Mabel knew before the girl came to speak with her what she’d say: that the man who hadn’t so much as posed as the girl’s husband hadn’t returned and wasn’t going to. She — Mabel — had surmised — no, she later told Iris over the phone, correcting herself, not surmised butknown — from the moment she first saw them that he’d already washed his hands of her. For when he got out of the car he disregarded the girl, left her to open the passenger-side door and manage to get to her feet, stand, with that sleeping infant in her arms. He didn’t even glance behind him to check on her, just walked toward the office porch and left her to trail him.
Midweek, afternoon, off-season. The autumn air was damp, still, the sky undulate with silken cirrus under which Mabel had been hanging sheets on the lines between the office and the last of the cabins. Two of those were occupied, four yet to be cleaned and shuttered, three still ready for any comers. Any, Mabel told herself, but she was nothing if not discerning about whom to rent to and whom to turn away, she’d had years of trial and error; and if the girl hadn’t had that baby in her arms despite not looking much older than a child herself, Mabel would have said Sorry, I’m closing up for the season. But there she was, trailing him as though shy of him as Mabel approached, wiping her hands on the bleach-stained smock she was wearing over her sweater and jeans. Good day, she greeted them, which made the girl stop and examine the ground at her feet as he responded by giving a nod in the direction of the office and saying, I take it that vacancy sign is good.
He followed Mabel in, the screendoor closing behind him so that the girl had to let herself through it. She didn’t stand next to him but behind and off to one side, head bent over her child. Mabel took in her stooped posture, the bluish half-moons under her eyes, the flush that rose to her cheeks when he told Mabel that he expected she might lower the price of a cabin if they stayed a while. How long’s a while? Mabel asked. Ten days, he replied, which made the girl look sharply at him, then glance away quickly and hunch even lower over the cache in her arms, Mabel catching in the girl’s expression what she thought might be consternation or dismay — or, she later considered, fear, as if the girl thought he had eyes in the back of his head and would be able to see her consternation or dismay or fear, shielding herself from what Mabel already realized the girl could not. At that instant, she — Mabel — knew she would not, for the girl’s sake, refuse them a cabin or a lower price, and so gave them both.
He reached into a front pocket and peeled off from a roll of bills the cash he placed on the counter, the girl now watching slantwise and in amazement because, Mabel figured, she hadn’t known he’d had that roll on him or hadn’t ever seen that much money, or both. Mabel said the keys would be to the cabin called Spindrift — each cabin had a wooden sign with its name carved into it, hanging above the doorframe — and added that it was the furthermost from the road and the quietest, so nothing should disturb them there. He sleeps good, the girl murmured then, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and looking at the man beseechingly as if, Mabel later told Iris, giving him the chance to admit the infant not only existed but wasn’t any bother. He turned and glared speechlessly at the girl for a moment, returned to glare at Mabel, his eyes as bloodshot and dry and glassy as Mabel’s husband’s used to be after driving the rig with Jimmy Devine, hauling loads around the country for weeks on coffee and bennies and willful stubbornness and the occasional catnap taken in the bunk he and Devine had built into the cab to allow one of them to sleep while the other was behind the wheel. Mabel took in that glare and watched him work at blinking it away. She recognized exhaustion when she saw it, and she knew by those eyes, by the way his unwashed clothes hung on him and the way he smelled, that he’d been driving day and night, night and day, and that he’d simply given out on her doorstep. My luck were the words that went through Mabel’s mind just then: it was only happenstance that they’d ended up at the cabins, that he’d come to the point of needing a good deal of rest before he could get behind the wheel of that dusty, dented old Buick and face a round of endless driving once again. It went without saying, to Mabel’s way of thinking, that when the time came and he was ready, he aimed to drive off alone.
So, we’re square, he said, nodding at the cash on the counter, putting his hand out for the keys. We are, Mabel returned, but I’ll need some ID for my records and your receipt. I don’t need — he began to protest, but Mabel cut him off with: It’s the way I do business, on the level. He eyed the bills she hadn’t touched, and Mabel told Iris later that if he hadn’t looked like he’d fall over from exhaustion any minute, he would probably have just scooped up what he’d put down and told her to go to hell. Instead, he turned on his heel and pushed past the girl, letting the screendoor slam behind him. That woke the infant, the girl saying Oh I’m sorry as the baby burst into whine and cry, then slipping away, letting the door shut gently behind her and standing on the porch rocking and cooing at the infant, her thinness so silhouetted by the screendoor through which Mabel gazed that she found it distressing. As disturbing was the way the man spoke to her when he approached, then watched her do as he said and waited for her to make her way over to the Buick and slide herself in.
The license he handed Mabel was from a Far West state. He was at least three inches taller than the height stated on it, and his eyes weren’t hazel. Mabel wrote the name on the license into her registration book and filled out a receipt, telling him as she did what he needed to know. That the stove was electric. That the refrigerator was on. That there was a new showerhead, extra blankets in the closet. Not to use the towels for the beach. That they were responsible for making up the cabin — if they chose to make it up at all. On their fifth day, she’d bring them fresh towels and sheets and collect the used ones. The television got two channels clearly, a few more if you played around with the rabbit ears. The public telephone was located on the outside of the office to their right. Roland was the night manager, the office closed at 11 p.m.; she, Mabel, reopened it at eight in the morning. There were directions in the cabin to nearby grocery shopping and beachgoing. And she knew he wasn’t even half listening, standing there in a lank way and breaking out in a filmy sweat, vacantly watching her handle that license. When she handed it back to him with a receipt and the keys, she asked if he wanted a crib. Crib? he repeated. For the baby, she said. Nah, came his response.
Well, if you change your mind —
I won’t, he told her. And left abruptly, again letting