by Ken Grimwood


SEVEN  (continued)

After dinner, over Drambuie, Jeff handed her the little blue Claude S. Bennett jeweller’s box. She opened it, and stared at the perfect two-carat diamond ring for several moments before she started to cry.

‘I can’t,’ she murmured, closing the box carefully and setting it down on his side of the table. ‘I just can’t.’

‘I thought you said you loved me.’

‘I do,’ she said. ‘Oh, damn, damn, damn.’

‘Then what’s wrong? We could wait a year or two if you think we’re too young, but I’d like to make our plans official right now.’

She dried her eyes with a napkin, smearing what little makeup she wore. Jeff wanted to kiss the streaks away, wanted to bathe her with his mouth as a cat would a kitten.

‘Paula says you haven’t been to class in weeks,’ she told him. ‘She says you might even flunk out.’

Jeff beamed, took her hand. ‘Is that all? Honey, it doesn’t matter. I’m quitting school anyway. I just won seventeen thousand dollars, and by October I can make … Look, it’s nothing to be concerned about. We’ll have plenty of money; I’ll always see to that.’

‘How?’ she asked bitterly. ‘Gambling? Is that how we’d live?’

‘Investments,’ he told, her. ‘Perfectly legitimate business investments, in big companies like IBM and Xerox and –’

‘Be realistic, Jeff. You got real lucky on one horse race, and now all of a sudden you think you can strike it rich in the stock market. Well, what if the stocks go down? What if there’s a depression or something?’

‘There won’t be,’ he said quietly.

‘You don’t know that. My daddy says –’

‘I don’t care what your daddy says. There isn’t going to be any –’

She set her napkin down, pushed her chair back from the table. ‘Well, I do care what my parents say. And I hate to even think how they’d react if I told them I was getting married to an eighteen-year-old boy who’s dropped out of school to be a gambler.’

Jeff could think of nothing to say. She was right, of course. He must seem an irresponsible fool to her. It had been a terrible mistake to tell her what he was doing.

He slipped the ring back in his jacket pocket. ‘I’ll hold on to this for now,’ he said. ‘And maybe I’ll reconsider about school.’

Her eyes went moist again, their vivid blue shimmering through the layers of tears. ‘Please do, Jeff. I don’t want to lose you, not because of some craziness like this.’

He squeezed her hand. ‘You’ll wear that ring someday,’ he said. ‘You’ll be proud of it, and proud of me.’

They were married at the First Baptist Church in Rockwood, Tennessee in June of 1968, the week after Jeff received his MBA. Just four days before the date he’d met Linda – twice, with such drastically different outcomes – in those other lives. Rockwood was Judy’s hometown, and the reception her parents threw afterwards was a big, informal barbecue at their summer place on nearby Watts Bar Lake. Jeff noticed that his father’s cough was getting worse, but still he wouldn’t listen to his son’s entreaties that he stop chain-smoking Pall Malls. He wouldn’t quit until the emphysema was diagnosed years from now. Jeff’s mother was happier than she’d been at his weddings to Linda and Diane, though of course she had no memory of either occasion. His sister, a shy fifteen-year-old with braces on her teeth, had taken to Judy right away.

The Gordon family, likewise, had welcomed Jeff into the fold wholeheartedly. He had transformed himself into the very image of a perfect catch: twenty-three, good education, industrious, responsible. A nice little nest egg already set aside and a conservative but steadily building portfolio of stocks in his and Judy’s names.

It hadn’t been easy. The five years of school were tough enough, forcing himself back into the long-abandoned regimen of studies and term papers and exams; but the hardest part had been contriving not to get rich. The last time he’d been this age he’d been a financial wunderkind, the major partner in a powerful conglomerate. Such a sudden infusion of massive wealth would have thrown Judy off balance, would have created significant problems between them. So he’d passed up the Belmont and World Series bets entirely, and had painstakingly avoided the many high-yield investments with which he could easily have made another multimillion-dollar fortune.

He and Frank Maddock had drifted apart soon after the Kentucky Derby this time. His unknowing one-time partner at the pinnacle of corporate success had finished Columbia Law School and was now a junior attorney with a firm in Pittsburgh.

