The New Paris

The night the bird visited them, they were eating a late supper on the balcony that overlooked the boulevard.  The scene below was idyllic: a handsome avenue, wide in the way of the new city.  The houses were tall and impressive; the lamps made the leaves on the young trees shimmer.

The husband glanced out over the darkening skyline and said, “The ghettos are all but vanished.”

His wife swallowed a grape that turned sour as she ate it.  Washing her mouth with wine, she said, “No, they have only pushed the ghetto to other places.  It is like grass that sends shoots under the soil.  The gardeners rip it up in bits, but the runners are always slinking out into the dark, slipping along, over and under the worms.”

He frowned. “Poverty isn’t a weed, determined to survive.”

It brought her up and they were silent for a moment.  She had felt proud of her analogy, but with a clean swipe, he’d opened it up, revealed the emptiness of it.  With words she was usually the clever one, but he had a way of seeing to the heart of matters.

As they sat in their silence, the clouds that had made the day grey before now let free the water they held.  The rain chased them inside with their glasses and their plates, but when they were finished eating, they came to stand at the doors to the balcony.  They shared a cigarette, the ghetto and the analogy forgotten for just then.

chagallThen the bird came to perch on a branch of the new tree just beneath them.  It was a common enough creature, small and sooty, the kind that had always flocked to this part of Paris.  Perhaps it was surprised by the smell: nothing so much as stone and brick, the vapor of gases, the fragrance of flower gardens and wine.

It sang out into the wet night in tones as orange as a fading sun and as dark as the wet bark.  The sound was mournful and reminded the wife of where she and the husband had come from.  She recalled for a moment a narrow, crooked street, beggars barking and flies hunched on horseshit.  The smell of bakeries could never quite bloom in the sordid and ordinary and ugly odors abounding.

Her mother died on a table with one short leg, giving birth to a cold mass that an old woman carried away in rags, her brow creased, her lips closed tight.  No prayers. Somehow the rest of them grew in the same airless room, years onward, each taking care of the other, the father no more grown than the children.

The fates of she and her husband were not fixed.  By the time they met, they had each benefited from providence. Hers was to clean at a school where the old mistress showed her the best things to read; his was to be taken in by an uncle of small success, taught a religion of sums and francs.  Luck or circumstance had always lifted them a little more at each crossroads, until they arrived at adult lives of glib pleasures and lavender sleep.  Chances washed them clean and the very outwardness of themselves, like their boulevard, reflected a new order, peacock proud.  Anything was possible for the quick and the keen.

It was not the entire truth, the bird seemed to sing.

Her husband was right about poverty. She ought to have known better.  The bird must detest this boulevard, scrubbed fruitless.  There were no back yards and thin side yards, thick from neglect, in which to hide a nest.  There was no room for little birds in the new Paris.

“Poverty is not a weed,” she said, passing the cigarette to him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he answered.

“We of all people should know.”

The bird stopped singing just then.  Perhaps it was listening to them.  Or perhaps it had nothing more to say.  Then the rain stopped and they ended the cigarette in the soil of a potted rose.

“We are ordinary,” she said.

He was silent, glancing over his shoulder at the little clock on the mantle. The salon behind them was gay in the lamp light.  A yellow sofa and a parade of still lives along the damask wall.  Their cat stretched on the Oriental carpet, yawning at them as he peered in, as though confirming the wife’s appraisal.

“At the theater last week, the comedy I went to see when you were away in Bristol.  They showed a cheery sort of poor man, a jovial and honorable old thing.  The actor had jowls like a hound and they’d painted his face rosy all over his cheeks.  It made him look like a drunk.”

“They loved him.  He had a chance at wealth, which he gave up for some sentimental reason that escapes me.  It made all the comfortable people in the audience feel good about themselves.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he began.

“Then I have read books that showed poverty as a misery, yet again they were written romantically. Tragedy.  But the girls I grew up with were wretches, course and hard too soon, and not the elegant lilies the authors like to pity.”

He lit another cigarette and passed it to her.

“Poverty is a small bird, sometimes a slow bird or an unlucky one, who cannot find seed because all the quick and early birds have already taken it all.  Only we are not like birds.  When the lucky people are finished taking all the seed, they build storerooms to keep it in, and they brick over the gardens so the flowers and the grass will scatter no more feed.”

“Maybe that’s true,” he said. He felt suddenly tired.

They would keep the dinner party they had planned for the next night and the picnic set for the following Sunday.  Over the years, the city would grow around them, one wide boulevard after the other, smothering the ancient houses, the thin gardens, and all the crooked veins of Paris.  The lampposts would march along like soldiers, beating away the shadows of the dirty past.  Other birds would survive the new order, the grey pigeon always prevailing. Their bird never came again.

And the wife forgot, almost, that once upon a time, in the heedless hour between wealth and knowing, that grapes used to taste sweeter.

Koi

 

[an homage to Maugham’s classic, The Letter]

 

Chicago/1991

He sees her at the other end of a hotel bar, the ex-wife of his friend Tom Eastlake. It is late April, raining coldly outside, and the bar is becoming full, though early in the cocktail hour. People are waiting out the rain, though he can tell this one isn’t going to let up for some time. As beautiful as he has remembered her, she is reverently approaching her first sip of a cocktail the moment he sees her, that strawberry blond hair ablaze against a distant, cobalt wall, although now her hair has slivers of grey, like smoke in a fire. She tilts back her head, the highlights on a de Vinci face shifting over flawless, white skin and her throat leaps subtly as she swallows.
Allen Russell has not seen Rebecca in fifteen years. The last time was at the Eastlake condo in Fussa. She was leaving with two suitcases, one in each hand. Sunglasses covered her eyes, and he had guessed she was crying. Tom Eastlake was standing at the patio doors to the terrace, looking out without seeing and he did not answer when she said a last goodbye. Russell had witnessed it all from his own terrace, directly across the courtyard airspace, as one might watch a concisely blocked play from a balcony at stage level. All so neat and familiar; the wife leaving for good, the man unable to express anything happening inside of himself. A parting that was out of balance, though perfectly clear from a distance.
It seems that Rebecca Eastlake will not notice him tonight, something he cannot decide is good or bad, when she turns and their eyes lock. Her gaze falters as they both remember, quickly, her last days in Japan. Before those weeks in August and September, fifteen years ago, all of their lives had seemed pat and comfortable. Russell and Tom had both worked for firms that had contracts with the new air force base at Fussa. They had come to Japan as early as 1968 and were comfortably ensconced, by day at work and night at home, in new buildings with pristine architecture and the latest trappings. Tom had brought Rebecca with him to this life, while Russell had come free and single. The two lawyers went out at nights and drank and behaved too frequently like men who were both without wives. Rebecca always seemed to entertain herself. Then had come the night she killed Mitch Turnball. Everything, or almost everything, else is now history.

