“Mary,” I said. I could barely say it.
She looked up, then rose to greet me.
“It’s okay,” she was saying. She took hold of me and rubbed my back. “I was just thinking of you when you came in,” she said. She took my arm and started out of the room and went steadily back along the hallway, the pictures of our children a stuttering of time, first small then growing and grown, and she went to the open door and to the porch and stood with me.
“See?” she said. “It’s okay.”
But I didn’t want to see him. I went to the bedroom and like a child put myself on the bed, and Mary left me alone—she knew what to do—and when I came out the dawn was lifting up the dark. I found Mary on the couch in the den and woke her. I wasn’t sad, but we were crying, both Mary and I, though I couldn’t imagine why. I went outside and Mary stood and watched, her hands together and rubbing. I went to Charles and placed him upright and hefted the weight and almost fell, the work of it more difficult, the body larger-seeming, heavier, then getting him aloft and walking him through the house, back the way we’d come, the feelings the same. I got him on a blanket in bed, the first Charles’s twin, the suit the same goose-like gray, Charles’s face a white dough, breathing the same even breaths.
And Mary resumed her care in her way, only she was harder working. She said the first was like a lesson; that it would be harder now, and for the next few days she attended only to him, and I helped, following her directions without thinking, trying not to see him at all. We turned him to avoid bed rash and bathed him when he dirtied himself, and when Charles groaned I tried not to hear it. When his face registered some emotion I tried to forget it. He was simply old and infirm, and without realizing I began to daydream of him dying. I didn’t notice his hands or feet. I didn’t want to. I treated him as a living work, and somehow I slept at nights, a thoughtless, deadening sleep.
One night I woke and felt alone, and Mary was gone. I got up and went to look for her. I’d been dreaming of a river where our sons swam and played until the water was filled with Charles, his bodies white logs, our boys playing without interruption. They didn’t notice at all that the water was different, and I was trying from the shore to get them out. I was too frightened to go get them, and now I was glad to be awake. Mary was in the kitchen with the light on. She was sitting at the table, her hands wrapped around a glass of water.
“You’re up,” she said. “Do you want anything to drink? I went to check on Charles—I thought I wouldn’t get back to sleep.”
“You can come back to bed now,” I said. But she shook her head.
“I’m still too awake,” she said. She went to the cupboard and pulled out a glass then filled it from the nearby pitcher. She set it in front of me. She looked tired. I felt like I hadn’t been paying attention. “I don’t feel right,” she said. “I was thinking of him. I wasn’t thinking of you. I never meant to. I never even asked you what it was like to bury him.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m okay.” But just then the picture of his body on the tarp came to me, and I felt a kind of anger. I was surprised by it. I said, “Forget about it. Just try to go to bed. You need sleep.”
“I didn’t know what kind of life we’d have…. But that’s what happens, isn’t it? It’s normal to want something else. It’s normal isn’t it? I was dreaming about him after you took him away. I couldn’t help it. I’m scared that it was me. I was thinking of him and I went outside and he was there, and then you came home.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.
“But was it me? You know what I mean, though? You understand?”
“I think you need sleep,” I said. “You need to go to sleep.”
I walked her back and helped her undress, and the next morning arrived like the one before, only I was up before dawn, the kitchen light still on and me smoking, though I hadn’t smoked in a while. I had promised to give that up. Mary came in shortly after, studying me for a moment, her hands wrapped against her belly. Her cheeks were lightly swollen from the pillow.
I said, “Can you watch him for a while?”
She started to the sink then saw the coffee already made. She didn’t even look at me.
“All right,” she said. And I went to prepare for the trip to Charles’s home. It seemed too obvious. I would go and find whatever I could.
I got my boots and knife and duffel, not yet heavy enough to carry well. The sun gathered behind a stand of clouds above Charles’s place. The wind came low from the north, everything dry-seeming. I kept stumbling over parched grass set in ruts. But I made good time. I wasn’t tired. When he’d moved here, he’d razed the standing house, just an old clapboard structure, and rebuilt the foundation, framing up in a rectangle pattern, the shape a template for the rest. When it was done, it resembled a ranch. The windows stood floor to ceiling. It was an open, modern building. I’d only seen something like it in pictures or movies. At the front door, I stood to listen and heard nothing. I found the door unlocked and stepped inside, and there everything was, the house like any other, the run of it extending north and south, there in silence, the light low from the east. The air was cool. It was in my mouth, my lungs, only slightly warmer than the outside, sweet.
I didn’t know what I would find and so didn’t know what to look for. I saw the pictures of him scattered about on the mantel, the walls, the side tables, the bureaus, always him in a plane or near a plane, the plane always the mode. There were rarely other people in these photographs. I did not see any other people. I saw myself in the black of the television screen and went through a kind of kitchen, the size of which I had never seen. It was spotless, clean. Above his mantel there was a painting of a group of men, Asian-looking, with one man shirtless and repeated, smiling an enormous smile and pointing past the painted canvas, the eyes of the other men narrowed in glee, and behind them a skein of geese, their wings extended, heads black-tipped and narrow. I trod here and there, looking, examining, finding little, the duffel still loose in my grasp, so I walked into the living room and for some reason sat on the bare floor to rest, but I couldn’t get any rest.
And still I fell asleep. I had not meant to sleep. And not realizing I had slept I woke, not realizing why I had woken until I heard a voice in the room, faintly, though there couldn’t have been a voice. I was sure I hadn’t fully woken but was dreaming still, and the voice didn’t come again. There was nothing else. There was no place else to look.
And then I remembered Mary, not understanding, or forgetting why I had left her alone.
But she was with him still. It felt like dusk though it was only noon, the cloud cover as if inscrolled above, our home faintly lit. She was fine. It felt like she hadn’t even left the room. It was like a diorama or museum, only slightly changed. There was an empty bowl on the side table from which Charles had been fed. There were cut flowers set loosely in a vase at the bedside table, and she’d brought the winter blankets and set those atop to where he looked childlike, his head to his chest as if praying.
She looked old. I had never thought before. I didn’t mind it. But it was hard to look at the scene of her, the easiness with which she could care or love. It seemed dangerous: I knew somehow that it was dangerous. She looked comfortable, tired. It didn’t seem like anyone’s fault.
For a long time no one spoke.