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32

They would become lovers, in time. For Tignor must have her. He would marry her if there was no other way.

He went away from Milburn, and he returned. In the winter of 1953 to 1954 he was sometimes gone for a month, sometimes two. Yet in January, he unexpectedly returned after only two weeks. There was no pattern in his schedule that Rebecca could discern. He never told her when he might be back or even whether he would be back and out of pride she refused to ask him. For Rebecca, too, was stubborn telling the man only goodbye calmly and maddeningly as if each time she accepted it, this might be the last time she saw him.

She kissed his cheek. He seized her head, and kissed her mouth hurting her.

Teasing, Dont you love me, girl?

And, Aint you curious what it might be, to love me?

And, You aint gonna make me marry you, girl? Thats it?

She kept Tignor at a little distance from her, she would not sleep with him. It was painful to her, yet she would not.

For Rebecca knew: Tignor would use her and discard her like Kleenex. He would not love her in return-would he?

It was a risk. Like slapping down a playing card, irrevocably.

You dont want to fall in love with that man, Rebecca. That would be a damn sorry mistake for a girl like you.

This was Leora Greb. But others were jealous of her, too. It riled them that Niles Tignor should seek out Rebecca Schwart who was so young, scarcely half his age. Rebecca Schwart who was graceless in their eyes, not-pretty and headstrong.

Rebecca asked Leora, Whats that, Leora-a girl like you?

Leora said, A young girl. A girl who doesnt know shit about men. A girl who Leora paused, frowning. About to say A girl with no mother, no father but thinking better of it.

Rebecca said hotly, Why would I fall in love with Tignor, or with any man! I dont trust any damn man.

She knew: when Tignor was away from Milburn, he forgot her, she simply ceased to exist for him. And yet she could not forget him.

When he was in Milburn, at the General Washington, always he wanted to see her. Somehow, at some time. He had business appointments through much of the day and often for dinner and so he must fit Rebecca in, late in the evening. Was she available? Did she want to see him? Shed given him her telephone number, at the Ferry Street apartment. Out of nowhere he would call her. His voice was always a shock to her, so intimate in her ear.

Rebecca tried to manage a light, bantering tone when he called. Often Katy and LaVerne were close by, listening. She would ask Tignor where he was, and Tignor would say, A block up, on Ferry Street at a pay phone. Fact is, I can see your windows. Whered you think I was, girl?

Girl he called her, teasing. Sometimes Gypsy-girl.

Rebecca told him she was not a Gypsy! Told him she had been born in the United States just like him.

I wont sleep with him. But I will marry him.

It was ridiculous, truly she didnt believe. Any more than years before she had believed truly that Jesus Christ was her savior: that Jesus Christ had any awareness of Rebecca Schwart at all.

She hadnt wanted to fall in love with Niles Tignor or any man. Love was the poisoned bait, she knew! Sexual love, the love of the senses. Though she could not recall her parents ever having touched each other with affection, yet she had to suppose that they had been in love, once. They had been young, they had loved each other and they had married. Long ago, in what Anna Schwart had called the old country. For hadnt Herschel astonished Rebecca by telling her Pa would sing some, and Ma would sing back, an theyd laugh, like. And Herschel had told her that Pa had kissed him! Love was the trap, that drew you into the cave. And once in that cave, you could not escape.

Sexual love. That meant wanting. Wanting bad, so it ached between the legs. Rebecca knew what this was (she guessed) and knew it was stronger in men, not to be trifled with. Recalling her brother Herschel looming over her grunting and whimpering wanting to rub himself against her behind when shed been a little girl: the raw wet need in the boys eyes, an anguish in his face you might mistake (if you saw just the face, the uprolled glistening eyes) for a spiritual longing. Herschel, whom Ma had had to drag away from his little sister slapping the big gangling boy about the head.

Yet Rebecca thought constantly of Tignor. When he was away from Milburn which was most of the time. She recalled with excruciating embarrassment how she had fled the Tap Room that night, desperate to escape. Why shed burst into tears she didnt know. A hand of shining cards, all diamondsColleen had tried to follow Rebecca but Rebecca had hidden from her in a back stairway of the hotel.

