By: Judson Blake
“There’s a man in that house,” said the child. His face dipped as he spoke. His voice was mewling. Sheila Tamm stepped back to look around the fir trees. It was a house she knew well. She turned back to the child.
“That’s not so odd,” she said and then wondered if she might be wrong. It was the house of Coleen, who had a dog Sheila sometimes cared for. An aging solitary, Coleen had never married.
The child squinted under the blinding angle of the sun. So softly she could barely hear, he hummed a song as if he knew she was thinking of something else. Then he stopped without any reason.
“There’s a man in that house.”
Awkwardly, without waiting for a reply, the child struggled over a pile of silt-encrusted masonry and disappeared in the dark that led to some secret back yard where, his clumsy manner said, grownups should never go.
Sheila thought little of it till the next morning at the café. She felt a strange atmosphere of energy among people who usually were swamped in their boredom. Some warily watched others and hardly listened to those few who talked eagerly.
“His face was half in the sand,” Jeremy pronounced hardly nodding at Sheila’s arrival. He repeated it as a skewed kind of boast.
“But Denton,” said Jeremy. “What he done? Heh? I wake him up. He’s telling me there’s a reward out and he’s got a picture of the wanted man, he said. But I gotta tell him five times. ‘Cause I looked over and what is that? There was something in the surf next to the piling. Wouldn’t nobody notice, the way the sand was shifted. Around them piles, know what I mean? But Denton just went and told the police, eh? And now they all talk like they know it all, like they were there, but I’m the one that found him. I was right there. Just a shoulder above the water, that’s all I seen. Because of the tide, you know. It’s the tide that done it.”
Without asking Sheila pieced out some details: a body had been found with clothing badly torn. There were bruises on the face and neck. The hands had been cut off.
Some nodded knowingly at that. Ron even made a joke:
“Now why is a guy with no hands going out for a swim? Middle of the night like that. Don’t make no sense.”
Ron in his talkative way went on to assure them that the man, whoever it was, had to be a stranger. No one from our town was so important that his identity had to be concealed.
It was about that time when Denton did come in. He was a short sallow man who nodded at everyone and asked how they were doing without waiting for reply. His manner was ponderous and commanded an oblique aura of silence as he took his place, ordered his coffee and carefully read every line of the paper as if it were scripture. Jeremy shrunk to silence and looked at the others expecting they would say something. Denton was respected in his way, because of his stolid mannerism of indifference. Today he was brisque with a more officious air than usual. The others too, Ron and Jeremy, Alice and Bobby R, even Titus, turned bashful attention as Denton nodded about the story Jeremy told. Tawmy, a hulking and sombre loner, hung back at his table and scraped his plate. Sheila stayed in the background only catching parts of what was said. Most of these people lived on the edge but were all the more vehement about their opinions. When they weren’t talking about movie stars or hospital stories it was hard to separate sense from pointless emotion.
“It’s the guy? That guy?”
“They don’t know. They gotta see.”
“But there was a reward you said.”
“Did I say that?”
Swelled up with imminent business that couldn’t wait, Denton soon stalked out. Others drifted away. Some had work. As Sheila was leaving she saw Tawmy still sitting in back, playing with a dried up scone. She knew he had quit driving the bus, he never explained why.
Sheila went to visit her sister who was at home with her six-month old. Katy already knew about the incident. She bent low to examine a diaper as if people found in the surf were a great oddity, like carpentry tools, tax forms and the strange labels on food. She suggested watching some TV and Sheila did for a moment holding the baby, tracing over her little nubby fingers. But she didn’t want to stay. She had sometime that day to get to her online course in textile design. She placed the pre-toddler back in the stroller and went to the agency that handled her dog walking.
Valerie was there, a tall angular woman who had been walking Coleen’s dog for the last week.
“Here, you’ll need this,” Valerie said. She held out a ring of keys.
“It’s usually open. She’s always there.”
Valerie looked perplexed.
“Sometimes she’s asleep, Sheila. Even if not she doesn’t always want to walk to the front so you should have it.”
