(Page 4 of 4)
Finally, she said, “Dale was here,” her voice soft, whispering as if not to wake Charles. “You just missed him. He said he was going back to the lake to night-fish. He said his boat needed gas.”
I leaned against the wall. It was the only way I could stand. I said, “Your brother’s dead. Do you remember?”
Her face clouded. “That’s right,” she said. “I know that.” And she turned to Charles and kneaded her hands, her blonde hair perfect and graying.
“I need help,” I said. “I don’t know what to do.”
We went to the kitchen and sat. I’d forgotten the bills again. They were sitting on the counter top in a white pile. They could wait a few more days.
Mary said, “I don’t even know what I want.” She had her head in her hands, her voice small.
I went to the refrigerator, my legs like meat. There was a pie, milk.
“There’s a casserole somewhere,” she said. “Here.”
She moved me away and took out a plate.
“What?” she said.
“I’m just watching.”
She put her hands on the counter and leaned forward and sighed.
“I think we should leave,” I said. “We should go. I don’t even want to sleep here anymore. Does that make sense? It’s like the world’s around my neck.”
But she only shook her head, no. My tongue felt fat in my mouth, like I hadn’t said anything. And when we saw Charles for a moment before bed, I saw her smile without thinking. I knew what she thought and felt, remembering what it was like with the boys, however wrong the feeling, how Charles broke up the day. That’s what I thought. And I knew that she was wrong, and the guilt came to me only later, of letting it continue, as if I could have stopped him from coming, knowing what was right and feeling the worst had not yet occurred.
Unable to sleep, I went to the front of the house and from far away heard music and wanted to weep. I thought it was a trick. But I went to the door and opened it and walked out, barely dressed in the cold, and afraid, not knowing why I went. The world then seemed empty, and the darkness sat in the fists of trees while the treetops opened above and received their bits of light. The music was faint and slowly swelling, coming from the Kolver place, her having lost her husband and gone to Eau Claire to be with her sister. The road was still dirt; I could feel it pool between my toes in cold drifts and imagined the prints I left behind. I wanted the moment to last. I felt the music was for me. But when I arrived there were cars along the road, parked in shiny lines, the trucks with racks and the sedans blue, silver, and red, with the music coming from the house and trailing out into the road, the back beat straining, the voice somehow familiar. House light bloomed from open windows; miniature lights stood strung to the porch. It felt like home, and there was, behind it all, the sound of a generator faintly humming, and I saw them there in the yard, a black dog yapping at the feet of a young woman and some people jacketed and smoking around the two in a circle, each maybe wanting the dog, the little puppy, and it rolling on the ground, uncaring. There were young men and women in small pockets talking before the porch and smoking, the smoke around their hands and heads, and some on the steps spread out, drinking from cups, with people in the house as well and bits of laughter and conversation running in the air then forgotten. Just kids from town. They wandered here now and then, hunted and drank, never hurting anybody, but being young. They could do what they wanted.
I wasn’t angry at all. I wanted to be one of them. I thought, my God, it’s Saturday.
Then the moon was breaking, the rays coming across in wide beams while clouds separated and moved in thin runs.
I came to the yard’s edge and stood, somehow calmer, trying not to draw attention, then felt the panic in my face, the whole world moving on without us, and I saw the face of Charles in our room and wanted it to end. Annie, the Kolvers, they’d been here, she and her husband before his death, as long as we had, even longer. None of the old ones were left.
When I was home, I saw the porch light on, the glare of it hitting the tile in the room. There were generations in it, in the whole house. Mary’s whole family. Her grandfather had made the table where we dined and where our children had dined, and it would be theirs if they wanted it. All of them, they were like us. I stood there, then went to bed, exhausted, and everything was different. Mary didn’t wake, and it seemed the day drew back and opened itself. I knew it would be spring soon—it used to be we’d take the boys to the fields for quail when they were young, the youngest, Greg, hoisting the twelve-gauge like timber, an old shirt tucked against his coat for the kick of the butt. It’d be morning, and cold. I’d have a beer then, or Mary would bring out coffee and the oldest, complaining, wanting only to roll clays, would practice alongside the trap with the dummies, never the real thing, the birds. Their own children now were as old as they were then. I felt they weren’t coming back. I felt like I knew that, and I went to put Charles in the truck. He was alive and moving slowly, but seemed healthier still, his skin warm against mine, and I put him in the truck without Mary realizing. I felt young while I did it. The vigor of it alone, of picking him up and walking with him—my body was meant for that work. I did it while she slept, and later when I returned she was watching television, and I saw her and knew I loved her. Her face was a question, her eyes soft, her hair up. She did not demand anything, and I told her not to worry, that Charles was still in the truck. It was true: I hadn’t got very far at all.
“I wanted to,” I said. “He was moving, I could feel the weight….”
She was sitting patiently, her posture straight, her skin white and shining. She had her feet tucked under her, and I saw her again, the girl. I didn’t understand what we’d done, if it was right or wrong; it didn’t seem at all simple. There was a time when I barely knew myself around her, and now was the same; I had a strange, giddy feeling, like our lives were still before us, laid out and waiting.
“It’s all right,” she said. She started to say it again, to repeat herself. But it wasn’t true. I turned around to go and begin, to go back to him, and she followed, the work made short by splitting. The dew slick upon the truck. We did what anyone would do. We began the day.