The postcard from their son’s college arrived with a flyer of local coupons, two credit card offers, and a UNICEF receipt. Helen sorted them in the shade of her porch as she tipped the mailbox lid shut with her elbow. She noticed the postcard last. Dozens like it had lined the racks in Brian’s campus bookstore, the same logo and historical colonnade that appeared on all the promotional materials: red bricks, white pillars, blue sky. She swiveled her wrist to read the back as a minivan rumbled past. She didn’t recognize the driver through the open window, but the woman was nodding, so Helen nodded, too, smiled, before looking down again. The back of the postcard read: “Your son raped me.”
Helen sank to the bottom step. Her head twisted toward the neighbor’s driveway, their screened porch, the empty street. No one was there. No one could see her. She read the card again. The girl had addressed it to her, to “Mrs. Butler.” Obviously it was a girl—or one of her son’s fraternity brothers, or a boy from a rival fraternity, playing a horrid, unforgivable prank. She pressed the card against her bare knees, framing the words between the webs of her thumbs. The handwriting was not girlish, not delicate and looping, but it was feminine. It was precise. The ink was from a cheap blue ballpoint pen.
Helen’s eyes rose at the rumble of an approaching car, before she rocked to her feet and went inside, clicking the door against her back. She shoved the postcard and envelopes and flyers into the bills slot in the hall secretary. Hank wouldn’t see it before they left tomorrow. He wouldn’t have time to overreact, try to confront Brian on the phone, cancel their weekend to hunt him down. It was lucky they were going away. Helen would tell him afterwards, on the ride home, after she’d had time to think it through. It was some sort of mistake, obviously, a misunderstanding. Brian hadn’t raped anyone. Helen creaked the face of the secretary up and caught its weight on her fingertip to stop it from slamming.
She had worried that hank might pay the bills that evening, instead of on Sunday, because of their leaving, but he worked late and went to bed early. When his alarm bleated the next morning, he didn’t move. Weekdays he slapped it in seconds, a kind of chivalrous panic, but Helen had to rock her weight against his belly as she stretched to click it off. The blunt edge of his pajama button dug through her nightgown. Then his arms slid around her, one on her spine, the other along her thigh, then along the edge of her panties. She held her breath, motionless, as his fingers searched and then pressed inside of her. She was dry, but when she concentrated, when she wiped her mind of Brian and the blue indented letters on the postcard’s back, sex became possible.
It occurred to her in the shower that Hank might never find it, that she might have shoved the card too far into the wooden slot above the pencil drawer and that when he grabbed the thicker envelopes the postcard might remain. Other bills might push it deeper, bend it into the back of the slot to go unnoticed for months, for years. Helen wanted to believe that the girl had acted rashly, that in the clearer light of morning she already regretted mailing it. She did not necessarily doubt that Brian and the girl had slept together, but they probably also had both been drinking a great deal. The girl had woken half-dressed in a strange bed and panicked. It wasn’t as if Brian had pinned her against a car hood and pried her knees apart.
They were on the road by nine, listening to the local jazz station tremble out of range. Some dank and thumpy rock band emerged an hour later, as Hank drove past the exit for Brian’s school, and then petered as the highway tilted into the mountains. Helen kept picturing Brian naked, flinching at the memory of his tiny erection through bath suds, the semen-stained underpants in the laundry, the nest of pubic hairs she still scooped from the drain of the guest shower whenever he was home. Years ago, she had found a pornographic magazine taped inside a Sports Illustrated cover in his closet. She told Hank but never asked him what he’d done about it, how he’d spoken to Brian, the exact words he had used.
They arrived before noon. There was no downtown to speak of, no shopping area, but she directed Hank around each of the half dozen streets while reviewing aloud the itinerary she had printed from the web site: lunch at the restored mill with the functional waterwheel, hike the grounds of the ritzy resort, dine at the casual but gourmet restaurant, wade in the star-lit stream before retiring. Tomorrow the bathhouses Thomas Jefferson built, the one Robert E. Lee and his crippled wife used to visit. It was the sort of little spring getaway that bored Brian, enraged him practically—that week in Chincoteague. He was seventeen then, but Hank took pity on him and badgered their waitress into serving him his first beer, threatening to stiff the girl if she refused. He only left five percent afterwards, because of her attitude, he said, and Helen had to sneak a five onto the table as they left.
Hank rolled past a stop sign and turned to her, free hand gesturing. “When they say functional, do they mean it’s actually working, it’s actually functioning as a real waterwheel, turning and producing electricity? They couldn’t really be milling anymore. Though it would be a great attraction, don’t you think?”
Helen knew he would like the historic bed and breakfast, the way the doors along the second story opened onto nothing, the balcony missing. Hank loved old buildings, hodgepodges of sloping rooms mated by ad hoc renovations, queer niches, accidental spaces, closets behind closets. He had tried to force Brian into architecture, but Brian didn’t have the grades either. It was Helen who had to balance the checkbook, decipher the hash Hank made of the columns—withdrawals never entered, numbers out of order, always an error somewhere deep in the math.
Hank perched the suitcases at the edge of the black metal grate spanning the foyer and peered down, commenting on the likelihood of a coal furnace still working, how poorly it would have heated, the inevitable filth. A pile of unopened envelopes rested in a bowl on the sideboard. Helen wondered if the mailman let himself in, if that was the routine, if everyday he shouted a greeting as he stretched from the doorway to set new deliveries in the decorative bowl. Helen’s carrier did not call her by name, could probably not connect her face to her address. There was no reason to imagine that anyone else had read the postcard. If the girl’s accusation were real, she would have signed her name to it, or sealed it inside an envelope at least. She had practically slopped letters across their front lawn in gasoline. A rapist. You raised a rapist.
Helen did not realize that she had booked two rooms, a kind of suite. The second was smaller, a corner area with no separate entrance, but a second bed. “In case he snores,” the white-haired owner explained. She was using a stage whisper, so Helen laughed, though Hank seemed actually not to have heard. He was feeling inside the fireplace.
“This is bricked up, right?”
He insisted on a tour and studied the exposed beams, the half steps at thresholds, the window that looked into the ex-porch, now an interior hall. If they passed by a door, he opened it: linens, cleaning supplies, exposed plumbing. Helen pretended to skim a shelf of ratty paperbacks before she trailed off to their room to unpack.
She had brought enough layered contingencies for three distinct temperate zones. The now nearly empty suitcase folded onto itself when she set it upright on Hank’s side of the bed. She’d reminded him to bring nice slacks for dinner, which he had, though she only looked into his side to retrieve their shared toiletry bag. She was arranging their toothbrushes on the bathroom shelf when she heard the crash, a heavy hollow crash from across the house. Hank crept in while she was touching up her make-up.