B has invited me to dinner at his home. His chance to show me he appreciates my circumstances as the new solicitor in town. At first I was non-committal out of sheer surprise, but what do I do with my nights? I live in the basement of a middle-aged divorcee’s house and spend my evenings illegally downloading movies. At first, she would holler down the stairs to invite me up for a drink, and the complication of my position was not lost, but that didn’t stop me from going. When romance failed to bloom – and not for lack of cultivation on my part – the invitations stopped. That kind of isolation isn’t healthy. You have no company but your own sinful nature, which is all to say that B’s offer found me vulnerable.
I went to B’s house last night. I arrived with a bottle of cheap malbec sweating in my white- knuckled grip. The place was big in the way of the non-postcard west; no view-seeking urbanites out here to drive the market beyond a homesteader’s reach. B could afford more, and his estate sprawled accordingly. After relieving me of the wine – presumably for disposal, I never saw it again – he volunteered that the house had once belonged to a prominent local artist, a cowboy painter whose forte was naturalistic representations of herd animals. He, the artist, had laid the log foundation himself in 1913 and, through frequent expansion, had manifested himself a large structural destiny. When he died, the city had made noises about turning the place into a museum, but B had pounced and now dwelled under the roughhewn eves of history. “Sometimes, I imagine him sitting on the can,” B said to me over fresh glasses of bourbon, “not that it’s the same can. Splinters. The view out the window is a jaw-dropper though. Nothing but sage from here to yaw.”
While B was out on the deck attending to the grill, I met his wife, E. Lycra clad, she came up the stairs from the basement, having apparently just finished exercise. We met where the stairs ended in the door of the kitchen, moist face to moist face. She was not a small woman, but not unhealthy. She was short and powerfully round, her skin taut across the deep and freckled parabola of her neckline. Her blond hair was up in a bird’s nest, this tangled plumage two shades more gold than the fuzz at the corners of her glossed lips. She had a sharp and up-turning nose, but the effect was buoyant, as if that part of her body was perking up about something the rest of her didn’t yet know. She shook my hand from one step down, her head at the level of my sternum, her clasp more functional than formal. Imagine the cling of olive oil at the heart of a comfortable grip. “You must be the one he’s roasting cow for,” she said. It came out in a resigned singsong. “Don’t worry. I’m a vegetarian but I don’t make a big thing out of it. I just wish he would ask first. How does he know you’re a carnivore?”
“I’m a solicitor,” I said, and immediately wished I hadn’t. I watched her lick sweat from her lip and wished, for an instant, that I were her tongue. “Kidding. I don’t have any business denigrating the profession.”
“Afraid to bite the hand that feeds you?” she said.
"Something like that. I will, however, bite a hand. I eat lots of meat.”
“Do you?” she said. I smiled and tried not to look like a lecherous, perverted cannibal. We ate on the back deck, a knotty prow cutting through a sea of grass under a mango sunset. The beef was seared pink over a gas flame. Freshly washed, E joined us just before plating, upon which B served her with two blackened skewers of vegetables. She up-ended each skewer over her dish and slid the Christmas rows of peppers, onions, and tofu cubes off into a slag pile. “Another solicitor,” she said, as if we were still talking in the stairwell. “Not that I have anything against the profession either. See exhibit A.” She pointed towards where B was hunched like a grizzly over the flame. “It always amazes me to think there are more of you. It forces me to acknowledge that the need is endless.”
Our previous conversation must have kept its grip on her in the shower. No surprise there.
"Therein lies the heart of most of the jokes,” I said. Out of a slippery-slope fear, I hadn’t had a drink since I’d arrived in town, and the bourbon had blown the screws off my otherwise constricted heart. I said,
"What do you call a thousand solicitors up to their necks in shit at the bottom of the sea?”
She clasped the brown orbs of her knees, two ripe low-hanging fruit. She said, “It’s just that, on some level, I’ve always felt like B might finish the job. One day he would come home and say, ‘Put the bow on the last divorce today. No married couples left. My work here is done.’ But I suppose that doesn’t make any sense.”
