Richie phoned on Saturday night, needing money, needing food, needing his guitar strings and allergy meds, wondering if Cathy could drive them up to the camp tomorrow. The camp, if you could call it that, was off a backwoods road deep in the Adirondacks—Richie’d had to drive twenty-one miles to the nearest town to call.
“Why don’t you come down and get them yourself?”
“I don’t want to take the chance,” he said, the words edged with a tiny, tell-tale slur.
“What chance? Are you all right?”
“Sure. Fine. I just need to keep a low profile for a while.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Life. Life’s going on. Can you bring up my stuff?”
“I’m worried about you. How much have you been drinking?”
“Oh, yeah—could you bring me up a bottle of vodka too? Maybe two?”
“Richie, you have to get your act together. You can’t keep this up.”
“I’m only drinking for inspiration. I’m writing songs. Me and Doggy.”
“You’re pickling your brain.”
“Want to hear one? It’s dedicated to you—The Lie Detector Smoke Detector Blues.”
Three weeks ago, on her only visit after he’d gone up to the camp, she’d brought him a smoke detector. The place was half trailer, half shack, wholly dilapidated, buried deep in the mountains—Fiddler’s Green, their father had christened it. He’d had grand plans for the place, but, like all his plans, they’d fallen through. Richie was puzzled when he saw the smoke detector. “What’s this for?” he said, grinning, holding it up as though it were a box of tampons.
“You can never be too safe,” Cathy said.
Richie laughed. Doggy walked over to Richie’s guitar on the ground beside a washed-out yellow lawn chair, and strummed it with his nose. “Good Doggy,” he said. “Doggy wants to join the band.”
Three weeks later, he sang, sort of, into the phone: “Been detected and inspected / Been neglected all night long / Been erected and infected / I been working on this song…”
“Still needs some work,” Cathy said.
“That’s ’cause I don’t have my guitar strings. Gotta have my guitar strings.”
“I don’t know about tomorrow. Dillard and I are supposed to go to a chili cook-off. Over in Greenwich.”
“You and Dillard? You’re going out with him?”
“Yes. I told you that already.”
“You did?” Richie said. “I don’t remember. I must have been drunk.”
“What are the odds?” Cathy said.
“Dillard’s a funny dude,” Richie said, still slurring. “Stay away from him.”
“Stay away from him? Why? I thought he was a funny dude.”
“I don’t trust him is all.”
“Really. Who do you trust? Do you trust anybody?
“How about me?”
A laugh, of sorts. “Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
Cathy was no psychologist, but if it looked like paranoia, smelled like paranoia, and quacked like paranoia, she suspected that’s what it was. She was worried. Very worried, and yet her first inclination, for a change, was not to drop everything and rush to him—up until now, it might well have been. Why? She liked to think her ex-husband’s, Philip’s, warnings over the years had finally sunk in—the misgivings, for that matter, of her sisters and parents, of family and friends, of just about everybody else, that she was only enabling Richie, not helping him, and that as long as she did, her big brother would never grow up.
What she didn’t like to think was that it was because she’d been so much looking forward to going to the chili cook-off with Dillard.
Despite the chili. She hated chili.
Two months earlier, before he went up to camp, Richie had introduced her—reintroduced her—to Dillard. Dillard and Richie had been friends before Richie’d been drafted, and afterwards too, until they lost touch. Dillard had sated a travel lust, living for a while near Boston, then Denver, substitute-teaching mostly (as he’d explained it to Cathy), whatever it took to get by, till he’d landed back home to undertake other adventures. Many of which seemed to involve partying with Richie, a long-standing tradition. Dillard had been there the night Richie’d come home from Viet Nam, they told her. In fact, Dillard insisted, Cathy had knocked over his beer that night. A Utica Club, the last Utica Club, and he’d never quite been able to forgive her.
