Evan is the first man to knock on her door after the funeral. She is pale, gaunt, in sky-blue flannel pajamas and appears unwashed. He says you look the part of the widow. She responds, with a thin finger-hand held up weakly, come back in one year.
Because the other guys are still in the street, some standing outside their doors with cigarettes, a few dumb dumb-asses with bottled beers, they crowd Evan as he tries to get into his car. What did she say? They all want to know.
He hesitates. If I tell them one year, what will they do? Beat me to her? If I lie, tell them come back in two years, I have lied. There is nothing good about a lie. Just like there is nothing good about the stench of fresh blacktop like that he can smell in the air right now. The desperation of the waiting men, the smell of asphalt-beer-breath-styrofoam-coffees, the vision of her lovely yet greasy hair, it all makes him want to drive, far.
They hold his door open as he tries to shut it. If he says, talk to her yourself, then he’s burdening her, and she already looks so plum beautifully devastated.
Instead, he slips into the car before they get too agitated, before they break down the car with bats, or rocks, or Evan himself.
He is considering meatballs when the bobcat darts across the road. A near miss. The cat pauses in front of a pile of years-gone-by-ignored lumber, just long enough to give a look of wildness and admonition, not curiosity, then vanishes into the brush next to the dilapidated house. The sagging roof crumbles on one side, giving the appearance of melting into the forest. Which is what the house is indeed doing, dissolving, liquefying, turning back into earth.
Evan isn’t here to see the house, so he purposefully keeps the mess out of his view, looking away to study the property while his heated car ticks. Now he thinks of arrows. This meadow would be where he’ll set up the big ugly domino as a target. However, forget that foam thing, he wants what is natural and cheapest; he’ll get a hay bale. Here is where he’ll build a four or five room log cabin, with a kitchen window right here where he’ll cook spaghetti with deer meat. Not meatballs though. He’s always had this fear that the meatballs won’t cook long enough and guests — or, gasp, a wife? — would carve into their steamy homemade meal to find raw, cold meat inside. How to test a meatball without cutting it open?
The thought of a wife, of her, of just the possibility of her in his kitchen — would she wear a white silk negligee to dinner or the blue flannel grieving-pajamas — makes him look quickly, desperately for a distraction. Just as he turns toward the highest peak, the real estate agent drives up in a slow-moving almost-hushed solar-driven car. Even though he is thankful for the diversion, Evan wants to plot the new property himself without the well-meaning suggestions from J. Robert. Nevertheless, here is J. Robert, smooth, horizontal hair and all.
A creak and a thud from the house make them both turn before greeting. J. Robert, in his non-explosive voice, his nothing-in-the-world-could-hurry-me manner, said, “They’re going to demo it next week. Remove the repeater six months after sale.”
This is when Evan notices the repeater. How did he not when he pulled up? Must have been the panoramic views, the ocean to the west, the pines to the north, the redwoods and oaks to the south. Pleasant. Quiet. Not a raping-the-land vineyard in site. But look at that monstrosity. Towering behind the house, metal upon metal upon flap upon bar upon pole upon contraption. Topped with wrong-green limbs to disguise itself somewhat as a tree. The ugliest damn wanna-be-natural thing he’s ever seen. This is not good.
J. Robert toes the dusty road. It has always been Evan’s opinion that people toe the road when they are guilty, hiding something or both.
What do I need to know about that? Evan points, aware that his adrenaline is beginning to rise, aware that he is getting angry, but also aware that his feelings might be for nothing, there is no evidence yet.
It’s off. It’s leaving. The agent frowns, the kind of frown a man isn’t aware his face is even making, gazing closer to the house. Be like it was never here. And then he makes the wrong move. He takes Evan’s arm to steer him away from the old home site. But, it is too late. Evan has seen what J. Robert has seen. Movement.
He doesn’t drive past her house for a month, but when he does he is five miles above the speed limit. In his rear view mirror, the men, would-be-suitors, argue, push. As his car rounds the corner, Evan can’t blame their shakeup, she is loveliest woman on earth. As he pulls from the neighborhood he assesses himself as mere middling. Evan is only one of many an average man.
On a spontaneous trip up to the property, he runs into the sister of the current owner who doesn’t explain why she is there. Her brother is now dead in a way she describes, with fluttering eyelashes, as too morbid to discuss. It all started with the strongest sales speech her brother had ever heard. By the time the man handed Chet a check for $5,000 just for 45 minutes of his time where — if he could just listen a bit with an open mind — he was sold. The repeater was built on his hilltop property behind his home and work started the following Monday. Can you believe they started work in three days? Does that happen? Anywhere? Evan allowed himself to finally study the steel tower. The man had said it would be disguised as a native hemlock. She says twice, does that look like a tree to you? Folks for bazillions of miles would have clear, uninterrupted cell phone access, and her brother, in his one-room-saggy-linoleum-kitchen-next to-a-skinny-bed cabin, would become an exceptionally wealthy man.
Something scoots out of the open front door of the drooping house and hunkers along the ground. Not the bobcat he saw the first trip. Darker than, lower than, longer than.
Rat. They both say at once.
Evan adds, Big.
With a grimace, the sister supplies, Ugly.
The calendar shows many months until he can approach the widow again. He has heard through friends, while trying not to show too much interest, that the sheriff has arrested several pesky men from in front of her place, shooed away handfuls, put up blockades, and offered to hide her somehow in the witness protection program. However, there was no crime. She is only guilty of being beautiful and her dead husband, dwindled to a tin of ashes on her kitchen table, was no one any Chicago mob or LA gang is searching for.
As he pokes around the sagging house, Evan searches for evidence in the downslide of Chet, Dead Man Number Two, the previous owner of the remote cabin-gone-cell-tower-gone-suicide. Blackish rat feces heavy the floor. Mold sprays and fuzzes the walls. Of course the place will be bulldozed, but Evan figures he needs to just take a curious peek before it goes. He has avoided going into the building thus far after several trips to view the view, count the hills, admire the sunrise. While poking around with a stick, he pushes a board away from the woodstove, revealing a scratched-in confession on the top of the iron. This causes Evan to step back, startled, and a boot goes through the floor, wedging him in for a moment. During the time he yanks his foot, he is conscious of three things: grime going into his shoe, rat-grime to be precise, a shadow across the broken window, and the three words carefully scratched — with a screwdriver, a knife? — Chet Killed John.
Evan receives the invitation to bring pillows, no weapons, to an event in an empty lot not far from the widow’s house. The suitors plan to duke it out, knowing their battle may have no impact on her love for them. It may, as the invitation says, assuage the anguish of waiting. Who writes like this? He frowns and sends off the RSVP. Of course he’ll be there.
The escrow is delayed due to a glitch in Chet’s lengthy and complicated agreement with the cell phone company. The repeater will go on repeating for six months. Upgrades will begin tomorrow. Evan is still first in line for the land and is given permission to access the property at will with a long-worded-scientific-heavily-jargoned recommendation to visit during non-peak hours.
He met her twice through her husband at work get-togethers. Although always dark, stunning, always quiet, always diplomatic, it was the one time they spoke that bothers him, the year-end barbeque. He asked, with typical employer-run-wilted-down-barbeque wit, if she minded if he stole her husband for an abalone diving trip. Does him being forty-feet under scare her? While the husband fetched a burger, she said, nothing’s scary when you marry your greatest protector and your biggest enemy.