Because there was something pure and true about the girl, Michael got up and walked away when he saw what his two friends were up to. He was going to keep on walking, too, and somehow wend his way back home, despite being close to stumbling drunk. Why he didn’t do that, he wasn’t sure. Curiosity, probably. And hope, too. Hope that things wouldn’t get out of hand. In any case, he managed to walk only a few yards before plopping down on a park bench. There he waited while his friends continued to mess around with the girl under the shadowy sprawl of a big oak tree. It was a sweltering night, the hottest it had been all summer, so maybe, Michael thought, it was the heat along with the alcohol that had gotten the better of them. A few times, feeling a little concerned, he wanted to say something—something like, hey, let’s just call it a night, but the whispering and the muffled laughter, especially the girl’s, kept him from saying it. Once, he even stood up, having decided he’d better do something, like pull his friends away. But he couldn’t find the nerve to do that, so in the end he did nothing. He just waited and watched as the girl, high on tequila, struggled softly, then relented with a smile. It was a childlike smile he’d never forget.
Even though Michael was now 84 and had learned to put into perspective other choices he had made in his life, this incident still troubled him. Several weeks later, he learned that the girl, new to the high school, had withdrawn. Soon after, he heard that she had driven out to Hollywood, hoping to make it as an actress. She was beautiful enough to have succeeded. She had flaxen hair, as they used to say in the old days, but it was naturally flaxen, and her eyes were as clear and green as the Aegean Sea. (At least, that was the comparison he arrived at a few years ago when he took a cruise with his wife on their 60th wedding anniversary.) The girl, however, wasn’t in Hollywood long before she was discovered in her apartment, dead from a barbiturate overdose. He read about it in the Boise Tribune about a year after she had moved away. A Hollywood Dream Ends in Tragedy said the small notice on the second-to-last page.
Michael drifted for awhile after high school. His parents had hoped he would go on to college, but after more than a year of staying out late and sleeping off hangovers, they suggested he get an apprenticeship at the aerospace plant where his father worked, which he eventually did. He became a machinist, a meticulous job that kept his mind focused on producing nuts and bolts and other small parts and from thinking about the girl. He lost touch with his two friends. One went to Korea and returned minus a leg due to a noncombat-related accident. The other died in jail at the hands of fellow inmates after he had been convicted of assaulting a girlfriend. Michael sometimes wondered, what would his punishment be and when would it come? He had no doubt that the laws of karma had something specific in store for him.
And yet over the years his life ambled along, encountering few major bumps. He met a girl at the bar, a dishwater blonde with a crooked smile that he found charming. They had three children in short order, a girl and two boys, all healthy, who grew up to be decent enough adults. The only punishment he met with along the way came in the form of dreams. Often, he’d relive that night in a heightened sort of way, not unlike a psychedelic trip. Again, he saw his friends cheering each other on. Again, he merely watched, but the girl was no longer smiling. She was grimacing something awful, like a chimpanzee grimaces when shrieking with laughter. She stared and grimaced and laughed, making a mockery of the whole thing. In other dreams, they met under simpler circumstances, in perfectly ordinary places, like a grocery store or a mall. She’d be walking along, when suddenly she’d turn and nod knowingly, as if the two of them shared a secret no one would have ever guessed. Another time, he spotted her taking a stroll on the opposite side of a busy road. Dodging traffic, he managed to get safely to the other side, but as soon as he drew close enough to speak, she sprouted tiny filigreed wings and spiraled gracefully into the sun. It was this dream that reminded him of his very first impression: she was more angel than girl.
Now that Michael had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, he thought, well, this must be it, this must be the punishment he’d been waiting for all along. This belief helped him accept the diagnosis with a certain amount of equanimity, though his wife took the news hard. On most days she was unable to hold back tears. And though he hated the idea of leaving her behind, he felt more than ready to submit to the fate that karma, God, or whatever had chosen for him.
At first, he wasn’t in much physical pain. The morphine drip took care of that, infusing him with a warm, steady stream of comfort. But this warm, steady stream also had the effect of fueling his dreams. No longer were the girl’s visits occasional and fleeting. Now, day and night, awake and asleep, he came face to face with her. She wore the same pale yellow dress with the cinched waist as on that night long ago, and her hair was pulled back into the same loose ponytail, setting in relief her beautiful face. Yet in other ways she had changed—she seemed older, in fact, as if in death she had continued to mature. Her manner especially was no longer girlish. From the way she tilted her head when looking down to the few times she brushed back his thinning hair, she now acted more like a mother caring for a sick child than a girl who with eyes alone had once told him she needed help. And so, for the first time, he felt emboldened to speak, to say her name. Madeleine, he whispered in a hoarse voice. He said it just once, to try it out. And to his relief she didn’t seem to mind. She didn’t grimace, at least, nor did she suddenly sprout wings and fly away. He wanted to say much more, but just as he opened his mouth to do so, she raised a slender finger to her lips, a plea for silence.
At the moment of his death, even though his wife was by his side, it was only Madeleine he sought out. It was only her eyes—as soothing as sea foam—that he looked into. At the very last, he threw all caution aside, and shouted her name: Madeleine, Madeleine. Again and again, he called out, so that his wife, desperate to know what he was saying, bent down and placed an ear to his barely moving lips. For several moments she remained there, trying to find meaning in the low moans issuing from his chest. Finally, she straightened and looked down in confusion. She hadn’t understood a thing. Madeleine, on the other hand, with her softened gaze and tempered smile, made it clear that she understood everything.