Fussa, Tokyo/1976

In the thick humidity, a new moon hovers over a sleek building near the American air force base. With limbs of steel and leaves of smoked glass, it is built on a u-shaped foundation, with an interior courtyard, furnished with teak tables under umbrellas, massive pots with trees and a glistening koi pool fed by a slender fountain. The open end of the courtyard faces the harbor, where the summer sky is a wet denim blue. A few candles still burn at the tables, but the guests of the ground floor lounge have departed for the evening. The native staff clean up languidly, murmuring and laughing. Above, the cantilevered terraces are empty, though lamps are lit in most of the condos.
A gun shot rends the stillness, unmistakable, followed by the shriek of a sliding door against its track. A man, possibly forty, handsome, appears at the edge of a terrace on the twelfth floor, turning back toward the condo he has run from. His hands grasp the railing, leaving a smear of blood on the polished teak. There is a second shot and he is knocked back with enough force to send him spilling over. He lands in the shallow koi pool one hundred and fourteen feet below, one leg striking the concrete lip with a sickening crack. The lounge staff, in aghast horror until now, erupt into chaos. Doors open on other balconies, men and women pour out into the humid evening, looking wildly about, glasses and cigarettes clasped in their hands.
On the terrace where the man was killed stands a willowy woman dressed in a flowing robe of brilliant violet and pink forms. Long, strawberry blond hair flows freely down her back. Her eyes are wide and glazed; there is a film of sweat on her brow.
She draws a steadying breath before glancing down at the inert, distorted shape in the water. Koi flutter and beat wetly against the slate, their struggle against death a ballet of orange on charcoal. Water that arced high into the night is dripping off the umbrellas nearest the fountain. The revolver in her hand clatters dully as it slips free and lands at her feet. She steadies herself against the rail, turns up a palm now marked with blood, then recedes into the shadows of the condo.
Directly across the airspace from her terrace, a man in pewter grey pajamas steps inside, picks up the headpiece of a black wall phone and dials a number that patches him to the club where his employer has gone for the evening. When the man has been brought to the phone, the servant says with austere calm, “Mr. Russell, you and Mr. Eastlake must come home. Mrs. Eastlake has just shot Mr. Turnball. The police will be summoned immediately.” He must say it once more, steadily, before ringing off with instructions to go to the Eastlake condo and stay there.
When the two American men arrive about ten minutes later, there are crowds in the corridor outside of the condominium, but the police have not yet shown. They push their way through the throng, which dissolves before them as the stouter of the men is recognized.
At the end of the long hall to the living room, the scene before them is curiously domestic and calm. Allen Russell’s manservant holds a teapot flocked with rusty persimmons, while before him, Rebecca Eastlake sits on a long, green velvet sofa, murmuring a soft thank you. She is dressed in a pale blue pantsuit, cinched casually with a matched sash, her hair dressed in a flawless twist. Setting aside her teacup, she rises with her customary elegance, eyes trained on her husband.
Tom Eastlake is thunderstruck. He and Russell had been about two fists of scotch, dosed finger by finger, into their evening when the call came. All signs of his jovial buzz were stripped away the moment his friend shouted the news into his ear, over the disco music and the female chatter and laughter.
Rebecca crosses slowly to him and, instinctively, he holds out his arms. Her face pressed to his shoulder, she squeezes her eyes shut.
“Did they tell you?” she asks.
“Yes, but I don’t understand.”
She pulls back and looks deeply into his eyes a moment, before dropping her gaze. “He was going to rape me.” He becomes rigid. “So I shot him.”
Ten minutes later the police have arrived along with a translator. There is a forensic team on the courtyard below, photographing the body and recording evidence. A detective has come to the apartment and a pair of officers have cleared the corridor and guard the door. The detective is lean, very young, with doe eyes that belittle his position. He tries to hide them in the shadow of a perpetually furrowed brow. He hangs a humorless mouth over his chin.
As he takes a seat on the sofa, Rebecca perches at the edge of a slipper chair across from him. Her husband, in a cloud of worry, stands behind her, his fingers resting on her shoulders. Russell paces the floor behind the sofa with an intent expression, as the translator settles on an ottoman near the detective. Through him, their conversation begins, the detective getting the names of everyone present and that of the dead man. After these notes are carefully taken, the translator says, “Now, Mrs. Eastlake, will you please tell us exactly what happened.”
“Of course. But where should I begin?”
Not understanding the rhetorical nature of her question, there is an exchange between the two Japanese men. Then the translator says without irony, “We believe at the beginning.”
She smiles ruefully, “Well, as I said before, his name is Mitch Turnball. He was a sort of friend of ours. I should say, not a real close one, but here in Tokyo, you understand, every American is something of a friend.”
“Why did you shoot him?” The translator conveys the question almost apologetically.
She pales, replying coldly, “We’re still at the beginning. That would be the end.”
Rebecca says, “He was usually a pretty nice guy. All the husbands in our set liked him, and he indulged the wives when we needed to make an even number for dinner parties.”
“Earlier tonight, maybe an hour after my husband and Russ headed out to their meeting, there was a buzz from the lobby. It was Mitch asking to come up. He said he ended a date early and was still in the mood for company. I told him Tom had gone out, but he said I was better company anyway. We both sort of laughed and I said, sure, come on up. I was working on a story, I told him, but I had just about finished.”
There is a sense of confusion between the translator and the detective. “Working on a story, Mrs. Eastlake?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she replies. “I’m a writer. I write about our experiences here in your country. I sell some of my stories to magazines in America.”
They nod in understanding.
“As soon as I let him in, I realized he’d been drinking.”
“He did not seem inebriated on the lobby extension?”
She blinks at them, “No.“
Her husband studies the top of her head with heavy eyes, while Russell continues to pace the luxuriant shag, gazing only at his own path.
“He asked for a drink and I didn’t want to offend him, so I made a watered down gin and tonic. He asked me if I would join him, but I said no.”
The detective nods approvingly when this last comment reaches his ears. Noting this with a slightly creased brow, she adds dryly, “Not that I don’t like a good drink on occasion.”
Drawing a breath, she says, “I sat and worked on corrections and we chatted for a bit, about nothing in particular, though frankly he was in a rather quarrelsome mood and I was soon regretting his visit.”
“Quarrelsome, Mrs. Eastlake? In what way?”
“Oh, the government was a disaster. He hadn’t seen a picture worth a damn, his word, all summer. American movies were in the toilet, not his word, and Japanese films were even worse. You understand, the typical disgruntled drunk.”
“Did you ask him to leave?”
“Not then. I was honestly a little worried about him. He’d had his share of cocktails in our company before, but tonight he was like another man altogether.”
“Do you think he had taken drugs?”
She frowns, “Maybe. I didn’t think of that.”
The detective consults his pad, murmurs to the translator, who says, “Yes, so he was being quarrelsome, you said.”
“Yes, that’s right. Eventually, there was a lull in his tirade, then he said, ’You know, Tom and Russ aren’t at a meeting on base. They’re down at the Orchid Room having drinks and letting geishas sit on their laps.’ “
There is a sharp intake from Tom and even Allen Russell pauses, briefly, before continuing his perambulation with a one sided smile curling his mouth. Rebecca looks up at her husband and pats his hand, “It’s okay, Tom.“
Aiming her gaze back at the two Japanese men, she adds, “I told him, that, of course I knew it. ‘I’m not naive,’ I said.“
The forensic investigators enter the apartment and silently cut through to the terrace. They can be seen making notes of the blood on the rail. Turning her gaze away from them, she leans forward and her husband’s fingers slip from her shoulders. “I told him I had no doubt Tom has always been faithful to me. I told him I understand why men are so fascinated with geishas. They are a fantasy, a woman like a porcelain doll who will do anything a man wants. ‘What chance have we nagging wives against that?‘ I asked him. Then I said most women wouldn’t mind having a crack at the male version of one of those girls.”
“He didn‘t like that. He cut me off and said, “What‘s that? Some of that feminist horseshit?’”
The translator frowns in distaste as he passes on the phrase. Russell has stopped and is studying her closely now. The investigators on the terrace take their first photo of a blood detail; the flash bulb flickers like summer lightning in the room, bathing the lines of her face quickly in blue silver. Shrugging, she continues, “Those were his words exactly. I was surprised but I decided to treat it like a sort of joke. But then he kept going. It was a rant against all womankind. I was trying not to get mad by ignoring it. Then he said something that just sent a chill up my spine, though I didn’t yet know why.“
“Mrs. Eastlake?“
“I’m sorry, but it’s awkward for me.“
She stands, putting aside her empty tea cup. With a deep frown, she moves away from them and peers down the length of the hall, arms folded tightly at her stomach. “His exact words were, ’The only thing I admire about these radical feminists is that they just come out and admit they like to fuck as much as men do.’”
The American men draw a breath sharply, then, getting the translation, the detective lowers his doe eyes to his notes. Tom’s hands, gripping the back of the chair, are white at the knuckles. The only sound for a moment is of the popping flash of the camera out on the terrace and the rub of pencil against paper. Drawing her mouth into a tight line, as one determined to finish a displeasing task, she plows on, “I caught his eye and I realized the last comment was meant to be an invitation, as if he thought I might be interested and needed only a bit of prompting, so I began to laugh, nervously, I think. Well, that enraged him because I think he knew I’d gotten the point and he thought I was laughing at him.”
Her face is still, her eyes downcast. “He had been pacing the carpet, like Russ here, almost the same path, but when I laughed, he bolted at me.”
Russell pauses, thoughtful, and takes a seat beside the detective.
“I was there on the sofa.”
The two men shuffle uncomfortably as her gaze sweeps the spot, but she looks away again, still peering down the hall. “He pulled me up, roughly, hurting my wrists where he grabbed me.“ She unfolds her arms to rub her wrists, as though remembering the crushing grip. “He said that I didn’t fool him. I said I didn’t understand and I told him to get out. Somehow he got my arms twisted behind my back and then he pushed me onto the sofa. I was on my stomach. He put his weight on me to pin me in place. I was trying to fight, to kick, but he was too strong.“
The men are petrified.
“Then he was swearing at me, his face up next to my ear, so red with rage it was almost purple. I knew what was going to happen.” She sinks limply into a chair near to her, “The way he was pressed against me, I could tell.“
Only the translator’s voice is audible, speaking lowly, an echo in the wake of her words. Straightening, she continues, “Then an odd little thing happened. A kind of miracle, I think. My ink pen was still on the sofa, with my notes, and it must have broke during the struggle, because there was suddenly a red stain spreading on the cushion near my shoulder. He saw it and it seemed to shock him. For a moment I think we both thought it was blood.”
Reflexively Allen Russell and the detective look at the cushions under them. Spotting the stain beside his thigh, the lawyer rises and begins to pace anew.
Rebecca says, “He was blinking at the spot and his grip on me loosened, so I wrestled free of him somehow and started down the hall to the door. I was about half way there when I heard this horrible sound. A kind of roar. I didn’t dare turn around for fear of losing time, and I could hear him right behind me, coming fast, and that was when I knew that I wouldn’t get out. Tom’s gun was in the box on top of the hall chest and it took only a moment to grab it. Just when I turned with it, hoping to frighten him back, he was pouncing at me. It was all instinctive after that. I just shot.”
She sinks further into the chair and Tom crosses to her and begins to rub her back in slow circles. Russell draws a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and lights one, and after briefly glancing to see if the lady objects, the detective does the same. There is a long silence in the room except for the pulling breaths of the smokers.
Pulling her face from her hands, making a chapel of her fingers, Rebecca says, “He ran out to the terrace, trying to get away, though there was no where to go. I guess he wasn’t thinking, he was just frightened. There was so much adrenaline, which is the only way I can explain the second shot. I didn‘t want to kill him.”
She presses her lips closed, but her body is trembling, and soon a sob escapes, followed by others, that send her shoulders leaping violently. Perhaps she is crying because of the whole thing, or crying tears for both of them, the hunter and the prey, who traded roles at the very last. After a moment in which no one utters a sound, her tears begin to subside. Then she reaches a hand suddenly behind her back and grasps her husband’s wrist, stilling his strokes, and pushing the hand away.
There is a subtle shift in the atmosphere of the room. The others have noticed the silent exchange. Peering straight ahead through wet lashes, she says, “Please, Tom. I’d rather you didn’t just now.”
He seems confused or stricken, but for only a moment before his expression flattens, becomes bland and easy. After another moment, Russell asks, “Why was the gun loaded?”
Tom answers immediately, as the translator passes along the fresh topic to the detective. “I started that back at our old place, near the university, during the AMPO riots. Everything was nuts for a while there and I was nervous for her, traveling as much as I did then. It hardly seemed necessary anymore, out here, but out of habit we kept it.”
“Thank heavens you did,” Russell says.
Tom nods thoughtfully, seeming to comprehend better what might have happened. His face grows ashen. Uttering an apologetic sound, he rushes from the room, while Rebecca watches him dully. Russell studies her while the Japanese detective scribbles notes, conferring with the translator. At last he crosses to her side and gives her shoulder a squeeze.
“Will I be arrested, Russ?”
“I would be surprised if you weren’t already, unofficially.”
Tom has come to the doorway, pressing a dampened cloth to his face. Sardonically, he says, “Only in a civilized country would a woman have to suffer the formality of an arrest for shooting a rabid dog, Rebecca, but I’m sure he’s right.”
There is a sober silence before she asks, “Can you represent me, Russ?”
Methodical, his reply is a moment in coming. He is licensed to write contracts in Tokyo, by the nature of his position with his firm, but there ought to be some way to help she and Tom. At the very least, he promises to act as a sort of advisor throughout, in conjunction with the state appointed attorney, should no other option be open to them. In a matter of moments, any question of her fate is answered, as the translator, with the politeness of agonized sympathy, tells her she is under arrest.

