Maggie absently wiped her hands on her dress, realized what she had done, then tried to remove the flour that was smeared on her favorite house dress. She pushed her hair back from her eyes, leaving another streak of flour on her forehead and in her hair. At her feet a scattering of flour had whitened the dirty tiles. Maggie gave up trying to look neater, sat down at the shaky wooden table in the kitchen and tried to understand the bread recipe.
Cliff came through the door, grumbling. “Why in hell are there clothes scattered all over the back yard?
Maggie hurriedly put aside the recipe car and helped Cliff maneuver his crutch through the door.
“The dogs pulled the clothesline down,” she said, feeling guilty for not having picked up the clothes earlier.
“You look a mess,” he told her.
Maggie brushed at her face and dress knowing there was no hope. “I’m trying to make bread.”
Cliff stepped over the fallen flour. “You’re creating a health hazard. You ever heard of one of those places they call stores? The have shelves and shelves of bread.”
“But I wanted to make it,” Maggie said as he went into the living room.
She stayed in the kitchen, feeling tired and disappointed. She could hear Cliff typing at his corner desk. She left the bread making ingredients on the table and kitchen counters and went out to the backyard to pick up the clothes.
Cliff’s friend and their next door neighbor, Dennis, was re-hanging Maggie’s clothes when she came out of the house. “Looks like you’ve had some trouble here,” he said.
“It’s those dogs. If I tie them up then they bark all day and the other neighbors complain. If I let them loose then they destroy everything.”
She followed behind Dennis and put clothespins on the articles he draped over the the clothesline. “Thanks for helping.”
“No problem. I figured you could use it.” Dennis brushed a paw print off one of the shirts. “You should get rid of those dogs.”
“Cliff loves them,” she said.
Dennis said no more and listened attentively to Maggie’s often repeated hopes for a better life when Cliff’s bones healed.
When Dennis had gone back into his house and Maggie was trying to put her kitchen in order, Cliff’s two dogs raced into the backyard and tugged one of Maggie’s dresses from the clothesline, ripping it apart in a tug of war.
Cliff sat at his desk, his left leg still in a cast, stuck out at an angle. His fingers rested motionless on the computer keyboard. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths and tried to formulate a first line for a poem that had been on his mind in bits and pieces. He typed a few lines. They were vague and made him uneasy, anxious. He stopped typing then deleted what he had written. Feeling stiff, he maneuvered his way to the window and watched as Maggie and Dennis hung clothes on the line.
She was barefoot and her clothes and face were spotted with flour. Her cotton dress hung loosely from her thin frame, and her pale skin was blotchy. He found her slightly disgusting, almost repulsive. She adored him and he knew it, but even her adoration made him dislike her.
Maggie stood on the porch, watching the horizon turn purple and pink, and pulled the gray and red Indian blanket around her shoulders. She shook slightly from the chill of the wind, but refused to go into the house. She felt like watching the sunset or taking a walk through the canyon, but she didn’t want to be far from home in case Cliff needed her. She worried that he was in more physical pain than he was letting on, but she was also glad to have a few minutes of her own, if for nothing else than to feel the porch boards under her calloused feet.
She couldn’t remember when she stopped wearing shoes. There was a feeling she had that it started with a sudden urge, something started on a summer’s morning that she had not gotten over. They were small, strong feet, and she enjoyed watching the dirt flow from them as she stepped into the show every night. They had resisted tanning, and only the soles showed the damage of walking on rocks and thorns and through the tall grasses along the creek. Cliff used to complain about her being barefoot, but he had said little about it for a couple of months.
From her dress pocket she pulled a piece of paper she had retrieved from the waste basket by his desk when he wasn’t looking. The words on it were in his handwriting and was only one line: bend to me to drink, I am the river.
Maggie held the paper close to her lips. “I’ve tried so hard to bend, Cliff. I don’t know if I can bend anymore.”
The porch light went on. Maggie jumped as Cliff came out on the porch, shaky from whiskey and from the pain in his broken leg. Maggie dropped the paper as she reached out to him. They both stared at it as it lay open, his written line showing.
“What have you got there, Maggie?” Cliff asked angrily.
