"It's been months since I saw a movie."
James shrugged again, puzzled. "You saw the 'Bride of Frankenstein' last night on TV," he pointed out.
"I first saw that old horror when I was about your age," she told him with a trace of disdain.
"I liked it."
"So did I at eight and a half. But tonight I'm going to see a new picture."
"Okay," said James, wondering why anybody in their right mind would go out on a chilly night late in November just to see a moving picture when they could stay at home and watch one in comfort. "Have a good time."
He expected Mrs. Bagley to take off in her car, but she did not. She waited until a brief toot! came from the road. Then, with a swirl of motion, she left.
It took James Holden's limited experience some little time to identify the event with some similar scenes from books he'd read; even with him, reading about it was one world and seeing it happen was another thing entirely.
For James Holden it opened a new area for contemplation. He would have to know something about this matter if he hoped to achieve his dreamed-of status as an adult.
Information about the relation between man and woman had not been included in the course of education devised by his father and mother. Therefore his physical age and his information on the delicate subject were approximately parallel.
His personal evaluation of the subject was uncomplicated. At some age not much greater than his own, boys and girls conglomerated in a mass that milled around in a constant state of flux and motion, like individual atoms of gas compressed in a container. Meetings and encounters took place both singly and in groups until nearly everybody had been in touch with almost everybody else. Slowly the amorphous mass changed. Groups became attracted by mutual interests. Changes and exchanges took place, and then a pair-formation began to take place. The pair-formation went through its interchanges both with and without friction as the settling-down process proceeded. At times predictable by comparing it to the statistics of radioactivity, the pair-production resulted in permanent combination, which effectively removed this couple from free circulation.
James Holden had no grasp or feeling for the great catalyst that causes this pair-production; he saw it only for its sheer mechanics. To him, the sensible way to go about this matter was to get there early and move fast, because one stands to make a better choice when there is a greater number of unattached specimens from which to choose. Those left over are likely to have flaws.
And so he pondered, long after Martha had gone to bed.
He was still up and waiting when he heard the car stop at the gate. He watched them come up the walk arm in arm, their stride slow and lingering. They paused for several moments on the doorstep, once there was a short, muted laugh. The snick of the key came next and they came into the hallway.
"No, please don't come in," said Mrs. Bagley.
"But--" replied the man.
"But me no buts. It's late, Tim."
Tim? Tim? That would probably be Timothy Fisher. He ran the local garage where Mrs. Bagley bought her car. James went on listening shamelessly.
"Late? Phooey. When is eleven-thirty late?"
"When it's right now," she replied with a light laugh. "Now, Tim. It's been very--"
There came a long silence.
Her voice was throaty when the silence broke. "Now, will you go?"
"Of course," he said.
"Not that way, silly," she said. "The door's behind you."
"Isn't the door I want," he chuckled.
"We're making enough noise to wake the dead," she complained.
"Then let's stop talking," he told her.
There was another long silence.
"Now please go."
"Can I come back tomorrow night?"
"It's a date, then."
"All right. Now get along with you."
"You're cruel and heartless, Janet," he complained. "Sending a man out in that cold and storm."
"It isn't storming, and you've a fine heater in that car of yours."
"I'd rather have you."
"Do you tell that to all the girls?"
"Sure. Even Maggie the Washerwoman is better than an old car heater."
Mrs. Bagley chuckled throatily. "How is Maggie?"
"I mean as a date."
"Better than the car heater."
"Tim, you're a fool."
"When I was a kid," said Tim reflectively, "there used to be a female siren in the movies. Her pet line used to be 'Kiss me, my fool!' Theda Bara, I think. Before talkies. Now--"
Another long silence.
"Now, Tim, you've simply got to go!"
"Yeah, I know. You've convinced me."
"Then why aren't you going?"
He chuckled. "Look, you've convinced me. I can't stay so I'll go, obviously. But now that we've covered this problem, let's drop the subject for a while, huh?"
"Don't spoil a fine evening, Tim."
"Janet, what's with you, anyway?"
"What do you mean, 'what's with me?'"
"Just this. Somewhere up in the house is this oddball Maxwell who hides out all the time. He's either asleep or busy. Anyway, he isn't here. Do you have to report in, punch a time clock, tuck him in--or do you turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of twelve?"
"Mr. Maxwell is paying me wages to keep house for him. That's all. Part of my wages is my keep. But it doesn't entitle me to have full run of the house or to bring guests in at midnight for a two-hour good-night session."
"I'd like to tell this bird a thing or two," said Tim Fisher sharply. "He can't keep you cooped up like--like--"
"Nobody is keeping me cooped up," she said. "Like what?"
"You said 'like--'"
"Skip it. What I meant is that you can't moulder, Janet. You've got to get out and meet people."
"I've been out and I've met people. I've met you."
"All to the good."
"Fine. So you invited me out, and I went. It was fun. I liked it. You've asked me, and I've said that I'd like to do it again on Saturday. I've enjoyed being kissed, and I'll probably enjoy it again on Saturday. So--"
"I'd think you'd enjoy a lot of it."
"Because my husband has been gone for five years?"
"Oh, now Janet--"
"That's what you meant, isn't it?"
"No. You've got me wrong."
"Tim, stop it. You're spoiling a fine evening. You should have gone before it started to spoil. Now please put your smile on again and leave cheerfully. There's always Saturday--if you still want it."
"I'll call you," he said.
The door opened once more and then closed. James took a deep breath, and then stole away quietly to his own room.
