Looking out the large, double-paned window that spanned the length of the cabin’s western side, two women stood, shoulders close but not touching. Without turning her head Lydie said, “Tell him to hang thermal curtains in this window.” She pointed to the upper right corner and then the left, her finger moving like a conductor’s. Maura, watching a lone coyote run along the edge of the woods, nodded but said nothing. In the Catskill Mountains that began not far beyond the lower field, the surface of the Neversink reservoir glimmered in the sun like a shard of glass. For the fifteenth day in a row, temperatures were forecast to push into the upper nineties.
“Keeps heat in during winter and out during summer,” Lydie added. Maura nodded again, this time without a smile, and started to put the binoculars back into their case. The coyote had crossed down into the evergreens clustered near the river and she could no longer track it. One of the lens covers caught on the lip of the case and popped off, rolling onto the unfinished pine floor and coming to rest by a pair of dead flies. In the evenings after she got home from work, Maura vacuumed. Every morning there were more flies. Lydie bent to retrieve the cap but paused, her long blonde hair grazing the floor. “You need to sweep,” she said. She stood and left the lens cap where it lay.
Maura turned and walked into the kitchen, setting the binoculars on the bar. Lydie sat on the edge of the couch. Around her, a cloud of dust and dog hair spun upwards, as if practicing for the rapture. Soon Maura returned, carrying a tray crowded with two glasses of iced tea and a fruit salad. Freshly brewed, the tea was still warm. The ice cubes looked like bone slivers floating in the glasses. She spooned fruit salad onto a plate and passed it to Lydie, hoping the yogurt wasn’t too tart. It was meant to hide the brown spots on the apple. “How does Marland like his job? He’s selling plows?” Lydie’s tone was the same as if she were asking how Maura’s husband liked a pair of pants. Maura slowly stirred a large tablespoon of honey into her tea before answering. “Yes. Plows and de-icing equipment.”
She paused, judging what more to say to Lydie, with whom she had lived for a summer in Knoxville during an internship in college. They had not kept in touch and Maura had forgotten completely of Lydie’s existence until Lydie had nearly run her down in the Shop-A-Way parking lot in Middletown a few months ago. Unrolling the window of her shiny SUV, Lydie was thrilled, just thrilled, she said, to see an old friend. She grasped Maura’s hand at an awkward, pinching angle, but did not get out of her car. “I would know that crazy red hair anywhere,” she said, releasing Maura’s hand to give her braid a sharp tug. They made plans, and as Lydie pulled away Maura acutely missed her Jeep, which to cover moving costs she traded in for a compact hatchback, a car that rolled like a marble over icy roads. “You’ll die if you hit a buck in that blue joke,” her father-in-law had laughed.
Maura decided to say less about Marland. “He likes the job fine.” She licked the spoon clean and set it on the tray. The cabin wasn’t air conditioned, and beads of sweat slipped from the nape of her neck down along her spine. When she glanced at Lydie, the sun was streaming in so strongly behind her that Maura had to blink and look back at her own plate, spots like oil slicks moving across her vision.
Lydie was right. They did need curtains in this window. But there never to seemed to be enough time, or the right time. Before, her husband always had some project around the house, one he would tend to in the evenings. Now, most nights he played pool at the bar until late. This morning she heard him retching in the bathroom an hour and a half before he had to be at work for an early meeting. When he rolled into bed, stinking of bourbon, cigarette smoke, and toothpaste, she shifted away, hoping he wouldn’t reach for her. When she was woken again it wasn’t by him getting out of bed or his hands on her breasts, but by the dogs leaping onto her, licking her face and whining to be fed.
Working for his father’s company here in upstate New York had not been the solution Maura had hoped. Over the past year she had watched her husband become less the man she knew and more the son she didn’t. When he began smoking again, his long-distance runs became a thing of the past, along with the lean cut of his face. His parents lived on acreage further up the mountain and he spent most weekends helping them with household projects instead of tending to the growing list of things they needed to do to here, like fixing the fence to discourage coyotes and weather-proofing the house before autumn. At twenty-nine, maybe he didn’t know how to be a husband and a son at the same time. Maybe even coming home couldn’t fix what happened in Tennessee.