She remembered the spilt beer, though not Dillard specifically. Just a host of grown-up, partying people. When he’d come home, Cathy was only eight, and during the tumult of the celebration, she accidentally kicked over a beer, a clearly unforgiveable sin. She began to cry. Richie picked her up, held her on his lap. “It’s only a beer,” he said, rocking her, “just somebody’s stupid beer,” and he laughed and hugged her, aware that she was crying not only because of the stupid beer, but because her big brother was home at last from the war. For much of the party she stayed there, safe in his lap, the center of attention with Richie, her big brother, drunk on Heineken, high on pot, everybody’s hero. Cathy just as drunk, on joy.
Now, twenty-five years later, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been drunk on joy. Twenty-five years later, Richie had somehow become her little brother, even though he was still twelve years older, still drunk on Heineken and high on pot (when he wasn’t drunk and high on other, more formidable substances), still her hero. Not so much anyone else’s. When Philip had asked her why she kept bailing him out, kept letting him crash on their couch, kept lending him money he never repaid, she looked at him as though he had socks on his ears. “He’s my brother,” she said.
This was when Philip pointed out that Richie was also Phyllis’s brother, and Mary’s brother, and the son of their parents, yet none of them could be seen to be standing by their black sheep with such stubbornness. He would bring up the two interventions, involving the whole family, that had failed, and after which the others had essentially thrown up their hands. Cathy simply shrugged. “He’s my brother,” she said again. She couldn’t explain to Philip how or why everybody else was wrong. She couldn’t explain to him that the bond that had taken root the night Richie had come home was inseverable, that there was another kind of love which she could only conclude that Philip and the others knew nothing about.
Every Sunday, Philip picked up the boys, spent the day with them. Cathy was fretting in the breakfast nook with her coffee, fussing with the fringe on the placemats, thinking about Richie, about meeting Dillard later and the chili cook-off, when she heard Philip drive up. The boys were still getting ready. She called up, then went out to the top of the sloping driveway. The air was damp, the sky overcast and threatening. Last summer, just after he’d left her, Philip had bought a Mustang convertible. Cathy knew how he hated to drive it anytime in summer with the top up—sure enough, it was down. Philip stood beside his sky-blue Mustang, tall and narrow-shouldered, light eyes beneath heavy eyebrows, looking more like a professor than the first assistant chef at The Ginger Tree Restaurant. When his smile went away—as it did when he looked up at the glowering sky over Londonderry Circle—it looked as though his mouth was melting into his neat brown beard. “Damn,” he said. “We’d better get this top back up.”
We? Then Cathy saw the woman in the passenger seat.
“Cathy,” Philip said, “do you know Heather?”
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Cathy said. Philip glanced a warning at her. Heather, sleek and smooth with a grim little smile, got out of the car and nodded at Cathy, sunglasses despite the gloom, short blue sundress, lovely dark hair like the hair of a college track star. Cathy found herself smoothing her skirt over her thighs. She was wearing a skirt Philip had given her a few years before, a clunky pleated skirt, olive with a floral pattern, and a plain white blouse: a uniform, a girl scout uniform. She felt like a girl scout, a plain, dull, pudgy girl scout in a silly, bland uniform.
The boys came out with their golf clubs as the first raindrops began to fall, looked at the sky, stood beside their mother under the garage overhang and rested their clubs on the blacktop with a sigh—all very much in unison. Scotty was wearing his New York Mets jersey, Josh his Chicago Bulls.
The rain fell harder. Philip and Heather secured the top and scurried up the drive to stand under the overhang with Cathy and the boys.
“Not so sure you’ll be needing those,” said Philip, nodding toward the clubs.
“Poop,” Josh said.
“Josh,” said Cathy, scolding, a habit. She was on auto-pilot. Philip had never brought a girlfriend around before. From under the overhang, they watched the raindrops pelt the driveway, staring glumly at the rain.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” Philip said. “We’ll head up to the Adirondack Museum. We’ll put the clubs in the trunk in case it dries up.”