Shed had too much to drink, that must have been it. Unaccustomed to alcohol. Unaccustomed to such close physical proximity with a man, and knowing he wants you. And such shining cards

Rebecca had supposed in her shame that Niles Tignor would never have wanted to see her again. But he had.

Her trance-like hours of work at the hotel were invaded by Tignor. Especially when she pushed her cart along the fifth-floor corridor. Unlocking the door to room 557, stepping inside. As in a waking dream she saw Tignor another time striding to the bed, a tall man with nickel-colored hair and a face flushed with anger; she heard Tignors furious words Let the girl go as he grabbed hold of Baumgarten and began to beat him.

For Rebeccas sake, Tignor had risked arrest. He had not known her at the time: hed heard only her cries for help.

They drove along the Chautauqua River. Westward out of Milburn, toward Beardstown. Where fine, powdery, new-fallen snow had not drifted on the ice, the frozen river was scintillant, blue-tinged in the sun. It was February 1954. Rebecca had not seen Tignor for several weeks. Hed arrived in Milburn driving a new-model Studebaker, robins-egg-blue, a sedan with the widest windows, front and rear, Rebecca had ever seen on any vehicle. Dyou like it? Want to come for a ride?

She did. Of course, she did.

Tignor had an opened bottle of Black Horse ale snug between his knees as he drove. From time to time he lifted it to his mouth and drank, and passed it to Rebecca who drank sparingly though shed grown not to dislike the strong acrid taste of ale. Only in Tignors company did Rebecca drink and so she associated drinking, the smell of beer or ale, the warm buzzing at the base of her skull, with the anxious happiness she felt with Tignor.

Tignor nudged her with his elbow. Cmon, babe: drink up. Its no good me drinking alone.

They were not yet lovers. There was that tension between them, an edginess and a reproach on Tignors part. Rebecca understood that they would become lovers soon.

This afternoon, a Sunday, they would stop at several taverns and hotels along the river. Their destination was the Beardstown Inn. In all these places the Black Horse Brewery had business accounts, and Niles Tignor was known and well liked. It was a pleasure to see strangers faces lighten when Tignor stepped into a bar, and men glanced up. The camaraderie of men drinking together, even at midday. As a woman Rebecca would never know it and would not have wished to know it and yet: in Tignors company, in the green plaid woollen coat hed given her at Christmas, to replace her shabby old brown wool coat hed said looked like a horse blanket, Rebecca too was made to feel special.

That your new girl, Tignor? Kind of young aint she?

Maybe for you, pal. Not for me.

As in the corner of her eye Rebecca was aware of Tignor tall and looming like a bear on its hind legs so often she overheard such exchanges between Tignor and other men, strangers to her.

Jesus, Tignor! This one looks hot.

Rebecca overheard, and gave no sign of hearing. Moving off to the womens room so that the men could talk together as crudely and as jocularly as they wished, without her.

Men liked to be seen with good-looking girls. The younger, the better. Could you blame them? You could not! It was jealousy on Leora Grebs part, Leora was past forty and no man would ever look at her again the way Tignor looked at Rebecca.

Younger women in Milburn were jealous of Rebecca, too. Some of them had gone out with Tignor. Hed driven them in one or another of his cars, no doubt hed given them presents. But their time was past, now was Rebeccas time.

Could be, honey, I got a surprise for you today.

Tignor, what? Dont tease!

He would, though. Tignor was a terrible tease.

Rebecca loved riding with Tignor in the robins-egg blue Studebaker that was unlike any other vehicle youd be likely to see in the hilly countryside between Milburn and Beardstown, thirty miles away. Farmers cars, pickups and jalopies driven by young men passed them from time to time but mostly the road was deserted. Rebecca wanted to think that they were the only two people remaining in the world: no destination ahead, and no General Washington Hotel of Milburn behind where Niles Tignor was a prize guest and Rebecca Schwart was a chambermaid whose wages were paid in cash, off the books.

