Adam stood before the mirror and tried to tie his bow tie. He was having an unhappy time of it. Some of his difficulty could be attributed to the fact that his hands shook, but it also appeared as though he had forgotten how to create a bow. Yet he persisted, unloosening the unsatisfactory and ugly knots he formed, straightening the fabric wings, and beginning again. And again and again. He did not seem to grow aggravated at his lack of success; he seemed to have the belief that at some time, almost despite himself, a bow might form.
Pete, who was leaning over the banister on the third-floor landing, watched with no expression for about five minutes and then began down the stairs. At the sound of his descent Adam stopped his struggle with the tie but did not look up.
Pete appeared behind Adam and, standing so that they almost touched, reached around and grasped the tie. As their two faces watched in the mirror, he created a perfect bow out of the formerly recalcitrant fabric. Although the bow was perfect Pete adjusted it a little and then readjusted it (to restore its perfection) and then patted it lightly and said, “There you are.”
“Thank you,” said Adam. He touched Pete's hand, and held it against the bow. “Where would I be without you?”
“Right here, probably,” said Pete.
“Yes. But sans tie. Or at least sans bow.”
“So you would be better off. I don't know why you're wearing a tie.”
“I was taught that one should always wear a tie when one ventures forth into society.”
“Is dinner with Arden and Caroline society?” asked Pete.
“It is practically all the society we have,” said Adam. “Or I should say I. Perhaps you have society of which I know not. Do you?”
“No,” said Pete. They were still both looking into the mirror, talking to their reflections. Pete leaned his head closer and rested his chin on Adam's shoulder. Adam reached up and stroked Pete's dark hair. He had lovely long hair, Pete. They observed their reflection : an old man of European lineage, a young man of Asian descent.
And then Pete raised his head and stepped a bit away, so that his face disappeared from the tiny world of the mirror.
“Ready to go?” asked Adam.
“Yes,” said Pete. “Do you want to walk, or should we drive?”
“It is a lovely evening,” said Adam. “I want to walk.”
“But what about coming back? Will you want to walk then?”
“I don't know,” said Adam.
“Because if you'll want to drive home, we should take the car now.”
“So that we will have it there, to drive back in.”
“But you could always walk back for it, and drive up to get me.”
“Yes, but it would be easier to take it now.”
“I'm not sure I follow you,” said Adam. “If we walk home, we walk home. And if we decide to drive you'll walk back for the car. So either way you will walk back, won't you?”
“Not if we drive up.”
“Oh, but I want to walk up. Of that I am sure.”
“Are you sure? How's your leg?”
“It is the same as always.”
“Why don't you see the doctor?”
“Because he is a terrible doctor and there is nothing really wrong with me.”
“Your hands shake. And your legs ache.”
“And I am old. It all corresponds.”
“So we should drive.”
“No. I am old, but I can walk to the big house, and perhaps, depending how late it is and how much I eat and drink and what sort of mood I am in, walk back. We shall see.” He looked back into the mirror. “Thank you for tying my tie. I look very handsome in it, I think. I have always liked this tie. I bought it in Venice, in fifty-five. It is important to buy beautiful things when you are happy. I look at this tie”âAdam touched the bow at his throatâ“and I remember how happy I once was.”
“Why were you happy?”
“I forget. Who knows? It is enough to remember the fact of the happiness. I'm sure I was happy. Otherwise I would never have bought such a beautiful tie.”
“It's not so beautiful now,” said Pete. “It's stained.”
“Is it?” Adam leaned toward his reflection. “It looks fine to me. I am really happy to be losing my sight. Everything looks fine to me. It is the best evidence I know that there is a God.”
“That he dims our vision as we age. Otherwise it would be too horrible to bear. Especially for those who were beautiful when they were young.”
“Were you beautiful when you were young?”
“I wasn't so terribly ancient when we met. I thought I still retained some of my beauty then. I must have. Otherwise, how could I ever have attracted you?”
Pete did not answer. Adam turned away from the mirror and faced his companion. Pete had opened the door. The evening light fell upon his handsome face. He was looking out at the little cobbled yard in front of the millhouse. A cat sat at the foot of the steps.
“Chuco wants his dinner,” said Adam.
“Chuco can wait. If we're going to walk, we should leave now, or we will be late,” said Pete.
Adam realized Pete was angry. Lately he seemed angry all the time, but it was an odd, private, submerged anger. He must be very angry not to feed Chuco, whom he loved. He will not feed Chuco to punish me, thought Adam. “We can take the car now,” said Adam. “Perhaps I am too tired to walk.”
Pete turned away from the door and looked at him. “No,” he said. He bent down and picked up the cat. The cat looked away. “Just let me feed this little pig.”
Portia was sitting at the round table in the courtyard drawing and labeling a map of South America. It was an assignment for school. She was a day student at the convent school in Tranqueras. The courtyard was surrounded on three sides by wings of the large house and on the fourth side by a stone wall. There was an archway in the center of the wall, and a small, round fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Arden, her mother, came out of the kitchen door, her hands full of tablecloth and napkins and cutlery, and stood behind Portia for a moment, watching her color Uruguay gold. The rest of South America was green, all different shades of green, like fields seen from an airplane.
