or - when pressed - terse replies. Eventually people stop asking.
Seven years after Michelle leaves, her old Sunday school teacher stops him in the street, says, "I hear congratulations are in order." He barely has a chance to formulate a reply before she smiles maliciously and says, "Your first grandchild - you must be so proud. I hope Michelle's doing well."
He mutters some platitude in response and she sails on by. Bea never did like the woman, he recalls.
When he gets home he sits by the phone for a long time, turning the card with her number on it over and over. Finally he lifts the receiver, breath tight in his chest while he listens to the phone ring.
A man's voice answers, and he stumbles over his words before he manges to ask for Michelle.
"Who is it, John?" he hears her ask in the background.
"May I ask who's calling?" the man - John - says, formal and polite.
"It's - I'm her father," he gets out, and there's a short pause before he hears the phone being handed over.
"Daddy?" Michelle says, somewhere between excited and incredulous.
"Michelle," he says heavily, and then there's a long silence before he manages to speak again. "I heard you had a baby."
"I did," she admits, wary.
"Is he - I mean, a boy or a girl?"
"A boy," she says, voice dissolving into fondness. "And he's doing just fine. He's beautiful."
"Well, that's great, honey," he says, and for a second it all seems right between them. "Congratulations."
There's another short silence before he asks, "So when did you get married?"
"I'm not married." Her voice is flat, unyielding.
"But - " he starts, confused. "I thought... John..."
"He's not my husband," she snaps, defensive now. "He's not even Jack's father."
"Michelle - " He hesitates, not sure what to say.
"We're doing fine," she says with finality.
"Right." There doesn't seem to be anything else to say, or at least he doesn't know how to say it. Bea would have known, he thinks.
Finally Michelle says, "Goodbye, Daddy." She hangs up before he can reply.
The wedding announcement is printed on thick, cream paper, the date and place picked out in bold black type. The service isn't in a church but a JP's office, he notices. He sticks it up next to the clock in the kitchen, looks at it every day and thinks about his own wedding day, the way Bea had looked in the frothy lace she'd been so proud of.
When the day arrives, he puts on his best suit, sits in the kitchen smoothing the paper over and over. It's not an invitation, though, and he doesn't go.
Once or twice he does try calling, but the first couple of times he only gets as far as dialing the number before he hangs up. The last time, someone actually answers, but when he asks for Michelle they tell him she's moved on, and that's that. He guesses someone roundabouts would know her number, but he doesn't ask, and nobody volunteers the information.
He's fixing himself a tuna salad sandwich, struggling to open the can of tuna, when the porch opens and he turns to find a woman standing in the doorway. She's lean and rangy, face lined with grief and with laughter, and it takes him a long moment to recognize her.
"Michelle?" he says, disbelieving, and she says, "Hello, Daddy," looking almost as shocked as he feels.
Her eyes go to his swollen hands, their painful grip on the can opener, and she sets the books she's carrying on the table and takes it out of his hands. She opens the can and makes the salad with swift, efficient movements, adding a little onion to the mix just the way Bea always did.
"Why are you here?" he asks when she sets the sandwich before him.
Her chin goes up and he regrets the words, but then she picks up one of the books from the table and takes the seat next to him.
"I had a visit yesterday," she says inscrutably. "From my friend's boys."
He waits for more, but she doesn't seem inclined to offer any explanation, just stares into space for a moment, then gives herself a little shake and opens the book to the first page.
She points to a photograph of a tiny, wrinkled baby. "This is my son, Jack, just after he was born."
"My grandson." He reaches out to touch the photo. "He's got your momma's eyes."
"Really?" she asks softly. "I don't remember." She turns the page. "This is his first birthday party..."
She talks him through the whole album, finishing up with graduation pictures, her son tall and lively-looking in his purple cap and gown. "He's at college now," she tells him. "He's real smart."
He clears his throat. "Takes after his mother."
She smiles then, a quick, pleased flash that disappears almost as soon as it appears.
After a while he gets slowly to his feet, limping into the sitting room. When he comes back to the kitchen she's hovering by the door, on the verge of leaving.
"Sit down," he tells her, and sets the box of photographs on the table. He lowers himself into his chair and takes out the first picture.
"This is your momma on the day we met," he tells her. "She was always laughing. Reminds me of you."
She doesn't reply, but when he looks over she's smiling. He smiles back, reaches out to put his hand over hers, and holds on tight.