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David Payne is the critically acclaimed author of Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street , which won the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award and Ruin Creek, a New York Times Notable Book. Payne is also the author of Early from the Dance and Gravesend Light. He lives with his family in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Ruin Creek (1993)
Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street (1996)
Gravesend Light (2001)
Early from the Dance (2003)
Back to Wando Passo (2006)
O n e
Ransom Hill had fallen hopelessly in love with his own wife. If there was any doubt of it-there wasn't, but had there been- it ended in Myrtle Beach, as he deplaned and found her waiting with the children at the gate. Tall and thinner than he'd been since high school, Ran had on his good black coat, which still stank of cigarettes, though he'd given them up in anticipation of this trip, the first of many sacrifices he was prepared to make. His slouching jeans were held up by a concho belt in which he'd lately had to punch three extra holes, and his Tony Lamas clapped along with a delaminated sole. His Stetson, though- the new three-hundred-dollar white one he'd seen and really felt he owed himself-was as crisp, serene, and towering as a late-summer cumulus. In its shadow, under memorable blue eyes, two dark crescents stood out against his inveterate New York City pallor, smudged as though by Christmas coal, the lumps that Santa Claus reserves especially for fallen rock stars and other habitual offenders. Ran, as always,was carrying two guitars, the ones Claire called "the Gibson girls" and, again, "the mistress and the wife." His roadworn but still handsome face seemed clarified by recent suffering for which he had nobody but himself and maybe God to blame. As he came up the ramp, a bit short-winded, with that slapping sole, he looked like someone who had served a stretch in purgatory, and now, there, in paradisal light at the end of the square tunnel, was Claire. And paradise turned out to be South Carolina. Who could have guessed?
Amid the tourists headed for the links and Grand Strand beaches, the rushing bankers on their cells, his wife and children looked like a subversive little carnival unto themselves. Hope, his four-year-old, had on a pink dress-up with blue and silver sequins and boa trim. In dandelion-white hair tinged with the faintest faint blond rinse, her plastic tiara featured sapphires one shade bluer but only half as incandescent as her eyes. Over the summer, her legs had sectioned out like telescopes and suddenly acquired a shape like Claire's. At their distal ends, her nails were painted chipped hot pink. So, too, Ran saw-with an alarm he rapidly suppressed-were his son's. Wrapped around his mother's waist, Charlie, not quite two, had on a Cody Chestnut T-shirt with a grape juice stain and a hard-shell plastic fire hat: FDNY. As he shyly grinned with two new serrated teeth, Ran saw with a pang, for the first time, who his son was going to be, which had carved itself from formless babyhood while Daddy was away.
"Dute! Bi'truck!" he said, and banged his plastic lid.
"Fire truck, dude." Putting down his cases, Ran took a knee, removed his hat, and raked his fingers through his sandy hair.With a hint of the grin that once upon a time had opened many doors (quite a few of which he would have been wiser to eschew), he held out his arms, not quite in time to catch the kids as they smashed into him like rocket-propelled grenades.
"Dad! Da-dee!" Hope squealed.
"Hey, Sweet Pete!" He keeled over, laughing, on his seat.
"Daddy, how come you're so skinny?"
"I'm not skinny, am I?"
"Yes, you are. How come?"
"Bi'truck! Bi'truck!" Charlie said, lacking skills, but concerned to have his contribution recognized.
"Man, I really like that hat," said Ran. "I don't suppose . . ."
He commenced a swap, but it was ill-advised. "Mine!" said Charlie, clamping down with two big little hands.
Hope tugged his sleeve. "How come?"
"Well, Pete . . ."
He lost her on the hesitation.
"Look what I have on!"
"Umm-hmm. Très chic," he said.
"You bought it for my birthday." Her tone flirted with severity, as though she suspected he'd forgotten.
"I remember," Ransom said, and now he did. "It fit you like a sack."