____________

After the grand jury met and a trial date was set, there is about two weeks lag time in which she must merely sit in jail. A motion for bail was denied, as the charge is second degree murder, but it appears the Japanese are not interested in making their prisoner uncomfortable by normal standards. Placed in a cell away from the rest of the prison population, she tells her husband and their friends she suspects they put her there because they know she is a journalist. Each time she repeats the comment, she says it with the same, slightly impish grin, but it really is not so much of a joke. Every comfort, except freedom, is provided for: writing tools, books, music and her own linens from home. The state even appoints a female guard who is, somewhat inexplicably, an English- and Japanese-speaking Dutch woman, to interpret for her and make everything as smooth as possible. It is not unlike having her own maid, particularly as the woman treats her with all the deference of a servant. These touches make it not so hard, all things considered, she tells her visitors to forestall their sympathy.
One afternoon during his daily visit, Rebecca tells Tom she thinks Mrs. Hulms, the guard, is a lesbian who has formed an attachment to her. She waits to see if he blushes, which he does, as well as stammer and then change the subject. She laughs at him, she sketching and sitting on her cot in the lotus position, he at a chair pulled up to the other side of the bars, in the musty side hall.
Shortly after that day, possibly within the same week, Tom drops into Allen Russell’s offices at a building that, like their condos, is just off the air force base. Everyone they know who is white is involved with the military in one way or another, though often the explaining of the connection is sure to draw yawns at a cocktail party. The two men have not enjoyed one of their jaunts out to a club since the night of the murder, but due to Russell’s somewhat unofficial status as legal liaison between the state attorney and Rebecca, Tom has been checking in regularly. Duly, the secretary greets him in a familiar way, gesturing that he might go directly into the inner office.
“Here he is, the accidental bachelor,” Russell says. He begins to rise, but Tom waves him to remain seated. The visitor folds himself into a chair before the desk, crosses his legs and stares out at the glitter of sunlight on other windows.
Russell taps his pen against his desk, see-sawing it against the knuckle of his thumb, while staring thoughtfully at his friend. Finally, with a sigh, he releases the pen and watches it roll a few times along the document before him.
“There is no point in letting this thing beat you, Tom.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on. I’ve been watching you as carefully as I have Rebecca. She’s fairly glowing with health in that shrine they’ve made for her. She has her days full, chocolates, even fan mail, while you whither and worry off to the side.”
There is silence, save the ticking of a clock on the desk. Slowly, Tom’s expression shifts from dumb incomprehension to uncomfortable suspicion. Hesitantly, he asks, “Russ, do you not like Rebecca?”
The other man seems surprised by the question. He rises smoothly, as an athletic man with long limbs can, and moves to the other side of the desk, perching on the corner with a little tug at his pant legs.
“That’s an odd question, Tom.”
“The way you phrased that last bit. Maybe you were joking, but it sounded like you were painting a rather unflattering picture of her. She seemed careless, maybe spoiled, not stricken enough in your estimation.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. In truth, I think she’s probably just better able to handle the strain than you.” He stops, glances out at the city, then winds his gaze inward, looking over his friend with a studious expression. “Tom, I mean to talk to her about it. She really has no reason to be too broken up-”
As his friend begins to protest where he thinks the statement is going, Russell freezes him with a look and continues: “I mean, despite what might have happened, she saved herself by her actions. And she has the comfort of knowing she was courageous, by any standard. The Dutch woman treats her like a queen and she’s likely aware she’s being canonized amongst all the white people here and maybe even among some of the Japanese, the ones who pay attention to the press about her. So she has a lot of reasons to be resilient, not the least of which is knowing the world is on her side.”
He stands, moves back to his chair, and takes a seat. The leather squeaks a bit as he settles in. Leaning forward, elbows on his desk, he concludes his line of thought carefully. “I think, however, that I ought to caution her that she may come off as glib and indifferent at the trial. Of course, no one thinks she should act remorseful, intellectually, but the absence of it still might be unsettling. Does that make sense?”
Tom is flushed, listening to his friend. Yet as he opens his mouth to object, he finds he has no words to back his feelings. Dully, he nods and ponders his lap, his shoulders sinking in surrender to a line of reason that requires a shade more strategic thinking than is his wont.
Russell takes up his pen again, seesawing it as before, and adds in a manner lighter and more sure, “I reckon it is harder on you. Rebecca got to vindicate the crime against her-”
“Attempted crime.”
“Sure, Tom. Still, she got that, while you were robbed of the chance to defend you wife.”
Tom looks up at him slowly, with eyes that are plainly agonized, but he says nothing.
Russell continues gently, “Well, there is no denying it. No man could escape feeling that way about it. But perhaps Rebecca Eastlake is a symbol of the times; a woman who avenges her own wrongs.”
“Oh, come on, Russ, and don’t keep that up.”
“Fair enough,” the lawyer says. “But, to make it clear, you need to buck up a bit and Rebecca needs to tone it down.”
“Well, then let me broach it to her. You two are both so blunt, she’d probably take it better from you, but I feel I’d rather, if you don’t mind.”
The other man shrugs in ascent.
Before he leaves, a few moments later, Tom says, “Would you like to grab a bite later? Rebecca is finishing up an assignment and said she’d probably work straight through dinner.”
Russell smiles, “Sure, let’s get a bite and some Laphroaig at Sharky’s, say, about six thirty. It seems like a steak and whisky kind of night.” A few moments later, his gaze is still lingering thoughtfully on the door through which his friend has exited.