The Chautauqua River was frozen, ice-locked. Rebecca had never been so far upriver. All of the landscape was new to her, and made beautiful and mysterious by snow. In the distance were the Chautauqua Mountains, pale and fading in winter mist. Nearer were farms, farm land, stretches of uncultivated land. Rebecca was struck by cornfields in whose ragged and stubbled interiors she sometimes glimpsed the ghost-shapes of white-tailed deer. Mostly the herds were does and nearly grown eight-month fawns in their dull thick winter coats but occasionally she saw a buck: bigchested, massive, with elaborate antlers. When she saw a buck, Rebecca whispered, Oh, Tignor! Look. Tignor slowed the car to squint out into rows of broken cornstalks.

No creature so beautiful as a fully grown white-tailed buck with a full head of antlers. Tignor whistled through his teeth in admiration for one of his own kind.

Jesus, girl! Wish I had my rifle.

You wouldnt shoot him, would you, Tignor? Then hed just be dead.

Tignor laughed. It was impossible to know what he meant.

Rebecca thought calmly He has killed. Somebody, or something.

In her pride and vanity thinking But he wont kill me!

Liking her to snuggle against him as he drove. Liking her to rest her head against his shoulder. He stroked her knee, her thigh through layers of winter clothing. He stroked her hand and her forearm up inside the coat sleeve where her skin shivered. As if his hand were moving of its own accord or in accordance with Rebeccas desire. She began to feel excited, anxious. For Rebecca, sexual excitement was indistinguishable from anxiety. Wanting to push away from the man, and yet wanting him not to stop.

Her body was alight, glowing. In her breasts, and in the pit of her belly. Suffused through her very soul like a liquidy sunlight.

He has killed, Im afraid of him.

I shouldnt be here. Ive come too far. This is wrong.

He will marry me. Someday!

Tignor had told her he was crazy for her. Told her he wanted to be with her. Be with. Rebecca knew what that meant.

Sex. This desire. Only through the sex was there the possibility of love. She had to be cautious of the man, she dreaded becoming pregnant like other girls she knew in Milburn, high school dropouts, some of them younger than Rebecca and already mothers. Tignor had warned her he wasnt a man to marry.

Yet if he loved me. Then!

She knew that ugly things were said of Tignor. Even Mulingar who counted himself a friend of Tignors repeated rumors. Hed been married, more than once. No doubt he was married now. He had a family at Lake Champlain who knew little of his life elsewhere. He had a family in Buffalo. The remnants of families scattered through the state: his former wives mourning him and his children fatherless.

But not me. He would not leave me. I will be different.

What is this surprise, Tignor?

Wouldnt be any surprise, honey, would it? If I told you too soon.

Is it something to make me happy or

Rebeccas voice trailed off. What was she thinking of, to hint such things to any man. That a surprise, to her, might make her unhappy.

Tignor grunted yes. He thought so.

She was wearing a peach-colored angora sweater shed found in a wastebasket in one of the rooms at the General Washington whose stretched neck she hid with a knotted scarf, and a black wool skirt that fitted her hips snugly, and shiny black boots to mid-calf. So happy!

At the Beardstown Inn, Tignor had the use of a room.

A private room, a room-with-a-double-bed, and a bathroom.

A second-floor room available at the historic old inn for the Black Horse Brewery agent whenever he came there on business. Rebecca wondered uneasily was she meant to stay with Tignor, to sleep with him in that bed?

Tignor gave no sign. He was brusque, matter-of-fact. He left her in the room and went downstairs and would be gone more than an hour having drinks and talking business with the hotel manager. Rebecca used the bathroom cautiously and dried her hands not on a fresh-laundered white towel virtually identical with the towels at the General Washington but with toilet paper. She sat in a hard-cushioned chair by a drafty window, she would not stretch out on the bed, on an earthen-colored brocade bedspread that exuded a wintry chill.

My surprise, what is my surprise

Tignor, dont tease!