Jeff and Judy assumed the mortgage on a pleasant little fake-colonial house on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, and Jeff rented a four-room office in a building near Five Points that he’d once owned. Five days a week he put on a suit and tie, drove downtown, bid his secretary and associates good morning, locked himself in his office, and read. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Proust, Faulkner … all the works he’d meant to absorb before but had never had the time to read.

At the end of the day he’d dash off a few memos to his partners, recommending perhaps that they not risk investing in an unproven company like Sony, but should keep their gradually growing principal in something safe, such as AT&T. Jeff steered the small company carefully away from any sources of sudden wealth, made sure he and his associates remained comfortably but unspectacularly entrenched in the upper middle class. His partners frequently followed his advice; when they didn’t, the losses tended to balance out the gains, so the net effect remained as Jeff intended.

At night he and Judy would cuddle in the den to watch ‘Laugh-In’ or ‘The Name of the Game’ together, then maybe play a game of Scrabble before they went to bed. On warm weekends they’d go sailing on Lake Lanier, or play tennis and hike the nature trails at Callaway Gardens.

Life was quiet, ordered, sublimely normal. Jeff was thoroughly content. Not ecstatic – there was none of the sense of absolute enchantment he had felt in watching his daughter, Gretchen, grow up at the estate in Dutchess County – but he was happy, and at peace. For the first time, his long, chaotic life was defined by its utter simplicity and lack of turmoil.

Jeff dug his toes into the sand, raised himself to his elbows, and shaded his eyes from the sun with one hand. Judy was asleep on the blanket beside him, curled fingers still holding her place in a copy of Jaws. He gently kissed her half-open mouth.

‘Want some Piña Colada?’ Jeff asked as she stretched herself awake. ‘We’ve still got half a thermos left.’

‘Mmm. Just want to lie here like this. For about twenty years.’

‘Better turn over every six months or so, then.’

She twisted her head to look at the back of her right shoulder, saw it was getting red. She rolled faceup, close to him, and he kissed her again; longer this time, and deeper.

A few yards down the beach another couple had a radio playing, and Jeff broke the kiss as the music ended and a Jamaican-accented announcer began reading about John Dean’s testimony that day in the Watergate hearings.

‘Love you,’ Judy said.

‘Love you,’ he answered, touching the tip of her sun-pink nose. And he did, Lord God how he did.

Jeff allowed himself six weeks of vacation every year, in keeping with his pretence of a regular work schedule. The arbitrarily imposed limitation made the time seem all the sweeter. Last year they’d bicycled through Scotland, and this summer they planned to take a hot-air balloon tour of the French wine country. At this moment, though, he could think of no place he’d rather be than here in Ocho Rios, with the woman who had brought sanity and delight to his disjointed life.

‘Necklace for the pretty missy, mon? Nice cochina necklace?’

The little Jamaican boy was no older than eight or nine. His arms were draped with dozens of delicate shell necklaces and bracelets, and a cloth pouch tied at his waist bulged with earrings made from the same colourful shells.

‘How much for … that one, there?’

‘Eight shillings.’

‘Make it one pound six, and I’ll take it.’

The boy raised his eyebrows, confused. ‘Hey, you crazy, mon? You s’pose go lower, not higher.’

‘Two pounds, then.’

‘I’m not gonna argue with you, mon. You got it.’ The child hurriedly took the necklace from his arm, handed it to Judy. ‘You wan’ buy any more, I got plenty. Ever’body on the beach know me, my name Renard, OK?’

‘OK, Renard. Nice doing business with you.’ Jeff handed him two one-pound notes, and the boy scampered away down the beach, grinning.

Judy slipped the necklace on, shook her head in mock dismay. ‘Shame on you,’ she said, ‘taking advantage of a child that way.’

‘Could have been worse.’ Jeff smiled. ‘Another minute or so and I might have bargained him up to four or five pounds.’

She looked down to rearrange the necklace, and when her eyes met his again there was sadness in them. ‘You’re so good around children,’ she said. ‘That’s my only regret, that we’ve never –’

Jeff placed his fingers lightly on her lips. ‘You’re my baby girl. All I need.’