Josh said, “Daddy and Heather are roommates now.”
“We are not!” said Philip, as Heather tossed her head and rolled her eyes, smile a bit tighter. “What made you think that?” she said, ruffling Josh’s hair.
“I don’t know,” Josh said, clamming up.
“You dork,” Scotty said to his little brother.
Cathy said, “If you’re going up that way, do you mind dropping some stuff off to Richie? He called last night. He needs his allergy meds, his—”
“No,” Philip said, sounding like whoa! “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.” Then, “He’s still up there? I can’t believe he’s still up there.”
“Neither can I,” Cathy said. “It’s been over a month. Him and Doggy.”
“I thought that place was uninhabitable. What’s he doing up there?”
Cathy sighed. “I don’t know. ‘Keeping a low profile.’”
She didn’t mention paranoia. Philip didn’t need to know—nor did the boys. She was afraid the drinking and drugs had finally caught up to her big brother. He was in hiding, and her best guess was that all he was hiding from was his own demons and delusions. It was finally overtaking him, poor, goofy, faithful Richie.
“Whatever,” Philip said, shrugging his narrow shoulders. “Ready, boys?”
They moved quickly through the rain, stowing the clubs in the trunk, clambering into the car. Cathy stood in a trance, watching them back away. The driveway, broad and bowed, sloped down to the street, and she suddenly had the odd notion it was a tongue. She was standing watching a sky-blue Mustang roll down through the raindrops and drip off her house’s tongue, as though her house were a mouth-breather, a drooler. How could she live in such a stupid house? Her house seemed incredibly stupid, just as stupid as her plain white blouse and olive skirt.
She couldn’t wait to see Dillard. With Dillard she was witty and wise, attractive and fun. It was obvious from the way he looked at her: He saw her as his Heather.
She quickly shed her girl scout uniform. She didn’t hang them back up, neither the olive skirt nor the dull white blouse. Wearing only her underwear, she carried them downstairs to throw in the garbage. She hovered for an instant over the garbage can, reluctant to commit, for there were coffee grounds in it, and milk-sodden Cheerios, and there would be no turning back, no changing her mind, as soon as she dropped them in. Of course she didn’t care. She’d certainly never wear them again. To drop or not to drop? Standing in her underwear in the kitchen, clothes in hand, an odd sensation crept up from her ankles to her thighs. Once she and Philip had made love on the kitchen floor, home from dinner and a movie, some sexy movie involving adultery and plenty of it, the sitter just gone, Scotty asleep upstairs in his crib. They’d done it in a frenzy, just over there, where a Cheerio had fallen on the floor, one lonely, stupid Cheerio. There was a fly buzzing around the garbage can, and the kitchen was dark and gloomy.
She carried her clothes back upstairs, throwing them onto the chair in the bedroom. Maybe give them to Good Will. She was, after all, a sensible woman. In the mirror, she evaded her eyes, her forehead too wide and shiny, her brown hair rising up frizzy against the humidity. So, feeling so sensible, why did she walk back downstairs, still in only bra and panties, instead of going into her bedroom to dress? Why did she walk from room to room through the quiet house, into the living room where the curtain opened wide over Londonderry Circle? The rain was still pelting the street, the neighboring roofs, the lush green lawns, shrubbery and trees, leaves roiling gently. When was the last time she and Philip had made love on the sofa? Two years ago? Five? Probably more. For a while, they’d been adventurous, impetuous, trying different places, different rooms, different positions.
Where did that leave Cathy? A little sad, certainly; lonely too, but, for some reason, possibly more than anything else right now, at this moment, here in her living room, wearing next to nothing with the curtain wide open, her naked feet cushioned in carpet—aroused.
