Her eyes were as blue as a little patch of clear sky that sneaks through a month of grey clouds. And when she blinked, the rain started to fall again on Stormstown.
Archie didn't remember her from school, but there were plenty of Clatter kids he couldn't match with a name—anymore, or ever. He figured she must be a few years younger then him, or else a few years older. She had got all her mother's beauty, but none of the grating blankness. The sound of Candy Clatter's voice still sent Archie running, but Wanda spoke like a song. He could listen to her all day.
"So does it really stink as bad as people say?"
"Worse," Archie answered, and she laughed like a tune.
People who weren't from Stormstown said the place was rank. But if you lived there, by some trick of the nose or mind, you couldn't smell the paper mill at all. Archie never smelled it growing up, but having been away for a long time and recently returned, he was set apart. Now, he understood just what out-of-towners meant when they happened through Stormstown and declared that it smelled like the town shit itself.
That's probably why they built the Route 23 bypass. Now no one on their way west to Pittsburgh or east toward Philly had to pass through the invisible cloud that cloaked Stormstown. The new road ran along the ridge, above the old road, which wound down the middle of the valley, the town bulging around it like a rat half digested passing through a snake's belly. Like some day the old road would finally shit the town out, a wet heap of dirty bricks, broken bottles, and unemployed old men.
The new road—The Route, people called it mostly—cut right across Fall Run Road, where Archie and Wanda lived. When it came, it cut the neighborhood right off of the town. There was a buy out, and maybe half the Fall Runners took it. Those that remained had to park where their street now dead-ended at the highway, then rush across The Route and walk to their houses.
"We're like the appendix of the town," Wanda told Archie."We're goddamn vestigial."
Archie wasn't sure what vestigial meant, but it sounded good the way it fell off Wanda's lips.
They'd been watching his boy, Christopher, play basketball at Mountaintop Park. Wanda's five-year-old daughter Clair was watching too, cheering Christopher on, jumping around with her arms held back like little wings.
"Fly, mister St. Christopher! Fly, fly, fly!"
But that was against the rules. When Christopher played ball and the teams were shirts and skins, he always had to be shirts. Otherwise, he was likely to start fluttering his moth wings, hover and swoop around the hoop and then literally drop the ball in. The kids called him St. Christopher because his wings were kind of like an angel's. A seven-year-old butterflying angel, erratic and elusive and beautiful.
The renewed downpour washed out the game, and Wanda invited Archie and Christopher back to her house for hot chocolate and beer. She lived in an old house along the vestigial street. 668 Fall Run Road.
"Almost like the number of the beast," Archie joked.
"Yeah," Wanda exhaled. "668: The neighbor of the beast."
Really, the house wasn't on Fall Run Road. It sat back in the woods, up the mountainside and along a stream. Archie couldn't remember the creek ever having a name, but Wanda called it Monkey Run. She said she'd tell him why later. Maybe.
When Archie was a kid, The Professor lived there. He taught up at the college and he wasn't around much, didn't go to St. Ignatius and didn't get involved in neighborhood squabbles or friendships.
You could tell The Professor hadn't been in the place for a long time, and Wanda had only just recently moved in and set up house with Clair.
There was a hole in the roof and tubs out to catch the falling water. Huge sections of plaster had fallen, and were falling, from the walls, exposing the lath and newspapers that backed it.
"So you're restoring a dilapidated mansion?" Archie asked when they had been there a little while.
"You see any tools? You see any building materials? Does it look like I'm restoring it?"
Wanda handed Archie a Yuengling, and walked out to the sagging front porch, where they sat on folding chairs while Christopher and Clair played a game in the rainwater tubs, with little plastic army men getting attacked and eaten by rubber bugs. The dripping into the tubs plinked out a rhythm, and the kids didn't talk their game, but sang it: "Look out, Mr. Army Man! Chomp Chomp! Crunch Crunch! Chomp Chomp! Heeeey!"
"Everyone assumes you want to renovate a dilapidated mansion. Maybe I just want to live in a dilapidated mansion."
Archie started to ask why but got cut short when Wanda looked through the picture window in at Clair. Her eyes bulged at the little girl: "I told you DON'T EAT THE PAINT CHIPS!"
Clair hollered something back that Archie couldn't quite understand, and Wanda stood up and banged on the window: "I don't care how good they taste! Don't eat the goddamn lead paint chips!"
Wanda lifted an empty beer case from behind her chair.
"Anyhow, letting the house fall apart is a hell of a lot more interesting than fixing it. Look at this shit," she said, handing Archie the box. "The more plaster that comes down, the more of these I find. They're all from around when the house was built."
Archie took the box and pulled out a stack of newspapers—from Pittsburgh mostly, and Altoona—and pages from magazines. They smelled of long ago smoke and one side of each page wore a coating of coal dust. On top was one from Scientific American, heralding the invention and patenting of "Lester's Smut Machine." There was even a diagram etching.
"The more this house crumbles, the more I find. Every rain is a new stack of stories. Everyone is a new ghost moving in, or reclaiming the place. Start reading this shit and you know who you're living with."
Wanda banged on the window again, said nothing, but glowered at Clair.