By some instinct he knew that this was no time to intercept Mrs. Bagley with a lot of fool questions.
To the surprise and puzzlement of young James Quincy Holden, Mr. Timothy Fisher telephoned early upon the following evening. He was greeted quite cordially by Mrs. Bagley. Their conversation was rambling and inane, especially when heard from one end only, and it took them almost ten minutes to confirm their Saturday night date. That came as another shock.
Well, not quite. The explanation bothered him even more than the fact itself. As a further extension of his little mechanical mating process, James had to find a place for the like of Jake Caslow and the women Jake knew. None of them were classed in the desirable group, all of them were among the leftovers. But of course, since none of them were good enough for the 'good' people, they were good enough for one another, and that made it all right--for them.
But Mrs. Bagley was not of their ilk. It was not right that she should be forced to take a leftover.
And then it occurred to him that perhaps Mrs. Bagley was not really taking the leftover, Tim Fisher, but instead was using Tim Fisher's company as a means toward meeting a larger group, from which there might be a better specimen. So he bided his time, thinking deeply around the subject, about which he knew nothing whatsoever.
Saturday night was a repeat of Wednesday. They stayed out later, and upon their return they took possession of the living room for at least an hour before they started their routine about the going-home process. With minor variations in the dialog, and with longer and more frequent silences, it almost followed the Wednesday night script. The variation puzzled James even more. This session went according to program for a while until Tim Fisher admitted with regret that it was, indeed, time for him to depart. At which juncture Mrs. Bagley did not leap to her feet to accept his offer to do that which she had been asking him to do for a half hour. Mrs. Bagley compounded the affair by sighing deeply and agreeing with him that it was a shame that it was so late and that she, too, wished that he could stay a little longer. This, of course, put them precisely where they were a half hour earlier and they had to start the silly business all over again.
They parted after a final fifteen-minute discussion at the front door. This discussion covered Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and finally came to agreement on Wednesday.
And so James Holden went to bed that night fully convinced that in a town of approximately two thousand people--he did not count the two or three hundred A.E.C.-College group as part of the problem--there were entirely too few attractive leftovers from which Mrs. Bagley could choose.
But as this association grew, it puzzled him even more. For in his understanding, any person forced to accept a second-rate choice does so with an air of resignation, but not with a cheerful smile, a sparkle in the eyes, and two hours of primping.
James sought the answer in his books but they were the wrong volumes for reference of this subject. He considered the local Public Library only long enough to remember that it carried a few hundred books suitable for the A.E.C.-College crew and a thousand or so of second-hand culls donated by local citizens during cleanup campaigns. He resorted to buying books by mail through advertisements in newspapers and magazines and received a number of volumes of medical treatises, psychological texts, and a book on obstetrics that convinced him that baby-having was both rare and hazardous. He read By Love Possessed but he did not recognize the many forms of love portrayed by the author because the volume was not annotated with signs or provided with a road map, and he did not know it when he read about it.
He went through the Kinsey books and absorbed a lot of data and graphs and figures on human behavior that meant nothing to him. James was not even interested in the incidence of homosexuality among college students as compared to religious groups, or in the comparison between premarital experience and level of education. He knew the words and what the words meant as defined in other words. But they were only words and did not touch him where he lived.
So, because none of the texts bothered to explain why a woman says Yes, when she means No, nor why a woman will cling to a man's lapels and press herself against him and at the same time tell him he has to go home, James remained ignorant. He could have learned more from Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats, or Browning than from Kinsey, deLee, or the "Instructive book on Sex, forwarded under plain wrapper for $2.69 postpaid."
Luckily for James, he did not study any of his material via the medium of his father's machine or it would have made him sick. For he was not yet capable of understanding the single subject upon which more words have been expended in saying less than any other subject since the dawn of history.
His approach was academic, he could have been reading the definitive material on the life-cycle of the beetle insofar as any stir of his own blood was concerned.
From his study he did identify a couple of items. Tim Fisher obviously desired extramarital relations with Mrs. Bagley--or was it premarital relations? Probably both. Logic said that Mrs. Bagley, having already been married to Martha's father, could hardly enter into premarital relations, although Tim could, since he was a bachelor. But they wouldn't be premarital with Tim unless he followed through and married Mrs. Bagley. And so they must be extramarital. But whatever they were called, the Book said that there was about as much on one side as on the other.
With a mind mildly aware of the facts of life, distorted through the eyes of near-nine James Holden, he watched them and listened in.
As for Mrs. Bagley, she did not know that she was providing part of James Holden's extraliterary education. She enjoyed the company of Tim Fisher. Hesitantly, she asked James if she could have Tim for dinner one evening, and was a bit surprised at his immediate assent. They planned the evening, cleaned the lower part of the house of every trace of its current occupancy, and James and Martha hied themselves upstairs. Dinner went with candlelight and charcoal-broiled steak--and a tray taken aloft for "Mr. Maxwell" was consumed by James and Martha. The evening went smoothly. They listened to music and danced, they sat and talked. And James listened.
Tim was not the same man. He sat calm and comfortably on the low sofa with Mrs. Bagley's head on his shoulder, both of them pleasantly bemused by the dancing fireplace and with each other's company. He said, "Well, I'm glad this finally happened."
"What happened?" she replied in a murmur.
"Getting the invite for dinner."
"Might have been sooner, I suppose. Sorry."
"What took you so long?"
"Just being cautious, I guess."
He chuckled. "Cautious?"