Fields of Sheep

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I am a private man, a man of muted shades. My hair is the color of ash. My eyes are pale, framed by circular rimless glasses. Although I’m over six feet and trim, I’ve always been viewed as soft, sedentary, and on the clumsy side. I tend to trip without reason. I was raised in the Berkshires by parents who considered themselves lucky to have such a contemplative boy, a boy who sheltered himself from the ruckus of his classmates. When I was seven, my mother, who was pregnant, went into labor but didn’t come home from the hospital with the child. My father was the one who told me the baby was a stillborn, and I figured the rest out for myself.  My mother soon resumed her work as a paralegal, a stale job she had left when I was born. It was part-time, the late shift. She dropped me at my grandmother’s after school, often picking me up by ten, my bedtime, but sometimes she took on an extra case or two and I slept at my grandmother’s.

My grandmother was a serious woman, a widow (I never knew my grandfather), and together we read Greek mythology, cooked Italian dishes, and kept her yard neat. She was a woman of aphorism and superstition. She had three folds of fat around her waist, which she couldn’t hide no matter what shirt or sweater she wore. When I was young, she sometimes let me rest my head on these soft folds while we watched television and now and again I would fall asleep. She carried me into bed. I was a heavy load and I wondered how she managed.

Sir Lancelot, my grandmother called me. Sir Lancelot, she said, your mother has turned inside herself where it’s safe. That’s why she is throwing herself into her work. Don’t even think it’s to get away from you.

Although relieved to hear that, I hadn’t even considered that she had wanted to avoid me, but now I worried about all the dangers the outside world held for not only my mother but, in fact, for everyone.

I remember showing my grandmother a photograph of a baby I’d found in a shoebox one morning. My mother had asked me to fetch her sneakers and I opened that shoebox, thinking the sneakers should be inside, even though the box was taped, and I could see the shoes were beside the box on the floor.

That’s you, my grandmother said. She sniffled and wiggled her nose. She was allergic to pollen and when the daffodils opened, she would wiggle her nose to stop herself from sneezing. She hated to waste a tissue.

The baby was ugly, slightly cross-eyed, with mottled cheeks. I told her I didn’t want the photograph and she warned me: if I ever threw out any picture of a family member, I’d be throwing out a piece of my soul.

So you can’t replace the soul? I asked.

Why do you ask?

Because, I said, if you did lose some pieces, you could find a newer one.

She laughed and grabbed me, her soft arms hooking around me. I took that to mean yes, the soul was irreplaceable, and I realized that I should try to strengthen my own so if someone ever threw out a picture of me, my brain, eyes, and heart – my composite of a soul – would remain intact. I asked teachers and gym coaches for their definition of a soul, but I was dissatisfied with all the answers, and I soon lost interest in the matter.

One morning my grandmother and I were having pancakes when the phone rang. A neighbor, worried that my father hadn’t taken in the paper as he always did, knocked at the front door. It was open. She found my parents in bed, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. I was nine. I couldn’t sleep for days after they died. I watched hours and hours of television. At some point before dawn a reporter from a local channel came on, the news was looped, and in trying to eulogize my father, a long-time resident, he disclosed to me that my father had once saved a young woman from drowning at the lake. I wondered why I had never been told, and I missed him a little less for keeping his heroics from me.

I moved in with my grandmother. She sold my parents’ house and put the money in trust for me. She died shortly after my eighteenth birthday, as if my going off to college was too much of a jolt for her. No doubt she had grown used to the company of a sturdy and reliable grandson. The boy who never once talked back.

***

My house is my shelter. Blackout shades cover all the windows. In winter, I like to stoke a fire in both the fireplace and the wood-burning stove. After my wife died, in addition to lighting candles and making fires, I’ve taken to eating oranges, whose peels I then boil with three cinnamon sticks in a big pot, a trick I learned from my grandmother. I fill the house with the orange scent of Suzanne. The other part of her was jojoba. Boiling that pot of rinds is all the cooking I do. Without Suzanne, I live on sandwiches and store-made soup.

She was most talkative in the mornings. If the coffee’s weak, it’s like rusty rainwater, she liked to say. Snow was a field of sheep. Ants were black seeds, and birds demoted angels. I was a hermit crab in a radiant shell.

With each passing year of our marriage, I understood more and more that most things around me made themselves known out of necessity: the crackling flames, the call of the mourning dove, Suzanne’s footsteps, yet I felt little need to announce myself. I can only offer that as an explanation as to why, with each passing year of our marriage, I have slipped deeper into my silence. There I find an unabated exquisiteness.

