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Authors: Stephen Becker

A Covenant with Death

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A Covenant with Death

A Novel

Stephen Becker

To Judge Jay Andrew Rabinowitz

who does justly and loves mercy

We have made a covenant with death
,

and with hell are we at agreement
.

–
ISAIAH 28:15

PART ONE

1

Louise Talbot chose to spend the last afternoon of her life lounging in the shade of a leafy sycamore at the split-rail fence before her home. She was surpassingly alive and exuberantly feminine, and did not know that she was to die. Her home was on Mescalero Road in a small southwestern town called Soledad City. The road was quiet and dusty, its houses on spacious plots—not because it was a rich road but because ours was a small and sluggish town. Here and there sycamores broke the open vistas. Now and then an automobile chugged in. Orioles sliced the hot blue sky. Languid cats strolled the road, and languid dogs ignored them. The iceman passed on his rickety wagon. His name was Henry Dugan and he was an old man, a former deputy sheriff, and he did not mind that his horse was ancient and dilatory, because greeting Mrs. Talbot, staring down at her placid opulence from his perch seven feet up, compensated him for his hot, weary round. He tipped his frayed, stained, wide-brimmed Stetson, revealing untamed white hair and a vestige of gallantry; he noted the careless flow of her long brown hair, the dark and lovely brows, the white flash of her smile. Henry too smiled, and nodded agreeably, and let his gaze wander briefly to her bosom, unbound and indubitable within a finespun blouse. She seemed to notice, and her smile warmed. Then Henry passed along, not looking back. Henry was an old man.

Mrs. Talbot was twenty-seven and surely the most disturbing woman in Soledad City. She was wearing sandals, a short tan cotton skirt, and the white lawn blouse. Eastern fashions meant no more to us than Prohibition, and Mrs. Talbot declined to flatten, distort, or confine. She did not flaunt; she had no need to; she was merely casual, and that was enough. It was more than enough for Mrs. Orville Moody, the next to break our lady's solitude. Mrs. Moody was a meddler and a harpy, in whom the Mrs. Talbots of this world (there would be none in the next, of course) provoked excruciating spasms of righteousness. In black, buttoned to the chin, bearing a reticule, Mrs. Moody ran the gauntlet. Mrs. Talbot spoke: “Hello, Mrs. Moody. Warm enough for you?” Mrs. Moody did not answer. It was incontestably warm enough for her, though by her dress she might have been judged impervious. Summer was not yet upon us—it was May 3, 1923—but the spring rains were over, and in our corner of the southwest heat was not just a blanket or a slow fire or any of the standard metaphors; it was a condition of nature, a liquid medium in which we did not so much walk as swim and shimmer.

Mrs. Talbot stood alone for some time. Her next-door neighbor, Helen Donnelley, sewing camisoles for her mission society to inflict upon aborigines, glanced out at her occasionally. Mrs. Talbot paced slowly, smoothed her hair, examined her fence, stooped once to adjust her sandal; Mrs. Donnelley looked away, thinking again, as she had so often, that Mrs. Talbot, while a nice person really, sometimes showed too much. Across the road, at the Lucases', no one seemed to be home. When Mrs. Donnelley looked up again she saw Colonel Oates approaching. Mrs. Talbot was smiling.

Colonel Oates was sixty-two, high church, a Carolina Oates, retired some years before to come and live among us. His colonelcy, his pension, and the decoration for valor that he wore on July Fourth and November eleventh were his reward for thirty years of army life. His hair was white and thinning, his eyes were alert, his nose was high-bridged with nostrils like a horse's. He was a snoop, and overlooked no public event or private scandal. He carried a silver-knobbed cane because on his patrician level gold was considered ostentatious. He did not walk: he marched. But he slowed as he approached Louise Talbot, and tipped his Stetson, and then halted. “Good afternoon,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Colonel. Hot.”

“Yes indeed. You look, ah, cool.”

“Thank you.”

“Bryan home?”

“No. He's out somewhere talking business.”

“Ah, yes, business.” The Colonel approved. “He is an ambitious man.”

“Yes,” she said, and nodded reflectively. He noticed, for the first time, a fine down at her temples. They stood silently, sheltered from the unrelenting sunlight; perfume rose from the flower beds, and perhaps from Mrs. Talbot. The Colonel fanned himself with his hat, and felt younger. “Not much doing on a day like this.”

“There's never much doing on this road,” she said. “I like to come out and say hello to people. I wish Helen would come out.”

“Mrs. Donnelley.”

“Mmmm. She's always busy.”

“The devil has work,” the Colonel said archly.