As Lydie talked about her new job with the city, her son’s attention deficit problems, her daughter’s ballet recital, and her worries about not fitting in with the other doctors’ wives, Maura felt as if she were caught in the window, between layers of glass, cut off not only from the life Lydie described but also from the farm and mountain views. Detached from the dead flies inside and from the ladybugs and Grosbeaks outside. Suspended between her life a year ago and her life now. “But, how about you?” Lydie asked, her voice like a hook, drawing Maura’s mind out of the window and back into her body. “Are you going to get licensed here?”
It was the same question every time they spoke. Maura shrugged. Her shirt clung to her damp back. No answer she gave ever satisfied Lydie. If she said, “Yes,” Lydie would say, “Part- or full-time? Hospital or clinic? Days or nights?” If she said, “No,” Lydie would reply, “What are you going to do?” If Maura didn’t have a ready answer, Lydie would press, “When are you going to have kids?” She would add, “A baby would really help you and Marland start over.” Then, inevitably: “How old are you, again?”
Maura did not tell Lydie that instead of studying for the state nursing exam, she was cleaning houses for her mother-in-law’s housekeeping service while ignoring the condition of the house she and Marland were renting at a reduced rate from his parents. Every time a tile in the bathroom came loose, she added it to the neat stack growing behind the leaky toilet. As the screens on the north side of the house continued to pull from their aluminum frames, rounding out in the wind and sagging in the heat, Maura did nothing more than note their progress. Instead of trying for a baby, she had stopped sleeping with Marland. Trying for a baby was what they did in Delton, and Delton had to be cut off and sealed in the past. Bagged and tagged, as Marland used to say. Her stomach growled, then tightened. She put her half-finished plate back on the tray. Maura and Marland Moore. Once she had taken the common letters of their names as a sign of good luck, just like their shared birth year. Little links joining them together, permanently. Now those connections felt fragile. Rusted through.
Draining her second glass of unsweetened tea, Lydie looked at the phone balanced on her slim thigh. “Shit. The nanny called.” Sighing, she leaned her head back and ran her pink-lacquered nails through her thick hair. Then she stood up and moved out of the sunlight, squinting at the screen. Noting the rough edges of her own nails, Maura took the tray back into the kitchen and without scraping the remaining fruit salad into the trash pushed the bowls into the small metal sink. “What did you say? Kyle ate what?” Lydie’s voice rose. “Hold on, hold on. I can’t hear you.” She went into the bathroom, closing the door. Through the wall Maura could hear, underneath the sing-song music of Lydie’s voice, the sound of squeaking hinges and the rolling thump of shutting drawers as Lydie went through the bathroom cabinets.
Maura turned on the garbage disposal. The vibration caused the spoons to rattle against the dirty dishes. Out the window above the sink, she saw one of the dogs—the Shepherd mix—bound by, limp rabbit in her mouth. The male Catahoula trotted behind at some distance. With the run of the fields and forest they had both become so sleek these last months. It was cooler in the kitchen this time of day, the late afternoon sun instead forcing itself into the cabin’s other rooms. In the kitchen, there was nothing to shut out, no heat, no cameras, and no reporters. She pulled the green gingham curtains closed anyway and shut off the disposal.
When she and Lydie hugged goodbye, she smelled her best perfume—the one Marland gave her for their second anniversary—on the other woman’s neck. On Maura, it smelled like a garden in the rain, with compost undertones. On Lydie, it smelled like glass and triumph. Maura stood on the deck, watching Lydie drive slowly down the dirt road, her car tires kicking up ruddy clouds from the shale-rich soil. The dogs followed, close to the bumper, until the car passed the pond Marland dug out with the backhoe last spring. Then they both broke off toward the water, one of them plunging in, the other racing along the shore.
Marland pulled into the gravel parking lot outside the bar around 7:30pm. He texted to tell Maura he wouldn’t be home for dinner and then turned his phone off before tossing it onto a stack of de-icing equipment repair manuals heaped in the passenger seat. He was supposed to run them down to Middletown after his morning appointment in Suston, but the meeting, to which he was thirty minutes late, turned into a long lunch at an Applebee’s bar and then a short turn at the Yankee Clipper, a nearby strip club. It was after 3pm before he began the drive home. Thankfully, his parents had left the office by the time he returned. On Wednesdays they stayed in town for drinks and what passed for an upscale fish fry at Hopeland’s Bistro. His stomach, still sour from last night’s whiskey and his two-beer lunch, growled despite the lingering nausea. One hunger led to another. When he thought of bass, he thought not only of fishing but also of water. White and blue waves led where they always did: right into memories of kissing Maura’s older sister, Vanessa, at Cherokee Lake down in Tennessee.