I considered this for the duration of an ice-swirl. It was an interesting idea, one that probably had something to do with my own job dissatisfaction. On the other hand, it did not speak well for my profession. “Who knows?” I said, “maybe someday he will.”
The pearly tip of a tooth clamped down onto the fuzziness at the corner of her lip. “That would put you out of a job.”
“Not necessarily. I also might not mind.”
“A veiled hint of self-hate?”
“I don’t think so. I doubt I’m anymore conflicted than the next high-earner – not that I’m doing much high-earning yet. I just try to stay open to the possibilities.”
“It’s easy when no one’s trying to nail you to a board.”
Oh, these truths that occasionally escape our lips! The words like fragile lifeboats putting down in rough seas. It wasn’t much of a declaration, but it’s always a surprise when your heart grabs hold of your tongue. I didn’t add that any possibilities I was considering had to account for satisfaction of debt. This line of thought would sever under the blade of reality. I remember she did me the courtesy of looking surprised. Dinner was served over the course of a survey lecture on B’s history, and this suited me well. I’d been fearing interview questions, what some people erroneously call polite conversation, but B seemed happy to do all the talking, and I can listen to just about anyone with a glass in my hand. One surprising thing he volunteered was that he was native, and that he did a lot of business on a nearby reservation. He didn’t look native, but if you know anything about natives, you know you never can tell. The only slack in the narrative played out over the absence of children, a sadness I inferred from references to empty rooms on the third floor. “It hasn’t been a perfect life,” B concluded over a desert bowl of huckleberries,
"And I haven’t lived it perfectly either. Like all men, I am a man with a past. Your only choice is to drag it or be dragged, and I like to think I’ve done the former.”
“Amen,” I affirmed. Between the bourbon and the berries, the deck was beginning to sway under my chair. It didn’t seem so funny, now, to have poached a pretty wife and a big house in a desolate part of the country. Throughout the meal, E had been watching me intently. Now she appeared to have come to a decision in the fresh candlelight. Before I could ask what it was, she asked me if I, too, was a man with a past. Unable to summon a deflection, I said that I had been a womanizer in college – which meant almost nothing, even if true. It was just something to say.
"A heartbreaker,” B said. He laughed, not unpleasantly, the laugh of a man not threatened. “A skirt chaser. I never would have seen it.”
“Me either,” E said. She covered her mouth in the time-honored way of someone pleased with her barbed tongue. “Not that you’re unpleasant or unattractive. You just don’t seem like the type.”
B was still laughing. “I hope he’s not your type. You go to church, Son?”
E’s hand dropped from her lips. Laughter, like the light, fled from B’s face. “Sorry, E. I’m not expressing myself well.” He squeezed her hand before turning his bulk back to me. “How about it, Casanova? Any good stories for our table?”
There were, of course, no such good stories, but the constriction on E’s face was such that I felt I should make an attempt to lighten the mood. She was clinging to the wirework of the table with both hands, the soft, round tips of her fingers clawing into the mesh. The flesh between her digits was rare in the candlelight. “Go on,” she said. “Let’s hear what the fox has to say.”
But before I could disgrace myself for the greater good, she stood up. The motion upset her chair. It tumbled down the porch steps and came to rest legs-up on the lawn, a statue in prayer. I was still looking at it when the screen door clacked shut behind her. B reared back in his seat. His bull jaw was twitching from side-to-side. Per the sunset, our table was now the only lighted raft on a tide of ink. We shared the same dark borders. I made a big show out of setting down my glass. “Why did you really ask me here tonight?”
I said. I didn’t mean to be hard. The hooch had glazed over the world’s rougher particulars, but the question still scratched. Never let it be said I don’t know how to come to the point. B was still shaking his head, the tip of his ponytail switching back and forth around his neck. “I can be such a miserable person,” he said. “Sometimes, I’m a big cartoon of my worst self.”
