2008 Short Story Contest Winner
by Tin Johnston
She was a good sleeper, a dependable sleeper, but that night Charlotte woke up with her heart whumping, like a young mother. There had been something.
She lay there in the dark, not breathing. At one window the drapes were shaped by faint light from the street, but at the other there was nothing, no light from the neighbors, no moonlight, and the effect was briefly frightening, as if the wall had fallen away into space, or a black sea.
She drew the alarm clock into focus: 1:36. She had a son who would stay out late, but when he came home he was like a cat, and if she heard him at all it was because she had gotten up to use the washroom, pausing by his door just long enough to hear him clicking at the computer in there, or humming to the iPod, or shhshing Ginny Simms, his girl.
She heard none of this now, nothing at all but the heat pumping invisibly, bloodlike, in the walls of the house. This was late October, two nights before Halloween, the first truly cold night of the season.
She closed her eyes and the dream she'd been having eddied back to center—a dream of hands, the feel of them, the smell of them; muscle and tendon, palm and finger. Her body, under the bedding, still hummed. She breathed, she slowed, she drifted down.
And heard it: Water.
Water was running in the pipes somewhere. Not the shower, or the toilet, or the kitchen sink: this was the distinctive 1-inch-pipe gush you heard when the boys were washing the truck, or the dog, or filling the plastic pool for the neighbor kids. She had been married to a plumber and she knew about pipes.
She got into her robe and went down the hall, past the boys' rooms—John's door open, no John; Dukie's door shut but him in there, a mound of sleep she could feel like a pulse—and down the stairs to the kitchen, where the noise was loudest.
John's truck was in the window over the sink, lit up by the worklight he used at night, a light usually manned by Dukie but now positioned somewhere out of view, like John. Two yellow smiley faces stared in at her, plastic hoods for the foglights, or whatever they were, he'd mounted on the cab. Her comment on the hoods—A bit cheesy, John—was still amusing him, apparently, when he and Dukie carved the identical inane faces into their pumpkins. She'd rolled her eyes but was secretly moved: they'd never done twins before.
Charlotte held her robe to her chest and leaned over the sink. She saw the truck's fender, the tire, a thin disk of water leaching into the gravel, and just then the spigot gave a squeal and the water stopped running and a face popped up before her so suddenly her hands flew up. John saw the movement, then saw her, and Charlotte's heart surged, as if he were hurt, as if he were washing out some great wound she couldn't see. In the next moment she heard the dog, Wyatt, shaking his hide, rattling his tags, and she understood: John would let the dog out in the park, and it would find some other animal's filth, or carcass, to roll in, and later it would stand there grinning under the hose.
The worklight snapped off and in they came, Wyatt shoving past to dive face-first into her carpet, driving his upper body along with his hind legs, first one side, then the other, grunting in ecstasy.
"Wonderful," Charlotte said, and John said, "I'll get a towel," but then just stood there.
"Did you get it all off?" she asked, and he flinched, as if she'd shouted.
"—What?" he said.
Charlotte gestured at the dog. "Did you get it all off?"
John looked at the dog but he wasn't really looking, she could tell; he was thinking of something else altogether. A year out of high school and there were bars he could get into, him and Mike Simms, and some mornings she'd smell the smoke on him like he'd slept in an ashtray. Other mornings she'd smell strawberries and know that Ginny Simms, Mike's younger sister, had been in the house. Charlotte did not approve of such things, of course—but the next thing you knew John was under the sink with his tools, or throwing the football to his brother, or fixing some neighbor kid's bike. A good boy, at the end of the day. A good son.
"I got it all," John said at last, and he turned for the stairs.
Charlotte switched off the lamp and followed.
"Now what are you doing?" she asked, at his door.
He went on shoving clothes into his duffle.
"Gonna go see Cousin Jer for the weekend," he said. "Shoot some birds."
"John," she said. "It's almost two in the morning."
He didn't reply.
"Does he even know you're coming?"