He felt himself stiffen slightly. The thought of driving up the mountain to see his wife while he had an erection flickered through his mind and right out of it as he softened. He wasn’t too sure Maura would be receptive, anyway. She had become so uninterested in sex since they moved up to Alenston. But even before they were married, he always had the sense she was on uneasy terms with his penis, though he tried to make it into the most benign, neutral, and understanding organ. No sex unless she wanted it. No pushing her head towards his crotch when he was drunk and wanted a blowjob. Vanessa, who wanted sex any and all ways, had wrenched his balls once when she woke up to find him on top of her after she had passed out. After that, he was a better sexual citizen, unless he went into the back room with a stripper. Then manners became more fluid, a different exchange economy rising to the surface as an unnamed woman put his hands on her hard breasts or ground her backside into his lap.
The Ashbrouke was busy for a Wednesday night, packed with people trying to cool off with lukewarm beer and the bar’s insufficient air conditioning. Standing in the corner underneath the mounted television, Shelley was wiping down the bar. The rag in her hand glowed white in the dim light. The owner, Jackie DeLonne, always kept the drapes shut over the bar’s few windows. To moderate the temperature, she said. Marland thought of his own uncovered windows at home and made a mental note to ask Jackie where she got the curtains. He sat on the stool closest to Shelley, who had moved behind the bar and was now restocking glasses. “Hey you,” he said, lifting his chin a little. Her eyes flicked towards him, held his for a second, and went back to the glasses. Even though Shelley was at least fifteen years younger, there was something Vanessa about her, something hard-set around the mouth. She turned her back to him and began straightening liquor bottles. With the towel she wiped the neck of each, slowly rotating her hand. Marland stared until he felt her looking at him in the mirror that ran behind the bar. He didn’t let his gaze meet hers. Instead, his eyes drifted to the nape of her neck, over her shoulders, down to her bared lower back and the top of her hips. Above the waistband of her low-cut jeans scrolled a poorly executed tattoo in blue ink: tangled vines, blunted thorns, and two roses so blurry they looked as if they were melting.
Jackie appeared from the kitchen, blocking his visual inventory of her stepdaughter and pouring him a beer and a shot without asking what he wanted. Placing both glasses on the sticky bar she held out her hand, palm up and open. With her other hand she pushed her damp bangs out of her eyes. “Put it on my tab?” He tried. Jackie shook her head, looking past him to gauge a fight brewing at the dartboard. “No more tabs.” She was a tall woman, and as she leaned closer to Marland her right hip jutted out at an awkward angle. He sighed and pulled his paycheck from his wallet. “But I didn’t have time to go to the bank.” Jackie’s mouth was a straight line. “I’ll cash it, but I’m taking fifteen percent.” She was Marland’s father’s first wife, and she had no compunction about squeezing a little extra from his son, who in her opinion spent more time talking about work than actually working. Like everyone else in the county, she knew about Delton and Ralph Blevins. She also knew not everyone got second chances. Not everyone got to run home from Tennessee, dragging a pale, pretty Southern wife along. Marland sighed again and placed the check on the bar. Maura would be angry, but he was always vague about how much his parents paid him and when they paid him, so there was a chance she’d never know. By the end of the night, the summer heat temporarily retracting from the air, Shelley was in the back of his car, her jeans around her knees and his face wedged between her legs, the de-icing manuals shoved into the floorboards. Jackie had seen them leave and said nothing as she closed the register and counted up the night’s profits. She would let Marland run a tab of another sort.
The next afternoon he woke gasping from a jagged sleep on the couch, his boxer shorts soaked with acrid-smelling sweat. Despite the heat from the sun streaming through the window, he was shivering. Marland’s tactic of drinking six or more beers a night, along with a couple of shots of whiskey, was usually enough to shut Ralph Blevins out of his dreams. Lately, it had worked less and less. This time, Ralph stood inside the store. He stared at Marland through the front window, blood running from his mouth, his ears, his eyes. Just before Marland woke, Ralph’s hand reached through the glass, Marland’s panicked breaths pulling him closer. Stop breathing, Marland shouted to himself. Stop breathing stop breathing stop breathing.