____________

However Tom Eastlake conveyed Russell’s concerns to his wife, that man will never know, but when she takes the stand at the trial several days later, she is exactly as he would want her to be. With eyes that are lowered and a voice that seldom varies from a gentle coo, she retells to the jury the story she told the detectives the night of the murder. The state prosecutor has few questions in cross examination and what he does ask, he does through his translator with a palpable level of deference.
The jurors are solemn, the small number of people in the courtroom fairly rapt, especially the English speaking portion of the press, who can really match her words to the occasional, slightly emotional variations she allows in her tone. There is no evidence to be submitted by the prosecution that in any way refutes her testimony and it is understood by all that the only debate, thin and abashed as it may be, is whether or not to acquit the woman based on the argument that the murdered man’s intent was compelling enough to elicit her actions.
When not on the stand, through the rest of the afternoon, as the detectives testify on forensic points and upon the original confession of the accused, Rebecca sits quietly beside her Japanese lawyer, studying her hands with the patience of a sage. Occasionally she must talk to him through the translator, and Russell leans in to hear the exchange. It is never anything terribly important. There are no secrets at this trial and Russell’s only real task is that of the shepherd. It is a Friday and, toward afternoon, when both sets of attorneys have submitted their evidence, the judge sets Monday morning for closing arguments.
Before leaving the courtroom, in the cover of shuffling papers and scuffling feet, Rebecca gives Russell an enigmatic smile, “How was that, my friend?”
He murmurs a funny little something like a compliment, although the question has confused him. To congratulate her as though on a performance feels inappropriate and he wonders if he misunderstood the question. It is not the moment to ask, the guard stepping up to usher her away.
He stops on the way home at his club for a drink, which becomes two, and is happy to share the pleasure with a few business friends who thankfully do not ask questions about the trial. Perhaps they can read his mood, a weary one, that causes him to rather hear their stories than to share his own. When he does get back to his condo, his manservant prepares him a simple, though handsome dinner. The dining room is small, but comfortable, its floor covered in an expensive Chinese rug, the lighting warm and dim to his taste. A large painting of prancing horses, black lines against gold leaf, dominates the interior wall, above a rather aristocratic lacquered chest.
The servant is clearing away his plate, when the doorbell chimes, startling them both. While not a man of unsocial temperament, Russell rarely has guests. When he returns to the dining room a moment later, Edo wears an odd expression, his eyes glittering like something new in the dimness. Noting this, Russell asks, “Is that some little girlfriend of yours, Edo? Would you like to have the rest of the evening off?”
“Oh no, Mr. Russell. It is a lady visitor for you. I have shown her into the sitting room.“
The lawyer is immediately irritated by this news, unable to imagine any woman of his acquaintance who he would like to see at this hour, with his shirt unbuttoned and his five o‘clock shadow running long on his face.
“Why on earth didn‘t you make my excuses?” he murmurs, though quietly, for the sitting room is only separated from the dining room by a pair of sliding shoji panels. Hissing the question, he asks, “Who is it anyway?”
“I didn’t think I should send her away,” Edo says. Possibly forty, he is too old to be thought a boy by any logic, his face pierced with two gentle, heavily creased almond eyes. “She said she had come about Mrs. Eastlake. She says her name is Julia Turnball.“
It had come out just after the murder that Turnball was married, much to the surprise of his set, Russell included, not that much surprised the usually sanguine lawyer. If it were true, any reason she might have for coming to see him, could not bode well. Downing the last of his sake, he moves from between the table and his abandoned chair.
“Well, I suppose I have a visitor now,” he murmurs moodily. The servant moves to the wide, sliding panels, and pushes them open, allowing a warm, golden ribbon of light from the other room to grow into a broad band that soon erases the murky shadows of the dining room.
Across from them is a room lightly furnished in muted tones, punched up at intervals with splashes of tangerine and aqua. A pair of loveseats float at the center of the space; on one sits the guest.
Even as he breaths evenly, schooling his irritation to subside, Russell is immediately taken with surprise at her. She has been described to him as Turnball’s ‘native’ wife, but with her soft, curling light brown hair and wide, heavy-lidded eyes, she is obviously as much European as she is Asian. She is also possibly the most attractive woman he has seen outside of a film house. Dressed in white with a flowered broach on her shoulder, she seems more a bride than a widow. As she rises, her gaze, darting from the servant to the master and back, is neither timid nor arch.
Without waiting for an introduction, she gestures toward Edo, saying, “What I have come to discuss, we should have absolute privacy for, Mr. Russell.” Her voice is surprisingly one of those well-scrubbed American accents that only good schools generate, stateside, and that Russell would have once wagered could not be managed in Japan.
“Edo,“ he says. The servant hesitates a moment before leaving them alone. After the panels have whispered closed, Russell crosses to stand before her, giving her a considering glance. Hands thrust into his pants pockets, he rocks on his heels, a sketch of impatience. “How can I help you, Mrs. Turnball?”
“I’ve come because a family member has convinced me I should. He came to find out that I have some money troubles, he knew a little bit about my situation, and he saw a way for me to get back on my feet.”
“And what is that?” he asks brusquely.
Her gaze falters. Remembering that she is a new widow and reminding himself to keep an open mind, he shakes off his coldness and gestures for her to have a seat. “Why don’t you tell me everything,” he says, taking the loveseat across from her.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asks. He holds out a lighter from the cocktail table between them and she lights a cigarette from a cloisonné case in her purse. Releasing a discreet cloud, she begins. “I don’t have much sentiment about marriage. My father was an American officer who kept my mother very well, even paid for my education after he went back to the states, but he never married her. Not to tell you my whole life story, Mr. Russell, but I wanted you to understand something about me right from the start. I’m not really what you might call a grieving widow.“
“Oh?“
“Mitch and I have been married for several years, though he didn’t want anyone in his set to know it. He said they were mostly squares that I would hate, but I knew there was more to it than that. You see, to Mitch I was the ideal wife. I was western enough to relate to, but eastern enough to submit.”
Her glance troubles him and he has no words to respond. Restlessly, she uncrosses her legs and stands, moving to the glass doors. She looks out, her eyes taking in the scene directly across, the terrace her husband fell from. He wonders if she knows it.
“When we got married, he insisted I leave my job to take care of him. It was nothing special anyway, modeling clothes for a stuck up shop downtown. I was getting tired of it, tired of feeling more like his mother than his wife.”
She taps her cigarette against the ashtray. “I could always tell he felt guilty a little bit about the way he treated me. I think he cared for me, in his way, just not as much as he did for his other women.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” he asks.
“So you’ll understand why that woman really killed him.”
Her gaze is straightforward. In confusion, he grapples to think of what to say, but she continues, “You see, she’s been lying to all of you. I know because I eavesdropped on a phone call that came from her that night. She asked, no, she demanded that Mitch come see her. She said she was going to break some promise she had made to him, if he didn’t.”
“There must be some misunderstanding,” he begins.
She cuts him off, digging her cigarette into the ashtray roughly, as she says, “No mistake. It was the night of the murder and it was her. I’ve heard her voice before and I heard it again today in the courtroom. I had to be sure, so I sat in the back.”
“If this is true, I suppose I know how you plan to get back on your feet,” he says blandly. There is a tightening in all her bones, the long ones of her frame and the fine ones of her face. She sets the ashtray down with a rattle, casting a grey snow upon the carpet.
“Blackmail sickens me,“ she says hoarsely. “But I think she owes me something. He was no prize, but he was worth more to me alive than dead. And considering I put up with her for so long, it really doesn’t bother me too much to imagine her on the hook.“
Russell sits forward, “Are you saying they were having an affair, Mitch and Mrs. Eastlake?”
“She was one of many, but he was pretty much through with her. There was some new girl, though I didn‘t know her name yet.” She levels a flinty gaze at him and he feels that, whether it is true or not, she believes it entirely. Deciding to let that debate ride for the present, he takes a different track.
“So she threatens to break some promise. Then what?“
“He started to put her off some more and then she repeated the threat. Whatever the promise was, it was important to him, because he came back into the living room a minute later and said he had to go out on business.”
“Did he know you knew?”
“I doubt it. I didn’t tell him.”
She slides open one the doors and takes a deep breath of the thick, summer night air. There is laughter, music and chatter wafting up from under the umbrellas on the courtyard and a tinkling splash from the fountain feeding the pool.
“They said he was dead before he landed,” she says softly. “One reporter thought it was a nice detail to mention that all the koi died, too.”
He says nothing and a moment later she shuts the door. Returning to sit across from him, she squares her shoulders, saying, “We had better discuss what my silence is worth.”
He isn’t really surprised to see this hardness, even understands it in light of her circumstances. All the same, he has a responsibility to Tom and Rebecca, and, calmly, he says, “What makes you so sure it’s worth anything?”
“Because the call, let allow the affair, changes everything and I‘m sure the prosecution would agree.”
“How much do you want?”
“Fifty-thousand dollars,” she says, her voice barely wavering, though slightly.
Fishing out his cigarette case, Russell pauses to study it, then shoves it back in his breast pocket with a frown. “How did you come to that amount?”
“Because Mr. Eastlake has about fifty-two thousand in his account at the Rising Sun Trust,” she says. “I have family there, too.”
“Those are only Mr. Eastlake’s Japanese accounts,” she offers the yawning silence. “There is considerably more in America, we presume, and this is cheap if it saves her life.”
She lights another cigarette, considering him with a calm that mirrors his own. “I’ll need to confirm all of this with Mrs. Eastlake,” he says. “For all we know, she may have a convincing enough argument to make your information harmless.”