Of course he did, he told her—it was all set up: he'd be at Jer's in an hour, they'd sleep late and then head up to Uncle Martin's cabin. Back Sunday night.
Charlotte was confused and strangely heated, as if she'd done something humiliating.
"And all this is fine with—your boss?" she said, and John paused, they both did, as the idea of Bud Steadman came into the room: his smell of earth and copper, a certain kind of deodorant. His big good face. His hands.
Charlotte saw something on the switch plate, a dark fingerprint, and began to rub it. There'd been a few men over the years but there had been none for several years, and at forty-three, with two grown sons, she'd been ready to believe that all of that was over for her. But it wasn't, not quite. Bud had a nineteen-year-old daughter at home, Caroline, who didn't get along with her mother—or any older woman, so far as Charlotte could see—and the going was slow. But it was going. When the phone rang these days Charlotte's heart jumped. New bras and panties bloomed in her bureau. She'd lost weight.
The only reason John was out late tonight, with work in the morning, was because she and Bud had made plans for tomorrow night—Friday night, a date—and John had agreed to stay home with his brother.
"I'll call Bud in the morning," he now said. "Mike will cover for me."
"And me?" Charlotte all but yelped, swatting him lightly. "We had a deal!"
He shrank from her.
"You can still go out, Ma. I'll take Big Man with me."
"Oh, you will, will you? Hunting?" She stared at him, waiting for one of the Duke's howls to fill his head; most recently, it had been the torn heap of rabbit at Wyatt's feet. A smashed jack-o'-lantern could do the job.
"You got a point," John said.
A moment passed. The dog was on the bed, on its back, twisting and snorting as if in agony.
Charlotte shook her head. Uff da! her grandmother would say, venting the woe from her old Norwegian heart. The same pressure would build in Charlotte but she resisted, remembering the farm in Minnesota: Granddad pulling her off some piece of machinery with a swat; Grammy Moore whacking the neck of a chicken—the jetting blood, the headless, frantic life that didn't want to end. Nothing in this life comes easy, Charlotte had been told, and though it turned out to be true, she'd never said the same to her own children, in case it was the saying so that made it so.
She shook her head, she sighed. She would see Bud Steadman in the morning, at the Plumbing & Supply. A change of plans, she'd say. Home-cooked dinner instead. She'd get Dukie to turn in early. Like her, that boy was a sleeper.
But Bud Steadman wasn't at the Plumbing & Supply in the morning, his van wasn't there, and Charlotte followed the sullen Dukie into the store with something childish, something ridiculous and acute jabbing at her heart.
"Big Man!" Mike Simms called as they came in, and the Duke raised his hand for a gustoless high-five, then disappeared into the back, stranding Charlotte with no good-bye. It was her fault John had gone off to the cabin without him, was the message.
She stood there a moment amongst the pipes and fittings. The smell of the place was a smell she loved: pipe dope and PVC glue and sweated copper and men. She remembered the summer when Bud and Raymond had bought the building and began fixing it up. Sawdust in the nostrils, freckles of paint on all their faces. Charlotte and Meredith had fallen for each other like schoolgirls, the kind of gushy, overnight friendship men don't even try to understand. They both got pregnant the same month, and then, five months later, when Charlotte and Raymond learned there was trouble with the twins—one healthy, one not; they could terminate one to save one, or risk losing both—it was Meredith and Bud who loaned them money for more tests, a second opinion, the monitoring that saved John's life. He had his heart murmur, but he'd grown strong as a lion. And the Duke, well, the Duke was the Duke... No one had seen that coming.
Six years later, Raymond was dead. The cancer they'd been fighting in one lung had jumped to the other like a clever rat. Charlotte had to give up the business to keep the house. She and Meredith's friendship began to falter, and she realized that after all it was the men, not the women, who kept the two families close. She heard through other friends about Meredith's miscarries, but only called after the first. Both had been boys, she heard.