We lived together in the Cape Cod house near Great Barrington for about five years. Before that we had bounced from rental to rental, beginning in Vermont and ending up in Massachusetts. We met at graduate school in Albany. I had a cramped off-campus apartment near the computer lab. She, at the time, was a student of landscape design but couldn’t keep any of the Latin names straight, and, in her second semester, she switched to fashion design, which came easy to her.

That summer we traveled to Japan and visited the gardens in Kyoto, Kobe, and Matsue, commenting on anything we viewed as imperfect, a swatch of crocuses that were slightly out of place, two clusters of lily pads that had settled too closely together, imperfections still made quite beautiful, we noted, by the surrounding symmetry and simplicity. Suzanne called the Japanese greedy: hoarding all the guises of peace in one place.

A week after we had moved into this house, she placed a lantern made of rock on a small square boulder in our backyard, a reminder, she said, not only of our trip to Japan but also of her old desire to dress the ground. She planted crocus bulbs around the rock, which bloomed for the next four years. This past year only one thin flower shot through the ground, and Suzanne ripped it from the soil, claiming it was a stunted creature. I should have viewed that act, so uncharacteristic of Suzanne, so impulsive, as a bad omen.

We were married nine years, and we had our hobbies – couples often do. We were avid cyclists. Every weekend we mapped out extensive routes, riding past the small houses nearby, down back roads, and heading out to the grander houses farther away. Whenever we stopped to drink from our water bottles, she spoke to a neighbor who was in the garden weeding, or to the shop owner smoking a cigarette outside the storefront, or to the mailman filling up the mailbox. She had a small group of girlfriends, and they went to movies. I never minded. I was confident that Suzanne was all the company I needed, with the exception of Tim, my high school friend. My clients, too, of course. I was a computer specialist who made house calls.

Suzanne was thirty-eight when she died. The police report said her car had slid on an icy overpass on her way home from work, landing near a stream at the bottom of a hill. It was the end of November, a most unkind hour, when the temperature had dipped below twenty degrees.

***

John Hartman first came into our lives in August 2003, several months ago. He and his wife, June, had moved to our cul de sac. A town buzz arrived with them; they had suffered some insurmountable tragedy but no one knew the details. One morning, at the library at Boston College, where Suzanne often did her research on period costumes, she searched through the Berkeley newspapers. The Hartmans had been living near Berkeley, in Oakland. She found two articles, one with a picture of a young girl with a square smile. The story read that June Hartman had run over her four-year-old daughter by accident. John Hartman hadn’t been in the car. Suzanne brought a copy of the article home for me to read. I was sorry I did.

She talked about the tragedy at dinner, and later that week she brought the Hartmans to the attention of the local community center at Maple Ring Park. Might they hold a welcoming party for the newcomers? Quite a few people showed up, except for June and me. I didn’t like parties with people I didn’t know, and I can’t explain why Suzanne ever thought June would show up. When Suzanne came home, her bright green scarf wrapped around her neck and mouth, her eyes tearing from the wind, she announced that John Hartman, although shy, was a gentle man.  He only showed up to thank her, she said, and didn’t even stay for an hour.

He’s trying his best to reconnect to the world, but his wife isn’t ready. I’m not blaming her, but it’s so hard for couples to heal at the same pace. They need each other to heal.

How should she get ready? I asked, sitting at my computer. Why would you even begin to speculate about such a private matter?

The candle flames were hovering around me. I had set the eight candles in pairs on a side table and not in a semicircle on the coffee table, as I used to, because Suzanne once complained that I was beginning to reek of the sacrificial.

Suzanne said, If that were to happen to us, if we were ever to have a child, and one of us had even just injured him, we would have to work together. We would have to be more unified than ever.

One of the flames was simmering, but I couldn’t do anything to help it. Short wick. Happened too often.

I said, I can’t even imagine. Arguing with Suzanne could take up the night.

How was the food?

Haven’t you had dinner?

I had some soup, but I’m still hungry. I actually wasn’t until you got home.

There are some meatballs in the fridge. Bottom shelf, she said.

She then shut herself in the guest bedroom, now her studio. She worked for a small theatre company founded in the East Village that had been forced to relocate here due to lack of funds. She was in the middle of designing the wardrobe for Oliver Twist, and was trying to put a Charlie Brown spin on the Artful Dodger.

