“I’m afraid that’s the church again,” Carrie Morton said. “Greg, push on.”
“That’s all right, I like it,” Fay White told her, being polite, but Greg Morton had already pushed the bar on the slide projector–chip-chock–and after a brief interval of rectangular white, the wall reblossomed into yet another view of the same small concrete-bhock church roughly painted in pastels, glistening like a week-old wedding cake in the bright southern sun.
“Oh, dear,” Carrie said. “Too many of the same picture. But I just loved that church.
“I’d be fascinated by those colors, too,” Fay said, hating herself for her spineless politeness but helpless to change her manner. A dozen years ago in college it had been like this, Carrie blithe and uncaring while Fay smiled and said it was all right; and now here they were again, just the same.
Chip-chip-chip-chip–“The people are so primitive,” Carrie said, as Greg struggled with the machine and they all stared at the white-again wall. “They’re alleged to be Christians, but what went on in that building seemed awfully jungle-jungle to me.”
Then why not photograph that, Fay thought, sipping gamely at her predinner drink. She and Carrie and Greg all held tiny glasses of a heavy, too-sweet South American liqueur the Mortons had brought back, while Fay’s husband, Reed–no spineless politeness for him–sat contentedly with a glass of beer. I wish I were more like Reed, Fay thought. Self-confident and serene. I wish I liked my friends more.
Chock. Four smiling children shyly posed in that same harsh sunlight beside a rusted, springless, dark green American car. “So childlike,” Carrie said, comfortably smiling.
“Well, they’re children,” Fay said, looking at the vulnerable little faces, the knobby brown knees.
“No, all of them, I mean.” Carrie laughed. “Such sweet people, but so naive!”
“Ripe for agitators,” Greg said.
The picture on the wall trembled, and Fay frowned at the children. A withered arm? And wasn’t that–“Wait!” she said, but chip-chock, and they were looking now at a placid man walking down a dirt road, a large earthenware jug balanced on his shoulder. The road was dry and dusty, the land to both sides a sunbeaten brown. “Oh, it’s Hoo-lee-oh!” Carrie said happily.
“Was that– Was one of those–” Fay looked across the projector’s beam at Carrie, blonde and sweet and recently maternal. “Was one of those children blind?”
But reed was saying, “Agitators, Greg? Down there, too?”
“It’s the same old story,” Greg said, while Carrie turned her open smiling face to listen. “The big American company comes in, brings prosperity, jobs, consumer goods, education–medial care, for Christ’s sake–and the first thing you know the locals think it’s all theirs.”
“Hoo-lee-oh was out houseboy,” Carrie said, smiling at Fay. “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is, being where there’s no servant problem.”
Carrie spelled it out and it turned out to be Julio. “He made the most delicious wine,” Carrie said, “and used to bring us just jugs of the stuff. Not grape wine, from flowers or something. I never could understand how he grew anything at all–just look at the ground. When I think of my poor little kitchen garden; hopeless, tomatoes like acorns.”
“Miserable soil,” Greg said, “but naturally the politicals carried on all the time about pollution.”
“It’s the same up here, ” Reed said. “Love Canal, all that. Mountains out of molehills.”
“Exactly,” Greg said. “People make mistakes, we’re all human, but you’d think it was deliberate. We aren’t barbarians, for Christ’s sake.”
Fay twisted around to look at Greg. “I read about some valley in Brazil,” she said, “where there’s so much industry now, so much pollution, nothing grows anymore. And birth defects, and–”
Greg nodded, mouth expressing disapproval. “The dead valley, I know. Believe me, the politicals beat us over the head with that one, even though it isn’t American companies, it’s all multinationals, European, South American. But they did go too far there, no question, we all know there have to be some controls. But what we have to realize, every one of us right here in the U.S.A., the world is going to pass us by.”
“I don’t follow,” Reed said.
Chip-chock. Julio and his jug became a very pregnant Carrie, in voluminous white top and pink slacks, blooming and beaming in front of their neat white modular company cottage. In the background, black lines like the smoke in a child’s drawing squiggled upward from the tall metal stacks. “I wore pink the whole time,” Carrie said, “so I’d have a girl.”
“Vickie’s such a little doll,” Fay told her.
Greg was saying to Reed, “If it weren’t for U.S. government regulations, PetChem wouldn’t have moved down there back in the sixties. I’m all for the environment–I mean, for Christ’s sake, we all breathe the same air–but you’ve got to weigh the factors. These countries in the south, they want our business, they’re ready to make an accommodation.”
“How far along were you?” Fay asked.
“Six months.” Carrie smiled dreamily, reminiscently, at the image of her pregnant self. “I carried so big, for a while I thought I was having triplets.”
“Of course, they breed like rabbits,” Greg said, “so they hardly show. The women. Walk along the road, you wouldn’t know they were pregnant at all. Squat, and poof.”
Laughing, Carrie said, “It’s not quite that easy.”