Then, when her own sons were sixteen, here came Bud again, with jobs: custodial duties for Dukie and the secrets of the trade for John. Bud had never gotten around to changing the Steadman-Moore sign on the side of the building, and a hyphen that had once said family to Charlotte, then loss (a minus sign), then another lifetime, suddenly said family again.
Now Charlotte asked Mike Simms if he knew when Bud would be back, and the boy replied cheerfully, "Can't say, Mizz Moore. He ain't been in yet."
"Oh," she said, puzzled—actually bothered by this answer.
"Anything I can help you with, Mizz Moore?"
And there it was: Mike Simms had opened up the store. Bud had given him keys.
She'd thought John was the only one.
In her car again, driving across town to the mall where she works. A brilliant, stunning blue day in October. Cars moving along in their lanes, catching the light. On the radio two women are talking in quiet tones: one has written a book about her childhood, her abusive drunken father, but it's the women's voices, more than the subject, that takes Charlotte back in time, to a night when she felt friendship land on her like a blow. They had all been working on the store and now she and Meredith sat alone on the deck with the wine. If they were pregnant, they didn't yet know it. The bellies of insects pulsed green in the dusk. Bud had taken Raymond to the basement to talk about turning it into something called a game room. The women could hear the low, manly voices down there.
When she was sixteen, Meredith said, refilling Charlotte's glass, then her own, she had slept with a teacher at her high school.
Charlotte picked up her glass. Took a sip. In her stomach she felt as if a notorious man had just grinned at her.
What kind? she asked. Of teacher.
Art. Mr. Beckman. Mr. B. He thought Meredith had talent. She thought he was a fairy. Everyone did. He passed her one day in his car, an Oldsmobile. She was wearing her best skirt.
Meredith was quite a bit smaller than Charlotte, tiny in fact, with the most extraordinary skin. At sixteen, Charlotte could not even imagine.
They talked about Dali, Meredith said. They parked. He had a mustache that tickled. He wanted to see her again. He stood behind her in class, as she drew. He began slipping her these little drawings—very good, very dirty. He was in an artistic fever, he said into her ear. She showed the drawings to just one person, her best friend, but that was enough. A substitute teacher came to Mr. B.'s art room one day, and stayed. The school was talking. Meredith's father heard it at the plant from some other kid's father, came home and slapped the living crap out of her.
My God, Meredith. Charlotte put her fingers on her friend's cool forearm.
Her dad had these brothers, Meredith continued after a moment in the same quiet, factual tone. Five of them. One, Uncle Donny, was a piece of work. In and out of jail, drunk at Christmas, fuck this and fuck that. About a month after the Mr. B. scandal, Uncle Donny came by the house. He was there just a minute, barely said hello, and two days later they found Mr. B. walking along the interstate. His head was cracked. His teeth were gone. All his fingers were broken.
Laughter came to them from the house, from the basement, making them both turn to stare. Meredith raised her glass again and Charlotte heard it clink lightly against her teeth.
She waited for the cops to come, Meredith said. She stopped eating. She typed a letter at school and sent it anonymously. No one ever came. No one ever did. Mr. B. was in the hospital a long time but he couldn't recognize you, they said, so what was the point of going up there? His parents came and took him away, finally, like a child.
My God, Meredith, Charlotte said again. She could barely see her friend in the dark. Her heart was beating with pity and love. After a while she said, What do you do with that?
There was no reply, a long, unnatural soundlessness, a black well of listening. Fireflies like little bombs going off at a great distance. Men coming up the stairs, loud and huge. Meredith's eyes flashed and she said, You bury it, Charlotte.
The morning passed. Charlotte in the back room tagging sweaters amidst tinny bursts of ring tone from the jackets and purses of the salesgirls. At ten o'clock she walked to the far end of the mall, all the way to the restrooms and the building's—maybe the world's—last payphone. (The little cellphone John and Dukie had given her for her birthday—"Look, it takes pictures!"—sat dead in a kitchen drawer, next to the dead camera.) She intended to call Bud, tell him the new plan, but at the last moment she dialed John's cellphone instead, got his voicemail.