Sheila took it thinking Valerie was right only Sheila had those keys already.
“She’s changed,” Valerie said in her jaunty you’ll-find-out tone while she watched Sheila over the coffee.
“Oh? How so?”
“Well, I guess like, well… She reads these old scrapbooks. For hours I mean. It’s weird. I had to fish them out of a trunk in the cellar. You’ll see when you go. It’s… I can’t explain.”
With a kind of dotty vagueness Valerie turned away and hefted her satchel. She seemed slightly dismissive and glad to be finished with Coleen.
After other tours later that day Sheila approached Coleen’s and remembered the strange remark of the child. The dark house rose before her planted in the ground as solidly as the heavy trees around it. The construction had always reminded her of a fruitcake, with mottled baubles and filigreed art some carpenter had prided in. It was a large gray and white affair set among ragged trees and surrounding bushes that trailed into a garden in back. The second story and the one above rose from foliage that was proud and overgrown. In the clear above the highest floor was a broad cupola with windows facing in all directions, particularly south toward the sea. It had often struck Sheila that the cupola might have been designed for a fisherman’s wife so she could sit and watch from it, waiting for a glimpse of returning ships. Now in the glinting afternoon light the cupola arose as a lonely outpost where Sheila imagined you would feel alone even if you weren’t, as if the architect long ago had wanted to cast a mood of quietly designed solitude. Sheila had only once gone up there.
She talked often with Coleen who would make pots of tea and talk about the neighbors, some of whom didn’t live there anymore. The old woman was one of three sisters, all spinsters and well to do, who grew up together and resolved when young never to part. They had kept their word. But when at last her sisters passed away Coleen, the last Ms. Tasmin, had the house to herself with no one to share. Then she had got a dog and three cats. After a time she grew tired of walking the dog so she hired Sheila through the agency. Valmont was a mindless hound who slavered at the door of the fridge, watched eagerly as his mistress fixed her dinner and waited till she gave him some. But Valmont was never survivor material like the cats. One autumn after a hamburger feast he fell into a deep slumber and died. One of the cats approached, cautiously sniffed the corpse, looked wonderingly at its owner, and fled. Valmont was buried in the garden out back beneath a roughly hewn stone. After that the cats ruled the house as much as Coleen who, unlike them, avoided climbing stairs.
Loneliness returned and finally, with Sheila’s encouragement, Coleen acquired a second dog, a spotted almost Fox Terrier she named Jean Baptiste, whom the cats distrusted and kept at a scornful distance. A lovable mutt from puppyhood, Jean Baptiste was passionate and fawned on his mistress. He watched her moods. He would politely lie down when she seemed sad, then perk up sprightly and eager when she was not. He needed more walks than Valmont. Coleen hired Sheila to do the daily or twice daily walk and complained of arthritis brought on, she said, by proximity to the sea. She always offered tea when Sheila came back and they would sometimes chat for an hour or more, about the strange sayings of the neighbors or about what Coleen had seen on television.
There had been a time when they first met when Coleen had made a remark that struck Sheila:
“But you have to know, spinsterhood is greatly underrated, I mean by some people. If you have means, my dear, well, you’ll see how much simpler life can be. It’s quite a successful alternative, believe me. And allows you more freedom and integrity than… the other thing.”
“Well the squabbles, the money fights, the million things men don’t understand…. oh, dear, you see it everywhere you go.”
“Men don’t understand a lot,” Shiela agreed just to say something.
Coleen had examples from among her friends, some of whom visited and told her stories. What kind? Well, they always had trouble. Complaints. She bent over the china on the table with a sweet private smile. This mild little maneuver ended having a cold effect on Sheila that day: she came away from the encounter in a sadly thoughtful vein. As she walked down the quiet street Sheila felt infused with the flux of a far-off antique frame of mind. She imagined strange vistas where the woman’s thoughts might go, of mythical dark terrain, of thick forests and rocky cliffs, long ago lands of threaded out dreams, of quiet scenarios where Coleen only wanted to be alone; she so loved her solitude.