In New York, cruising the garment district one day in his cab, he'd seen the item on a rolling rack disappearing up a ramp and haggled out the passenger-side window with a nervous Puerto Rican kid in a black do-rag. This was after the label dropped him; after his well-meaning friends rallied round and got him a stint producing a band from the U of Alabama called Broken Teeth ("the next Hootie," they were touted as). After five days at the Magic Shop in SoHo, he was ready to kill them all or commit suicide, preferably both. In lieu of either, he showed up at home that night behind the wheel of a lurching, shot-shocked cab, making good a long-term threat. Five songs into an album he was hell-bent on self-producing and distributing, he bought studio time by running up huge debts on MasterCard (at one point, he had six he had to rotate every time the promo rate expired). One morning he came back from the garage after a shift and found the closets empty. He sat for a long time at the kitchen table, with Claire's bran muffin and her coffee-sweet and extra light-in a bag, before he read the note. It was on her good stationery, heavy linen stock with the address blind embossed on the verso of the envelope. Even nineteen years in a rock band couldn't burn some good habits from the heart of a Charleston girl who'd grown up south of Broad. They left in April, and Ran hit bottom, or what looked like bottom then. By that September morning in the airport, he'd discovered that, beneath the basement, the house we know as life has several unsuspected floors; and, below those, several more.
"We missed you, Daddy," Hope said.
"I missed you, too," he would have liked to say, but Ransom, briefly, didn't trust his voice. Sitting on the floor as the traffic veered like a stream around a rock, Ransom squeezed his children hard and smelled them like a stricken animal recovering the scent of its lost cubs, and then he opened his red eyes and looked at Claire.
Standing barefoot on the Astroturf, in defiance, probably, of several laws, she had on a pair of faded, cutoff OshKosh overalls he recognized far better than Hope's dress and from much further back, the sort that date from those brief years when you're as close to physical perfection as you're ever going to get and later put away in the unlikely hope that you'll fit into them again. They not only fit her, they were loose, and her tan was almost shocking-a fearless and unapologetic mahogany the likes of which no one who listened to All Things Considered and read the New York Times had dared in recent times, as though in coming here she'd thrown away whole levels of caution and regressed to a wild, natural state. After years of threats and promises, she'd finally cut her hair, the long bolt of heavy chestnut silk she'd both prized and half resented, having had to tend it dutifully like an aging parent or the grave of a lover who'd died young. It barely brushed her shoulders now, the ends chopped in different lengths that looked gamine and unconsidered in a way nobody had to tell him cost a lot of dough. The gray threads he'd begun to notice in New York had been replaced by red-gold highlights, and all this somehow contributed to, but did not explain, the peculiar, throbbing vividness she had, which Ransom wanted to attribute to her coming home, to starting a new job and being mistress of her own demesne again, any cause, any possibility but one: that his absence had been good for her, had allowed certain parts of her long eclipsed by certain parts of him to reemerge and shine.
"That's some hat, Sheriff," she said as the kids hauled him to his feet.
Ran held the crown and stared inside. "It's white."
"Duly noted." She smiled at him from eyes that were the color of the glaze on good crème caramel, with that same burned, limpid sweetness.
"You are skinny, bud."
"The Tragedy Diet," he said, making light. "Do I look bad?"
"Fuck you, Hill," she whispered as she tiptoed up. "You look twenty-five."
"Twenty-five?" His tone mingled incredulity and pleasure. Thinking "cheek," Ran was happily surprised when Claire gave him her lips.
"Well, thirty-five." Her eyes had now turned sly. "Forty, tops."
"Hey, I'll take forty," said Ransom, who was forty-five. Never shy of taking chances, he glanced his fingers through her hair. "It's great."
"Thanks," she said, and her expression sobered-not rejectingly, but taking his touch the way you might a friend who says We need to talk, when the matter is a serious one on which you know the two of you may not agree. Her kisses were allowable, then; reciprocal privileges, if any, had yet to be determined.
Pondering the state of play, Ran let his hand drop to her shoulder, wanderingly.
On one side of the flap, a replacement button had been sewn. Thumbing the suspender, he drew his hand away. "I remember these."
Claire looked down, then up again. "You do? From where?" Her face was innocent and clueless.
Ransom pressed his lips and shook his head. In the baggage area, he chatted with the kids and held their hands, trying not to look at her too much. His lovesickness for his wife of nineteen years was like a tumor in his chest, one he didn't know if he could live with, but had proved beyond all shadow of a doubt he couldn't live without. And the carousel went round and round and spit out his black bag, and away they went, back to Wando Passo.