“Aren’t we all?”
He chewed the fat ridge of his lip. “I suppose, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“If you’re chasing absolution, you’ve run down the wrong preacher.”
He gave me a sharky counselor’s smile. “She was unfaithful to me three years ago with a deacon at our church. Nice guy. I’ve forgiven her, but she hasn’t forgiven me for forgiving her yet.”
“I think you know I don’t want to hear this.”
I gave him my own best solicitor’s grin. This was not so different from certain mediations. The key is not to become a party, to remain the estranged third. I seized hold of my weathered armrests. True goodness comes with an edge, but actually I was feeling something incestuous to admiration. Most people never catch the tail of their personal failures, but B already had his sin in a wiggly grip. Above B’s gloomy crown, an upstairs light had gone on behind the curtains. The muffled glow was warm and pink against the dark logs. “Try harder next time.” I said. “It’s all anyone can ask.”
He rocked back in his chair again, a twist in the shadow of his hirsute brow. He had a dog’s expressive face. He lifted his empty bourbon glass to the candle as if to highlight the transparency of his life. The flame danced along the beveled rim of the glass, a lucid halo. “I don’t think it’s a question of will,” he said. “More like intention.”
I nodded, knowing he could not see me in the dark. As my head tilted up, I saw a strange thing over his shoulder. E was standing nude in a second story picture window. I know that seems unlikely, but I remain sure of it. She was posed like the Venus de Milo just on the other side of the frame, her long-lost arms draped behind her golden tresses. The interior light was strong in a way that belied subtlety, and I could see where the pale convex of her stomach blushed against the glass. She had robust pink shoulders, generous breast and hip, a worthy trip to the butcher shop all around, and my face must have flashed in some unnatural way because B abruptly asked me if I was all right to drive. Spring’s first wave of beetles fiddled in the silence. For my part, I willed my gaze to sink to his level.
"You’re brined to the gills,” he said. “Pickled as an indian.”
“You’re the indian,” I said. “Sorry. I had a nice time tonight. You know how to char a hide.”
B processed this inanity in a series of slow blinks. Before I rose to leave, I risked another look up at the window, but E was gone. Only an empty pink frame over the receding slope of B’s shoulders. It might as well have been Helen of Troy, but I was sure of what I had seen. I wasn’t, however, sure of how I felt. Anyone who would claim to be is either lying to the world or himself. It suffices to say that I wasn’t in a hurry to decide. If anything, her pose seemed more like a challenge. Here I am, she seemed to be saying. Where are you?
The question of E’s appearance in the window has echoed into the workweek. I’ve had a lot of time to consider it, work continuing as usual on depressed autopilot. At first, I tried to ignore and forget. I’m as good at selective blindness as anyone – you might even call it a professional skill – but the soul will hold what the mind chooses not to receive, and I could not shake loose the implications. What message was being sent? I’d made the womanizing comment at dinner, but the idea of it being taken seriously seemed as ridiculous as the comment itself. It re-wrote the situation into something musky. My new western life often felt like a fiction, but of a higher order, one that was essentially plot-less. This unexpected rise in stakes cried out for action, but I wasn’t prepared. Still, if I didn’t act, I risked letting a mutual attraction fade into residual bitterness, the universal regret of the chance not taken. It seemed as if there was nowhere to go but crazy.
B cornered me at the courthouse this morning. He had a blue-collar charge in tow. “This is C,” he said. “C lost an arm in a defective scrap muncher and his employer doesn’t want to pay up. C’s employer is about to get an expensive legal education.”
C did, indeed, have one arm. He was also a large man, almost as large as B, but squat in the way of a wrecking ball. He was wearing a fringy denim vest over a sleeveless tee and had a child’s backpack slung over his shoulder. From the top of the pack, the tapioca phalanges of an arm prosthesis emerged to wave at me over his ear. He grinned through a shaggy mustache. “Pleased to meet you. I’d shake but, you know, ha-ha.” He saw where I was looking and winked. “B told me not to wear it. Perception, B says, is reality.”