The Beardstown Inn was smaller than the General Washington, but of a comparable age. Like that hotel, it had originally been a stagecoach stop a very long time ago. The oldest parts of both hotels were their taverns, tap rooms. It was known that brothels-whore houses-were often part of these services for men.

Rebecca was made to think, shivering in a room at the Beardstown Inn: so long ago, girls and women designated as whores, how frightened and desperate they must have been, in the wilderness of the Chautauqua Valley. They would have been homeless, penniless. No families. No husbands to protect them. Some must have been mentally retarded. In time, they would become pregnant, they would become diseased. And yet there was something comical about the very words whore-whore house. You could not utter such vulgar words without smirking.

This room, Rebecca saw, with a critical eye, had been flawlessly made up. The bed, that was just slightly higher than beds at the General Washington, with a plainer headboard and old-fashioned bedposts, was perfectly made. The ugly velvet drapes were arranged just so. A faint smell of cleanser prevailed. And a deeper smell of age, moldering plaster. The carpet was nearly threadbare in places and the walls were papered in a floral print with an off-white background that looked discolored. The ceiling was waterstained in a way to make you think of long-legged spiders scuttling overhead. The tall, gaunt window beside her, framed by heavy velvet drapes, overlooked a snowy waste of a side yard crisscrossed with numberless dog tracks, and now the sun was setting, these tracks were darkening like mysterious markings in code.

Tignor returned, in a heightened mood. His pale eyes lit upon Rebecca, seeing she had not removed her coat, nor even unbuttoned it, and he laughed, telling her to take it off: You look like somebody waiting for a bus, girl. Were not leaving yet. Were having supper here, for sure. Relax. When Rebecca stood, and fumbled with the cloth-covered buttons, Tignor tugged at them, and a button flew off, rolling across the carpet in a way that would have made Rebecca laugh at another time.

Tignor pulled off her coat, and tossed it carelessly onto a chair atop his own coat hed tossed there earlier. He smiled at her with his big glistening teeth, stroked her shoulders and hair and kissed her wetly on the mouth. His mouth seemed to be swallowing hers the way a snake would swallow its small paralyzed prey. His tongue tasted of whiskey, and cigarette smoke, yet was oddly cool. Rebecca pushed from him and began to shiver uncontrollably.

Tignor, I cant. I cant stay here. Do you expect me to stay here tonight? Is this the surprise? I cant, see I dont have my things. I dont have a, a change of clothes. I have to work tomorrow, Tignor. By seven A.M. I have to be at the hotel. They will fire me if

Tignor let her chatter nervously. He smiled at her, bemused.

No fuckers are gonna fire you, sweetheart. Take my word.

What did this mean? Rebecca was feeling faint.

I cant stay the night. I

I didnt say we were staying the night. I just said I have this room. Its here.

He spoke like a father reproving a small willful child. Rebecca felt the sting, she could not bear to be rebuked.

Tignor went to use the bathroom not shutting the door. Rebecca pressed her hands over her ears not wanting to hear the zestful splash of his urine that went on, and on. She hoped he had not splashed up onto the toilet seat or onto the tile wall. Not that!

She would clean it away, if he had. She would not leave such evidence behind for the chambermaid to clean.

Just as Tignor returned to the room, zipping up his trousers, whistling, there was a cautious knock at the door: hed ordered a bottle of bourbon, two glasses, a bowl of mixed nuts. The bourbon Tignor ceremoniously poured into glasses for Rebecca and himself insisting: Its no good a man drinking alone, Rebecca. Thats my girl!

Tignor clicked his glass against Rebeccas, and they drank. The bourbon was liquid flame going down Rebeccas throat.

First time I saw you, girl. I knew.

He had never before alluded to their first encounter. Even now, it wasnt clear what Tignor meant, and Rebecca knew she must not question him. A man who chose his words carefully, and yet awkwardly, Tignor would not wish to be interrupted.