Dillard? She hadn’t had sex with him, not yet—she was biding her time, and he wasn’t pressuring. She was not a promiscuous person, and this would be only their third actual date. She’d made a couple of stabs at dating over the winter, before Dillard, once letting Sheila, her friend and co-worker from the Chamber of Commerce, fix her up with her cousin. Sheldon was big, quiet, affable, with sloping shoulders, large, soft ears and the odd, undazzling flash of wit. He worked for Social Services. His hair and the collar of his shirt were both plastered flat. They’d gone to dinner at Barney’s, and Cathy had been a bit disquieted watching Sheldon cut everything on his plate—chicken, spaghetti, parsley and all—into small bits before he took a single bite. Not necessarily a deal-breaker—she was used to eating with an eight- and twelve-year-old, and she’d managed a cheerful banter. She’d been surprised in fact that Sheldon hadn’t called again, and even more surprised when she’d learned later from Sheila it was because he considered her a sloppy eater. Another date—her only other date—hadn’t gone well when Barry, a wiry carpenter from Halfmoon with hair like black licorice, a member of the Chamber, had announced upon arriving that he was sporting an erection. Cathy shut the door in his face. Barry hadn’t been to another Chamber mixer since.
Now, sitting on the sofa nearly naked watching the rain-washed street through the wide open window, the image of Barry’s imagined erection elbowed its way into her mind, where it morphed into an all-encompassing, shivering sensation, and she thought: What if Dillard got hit by a truck?
What was she waiting for? A rainy day? Carpe diem.
Afterwards, after the rain ended and the sky was trying to clear, Dillard arrived unscathed. Part clown, part hippie, long brown curly hair flecked with gray, unshaven stubble bordering on beard. He wore his baseball cap backwards, despite the fact that he was in his forties. A big man in blue jeans and a red plaid shirt—half tucked in, half out—his expression was that of a mischievous boy at the cookie jar. She met him at the door, led him up the half-flight of stairs to the living room where they sat on the sofa, the same sofa, the same curtain opened wide over the same Londonderry Circle.
“I have a dilemma,” she said.
“I been meaning to get me one of those,” he said. “I saw a nice one in the Dilemma Shop window down on Broadway, slightly used, only one owner, this little old lady who only took it out on Sundays when she was trying to decide whether to go to church or the bullfights. They wanted six-ninety-nine for it, but they had an installment plan—I could go on.”
“Not necessary,” said Cathy with her little smile.
“Okay then. What’s your dilemma? I can’t afford my own anyhow.”
She sighed, aware of how it made her breasts lift. She’d changed into her white pleated culottes that were too short, and her sleeveless red top that was too snug, but she’d changed into them utterly aware of the shortness and snugness. Her dilemma was this: She’d decided she wanted to go to bed with Dillard. She wanted to spend the afternoon there with him, instead of going to Greenwich to watch him eat chili, but she wasn’t sure of how to go about it. So far, he’d been anything but insistent, which she attributed to his being a gentleman, to his respecting her, and to his history with the family. But now, after she’d made the decision, she began to wonder if it was something else, if he was not anxious to get her into bed for some other reason—such as, did he not find her attractive? Did he want only to be friends? Did he consider them more like brother and sister, given his friendship with Richie, his history with the family? Would he think less of her if she were too aggressive, too suggestive? Worst of all, might he reject the notion out of hand? She was in no mood for more rejection.
This was not, however, the dilemma she presented. “Richie called last night,” she said. “He needs some stuff up at camp, and wanted me to bring it up this afternoon.”
“Why doesn’t he come down and get it himself? He’s a big boy now.”
A noncommittal shrug. She didn’t feel like going into it again. Didn’t feel like discussing her brother’s wackiness, again. “I don’t know. He said he needs it today.”
“I kind of had my mouth set on chili,” said Dillard. “But hey. If he needs his stuff today, I guess he needs it today.”
“I didn’t say I would,” she said, “but I didn’t say I wouldn’t. Why don’t I make us some lunch first and we can think about it?”
