Post Road Magazine #29

In Her Place

Maria D'Alessandro

Gideon got the call in the middle of the day, right after he had completed the corn maze and come inside for an early supper. He was exhausted from hand cutting a passage through the corn field that stretched between the main house and the cottage where their tenant lived. He hung up the phone and its hard plastic clang echoed through the kitchen. The rain had stopped as abruptly as it had started, and Baxter was back to sleeping in the bushes off the driveway. That stupid dog would probably wait there forever if Gideon didn't go get him and bring him inside. He'd probably have to drag Baxter up to the house by the scruff of his neck because a dog like Baxter couldn't make sense of a thing like this.

            He swung open the screen. Tall, the color of the sky before the sun sets, gold and barren, the stalks still standing long after the fruit has been picked. Winter was close now. He could feel it in his lungs.

 

            On the way down the drive Gideon hit his old sign post that advertised "corn maze," knocking it flat on its side. He drove the three miles to campus. It was 5:30 and the street lamps were turning on along the main road, past the dining hall where his wife, Marion worked. Out of habit, he turned into the parking lot. Marion's grey Ford was still parked in the row reserved for employees. He idled for a moment. The sky was changing from an uneven blue to ash. Oak and maple trees dropped yellow leaves, which floated slowly down to the blacktop. Gideon kept driving. He turned onto the old service road, followed it as far as he could, parked at the metal gate and began walking. This was a path he had taken many times. The causeway traversed along the North Tivoli Bay. He thought he might walk as far as Cruger Island, out past the train tracks. He needed to clear his head.

             The path was overgrown with phrag and he would have liked to have his machete to fell the choking marsh weeds. The ground beneath his feet was slick and filling with pools of fragrant water. The tide was coming in. A lone frog chirped and leapt out from under his feet, splashing beside him. His eyes adjusted to the shadows and the path became brighter the further out into the marsh he got. The closer he came to where the bay met the river, the more sky he encountered, marbled and faintly greenish now. A night bird cried out and he stopped to listen, but it didn't have wing beats.

             The railroad crossed the causeway where the river channeled into the bay. The path up to the tracks was steep and he took it slowly. There was a familiar pain catching in his knees. Usually he sat on the edge of the hill, where the path met the railroad to watch it pass, but today he lowered himself onto the center of the tracks, crossed his legs over the damp wood, and waited. His wristwatch read 7:00. Marion had been dead now for six hours.

            There were things he was supposed to do. Important things. Identify her body, buy a coffin, plan a memorial, call her friends. Later he would have a million smaller tasks, Marion's duties. Buy milk. Collect the mail. Deposit checks. Remind their tenant, Sadie, to pay her rent. Feed the damn dog. If the tables were turned and Marion was the one left, she would know what to do—mdash;she'd have a list made and already half the entries crossed out.

            When they were first married they used to talk about suicide. Marion used to say, "Wouldn't it be nice for us to die together?" She'd laugh. "Not that you're ever going to die, but if you do, I'd like to go with you." Gideon was five years her senior. They had both assumed he would go first. It was six hours and fifteen minutes now, since Marion had died, and he simply waited.

            The train's horn sounded and the tracks began rattling. Gideon felt the train coming in his flesh, his joints and muscles. He just wanted to know what it would be like.

            You can hear the train while it is still miles away. It's hailing—mdash;hailing to let you know what to expect. But how can you know? Even if the train sounds its horn for minutes before its arrival, even if the tracks fluctuate and writhe before it comes, even if the bars fall, and the stop sign flags you down, even if you are waiting. How can you know what it will be like when it passes? You can listen for the train, you can feel its approach in the tracks, hot with friction; you can watch the bars drop, stop at the sign; you can wait for all eternity, but you cannot know how it will be at the end. You might be an engineer, a physicist, a first responder, a warrior at the front lines, or you might be the best, most sought after brain surgeon, but you still won't know what to expect when the train arrives. The wind picked up and with it the sound of water lapping against the railroad bridge. Maybe only the devil knows.

            The sound was as deafening as the firing of a gun. The tracks gave off heat and sparked. They shook beneath him so that he was one with them, rattling. His heart was working hard all of a sudden, and he stood at once. It bellowed. It was coming. Gideon stepped off the tracks and turned his back on the train before it passed.

                                                                     

            At home Gideon parked facing the corn maze and left the headlights on. The house was dark and small, the maze expansive in comparison. It reached from the back of the house all the way to the cottage where Sadie lived. In fact, there was no way of walking from the cottage to the main house, or vice versa without going through the maze. When Sadie moved in last year, Marion had been surprised a college student would want to live all the way out on Old Post Road. It was lonely out here, and dark as the devil at night. Their stretch of road consisted mostly of abandoned farms gone to meadow. You had to drive just to get to the next inhabited house. "Won't you be scared out here all by yourself?" Marion had asked Sadie. "I like it quiet," Sadie replied.