I held back my smile in return. “I think that’s one of those things people just say, C.”
Something in my voice must have rankled because the sunny orb of C’s face went cool as a memorial. “I’m not talking big picture here, my friend. This kind of deception is only a means to an end.”
And he was right. We never deceive without a purpose, even if that purpose is unclear to us deceivers. Mine was certainly unclear to me. I was, as usual, in no position to judge. This is not so bad of a position to be in if you really think about it. “I’m sorry, C. I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. I’m sure justice will be done.”
We shook remaining hands as if this could not be anything but the case. He had a vice of a left.
"Hell,” he said, “I hate this kind of thing as much as anybody, and you’re right to make me admit it. Westerners don’t sue.”
“Everybody sues, C. Don’t kid yourself.”
“Fair enough.” He twisted around to get into his pack. “Here, take my card. Maybe you can get a piece of the pie too.”
B intercepted the card midway between the two of us, a graceful snatch for such a large man.
"Not if I can help it,” he said and cheerily flashed his fangs. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say business was booming. You have a chance to think over my proposal?”
“The other night?” I said. “You never made it.”
“Fair enough. Want to do lunch?
"I could eat.”
B and I went for tacos at a greasy spot not frequented by the legal community. At first I thought B was embarrassed to be seen with me – an irony in that I was somewhat embarrassed to be seen with him – but when he began to talk business, it became clear that he needed informal surroundings to expand. True to my suspicions, B was a shark, a real mercenary of the trade, and nothing he said made me anymore inclined to like him, but it can be intoxicating to hold the confidence of sharp goons. Nothing is more interesting than the devil’s confession. At the end of a meal, he set a black messenger bag down between our plates. It was new, the leather un-creased and the buckle still shining. It reflected the chicken bone scatter of our silverware in its glossy hide. “I’m not going to pass it under the table,” he said. “They haven’t put all of us businessmen against the wall yet.”
“I’m not opening that.”
He sucked a tooth, went in with a finger, and then swallowed whatever was dislodged. “That’s right. You’re not opening it. You’re not even thinking about it. You’re just going to hold it for me.” He picked his molars again. “There’s a difference.”
Something clenched deep in the seat of my pants. I had imagined moments like this before, the naked proposition of evil. It had seemed like good insurance against them ever happening. “It’s like you’ve never seen a movie,” I said.
"Three days.” He pronounced it like time in the brig. “Sunday night, you’ll put it out in your garbage bin. Someone, not me, will pick it up. That person will leave something in your mailbox. That, you can open. We’ll have dinner somewhere nice next week. You’ll have no trouble paying.”
In my imagination, there had been a swelling string section for this moment, but now there was only the clink of silverware. “There’s no way,” I said.
"Think positive,” he said.
"I mean it wouldn’t even work. I have a landlady.”
“We share the trashcan. We share the mailbox. None of that cloak and dagger business is going to fly.”
B sucked in his cheeks and flared his lips. Grease shined from every little crevice. “Then I suppose you’ll have to kill her, just to be safe.”
Something in my face caused B to roar with mirth. “Joking,” he said, wiping a tear from his big eye. “Relax. You’ll figure something out.”
I groped for my coat. Whatever this was, it was blatant to a point that brooked no humoring. Both my ethics and the common sense wisdom of the movies were clear on this point. Never, under any circumstances, take possession of the shiny new black messenger bag. It was a clumsy grab for my honor. I told B to have a good day. But it’s funny. When I left the restaurant, the bag was in my hand.
Why do we do what we do? It’s an important question in my business, but us solicitors rarely want the real answer. We tend to prefer the most convenient one. My convenient answer was money but that’s not the truth. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, Spirit of the Ages, is that I don’t know. Call it the universal confusion of being young.