“A little lunch before a chili fest—that’s so wild and so crazy, it might just work.”
“Aren’t they just these little, tiny bowls?” she said.
“Yes. But after the first twenty or thirty, you don’t mind missing lunch so much.”
“Thirty tiny bowls of chili?”
“So what do you have for lunch? Got any chili?”
She made three tuna sandwiches, figuring a half should be more than enough for her. She was at the counter when Dillard came in. “Talk about schizophrenic,” he said.
She paused, knife poised: Richie? She’d considered paranoia, but hadn’t yet gotten around to schizophrenia.
“Look at that,” he said, walking to the window above the sink, parting the curtains. “Hardly a cloud in the sky—two hours ago it was raining cats and dogs—see, look, there’s still a big poodle over there. A perfect day for a chili fest. Or for a ride up to Fiddler’s Green—if Richie really needs his stuff that bad.”
“Richie told you the name of it? Our dad had some grandiose ideas.”
“Oh, he told me all about it. Never told me where it was, though, exactly.”
“Even if you knew where it was, you still wouldn’t know where it was. I have to look at the directions every time. It’s way up north.”
“Well I’m game if you’re game. Matter of fact, I’m a little gamey, too.” He gave his shirt a quick sniff, crinkling his nose.
Cathy smiled, though not so much at his antic. All was not lost. A new possibility had emerged in her mind, the possibility offered by thousands of square miles of Adirondack wilderness, isolated woods and back roads in the summer sunshine, and a blanket—she’d have to bring a blanket. “Why don’t I wrap these up then? We can have a picnic on the way.”
“Ahhh,” he said, bobbing his eyebrows suggestively. “Au naturel! ”
Spit and Spat were statues of two strapping young men hunkering forward at either end of an oblong pool in Congress Park, forever spitting streams of water at one another through conch shells. Cathy watched for a moment, mesmerized by the endless arcs of the streams, the rhythm of the splashes and ripples, the sunshine burning the rain from the grass, the fresh smell of water and greenery. She’d always admired the musculature of the twin figures, albeit from a more esthetic point of view than she felt now. Now she admired something else she hadn’t considered before: the raw sensuousness.
Dillard wiped off a nearby bench—they would eat in the park, barely on the way, but he was too hungry to wait. Then she noticed the frog.
In a corner of the pool by the base of one statue—Spit or Spat, she wasn’t sure which was which—he was floating motionless, submerged up to his nose. He was in trouble, a foot below the edge, in three feet of water. How could he escape? There was nothing from which he could leap, no way to climb. Cathy stepped to the edge, peering down for a closer look.
“I don’t think he can get out,” she said.
“Who?” said Dillard, coming over. “Son of a gun. Guess he didn’t see the No Swimmingsign. Either that, or he’s a blatant scofflaw. I hate that in a frog.”
“I don’t think I can touch him. My boys could.”
“Me neither. Not before they’re cooked.”
“We can’t just let him die.”
“We can’t?” She looked at him with a frown and saw the hinted grin, the big, brown, playful eyes. In one motion—graceful for a big man—he took off his hat, stooped and dipped, scooping the frog neatly out of the water. He stood, holding the dripping hat in his hands, the frog spread low and quiet in the middle.
“There!” she said.
“There,” he said, easing the thing onto the grass by the pool. The frog took a weak hop, then crouched in a cautionary squat. Dillard wrung out his hat, mostly for comic effect, then placed it back on his head, wet and backwards. “Have you met Jeremiah?”
“Jeremiah the bull frog?”
“He was a good friend of mine,” Dillard said.
“Did you ever understand a single word he said?”
“Well, no, but I helped him drink his wine. As a matter of fact, he always had some mighty fine wine—I could go on.”
“Not necessary,” she said with a laugh. They lingered, staring down at the small damaged creature. Her big brother, Richie, came to mind.
“I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not,” said Dillard. “Frog legs, anyone?”