"John, here. You know what to do."
She asked him to leave her a message at home, just to say he arrived at Cousin Jer's OK, then she hung up and began the long walk back to work. She would call Bud later, at her lunch break. It was Friday, and they had a date.
Back at the store, something had happened. Alicia stood alone on the sales floor, thin arms folded over her thin stomach. Ten years younger than Charlotte, she would talk about things like chakras and third eyes and orgasms.
Now she came from behind the register as if Charlotte were some girl with an Anne Klein blouse stuffed up her shirt. In the door of the back room Charlotte saw two salesgirls with phones to their ears, one listening, open-mouthed, the other moving her lips in a ceaseless rapid-fire.
"There's been an accident," said her boss, and the store rolled and Charlotte pitched backwards, sickly, into a scene on the highway, John's truck inverted on the shoulder, wheels to the sky, black smoke spiraling—
"No, no," Alicia said quickly, "not that, not one of yours. It's Caroline," she said. "Bud Steadman's girl," she said. "They found her this morning in the river."
The story was going around, cellphone to cellphone: Caroline had been walking home from her boyfriend's. No, she was walking home from the bars. She was alone; she was not alone. She'd been drinking. She was high. The girl had problems—she'd lost her license to a DUI the year before, that much was a fact. She was cutting through the park, along the river, and had fallen in. Jumped in. Been pushed in. She'd been there all night. Someone crossing the bridge had seen her, wallowing against the concrete piling below like driftwood.
Charlotte was in her car again, driving across town. A brilliant, cold blue day. On the sidewalk a young woman with long black hair drew a kite-tail of small children behind her. A man in tights ran by them, smiling. The sun, the blazing trees, the silvered bend of river, all exactly as it should be on a day in October, a pristine day. She tried to picture it: Caroline Steadman, this girl she'd known since birth, floating in the water with the branches. But all Charlotte saw clearly was the blouse, the one she'd given the girl on her nineteenth birthday, Bud looking on uneasily: a smart, semi-sheer blouse she had spent too much on, even with her discount, all night in the river under the black sky, the fabric wetted to skin except where air slipped in, raising white, tremulous welts on the water.
He was startled, confused to see her. His pale face, the bruised unfocussing eyes, swept away anything she might've been ready to say.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I tried to call first..." Three times, from the store—three times got his service, three times hung up. What was the message you left for this? Go, Alicia said finally. He's going to need you.
But he was not asking her in, or even letting go of the storm door so she could put her arms around him. She wasn't surprised, she told herself, certainly not hurt—it had nothing to do with her. He had to handle things his own way, in his own time.
"I'm so sorry, Bud," she said into those eyes.
"They took me to her," he said. "The police. To make sure."
"Oh, Bud. By yourself?"
He didn't answer, he seemed to be listening, and she listened too: someone else was in the house, on the phone. A voice of calm, male authority. She glanced at the extra car in the drive, a black gleaming Lexus.
"Someone's with you?"
"That's good. That's good, Bud." His brother Duncan, she remembered, was some kind of lawyer for the state. She'd met him once and had been struck by the cleanliness of his fingernails.
"Can I do anything, Bud, is there anything I can do?"
He caught her eyes, fleetingly, possibly by accident. He said, "Meredith's on her way. Her sister's driving her down. I thought it was them when you knocked."
Charlotte nodded, but couldn't speak. She hadn't seen Meredith in years, not since before the divorce. She remembered that night on the deck, with the wine, when her heart had filled with pity and love. They were going to be friends forever, old ladies, arm in arm in Mexico, Europe, after the husbands were gone. When the first crack in their friendship appeared, not long after Raymond's death, it was that story again, that secret—Mr. B.—that somehow widened the crack and made it permanent.
"They think now maybe she didn't just drown," Bud said abruptly.
