"I was just thinking the moon's to blame, Ms. Ryan."
Cut odds. She'll smile now, when she turns towards you? Or not?
Call it eight to five against.
"What? What did you say?"
"This Carolina moon. Its opalescence, above the pale water."
And now she is turning. Towards this cipher that you must seem to her. Not quite looking at you yet. But smiling? Well, at least laughing. At you? Probably, but
but that makes it imperative not to give up. Push on, get it filled: this prescription for heartache.
Laughing beautifully: "Did you actually say `opalescence?'"
"Uh-huh. Or `oboe lessons.' I forget which. Whatever brought you out into this twilight -- taking you away from the festivities."
And you'll probably remember all this for a long time -- each step she's taking, sort of circling you, sighing: "I know who you are. You're a friend of Cooper's friend, Conn."
"Uh, actually, Conn's a friend of Cooper's friend, me."
And now she finally is smiling. "I think I need to meet him. He charters boats, doesn't he?"
Easy! Don't hang fire. Don't fumble it.
Take the neutral line: "Uh-huh. Among other things."
"Oh, other things? Other interesting things?"
"I guess so, if you're interested in those kinds of things."
"Actually, he seems interesting himself. What's he like? I mean, he's a professional boat captain, isn't he?"
"Conn? I guess you could say he's a professional dropout."
"Dropout? Dropout from what?"
"What've you got going?" `
Laughing again as she glances beyond you -- towards the pale moon ascending above the darkening water. And behind, the sun has just set into St. Helena Sound, ending a breathless afternoon at the end of October. Summer's magic dying hard. With its back to the goal line, it hasn't yet heard the fat lady sing. And these lingering autumn hours can make one forget that winter's first blast may come with only a Pearl Harbor forewarning.
And so you watch her, smiling now into the breeze off the water. "They were talking about you inside. They say you're addicted to number theory."
And you can grab that. You agree. "Yes. Absolutely hooked."
So that was to have been your trump card. "Tall, dark, but handsome doesn't cut it," was how Cooper had described her. "If you like them brainy, she's a math fanatic, the best kind -- with Juliette Lewis's legs and Isaac Newton's calculus."
So an intellectual. So maybe in the realm of possibilities. Even for a chronic loser like yourself.
Cooper had been waving Conn over: a dark-haired James Dean crossed with Chet Baker, the Apache version. Women's pet to caress while they adored that lost-soul wildness.
Conn, always smiling, half-smiling -- non-smiling smiling: "You saw her first, buddy."
Your laugh came out too harsh. "You saw her first, Conn."
"Maybe, but she's out of my galaxy. Go talk to her, Wolf Boy."
Conn's slit eyes -- unreadable. And Cooper, long and lanky, lifting his glass to you.
"Going to take some air?"
"Yeah. See you in a minute, Cooper."
"Not if your wolf thrives, you won't."
When you turned back, he said, "I mean, not if your stars smile, you won't."
And now out here under this fierce perilous moon rising over the shark- gray sea she's actually saying, "I've been reading up a little on the beta function."
"Nice -- very nice, Ms. Ryan. But the gamma function trumps the beta function any day.
"Or night." You add.
She seems to be regarding you seriously. "You worked out a new approach to the Riemann zeta hypothesis? About the non-trivial zeros?"
"Uh-huh, that was a lot of fun. Also a compact proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, using infinite descent. Only, the margin of the book I was scribbling it in was too narrow."
And the wolf seems on high now, riding triumphant above the bone-white moon. Because suddenly she's almost touching you. "Now I'm sure you're not serious."
"Please don't think that. I'm delirious-serious. Why d'you think I'm cracking wise like this, except to cover up how scared I am? Am I right to be scared?"
"I don't know. Something Cooper told me, about you and Conn. Is it true?"
"No. No way. Not anything Cooper says."
"That Conn takes all your girls from you."
Chill now. Make it as stoic as it hurts: "Not all of them. Only the ones he wants. And just in my unlucky season."
"Which one is that?"
"Fall through summer."
Smiling with you now, but uncertainly: "And yet you're still friends?"
"We were friends before the womb. My mother and his mother were best friends."
"Good evening, Mr. Macy," she said suddenly, raising her voice.
A man had come down the lawn from the veranda -- an extremely tall, thin elderly gentlemen in an elegantly tailored suit -- stooping so far forward as he walked that all his energy and vitality seemed spent not so much in propelling him on his way as in holding gravity back from toppling him too far ahead. He stopped, startled.
"Yes. Good evening, Mr. Macy," she said in the same loud voice.
"Oh my. You're out here now, Miss Ryan?"
"Yes, sir -- as you see."
"Yes, yes, of course. But shouldn't you be in at the party?"
"Oh, Mr. Macy, I don't know a soul at this party. Except this gentleman here."
"This gentleman here?"
"You know him?"
"So, you know him then?"
"Oh yes, I know him."
"You see, so you do know someone here. You know our young genius, Lieutenant Wyatt."
"Yes, I know him, just didn't know he was a genius, let alone a lieutenant."
"But you do know him."
"Oh yes, I should say so."