When we had first moved in, she saw that room as a perfect baby’s room, but long before Hartman came around, she stopped wanting children. What if our kid ends up as messed up as any other, she said, and his mess isn’t interesting? What’ll we do then?

I loved how she thought sometimes. I was willing to wait.

***

Weeks later June Hartman left her husband. Some said John Hartman blamed her; others said he didn’t blame her, which made her feel even guiltier.

Suzanne had finished three of the costumes for Oliver Twist and wanted to photograph them.

Be Fagin for me, she suddenly said.

I slipped on the jacket. It was a little tight, but I walked past her, my arms stiff and constrained, while she suggested we invite John Hartman and a few of our friends over for dinner.

Whatever you’d like, I said but I was about to add that perhaps Hartman just wanted to be left alone.

Lance, move your arms. Soften up.

I can’t. It’s too tight, and too tidy. Everything about it is too tidy for a character like Fagin. He’s big and messy.

She quickly agreed and helped me out of it. Within seconds she grabbed a special pair of scissors and cut into the sleeve of the jacket.     Then she picked up the phone to call Hartman to invite him for dinner, but he didn’t answer.

***

Suzanne tried to phone Hartman two more times but had no success in reaching him. One afternoon she told me she was going to walk to his house. He was just down the road. What if something had happened to him? No one would know. And would I go with her?

I said, You go ahead. We were already dining out that evening with Tim and his wife Rachel. One social encounter for the day was enough for me.

Suzanne slipped on her grey wool coat and left. In an hour, she returned.

I take it he was home?

He was, she said and sat down, keeping on her coat. She looked defused.

Are you all right? I sat next to her and took her hand. Her fingers were white from the cold and I rubbed them.

He said he doesn’t wish to go out, that he’s content at home, and he’d like to be left alone. No, actually, he said that it was best if he were left alone.

So there goes your rescue operation for the afternoon.

Why are you being so mean?

If I were acting this way about a woman, you’d be a little suspicious.

You’re jealous? Please, Lance. The guy just lost his daughter and wife.

Were you there this whole time?

No, I went for a walk. Did you know the Temples put their house up for sale?

Her dark hair was as long as it had been in years, and for the moment those black waves were spread out on the silk couch as if part of the fabric’s design, and her cheeks were pink from the cold wind. I kissed her hand. I pulled her toward me.

She led me into our bedroom. She ran the bath. We sat in the hot water, facing each other, legs intertwined, and we reminisced about our trip to Japan. We talked about returning one day.

I wish we lived there, she said.

I wish we lived there, too, I said.

Let’s cancel our dinner, she announced with a wicked grin and slapped the water.

I scrambled out of the tub and called Tim. I told him Suzanne wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t care. Suzanne and Rachel were cordial but not true friends. Tim and I were just as happy to see each other for our customary Thursday night supper at The Rodeo.

 ***

That next week, after work, I spent hours chopping wood. Two ash trees had keeled over during a storm. I left the wreaths of their roots on our lawn, too heavy to cart away. I also picked up a few new clients, and Suzanne began working on a Shakespeare festival in Stockbridge. She stayed late at the office every night.

I had never seen Hartman. I drove by his house on purpose. His truck sat cold in the driveway, and sometimes his dog sat on the lawn. The dog was like a rock, staring at the road, without barking, even if someone walked by.

One evening I called Suzanne at her office, as it was almost ten. She didn’t answer. I called her cell phone. She didn’t answer. She had been the one to make me promise that after 9/11 we would always answer each other’s calls, if not right away, then soon after. When she finally walked in around eleven, I raised my voice, Where have you been?

At the office. Where else would I be? My cell phone died. I’m so friggin’ tired.

I called your office.

I was in Sharon’s office most of the time. She’s on my back. I’m sorry. I should’ve called you. She is such a control freak, and I was too nervous to excuse myself and make a call.

Sharon was her supervisor, and I knew Suzanne disliked her, but I was suspicious, nonetheless. Something in Suzanne’s mouth gave her away.

She took off her shoes and sat on my lap. I ate a stale sandwich for dinner, she said. It was from the vending machine. Peanut butter and jelly on stale white bread. Oh, and Philip and Marguerite invited us to a small party this weekend. Please let’s go. She touched the tip of my nose.

Do we have to?

Please.

We hadn’t been out in some time, so I said yes, and because she had touched my nose.