Sheila remembered all that as she came down the street. She expected to have to go in, but Coleen was in the yard. She held up a cutting to greet Sheila. She was dressed in a patterned dress that gathered at the waist and was stained now with the wet of watering plants. She glanced shyly as Sheila came near.
“Oh, love. You’ve been away. Away so long.”
“Well, only a week.”
“Is it only a week? It seems so…”
“I’m back now,” said Sheila. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing…. oh, no. Just these, how they grow. Nothing.”
Coleen went back to a clump of cutting flowers. They chatted about inconsequential matters while their bodies warmed in the sun.
“But you heard about the murder,” Sheila said after a pause.
Coleen had not heard.
“It’ll be in the paper. A man was found dead. No one knows who it is.”
Coleen paused and stared. Then after a moment she seemed to awaken to the social need to respond.
“Oh, Sheila, we live so far away here from the real troubles of the world. Crime… well, it is so awful. Terrible thing that it would happen right where we live. But I suppose some things, well, they have to happen some place.”
“Yes, not a mile away. In the surf.”
Sheila explained. Coleen was deferential and held her shears before the cutting of her roses. She became very still, then laid some stalks on the porch. It was a strange occurrence no doubt. A body in the ocean, you say? Right here? And it’s a mystery? Well. But who could decide about gangs and shady people? Coleen never went out at night. Her regard softened as she looked around at her friend. She sighed. She clipped. She took a break to examine the moisture on the petals.
“Come in. Come in. Jean Baptiste is waiting for you.”
Sheila went in and collected Jean Baptiste, tail vibrating with anticipation. She cooed melodically and the dog yelped as a challenge.
“Oh, when you come back,” Coleen muttered, rummaging in her purse. She held out a wad of dollars.
“Pick me up a little something, won’t you? On your way. If it’s no trouble. You know. If it’s ….you know, …. no trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Sheila said.
In the days that followed Ron said some strange faces showed up in town. They were federal agents, he claimed, but the others doubted that. Ron laughed at the “new cops”. He snidely suggested they would find nothing, tripping over themselves just to hold onto their cushy jobs. But a week later the strange faces disappeared and the police admitted they had no leads.
That evening in the cafe Sheila was tired of working on her laptop. She, Titus and Alice sat together. Ron in the booth across extemporized to them and whoever else was available. Tawmy showed up and sat with Ron.
“So show it,” said Ron.
Tawmy pulled the photograph from his pocket and tossed in on the table.
“But you don’t know how he got it.”
“No and he ain’t talking, is he?”
“You got a funny way of making friends.”
“Can I see it?” Sheila asked. They passed it over. It was a casual picture of a man in military uniform. His face was thin and weathered in a kindly way.
“So that’s the man they found?”
“Police would know.”
Sheila passed back the picture. Tawmy backed in his chair.
“I ain’t talking to no po-lice.”
“They say a foreigner. Or maybe Mafia. Fee-eh!”
“With money? Smackheads. Don’t know nothing. Say anything get a hit. Dribbling out. Make him show you his arm.”
“I don’t care. Denton got money.”
“He said,” Alice sneared.
Ron leaned back with his arm on a chair.
“Sounds like nothing,” he said. “Denton said he knew people who wanted to find this guy. Said he had connections. But that was before the guy actually had the discourtesy to show up dead. Ha! What’re they going to find? Didn’t happen here, I keep saying. Someplace else, not here. They don’t even know the next of kin. They say. After all this time? That right, Tawmy?”
Tawmy wouldn’t turn around.
At a lapse in the conversation Sheila saw Tawmy was bored. She cocked her chin at him and they left together.
“Help me get some wine,” she said out on the street. He fell in beside her. They had never talked enough to be friends but over time and familiarity they had become acquaintances who accepted each other. They went to High Spirits where she got another of Coleen’s “you knows” and a cheap bottle of wine.
“By the water?”
“That where Jeremy stays?”
“Nah. He likes the park.”