"They—?" said Charlotte.
"The police." He dug at the black and gray whiskers on his face. "They think someone hit her with a car."
"My God." Charlotte had the sensation of dropping through space, her stomach rising.
"They think this person didn't see her maybe," Bud said. "Then tried to cover it up by pushing her in the river. Can't be sure," Bud said, "but it looks like she was still alive, then. When they pushed her in. Looks like she was still breathing."
"Mama," Dukie said when she came in, "the police men was here. One man and one girl police man." He was at the plate glass window, spritzing away smears and fingerprints. Mike Simms sat behind the counter, unsmiling. Charlotte looked at him and he nodded.
"They're going around talking to people," he said. "Anyone who mighta seen her last night."
Charlotte nodded, too. She thought a moment. She tried to think. She had meant to ask Mike about John, if they'd been together last night, but now she didn't want to look at him again. She couldn't seem to breathe.
"Dukie, get your jacket," she said, lifting her purse to dig in it, though her keys were already in her hand.
"Gotta do windows, Mama."
"Tomorrow, Dukie. Today's a short day."
At home she was barely in the door, had barely glanced at the answering machine—no blinking red light, nothing—before she saw the car outside, in the street. A plain blue sedan parked as if it had been there all day, when she knew it hadn't been there just seconds ago. Two men in ties and jackets were coming toward the house. She met them at the door, and the taller of the two, calling himself Detective Carson, watched her face as he made sure Charlotte was aware of the unfortunate news regarding...while the other man, Detective Something, brushed past her with his eyes and began tearing the house apart.
They were trying to learn as much as they could about the night before, this Carson was explaining. They understood that her son John had been at the bar where Caroline was last seen alive.
Charlotte wasn't sure if this was a question, but she said she couldn't say about that, she didn't know where he'd been.
The other man, chewing gum, looked and sounded as if his mouth had been invaded by some small creature.
After a moment—after Carson asked—she let them in.
There wasn't much she could tell them, as there wasn't much she knew, and just a few minutes after they left she had trouble remembering their names, their faces, trouble believing they were ever there at all. She tried to call John again. Kept trying until she heard, from her brother Martin, calling her, that he was in custody. They'd found him up at the cabin, and there was no trouble.
"In custody—?" Charlotte heard herself say.
"Not arrested," her brother said quickly. "Not charged."
"But in custody," Charlotte said.
There's a gray area, he told her—and he went on reassuring her, but Charlotte's mind was tumbling. She was at the kitchen window, as she had been the night before. Two yellow eyes looking in the window, the twin smiley-faces. Water, she remembered. The dog had rolled in something. She saw her son's face, the gust of white breath when he saw her in the window.
There was nothing out there now. No truck. No son.
It's dark when tires crunch in the drive, and she quickly turns off the TV. A car door slams, the tires crunch the gravel again, and in walks John. Charlotte is up from the sofa but everything about him says Stop, don't touch me. Dukie comes in and lifts him in a bear hug until John says "Put me down, idiot."
"John," Charlotte says.
He ignores her, going for the stairs.
"Hey, where's Wyatt?" Dukie bellows.
"I had to leave him up there, with Jer."
"Oh, no!" cries Dukie.
"Who brought you home?" Charlotte asks, afraid to hear the answer—that it was those men, the detectives—and John stops on the stairs.
"Why are you even here, Ma?"
Charlotte stares at him.
"Why aren't you on your date?"
"John—" she says again, with purpose, but then falters. She has a feeling of choking, of drowning. His eyes burn into her a moment, then he turns again, and the two of them, her boys, disappear over the rise of the stairs.
She locks the doors and closes drapes. It crosses her mind to pull the phone line from the wall, and in that instant the phone rings.
It's Martin again, her brother. There's nothing for her to worry about, he says, he's been talking to the lawyer. He spends some time telling her things she hardly hears, something about physical evidence, the phrase "erratic, troubled girl," and Charlotte mechanically takes down the number of the lawyer.