I’m so behind on Mercutio, she said and then growled softly.

That’s not like you.

I’m stuck. His wit, his vibrancy, his brashness, his absolute refusal to surrender to romanticism, all these are puzzling traits to me. I live with you, the antithesis of Mercutio.

I’m not witty?

You’re a romantic recluse.

I’m a romantic?

Seriously, Lance? You’d like to keep me in a tower.

I was struck by her certainty.

She suddenly stood and said, I think red velvet. It’s predictable, but I have to move forward.

She trotted into the guest bedroom.

The night of Philip and Marguerite’s party, it snowed heavily. I kept glancing out the window during much of dinner, admiring the smothering effect of the snow. The voices inside were as distracting as breaking glass.

At one point, Philip, an investment banker from Greenwich Enterprises, asked about Hartman, the new guy, the one whose wife skipped town on the fly, the one whose daughter so tragically died? Philip shook his head and said to me, I’ve been rhyming a little too often lately.

Marguerite noted that John Hartman never seemed to leave home. She wondered how he bought groceries. Sally and Jerry agreed, as did Moses and Matthew, although Matthew didn’t live in town. He was just visiting Moses. Soon the entire table was talking about how Hartman was an invisible man.

How could anyone go on after that kind of suffering? Moses said. It’s indescribable.

Let’s talk about something brighter, okay? Has anyone heard the new digitally re-mastered Billie Holiday album? Marguerite served on the advisory board of the Boston Symphony and liked to allude to singers who had nothing to do with the orchestra.

I spoke up before the brightness took over, I’ve never met Mr. Hartman. I’d bet that, out of all of us, Suzanne was the last one to see him. She went to his house a few weeks ago to invite him to dinner. We had tried calling, but he never answers, and so she trotted on down there.

Matthew had a gallery in the Lower East Side, and he said, If it’s the same John Hartman, he’s a furniture maker. He makes tables out of old tree stumps. They’re very elegant. There’s a furniture store in Lenox that sells his work. I have a good friend who is affiliated with Mass MOCA and I know for a fact that he is trying to get Hartman into a group show for next spring.

Moses, a Russian translator for a university textbook company, said, I heard he has a very unusual dog.

I thought it was a lab, said Sally. She was a pretty, confident housewife.

My big dog expert who won’t even go near a Chihuahua, Jerry said, pointing with his knife at his wife.

It’s an Anatolian shepherd, Suzanne said. She brushed the front of her hair with the palm of her hand in a manner that, to me, suggested intimacy. Samson. It’s very friendly, but it’s a jumper. I think those dogs are natural jumpers.

Yes, that’s it! I want an Anatolian shepherd, Moses said to Matthew.

***

At home I was bristling around Suzanne.

There I am, I said, surrounded by people I have no desire to be around, and you turn into a living cliché: the wife who has a crush on the neighbor.

Did you drink too much tonight? Or have you simply forgotten how people at a dinner party talk? Some of those people are actually good people, not all, but a few. You shun everyone as if they’re out to threaten you. What is that really about?

Few people interest me, I said. And that doesn’t mean I count myself as an interesting individual.

I did feel inebriated, even though I had finished off only three glasses of red wine.

I feel so trapped in here with you sometimes, she said. There’s never a surprise around the corner – never. Can’t you see that? She was staring at me when her right hand clapped over her mouth and she said, I’m sorry, Lance. I’m going on and on about nothing. I just didn’t have much fun tonight, and I was looking forward to getting out.

She disappeared into the bathroom. I heard the water running.

           ***

A month later, I was at my wife’s funeral. I buried her in the town graveyard.  I stood next to Tim, and Tim stood next to Rachel. Suzanne’s parents were in chairs by the gravesite, their heads bowed. There were so many people there, all her friends, and so few were my friends. It was hard to be still. Three or four people were standing away from the gravesite near a tall oak on a hill. A man I had never seen stood among them, his arms straight at his sides, his feet spread apart, as if he were about to take off.  When I saw Philip and Marguerite notice him, too, I felt ashamed. After the priest stopped reading, the man I supposed was John Hartman slowly walked down the path to the parking lot.

I waited a week to go to Suzanne’s office. The secretary at the front desk showed me to the room that held the boxes of Suzanne’s papers, books, and laptop. She handed me a heavy garment bag stuffed with her favorite costumes.