With his clodish lack of curiosity Tawmy walked with her to the park and across. One corner that ordinarily would have been popular was piled with left over construction materials. Tawmy pointed there. Between two twisted sycamores Jeremy had rolled up a bundle. He would sleep there that night. He was not resentful like many homeless. His resignation seemed sad to her since she knew that the man, bent and silent most of the time, was more intelligent than the way he lived. And now apparently he struck a strange figure, the cheated bringer of news. Sheila sat on a stump and gave them wine in plastic cups.
“So, Jer. What happened at Hanlon’s?”
“Ask Tawmy. He knows. Don’tcha?”
“I done nothing that didn’t have to get done.”
“He cold-cocked Denton. I’s glad to see it. That sonofabitch, he had it coming with his arrogant ass.”
“He’s going on about his network, he calls it,” said Tawmy. “They know you got a record, they go for that, they know you see things and you’ll tell ‘em. They don’t give money for that. So Denton invents a lot of stuff and they go for that. Now he’s a big shot, in’ he? Tell ya, looks at me cross-eyed I’ll fix the other side of his face for him.”
“Well, Sheila, you ain’t seen him in the cafe recently, have you? He had money he promised me. I ain’t seen none. But I found him, that man in the surf. Yeah, well, I’ll tell ya, Sheila, they said it wasn’t the man. But you know why they said that? So they wouldn’t have to pay me my reward. And don’t you see, there he was got hisself killed. Don’t that prove it? But do they want to pay me my money? ‘Cuz I’m somebody they can cheat. That money was mine. I found him. Denton said five hundred dollars. Heh! So I should get it, stands to reason. But I won’t press my case. Got a record, it don’t pay.”
He sipped some wine and gazed into the shadowy light through the trees. Tawmy slunk back where he sat, almost asleep.
“What about this?” Sheila said. She fished the picture out of Tawmy’s open pocket. Jeremy went over to the streetlight and looked at it.
“So that’s the man in the surf? The one with no hands?”
“Aww….” Jeremy squinted. He took a strained moment to focus. “Naw. That ain’t him.”
“You only saw half his face,” Tawmy said, waking up.
“I saw enough. Naw, this picture’s not a young man. Ain’t him. I’d swear to that.”
The next day Coleen was blyth as before. The last ‘little something’ Sheila brought was mostly gone. The two women sat in the screened back porch where Coleen had her lounge chair. Cushions and bits of fabric hung loose and became castaways in random corners. Jean Baptiste, after his afternoon walk, panted from side to side in communion with his mistress. Coleen sipped her tea. She talked of the lilac hedges, how they needed trimming and how she might get a neighbor with a electric trimmer to do it.
Her voice drifted off and Sheila had the feeling that the afternoon air, more than the drink, was taking over. The sky was going yellow and white with stillness that declined and stayed to prolong the afternoon. With no warning Coleen’s arm swung down from the chair. The dog stared and waited for her to move again.
Sheila checked to be sure Coleen was all right. It was a strange gesture but maybe not if the woman merely fell asleep. Sheila lapsed and started thinking she would leave. But the garden so green and empty held a peaceful countenance in its shadows and Sheila waited. After a moment Jean Baptist came over and sniffed the dangling arm. He barked. With a nervous spin the dog perked up and capered around the stretched-out chair. He whined, tilted his head and looked at Sheila, expecting her to understand. Sheila only watched. The dog pranced again. Then he growled. Sheila wondered: what would words add that the eyes of Jean Baptiste could not convey? He looked out in the yard and a high whine came out.
Sheila reclined in the cool of the soft day and watched the mystic whirl of trees in their high-up wind. The dog circled around Coleen’s chair again. He raced underneath and poked up on the other side, then turned for Sheila to see. Sheila did not see. The dog raced around again. Did he think Coleen had died? It would not be worth waking her up to calm Jean Baptist. To Sheila it was obvious: now the woman was asleep, her dog, sick with boredom and affection, had no choice but to act but act out what? Why, the woman’s dreams of course. But, she reflected on a whim, would the dog want to be drawn down that sad and reminiscent path? He was only a dog, with a dog’s feelings which humans only aped. And so to Sheila he might be an emissary for a woman’s dreams, with a deeper feel of her adventure and longing.