There's a silence, and she asks, "Do you think he knows?"
"Who?" Martin says.
"Bud Steadman. Do you think he knows...about John?"
"You haven't talked to him?"
"Yes, earlier. Briefly. He wasn't—he..." She doesn't finish.
"He's a good man, Char," Martin says. "And he's been good to those boys. But what he's going through right now... Hell, I don't even want to imagine."
She waits for the detectives to return, but they don't—not that night, not all day Saturday.
She waits for Bud to call, although she knows that won't happen either, not as long as those cars are parked in his drive—the black Lexus, and now a white Volvo she knows is the car Meredith came down in.
And then it's Sunday night, Halloween. John emerges from his room at last, on his way to Mike Simms' waiting truck, and off they go. Charlotte sits home with the Duke, who sits in his Packers helmet and jersey, ready to dish out candy for kids if any come. None do; not one. It's a bad night for it, a bitter wind blowing, so no wonder.
Later, after Dukie's gone to bed, something sails through the living room window and lands on the carpet. A small stone out of the sky. It's surprising what a clean, small hole it makes, with only a few slender shards to pick up. The pieces are still in her hand when the phone rings.
"Hello?" she says. "Hello—?"
"Hello? Mrs. Moore?"
Mrs. Moore! The blood goes out of her, she steadies herself on the counter.
But it isn't him, it isn't Bud. It's his brother, Duncan.
Charlotte manages to give her sympathies, then listens while Duncan explains that Bud isn't going to open the store tomorrow, so the boys should plan on staying home.
"Of course," Charlotte says. She sees the scene over there, at Bud's house: Duncan at the phone and Bud beyond him, heaped in a chair, staring into coffee, Meredith on the sofa, their daughter, their only child, dead.
"But I wonder," she says, "is there any chance—"
"In fact," says the brother, "they should probably plan on staying home until further notice, Mrs. Moore."
After he hangs up, Charlotte keeps the phone to her ear, listening to the strange, enormous silence there, a sound from the windy blacks of space. She stands frozen in it, her chest emptied. There was a day, years ago, when something happened, or nearly happened, between her and Bud Steadman. A gray afternoon, the window panes ticking with bits of ice. She had come out of a bath and felt weak and had sat down on the bed. Before her was the cheval glass that had belonged to her grandmother, her mother, now her. Who would she give the mirror to, this girly keepsake?
A man in the house, downstairs. Her heart gave a kick.
His footfall across the living room, and then her name again, lobbed up the stairs. A stair tread creaked and she reached for her robe, but stopped.
Two days ago they had buried Raymond. This afternoon, Bud had picked up the boys and taken them to a movie so Charlotte could sleep. Now they were back.
Charlotte—? he said from around the corner.
Yes, she answered. That was all. He came anyway, into the frame of the door.
Oh— His big face filled with the shock of her there, on the bed. I'm sorry, he said.
She heard kids in the yard, boys and girls, already into some kind of contest. Caroline could be mean but John would keep things fair and good for the Duke.
Brought the boys back, Bud said, not looking away, looking her in the eye. He reached up and worked the flesh under his jaw with a coarse, sandpaper sound. He was a man who was sure before he acted, who didn't operate by guesswork or even intuition, but who held in his head all the hard facts of mechanical things. Over the years there had been moments, yes, when she'd wondered what it would be like to be with him instead of Raymond, to simply switch. Innocent, helpless thoughts such as every woman must have...
He took a step, then came certainly toward her. In the wash of movement she smelled the outdoors, the steely clouds and the wet, moldering leaves. Green buttons rode the flannel wave of his stomach down to his belt. The buckle was a little brass mouth with a little brass tongue. Her heart beat in her breast. She turned to the mirror and the picture there was incredible: this naked, wet-haired woman, this man beside her dressed for cold—the forward cant of his body, the emptiness of his hands.
Charlotte— he said, and in the next instant Caroline's voice, shrill and imperious, penetrated the room like a wind.