“Why are you making it gold?” Arden asked.
For a moment Portia did not answer. She was eight years old and had recently discovered that the withholding of information is a kind of power. “Because,” she finally said.
“But it doesn't match the rest of South America,” said Arden.
“It's not supposed to,” said Portia.
It made Arden happy to watch Portia carefully color Uruguay gold. “It's very pretty,” she said.
“It's not supposed to be pretty,” said Portia.
“Yes, but it can be,” said Arden. “And is, I think. Like you.” She bent down and kissed the top of her daughter's head. “Your hair smells of gasoline,” she said. “What have you been doing?”
“Nothing,” said Portia.
“Have you been playing in the garage?”
“No,” Portia decided, after a moment's thought.
“Well, you shall have a shampoo tonight,” said Arden. “Even if we have no hot water. Could you move that, darling? Just for a moment, while I set the table?”
“Why do we need a tablecloth?” asked Portia.
“Because Adam and Pete are coming to dinner and I want the table to look nice. And really, you should always have a tablecloth. There is no reason not to have a tablecloth. But when it's just us I get lazy.”
“Do I have to eat with you?”
“Don't you want to?”
“No. I'd rather eat in the kitchen.”
“Because you all talk too much.”
“But that's what people do when they eat togetherâtalk.”
“But it's boring. Especially with Uncle Adam.”
“All right. But help me with the tablecloth.”
“I don't see why you should always have a tablecloth. It just gets dirty and has to be washed and that causes pollution,” said Portia. “When it's just the table you can wipe the crumbs off, and let the birds eat them. It's much more elogical.”
“Ecological, you mean,” said Arden. “But life isn't alwaysâwell, some of the nice things about life aren't always the most practical
or ecological, are they? And having a tablecloth does no great harm, so it's okay.”
“Sister Domina says it is the little harms, the little sins, that matter most, because they add up. God adds them all up.”
“I suppose you're right, but we shall still use the tablecloth. When you get a bit older you can join the nuns and live as simply as they do.”
“You don't have to join the nuns to live simply,” observed Portia.
“But it is easier, I think, when one is apart from the world.”
“Sister Domina says that their world is the real world. And we live apart from it.”
“Well, everything is a matter of perspective, I suppose,” said Arden. “Now will you move your map and the pencils?”
Portia complied, and helped her mother set the table. After a moment they heard some voices from inside the house. “Listen,” said Arden. “That must be Uncle Adam and Pete. Go tell them we're out here.”
Portia disappeared through the French doors, and returned a moment later with Pete, who said good evening and kissed Arden. “Where's Adam?” she asked.
“He's inside,” said Pete. “He wanted to look at the newspapers.”
“Can I get you a drink?” Arden asked Pete.
“Yes,” said Pete. “Thank you.”
“Yes, thanks,” said Pete.
Arden entered the house through the French doors opening into a large front hall, the high ceiling of which was crowned with a cupola. Opposite the French doors was the large wooden front door; two galleries ran along the back wall from which doors led to the hallways on the second and third floors, and a curved staircase led up to the first gallery from each side of the room. Directly off the entrance hall were doors that led to the pantry and kitchen hallway,
a small toilet, and two large, square rooms in the front of the house: one was a library, one was a sitting room. Arden paused at the library door. “Good evening, Adam,” she said. “I won't disturb you now except to see if you'd like a drink. Pete and I are having gins.”
“Oh, how I would adore a nice little glass of gin,” said Adam.
“Lime?” asked Arden.
“Yes, of course,” said Adam. “Lots of lime, if you can spare it.”
Arden returned a moment later with a tray of drinks. She put Adam's on the little table beside his seat. “Thank you, my dear,” he said, without looking up from the newspaper.
Arden returned to the courtyard, but Pete and Portia had disappeared. She put the tray down on the table, took her drink, and walked over and sat on the rim of the fountain. It was full of dark water and lily pads and fat, listless carp. They appeared and loitered at the surface near her, but she had nothing to feed them. After a moment they nonchalantly sank, as if they had never really expected to be fed at all.
Arden put her fingers in the water and some fish returned to nibble at the pellets of air that clung to them. Jules had used to nibble her fingertips, pretending he wasâwhat? Not a fish. A child, perhaps. And suck them too.
After a while, Portia and Pete appeared through the archway. They came and sat beside Arden at the fountain. For a moment no one said anything, but it was a comfortable silence. Then Arden said, “Your drink's on the table, Pete. Portia, why don't you get it for him?”
“I'll get it,” said Pete.
Portia was kneeling beside the basin, trailing the ends of her long hair through the water, trying to entice the fish.
“Don't,” said Arden.
“Why? You already said I'll have a shampoo tonight,” said Portia.
“Yes,” said Arden.
Pete returned with his drink.
“Where did you go?” asked Arden.
Portia looked at Pete. “Nowhere,” she said.
“A secret,” said Pete.
Adam emerged from the house and sat at the table, the newspaper neatly folded into quarters. “Come here and help me with the Jumble,” he called to Portia.
Portia stood up and joined her uncle at the table. This left Arden and Pete at the fountain. They sipped their drinks, and watched the fish move slowly through the dark green water.