At home, I studied all the rooms and corridors on her laptop. Her computer’s trash was empty. Her sent items were deleted. Her incoming box was full of office memos. Anything just about Suzanne had been chased away.

I put the computer with the boxes in the bedroom closet.

In the morning, I placed an advertisement in the local paper: Sir Lancelot Computer Services. In the next month, I hit a record high and repaired over thirty-six computers.  It snowed for a week.

***

It is still snowing hard, but I commit to taking a drive. It’s not a smart decision, in spite of my four-wheel drive. There are fields of sheep everywhere. I remember asking Suzanne long ago if she had ever been to New Zealand or Ireland. Had she once viewed a meadow whitened by a wooly flock? No, she shook her head, while that hint of a smile surfaced. The landscape isn’t ever what it seems to be, she said, and isn’t there some good in thinking of an animal’s warmth when looking at so much snow?

I drive on the thickly coated roads. I drive faster than I thought I could and park my car in the lot of The Hunting Den, a store in the next town. I’m thinking about buying a gun. There’s a farm behind the store, with an enormous field, all bumpy and white and pulsing with what kind of life. It is probably the most comforting sight I’ve seen in a while, a whiteness that could mean anything. I can’t bring myself to get out of the car. I have never gone hunting and have never even held a gun unless I count the water pistol I played with as a kid. Cirrus clouds are everywhere; they sail toward the east. I don’t like how I am feeling. I turn the car back on and slowly drive away, listening all the while to Willie Nelson. The covered roads resist me on my way back. They make me pull over. I am sick to my stomach.

Finally back at home, I take out a mop and pail, fill the pail with lukewarm water and white vinegar, and clean the floors. Vinegar is efficient and bitter. These days I often permit the house to become untidy, even to the point of being soiled, but I look forward to sweeping away the intruder. I empty the refrigerator of anything used and wipe the shelves. The can of sardines is old. The pre-washed lettuce wet. I can’t get Unchained Melody out of my head. The sponge sticks to the glass and tears.

What if someone saw me at The Hunting Den? What would I say?

I’m tempted to take a walk down the road, but I’m meeting Tim at The Rodeo and I’m never late.

***

Tim is always late. I wait for him at our favorite table, drinking a beer. When he finally enters the restaurant, I stand to get his attention. He’s in a navy sports coat and new jeans. Tim is old school everything.

You’re getting grey around the gills, he says, hugging me.

I’m afraid that a vacation in Hawaii isn’t in the cards right now.

Tim recently opened his own travel agency. He says, Here’s where we should go. He slips a brochure out of his inside pocket. A climb up Mount Rainier. Not just any climb, mind you. You read Hemingway as you go. A real man’s trip to the summit. How fucking clever is that? He laughs and adds, tilting his head, This isn’t my idea, by the way. Rachel keeps insisting I have to take you away.

I say, Hemingway doesn’t sound like you.

Wasn’t his book about the fisherman your favorite? I hated that fucking book.

He hands me the brochure, while I recall the book, its old man in the boat, the wordless wait and blue solitude. Tim’s hands are slender, his nails manicured. He used to model for Rolex.

Those hands are going to climb? I say.

Hey, it’ll be a good experience for us. And I did promise Skylar I’d try to find her an eagle’s nest. She read a book on eagles, and there was this photo of a nest, and I’ve never broken a promise to her. I figure a photo of any nest will impress her.

Skylar is the older of his two daughters. I say, I’ll get you an actual nest, a big one, without risking our lives. She won’t know the difference.

You don’t know my little girl, he says and laughs hard.

           ***

By morning the roads have vanished under two feet of snow. Plows are late to work and my appointment is canceled. While I wait for the coffee to brew, I listen to a talk show on the radio. Yes, perhaps there were no weapons of mass destruction after all, Rich. Now that we have Saddam, even Condoleezza Rice believes…

I think about how passive a soldier I would be if I were ever forced to defend this country.

I hear a crunching outside and draw up the kitchen shade. A truck is stuck near my front lawn, one tire caught in a ditch. I take my time putting on my boots. I slip on my coat, then gloves, and walk out. I tap on the side of the truck. The window rolls down to reveal the man I saw at Suzanne’s funeral. He smiles quickly and revs the engine. The tire spins in the icy ditch. Snow begins to fall into the cab.