            Baxter, Marion's dog, a black lab mutt, greeted Gideon on the porch. He whimpered and actually let Gideon pat him on the head. Gideon led Baxter up to the house with the headlights as a guide. Except for the beeping of the keys left in the ignition, all was quiet. The back door to the kitchen was unlocked. Gideon went straight to the cabinet under the breakfast nook where they kept the dog food. Without turning on the lights, he fed Baxter and went about finding what he would need.

            He felt his way around the formica island, cool and smooth against his hand. His fingers collected crumbs as they swept across the surface and he let them fall to the floor. Walking around in the dark made him feel pleasantly like an intruder. He pretended it wasn't his house. It wasn't really his anymore, was it? The cheery yellow kitchen with used coffee mugs in the sink and her crumb cake in the breadbox didn't belong to him. 

            In the bathroom he urinated in the dark, the sound of pee hitting the porcelain and then making rain in the water was how he knew he wasn't making a mess. Even the bathroom was filled with little touches of her, women's soaps and pills in the cabinet and a big bottle of VO5 on the edge of the tub, that didn't belong to him. He reached to flush and hit the yard sale vase and flowers perched on the toilet tank, knocking it over. Small stemmed wild flowers fell in the toilet and the vase bounced off the bowl and landed on the tile floor. He zipped up and stepped around the mess, not bothering to wash his hands.

            In the bedroom he moved quickly, rummaged through the closet for his sleeping bag, which he tossed in the middle of the floor, grabbed the pillow from his side of the bed, but it still smelled like her—mdash;hand soap and cigarettes. He peeled off the case, dropped it on the floor and knocked something from the dresser. Fumbling around on the floor, Gideon came up with her reading glasses. Clutching the glasses in one hand and the pillow in the other, he gave her lamp a smack and kicked it when it fell to the floor. Is this what it felt like to be intruding?

            Gideon carried his pillow and sleeping bag through the house and back out the kitchen door where the headlights blinded his now-adjusted eyes, the beeping assaulted his ears. He turned off the headlights and removed the keys. Except for the stars that covered a third of the sky, the rest was unclear. The light from the stars barely mitigated the darkness and Gideon had to trust his feet to take him where he needed to be.

            Gideon made his way into the corn maze. It took three false starts before he found an opening, but once enclosed in the maze, a sleepy calm washed over him. It still smelled a little sweet, like the sugar-filled kernels and soil. The dry stalks rustled against his shoulders and covered him in places by as many as two heads. After awhile the path he chose turned narrow, the corn touching him on either side. He burrowed further into the corn, listened to its rhythmic swishing against his limbs until he hit an abrupt dead end. There he unrolled his sleeping bag and settled in for the night. Before he closed his eyes, a light turned on in the cottage, which was now closer to Gideon than the farmhouse or his truck. Sadie's place, he thought, and then fell, almost pleasantly, asleep.

                                                                     

            Sadie and Baxter were both there when Gideon awoke in the maze. The sky was overcast, the ground cold and wet.

            "Christ. I thought you were a bum, an ex-con or something," she said. "Have you been here all night? It's freezing." Sadie wore a jacket over pajamas and running shoes.

            "What do you think of the maze?" he asked. He stood up and shook out his sleeping bag. Pieces of corn husk and hay fell to the ground. He held it upside down and gave it a thwack. Marion's reading glasses landed at his feet.

            "It's spooky," she said.

            Gideon let out an involuntary laugh. "Spooky?" He picked up the glasses and put them in his front pocket, wrapped the sleeping bag over his shoulders and tried to conceal his shivering.

            "I still haven't made it all the way out," she said.

            Gideon started to lead the way back to the house. Sadie followed closely behind.

            "Did you and Marion have a fight?" she asked.

            Gideon shook his head, patted Baxter. "Not exactly. I guess. I guess Marion died."

            Sadie stopped walking. "What happened?"

            "I don't know exactly, an aneurism they said."

            "Have you seen her?"

            "No Sadie, ain't you listening? I said she's dead."

            "Gideon. Look at me."

            Sadie was a small girl and Gideon almost had to stoop to look her in the eyes. In the year she'd lived there he had trained himself not to look at her too long. He had the uncanny sense that something might happen if he did. He might do something he wasn't supposed to, touch her arm or brush her hair back. She had curly thick brown hair that was always getting in her eyes, which were blue. He'd never kissed someone with blue eyes before.

            "I want to help," she said.

            Sadie sat on the counter and made phone calls while Gideon took a shower and got dressed. The school, the coroner, the morgue, the funeral home. She claimed she was his daughter. She made the arrangements.

