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David Wimberley

More Beautiful Than Horses

The sharp excitement had left him, but the confidence had not. Peter walked on the road under the trees in the dark. The light of the moon descended through the leaves and overhanging branches. The light came down in fragments that only dimly glowed. He walked in the narrowness between the double solid center lines, staring down at the lines as he walked, thinking of Evelyn's bare flanks. If he had not been able to paint her in the morning light, with her in the flesh before him, he could never paint her in the evenings under lamps after a day's office work.

When Peter announced to her his intention to quit school and to do all that would follow -- to take the night job spinning at the mill, to leave his coursework to expire in the files of the Engineering Department, to work his full conversion to the easel and the paints by day -- Evelyn had risen up in bitterness.

Before her bitterness, before he told her, Peter and Evelyn made love in center field of the softball diamond of Chewacla State Park. They were making love and suddenly everything was hilarious as when some people on some nights drink alcohol. Then Evelyn stopped. She had the giggles too badly, laughing with her mouth open against his chest. Her teeth pressed against his skin on the right side of his chest and she was laughing with a hissing sound against his ribs.

While they paused, Peter saw past the crown of her head the moon, full and bright over the woods behind center field. It shed its light over woods, field, and asphalt. It glazed everything with a faint blue patina that gleamed white on the glass of their old Chevette far away on the parking lot and winked in fragments bright on the reservoir. What was not in moonlight was in degrees of darkness. Thick forest, cutting into the sky, cast a black rim of shadow at the edge of the outfield. Beyond home plate and the wire backstop the road and parking lot ended in swimming grey obscurity on which lay the black fixed angles of the picnic pavilion. Beyond the pavilion the individual trees too were black as standing charred logs. Peter thought the pavilion and the trees and backstop and the overshining moon looked like a black and white photograph.

Peter remembered the photograph of his grandfather at his age standing beside the new '36 Dodge with his girlfriend. Their faces, their clothes, the shadows, the dense black of Grandfather's hat, the emptiness of the white sky, the corduroy earth -- all of it Peter had drawn with charcoal on white paper. Then he burned the photograph and the drawing and continued working by beginning again. In the new drawing Peter discarded everything unimportant including the car and both grandparents and left only the earth plowed out to the blank horizon. It was good. It was good enough that he didn't show it to anyone. He kept the drawing in the box behind his easel and sometimes he took it out to look at it. The horizon was a razor-straight cleavage between two planes -- the dark plane of earth where men worked and were buried and above it the white of sky where in the old religion their spirits ascended after death.

Or before, Peter could believe. He shifted lovingly beneath Evelyn.

Evelyn propped herself above Peter on her right arm and with her left arm pulled her black hair to the left side of her face. She was smiling tightly fighting giggles. Peter shifted farther beneath her. Then suddenly love was serious and holy between them, and together they were pressing. It was awkward and not at all like a movie or poem but it was genuine and real between them like nothing ever in movies. Together they were very urgently pressing and moving for some time and then it happened to them both and afterward everything was silly again and fun and holy just the same. He lay on his side next to her on the flannel sleeping bags, feeling the coolness on his back and thighs and stomach. She lay beside him. She was slim and smooth and muscular, her shape more beautiful honestly to Peter than the beauty of horses.

"You are more beautiful than horses," Peter said.

Evelyn fell back flat on the sleeping bags laughing, her knees in the air.

Peter said, "You're more beautiful than a jackass." And they kept laughing.

Peter watched the tiny grey clouds drifting east against the stars. The clouds drifted darkly past the moon so that if he looked at the clouds in a certain way the moon moved or the earth under his back and not the clouds. Peter felt dizzy laying on his back looking into the deep sky.

Evelyn lay close against him and she said, "So quiet. What are you thinking?"

"That I am alive and that this is before death."

Peter looked on at the moon in a trance of contentment.

Peter pulled the sheet over them against mosquitoes.

She didn't speak. Peter looked on at the moon. Peter and his wife lay together under the sheet and after a long while Evelyn gave a start.

"What time is it?" she said.

Peter did not answer. He did not know what time it was.

Evelyn sighed sharply and groaned, still waking. "Your test, Peter." She sighed again and groaned with waking.

"Let's walk down to the creek," Peter said.

"What time is it?"

"It's all right," Peter said. "I'm not taking it now. Let's walk on down to the creek. I want to hear the water."

"Peter."

"I'm quitting, really this time."

"Oh Peter," she said. Her voice was flat and bitter.

"Don't you want to hear the water?"

She was standing then and moving quickly, purposefully. Peter watched Evelyn find her panties and pull them on over her legs. She snugged them over her crotch. Peter liked to see his wife naked. There was joy in desiring and in being desired. There was pride in possessing and in being possessed just the same. But more specifically after the coupling, when desire was softened and pride was as impossible as shame, he liked to see his wife naked because he had not yet painted her beauty on canvas. He had painted her correctly, of course. But he had not captured the beauty of her that was like the beauty of horses. He had thrown away those three paintings. He did not throw out the silhouette of her. He kept it only because as a silhouette it was excellent, not because he had captured the beauty.

Evelyn had pulled on her shorts and t-shirt now and fastened her watch over her wrist. She stood over him. Her legs were full and lithe. Her hips were full and broad and muscular. Like a Tennessee Walker, Peter thought.

Peter patted her calf and rubbed it. It felt solid and alive against his palm.

"Well I'm going," Evelyn said shortly. But she stood there on the sleeping bags.

"I'll really go," she said, her voice tight, taut, thin, such as Peter had never heard. "I'll go and leave you here."

"You go on now," Peter said softly. He wasn't angry.

He wasn't alarmed. He felt as if he were not there, as if he were looking at the scene in a painting, or seeing it from the clouds. "I'll be okay here."

"You'll miss your test." Evelyn's voice was tight and Peter knew she was angry, and not merely angry. Then she said, "What's with you, anyway?"

"What do you mean?" Peter's tongue felt dry. It was happening again.

"You'll never be able to do it."

"Evelyn," he said.

"Face it. I'm facing it. I'm telling you straight. You won't even line me out before you start."

"And I don't fucking paint by the numbers either."

"Maybe you should."

Peter opened his mouth but checked himself and said nothing. He breathed gingerly.

Evelyn found the keys and walked toward the car in the parking lot. It was parked on the far side of the lot beside the trunks of trees in the edge of the woods there. She waited in the parked car for a long time, but Peter didn't go. Suddenly surprising himself, he prayed. He prayed for her and for himself. He thought he would go several times, but he lay praying rigidly and managed with difficulty to do nothing. He managed to not sit up and call out to her to wait.

When the starter whirred and the engine finally caught Peter felt frightened. Of what, he couldn't immediately say. Then the lights of the car came on, blinding him. The car, with Evelyn in it, rolled slowly out of the parking lot and disappeared down the road into the woods.

Now you've done it, he thought. Now you've really done it.

No I haven't, he thought. He muttered aloud, "So help me God I'll get it down if it kills her."

So Peter began once more to plan. Despite the argument he felt an inner swelling of excitement and confidence. If he wanted he could still take the test on time. If he started walking now he could reach campus by six or seven. Surely by eight he could reach campus, just walking, not counting hitching a ride once he reached College Street. And he was sure to come by a ride on College Street. Peter rolled to his side and propped himself on an elbow. He stood and began folding the sheet. He rolled the sheet into the sleeping bags and stashed everything in the woods, in a place he would remember.

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