Shaken, he sat up, rubbing his eyes, gripping the nap of the worn area rug with his toes as if trying to hold on. There was note on the coffee table, under the remote: Maura had taken the dogs for a hike in Kingston. He remembered the salty tang of Shelley’s crotch and stumbled into the bedroom to make sure he hadn’t left his clothes on the floor, but there was no trace of anything he’d worn the night before. Maura must have started the laundry. His face in the bathroom mirror showed no evidence of sex-slick, though when he put his fingers to his nose the scent was undeniable. “Goddammit,” he muttered, and turned on the hot water tap. Only cold came up from the well. He took a washrag from the shower, ran it through the icy water and over a dried-out cake of Irish Spring, and scrubbed his face and neck. He was surprised at the amount of dirt that came off on the cloth. If he weren’t convinced it would make him vomit, he would have run it over his tongue and teeth. He would have eaten the soap and drank every bit of water in the well, if it would wash Ralph Blevins from his mind.
Sunday dinners were a mandated event in the Moore family. Back in Delton, when they were just married, Maura and Marland each worked mainly nights, he as a patrol officer and she as an RN at the hospital. Meals together were a rare event those first years, until they each accrued some degree of seniority and more control over their shift schedules. Eventually, about once a month they were both free on the weekends, and those Sundays culminated in a leisurely take-out dinner and a discussion of the upcoming week. Since moving to Alenston, Sunday dinners involved planning, cooking, making a contribution and showing up on time, together. Harold and Judith Moore never drank before 5pm, so it meant Marland had to wait to start drinking, and that he consumed twice as much twice as fast to make up for the delay.
Her mother-in-law was in the kitchen, struggling to pull a chicken from the oven. “Let me help you,” Maura said, slipping potholders onto each hand. Normally, the older woman would protest, but this time she stepped back and let Maura take the roasting pan from the oven. The chicken, covered in Meyer lemon slices and approaching an even, browned perfection, only hissed and popped a little as her mother-in-law gently inserted a thermometer into one thigh. “Still a bit more time,” she sighed. “Chicken salad would have been a better choice, given this heat.” She tried to fan her face with a wooden spoon and just missed hitting Maura’s chin. After ladling some broth from the pan over the bird, she stepped back, wiping her forehead and then her hands on a dishcloth she pulled from a pocket of her oilcloth apron, the one Maura sent for her sixtieth birthday last year.
Taking her cue, Maura returned the bird to the oven. From the other room, she heard Marland attempting conversation with his father about the new environmental standards for de-icing liquid, their voices raised above the news blaring on the television. During the drive back from Kingston yesterday, on the car radio there was mention of another beating, this time in Ohio. Lydie had called that afternoon but Maura did not answer. When she listened to the message later that night, she knew from Lydie’s tone she wanted to press on something, to test a wound for tenderness. Just as with Vanessa, there was always some motive, some machine Lydie was operating beneath the surface of her words. Some drawer, opening and closing below her voice.
The two men grew quieter as the volume on the television increased. The newscaster’s words—Ohio, unarmed, protest—pushed eagerly into the kitchen. Maura glanced towards the other room and then at her mother-in-law’s face. While she put her hands on the counter and dug her fingernails into the smooth oak, the older woman, unfazed, continued mixing a pitcher of gin and tonic and then squeezed key limes over the ice heaped in four glasses. “Bring those bowls and napkins in, will you?” She asked her daughter-in-law as she picked up the tray. Made of pine and finished in a reddish-brown stain, the tray was one of Marland’s shop class projects from high school. His mother’s name was seared into one side in a squashed, scorched script. Maura followed her out of the well-ordered kitchen, thinking of her own kitchen down the mountain: the dirty dishes piled in the sink. The moldy coffee, cold in the chipped pot. As the women set the appetizers and drinks on the coffee table, Marland’s father sat up in his chair, waving his long white arms left and right, as if shooing away a cloud of black flies. “Get out of the damn way,” he said. His eyes never left the television. From where Maura stood she could see that his hair, the color of dirty snow, strained to cover his scalp.