He’s slim with long blond hair that looks like the silk of corn. He looks older than I imagined, in his mid-forties. He is wearing a black down jacket. His eyes look elsewhere. He wears a tiny turquoise stud in one ear. The dog is sitting in the passenger seat, watching me. Hartman says the truck suddenly slid. He wasn’t paying attention, he says. He’s excessively apologetic.

This side of the road is sloped and gets wicked slick. It’s pure ice under the snow. I’m Lance Swanson, by the way. You’re not going anywhere right now. Might as well come in for a cup of coffee. I just made a pot.

John Hartman introduces himself and says that he knew Suzanne, had met her once or twice. I’m really sorry to hear about what happened, he says.

I saw you at the funeral. Thank you for being there. So, want to come in?

Maybe for one fast cup, he says not very convincingly. Did you build this house?

I’m not a builder. Twenty years ago, a developer bought several lots along this road and built spec houses. One is not that different from the next. It’s a good façade of adaptability, of everyone having landed in a similar way, I guess.

I guess, he says and turns off the truck. He jumps down from the cab. Snow whitens his head and shoulders within seconds. He knocks the snow off his boots on the doormat. He dusts the snow off the dog’s coat and commands him to stay by the door.

The dog’s welcome to explore.

He’s fine, he says. Have you lived here long?

His eyes don’t stay still. They’re on the fridge, the sink, the candles by the sink, the shades on the windows, and then they’re on me for a second, now back to the dog. He says, I’ve only been here a few months and I can’t get used to the cold. I grew up in southern California.

I hear you make furniture.

Tables mostly. I’ve been keeping night watchman hours.

I say nothing and reach for two coffee cups, get the milk out, and grab a few packets of sugar I took from the steakhouse. I dose my cup with two sugars, give him his as he requested, black.

Hartman sips the coffee. His eyes are on the counter and he picks up the Mount Rainier brochure that I left there.

Are you a climber? I used to hike back home.

I’ve never climbed anything steeper than a flight of stairs. A friend gave me that. He’d like me to go with him. I prefer being inside. I am talking a lot, but there’s no turning away from adrenaline.

Hartman leafs through the pamphlet and says, I’d argue with you on that point. I like the outdoors, where you can get away easily. The mind can become a dangerous resource if you’re feeling locked up.

He glances at the clock on the stove and tosses the brochure back on the counter. Can I come back in the morning for the truck?

No hurry.

At the door, he thanks me for the coffee and gives a small wave before leaving. His hair is sticking up in the back like a kid who has just woken up.

I go into the bathroom, sit on the toilet and I think of that girl with a square smile in the newspaper. I think of my wife, whose smile wasn’t full at all. It was always about to come, and, for the first time since Suzanne has died, I cry. On the sill is a two-year-old photograph of Suzanne dressed as Raggedy Ann for Halloween. I pick up the picture, let it dangle from two fingers above the trash, and drop it.

***

In the morning, the weatherman announces a warm front is coming from the south. I keep checking to see whether Hartman is walking up the road, but no sign of him. How could it have been so bitterly cold yesterday, and now, now with every hour, the temperature is on the rise? Around nine, I hear a dog bark once and I roll up the kitchen blinds. A skinny stream is cutting through the center of the road, and Hartman and his dog are taking their time walking beside it. I notice the back tire on the truck looks slightly flat. The truck is still tucked into a bank of snow, and as soon as the tire moves the air will seep out like a lung collapsing.

Hartman gets into the truck and opens up the passenger door for the dog.

I move away from the window and pour some cereal. I take three candles from the kitchen counter and carve at the wax near the wick. I then eat the cereal, which I prefer soggy. I wash the bowl and look to see if the truck is still there. Hartman hasn’t moved and I go outside, this time in a hurry.

Hey, he says, rolling down the window on the dog’s side.

You have a flat. Thought you should know.

Thanks. I saw that, but it’s a slow leak. I can make it home.

I’ve always wanted a pickup truck. When I was a kid, I thought it’d be fun to have one just like this, I say.

It does the job.

Have a good afternoon, I tell him.

Inside the house, I feel like a racehorse in a starting stall, my muscles tightening as I sit down to the computer. I call Tim. Can you meet me at the steakhouse tonight?

***

Tim is waiting for me when I get to The Rodeo. What’s wrong? he asks before I sit. You look manic.

Did you know Suzanne was seeing someone?

Tim silences the ringer on his cell. Suzanne wouldn’t cheat on you, he says. You’re fucking nuts.

She might have. I think she did. Do you know how that feels?