Archie fingered the brittle pages and read: City fathers worry about a growing pack of wild dogs prowling the streets, probably rabid, and allusions to a backwoods 'Man-on-the-Mountain' who commands the beasts; the proliferation of indoor plumbing among the town elites and superstitious nostalgia for half-moon-doored outhouses; a respectable but wild young man murders a rival, a harmless and happy musician, in a jealous rage, then strange reports of the victim's song haunting the hollow where he met his death; the eclipsing of the canals by the railroads, and calls for canal subsidies to save the towns along their banks; the construction of St. Ignatius, the county's first Catholic Church; the discovery of a mammoth tusk along Fall Run.
Wanda pulled out her favorite, from Scientific American. It said how all the chemicals of the body—carbon and oxygen and all that stuff—are continuously expelled and replaced by the body, so that every 30 days or so a person is reconstituted of entirely different matter. "And hence it is demonstrable as any proposition in geometry that something which thus abides in the body, retaining the consciousness of the past , could not have been an atom, or any number of atoms, of matter, that is to say, something spiritual."
"That is to say what?" Archie asked.
"That is to say, science proves there is a soul, Archie. That's what it's goddamn well saying. In 18 fuckin 59!"
"You think that's right?"
"If it's not, it should be."
There were pages from prayer books and hymnals too, and programs from weddings and funerals. There were even a few Turnbuckles in there, Archie's people.
But Archie kept thinking about Lester's Smut Machine.
The night had gotten nice, the rain cooling things off and Archie and Wanda dry under the roof of the deep porch. When it stopped, the crickets got to chirping and they put the kids to bed. The leaking roof was only on the one side of the house. The bedrooms were dry and little Clair's was piled all over with pillows and blankets and a thousand stuffed animals. She took Christopher by the hand and led him through the soft labyrinth, then brushed clothes and animals off of a giant old radio. The little girl flipped a switch and the thing glowed green while she tuned in some crazy short wave station speaking Chinese or Martian, and the kids burrowed into downy piles on either side of it and drifted off into the ether.
They were a good match, Christopher and Clair: him a few years older but distracted and fluttering as a preschooler, her only five but focused as a cat on the hunt. It reminded Archie how he used to be with Christopher's mom, when she seemed to know everything worth knowing, when her farts smelled like flowers, before she lost her soul in a cloud of sugary chemical vapor.
Back out on the porch, Wanda and Archie listened to the crickets and drained more Yuenglings.
"The last chirp of the cricket is the desperate call of the unmated, a cry for one fuck before it dies, so it can seed or be seeded. Do you think bugs know how short their time is? It's get laid now or drop out of the cricket gene pool for them."
"You know," she said, "Before Clair, I wouldn't have thought that mattered."
Archie thought he might know what she meant. Before he became a father, he could only remember crying a handful of times, always only in physical pain. Now, he was so stirred by random events—a news report where a mother talks abut her murdered child, an impassioned radio preacher speech—that he was constantly blinking back tears. When they had read earlier from a wall newspaper about a boy who drowned in the canal, Archie had hung his head down and rubbed them away in embarrassment.
"Hell," Wanda said. "All that chirping noise, it's probably just the male ones hollering. They don't care about immortality, they just need to get laid."
Archie could relate to that, that was for sure. He really wanted to right now. He was still thinking about Lester's Smut Machine, the etching with the cylinders and cranks. "What is it," he asked, pulling out the clipping. "Like an 1800s sex toy?" And Wanda laughed. "I don't think so." And she laughed again. "But, maybe."
He stared at her and wondered, was her look when she said that some kind of invitation? Or the look the spider gives the fly when he hovers too near?
When it happened then, Archie could hardly believe his good fortune, how perfectly lucky he was, how happy he was when he felt her tongue and pulled off her shirt and bra and saw her nipples—big around as silver dollars and pink as pencil erasers or bubble gum.
Archie pinched and rubbed and sucked her out there on the porch, using all the moves the merry Widow had taught him, and more he'd learned since. It was really important that he please her, and like clock-work harmony, when he started to pant the hard pant the panter can't hear, Wanda answered him with growing swells of groaning that matched Archie's perfectly, and when they came together, her hands on the porch railing and Archie behind her, right hand cradling her right hip, left grasped across her front, cupping her right breast, he knew she was faking, although for a sublime moment he forgot to care. Her ass was like an upside-down heart, perfect. But he knew she was faking.
"That's the best I got," he gasped, falling back into a folding chair, its damp, humid surface sticking pleasantly to the skin of his hide.
"You'll learn," Wanda said, and it put him strangely at ease. "Don't sweat it. The female orgasm is mostly a fantasy anyway."
Archie wasn't sure if that was an insult, but the way she said it gave him hope that it wasn't.
"Did you ever watch two dogs fucking? Or a lion with his teeth on a lioness' neck while he bangs her for all of ten seconds?" Wanda asked. "You think female animals get off? It's a sign of human intelligence or insanity that women ever had the wisdom to think they might get an orgasm and think they damn well deserve it. It's what separates us from the beasts."
Beasts, Archie thought.
"Female spiders eat their mates," he said.
"Exactly," Wanda said back. "Exactly. You think they'd do that if they were getting off on the sex?"
"You're not gonna kill me cause you didn't get off?"
The crickets had made or failed to make their last-ditch hookups, and the night was silent now. Wanda, eyes flickering like a lightning bug, slid her hand between his legs and led him upstairs to her bedroom.