I called B’s house last night with second thoughts. I got E. B was off to the reservation on business, but she would be happy to receive what I needed to give him. Concerned about botching whatever deal I had become a part of, I suggested a public meeting place. E suggested a wine bar and beat me there, a glass of burgundy in her tender grip when I arrived. This time her hair was down and her neckline up. She was wearing a dark shawl with decadent fringe. It would have been appropriate at a funeral. “There’s something I need to tell you,” she said. “Or at least I want to tell you. I’m not sure if I should or not.”
I leaned the messenger bag against the legs of her stool, a humble offering. “I think I know,” I said, “and I don’t want any part of it.”
“He’s not a good person.”
“Neither am I.”
Her reflection smiled at me from the mirror behind the liquor. It seemed that she, too, had not given me much credit. This hurt worse than B’s lack of faith. That she would hang the bait out the window and then spring the trip at a bar. Here was another bad movie. I ordered my own red and gave it a swirl. First sip, a hint of the musty cask. “Where’s B?” I said. “Really? And why is he not answering his phone?”
“Like I said, off to the reservation. The natives suffer from notoriously bad cell reception.”
“And where does that leave us?”
“Awkward.” She stood up and nudged the bag with her foot. The stubby end of her toe indented the leather. I gave her a look of a thousand questions, and she fluttered money over my shoulder onto the bar. “Relax,” she said. “I’ll still buy your meal.”
We sat in a cavernous booth and ordered scallops. Inland shellfish is usually not a good idea, but we slurped them down like a couple of baby birds. If this behavior violated her vegetarian principles, she did not mention it. We also put another bottle of red on B’s tab. It was libidinous fair, but the mood did not trend that way. She did remove the black shawl, an eye feast of the upper arms, but the messenger bag remained clutched between my shins, as did the large unspoken business of her appearance in the window. Instead, she told me about her art, pale watercolor abstractions of the same landscapes that had originally paid for her home. She was also active in the local political scene and admired the president, a sentiment I shared. Unlike our last dinner, there was a back and forth, and I surprised myself by laying out the slack carcass of my career disappointment over desert. She asked me what I would rather be doing, and I didn’t have a good answer. I was just airing grievances – anything to talk around the real issue of what we were up to. Finally, she did the necessary over a mutual ceramic of crème brûlée.
"I don’t care that he works so much,” she said. “I don’t care that he takes the dirtiest cases or that he frauds people in the billing. I don’t even care that he paid for our house cheating natives out of trust land. That kind of thing is tradition around here, and I don’t come from a family of saints myself. What I can’t stand is how happy he is. I know that’s nasty. It’s blasphemous too. But isn’t the world supposed to disappoint sometimes? Otherwise, what’s to keep us from getting too comfortable?”
The creamed sugar on my spoon went sandy. So it was to be another confession. I’d already heard B’s, and the thought of another, from the other side, was unwelcome. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, only that I felt unqualified to listen. My default relationship to others was that of advocate, one who takes action on another’s behalf. It was close to intercessor, but not the same. Clients sometimes confused the two, but the truth was I had no pull with the higher law. My limited ability to shoulder spiritual burdens reflected this lack. Still, I resolved to deliver some good. “Not to be cute,” I said, “but do you want my professional answer or the personal one?”
“God forbid they should be the same.” She twisted her shoulders to the side as if preparing to leap from the booth. I’ve seen this before too, the would-be confessor realizing her mistake and fleeing in mortification. It’s not pretty. It also marks the first test of the compassionate listener.
"Not necessarily,” I said, “but there is a limit to the overlap. Either way, I think personal nastiness only hurts us on a sliding scale. It’s not even illegal, come to think of it.”
She gathered the macabre shawl about her body. “I’m turning into an angry old shit,” she said.
"Sorry. Nothing about you says you want to hear this. You’re like some deserted island where I got stranded and started talking to myself.”
We stared into the empty crème brûlée saucer. Fried stalactites of burned sugar toothed the edge. The check waited nearby. It was ensconced in the same dark leather as the messenger bag. Someday, the bill for all of our transgressions will be delivered thus. I said, “I saw you in the window the other night.”
