(Page 2 of 4)
So I went to him and sat in the nearby chair and waited for his eyes to open, for him to wake and explain what had happened. When he didn’t wake, it seemed to me almost a demonstration of will—the longer he didn’t stir the more likely it was that he would continue in this way, and before I fell asleep, not meaning to at all, I already understood it as a kind of fact.
And in the morning when I woke, barely remembering sleep, Mary woke.
We got up, our clothes still on, the house vibrating with light.
He was whiter than before, his eyes still closed—blue half-circles fell beneath them, his face now unshaven, a thin brown beard appearing.
Mary placed her hand against his chest. She was tender with him. I appreciated that. I recognized it. She pulled the sheets back and began to undress him, his skin sour-smelling.
“He needs clothes,” she said, not looking up.
I went straight to our dresser and pulled the iron handle and brought her a pair of pajamas, though the fabric was stretched or pulled in places, and I began to dress him, but Mary told me to wait, then returned some moments later with a damp washcloth that she moved across him in broad strokes.
I helped turn his body, my hands pressed in his skin, and the marks of my fingers appeared in fits of whiteness that rose along his sides and back before disappearing. I lifted his head and turned it, and a spasm seemed to go through him. I thought, Oh, so this might be what it’s like. I was thinking of getting old. But the two didn’t match, the picture of him and the thought.
When it was done and he was dressed, I went through the house to the window in the front and moved the curtains back, thinking for a moment someone was doing this to us, almost wanting that. I knew it was impossible, but the feeling remained, some vague idea of persecution, of being chosen, but I couldn’t think of the reason. I went out, left and right, looping around to the barn, the sky low-seeming, releasing stray bits of rain. I went to the fence-edge where the goats had once stood in twos and chewed the wood of the posts. There was no one there.
We were afraid he’d choke if we put solids in his mouth—she was adamant about that, about feeding him—so we went to the kitchen and pressed together corn meal, sugar, and water until it was a pulp, and she gave it to him and rubbed his throat the way you would a dog’s, and Charles swallowed, and she began again, feeding him with the tablespoon then rubbing his throat, and that afternoon she sent me to the store, saying we were out of supplies. So I drove the thirty miles to the grocer’s with a large list and spent a good amount of time walking the aisles because I wanted to be alone. The town we shop in is called Hillock; it is no city, but still I saw the people there as engaged in some enterprise larger than themselves, larger than us, the men and women in the streets and aisles moving with purpose. It seemed like a diverse and wide-ranging organization, the way they moved, each carrying out his task sensibly, and I thought of what waited for me at home, its singularity, its strangeness, and was ashamed. On the way back, I heard the little tremors of news on the radio and felt the cold of the seat. I cracked the windows to feel the rush of air, and my mind began to right itself, wandering steadily until Hillock was far away, and I was home without having realized the distance I’d come or the time it had taken. By then, the day was in retreat and the house shone gently. I brought in the food and found Mary in the kitchen reading, as if nothing at all were different or strange. It was a contagious sort of feeling. I gathered together some supplies and began to cook, and we were quiet together. After a while she stood and set the table and I served us each a bit of chicken and squash and we sat and ate together without speaking.
And it was the next morning, that very morning that the first Charles died. We’d dressed and eaten, and Mary had fixed breakfast, the house strangely humid and full, and only afterwards did we find him without breath, his pulse gone. I don’t know that we’d considered that a possibility, that he could die, but when it happened it seemed so obvious. It felt stupid, and we didn’t say a lot. Mary said she was feeling her hip pain and then went for medicine, the sadness in her face, her walk.
I’d stood in the doorway to our room, not really knowing what to do, while she lay in bed, the coverlet at the bed-foot and her with the sheet tossed over her chest.
Her hand went to her forehead. “You can leave me here a while,” she said. “I’ll be here a while.”
“Do you want me to call somebody?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You can try Dr. Warren,” she said. She said it certain this time, and I went to the phone. It rang and rang. It was like a joke I didn’t get. I drove to his house then, thinking I’d had enough—I’d take Charles to him, but I hadn’t secured the body right and the whole way there the truck was tossing him to and fro. I was too sick about it to get out and look. I was putting it off, thinking I’d just hand him over, but when I pulled up to Warren’s house I could already see that it was empty. I had a pack of cigarettes in the glove box that I’d put there forever ago, and I pushed the lighter in and waited for it to pop and then sat there and smoked, trying to decide what to do. I waited an hour or two, maybe longer. It felt like all I did anymore was wait, so I got out of the truck and found a shed in the rear corner of his lot. I ducked in, going into the dark of it and brought a shovel out. It was brand new. It even had the tag from Hillock Tool still on it. Then I left.
This land, this whole area, is a body, the shoulders a stretch of nothing until farther north, where the ground splits and the valley breaks like a set of open palms that empty themselves at the base of Lake Sanction, where in the summers we drove our boys to camp and swim, and where I buried the first one of Charles among a stand of trees near the lower foot of the lake. I don’t know how long it took. But I made the drive up from the doctor’s house and once there, laid Charles on a square of blue tarpaulin and began to dig. I was breathing heavily, my lips chapped. I hadn’t worked like that in some time. My shoulders were swollen. I dug through the undergrowth and with the shovel cut the roots free and put his body there, the sound of lake water a rhythm.
I drove home with care. The headlamps were the only light. The night rushed narrowly at the truck, and the lights projected the road. You could see the green wreathing the road’s edge. From across a short valley there came a quick rise of light, an approaching car. The car had its brights on, and when it came across and into view I was, for a moment, in the white sheen of them and I caught sight of a woman in the driver’s seat, her face wide and sad, the interior of her car brightly lit. Her shoulders showed a pale bit of blue uniform, and she was looking straight ahead, passing me and going on. I thought that it would all come to her clearly, the picture of me in the night with his body nearby, the shovel aloft in my hands, and I stopped breathing. But in the rearview her taillights disappeared, red-eyed and dim, her car cabin like a torch in the rearview. I was worried then I’d happen upon a deer, worried I’d be separated from the road, and Mary would be at home, waiting for me still, and in my thoughts I saw our place as it had been. It was easy. It wasn’t right, but I was grateful—whatever had happened to Charles, that was no life—it felt like a terror that now, after some difficulty, could be buried and forgotten, and I thought it would benefit us to do that, to forget him. I was ready for that. I was ready for sleep. And when I approached the house it was with a sense of renewal, pulling up the stretch of drive and hearing the familiarity of the gravel roll beneath the tires, and even exhausted, there was hope within me. But when I came to the end of our drive, I caught the wide flank of white in the lawn, and I almost tipped the truck bringing it to a stop, no longer looking—I refused to look. But he was there, clearly, Charles there on the ground again, just the same. I was shaking. Our front door was open as well and the panic set in deeper and I ran to the house and found Mary in the kitchen with a plate of eggs sitting in front of her and her simply staring, a look of frustration on her face.