“You’ll need to go talk to her now, because if this isn’t settled by tomorrow night, I will be waiting at the office of the prosecutor first thing Monday morning.“
He nods slowly and she rises and moves to the door of the condo to let herself out, leaving him to ponder the soft traces of her perfume.
When he is admitted to the narrow hall that runs alongside her cell an hour later, Rebecca is sitting on her bunk, meditating to eastern music on a phonograph. The bunk is spread with a colorful Indian blanket. A small pyramid of incense burns on the floor and a vase of flowers adds cheer to an oak writing table across from her, where her electric typewriter hums softly. Some of her renderings, all very professional to his eye, have been tacked up here and there, detailed ones of Tom sitting in the chair outside the bars, quicker thumbnails of the Dutch guard fussing over a housekeeping detail in the cell; and other drawings that must take her out of her cell altogether. There are numerous drawings of a meadow with a river running along side. And a couple of the same large oak, twisted in what would be agony on any other living thing, but which is only beauty on a tree.
The Dutch woman raps gently on the bars and Rebecca opens her eyes slowly. It takes a moment for her to focus, so deeply has she been entranced. A smile blooms on her face.
“Russ, it’s you,” she says. “What brings you out this late? And how did you get them to let you in?” She unfolds herself and moves to shut off the phonograph. The music slows and dies. She comes toward him, while the guard unlocks the door and pushes it open enough to allow him entrance.
He murmurs a thanks to her, edges into the cell and allows her a brief, friendly hug. The trance still hanging about her as tangibly as the incense smoke in the air, the embrace seems heavy, like that of a drunk, before she slips back onto the bed. Now her face is sharpening, she is reading his expression and his silence.
“What is it, Russ?” she asks. “Is Tom-”
“Tom is fine.” He glances toward the guard.
“Hilde, do you think you could get your hands on some tea?”
When the woman has left them, Rebecca quizzes him anew with a tilt of her head. Now he pulls out the desk chair, turns it to face her, and has a seat. He says, “I met someone very unexpectedly tonight.”
His eyes flash to hers and she squints back probingly. Then her face relaxes and she astonishes him by saying, “The woman. His wife.”
“How did you know?”
“I don’t know how I knew.”
“Can you guess then why she came to see me?”
“How could I? I’m not a mind reader.” In the silence that follows, she rises, and switches off the typewriter, though it still hums.
“Still working on that piece for Vanity Fair?” he asks. “But I guess you aren’t a conventional prisoner.”
“I’m not conventional in or out of jail. Now tell me about the widow’s visit.”
“Her name is Julia.”
“You must have gotten quite chummy,” she says.
“No, but I thought if you knew her name, you might call her by it, instead of referring to her as ‘the widow’.”
She returns to the bed, sits Indian fashion again, and stares at him coolly. “Does it bother you to hear me call her that? It is correct, isn’t it? Her husband is dead. She is a woman?”
“Very much so.” He drops his eyes, “But it seems curiously cold to call her that, when you’re the cause.”
There is more silence, shortened by the squeaky rubber tread and rattling china that announce the return of Mrs. Hulms. After she places the tea, she glances unsurely from one to the other of them, concern creasing every plain of her broad face. Rebecca is studying her lap with a tightened jaw and does not look up to note the woman. Russell nods toward the hall, indicating they will need privacy. When the rubber squeaks have at last faded, he says, “You know why I’ve come.”
She remains silent.
“I’ve never seen you so defensive, so cold,” he continues. “That tells me you know.”
“She probably told you that Mitch and I had an affair once.”
“Is it true?”
She looks up, “I can’t believe you’d even need to ask that.”
“You were the first to speak it, Rebecca.”
“Only because I know how insecure and insane she is. Mitch and I did briefly spend some time together, nothing inappropriate, just visiting some sites, some museums. All in the plain light of day; nothing untoward. Tom even knew about it. This was well over a year ago. But then Mitch told me he would have to stop because this Julia of his was insanely jealous and thought we were having an affair.”
He doesn’t know how much to say at this point. Cautiously, he prompts, “Why didn’t you mention any of this to me before? Don’t you realize how important knowing that is to your defense?”
“I know how dangerous it is to my defense,” she says. There is a hint of gained confidence now, as she leans forward to pour each of them a cup of tea. Always graceful, the china makes virtually no noise under her charge. She reaches far forward with his cup and he reaches deeply, too, to take it.
“If the prosecution knew about it and brought it up, I’d have been blindsided and so would Mr. Yamasoto. We’d have looked surprised and you would have looked suspicious for not having mentioned it.”
“Don’t you think I thought of that?” she asks.
“I don’t know what you think, Rebecca. I find you to be quite mysterious.”
She laughs, “I think I’m one of the most ordinary people I know. Very few mysteries. What you see, is what you get. But this was different. As soon as anyone knew that Mitch and I had this unique friendship, as brief as it was, the assumption would be that we were having an affair.”
“She also says you called Mitch and insisted he come to see you the night of the murder.”
“Shooting,” she corrects, though its hardly a point worth distinction. Sipping her tea and trying to gain quiet breaths, she does not respond for a moment. Then she says, “How can she prove it? It’s hearsay, isn‘t it?”
“She doesn’t have to prove it. The prosecution can call her as a witness, Yamasoto can stand up and object along those lines of hearsay, and the judge will uphold the objection. But it will be there in the minds of the jury and the prosecutor will be able to argue, successfully, that it calls for some deeper investigation. The trial that was so simple and that is set to end on Monday could balloon into something quite ugly. You and Tom would be set adrift in it. There would be nothing in my power to stop it.”
“She wants money?”
“So you are a mind reader.” He can hear bitterness in his voice.
“No, but I’m not stupid, Russ. I think we just pay her off so we can get on with our lives. But what have you told Tom of this?”
“Oh, nothing yet.”
He stands, digs his hands into his pockets, and turns from her. Then he wheels about, leaning in close, needing to watch her reaction. “You were having an affair with Turnball and you did invite him to the house. The widow was listening in on your phone call. What was this promise you threatened to break if he didn’t come?”
She holds her breath for a moment, her eyes wide in seeming torment. “If I tell you that, you have to promise to meet her demands and keep this thing quiet.”
“You aren’t in the position to hold me to anything, Rebecca.”
Something changes in her face, subtly, dropping a veil over that torment, even taking the color from her flushed cheeks, recasting her flesh as cool marble. It is merely nuance, but she has made a breathing statue of herself.
Calmly, she says, “If I tell you, you will protect me. I know you will.”
Two women manipulating him in one night is too much for the lawyer, whose opinions of women are complicated in his moments of introspection and ambiguous the other ninety nine percent of the time. The ire at his circumstance takes possession of him. He finds he has gripped her shoulders fiercely, leaning down until his face is only inches from hers. The stony expression she models must be broken away.
“Listen to me, Rebecca. I won’t be told what to do by you or anyone else. I will try to save you because I’ve promised that to Tom, but not because you think you hold any power to convince me. Do you understand that?”
Her eyes are flashing now, but the face is still marble cool.
“I promised him I’d get an abortion.”
He pulls away like her skin has become an electric shock, even steps back as if from the current. She looks off into the sea of renderings beyond his shoulder, her eyes fixing on one of those river meadows. For one moment, blooming slowly in her mind, she is there again, at that place of tranquil water, silent butterflies and tall grass that keeps secrets. She has secrets to keep, as well, so it is a pact between her and the grass. But the lawyer doesn’t want those details and she would not share them. Clearing her throat softly, she begins, “He wanted me to abort it. And he wanted to end everything. He succeeded in getting me to promise to the first part. I had thought it a good idea, too, since it was not likely to be Tom’s.”
He glances at her quickly and she shrugs, looking away. Her face is sad, the statue quite gone now, and she is simply a woman in trouble across from him. His eyes drop to her stomach involuntarily. “Is it…?”
“That’s what I meant when I said you’d help me once you knew. I can’t have it in a jail, Russ.”
“What a mess,” he says.
“Yes, it is. And the worst part is how it’ll hurt Tom.”
His hands have found his pockets again, which are roomy enough for fists. He shakes his head, eyeing her in wonderment. “So I am to help you to lie to my best friend?”
“Isn’t it the kindest thing you could do?” she says. “I didn’t want this, any of this, but now the only wise way out is to give that woman whatever she wants and let Tom and I move on. I’ll be the model wife. I’ll raise the child and make sure he never knows. He’ll have the joy of a loving family and I’ll carry the burden of all my lies and sins. It’ll be easier for him than it will be for me, I can assure you.”
“For Turnball you were willing to terminate it,” he murmurs.
“He had convinced me it was best, yes,” she says. “But after these last few weeks here, it’s too late, regardless.”
“You don’t want it.”
“I want to get out of here and start some life that makes sense. Some life that doesn’t hurt anybody else.” Her words have the unmistakable ring of conviction and he nods in understanding.
“And what would you have me tell him? She wants almost his entire savings and she wants it by tomorrow night.”
“But the banks-”
“I can manage to get the cash in their hands in time and you don’t need to know how I do it. But if any part of this goes awry, it’ll destroy my career. You do realize the spot you’re putting me in, don’t you?”
“I do.” She makes eye contact, but he doesn’t want to look at her. He turns away, glancing out through the bars to the grey wall beyond.
“So how would you tell Tom that I need almost every penny he has got? What do you say, Rebecca?”
“He’ll be here tomorrow morning, first thing, Russell. I’ll handle everything.”
“But I’ll need to know your story.”
“I plan to tell him I had invited Mitch up to negotiate buying one of his Hiroshige originals. The smallish one with the crane standing in the snow. He always admired that one and knew Mitch had the original. It was to be a birthday gift. He doesn’t need to know more. Just that she overheard the request and misunderstood and now some shifty character she knows has convinced her what she heard could destroy us. Let’s face it. Even if none of the rest were true, just suppressing what she heard eavesdropping is worth a fortune. You can’t think Tom would object to anything that would save me.”
Now he is studying her again. “The poor devil thinks he knows you.”
“Can anyone really know anyone else?” she asks, turning away.
“Before today, I would have imagined it possible.”