The dog would not quiet. As he became more agitated Jean Baptiste made his circles wider. He scurried around the porch, constrained by the worn railing with its peeled paint. He nagged at a scrap of blanket fallen from Coleen’s couch. He scraped his paws on the outdoor rug.
“Stop it,” Sheila snapped.
She knew the dog understood from her sharp tone. He came up short. He paused, one paw raised. Then, as if on a new promenade, he bounded off the porch and into the yard. He stopped and looked back at Sheila, holding a paw as if she should take it and promenade with him. But Sheila only sat where she was. The dog moped and looked back. He barked and then barked more loudly. Then he raced in a circle. Then further into the garden beyond the hedge. He turned and looked at her. He barked. Sheila got up and followed Jean Baptiste who, out of some dog intelligence seemed to know where he was going.
Jean Baptiste saw her get up, barked his welcome and ran in another circle. Then he ran before her into a part of the garden that no one tended, where the brush was too entangled to allow an idle stroll. In a corner under an overgrowth, he pawed at the ground. He kept pawing and pawing. It was not Valmont’s grave; Sheila had been shown that reverent ground. The ground here was heavy, enmeshed with stones and Jean Baptiste’s paws only scratched the rough dirt. Sheila’s curiosity was piqued by now. She got a spade and plunged it in where the dog and started. The dog stood back and watched, prancing in helpless desire to help. The garden tool bit into something soft. She lifted a clod and exposed the purple skin of two dirty severed hands.
Sheila stepped back onto the clear grass. She leaned on the spade and paused in thought. Her gaze wandered back at the enclosed porch which seemed darker now with its sleeper and her wearied secrets. Slowly her gaze went up toward the higher floors by the pines swaying in irregular wind. Finally her eye reached the cupola made especially white now by the sun. In the whiteness of the window there she saw an indistinct face. It held in the haze of the glass and then, slowly, it faded from her vision. Sheila waited where she was.
The matter seemed to require her to flee, even to break off her visits to Coleen, even never see the woman again, or her dog. She looked down at Jean Baptiste, who now was panting and staring up open mouthed. In a deferential air, he dipped his nose and gave a sniff to the uncovered grave. He circled the undergrowth beneath the mottled spruce, thoughtfully licked at the dusty air and plopped down to cool his belly on the ground.
In the rainbow roulette of her own ideas, Sheila decided none of the slots was right. She wouldn’t go to the police, that would only make things worse. Fleeing would not work, she would only hate herself afterwards. Now the blasting sunlight seemed a hidden cast of gloom that held the shadowy form on the porch with heavy presence more secret in its persistence than a corpse. With leggy deliberation she spaded in what she had found and covered it like it had been before. She stopped and looked up again at the cupola. The face was there again, so indistinct she could not say if it was a man or woman, young or old. Then it faded as it had before.
With hurried steps Sheila retreated the length of the garden, slid past Coleen’s sleeping form and intruded into the quiet house. The person, whoever it was, would know she was there. From that high up she could be seen if she ran. The person would watch, would wait and be cautious. But she knew without thinking that something somewhere would be forced out by her mere patience, by simply not moving from where she was. She made herself some tea, took it into the parlor by the stairway, sat down on the chintz sofa and waited.
It was several minutes before a sound came. Creaks on the boards were hesitant. One of the cats sat on a step and stared up with that has-to-be-a-ghost look. A footstep came on the landing and then waited. It would have to be a big decision, she imagined. A metal object sailed down and bounced on the stair. The cat, with an ape-like squeal, leapt in flight. The object was a gun, a heavy automatic which Sheila retrieved and stuffed beneath a cushion. Soon the figure appeared. The man leaned down to see if she was really there. He descended into full view. He was limping and one arm right down to the fingers was wrapped in torn strips of cloth. He gave sidelong glances to see if she was alone.
“I… I had to… what you saw,” he said. His voice was choking. “Please believe me. Did you… call the police?”
“Please believe me. That person… he came… to kill… He almost did. I hope… you’ll see… that I’m telling the truth.”
