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Keep em close, was all Evan had the time to say, before husband and burger were back.
Evan stays away from the property, her house. The Sierras, he overhears in a café, are the perfect place to lose yourself. He packs lightly, hikes far too long for new shoes and low water supply, limps back, collapses in his tent without making a fire, having lost nothing.
What sort of pillow does one bring to a duke-it-out-we-all-want-her skirmish? In the excessively-lit department store, rows of down, foam, soft, hard, medium loom over Evan. When he reaches out to squeeze the premium-made-silver-select-guaranteed-nighty-night white orb in front of him, a hundred gentle plops plummet upon his head and shoulders. An avalanche of the best part of bedding falls on his being, engulfing him like a sundae, his head the tempting cherry.
On one of those unceremonious holidays where everyone is given a meaningless but well-accepted three-day weekend, Evan makes the drive. He hasn’t been here in months. Most of the rubble was hauled away leaving a sparse smallish space — was Chet’s house really that tiny? At first it is quiet: a dove, a distant crow. He makes the walk toward the tower, noting a discernible hum, then another noise enters, like an air conditioner, then a fan, then a blender, a metal grinder, an MRI. Then, it all cacophonies into a metallic-rumble-roar that invades Evan’s insides and reverberates within his guts. It isn’t the sound that is the horrible sensation, but the feeling, as if he is being microwaved by a malevolent machine. He has an awareness of being reassembled from within on a microscopic level, replaced by steel parts. It takes enormous willpower to override the sensation of stay-and-be-fried with get-the-hell-out.
With every inch down the mountain Evan’s heart and brain improve. By the time he gets to the bottom and orders a chocolate shake in town, he feels as if he has just experienced a near escape. Chet, he realizes, stayed and fried.
The widow’s dead husband’s name was Wallace. He drowned while abalone diving alone off-season. Some say it served him right for poaching. Evan, who only dives legally, doesn’t feel anything either way about Wallace’s death, aside from shuddering when hearing the gruesome details of his scanty remains. They never did get a chance to dive together. Other than running into each other at work for early-morning-get-a-coffee chat, he didn’t really know the man.
John, the murdered, is a third-man mystery. Evan tries the newspaper archives, the internet, and gets nowhere at once. Of course Chet murdered John. Anyone living near that metal-hell would murder someone, the soonest visitor perhaps.
He calls J. Robert who doesn’t know anything and isn’t interested in Evan’s inquisitiveness about Chet, the admission or a potential unexplained body. The house was dozed yesterday and while we’re talking here, just thought I’d let you know something.
There is a gravity to know something. Evan gets the feeling that J. Robert is about to convey to him something that will change both their lives, perhaps even the entire world’s life.
A motorcycle guns its engine at the same time J. Robert speaks. It sounds like, I’ll be seeing you at the pilla fight.
J. Robert too? He is also one of the many who want the widow? There is a feeling of sudden drowning, ringing in the ears, unstable missteps. Say that again. Evan holds his breath.
The sister may reduce the price.
The night before the fight, he drives past her house. It has been nine months and twenty-nine days since he stood so close to her. Did she have a smell? Soap? Shampoo? Sweat? Did she look him in the eye? He can’t remember if it was a glance or a look. In six months he can say, I waited for you. He doesn’t want to think beyond that phrase, plan anything. No planned reactions to any of her possible responses. One shouldn’t architect future conversations, he always thought, except for maybe the first line. The house looks exactly the same, greenish, slightly peeling, surrounded by trees. Willows along the creek. A colorful yet dim Tiffany lamp behind an almost-sheer curtain. Raindrops on his windshield. Another car slows, the window rolls down. Tomorrow?
Evan nods. He’ll be there.
There was one other not-so-small thing. When Wallace walked away for more potato salad — that guy could eat — Evan grabbed her hand under the table and squeezed. He didn’t know what compelled him; it was something from his insides, something without language, without rationale. She neither pulled away nor looked at him. They never spoke again until the blue-flannel-after-the-funeral morning. Come back in one year.
Just before dawn, he drives the jeep up the mountain with a goal to view the land, but go nowhere near the thing. Deer graze in the meadow almost evenly spaced, reminding him of a checker board or chess. He was never good at chess, or perhaps he never tried. Thinking six steps ahead doesn’t appeal to a guy like Evan, a man who makes one move and watches. However, he has brought two pillows and has a vague plan to do a practice beating: punch the crap out of a large rock or log.
However, he doesn’t have it in him, even after removing the plastic. The pillow is too clean, the morning too peaceful. He doesn’t have enough anger or frustration, just curiosity. Curiosity doesn’t make one fight inanimate objects. Instead, he leans the pillows against a pine tree, where he waits, trying not to listen to the faraway changing tones of the repeater down below as a fan goes on or off, a cooler, or a vent.
As both were leaving that barbeque, Evan stood to say goodbye with the rest, behind a man telling the boss the chicken was f-ing good, a rare non-work display of vocabulary freedom. Excuse me, Evan inserted, bye, hoping to get one last look at her. She was like billowing smoke filling the sky, clouding what was a clear, grassy day, making it an early evening of shadows, while Evan moved with conscious regularity toward his car, hoping no one noticed the difference. He watched her get into the husband’s truck. She didn’t look back, which Evan guessed confirmed something solid.
Motorcycles can be heard revving from blocks away. The night fog mixes with engine smoke. It smells burnt, like summer fireworks and over-charred steaks. Evan parks far, walks into the milieu of men. Most stand with pillows against their legs, a few hold them over their shoulders, some thrust toward each other, sparring in the air. There are too many men, how could he compete? How could one man, a man who has no rights to her, but is convinced he can do better than them all, win? All wait for the signal.
It comes in the dimness as a disembodied shout, Go.
A wap strikes his eye. He lurches back with everything he has, hoisting the thing across his body and swinging it toward the first man. They pummel as he beats at them, thinking of her hand, how he held it under the table, how she already married her greatest fear but Evan would never be close to anything like an enemy.
He even parries thinking of John, how no one protected him from Chet, a man gone haywire from his modernized environment. John, perhaps a lost hiker, an old well-meaning-I’m-checking-on-you friend, a faithful dog. As feathers — so many feathers — obscure it all, he fights for John, for Chet, for the widow, for the wrongness of the repeater, for the wrongness of technology, for the widow, for the widow.
His weapon shredded, his shirt soaked, his eyes blurry, he heaves, alone in the parking lot, gulping for breath.
There is no doubt, he tells J. Robert, that the property is ideal, but I’m going to wait.
May I ask what for?
As he ponders the response, Evan acknowledges that it isn’t the removal of the tower that he is waiting for, but he is really stalling, hoping for a sign that he could share the property with someone. With her? He winces at his allowance of hopefulness and at the naïve vision of showing her the view, the deer. He reminds himself: not too many steps ahead.