He could never tell her, never even let her guess, about the vasectomy he’d had in 1966, soon after they’d started making love. Never again would he give life to a human being, as he had to Gretchen, only to see her entire existence negated. To everyone but Jeff, she did not even live in memory; and on the unthinkable chance that he might be doomed to repeat his life yet again, he refused to leave in that sort of absolute limbo someone he’d not only loved, but had created.

‘Jeff … I’ve been thinking.’

He looked back at Judy, tried to keep the pain and guilt from showing. ‘About what?’

‘We could – don’t answer right away; give yourself time to consider it – we could adopt.’

He didn’t say anything for several seconds, just looked at her. Saw the love in her face, saw the need for even more of an outlet through which to express that love.

It wouldn’t be as if the children were his own, he thought. Even if he grew to love them, he wouldn’t be responsible for their having come into being. They already existed, had been born, whoever they might be. The worst could happen, and they’d still exist, though with a different life in store for them.

‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘Yes, I’d like that very much.’

The put-in was at a place called Earl’s Ford, at the southern edge of the great Appalachian forests, near the spot where North and South Carolina met the upper tip of Georgia. There were six rafts in all: black, ungainly-looking things, inflated at the base camp and hauled with difficulty to the edge of the Chattooga River. Jeff, Judy, and the children shared one raft with a jolly, grey-haired woman and a guide who looked to be of college age, his face and arms brown from the sun.

As the raft slid into the clear, leisurely-flowing water, Jeff reached to cinch April’s life vest tighter around the child’s thin frame. Dwayne saw the paternal motion and tightened his own vest, a look of manly determination in his young eyes.

April was a charming little blond-haired girl who’d been severely abused by her natural parents; her brother was an intense, very bright child whose mother and father had died in an automobile accident. The children’s names weren’t necessarily what Jeff or Judy would have chosen to call them, but they’d been six and four years old when they were adopted, and it seemed best not to further disturb either one’s sense of self by changing their given names.

‘Daddy, look! A deer!’ April pointed at the far bank of the river, her face agleam with excitement. The animal stared back at them complacently, poised to run if need be, but unwilling to interrupt its feeding simply for having seen these strange apparitions.

Soon the wooded banks on either side began to rise, become a rocky gorge. As the canyon deepened, the river’s speed increased, and before long the flotilla of rafts had entered the first set of rapids. The children whooped with pleasure as the craft bucked and swayed in the downward current.

Jeff looked at Judy after they had cleared the white water and were again drifting smoothly downstream. He was gratified to see that her earlier anxiety had been replaced with an exhilaration matching that of the children. She’d been worried about taking them on this outing, but Jeff hadn’t wanted the children to be deprived of anything so joyfully inspiring.

The expedition pulled ashore at a small island, and Judy spread out the lunch she’d packed in a watertight chest. Jeff munched on a chicken leg and sipped his cold beer, watching April and Dwayne explore the triangular wedge of land. The children’s curiosity and imagination never ceased to fascinate him; through their eyes, he had come to appreciate this tired world anew. When he and Judy had decided to adopt them, he’d bought some Apple and Atari stock at the right time; not much, just enough to edge the family’s income up a couple of notches. They’d bought a larger house, on West Paces Ferry Road; it had a huge backyard, with a shallow fishpond and three big oak trees. Perfect for the children.

The rafts got underway again, breached another, larger set of rapids a mile or so downriver. The current was moving much more swiftly now, even in the blue-water segments of the journey; but Jeff could see that his wife had lost her fear of the river, was caught up in the beauty and the thrill of it. She held his hand tightly as they shot through the torrent of Bull Sluice Falls, and then it was over, the water calm again and the sun retreating behind the pines.

April and Dwayne were manifestly sad to see the bus that stood waiting to take them back to Atlanta, but Jeff knew their adventures, like the summer, had scarcely begun. He’d soon be taking his family on an unhurried, two-month drive through France and Italy; next year he planned a trip for them to Japan and the newly accessible vastness of China.

Jeff wanted them to see it all, experience every bit of glory and wonder the world had to offer. Still, he had a secret fear that all these memories, along with all the love he had given them, would soon be obliterated by a force he could understand no better than they.

After three days his chest had begun to itch something fierce where the electrodes were taped, but he wouldn’t allow the EKG to be unhooked, not for a minute.