            His hair was still wet and uncombed when he came into the kitchen.

            "How do you know what to do?" he asked.

            "I'm Jewish," she said, and shrugged. "We're very knowledgeable about death."

            "Have you ever lost someone?" he asked.

            "Grandparents," she said. "When my grandmother died, my mom cut off all her hair."

            "Out of grief?"

            She nodded. "In the Torah there are all these stipulations about hair, usually cutting it off is a big no-no, except if you are mourning a parent."

            "Does that make it easier? To have something you're supposed to do?" he asked.

            "I think so. Without hair a person isn't the same."

            "Like cancer patients."

            "Yea, raw like that."

            Gideon's hands were shaking, he moved closer to Sadie. She was still up on the counter, her hands on her knees. Gideon put his hand on the counter next to her, to steady it.

            "You need to eat something," she said, and started to hop down.

            Gideon put his hand on her leg, stopping her. "Why are you doing this?"

            His hand pressed into her thigh. She looked down at his hand on her thigh, and then up into his face. He felt a tremor run through his spine, all the way out to his fingers. His hand was shaking against her, but he couldn't stop it, couldn't take it back if he wanted to.

            At first she didn't say anything, but then she started gesturing with her hands, and the words followed. "A lot of people are dying these days. My French professor dropped dead running on a treadmill. A girl I was just getting to be friends with died in Colorado, on a hiking trip with her parents. Another girl drowned in the bay, on purpose. Now this. You gotta wonder, what's going on? I mean, what is an aneurism really? There comes a point you just have to know."

            Gideon was sweating all of a sudden, even his hands felt clammy. His hand retreated from Sadie's leg and he brushed it against his jeans.

           

            Gideon spent the day in the fields. It was already getting dark when Sadie was done making the calls. She came out to find him digging for potatoes in the family garden.

            "I should go before it's too dark," she said. To get to Sadie's cottage you had to walk through the maze. Gideon brushed the dirt off his hands, then ran them through what was left of his hair.

            "Let me feed the dog and I'll walk you home."

            As he entered it, the maze put Gideon at ease once again. Couldn't he stay here forever? Marion didn't understand his appreciation for corn; she had urged him to sell the land, and retire to the south while they could still enjoy it, but Gideon never wanted to leave Old Post Road. Sure, Redhook was a failing town and the college was full of snotty kids, but Old Post Road was as peaceful as ever. Barely any neighbors, just deer, frogs and katydids to listen for at night, occasionally a red tailed hawk or coyote grazing the field for decapitated mice. Gideon had spent his entire adult life here, and he had harvested corn for forty years. He had been married for thirty-three of them. Isn't that odd? He'd been raising corn for longer than he would know Marion.

            Sadie walked a few steps ahead of Gideon. It was clear she wanted to be out of the corn and he wanted to stay behind. "I can't believe I don't know this, do you have any kids? I could have sworn Marion mentioned a boy, what was his name?"

            "Oh, Marcus. Marcus died before he opened his eyes," Gideon said. "There were two others didn't even make it that far."

            They walked a ways in silence. One by one the stars appeared.

            "Are we almost there Gideon? I can barely see my own hands."    

            "If we're still going the right way."

            "You don't know?"

            They hit a dead end and had to retrace their steps. Gideon laughed. "Let me lead," he said, putting a hand in front of her. Sadie walked into his outstretched hand, to which he said, "Forgive me."

            Sadie took his cold, chapped hand, and curled her own fingers around it. His hand was larger than hers, but she cradled it.

            An animal rustled in the corn. Sadie stopped, gripped his hand tighter, listening. Gideon waited and he tried not to breathe, not to do or say anything that might speed up time any more than it already was. Marion would have never stood in the corn maze at night, shivering and listening to the wind or watching the stars. Immediately he felt shame for having the thought at all, for touching Sadie, even casually. But another side of him told him to keep walking in Sadie's footsteps, to follow this young girl wherever she wanted to take him.

            She gasped. Out from the corn came a doe already in her dark winter coat, stepping lightly along the path. More surprised to see them than they were to see her, she turned and ran, with her tail waving white, in a zig zag through the maze. They laughed and followed behind her. Before they knew it the path opened up in front of the cottage. 

            Sadie paused at her front door, not speaking. He stood there with her, waiting. A wreath of bright Chinese lanterns hung crooked from the door.

            "Gideon, do you feel Marion anymore?"

            "Her presence, you mean?"

            Sadie nodded. "Where do you think she went?"

            "Well, I keep tripping on her reading glasses," he said, patting his shirt pocket.

            "That's something, I guess," she said. Sadie was far off, in her own world, but not making any motions toward going inside. Gideon looked at his watch. 6:30. It had already been twenty-eight hours since Marion had died and here he was just standing outside of Sadie's cottage, waiting.