Flushing, Maura quickly stepped back, but Judith stayed where she was, methodically pouring drinks as Harold continued to complain. In a pair of khaki shorts and an Atlantic City t-shirt, he sat with his back erect, his pale legs bent at perfect ninety-degree angles. “Damn it, Judy, I’m trying to see what happened in Ohio.” When she handed him a drink, he took a long swallow, belched, and sat back in his chair. “That poor son of a bitch. Ruined his life.” He shook his head. Judith passed a glass to Maura, who was grateful for something to hold. Whose life? Whose life did he mean? Her father-in-law could be a tender man. He rescued injured foxes and turkeys from the woods, animals caught in traps or wounded by hunters, and nursed them back to health. Or he would, if he liked their species. Deer, raccoons, and dogs: these he rescued. Herons and cats: those, he shot. Herons ate the bullfrogs in his koi pond, and there was never any end to cats. If one showed up, more were bound to follow. It was well known that Harold hated the smell of cat piss. He said it reminded him of the eucalyptus trees in Monterey, where he had been stationed at Fort Ord and lived with Jackie. The bar bitch, he called her.
“Where’s Marsh?” Judith looked at Harold, who kept his far-sighted eyes on the television positioned at the living room’s opposite end. He leaned forward and took a handful of pistachios from one of the bowls and motioned with his closed fist at the patio doors. “Out,” he said. “Probably deciding where he’ll build a house after I die.” This was a common refrain of Harold’s. Judith sighed and handed Maura a second gin and tonic. “Take one to Marland, will you?” She always phrased her orders as questions, as if Maura might refuse her. It was why Maura did not mind working for her mother-in-law: she made it seem like an agreement.
Outside, the sky was silvery-pink. Maura found her husband by the property’s lone pear tree, swinging a golf club at over-ripe fruit rotting in the grass. They were facing east and the sun was drawing closer to the mountains, but the air was still hot. Even in a linen sundress, sweat gathered insistently under her arms and behind her knees. The brim of Marland’s ball cap was soaked through. “Want a drink?” She wished it were ice water or lemonade, but she was glad of something to offer him, even if it was the last thing he needed. He nodded, said nothing, and accepted the glass. They had barely spoken since Tuesday, when he had come home from the bar, stripped out of his clothes, and fallen into bed, once again stinking of someone else who was beginning to smell familiar.
For the first month after that day in Tennessee, Maura could not stop talking. There had to be some way, her intuition told her, to quickly get Marland recovered and set on a new track. There had to be some path around what he had done. For a short while it seemed he would return to work after a period of probation and five hundred hours of community service, but when he showed up at the station disheveled and cussing at the chief, the department let him go for good. After that, Maura found she still had the urge to talk to Marland but no words to go along with it so she filled the air with pointless comments about the weather, or what she might cook for dinner. While she was talking about nothing, talking around the edges of who her husband had become—or who he was revealing himself to be—he had agreed to take a job in his parents’ company without consulting her. It was as hard for her to comprehend that they were moving north, far from her own family in western Tennessee and her job in the neonatal clinic, as it was for her to grasp why they were moving. It was just like they said on the news: off-duty and drunk, Marland had beaten up a man outside a convenience store on Spencer Avenue, in Delton.
Her husband squinted out towards the horse paddock, empty except for a solitary mule his father refused to have shod. “They should put that thing down,” he said, gesturing with the end of the golf club. Sorry for the mule, Maura took another drink and waited for him to say more. But Marland was silent again, gone off to the place where he picked and pulled at his memories. His withdrawal made her lonely, and Maura tilted her head back until she could see only sky. That was how she pretended she was still in Tennessee with her father close by, her mother alive, and she and her sister still speaking, even if Maura only fooled herself for a moment. How she missed the density and height of the Appalachian Mountains. These northern Catskills held their distance. Kept themselves apart.
Perhaps like her, they had seen too much. Six months ago, after another severe cold snap, she found Marland passed out on the frozen pond. Sitting on the couch, she watched his headlights bounce along the road to the cabin on his way home from the Ashbrouke, but after thirty minutes he had not come inside. The moon was full and when she stepped out onto the raised deck she saw him running and sliding across the pond in his work boots. By the time she reached him, he was lying on his back, his hood up, hands jammed into his pockets, pants stinking of his own piss—an accusing scent the cold air should have refused to carry. Pleading, Maura pulled at his arms, the dogs licked his face, but he would not stand. As she and the dogs walked back to the cabin, the snow threw the light of the moon into her eyes, blinding her more than showing her a way through.