The nurses were full of contempt for him; Jeff knew that. They laughed about him when they thought they were out of earshot, resented having to cater to a perfectly healthy hypochondriac who was taking up valuable bed space.

His physician felt more or less the same way, had said so openly. Still, Jeff had demanded, had been vehement. Finally after making a sizeable donation to the hospital’s building fund, he’d got himself admitted for the week.

The third week of October 1988. If it was going to happen, this would be the time.

‘Hi, honey; how you feeling?’ Judy wore a rust-coloured fall outfit; her hair was piled loosely atop her head.

‘Itching. Otherwise fine.’

She smiled with a slyness uncharacteristic of her still-innocent face. ‘Anything I can scratch?’

Jeff laughed. ‘I wish. Think we’re gonna have to wait another few days, though, till I get unwired.’

‘Well,’ she said, holding up a pair of shopping bags, one from the Oxford Book Store and another from Turtle Records. ‘Here’s some stuff to keep you occupied in the meantime.’

She’d brought him the latest Travis McGee and Dick Francis mysteries (tastes he had acquired this time around), plus a new biography of Andre Malraux and a history of the Cunard shipping line. For all she’d never learned about him, Judy certainly understood the eclectic nature of his interests. The other bag contained a dozen jewel-boxed compact discs, ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to a digital transfer of ‘Sergeant Pepper.’ She slid one of the shiny discs into the portable CD player at his bedside, and the exquisite strains of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ filled the hospital room.

‘Judy –’ His voice broke. He cleared his throat and started again. ‘I just want you to know … how very much I have always loved you.’

She answered in measured tones, but couldn’t hide the look of alarm in her eyes. ‘We’ll always love each other, I hope. For a long, long time to come.’

‘As long as possible.’

Judy frowned, started to speak, but he shushed her. She leaned over the bed to kiss him, and her hand was trembling as it found his.

‘Come home soon,’ she whispered against his face. ‘We haven’t even started yet.’

It happened a little over an hour after Judy had left the room to get lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Jeff was glad she wasn’t there to see it.

Even through his pain he could see the astonishment on the nurse’s face as the EKG went berserk; but she behaved with complete professionalism, didn’t delay calling the Code Blue for an instant. Within seconds Jeff was surrounded by a full medical team, shouting instructions and status reports as they worked over him:

‘Epi, one cc!’

‘Bicarb two amps? Gimme three-sixty joules!’

‘Standback …’ WHUMP!

‘V-tach! Blood pressure eighty palpable; two hundred watt seconds, lidocaine seventy-five milligrams IV, stat!’

‘Take a look – V-Fib.’

‘Repeat epi and bicarb, defib at three-sixty; stand back …’ WHUMP!

On and on, their voices fading with the light. Jeff tried to scream in anger because it wasn’t fair; he’d been totally prepared this time. But he couldn’t scream, he couldn’t even cry, he couldn’t do a goddamned thing but die again.

And wake again, in the back seat of Martin Bailey’s Corvair with Judy beside him. Judy at eighteen, Judy in 1963 before they ever fell in love and married and built their lives together.

‘Stop the car!’

‘Hang on, buddy,’ Martin said. ‘We’re almost back to the girls’ dorm. We’ll –’

‘I said stop the car! Stop it now!’

Shaking his head in bewilderment, Martin pulled the car to a halt on Kilgo Circle, behind the history building. Judy put her hand on Jeff’s arm, trying to calm him, but he jerked away from her and shoved the car door open.

‘Jesus, what the hell are you doing?’ Martin yelled, but Jeff was out of the car and running, running hard in whatever direction it was; it didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered.

He raced through the quadrangle, past the chemistry and psych buildings, his strong young heart pounding in his chest as if it had not betrayed him minutes ago and twenty-five years in the future. His legs carried him past the biology building, across the corner of Pierce and Arkwright drives. He finally stumbled and fell to his knees in the middle of the soccer field, looking up at the stars through blurry eyes.

‘Fuck you!’ He screamed at the impassive sky, screamed with all the force and despair he’d been unable to express from that terminal hospital bed. ‘Fuck you! Why … are … you … DOING THIS TO ME!’

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