____________

The next evening, he and the widow meet at the restaurant they agreed to on the telephone. In the plumb lighting of a cordovan booth, she smokes one of her slender cigarettes, counting out the money on the leather bench, out of sight beneath the table top. They eat nothing and they order nothing to drink, but she extracts one of the small bills from the rest to leave the waiter for holding up his table a scant ten minutes. On the street afterward, under the garish marquis, Julia stares straight ahead while Russell hails a taxi. A minute later, she is folded inside and disappearing around a distant corner.
After deliberating for less than a half hour on Monday, the jury returns with a verdict of not guilty by means of self-defense. In less than an hour, Tom and Rebecca Eastlake are leaving the courthouse to return to the condo. Parties will be planned for them over the next week, triumphal feasts to celebrate what is thought to be a clear win for all that is right and fair. The two of them bare it all with grace, especially Rebecca, who ought to have been the most worn.
Having replaced the money he borrowed for the pay off from his own accounts, Russell hesitates at first to approach Tom to seek reimbursement. In fact, still awash in feelings of anger and shame about every aspect of his involvement in the case, he finds that he avoids the company of the Eastlakes for almost two months.
Finally, one day in October, he pops by Tom’s office to bring it up, but he is surprised to see that Rebecca is there, in this masculine space of cherry wood and leather bindings, where he has never chanced to see her before. She is sitting across from her husband with a few shopping bags on the floor beside her chair. There are boxes of lunch from a take out restaurant on the desk between them. They seem almost shy as they glance up at him. Initially he is a bit embarrassed in the general way one might be, to stumble upon a married couple in a private moment. It certainly seems like poor timing, considering the reason he came.
He finds then that he is studying Rebecca closer, not hearing Tom’s friendly greeting, as he notices how little has changed about her, particularly her figure. Dressed as always in a perfectly tailored dress, she is as trim and obviously childless as she has always been, and something turns over in his mind, drops stonily down his throat and lands in his stomach. His hands find their familiar home in his pockets, where they make familiar knots.
“Sit down with us, Russ,” Tom is saying. “You’ve made such a stranger of yourself.”
Rebecca is pale, her eyes not meeting his, but she murmurs a greeting that sounds more like an echo of something else. She puts her sandwich in its paper on the desk before her.
“I won’t stay long,” he says. “I just wanted to drop this by. It is a note for the money for that woman, the widow.”
“Oh yes,” Tom says. He reaches out to take it and his eyes widen in surprise as he opens the folded sheet. “My god, Russ. Is this right?”
“I ought to go,” Rebecca says, rising hastily.
Now Russell is feeling all the anger of two months past churning up inside of him. He resents the tone of incredulity in Tom’s voice, sounding more like a man haggling with a tradesman over an invoice than a friend being gently and belatedly reminded of a rather significant debt. He wonders if Rebecca was completely honest with Tom about the sum of the payoff, and he tries to remind himself that Tom has been as much at her mercy at he himself has been.
“It’s right,” he says.
“But this is outrageous! We ought to have let that woman spew her lies, rather than pay out this much. Rebecca, did you know it was so high?”
“Tom,” she says with regained firmness. “I think you’re being very discourteous. I gave Russ to understand we would take care of it and I didn’t want to burden you with the exact amount right before the last day of the trial. As a matter of fact, it is beyond generous of him to have waited this long to ask for his money.”
The husband is plainly stunned, confused by his wife’s brittle tone of reprimand. Russell doesn’t want Rebecca’s defense of him, actually finds it repellant on some level, but it does cause Tom to drop into his chair in a docile manner, bringing down the level of tension in the office.
“But she couldn’t have really done this much damage with a few lies…” Tom is heard to murmur in final, albeit futile protest.
“Except that they weren’t lies, were they, Rebecca?”
She takes in a sharp breath, looking up at Russell with the most genuine expression he has ever caught on her face: surprise and fear. “At least, not entirely,” he adds.
Tom seems not to have heard for a moment, still staring at the note before him in a dazed manner. Rebecca’s eyes flash to her husband, and Russell is looking to, but they are searching for two different things. Tom Eastlake’s eyes finally narrow.
“What did you mean by that last comment, Russ?”
The lawyer doesn’t answer. Rather, he arches a brow, challenging her, “Rebecca?”