They watched each other, each forming a silent estimate of why the other was there. He was a weathered man she saw, with a face deeply lined around eyes that seemed strangely open and staring. It was the man in the picture. His frame was one that, when young, would have been athletic. Now his tailored shirt above the bandaged arm seemed slightly too large, too carefully pressed for the leathern sinews underneath. His free arm was large and deeply veined. After a tired pause he limped to the nearest chair and reclined with a loud sigh. She absorbed his few words however they came out. Without guessing or divination she knew that it was true.
The man lowered his face for a long silence. “It could have gone the other way.”
He was still.
“You needn’t be concerned about me,” Sheila said. “I won’t involve anyone. It would make Coleen’s life worse. And also because I just don’t care. It’s none of my business and I don’t want another death just because one person died. Even if you stay here. Even if you stay for a very long time. In this house. With her. With your….”
“Yes, what would you call it?” he interrupted. “Affair? Hanger on? Intruder in the attic?”
She spoke with her distant tone as if a smoke of trust arose from a veiled thurible and passed between them. He won’t kill me, Sheila thought and told him how she came there. And he knows I won’t harm him. He’s tired of being wary.
“You stay up there. You haven’t been down here much.”
“At night. Only then. When we’re alone.”
He paused and they both suddenly laughed. This skewed fawning of domesticity struck them both as absurd. His glance openly twinkled at her.
“If you don’t mind my asking: Why does an intelligent woman walk dogs?”
“Why not? They’re more honest than people.”
He assented with a liquid smile. His eyes held gray lines embedded among thin vermillion crevices. She noted his heavy veined hand, made for powerful gripping, for some powerful fight, the grind of a contest it had lately won.
“Let me make you some tea.”
Sheila looked out on Coleen who was asleep and would go on sleeping. Jean-Baptiste, after his frenzy, was sprawled beneath her couch. Sheila returned to the parlor and let the man talk. He began very slowly, as if it was a meditation he had been over in his solitude. He needed no hint from her, for she saw that he wanted to say things he couldn’t say ordinarily. It was her silence and being strangers that freed him. He was emotionally worn out with a shield of secrecy so implacable that whatever had decided him to break out of it must have persisted and grown to intolerable force.
“I belong to a world you can’t leave,” he said. “Hit men, they call some of us. Though I don’t kill. Have you heard of that? You become one of theirs and they make it very comfortable for you to stay. But then they make it very hard. Hard to leave.”
“Is that what you did? Leave?”
“I tried. I told the wrong things to the wrong people.”
He sank to the thoughtfulness of one standing over a grave. He was not editing his thoughts so much as letting them flow before him, unrelenting but postponed for the moment till he could come back and plant them on the coffee table over the patterned rug beneath her feet.
“Those are the ones you hear about,” he said. “They don’t want you to know anything, you I mean, the people out here. If someone from inside chooses to speak, it’s compromised, thrown in doubt, demeaned beneath even answering. That’s the first layer. That’s rare enough. Then, if it is trotted out, if someone takes it seriously, well then you get a human peccadillo story, something that can be explained, something the media like to get excited about if only for a moment. That’s all human. The guilty person becomes redeemed, at least in the eyes of the public. Those who matter. Because after that, if you aren’t one of the sweet ones, it’s different. If you can’t be redeemed, then, you know what happens? A special change occurs. A special process intervenes. Because I’ve done… some unpleasant things. But I know. I know about worse and they know I told… will tell what I know. Then old friends cut short their conversations, meetings become strained in a different way, a curtain falls, you enter a darkness no one ever sees beyond. That’s really being alone.”
She watched him quietly and listened as his words went on and became softer and his breathing became somnolent. His features relaxed, for by now, simply by her just sitting there silently, tolerating him with her tea, a little stream had opened and the rocky ledge of so much silent rage fell out between them. The shelf of sordid acts he had done or seen, irrational hate he had breathed in and made into the moral path of his life, he would let that lie on the table now.