            "I don't want to leave you here," he said.

            Sadie unlocked the door and walked inside. "I know what we can do," she said.

            Gideon hadn't been inside since Sadie moved in. Before that, he and Marion had fixed it up: he painted and she arranged the furniture. They filled it with pieces they had grown out of, but that Marion couldn't stand to throw away—mdash;a purple love seat from JCPenney that they had bought when they couldn't afford anything bigger, a formica table too long for the kitchen with two matching stools, the white bookcase he had built for the kids' room when they were still planning on kids. While Sadie was in the bathroom Gideon poked around. The bookcase had a painting of a matchbox car on one side and a rose on the other; these were ways they had tried to hedge their bets. Sadie had made plenty of changes to the place. She hung batik patterned curtains over the windows in the living room and paper cranes leading to the kitchen. The bookcase was lined with books, with titles like The Archaeology of Knowledge and Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. A homemade afghan covered the plush love seat. Gideon sank into the wooly fibers. He felt dizzy with remembering, and closed his eyes. Of course, Marion was there behind his eyelids, her perfectly curled brown hair framing her face, deep purple rings under her eyes and her soft half smile. Sometimes, while she slept he would take a curly lock of hair and suck on it. If she had noticed, she never said so. She probably never noticed, he thought; Marion wasn't the kind of woman who bit her tongue.

            "Where are you, Mar?" Gideon blinked, and her image vanished.

            Sadie stepped out of the bathroom wearing a terry clothe robe, holding her hair up off her neck with one hand and a large pair of scissors in the other.

            "I want you to cut my hair," she said.

            "But why?"

            "Don't you want to cut my hair?"

            "Don't do this for Marion's sake. You know Sadie, Marion never even liked you," he said, getting up from the couch and moving towards her.

            "Please, I want to do something with you." she said.

            "I love your hair," he said. The kitchen smelled earthy, like granola and bird seed, but the bathroom leaked female smells, an unfamiliar shampoo, clean and exotic. It made his eyes water, made his blood beat a little faster in his neck. He reached out with his uncontrollable hand and ran his fingers through her hair, from the roots at the base of her neck all the way to the ends.

            She closed her eyes. "Take it all," she said.

            She sat on a stool at the formica table and handed him the long scissors. He twirled a lock around his finger and sucked on the tip. It was smooth and wet and tasted like oil. He made the first cut and the tangled curl fell to the floor. He dug his fingers through her hair, along the scalp, pulling it taut off her neck. She sucked in a breath and he aligned the blades so that they held the most hair possible. When he pressed down, the dark wet hair fell en masse, like night bugs dropping their wings. Blood percolated through Gideon's veins, sparks flying in his system, but his hands were steady. Hairs already littered the floor, the table, her bare neck, the tops of her bare feet. She laughed with pleasure. He laughed too, even though it felt crazy to be laughing.

            After most of her hair had fallen, Sadie handed him a razor.

            "All of it?" he asked.

            "All," she said.

            He lathered the short bristles of hair all over her head, letting his fingers linger on her skull, soaping gently behind her ears and over her neck. He ran the razor under the faucet and began shaving. He shaved her methodically, feeling the resistance of the remaining follicles against the blade as he cut against the grain. She gripped the table, held herself straight and moved left or right according to his instructions. He lifted the razor in one final sweep, across a stubborn patch at the base of Sadie's neck, and three miniscule drops of blood rose to the surface of her pale neck. Without pause, Gideon put his mouth over the cut. His throat was dry, his palms were wet. On a day like this, he didn't deserve this kind of forgiveness. Blood pulsed furiously in his chest, and through his neck and arms. He felt the weight in his throat, behind his eyes, drumming in his ears, like the freight train which was always coming from around the bend. His mouth lingered on the damaged place. It tasted more like soap and metal than what he would have imagined Sadie's skin and blood to taste like. He rested his head against the back of her shorn head and counted to three. His heart beat slowed and his breath came and went against Sadie's neck, cool and dry.

            "I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked, pulling away.

            Sadie spun around to face Gideon. The change was fierce. Her blue eyes smiling, bigger now, brighter, and full of tears. Sadie was more than human, she was alive in more ways than Gideon thought possible. She radiated light and dark, impetuous, timeless.

            "I can't explain it, but it feels so good," she said, pressing her strong fingers into the palms of his now empty hands.

 

            Afterwards, there were bristles of hair in the cuffs of his shirt and strands of it in the grains of his dungarees, on his boots, scratching his neck, even in his fingernails. Afterwards, Gideon walked home through the maze without making a single wrong turn. He walked into his house and turned on all the lights. He sat in her chair in the kitchen, patted the dog with one hand and held the other over his breast pocket. Her glasses were still there, unbroken.



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