“I suppose,” she said, and leaned forward, elbows on the fence, a hand at either side of her throat; her bosom rested comfortably on the upper rail. The Colonel harrumphed and inspected the sky.

“Not a cloud,” he said. She looked up; he glanced down.

“The glare is awful,” she said.

“Yes. How can you stay out here in the heat?”

She did not answer for a moment; and then said, “It's shady under the tree. I'm lonely, Colonel, and I like company.”

“Ah,” he said. “You should have children.” He never forgot the remark.

“Maybe,” she said, her voice neutral, her expression bland. “I think I'll do some gardening.”

“Then I won't keep you,” the Colonel said. “Watch out for sunstroke, now. It's been a pleasure.”

“Drop by again,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said, and waved his hat, and put it back on his head, and marched off. He was on his way to the corner of town where the rich people lived, the Randalls and the Frisbees, the Cathcarts and the Owenses and the Chillingworths; he was to take tea with the Widow Bogan, who had fought Indians as a bride and had once owned great stretches of land. These were the “nice people” of the town. Each Christmas they laced themselves into black cloaks or string ties and delivered poultry to the less fortunate, mainly Mexicans and Negroes, and then returned to their mission-style parlors to make reassuring small talk about the deserving and undeserving poor. The Colonel liked them.

Louise Talbot did no gardening that day. She watched him retreat, waved when he turned for a last gesture, and stood thoughtfully at the fence, one foot up on the lower rail. Shortly Juano Menéndez came along in his car, slowing to offer a deep nod that was almost a bow. Again Mrs. Talbot smiled, and Juano saw, in a brief sensual flash, the comfortable bosom and the shadows below, unrevealing yet distracting. He swore to himself ruefully, but did not stop. He was, after all, Mexican; successful, in that he was half the Soledad Laundry and owned an automobile, and sat at ease in the town's masculine haunts and councils; but still Mexican. Nor did he have need of Mrs. Talbot. He was called the alcalde, and in the Mexican quarter he enjoyed the dominion and bliss of an eighteenth-century squire: he was in his early fifties, had seven living children and nineteen grandchildren, and was the unofficial mayor of the Mexican population. He chuffed away, and Mrs. Talbot was once more alone.

Soon Helen Donnelley emerged from the house next door and came, stately and prim, to stand beside her. “Oh, what a day!” Mrs. Donnelley said. “I've been sewing until my fingers are cramped.”

“I haven't seen the boys,” Mrs. Talbot said.

“Oh, they're building something. Some sort of radio. I don't understand it myself but they have drawings. From a magazine. Bruce says it's something they should learn about. Where's Bryan?”

“I don't know. Somewhere talking, probably. Business.” Mrs. Talbot smiled wanly.

“Men think they're so important,” Mrs. Donnelley said complacently.

“Aren't they?” Mrs. Talbot was amused.

“Well, of course. But they're so proud of themselves. They little know what women go through.”

Mrs. Talbot showed her amusement, and the women chatted as women chat, passing the time, Mrs. Donnelley taller, ample, older, ordinary, Mrs. Talbot placid yet restless, her brown eyes in motion, her hands roving to her hair, her throat, her skirt. When Bruce Donnelley appeared, far down the road, Mrs. Donnelley waved, and Mrs. Talbot seized the moment to primp briefly.

Donnelley approached, advancing slowly in his heavy, solemn stride. He was the town's ranking lumber dealer, God-fearing and hard-working; member of three luncheon clubs and president of one. Success, success. And an elder in the First Presbyterian Church, and he worked at that job too. He spoke seldom. He was hulking and had hard, flat blue eyes, blondish hair, and a sharp nose. He seemed powerful and mysterious: he was armored in principle, and it was not easy to laugh in his presence. The blue eyes were direct and unwavering, and discomfited most men. He was a prominent citizen and no one really knew him. We knew what he stood for. He was the sort of man who would not understand why you might want to know more than that.

“Good afternoon,” he said.

“Hello,” Louise said.

“Did you have a good day, dear?” Helen asked.

“Yes. Hot.”

“It was. I finished another camisole.”

“Good.” To Louise: “Bryan home?”

“Not yet.”

Donnelley was wearing a white linen suit with a white shirt and a dark necktie knotted very small. He stood outside the fence, monolithic, turning slowly to watch another car go by. People came up the road in knots, twos and threes: the day help on its way home, Negroes and Mexicans, raising dust, murmuring, nodding deferentially as they passed, proceeding up this quiet, comfortable road toward the bridge, where they would cross to the east side of the river and scatter, north if they were Mexican, south if Negro. Slowly they passed, ten or a dozen, in groups and yet one group. They passed. Soon they were out of sight.

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