She raised the shawl over the tip of her nose and then lowered it again. No smile. “What window?”
“Don’t be like that.” I did my own smiling for the both of us. “I didn’t mind.”
Again, she raised the shawl, this time over her eyes so that her grape lips emerged under the fringe. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
For a moment, I was cognizant of my own appearance, a straight shot from her mind to my own. The fabric over her eyes did nothing to obscure the angry crimp in my mouth. Then she flipped the edge of the shawl down into the saucer where it bloomed outward like black hollyhock. “You’re right,” I said.
"I’m sorry. I don’t know why I brought it up.”
She slid a thick wad of money into the check folder. “So we’re done here?”
“I don’t think we ever started.”
“Probably for the best.”
“Probably.” I felt for the case between my knees. “You never know.”
And maybe that’s why she seized my arm in the parking lot. We were stranded between our cars, I leaning away from hers and she mine. If anyone had seen us, which someone probably did, she might have thought we were playing that game where you hold hands and then lean back, try to find the wishbone balance that allows both parties to recline in the air, frozen on the verge of toppling. This is a poetic image and not to be trusted. But sometimes life acts out a semblance of our chosen dramas. There was some stumbling, a pulling away. “He’s up on the reservation until Sunday,” she said.
"I think he has a woman up there. Maybe a family. You don’t know how it is.”
Which was true. I didn’t have a woman or a family anywhere. What’s more, it seemed likely in that moment that I never would. I stepped back, and the movement brought my car’s dents into view under the parking lights. Waves under a poor man’s sun. The crème brûlée residue was still on my tongue. It was a night for tasting something rich.
I was present to hear her campanile doorbell ring in the morning. I had somehow failed to leave her after the entwined evening we had spent together, being inexperienced in these things, and she had not pushed me out, an allowance I wanted to see as romantic but which smelled of bitter and careless self- destruction. Undeterred, I had lingered, sluggish, beyond the bounds of the senses, having passed into the alcoholic hinterland of a big sky dawn. The chiming bell found me slicing a kiwi in her kitchen. I dropped the fruit, suddenly aware of my precarious options. E was waiting for me on the back deck, a maroon bath towel spread over the chair to keep her legs off the boards. She had not heard the bell. I could only see waist to toes from my position at the counter. Endless white on sodden terrycloth. Nothing visible beyond a summer thigh. Some aches of appreciation are all the sweeter for being unfulfilled. We had not slept together, but I had told her many things about myself. She had done the same, and if either of us was lying, then it didn’t matter because they were the kind of lies that surpass truth among consenting adults. Filled with something incestuous to love, I decided not to flee but rather to answer the chime of fate, my usual avoidant character bolstered by a thick strut of residual honesty. Abandoning the kiwi, I girded my loins with a towel. Instead of huge paws ready to unhinge me, I found only C of the one arm. He was still heavy and mustached, but his backpack and the kooky prosthesis were gone. This time, he looked properly distraught. We blinked at each other for a moment, the implications of the towel around my waist processing on both sides. Then he stuttered to life before I could spin control. “What’s B’s deal?” He shouted the question. “He’s in there, isn’t he? I’ve been calling him all night and now he’s got you here to cover for him. You country clubbers look out for each other pretty good. Well, you tell him C’s here, and C paid his money, and C had to go solo to court yesterday because his solicitor didn’t show. You tell him it didn’t go so well.”
“C, I can happily say I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You tell him it only takes one arm to rip a steer’s balls through its asshole.”
I gripped my towel like a mountaineer’s harness. Again, more tippling on the edge. “Nothing doing, C. I’m just here to use the pool.”
“B doesn’t have a pool, you slick shit.”
“That’s right, he doesn’t. But that, along with everything else on this property, is none of your business. How about you give his secretary a call on Monday?”