“Still,” Fay said, “I don’t suppose prenatal care is exactly up to our standards.”
“One reason we’re back,” Greg said. Chip-chock. “Also, we wanted Vickie born in the U.S.A.”
“That’s the company lake,” Carrie said.
The people along the shore were of two clearly defined types. “Even the bathing suits,” Fay said, “Americans look like Americans.”
Carrie said, “Remember the summer we both took cabins on Lake Monequois? Doesn’t it look like that?”
“Except for the volcanoes.”
“Maybe we can do the lake again next summer,” Carrie said. “Now that we’re back.”
“You can’t swim there anymore. They say it’s algae or something.”
“Oh, too bad.” But Carrie’s smile remained sunny, and she said, “Well, there’s still the ocean.”
Reed said, “Is that your Julio again? Are all those kids his?”
“I told you so,” Greg said. “Like rabbits. Of course, we had to let the locals use the company lake, I mean, we’re democratic, for Christ’s sake.”
A child behind Julio was crawling toward the water. Fay said, “Where’s his legs?”
Chip-chock “What?” Greg said.
“Nothing. Never mind.” Fay frowned at the white wall.
Carrie said, “That’s the end of that box, honey.”
Greg’s watch was a masterpiece of several technologies. Consulting it, he said, “Seven fifty-three, dear. You wanted to know.”
“Oh, my goodness.” Carrie’s long legs had been curled beneath her while they watched the slides; now she unlimbered and rose, saying, “Dinner’s in five minutes. Later on, if we feel like it, we can look at the rest.”
Greg said, “Maybe that’s enough for tonight. One of the best things about being back, we’ve left all those hassles behind.”
Fay said to Carrie, “Can I help?”
“Oh, no, just relax.”
But of course Fay didn’t. Leaving Greg and Reed to talk about government restrictions, she followed Carrie to the kitchen, where small red lights on various machines gave assurance that the meal was coming along. Carrie said, peering through the oven window, “Lord, this is one thing I’m glad to get back to. Modern appliances.”
“Didn’t the company housing have all that?”
“Microwave? Are you kidding?” Lifting a pot lid, releasing a pillow of vegetable-scented steam, Carrie said, “All you get there is the basics. A tiny Italian refrigerator, barely enough ice cubes for two people– Do you know, if you had friends over for dinner, they’d bring their own ice cube trays? Honestly.”
“Other company people, you mean.”
“Who else was there? Fay, I can’t tell you how much we missed you and Reed.”
“We’re glad you’re back,” Fay said. And it was true. The uneasiness and discontent were all on Fay’s side, and pointless. Carrie was her best friend, since college, since they’d been dating the boys who were now their husbands. “Very happy you’re back,” Fay said, and impulsively kissed Carrie’s smooth, round cheek.
There really was nothing for Fay to do in the kitchen, and very little even for Carrie. The machines had everything under control. Having time, Fay went through the bedroom into the bath to refresh her makeup and wash her hands. Returning, she passed what had been Greg’s den and was now the nursery, and movement caught her eye. Vickie was awake.
The baby had been asleep earlier, when they’d all come in to look a her. Now Fay stepped into the nursery, half-lit by a small table lamp, and leaned over the crib to smile down at Carrie’s child.
Vickie was fair, like her mother, with wide-set eyes and pug nose. Her eyes were closed, but her pudgy hands and feet were moving, in that aimless way of infants learning their bodies. Light gleamed on her soft stretching throat.
Perhaps sensing Fay’s presence, the baby abruptly opened her eyes and gazed upward with intense concentration. Beautiful green eyes, darker than jade. Then the wide mouth opened and the baby gave a gassy smile, complete with bubbles.
It’s a trick of the light, Fay thought, but it wasn’t. Holding tight to the side of the crib, she watched Vickie laugh. We think we’re safe, she thought. We move the danger far away where it can only hurt people we don’t care about, and we stay here safe. But it’s coming, anyway.
In the doorway, Carrie said, “Fay? Dinner.”
I can’t let her guess I know, Fay thought, but when she turned the truth must have been plain in her eyes because Carrie, smiling with some irritation, said, “Oh, you noticed.”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” Taking Fay’s arm, walking her out to the master bedroom, Carrie said, “There’s a company doctor knows all about it, there’s a little operation when Vickie’s just a bit older, there won’t be a trace.”
“A company doctor? This has happened before?”
“And they’re all just as healthy and happy as can be,” Carrie said, smiling her contented smile. “Come along to dinner.” She leaned close, the smile turning confidential. “But don’t mention it to anyone, all right? I mean, it’s going to be fixed.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t.”
And she wouldn’t. Following Carrie to the dining room, Fay knew she would never mention it to a soul. But she would remember. Clear in her mind’s eye it would remain, the vision of Vickie, the wide-set deep green eyes, the little pug nose, the forked tongue.
Copyright © 1984 by Donald Westlake