Last year, spring in Tennessee was pine pollen thick and yellow on the cruiser hood. It was green, manicured lawns bordered by azaleas exploding with blossoms the color of flames. Hours before Marland met Ralph Blevins outside the Kwik’s, he called Vanessa and pressed her to join him in Vegas.
“No way, Marland. I have a good feeling about this new guy. I’m not going to let you get me to screw this up.”
“Where are the kids?” He could hear the ice rattling in her glass.
She paused, exhaling. So she was smoking again. “At Robbie’s.”
“Probation.” Vanessa’s ex had a persistent habit of drinking and driving.
Marland unzipped his fly. “What’re you wearing?”
Another long exhale. “No, Marland.”
“What?” He pulled his hand halfway out of his pants.
“Not even phone sex. Not anymore.”
“Jesus. Look, I had ten minutes, thought I’d call, we could mess around a little—”
“How’s my sister?”
Marland sighed and put his hand on the steering wheel. “She’s fine. Working a lot. Thinking about an MSN.”
“Yeah. She just won’t quit.” He laughed.
Vanessa was silent, letting his laughter drain out. He knew her life hadn’t been as smooth as Maura’s. She was Maura’s half-sister, through their mother, and had just turned thirty-five last fall. When their mother passed, they were still kids, and Maura’s father took his grief out on Vanessa. After several years of his unrelenting verbal abuse, she in turn had struggled with bulimia, painkiller addiction, and credit problems.
“Listen, Marland. It’s been five years.” He heard her swallow. “I’m done with this.”
“You’ve said that before.” He flipped the visor down and squinted in the mirror. Don’t push it, he told himself. “Where are you? Up at the lake house? I could be there in an hour.”
“I’m all out, Marsh. I gave you a full hand.”
Marland held one of his hands up, closing and opening his fist, imagining Vanessa’s warm breath on his neck. “But I want the other hand, too. I want five more.”
“No, I mean you’ve had five years to tell her.”
From the day he met her eight years ago at his uncle’s body shop in Knoxville, where he got a summer job after flunking out of Alenston Community College and where she took her Jeep after she’d been rear-ended for the second time that July, Marland knew Maura was the one he was supposed to marry. When he looked into her green eyes, he saw the answers to questions he had barely begun to formulate. She was the one who pushed him to give up truck repair and become a cop. The one who looked the other way, no matter how many times he failed her, towards some better version of himself. Of them.
“Nessa, you know I can’t do that.”
“Then you know I can’t do this.” Vanessa hung up.
“Stop,” Marland said into the sudden, empty place Maura’s sister left behind. For the first time ever, Vanessa didn’t answer once when he called her back five, ten, fifteen times—more than he wanted to count. Few things in Marland’s life could crystallize as brightly as those secret 90 mile-per-hour trips to the lake, the wind whipping Vanessa’s long brown hair as they drank from a thermos of rum and vanilla Coke and passed a joint between them. For so many years, the world had remained warm and open-ended. Now, as he approached thirty, everywhere he turned there was a wall, a corner, an edge. Something he had to give up in order to keep something else. Though the air conditioning was set to high, the air inside the car grew heavy and thick. Stop, Marland whispered, the phone in his hand, each breath more shallow than the last.
His shift was over but he could not go home to his wife. Not yet. Instead, Marland drank the flask of bourbon he always kept full and at the ready in his glove box, and then found himself driving along Spencer, a little dizzy and nauseous but wanting more. To be drunker, angrier, more convinced he was the injured party, forced to make a choice. He parked, got out of the car, and headed across the street to the Kwik’s for a six-pack. As he grabbed for the door, it swung outward and almost hit him in the forehead as Ralph Blevins, carrying a bag in each arm, pushed the door open with his back. He turned, a few inches shy of walking into Marland. Backed up. “Sorry man, sorry. Didn’t see you there.” He turned to go.
“Stop,” Marland said.
