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Authors: Robert James Waller

Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend

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ALSO BY ROBERT JAMES WALLER

The Bridges of Madison County

Copyright

Publisher’s Note:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or
are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1993 by Robert James Waller

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.,

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com
.

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-7595-2627-3

Contents

ALSO BY ROBERT JAMES WALLER

Copyright

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Acknowledgment

For high plumage and southern winds.

One

T
he
Trivandrum Mail
was on time. It came out of the jungle and pounded into Villupuram Junction at 3:18 on a sweltry afternoon in south India.
When the whistle first sounded far and deep in the countryside, people began pressing toward the edge of the station platform.
What could not walk was carried or helped along—bedrolls and market baskets, babies and old people.

Michael Tillman got to his feet from where he’d been leaning against a sooty brick wall and slung a tan knapsack over his
left shoulder. A hundred people were trying to get off the train. Twice that many were simultaneously trying to get on, like
two rivers flowing in opposite directions. You pushed or were left behind. A pregnant woman staggered in the crush, and Michael
took her arm, got her up the steps, and swung himself into the second-class car as the train moved out.

Wheels turning, engine pulling hard, running at forty miles an hour through the edge of Villupuram. No place to sit, hardly
a place to stand. Hanging on to the overhead luggage rack with one hand as the train curved out of brown hills and into green
rice country, Michael slid the picture of Jellie Braden from his breast pocket, looked at it, reminding himself again of why
he was doing this.

Bizarre. Strange. All of that. This curious rainbow of man and knapsack out of Iowa and into the belly of India in search
of a woman. Jellie Braden… Jellie… belonging to another. But Michael Tillman wanted her. Wanted her more than his next breath,
wanted her enough to travel the world looking for her. He kept thinking this whole affair was like songs you used to hear
on late night radio.

How does it all begin? Who knows. And why? Same answer. The old Darwinian shuffle. Something primal, something way back and
far down. Something whispering deep in the bones or genes, “That one.” So it happened: a kitchen door in Iowa opened and likewise
did Michael Tillman when Jellie walked through it in her fortieth year.

The dean’s autumn reception for new faculty in 1980, that’s when it was. Just back from India after his second Fulbright there
and still jet-lagged, Michael slouched against the dean’s refrigerator, tugging on his second beer of the afternoon. He looked
past faces looking at him or what they took to be him and answered tedious questions about India, suffering the white noise
of academic chatter in the spaces around him.

An accountant’s wife had taken over the India interrogation. Michael gave her 38.7 percent of his attention, planning escape
routes and taking a long-slow swallow of beer while she spoke.

“Didn’t the poverty just bother you horribly?”

“What poverty?” He was thinking about Joseph Conrad now, being halfway through
Heart of Darkness
on his third reading of it.

“In India. It must be awful.”

“No. I was in the south, and the people looked pretty well fed to me. You’ve been watching those television shows that concentrate
on good Catholic sisters hobbling around in the guts of Calcutta.” She jumped a little when he said “guts,” as if it were
a word she hadn’t heard before or maybe didn’t like to think about.

“Did you see any cobras?”

“Yes, the snake charmer in the marketplace had one in a basket. The snake’s mouth was sewn shut to keep it from doing any
damage.”

“How did it eat?”

“It didn’t. It eventually dies. Then the snake man goes out and finds another one and sews its mouth shut, too. That’s the
way it works.”

“My God, that’s cruel, even though I abhor snakes.”

“Yeah, working conditions have gone downhill all over. On the other hand, it’s pretty much like the university. We just use
heavier thread, that’s all.”

The accountant’s wife blinked at him in the way some people do when they encounter lunacy and went on. “Did you see any of
those naked men with white paint or whatever on their bodies? Isn’t that strange?”

“No, I didn’t see any. They’re mostly up north, I guess. Benares, or Varanasi as they call it now, places like that. Whether
it’s strange or not, I can’t say, depends on your worldview and career plans, I suppose.”

“Jellie Braden’s been to India, you know.” The senior man in comparative economics leapfrogged the accountant’s wife and had
Michael’s attention.

“Who?”

“Jim Braden’s wife. He’s the new guy in econometrics we hired away from Indiana.” Michael heard a car door shutting in the
driveway. The senior man turned and looked out the window. “Oh, here they come now. They’re a delightful couple.”

Braden? Braden… Braden… Braden? Ah, yes, Jim Braden. He’d interviewed him six months ago before going to India. Never met
his wife. She’d been out with a realtor looking at housing during their recruiting visit. Michael felt like writing “Standard
issue, greater than or equal to earnest and boring” on the evaluation form. But he didn’t and wrote instead, “Jim Braden is
a perfect fit,” which amounted to the same thing.

James Lee Braden HI came into the dean’s kitchen, smiling, shaking hands, being introduced. Jellie Braden smiled, too, in
her pale blue suit with a fitted jacket that came to just over her hips and a skirt reaching to midcalf, medium-heeled black
boots below the hem. Subtle Jellie Braden.

But not subtle enough. It was all there. The cool patrician face coming only from an upper-shelf gene pool, the night-black
hair and good skin. A body the old French called
rondeur,
polite writers would call superb, and flesh magazines would lose control over. Gray eyes coming at you like an arrow in flight
and a confidence with men indicating she knew what they could and could not do. Where she had learned those easy truths wasn’t
clear at first, but you didn’t have to be around Jimmy Braden very long to know it wasn’t from him.