Chicago/1991

Not surprisingly, she is the one to show enough courage to make the first move, sending a drink to him with her compliments. Laphroaig, neat, with a twist of orange. He lifts the glass in her direction. A moment later, he is asking her if he can take the seat beside her.
“Until my friend arrives,” she says.
Her voice has taken on a little more texture with age. It is lower, not exactly husky, but richer than in her youth or in his memory of her youth. Closer, she has a few lines around her eyes, but they are marks of humor and not sorrow. The past seems to have barely imprinted itself on her surface.
It seems they don’t know how to begin, each aware of all the clichés that will be inevitable the moment they try to speak about the past. Yet it seems impossible that it will not arise. Finally, perhaps to match her display of bravado with the drink, Russell takes a breath and says, “Well, that was all a mess, but it was also a long time ago.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she says quickly, but relief is evident in the sudden drop of her shoulders. She lets out a breath that ends in a bit of a laugh. “I was about to say something about liking you better without the big sideburns, so thanks for taking the lead this time.”
“Should I ask about Tom?” he asks.
“I haven’t talked to him in ten years,” she says.
“I haven’t in fifteen, not that it was my choice.”
“I’m a big girl, Russ, I can take that.”
They sip their drinks in silence for a moment. Another group of people arrive, mostly young women, and there is a surge in the noise as they shake off their wet coats, laughing about the rain, their ruined hair, the chill of April.
Finally, glancing over her shoulder toward the door, Rebecca says, “I need to talk about something before my friend arrives. But you aren’t going to believe it.”
Despite her obvious tone of humor, he can sense her concern is real, and because so much time has passed and he has forgotten what it feels like to mistrust her anymore, he nods encouragement.
She licks her lips, takes a drink of her cocktail. “You see, Russ, you don’t know the truth about Mitch Turnball and me. You know a soap opera that I invented.”
Now he remembers that feeling of mistrust, although he isn’t sure whether it is misplaced now. Leaning in and peering about to be sure there is no one listening, he says, “Right to the point, Rebecca, as usual. But what do you mean?”
“I mean there were two lies stacked on top of the truth.” Leaning in closer and keeping her tone a whisper, she says, “I didn’t kill him because I couldn’t have him, any more than I killed him because he tried to have me. I did it because he was blackmailing me.”
She seems sincere, but, then, she always did. He can only stare at her, not wanting to be back in this place, but curious nonetheless about why she is taking them there, and why she is presenting a different story now.
She shrugs, reading his hesitation. “I’m not on trial anymore and I don’t have a marriage to keep on its tracks, and, obviously, I lost your respect for me a long time ago, so you’ll have to do the math. What reason could I have to make this up?”
He raises his eyebrows, considering her a moment before gazing down into his glass. A thin skiff of orange oil rides the top of the whisky, swirling outward like an expanding galaxy on the surface with each slight tremor of his hand. He puts the glass aside.
Sensing that he has measured the equation in her favor, she begins again, “I was never even Mitch’s lover.”
“But Julia Turnball-” he begins.
“Was part of the lie and part of the problem. You see, Mitch was trying to blackmail me because of Julia.”
She lets the words sink in, leaning back to give him some space. As he ponders her words, she remembers the beginning in a series of small visual poems, knowing she will need to condense it for him. They became lovers quite by chance, amidst the teeming students on the city streets, when Turnball’s familiar sedan slowed beside her and the window rolled down to reveal a smile she had never before seen in that frame of green metal. That afternoon they talked for hours at a tea house, in a garden under a beech tree. Another day, not long after, they took the construction route out of Tokyo proper, to one of the wild areas that would soon be scraped away to make room for the sleek new buildings of Fussa. She recalls the car blanket that was so soft on their skin, the crickets that leapt high the moment they cast it over an emerald and gold ocean of grass. The twisted oak that shielded them from the sun.
After another sip of the cocktail, she drops close to his shoulder again. “We met during those riots. She could tell I was more than a little nervous and she offered me a ride. It happened so suddenly, falling in love like that. It surprised us both, but we knew it felt right. Then Mitch found out, I don’t know how, and he told me he’d tell Tom if I didn’t pay him ten thousand dollars. Julia said he was an operator and she knew it wouldn’t stop there. He’d nickel and dime me until Tom and I were broke. But I initially promised to pay it.”
Russell has become more accustomed to surprises over the years than ever before, and he was never one to lose his footing easily. Trying to take what she is saying in stride, trying, in fact, to comprehend this revelation and fit it to the past, he says, “So this was the promise you threatened to break?”
“No,” she is shaking her head. “There was no promise. That was all part of the lie.”
He stares at her, trying to ignore a little sensation of anger, old anger, kindling in his guts. But maybe it is the whisky, he thinks with a wry smile. He takes up the glass for another sip. She continues, “I had complicated motives, Russ. On the one hand, he was a monstrous husband to Julia, deprived her of affection, kept her like a dirty secret. And he had been very emphatic with her that he was not interested in a divorce, as a matter of fact, would make it very ugly if it went that way. Once the blackmail entered into the picture and I began to see the countless little ways in which he was going to punish her for us, I began to think about killing him all the time. I would be writing for one of my submissions and I’d find that I didn’t remember whole paragraphs I had just typed because, all the while, I was plotting ways to kill him and not get caught.” She pauses to draw a suddenly shaky breath and her eyes have tears in them that he finally believes.
“But this is insane,” he says. Allowing himself into the deeper water she is treading, he begins to imagine her the way she describes herself. Elegant, poised Rebecca Eastlake, with her yoga mats, expensive scent and calm, intelligent eyes, mired in fantasies of murder.
“Yes, it was insane. I can’t imagine why I feel so out of breath telling you this. I’ve confessed before, to shrinks of course.”
Then she laughs, a clear and silvery laugh, obviously born of nerves and release, but a beautiful laugh. As he will recall it later, in his hotel room, Russell never heard that laugh from her all those years ago. The woman he knew in Fussa was a more reserved creature, chuckling dryly on occasion, but never seeming to ring a bell with her laughter. It is the sound of a more wholesome woman, possibly the first sure guess he’s ever made about these most mysterious creatures.
“Once I decided to do it, Julia couldn’t talk me out of it. All I had to do was agree to his terms and set the trap. It went exactly as I had planned, except I had no idea he would go outside to the terrace, let alone fall over it.”
In the silence, Russell thinks of something funny, hesitates, but then decides to say it anyway, perhaps to hear that laugh again. “So murdering the koi wasn’t part of the plan?”
There is a moment in which she doesn’t comprehend and in which he begins to feel foolish around the edges, but then a light dawns in her eyes and there is the laugh again. Heads lift, gazes finding her. From a distance they might be lovers themselves, a rather handsome couple who still enjoy one another. It is anything but the truth, not that strangers would know.
A moment later, he asks, “But the payoff? Was that really necessary? I imagine you and she wanted a nest egg to start out with, but why not get a divorce settlement from Tom for that purpose?
“Oh no,” she says emphatically. “That was for Julia only and it was most definitely not a part of the plan at first. After his estate was settled, she found out he left everything to family back in the states. This on top of a huge debt to some rather scary people who weren’t above expecting his widow to make good. I knew Tom would never let me get that much money in my hands, so I came up with that idea while I was at the jail. He had loads of cash back in the states, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.”
“But to let him think you‘d cheated on him?”
“He wasn’t supposed to know that part, Russell. You were supposed to keep it a secret, remember?”
“I was so angry to discover the baby wasn’t real.”
She looks up at him, “That’s always bothered me, but I didn‘t think you‘d help otherwise.”
She finishes her cocktail now. “It was an imperfect plan, but it pretty much worked. You had to secretly feel the evidence was worth the money, since Tom would trust your judgment, but Tom had to think you only knew as much as he did, that it was an innocent misunderstanding which might prove fatal.”
“How can you say it worked?”
“It might have. It did, in part. In any event, once it all came out, I was not really so unhappy to see the end of the marriage. I would only have stayed out of compassion for Tom, which I would have done, whether or not you believe it.”
He studies her thoughtfully, “Yes, I think I do.”
Now there is someone at his shoulder and he is not terribly surprised to see that it is Julia Turnball, a bit thicker than all those years ago, her hair a stylish, short mess, corded with gray. She is the one to look surprised, pale with worries he can only imagine, but Rebecca drops a hand gently onto hers and gives it a squeeze.
“It’s alright, Julia,” she murmurs. “I told him the whole thing.”
He gives her a wry sort of smile, glancing wistfully down into his empty glass.

Now We Are Four

In the last year of his life, the boy tried again and again to put his parents back together again.  It became his imperative, circling his thoughts before bed like a carousel and dropping into his mind the moment he woke to turn and turn through the day.  Their separation was nothing new to him, but he worried that without him, his father would be lonely.

“We ought to all go back to the beach together,” he said to his father one day.  They were driving the river road to the grocery store in town.  The floor of the forest to the left was littered red and brown; on the right were openings in the thinning underbrush where the river shone, slipping along with a warm gold sparkle that belied her cold autumn underbelly.

“Wouldn’t that be fun?” he said.

“You’d get pretty tired,” his father answered. “But we’ll see what the doctors say.”

“We should do it soon, while I still can.”

His father kept his eyes on the road, but his adams apple dipped and rose again as he swallowed.  It took him a moment to say anything more.  “Well, we’ll see.”

“But it would have to be all of us.”

“Well, your mother and Johnny…”

“Oh, why him? Couldn’t it be just us?”

His father had to hit the brakes because a deer had stepped into the road.  She was a delicate thing and she looked up at them before she passed.  When they started forward, his father changed the subject to something else, asked the boy to help him remember what they needed at the store.

____________

Shortly after that, when the autumn days had further shortened and after they’d had one light sugary snow, he tried another way.  Late one night after his father had gone to sleep, he flipped open the laptop on the table in the kitchen, entered the password, and began to compose a letter.  It took him a while to get it right, but he was smiling as he did it, proud of his cunning.  When he was done, he sent it to the printer in the basement office.  He’d picked a font that looked like cursive handwriting because it was pretty and seemed like something his mother might like.

In the kitchen, he mixed a little mustard and water and dabbed it on the edge of the printed letter, but it wasn’t brown enough, so he added ground ginger from the spice rack.  Then he added some paprika and it seemed right.  With a basting brush, he yellowed the page, front and back, and then blotted it dry with a paper towel.  He practiced his mother’s signature several times on a piece of paper he pulled from the printer and, when it was just right, he signed the mustard stained letter.  He balled up the page and smoothed it again and then he folded it twice and tucked it in a book from the living room shelf.

He left the book on the kitchen counter and went to bed satisfied with his work.  The next morning, he felt heavy in his legs and arms. His mother would have reminded him that sleep was more important for him now than ever.

When it was obvious his father had not looked at the book left for his discovery, the boy brought it with him to the kitchen table and pretended to glance through it as he ate his cereal.  His father was returning emails on the laptop, lost in thought.

“Oh, what’s this?” the boy said, lifting the page out of the book and shaking it open.  It wanted to stick together.

His father glanced up for only a moment. “Whatever it is, it smells like food.”

“Why, it’s a letter from Mom.  To you. It’s dated a year ago, almost to the date.”

His father looked at him steadily.  “You always did talk funny, pumpkin.”

“But, Dad, you should read it.” He filled his mouth with cereal and put the letter down on the keyboard before his father.

Instead, his father studied him a while longer, his eyes slowly filling with tears.  The boy felt the food in his mouth turn to tasteless mush.  He frowned into the bowl in front of him.

“I read it already,” his father said. “You left it up on the computer.”

He wanted to protest and would happily have lied, but one outraged glance at his father told him he’d never win this one.  Instead, he went on the offensive, something he’d learned from both of his parents, in early days.

“You won’t even try to patch things up!” he yelled, getting up from his chair.  “It’s disgusting how lazy you both are about….”  He fumbled for the right word.  “Love!”

“We’re not lazy about….that.”

His father smiled at him, “Your mother would never use a phrase like ‘a deep well of misunderstanding’.  Nor would she have said she was sorry for meeting Johnny, because they love each other a lot.  She knows I wouldn’t want her to feel bad about that.  But I give you props for trying.”

All of his steam was spent and the boy stood looking at the ground for only a moment more before he folded himself back in front of his cereal.  They sat in silence for a while, the man tapping at the keys in front of him and the boy eating his breakfast.  Outside, a fox wandered into the yard, sniffed the air, and vanished into the woods.  Neither of them saw it, deep as they were in their own thoughts.

“Do you want to know how I made the paper look old?”

____________

He could talk about anything with his mother.  She was an easy kind of person, with a quiet way of entering the room and dark, thoughtful eyes that turned green when she cried.  They walked in the park near her house one Sunday just before Valentine’s Day, covered from top to bottom in big fluffy clothes to keep the cold off.  Still, the northers coming over the lake set icy fingertips to their noses and to the cracks where sleeves met gloves.

“Is Johnny going to do something nice for you for Valentine’s?” he asked through his scarf.

“I think we’ll go out to dinner.”

“You should ask Dad to come, too.”