“I found it. I haven’t read what’s on it.”
“Like hell you haven’t.” Cliff placed his foot on the paper and ground it into the porch floor making it unreadable. “You’ve gotten nosy, Maggie. It’s not a trait I like.”
“I’m sorry Cliff. I just wish you would share your poetry with me the way you used to,” she said.
“Okay. Here’s a poem for you. Roses are red, violets are blue, you’re tired of me and I’m tired of you.”
Maggie looked into his eyes for the first time in weeks. She expected to see the devil lurking there. Instead they were sad and beautiful eyes, dark gray and clear, despite Cliff’s drinking. She started to walk into the house.
Cliff grabbed her. “I’m not done recitin’,” he said. He put his mouth close to her ear, tilting her back slightly. “Bend to me to drink, I am the river. I wind through your life, flowing, eroding. Your reflection is in me and I hold you there. Your roots are deep in me.”
His breath was fire on her ear. She thought for a moment he was going to kiss her. Then he let go.
He entered the house and shut off the porch light, leaving Maggie in the darkness of night with no moon to light the distant hills and stars shielded by a layer of black clouds.
Rudy’s was a small hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon bar and grill that catered to the depressed unemployed and dreamers who needed a place to wash the taste of unfulfilled dreams from their mouths. Rudy’s was dark and grim, decorated with out-of-date calendars and landscape pictures cut from magazines and put into small black frames. The tables and chairs were mismatched, and the plates, cups and glasses were either stained or chipped, or both. Rudy’s smelled of bacon grease and sweat. The jukebox could only play the scratchy records at a low volume or the speaker would buzz louder than the music.
Rudy was a woman. She was nearing fifty, but looked older. Behind her thin, brightly painted lips, all but a half dozen teeth were missing. With humorless, watery eyes she would cackle at the merest hint of a joke, though she never really understood the punch lines. Her body was thin and wrinkled. She wore her hair in a tight little bun that she decorated with a small comb she bought in Mexico when she was young. Rudy’s life was her bar. She opened at 6:00 a.m. and closed at 2:00 a.m. every day of the week, every day of the year. Part-time help came and went on a regular basis.
Having a troublesome broken leg didn’t stop Cliff from making it to Rudy’s. He sat at the bar and talked with drunks and flirted with Rudy. Not that his discussions or his flirting meant anything, but it passed the time. Occasionally he would scribble a part of a poem on a napkin and then stick it into his jacket pocket. Sometimes he just watched the television that was fixed to the wall above the dirty shelves.
At first, when he’d just started going to Rudy’s, Maggie complained. She soon realized her complaining made him stay away for longer periods, so she stopped nagging him.
While he was watching television, Maggie came into the bar. She sat down next to him, and trying to be cute, said “hey stranger. Want to buy a girl a drink?”
He continued watching the television. “Get out of here, Maggie,” he said.
“I have good news, honey.” She put her arm around his shoulders. “I have something to tell you.”
Without turning, Cliff pulled Maggie’s arm from his shoulders. He stared at the television screen as he squeezed her wrist.
“Ouch, Cliff. You’re hurting me!” Maggie complained.
“If you don’t get the hell out of here I’ll break your arm.” When he let go of her wrist his fingers had left nasty imprints on her skin.
Maggie backed away from him and then ran out the door.
Rudy had watched the whole scene. “You’re one sour son of a bitch,” she told Cliff.
Cliff watched the news and said nothing.
Maggie’s anger and grief twisted themselves around her like a python, squeezing and choking. She ran as fast as she could, her bare feet slapping against the tar surface of the road. Her loose hair stung her cheeks and fell across her eyes. When she finally slowed to a walk, she was drenched with sweat and her hair was a mass of wet tangles. At the bridge over the creek, she leaned over the railing and threw up. She got home just as Dennis pulled into his driveway.
“When I was younger I used to play what I called the terrible secret game,” Dennis said. “I could get people to tell me their most hidden and intimate secrets. I made a game of it; just to see what the most terrible secret was that I would hear.” He laughed at Maggie’s curious expression. “I heard some pretty weird stuff. I stopped playing the game because it had a strange effect on other people, and on me.”