See, youre a beautiful girl. I saw that right away. In your maid-uniform, and ugly flat shoes, I saw. Only you need to smile more, honey. You go around looking like youre thinking your own thoughts, and they sure aint making you happy. Tignor leaned foward and kissed Rebecca on the mouth, lightly. He was smiling at her, his eyes were of the same pale metallic hue as his hair, and he was breathing quickly.

Rebecca tried to smile. Rebecca smiled.

Thats better, honey. Thats a whole lot better.

Rebecca was seated on the old-fashioned, hard-cushioned chair, that Tignor had dragged close to the bed, and Tignor was seated on the edge of the bed, pleasantly heated, giving off an aroma of male sweat, male desire, bourbon-and-cigarette-smoke, looming over Rebecca. She was thinking that she was drawn to Niles Tignor because of his size, he was a man to make a not-small girl like herself feel precious as a doll.

Out of his trouser pocket Tignor pulled a handful of loose dollar bills. He tossed them onto the bed beside him, watching Rebecca closely. Like a card trick, this was. For you, Gypsy-girl.

Shocked, Rebecca stared at the fluttering bills. She could not believe what she was seeing.

for me? But why

Several of the bills were ten-dollar bills. One was a twenty. Others were five-dollar bills, one-dollar bills. And there came another twenty. In all, there might have been twenty bills.

Tignor laughed at the expression in Rebeccas face.

Told you there was a surprise waiting in Beardstown, didnt I?

Butwhy?

Rebecca was trying again to smile. She would recall how important it had seemed to her, at this moment, as at the crucial moment when her father Jacob Schwart was trying to maneuver the shotgun around to fire at her, to smile.

Tignor said, expansively, Cause somebody is thinking of you, I guess. Feels guilty about you maybe.

Tignor, I dont understand.

Baby, I was up in Quebec last week. In Montreal on business. Saw your brother there.

My brother? Which brother?

Tignor paused as if he hadnt known that Rebecca had two brothers.

Herschel.

Herschel!

Rebecca was stunned. She had not heard her brothers name spoken in a very long time and had come half-consciously to think that Herschel might be dead.

Herschel sent this money for you, see. Cause he aint coming back to the States, ever. Theyd arrest him at the border. It aint a helluva lot of money but he wants you to have it, Rebecca. So I told him Id give it to you.

It did not occur to Rebecca to doubt any of this. Tignor spoke so persuasively, it was always easier to give in than to doubt him.

But-how is Herschel? Is he all right?

Looked all right to me. But like I said, he aint gonna come back to the States. One day, maybe you can see him in Canada. Might be we could go together.

Anxiously Rebecca asked what was Herschel doing? how was he getting along? was he working? and Tignor shrugged affably, his pale eyes becoming evasive. Must be working, hes sending you this money.

Rebecca persisted, Why doesnt Herschel call me, if hes thinking of me? You told him I work at the General Washington, did you? And you have my telephone number, did you give it to him? He could call me, then.

Sure.

Rebecca stared at the bills scattered on the bed. She was reluctant to touch them for what would that mean? What did any of this mean? She could not bear to take up the bills, to count them.

Herschel went away and left me, I hated him for a long time.

Her words sounded so harsh. Tignor frowned, uncertain.

Im not so sure I will see Herschel again. He might be moving on, he said.

Moving on-where?

Somewhere out west. What they call prairie provinces. Theres jobs opening up in Canada.

Rebecca was trying to think. The bourbon had gone swiftly to her head, her thoughts came to her in slow floating amber-tinted shapes like clouds. Yet she was anxious, for something was wrong here. And she should not be here, in the Beardstown Inn with Niles Tignor.

She wondered why Tignor had surprised her in this way? Scattering dollar bills on a hotel bed. Her chest ached, as if a nerve were pinching her heart.

With renewed energy, Tignor said, But this aint my surprise for you, Rebecca. Thats Herschel, now theres me.

Tignor stood, went to rummage through the pockets of his tossed-down coat, and returned with a small package wrapped in glittery paper: not a box, only just wrapping paper clumsily taped to enclose a very small item.

At once Rebecca thought A ring. He is giving me a ring.