She glanced away, something about her eyes like a funny kind of grin.  “I don’t think so, little man.”

“He’s lonely.”

“We’re all a little lonely now and again.  But your father is clever and kind and one day he’ll find someone.”

He stopped on the path with a snow covered fountain behind him.  To his mother, the bowl of the fountain, split in two by the boy’s shoulders, looked like wide, immaculate wings.  It took her breath from her.  She almost felt like she’d black out, but she took breaths, many of them, slow and steady.

“What if I made it my last wish?” he said. “That you guys get back together.”

“Oh, honey,” she murmured.  She knelt in front of him and pulled him around until the fountain bowl became itself again, the wings a vanished illusion.  “You can’t ever use power like that over someone else.  Your father and I would want anything for you, but not for you to think you could make other people do what they can’t to make you happy. That’s not what real happiness is about. I bet you know that.”

He studied her a moment, his eyes black with thought.  He nodded.  After a moment they walked on through the grey morning.  Slowly, he asked her a question she found it impossible to answer.

“Is it hard to know that all your life lessons for me won’t come to anything?  I mean, that you won’t get to see how I turn out?”

He didn’t mean to be cruel; like each of his parents, he wanted to know things better.  If he were older, trained as they were in subtleties, he’d work delicate, as if with a scalpel.  But with the bluntness of children, he opened this line of thought with hatchet brutality.  She walked on with no answer, holding his hand tight.  Breathing.

____________

In June, they took him to the beach.  Johnny would join them later, he was told, but for a while it would just be the three of them.

“Like it’s always supposed to have been,” he said in the car as they drove south.  They did not respond to him, though they exchanged a bittersweet kind of smile.

“Will we make a fire on the beach at night?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“Will the Millers be there this year?”

“I think so,” his mother said.

He looked out between their seats, at the changing landscape outside the car.  Whenever they got close to the beach, he noticed how the trees all turned to pines, tall and slender, and how below them, the bushes were waxy and large, blooming purple and pink this time of the year.  The mini mall near their place looked the same as ever when they got to town.  Everything was painted dull shades of grey and tan here, but it never felt gloomy to him.

It didn’t take long to make up the beds and wipe down the kitchen.  Someone came a few times a year in the winter to clean, so the place never had a year’s neglect.

His mother hadn’t seen the house in two summers.  She stood beside the silk palm tree near the patio doors and shook her head.  “I can’t believe I ever wanted one of these.”

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

She shook her head again, “I don’t like fake things like that anymore.”

At that moment his father put the ice chest on the counter with a loud thump and he and his mother started.  Her hand flew to her throat, an elegant little compulsion, her son noticed, though the fright was ordinary.

“You’re beautiful, mommy.”

She smiled at him and then went to help put away the groceries with his father.  He sat out on the patio and watched them through the glass until the sun shifted and all that he could see was himself, staring back from under the brim of a hat.  His face was white and the eyes dark all around now.  Sometimes he thought he looked like a Halloween mask more than an eleven year old boy.  He turned his gaze to the other houses, all crowded so near each other one never saw the water until they walked down to where the grass met the sand.

____________

When the Millers arrived a couple days later, they changed the atmosphere of the street.  The four older boys and the two girls, the round blond twins, were all equally vivacious in one way or another.  Their father had a loud kind of voice and spoke in an accent his mother said was Bostonian.  Mrs. Miller was from Kentucky.  Everything hard about her husband’s way of talking was soft in hers, but she was as bold and brass as the rest of her brood.  One could hear them the moment they rolled out of their SUV.

His father glanced down over the balcony rail at the family and said drily, “Here comes the entertainment.”

“Mike,” his mother said, smiling into the folds of the newspaper.

The boy watched them all the time, catching these little moments that felt like the old days.  How could they be so comfortable together, such natural friends, yet still not want to live together?  That day, as the Millers chattered their way across the path to their house, he said angrily, “We don’t need Johnny here.”

“Hey now,” his father said.

His mother smiled peacefully, “You love Johnny.  He’s a good person and you know it.”

There was no answering that, so he left them and went into the house.  But the dim living room made him feel trapped and it made him feel sad.  He descended the carpeted staircase slowly and left the house by the front door.

Mrs. Miller had come back out with three of her boys to get more things out of the car.  She was giving orders in that sweet, thick accent of hers.  “Bryce, don’t scratch those skis.  Your daddy will have a shit fit.  Where’s my other pair of sunglasses? They were on the dash and now they’re gone. Get that bottle under the seat. This car looks like white trash has been living in it.”

She turned then and saw him standing half in the shadow of his house and half in the blinding brightness.  He could tell she thought she saw a Halloween mask, too, because she lifted a hand to her throat just as his mother had done when the ice chest crashed onto the counter.

“Oh, my lord,” she mouthed without thinking.  Then she pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, though they were tangled in her windswept blond hair.  He’d seen her eyes filling with tears before the dark lenses dropped over them.  A kind smile bloomed on her tanned face.

“Come here, sugar booger!” she said to him, but she crossed the distance instead.  She knelt down and gave him a big hug, like she hadn’t done since he was younger and smaller.

“You’re getting tall,” she said, her voice thick and rusty.

He knew she felt sorry for him, something his folks were careful not to show around him.  It felt both a little nice and yet deeply sad.  It was hard for him to smile back at her, though she was as bright and cheerful as a row of sunflowers preening in the light.

“When did you all get in?” she asked.

“Thursday,” he said.

“Well, your mamma said everyone was going to come this time.  That’s wonderful, now isn’t it?”

He almost said it would be better if Johnny didn’t come, but he mumbled something else, something about looking forward to getting into the pool.  It wasn’t fair to be mean about Johnny, and it wouldn’t have been loyal to do it in front of Mrs. Miller.  She gave him another hug.

“I don’t have to tell you to wear sun screen,” she said.  Then she paused.  Later that night, drinking wine with another mother, she’d say, “Honey, I felt terrible.  I only meant because of sunburn, but then I thought he probably thought I meant cancer.”  Though they were sitting in her kitchen alone, all the kids down the street getting ice cream with their fathers, she whispered the last word the way her mother used to do the ‘n’ word.

____________

When Johnny came, he brought with him his big spirit, his kind smile, his battered guitar.  He played for everyone down by the fire, many nights, and he was as good with the kids as any of the fathers.  He wove his usual spell and the boy found himself both comforted by the presence of the other man and saddened by his own words and thoughts against him in days before.

The four of them made up a happy house for two weeks, everyone doing their best to get along.  Even when the boy started to feel more and more exhausted from play, when it got to where he couldn’t stand the sun so much anymore, spirits remained cheerful in the tall, skinny house with the grey shingles all over.  Everyone had agreed, ten months ago, when the final option fell through due to the rarity of his illness, to make it a year of happiness and harmony.

He had been the only one to resist, so determined to reset things to where they had been before the twin tragedies of the divorce and the illness.

One night in the orange light of the fire circle, he watched his father sitting just a little by himself, away from Johnny and from his mother, who sat so close to her husband she could feel the vibrations of the strings as he played.  The couple was beautiful in that light, and brave and sad, too, all which the boy could see plainly, wizened by his own fate.  His father was each of these things, too, but still the boy saw him as alone, unsheltered and a little forgotten, at least by his mother.

For a moment he felt an old anger rise in him and the gaze he cast her was almost dark, but just as quickly it faded and things were as they had been a moment before.  The two men and the woman, brave and golden and sad each, doing all they had in their power to do.  There was just enough space between his father and his mother for him to sit and so he rose up slowly, his body heavy, heavy, and he filled the gap between them.  Now the four of them made a row at the fireside, completed, with the ocean before them, dark and blue in the moonlight, brushing the sand, a soft percussion under Johnny’s cheerful strumming.

Fireflies

Well, it would never do that he’d missed the train. She wouldn’t understand at all. Mariam was not the understanding kind. Particularly if she were inconvenienced. He sat on a bench on the platform for a long while, feeling the weight of her impending criticism descend upon him. It was so familiar, the sense of letting her down and being schooled about it, that it was almost as if he were already there with her.  Their humid little kitchen would smell of Dawn and pork chop grease, her back would be to him as she washed the dishes at nearly the speed of light.

Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now.  At last he took his phone from his pocket.  He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.

“You on the way?”

“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”

“Oh.”

“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”

“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”

He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.

“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”

She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.

“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”

“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”

“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”

“He’s kind of a prick that way.”

“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time.  He’s so rude.”

“It’s still your fault,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”

He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?

“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.

“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.

____________

When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees.  If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods.  He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time.  They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them.  But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.

He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive.  It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals.  They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.

“Do you see that?” his father whispered.  The two children fell silent.

At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies.  Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the man answered.

They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again.  Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.

It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times.  Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough.  Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again?  He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station.  He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing.  It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.

He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave.  Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.

At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work.  The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be.  He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town.  He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him.  Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await.  He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.

When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again.  He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper.  The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him.  Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister.  In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out.  Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.

He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.

It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure.  He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own.  But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold.  Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night.  He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones.  His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.