“My,” said Sheila, “A hit man come in from the cold. So this is your safe house. Correct me if I’m using the wrong words.”
“The words are right. But this place isn’t safe.”
“So why come here?”
He took a moment to reply.
“I thought it was safe. I thought Parkady didn’t know. In fact he didn’t. He just had a general idea.”
“That’s the man in the water?”
“No. Parkady sent that man. He wouldn’t do it himself.”
“But someone wanted to find him.”
He raised a finger in negation.
“No, no. To find me. Protect, that’s another of their nice words. They know your history, you see. They learn everything about you and then they categorize it and form it so they can predict what you’ll do. Even what you’ll do… if you leave. So it’s like letters you write in prison; they have all the addresses you might flee to, all the people you know who might help you hide. So where could I go that they wouldn’t know about? I’d be a stranger everywhere else, a stranger easy to pick off. I’d have to go someplace that I know but they have no record of. And where would that be? For me there was just… this one. Because it was before they would know. It was too distant, too short an encounter. There was nothing for them to remember.”
“Ah. Well. But she remembered.”
He gave a nervous smile. He winced from the pain in his arm. His gaze drifted away.
The story came out in pieces then. Part of it was real and part Sheila saw had the cast of dream a young woman might form herself and cast to the man and back again. Would it repeat and be always the same? Or would time embellish it with unexpected turns? And here was the hallway of a secret lover, dark and final but meant somehow to appear. He allowed that there had even been a scene in the garden, the very place where Sheila had stood. And after that there had been voiceless nights and softly locked doors. And after that perhaps other sounds, clashes or denials beneath silence. Then like a change in the weather: a new sad dirge of letters gone unanswered, of silent or broken off phone calls, things she only thought she saw, bunches of wet flowers laid out on a table at evening. Could that be what made her file through the old clippings? As his meager story went on, it seemed a stretched-out refuse, a thing one would store in a scrap book and never look at unless one was alone.
The man saw her still gaze. He expected some silent judgement.
“It’s not a pleasant story. Not much of a romance.”
“She thinks it is, I believe.”
“She wouldn’t tell you.”
“Then you’ll leave? Then you’ll run off?”
“No. I can’t. Not now. Besides…” He held his arm to brake the pain. “It’s infected.”
It was more than infected. He should have been to a doctor. Out of pride or some other helpless conceit he had not shown it to Coleen. The wound, once it was unwrapped, was hideous, and gave off a nauseating smell. Lesser cuts would require time but the big wounds were suppurating brown and yellow liquid. There was discoloration further up where the skin was waxy to the touch.
“You’ll lose that arm.”
“Maybe. You have an ax?”
“It’s clearly gangrenous,” Sheila muttered, packing for the door. “Go upstairs. I’ll get you some things.”
She returned that evening after Coleen had actually gone to bed. She brought peroxide, povidone iodine and nail polish remover, all poured in wherever it looked like they might help. She brought scissors to cut away dead flesh, tape and acrylic glue where the wounds could be closed. When it was done she left in the night while the whole house was asleep.
In the days that followed Sheila and the man formed an unspoken pact. They joined at night and excluded Coleen. Then the man and Coleen found time in the evening when Sheila was gone. In the afternoons she and Coleen never mentioned the man. Where before there had been a dance of shadows now there formed a triangle where each pairing ignored the one left out. Twice a day Sheila came as usual for Jean Baptiste. Her chats with Coleen were shorter but not different on the surface, yet they had a cast of cordial deceit in Sheila’s thoughts. Without coaxing Coleen hauled out the old scrapbook Valerie had dug up and Sheila looked it over till it got boring. There was nothing there about the man upstairs. And why bring him up?
Over the days and nights it became a kind of moving séance with the odd person always a denied presence, the ghost that was not there. Sheila saw that she herself could be that ghost when the other two dwelt in closeness without her, their peculiar closeness made richer by the thrill of deception, of preserving the ghost in the silence of the walls, the framed pictures, the bric-a-brac lovingly stored. In this three-cornered carousel the many-tiered house was the great conspirator, for it knew how each hid from the others.