"So you know someone. You know someone at the party?"
"So how do you do?" Turning your way.
"Just fine. A full moon, Mr. Macy."
"Full moon? Now? Where? Which way?"
"That way, Mr. Macy."
"Oh, yes." Smiling, looking the other way -- out towards the Sound to the southwest. "Splendid. But then you two really should participate in the party."
"Oh, we participate," the girl said. "The lieutenant and I participate a lot."
"You see, then you are participating. You're participating with the lieutenant here."
"Oh, yes -- we're participating hard. We participate with a vengeance."
"So you do participate. You participate with him."
"Oh yes -- no doubt at all, Mr. Macy."
Suddenly glancing at you, her eyes bright but with all the glee suppressed: quick-glancing eyes with a look that just grazes past yours.
"Well, have a good evening. I'll leave you young folks to participate."
And he wandered farther down the lawn, towards the beach.
"He's so famous," the girl says. "He still has that."
"And you? So you're a lieutenant? Army? Air?"
"Navy. In the reserves, at the moment."
"But you know boats."
"Can I say something abrupt?"
"Please. I like abrupt."
"For your ears only. The night could have spies."
Then bending towards you, her perfume as soft as her whispered words, and you know already how lost you are as finally she moves back away from you: "So the area's, gray. Do you mind gray?"
He who hesitates is lost. And you've already hesitated, so you've lost. You just lost it once more, once again.
"I'm not sure. I usually like black and white."
"That's what I suspected."
The wolf far down the beach now -- out of sight, beyond the wind
Conn was standing higher up the slope -- on the veranda. He could see the girl clearly, and he thought that she was actually watching him now. And the elderly gentleman was coming back up the slope, tottering towards the veranda.
Then suddenly toppling at the bottom step -- Wyatt loping, over, moving quickly to where the old gentlemen was kneeling, trembling on one knee and supporting himself with his left hand.
Conn didn't budge, didn't move to assist -- not even opening the door for this really old guy that Wyatt was helping into the house.
And the girl wasn't coming inside with them.
So it only took a few steps to walk out onto the lawn, following her down towards the water. Knowing that in a moment she'd turn, their eyes meeting -- thought pulsations crossing and locking in a standing wave pattern.
Both going glacial. Even to budge could kill what was hanging there between: a fragile web -- waves of hormone witchery seeming to cross and lock.
And now, as she turns away again, almost contemptuously, continuing on down towards the beach, his course will be parallel -- only slowly converging until at the water's edge there will still be still three meters of sandy separation.
Not speaking at first, whatever it was building up, drifting in from the evening.
In the softness of the night, in the half-silent half-dimness.
"I know who you are. You're Cooper's, and Wyatt's, friend."
Wyatt had come back to the top of the lawn, looking down -- a good darkened football field away. Thinking: Why didn't he make it work? Spend tomorrow with her, ordering steak, wine and salad -- talking about fractals or the digamma function.
Living in the same town, held by a thread as strong as spider's magic.
He could see moonlight churning in the swirling curves of the surf.
Her hands cupping some of the bright water, raising it to the darkness of her face.
His eyes trying to find hers -- in his mind's eye; but they're gone for good now. She's taking them away as in a `50s movie as she walks on down the beach.
As if disaster were already stale news: the bombed-out cities and blasted streets, the crumbling skyscrapers, deserted highways; toxic sky, poisoned earth and the ruined nation.
Watching her follow his best friend into the shadows of the pier, taking that face away that already he can hardly remember.
And all the air gone -- ripped from the night. The wolf convulsing, struggling to breathe, its eyes staring, burning out like stars.
Conn, walking beside her out past the boat house. But never touching. Neither of them touching or speaking as they went on down, beyond the slips in the cove behind the island.
Sailboats and powerboats tied up there. They could see them three deep, rafted up on the long fuel dock as she moved aimlessly, languidly, taking her shoes and some other things off -- splashing her feet in the ocean that was washing the Azores and Portugal.
Walking side by side in the surf.
Just as in the depths blind fish move through unfathomed immensities, finding each other by some sense that seems older than magnetism.
With the tinkling of the rigging pleasant in the night air, boats rocking easily in the breeze. Indian summer moon seeming to promise nothing but happiness. Omens of a new life.
The wolf dying in Wyatt's arms -- all the life flowing out of it. Yet somehow, miraculously, unbelievably, he knew that it was smiling.
The girl in the surf still silent, thoughts drifting with the evening, along the beach.
Soft half-silent half-dimness.
"I wonder if you'd do something for me that I need to do," she said suddenly, splashing white feet in the water.
"Don't be glib. Would you do that? Something important to me -- that you alone can do?"
"You've got it."
"I doubt it."
The sea sighed on the sand, careless, indifferent.
"Anything?" she asked again. "Are you sure?"
She nodded, her voice slipping out softly, like a sigh -- softer than the shallow waves tickling her knees:
He was looking straight at her now, not sure what she meant.
"What loners do sometimes," she said. "Participate."
"Right." He was nodding now. "Right.
© 2003 James Foley, all rights reserved
appears here by permission