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.

“No.”

“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.

“I know.”

“What if he wakes up?”

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.

“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.

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.”

“Okay then.”

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.

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