“Like what?” Maggie asked.
“After someone would tell me their secret, they could hardly look at me. Most people would avoid me entirely. Once I began to have my own terrible secrets I understood how they felt about having their secrets exposed.”
Maggie looked surprised. “You have terrible secrets?”
“What’s terrible to me may not be anything to you. The most terrible secret I ever heard was not so bad compared to other things like rape or molestation. It was terrible because the guy who told me about his secret lived in fear that it was God who was going to get him for it.”
“What did he do?”
“He took a pair of gold candlestick holders from a Catholic church. He was about eleven at the time.”
Maggie smiled. “That’s not so terrible.”
“To an eleven year-old boy who was brought up a strict Catholic, it is. It took the guy almost two hours to tell me his secret. He could remember every detail, even the color of the cat that was sitting on the church steps.”
“Did he feel better after he told you about it?” Maggie asked.
“For a short time. Then he began to hate me.”
“Because you knew about him stealing the candlestick holders?”
“The guy who took the candlestick holders was angry because I couldn’t think of a terrible secret of my own to tell him,” Dennis said.
“Maggie,” Dennis said knowingly, “you just can’t accept somebody’s terrible secret and give nothing in return.”
“Priests and psychiatrists do it,” Maggie said.
“The good ones give something in return, Maggie. They help heal people. I was taking—accepting—terrible secrets and opening wounds and not helping heal the wound.”
Maggie shifted uneasily on the porch swing. “Are you talking about me and Cliff?”
“When he told you those things about his past, he was hoping that you would tell him something that was equally terrible.”
“I didn’t have anything to tell him.” Maggie bit on a jagged fingernail. “I can’t help it if nothing terrible has ever happened to me or that I have chosen to not do terrible things.”
“If you want to keep him you’re going to have to help heal him somehow, Maggie. He’s hurting.”
“Can’t you help him? You’re his best friend.”
Dennis stood up as Cliff pulled in front of the house. “It’s got to be something from you, Maggie.”
Cliff got out of his car and passed Dennis with barely a nod and a grumbled hello. Maggie followed Cliff into the house, caught in the trail of odors that clung to him gathered at Rudy’s. She followed him to the kitchen and stood quietly at the door as he opened a beer.
“Do you have to drink that?” Maggie’s voice was pleading.
“What did Dennis want? I saw you two sitting on the swing. Looked cozy.”
“We were just talking.” Maggie tried to to quickly sum up what Dennis had said to her. “Dennis thinks you’ve been angry at me all this time because of what you told me…you know…about your past.”
Cliff took a long drink from the can. His hand was shaking. Small streams of beer cascaded from the side of his mouth. “So you told Dennis?” His voice was quivering.
Maggie suddenly realized that hearing Cliff’s terrible secret wasn’t the only mistake she made. “I had to talk to somebody. And he is your best friend.”
Cliff threw the beer can across the kitchen. It crashed into the spice rack, sending it and its contents into the sink full of dishwater.
“I’m sorry, Cliff,” Maggie screamed. “For God’s sakes I wish you would have kept your secrets to yourself.”
“So do I,” Cliff mumbled.
A few nights later, when the warm winds of an Indian summer blew through the windows and Maggie sat on the edge of the bed and combed her hair, Cliff suddenly missed the closeness he and Maggie once shared. He was propped up in bed, his leg cushioned by a huge pillow.
“Maggie,” he said softly, “tell me your most terrible secret.”
Maggie stopped combing her hair. Before, when he had told her his secret, she had not been able to think of anything terrible. Her life had been simple and uncomplicated. Her parents were healthy and respectable. She went to a nice school and stayed out of trouble. When she married Cliff she was a virgin.
“Tell me your most terrible secret,” he said again, gently.
Maggie closed her eyes. “Remember the week you were in the hospital following the crash?”
Cliff’s voice was low and breathy, excited. “Yeah, I remember.”
Maggie tried to think of something terrible enough. Then it came to her. “I had an affair with Dennis.”
Cliff leaned over and shut off the light, saying nothing.
Maggie combed her hair and waited for the healing to begin.