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Don't despair if you look long and hard and can't find this character's name: Walker only mentions it once, when Laurel sends a telegraph to tell her that he's coming for a visit (Laurel.72). Annie is a spitfire of a character, eager to fall for a man who is her polar opposite. She describes him as a "parody of the country hick" (Laurel.4), complete with sticky-outy ears—and he sets her soul on fire.
We got to wondering why Annie falls in lust so hard for Laurel, and it seems that the explanation is quite simple. Basically, what's hot is that the whole arrangement is totally NSA:
Laurel, who loved working among the grapes, and had done so up to the moment of leaving the orchards for Atlanta, had dirt, lots of it, under his nails.
That's it, I thought. I can safely play here. No one brings such dirty nails home to dinner. (Laurel.15-16)
Basically, Annie thinks she's safe because there's no way a guy like Laurel can insinuate himself deeper into her life. He's the perfect vehicle for her lust, which is wildly awakened by their inability to hook up in a highly segregated city. Annie understands that her arousal has everything to do with not being able to "play" as she wants—not because she has undying love for Laurel:
The more it became impossible to be with Laurel, to make love fully and naturally, the more I wanted nothing but that. If the South had risen again during one of our stolen kisses […] we would have been hard pressed to notice. (Laurel.24)
It's that heedless kind of passion that becomes a major problem for Annie later on, when Laurel has been well out of her life and she's married with a child. His lust becomes compounded by a brain injury, something he makes sure she knows he's gotten in defense of "her people."
That's the lowest kind of manipulation, but it kind of works. Annie worries that her pity for Laurel plus her former lust will lead to her abandoning her husband and child. She doesn't do that, but she does confess to her now ex-husband that she'd thought about it:
I was afraid the love and lust would come flying back, along with the pity. And that even if they didn't come back, I would run off with him anyway, because of the pity—and for the adventure. (Laurel.99)
It's part of Annie's mindset to think of something like this as an "adventure"—not abandonment or a genuinely bad idea. We're not sure what to make of that, but we do know that Annie—like the heroine of "The Lover"—is not cut out for a conventional life.
Annie's summer fling does not fit the usual bill for a romantic hero: "He seemed like a parody of the country hick; he was tall, slightly stooped, with blackish hair cut exactly as if someone had put a bowl over his head. Even his ears stuck out, and were large and pink" (Laurel.4).
And yet, she can't resist him. The chemistry between these two nullifies any imperfection in Laurel's appearance; in fact, the lust that springs up between them turns these laughable characteristics into virtues.
It's possible that Laurel turns on the charm just because he really wants Annie—a lot. The attraction between them is so strong, in fact, that there's no racial barrier between them when they're together:
[...] once, after a Movement party at somebody's house, we were severely reprimanded for walking out into the Southern night, blissfully hand in hand.
"Don't you know this is outrageous?" a young black man asked us, pulling us into his car, where I sat on Laurel's lap in a kind of sensual stupor—hearing his words, agreeing with them, knowing the bloody History behind them…but not caring in the least. (Laurel.20-21)
Ah, the power of hormones. But that sweet stupor of lust wears off when Laurel re-enters Annie's life, a man changed by a brain injury. He morphs from a charming "country hick" into a menacing, manipulative stalker. He writes to a now-married Annie: "I want so much to make love to you as we never could do. I hope you know how I lost part of my brain working for your people in the South. I miss you. Come soon" (Laurel.66).
We're sorry to say that Laurel's rhetoric gets worse, not better. A combination of injury, rejection, and poverty sees to it that he never returns to being the person for Annie who could blot out the racism of the South with a single kiss.
Annie's (ex-)husband is not in an enviable position: he has to deal with his wife's hostile former lover. Seriously, Laurel is kind of aggressive and scary in his insistence on Annie abandoning her family and coming to live with him.
But Annie's husband is pretty much cool as a cucumber. He intercepts Laurel's letters, sits through an extremely awkward dinner with him, and even drives him back to the bus station—all without beating Laurel to a pulp.
After Annie and her husband divorce, he even does his best to understand Annie's sense of guilt over not leaving him to go to Laurel. He reveals the contents of Laurel's later correspondence in an attempt to let Annie know that she made the right choice to ignore her former lover:
His last letters were brutal. He blamed you for everything, even the accident, accusing you of awful, nasty things. He became a bitter, vindictive man. (Laurel.102)
But this does not reassure Annie enough. The gap in communication between them seems to be made worse by the whole Laurel situation.
We don't learn much about Laurel's wife, other than the fact that he has one, and she's loving enough to invite Annie out to California to see if her presence will wake Laurel out of his coma. Annie is impressed by her just from that.
Laurel's sister and father are there in the hospital room when Annie appears. They seem utterly grateful for her presence and are very hopeful that she'll be the cure for his brain injury. But this, alas, is not a situation where miracles prevail.