What are you talking about? His neat hands feel disquieted, his right thumb tapping the table.

Tim tries to see the brightness in everyone. It’s a sincere effort and he succeeds, he and I once decided, sixty percent of the time. But he is frowning. His other thumb is punching the table now. I can’t disappoint him. I say, Maybe you’re right. I’m driving myself crazy. Maybe I should take you up on that trip.

He orders two beers and tells me about another trip he has researched, a rafting excursion where we could listen to Springsteen downstream. His neat hands have calmed down, but he keeps slapping my shoulder as if he knows I’m not all there.

***

Over the next two days the temperature hits a record high. The melting snow floods a few roads. I’ve worked on too many computers today and my eyes are stinging. A light rain is falling. It’s supposed to stop later this evening.

The candles are flickering around me. There have been nights where I have quickly considered trying to measure the amplitude, to calculate the intensity, or to register the exact luminosity of the flames. Now the more I stare at the flames the more gratified I feel by the space between the candles. And by how thoroughly Suzanne once touched me. The last time we made love, she rolled off the bed, taking me with her, and we kept rolling as if in a film. I remember the feeling as we rolled. Memories that fill the entire body can be cruel.

I have to get out of the house, to get away from the flames, and I’m about to extinguish the candles, but instead I stretch out on the couch and close my eyes. I fall asleep.

When I awaken, it’s early morning, around five. The wax has scarred the table. I fetch my boots and walk to Hartman’s house. It’s wet and messy underfoot. The moon is still visible. The darkness is about to give way to light and the wind kicks at the branches. It’s not that cold.

I knock loudly on Hartman’s door. He answers, his dog behind him, barking and wagging his tail. I’m beginning to love the dog. The dog is unflappable. Hartman is in black pants and a soiled white t-shirt.

Man, it’s not even light out. Is everything okay? he asks, almost whispering.

Did you have an affair with Suzanne? I feel ridiculous as soon as I say it.

He shakes his head and looks at his bare feet.

So I’m a fool to even ask, I say.

No, you’re not a fool. Just leave, okay? I’m in the middle of working. I can’t do this now.

I really don’t want to leave.

So he slips on his boots without any socks and walks out the door. The dog follows, the hair between its shoulders now a dwarf hedgehog. I follow, too.

Hartman climbs into his truck. The dog jumps over him into the passenger seat.

I grab the door of the truck and hold it open. What are you so scared of? Me, are you scared of me? Because that’s funny, I say too loudly.

I have a gun in the glove compartment, he says without much excitement. He pulls the door hard, wrenching it from my grip, and drives off, leaving me to wonder if he really does have a gun. I don’t care. I go back into his house. The heat must be turned up to ninety. I feel as if there’s a vat of molten steel nearby.

Hartman, too, is a private man. Evidence is all around me. His curtains are drawn tight without one sliver of new light coming through. His living room is his studio. I don’t see a phone anywhere. Suzanne might have thought she could lift him out of this cave, like a troubled child from a crib – a small but critical rescue.

Suzanne was an alchemist, the nightly flame in the room and the orange scent in the woods. The third law of Newton’s: to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. I was the inertia to Suzanne’s vibrancy.

Hartman is working on three tree stumps. Two are smooth, but only one is polished. No careless roots here.

Suddenly, through the open door, a flash of red light shoots into the house. Alarmed, I hurry out to where a police car has pulled up. Hartman’s truck is in the driveway, and he is standing beside it, striking the heel of one boot on the wet asphalt. He’s talking to a policeman who is writing something down. The dog’s nose touches the officer’s shoe. The officer comes up to me and asks for my name. I answer, turning toward the front of the house, which looks much like mine. Under the window a handful of crocuses has broken through. I point this out to the officer.

Not that surprising, he says, given how warm it’s gotten. You live around here? he asks, peering up from his pad. I can’t say I’ve seen you before.

 

 

Photo By: Angelo Amboldi

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About Author

Lori Toppel’s most recent book is a collaborative memoir, Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing). Her first novel, Three Children (Summit Books), was nominated for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Toppel’s stories and memoirs have appeared in The Antioch Review and The Del Sol Review. She was a finalist in the 2013 Robert and Adele Schiff Awards of The Cincinnati Review and a three-time finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She has a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and an M.F.A from Columbia University, where she received a number of fellowships. Toppel was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and lives with her husband and twin sons in New York. She is at work on a new novel set in San Juan.

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