I braced for assault, but C’s face had transmuted into a cool dwarf of itself, the redness having faded into the pallor of slack honesty. He was already a man defeated. “She’s gone,” he said. “The whole office is gone. Blinds stripped off the windows and phones yanked out of the walls, a total gutting. I went over there last night to raise hell and tripped over a pile of mail on the step. Stuff was from Tuesday.”
C shook his spherical head in wonderment. “But is that even possible? Don’t they track you guys or something?”
“We don’t wear collars.”
“But if one of you lights out for the territories with client money. That’s bad, yes? Yes, it was bad – lose-your-license-find-another-career bad – but my mind was elsewhere, running down a herd of darker implications. If B was, indeed, off the reservation – or, more likely, hiding deep within it – than there was no getting to him. The reservation is another planet, and the tribes protect their own. B might not re-enter society for weeks, maybe longer, and, in the meantime, I was stuck holding the bag, literarily. “You’ve heard nothing? No messages? Emails? Texts? Nothing?”
“Total fucking incommunicado.”
Maybe this wasn’t so unexpected. People take advantage of each other all the time – or they just flip out of bed crazy one morning. That’s why I had a job, but the particulars of each case are as random as blood spatter. I ended up taking C’s number and promising to pass on the message. I shouldn’t have done it. Inserting yourself between attorney and client is like poking your nose into a marriage, the irony of the situation not being lost as I closed the door. I had always thought of myself as being risk averse to a fault, the decision to become a solicitor being exhibit A. But I must have had a self-destructive streak of my own. How else to explain this series of poor decisions hatching like predatory Russian dolls? The only saving grace was that I now knew myself to be in love with E – or as close to love as I would ever come. There was no reason for it. Nothing she had said or done. The fall had taken place out of time, which is another way of saying that I must have always been in love with E. This made no sense, as love shouldn’t. It was only proof that anything can happen anywhere. White thighs on purple terrycloth. A crystal clear western sky. She was not surprised about B. “I guess he finally got too happy for us,” she said. “He needed to be among his own people, the true optimists.”
I told her about the messenger bag.
"Have you opened it?”
“Why would I?”
“You don’t want to handle your own destruction?”
“Call it plausible deniability.”
“That’s what psychotics say.”
When I called B’s cell, the number was no longer in service. By evening, the weight of E’s and my togetherness had made conversation impossible. E had retreated to the bathroom where she was tangling and un-tangling her hair. I was sprawled out on the bed, a great frame with the skull of a horned beast mounted overhead. I watched her through the cracked door with the elk skin coverlet up under my chin, a huddling cliché of myself. The hide worked to trap the odd gas that kiwis produce. When my cell rang, I picked up on ring three, the least suspicious of rings. B guffed wind into the phone. “My man looked into your trash this evening. Nothing but coffee grinds and tampons.”
His voice, unlike his breath, was smooth and unconstrained, just like he was putting his grandmother on the stand. “We never had an agreement,” I said.
"And why in piss-dripping heaven are you in my house?”
I let that one hang, and the heavy breathing seized for a beat, a caustic hitch in the wheeze, before resuming in a rush. “Yes, I have someone who watches my house,” he went on. “A couple down the street. They own a corgi and they’re both addicted to oxycodone.”
“C was here to see you,” I said.
"C is not at issue here,” he said. I twisted under the covers, releasing a noxious pocket of air. I’d been in a somewhat similar situation before in college, a roommate’s girlfriend and that roommate’s prescient phone call from another hemisphere. That time, I had denied everything. Not guilty across the board. But the stakes had risen, and I was ready to bargain. E must have sensed as much because she pushed her tousled head out the bathroom door. She wore the resigned expression of a wet sphinx. I said, “I still have the bag.”
“That’s nice. Are you sexing my wife?”
“Because if you are, you’d be better off just saying so. As you know, we have our problems. I’m not happy, but I’m not going to overreact.”