Hands off, retard!
Out there, in the cold, John said something low, and silence followed.
Bud's face was crimson. His jaw muscle jumped.
She knows better, by God.
It's all right, Charlotte said.
Nothing else happened. The day was going dark. In the mirror she saw Bud's arm drift toward her shoulder, then beyond it. She saw her robe rise up like a spirit, felt it brush her shuddering skin. In the mirror, as in the flesh, he got the robe over her shoulders and over her breasts without quite touching her.
There is glass in her hand, Charlotte notices, standing at the sink. Slender fragments pressed into her palm, and after a moment she remembers the broken window, the strange little stone. She dumps the glass in the trash and rinses her hand under the faucet. She had wanted to tell him something, that day—something true and unafraid, such as how she'd often felt, her secret thoughts. Caroline's voice had stopped her.
And if it hadn't? If everything had gone just a little bit differently? Meteors, they said, were on the way, right now, crossing billions of years of chance. If Caroline had not spoken and Charlotte had—would things be different? Would Caroline be alive?
It's late, almost midnight. Wind is moaning in a gap somewhere. She begins going around the rooms locking doors, switching off lights. She's halfway up the stairs before she remembers John is still out, but she doesn't go back down to turn on the lamp. In a few weeks, he'll be gone. He'll take off one day while she's at work, leaving just a note saying he's gone down to St. Louis, to work construction with a friend of his. The lawyer will call a few days later looking for him—John's cellphone number no longer works—but it's a social call, mainly, just checking in. John's a good kid, the lawyer will say before hanging up. Charlotte raised a good boy.
Not long after that she will see that Bud Steadman has finally changed the sign on the side of the building—white-washing out the hyphen and everything after—and that's when she'll decide to go, too. Her father still has the farm in Minnesota, where as a girl she learned nothing comes easy. It's a place, a life, she had left behind. But you never do. There's room for her and Dukie and the dog, Wyatt, which John has left behind. The first time she cooks for him, at the old stove, her father weeps.
John will come up for Thanksgiving and Christmas that first year, then just Christmas, then not even that. One day Charlotte will get a card in the mail, two photos inside. Here is her new daughter-in-law, Cheryl; here is her grandson, Grant—the very image of John and Dukie when they were born. But "healthy," John writes, "and normal."
When the dog finally dies—of cancer, like Raymond—Charlotte decides to call her son. She's remembering the day he found the dog, just this bag of bones down by the tracks. He'd fed it some licorice and when he turned to go it latched its jaw onto his calf muscle. Seeing the teeth marks in his skin—the skin unbroken, thank God—Charlotte got up to call the pound, the Board of Health, the police. But John had looked at her, and then at Dukie, who was studiously petting the animal's skull.
This was late November, maybe December. Raymond had not been dead very long.
John kneeled next to his brother and began stroking the dog's ragged spine. You know what they'll do to him, he said quietly, as if to himself.
What? said the Duke. What will they do to him?
Don't, Charlotte said. John, don't...
Well. He had been a good dog, after all. Smart, happy, devoted to John as if he'd never forgotten that piece of licorice, that sudden change of fortune. After John left, leaving him behind with Charlotte and Dukie, he was not the same animal. His heart was broken. Sickness saw an opening.
"What do you want me to do with him, John?" she now asks on the phone, her voice under control. It was the water, she remembers—the sound of water in the pipes. If he had never turned it on she would never have come downstairs. She would never have seen him out there with the hose in his hand, would never have seen the look on his face the moment he knew she was there, the moment he knew he'd been seen.
Of course, if she had not had a date with Bud Steadman—if she had never had feelings for Bud Steadman—John would not have been out at all that night. This is Charlotte's final thought on the matter, again and again, up there in Minnesota.
"What else can you do?" John says at last on the phone, in the voice of an older man, a husband, a father. "You bury him, Ma."
Copyright © 2008 by Tim Johnston.