The faculty and assorted others with short attention spans laid down India and took up repertoire number two, another set
of standard questions. This time with the Bradens, leaving Michael slouched there against the fridge by himself, watching
Jellie.

“How do you like Cedar Bend?”

“Are you all moved in now?”

“What courses are you teaching, Jim?”

“Jellie—what an
interesting
name.”

The dean’s wife came over. “Hello, Michael.”

“Hi, Carolyn, what’s up?” He and Carolyn had always got along well even though the ol’ deanaroo secretly wished Michael would
pack it up and go somewhere else, anywhere. He occupied a high salary line, mainly because he’d been at the university fifteen
years, and Arthur Wilcox would have preferred something a little less expensive and a lot more manageable sitting in Michael’s
office.

But Carolyn generally looked him up at these affairs, and they’d talk a bit. The decline of romance was one of their favorite
subjects. A few years earlier she’d gotten acceptably drunk at the Christmas bash and said, “Michael, you’ve got balls. The
rest of’em are eunuchs.” He’d put his arms around her and whispered in her ear, “Merry Christmas, Carolyn.” Over her shoulder
Michael had seen the chairperson of accounting watching them. The Chair was holding a glass of nonalcoholic punch and had
a green star pinned to his lapel with “Hi! I’m Larry—Happy Holidays” printed on it in red felt-tip. Michael had grinned at
him.

For a while he’d called Carolyn “Deanette.” She’d liked it well enough to have a T-shirt made up with that handle printed
on the front and had worn it to the fall picnic where the faculty was supposed to play volleyball and get to know one another
better. Arthur-the-dean had taken offense and wouldn’t let her wear the shirt after that.

When she’d told Michael about the T-shirt ban, he’d said “Screw ’im.”

Carolyn had laughed. “Fat chance. Arthur’s Victorian to the core, all bundled up.” When he’d heard that, Michael’s faith in
things working out all right had died another small death. Carolyn was fifty-three but still had fire in her belly, quite
a lot of it, he suspected. And he thought it was a damn shame, not to mention the waste of a good woman. How the hell does
it happen, he wondered, these mistakes in the matching?

He and Carolyn talked a few minutes. Michael was looking past her, looking at the back of Jellie Braden’s head and wondering
if her hair was as thick as it seemed to be, wondering how it would feel to grab a big handful of it and bend her over the
dean’s kitchen table right then and there. He somehow had a feeling she might laugh and bend willingly if he tried it.

Carolyn Wilcox followed the point of Michael’s eyes and said, “Have you met Jellie Braden yet?”

“No, I haven’t.”

The deanette reached over and tugged on Jellie’s sleeve, rescuing her from the fumes of vapidity in which she was swirling.
Deans’ wives are allowed to do that when they feel like it, and they do it regularly, leaving a small semicircle of people
holding glasses in their hands and looking stupid as the object of their focus is torn away. It’s a shot they ought to put
in the yearbook.

Jellie Braden turned around. “Jellie, I’d like you to meet Michael Tillman. If there’s anything incorrigible about this faculty,
it’s Michael. In fact, he’s probably sole owner of that property.”

Jellie held out her hand, and he took it. “What makes you incorrigible, Dr. Tillman?”

“Just Michael, if it’s okay with you. I don’t like titles.” He grinned a little when he said it. She smiled at the casual
way he discarded something it took him nine years in various medieval institutions to acquire. “Aside from that, I happen
to believe I’m highly corrigible, it’s only Carolyn and the rest who think otherwise.”

Carolyn patted his arm and drifted away. Jellie Braden looked at him. “I recall Jimmy mentioning you when we were here for
his interviews. Somebody on the faculty told him you were eccentric or something like that.”

“Jaded, maybe. A lot of people mistake that for eccentricity.”

“If I remember correctly, he came back from the interviews and said you’re a regular idea factory. He brought it up again
the other day and said he was looking forward to working with you. That doesn’t sound very jaded to me.”

Michael felt a little tight in the chest and needed breathing space. “Word is you’ve spent time in India.”

“Yes, I have.” As she spoke, he watched the gray eyes shift up and to the right, to another place, the way people do when
they go on time-share, go somewhere else for a while. The way he did, often.

India. The idea of it always brought smells and glinting images rushing back to her for an instant, always the same smells
and images—jasmine on Bengali night winds, dark hands across her breasts and along the curve of her back, the scent of a man
as he pulled himself up and into her. And his words in those soft and transient moments,

… did I ever play this song before?

Not in any lifetime I remember.

… will I ever play this song again?

Not in any lifetime yet to come.

“I just got in from there,” Michael said.

“First trip?” She came back from wherever she’d been and turned to set her glass on the kitchen table.

“Second. I was there in 1976, also.”

“You must like it.” She smiled and tilted her head. “I noticed the cigarette bulge in your shirt pocket. Is smoking allowed
here?”

“Forget it. We can go outside and stomp ’em out on the dean’s driveway, though. That pisses him off, so I usually do it at
least once when I’m over here.”

Someone with less a sense of herself than Jellie Braden would have sideslipped away from the invitation. Bad form and all
that, particularly for the wife of a new faculty member. But Jellie tilted her head toward the door and said, “Let’s do it.”
The kitchen was almost empty, since the dean was holding forth in his parlor, and attendance was required unless you had a
note from your doctor.

BOOK: Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend
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