It was absurd to think so. Greedily, Rebeccas eyes fastened on the small glittery package that Tignor was presenting to her with a flourish, in the way he shuffled and dealt out cards.

Oh, Tignor. What is it

Her hands shook, she could barely open the wrapping paper. Inside was a ring: a milky-pale stone, not transparent but opaque, oval-shaped, of about the size of a pumpkin seed. The setting was silver, and appeared just slightly tarnished.

Still, the ring was beautiful. Rebecca had never been given a ring.

Oh, Tignor.

Rebecca felt weak. This was what she had wished for, and now she was frightened of it. Fumbling with the beautiful little ring, fearful of dropping it.

Go on, girl. Try it. See if it fits.

Seeing that Rebecca was blinded by tears, Tignor, with his clumsy fingers, took the ring from her and tried to push it onto the third finger of her right hand. Almost, the ring fit. If he had wanted to push harder, it would fit.

Faintly Rebecca said, Its so beautiful. Tignor, thank you

She was nearly overcome with emotion. Yet a part of her mind remained detached, mocking. Its that ring. He stole it from that room. That man he almost killed. Hes waiting for you to recognize it, to accuse him.

Rebecca took the ring from Tignor and slipped it onto a smaller finger, where it fit loosely.

She kissed Tignor. She heard herself laughing gaily.

Tignor, does this mean were engaged?

Tignor snorted in derision. Hell it does, girl. What it means is I gave you a damn pretty ring, thats what it means. He was very pleased with himself.

Beyond the tall gaunt window framed by heavy velvet drapes the winter sun had nearly disappeared below the treeline. The snow was glowering a somber shadowy white, the myriad dog tracks that had troubled Rebeccas eye had vanished. Rebecca laughed again, the rich flamey bourbon was making her laugh. So many surprises in this room, that had gone to her head. She was short of breath as if shed been running.

She was in Tignors arms, and kissing him recklessly. Like one throwing herself from a height, falling, diving into water below, blindly trusting that the water would receive her and not crush her.

Tignor! I love you. Dont leave me, Tignor

She spoke fiercely, she was half-sobbing. Clutching at him, the fatty-muscled flesh of his shoulders. Tignor kissed her, his mouth was unexpectedly soft. Now Rebecca had come to him, now he was startled by her passion, almost hesitant himself, holding back. Always in their lovemaking it was Rebecca who stiffened, who held back. Now she was kissing him hard, in a kind of frenzy, her eyes shut hard seeing the brilliant glittering ice on the river, blue-tinted in the sun, that hardness she wished for herself. She tightened her arms around his neck in triumph. If she was afraid of him now, his maleness, she would give no sign. If he had stolen the ring he had stolen it for her, it would be hers now. She opened her mouth to his. She would have him now, she would give herself over to him. She hated it, her soul so exposed. The mans eyes seeing her, that had seen so many other women naked. She could not bear it, such exposure, yet she would have him now. Her body, that was a womans body now, the heavy breasts, the belly, the patch of wiry black pubic hair that trailed upward to her navel, like seaweed, that filled her with angry shame.

Like tossing a lighted match onto dried kindling, Rebecca kissing Niles Tignor in this way.

Hurriedly he pulled off their clothing. He took no care that the neck of the angora sweater was stretched and soiled, he had no more awareness of Rebeccas clothing than he had of the floral-print wallpaper surrounding them. Where he could not unbutton or unfasten, he yanked. And his own clothes, too, he would open partway, fumbling in haste. He dragged back the heavy bedspread, throwing it onto the floor, scattering the dollar bills another time, onto the carpet. Some of these bills would be lost, hidden inside the folds of the brocade bedspread, for a chambermaid to discover. He was impatient to make love to Rebecca yet Tignor was an experienced lover of inexperienced girls, he had presence of mind enough to bring out from the bathroom not one but three towels, the very towels Rebecca had been too shy to soil with her wetted hands, and these towels he folded deftly, and lay on the opened bed, beneath Rebeccas hips.

Rebecca wondered why, why such precaution. Then she knew.


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