“Ewee, no.” The frog didn’t budge. “They don’t go very well with tuna.”
“That’s okay. I don’t like to eat ’em anyway. I keep thinking of all those poor little frogs hobbling around on crutches.”
“I admire a man with a conscience.”
“Truth be told,” he said, solemnly, “it can be a mighty heavy burden.”
They drove to Richie’s place to pick up his things, Cathy high with anticipation. The door to Richie’s apartment, a shabby duplex on Nelson Avenue, was unlocked, and they walked into the quiet dark, all the shades down. The place was a shambles: books on the floor, drawers pulled open, bedclothes in a heap by the side of the bed. Richie had always been a terrible housekeeper, and since Duffy, his second wife, had moved out, he was even worse. Still, it was even more of a mess than Cathy remembered.
“Do you believe this place?” she said.
“Of course. Do you know Richie?”
“It looks like it’s been ransacked.”
“Of course. Do you know Richie?”
They quickly found his guitar strings and allergy meds amidst the clutter, and left. The quiet chaos was depressing, foreign to the jubilation that had been building inside her.
They headed up the Northway toward Fiddler’s Green beneath a glorious blue sky, the rolling green hills around them swelling into mountains, the white line undulating along beside her like a long, sleek snake. The storm was far behind. The perfect tonic. She felt content, a perfect day to be high, sailing, flying. The radio was turned up high against the wind through the windows. Joy to the World came on: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog—”
“Oh my God!” said Cathy.
Dillard sang along, “Was a good friend of mine!”
She grabbed his arm. “We were just singing this. Saying this. Something this.”
“I never understood a single word he said,” Dillard sang, “but I helped him drink his wine!” They both sang: “He always had some mighty fine wine!”
She squeezed his arm. “Do you believe it?”
“Joy to the world!” they sang, “all the boys and girls! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea—joy to you and me!”
“Wait,” she said. “Did you say fishes or vicious?”
“I thought it was vicious the first time I heard it. Didn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s what I thought it was for years and years.” He looked over and cocked his head, stubbled jaw jutting. “Actually,” he said, “I still think it is.”
Cathy laughed. They sang. When the song was over, Dillard turned down the radio. “I have a problem with oldies.”
“What kind of a problem?”
“You know how they take you back to the time when it was popular, to what you were doing then, usually some exact moment? Kind of like a time machine?”
“ Yes,” Cathy said. “I remember me and Marsha—my girlfriend—singing Joy to the World at the top of our lungs in her rumpus room. We must have been about eight. We were playing with her sister’s Barbies.”
“See, now that’s the trouble. If you only listen to oldies, twenty years from now, what’s going to bring you back to now? Nothing. It’ll all be gone. These’ll be the missing years. When you hear Joy to the World twenty years from now, you’ll still think about playing with those Barbies when you were little—you won’t think about this ride up north to get Richie on a sunny afternoon. It’ll be gone. There’ll be nothing to remind you of it. It’s what I call an existential quandary. I’m not sure exactly why I call it that, but I do anyhow.”
“You’re right—today’s songs will be the oldies then.”
“Yeah, and see, we’re not listening to today’s songs.”
Cathy didn’t say anything. She was watching the scintillating sky and the mountains, and something was trying to bring her back down to earth, but the sky and the mountains wouldn’t let it. Something Dillard said had snagged in her mind for an instant before it washed away—what was it?—and it was gone, quickly, and she was trying to consider where today was going, where it would be twenty years from now, certain it would not be among the missing years. How could it be? Warm air gushing through the open windows, Dillard cranked it up when Me and Bobby McGee came on, and Cathy and Jeremy Staat were behind the bushes along the splintery fence in Jeremy’s front yard on Jefferson Street, peeking down each other’s underwear.
They left the Northway at Exit 29 above Schroon Lake, headed west on Route 2B. Cathy took the directions out of her purse, unfolding them in her lap. “2B,” Dillard asked, “or not 2B?” She looked up to see his naughty grin.