Their charade suited the sensitivities of everyone. No two could face the third and the third was well off being denied. What the man and Coleen had together Sheila was grateful not to see. At moments when Coleen was asleep and again late in the night, Sheila went up to the cupola where the man had made his bed. She unwrapped and wrapped the wound each day. Step by step she learned what worked and what was best to avoid. Their encounters by half light became a ritual that needed little talk and no explaining. Over time a kind of weather change developed in the house. The cats acted differently on different floors, sensitive to odors and the strange emanations coming from humans who moved in humans’ impenetrable ways. The triple disalliance gained naturalness with the bond of secrecy, like a plant that became beautiful only in the dark.
After a week the infection ceased growing. A few days more and it became obvious the arm would heal, though he would never regain feeling in that hand.
The situation in town had resolved back to boredom and anyone who had been inquiring about the murder retreated to official warrens somewhere or went on other errands. In the papers the identity of the dead was revealed as an unemployed government worker, a person of no consequence and, as Ron had predicted, not someone from around town. Sheila went on with her own tasks; her nightly visits to the upper floor became an experiment in the laboratory of her diligence. Finally she asked him:
“So. Will you stay? It might be safe.”
He shook his head. Silence on other fronts meant nothing.
“Parkady has other eyes. I’ll have to slip off, if I can.”
“Well, you’re resourceful. You might make it.”
He nodded with a frown of fighting off an unwelcome thought.
“Yes. With your help.”
“Oh?” Sheila lapsed and waited for a moment. “How’s that?”
“You have to buy a plane ticket. A short hop on a local charter plane at the edge of town. To anyplace. They won’t check if you get two. For you and your father, say. I’ll say you changed your mind. Then I’ll be out of the circle. It’s been a while. They may not know.”
It was another phrase in their song of connivance, Sheila reflected, or of trust. The whole pattern that had grown up in the house had strung a curtain around each of them, as implacable as the white cupola where she had first seen him. Now it would be ripped away. Without more thought she agreed to do it.
They set a time. It would be a morning flight. Two of the cats roused as Sheila went up the stair. Jean Baptiste was nowhere to be seen. Sheila mounted to the room and handed him the envelope.
“He flies at dawn. Nothing at night. It’s a hundred miles but it might be what you need.”
The man thanked her. There was more in his look than in anything he wanted to say. Their eyes met directly for a second and then Sheila walked out. Above all things she hated farewells.
At the corner the next day the child leaned in a crouch kneading a stick in muddy dirt. He had a hose that wouldn’t reach and he was building dykes to channel water for a nearby tree.
“Well, you were right,” she called to him.
“About what?” His eyes went everywhere as if he couldn’t find her face.
“You told me there was a man in that house.”
He returned to kneading the mud with his stick. It was a task of abiding weight.
“No, I didn’t.”
He went back to daubing in the mud.
When they met Coleen was distraught. She explained to Sheila how it had taken hours for her to realize something was amiss.
“We had our togetherness,” she said. “When you weren’t here. I… did you know? I should have told you. But I couldn’t tell you. But there was a man. Well, I always kept it even from… the others. Why, he returned. It’s been all these years. But now…. And… he’s been up there for …. so long…. it’s natural for us now. I didn’t know he wanted to go out, but we all have to get out sometimes, don’t we? But he’ll be back. Yes.”
Her eyes wandered distractedly over the patterned rug. She awakened Jean Baptiste, who was sprawled out near her feet.
“He won’t be back,” said Sheila. Her gaze said all she knew. It wouldn’t sink in whatever she said so there was no harm in being blunt. Coleen stared, her face going deeper into a smoky trance.
“Oh, no, no…. yes, he will,” she said. Her voice sang in tones used for verses somewhere else. “Because you see, it wasn’t just an ordinary thing. No. It wasn’t. It was something special, something that happens, well… why, only once, once ever, I think. Isn’t that extraordinary? So that’s what’s so important, you see. That he came. That he came back.”
Sheila watched till the old woman turned her eyes directly in force.
“Yes, he came back,” she cried. “He came back.”