Ralph Blevins paused. A few feet away, he waited with two brown bags. He had done a year over in Henning after he and a cousin stole computers and prescription medications from an elderly couple they did yard work for one summer. He had served his time. But just like his father warned him, prison made a space for each body, and they wanted you back in your space. The man behind him had come to claim him. In the park across the street, a young woman shifted her baby to her hip and with her cell phone began recording the two men, the unsteady blond officer with his hands at his sides and the other man, slighter and shorter, in camouflage pants and a tank top. It was late June. The cicadas had just begun singing, and when the video was later played in the closed hearing, the cicadas roared.
Marland walked forward and placed his hand on Ralph’s shoulder, turning him around as a parent might before reprimanding a child. As his fist rose, the bags fell: beer, toilet paper, and potato chips spilled out on the sidewalk. Ralph tried to cover his face but Marland was too fast. He wanted everyone to stop and he punched into this middle-aged man with tattoos on his face, the sleeves torn from his shirt, dirt ground in under his nails. He hit straight into the center of the man who refused to fight and into Vanessa who never loved him enough to hurt Maura with the truth. Out of them all, it was only the man who fell and folded in around himself. When Marland picked Ralph up by the shoulder and hurled him against the front window of the Kwik’s, the owner opened the door and aimed a shotgun at them both. Amid the wailing sirens, Marland heard only the sound of waves coming to shore, the sound of Vanessa, moaning in the backseat of his cruiser.
When he walked into the apartment three hours later the dogs ran to him, wagging their tails, convinced his appearance was a good omen. Just out of the shower and wrapped in a towel, Maura nearly tripped over him on her way to the kitchen. He sat on the floor by the couch, hugging a pillow as if he were trying to restrain it, his eyes on the group of potted ferns by the sliding glass doors. “I hurt a man,” he said. Maura nodded. This happened. This was the other side of your husband dying in the line of duty: killing in the line of duty. Suddenly, he looked as if he was disappearing, the boundaries of his form unsteady, unanchored. Or maybe she was crying. Closing her eyes for a moment, she opened them and forced herself to kneel beside him. She hadn’t braided her hair yet and it spilled over her damp shoulders. “Is he ok?” There was a crust of blood just under Marland’s nose. The dogs sniffed her face, then his, moving between them as if trying to weave two newly separate parts back into their original whole. As the silence widened it took on a three-dimensional quality, pushing Marland’s four words to the edges of the room. I hurt a man: Right then, that was all Maura could stand to know.
Marland’s hurt was thorough: Ralph Blevins was beaten past repair. Brain damaged, unconscious and unlikely to wake, the hospital located his older sister, who lived in Texas. Over the phone, as next of kin she agreed to have him removed from life support and donated his undamaged organs to those who waited. Afterwards the state cremated his body, so there was no funeral to attend. Not that it mattered. She swore to have nothing to do with her brother after he took off with her dog and their mother’s jewelry two years prior. When he was in prison, in western Tennessee, it was the closest they’d been in years, only the Ozarks of Arkansas and acres of East Texas blue bonnets between them. If the police testified that he resisted arrest, who was she to argue? Who was she, who had his blood but barely knew him, to care?
When Marland finished his gin and tonic, they switched glasses and Maura ate the remaining ice cubes from his glass. The juniper and lime coated her mouth with acid and bite, dissolving any words that might find their way to her tongue. Tossing the empty glass on the ground, she took the club from Marland’s hand and began to chip the last of the fly-eaten pears over the flat, freshly mown green cut into the field thick with bull thistle and white clover. Barking, the dogs gave chase, out to where the grass was taller and the woods began, where lightning bugs blinked like stars too quickly gone to wish on. Behind them, Judith called from the porch and Harold’s voice followed, trembling in rage as Maura, sweat stinging her eyes, expertly sent pear after pear sailing into the humid air with his favorite 8 iron.
Here in his parents’ yard, Marland no longer knew where the man began and where he himself ended. Like freezing water, Ralph only expanded while Marland melted away. Ready for another drink, he turned from his wife. He knew Ralph would wait for winter, for the next night he stepped out on the frozen pond. In the center of that cold, opaque glass they would lie down, Marland spreading his arms and legs wide, unfolding the man inside him, leaving it up to the ice—that delicate membrane between responsibility and regret—to decide to hold the weight of their bodies. For a while more, it was summer, so they left Maura to her task. Parts of Ralph Blevins had gone all over the country and there wasn’t anything left here for her. The pears cleared from the ground, she raised the club with her thin arms and began to beat the limbs of the tree.