A faint clicking in the line betrayed molars grinding out the truth. These are the most dangerous conversations, when an otherwise bestial human is incensed to the point of politeness. I made the mistake of looking to E for help and was awarded with a look of self-destructive blankness. Maybe this was her plan all along, to let me splinter the dead wood of her marital union. That, or she had already surrendered to fate, a not unwise reaction to circumstances. This did not change my love. B’s high thread count sheets had gone slick under my flesh. “Maybe you should,” I said. “Maybe that would make things easier.”
“Although if things get too serious, I will take your bag straight to the authorities.”
“And which authorities would that be?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of someone.”
The molars on the other end clenched and locked, a clampdown on all this foolishness. “There’s nothing in the bag, you idiot. You need to watch more movies.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You should. Call it a test of loyalty that you failed. Now are you going to leave my house and my wife alone, or do I have to come see you out?”
I tried to signal E that the situation was shading red, but she was back at the mirror, a circumventing towel pinching the folds of skin under her arms. She was wrapping another towel around her hair like a turban, and the effect was enticing beyond all circumstances. She leaned in to bare her marble teeth at the glass, hunting for some perfection around the gums. “Just open the damn thing,” she said to her reflection. “Find the contract for our souls.”
“You’re a lucky man.” I said into the phone. “You know that, right?”
In the silence, I could hear waves in the background of the line. There must have been a lake up on the reservation, some pellucid expanse fluming up like mercury in the bowl of the mountains. It would be cold and smooth, tolerant only of the ripple of snow geese – or maybe it was only B’s breath – or maybe B was dead and calling from the kind of heaven you play at low volume to fall asleep. It was a poetic sound and not to be trusted. “Do you want to speak with her?” I said.
"What does she want?”
“Hold on.” I covered the phone as if shielding the eyes of a child, but E only closed the bathroom door. The latch clicked softly and sweetly shut. “She says she loves you,” I said. “She says she’s sorry. She says she’s glad you’re not angry.”
“No doubt.” Something clapped shut on the other end, a car door maybe, B closing the hatch on his seaside reverie. “For a solicitor, you’re a miserable liar,” he said.
"I don’t deny it.”
“Good. The world can use more men of principle.”
In this moment, it would not be inaccurate to say that some part of me, a strikingly traitorous part, cared very deeply for B too. Not in the way I loved E. It was a worldly admiration, very much of its time and place, but a deep and abiding sympathy nonetheless. This disloyal part of me would have given anything to the big man – not to save myself, but to see how he would consume it, shape it, and use it to mold his destiny. That was the true draw: his intractable sense of direction. It was something I could only admire from afar as I drifted through my own arbitrary life. “So where does that leave us?” I said. And I could see him consider the question as he looked out over the vast water that may or may not have been there. The sun was going down into the drink, lighting up a spangling path to the horizon.
"I think I’m going to drive down there and beat the hell out of you,” he said.
"I would expect nothing less.”
Tap water clacked against the enamel in a rush. E was running the bath. She had unlatched the door, leaving an inviting crack. “You better hurry,” I said. “I’m in love with her.”
“Is that right?”
I closed the phone and made for the bathroom door.
They found him wheels up dead in a culvert just south of the reservation. His truck had slipped on a mountain road, and all three-hundred horses hadn’t been enough to right the coach. According to the highway patrol, excessive speed was a factor, but the discovery caused a sensation for other reasons. There were incriminating papers in the car, some money, even an unlicensed pistol – this from a man who had been living in the former home of a prominent local artist. He was also well known, if not well liked. Some people, not many, spoke of conspiracy and dark purposes. The general consensus was that it happened too fast to be anything but justice cloaked in the eternal agency of fate. When I think about what happened now – and I often do – I find that I am not interested in explanation. I prefer to dwell in the kind of reflection that avoids conclusions, to paddle in the tranquil pool of hindsight. B and E were neither good nor bad people. Neither am I – even if there was a moment, in that bathtub, when E and I held each other as closely and chastely as newborn creatures, my skin and her skin, my body and her body, submerged in a lost moment I will never forget. This is not so bad of a position to be in if you really think about it.