Mary and I were in the truck with the radio on. This was after dinner, after having taken the hour trip to town to watch a film at the little Orpheum. It was our thirtieth anniversary, and playing on the radio was a song I knew and loved, a teenaged girl singing “Johnny, oh, Johnny,” and I was thinking of the person I used to be, and Mary hit the dome light to check her makeup in the mirror, and I didn’t recognize her. We’d known each other as children—there used to be that girl, that young girl. And then marriage, the rhythm of marriage, the going on together. I would have been a preacher, sent to Tennessee to seminary, but her mother’s farm came to us after her passing, and so we stayed and made our family here—raising two boys together, who were themselves prosperous—until they were gone or left and there was only us.
It was just the one moment in the truck that I felt alone. I saw Mary’s hands go to her lips in her thoughtful way, the way of the girl I once loved, the movement having carried over a great distance, a reminder, the thing of being both old and new, and I saw that in her and felt I’d just come upon the fact of it, and then as if it were nothing it went away—her hand fell against my knee, and in spite of myself I pressed the accelerator further, the feeling mechanical, the straightaway running through the fields to the house and its brightness, the basic repetition of night, the place we owned and shared and had built upon and run.
And then Charles, our neighbor, Charles. It was our car lights that lit him up, us in the dirt drive and him in the yard against the house, the line of his body a half-moon in the grass. I mistook the mound of him at first for a deer—but there was the wool of his suit, the white of his face.
I wanted to wait, to wait just a moment, wondering what we’d caught him at, if it was anything at all, but Mary without hesitation unlocked her door. She stepped out and went to him and knelt, and I wouldn’t think of it until later, that I’d thought to wait but followed her, my heart beating, forgetting the film and the drive and its occasion.
And when we saw the pallor of him up close I thought he was dead, but he was breathing. His eyes were open, and Mary was saying, “Charles…Charles.”
Her hand was against his cheek, her face close to his. She shook him gently.
“Charles,” I echoed.
He lay there, his chest rising and falling, the both us noticing what by then was apparent, that one of his hands was not there, one of his feet missing as well, the arm ending palely at the wrist, there being no obvious wound or blood, the ankle the same blank paleness.
The color went out of Mary’s lips. “What’s wrong with him?” she was saying. She looked up and down. She looked at Charles, then at me.
“Why are you crying?” I asked. I was terrified.
“I’m not crying.”
“Go inside,” I said. I looked at the space where his hand should have been, where his foot should have rested against the grass, the remaining foot bare, the veins blue. His hand was in a loose fist, curled but not closed, the nails even and clean.
Then Mary was calling from the front door. She’d walked straight over the azaleas, straight through the garden.
“I need the house keys,” she said, her hands in the air like a schoolgirl’s. “I’ve forgotten the keys!” she said.
I picked him up without thinking, the way you’d lift a child, not realizing how light he was, and walked across the lawn. I took him into the house to the guest bed and laid him down, and Mary brought the extra sheets from the linens and covered him. His face was there, white and handsome, his breath coming solidly through the nose. Every now and then he murmured pitifully, his voice high. He’d retired early, the owner of a private airline, for executives, he’d said. That’s how he came here, to the flatland; he’d been our neighbor for years.
I was sweating, my jacket still on. I took it off and loosed my tie and went outside, thinking he might not have been alone. During the day his home sat below the horizon, west of ours, the spot of it model-like, his tract carved from a neighboring farm, but it was night: I couldn’t see it. There wasn’t any starlight.
When I came back inside Mary was still in her dinner dress standing over him, her cheeks pink.
“You’re shaking,” she said.
I could feel him breathing, the air a mist, the smell of the sheets stale because of the room not having been used for so long.
“I’m not. I’m fine.”
“We should get the doctor?”
“We should,” I said.
“Well, go,” she said. “Hurry.”
So, I went to call the doctor. The doctor we’ve had for years—Warren is his name. I’d woken him up. He growled into the line, the sound of his voice, its baritone, somewhat calming. The distance of him reassuring. Afterward I went to Mary and told her the way one delivers good news, the promise of relief in my voice: He’d make the trip, I said—he’d be here as soon as he could.
And we waited. We waited and waited. And when I returned to the kitchen to telephone him again there was no answer.
We’ve never dealt well with uncertainty. It tends to catch us unawares, and inevitably one of us begins to blame the other for not knowing what to do, so it was the dread, I think, of turning on each other that pushed us into action finally, wanting to do whatever needed to be done ourselves, the decision seemingly made and not even discussed. Without speaking, Mary left and returned with gauze and began to wrap the wounds, but there were no wounds to wrap, so she covered the blank spaces as if they needed covering, and I stood by, watching her work. She has always been deft, and her hands moved expertly, the white of the gauze unraveling from the long, narrow dowel to sit and stretch against his skin. And when she was done, she put the metal clip across the band of white to hold it fast and stepped back, out of breath, and I was the same, noticing the shallowness of the air—it felt like there just wasn’t enough.
I went out and walked to our bedroom, feeling for a moment at least that we’d done what we could, and sat and listened for the change he’d already made, the way it felt to have another person in the house, then Mary came and joined me.
“Thirty years,” I said. I don’t know why I said it.
She was sitting atop the covers, her hair still in plaits.
“You’re scared,” she said.
“We should have driven him to the doctor’s.”
But she sounded uncertain. She lay down and set herself against me, her back warm, the smell of her hair mildly chemical.
“We’ll do it tomorrow.”
“My God,” she whispered.
“What if he wakes up?”