“That is the question,” she said. “As a matter of fact, that is the question Philip asked every, single, doggone time we came up here.”
“Oh,” Dillard said. “Sorry.” He glanced at her with elevated eyebrows. “Do I remind you a lot of Philip?”
Both hands on the wheel, he looked over again, waiting for an answer, his naughty boy eyebrows still raised in an expectant arch. Cathy turned in her seat to face him. “Your hair is a lot curlier,” she said.
“Is that the only difference?”
“You’re quite a bit bigger.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t like to brag. It’s just something I was born with.”
Cathy checked her smile, allowing the innuendo to free-float in the air. She checked her breathing, which was coming more deeply. Dillard stared ahead through the windshield, less animated now, more quiet. More serious. Beside the road, boulders littered a creek bed that was nearly dry, a sheer rock face soaring up behind it. She remembered this spot, was relieved they were still going the right way—Cathy was terrible at directions, even those written down. For a few more miles, it was quiet. Lay Down Sally came on and Dillard nodded slightly, though whether or not it was because of the song, the fresh innuendo, whether or not he was even listening, she couldn’t tell. The song stayed soft, unsung along to, fading here and there—they were losing the station. Cathy fidgeted with the directions, folding and creasing, pressing them in her lap. Soon they would be leaving the beaten track for lonely dirt roads with dozens of shady spots to pull over, and the blanket was waiting on the backseat of the car, right where she’d put it. She wondered if Dillard was growing quieter for the same reason as was she—if he was also trying to plot the best excuse to plausibly pull over by the side of the road before they got to Fiddler’s Green. To stop, take the blanket and spread it on the soft grass by the roadside in a way that was not awkward and rough and not without romance.
Finally, by a little turn in the road beside a brook, she said, “I think we’re almost there.”
He pulled over, just past the narrow plank bridge. According to the directions, they were 3.1 miles from the camp. Her heartbeat made its way to the back of her jaw. The trees were thick and tall, sunlight filtering down, dappling the packed brown dirt of the road. Bird songs filled the air, shattered by the call of a crow.
He looked over. “The call of nature,” he said. “The call of the wild.”
Which call? But of course she knew. As graceful an excuse as any. Well done!
He excused himself to step behind a tree, and she realized she should go as well—it had been a long ride. She picked her way into the woods, the sodden carpet of dead leaves concealing a phalanx of sharp things—shoots and twigs, rocks and branches—lying in ambush, waiting to attack her feet that were sheathed only in skimpy sandals. The woods were teeming. Brambles clawed at her bare calves and thighs. Sounds of wild things scurrying and burrowing and birds chittering loudly, distressed by the invasion. She found a spot behind a bush, and stopped, heart racing. Pulling down her culottes and underpants, she squatted to pee, then waited, dripping. Gnats began to seek her out, mosquitoes. Her breath was quick and shallow. She stood, considering for a brief, foolish, brave moment walking back out to him sans panties. She was wondering, trembling, deciding, desiring, when she heard the cough of the car engine starting.
Then the engine raced and the gravel spit as the car pulled away, as crows and other black things scurried across the sky.
Richie had named him Venture ten years before, but everyone thought that was a dumb name, and it never stuck. No one named him Doggy either; it just took. He was big and brown and grinned quite a lot. Doggy loved to lie on his back, hoping for a belly scratch, pumping his paws in circles. The wheels on the bus go round and round, Cathy used to sing, round and round. She’d sung it to her boys, Scotty and Josh, pumping their small legs around, and Doggy’d always reminded her of that.
He was lying in the ruts and weeds of the yard by the guitar that was face-down in the dirt. The washed-out yellow lawn chair lay on its back, arms reaching for the sky, a beer bottle lying spilled, kicked over by a different foot. Doggy didn’t pump his paws in circles, didn’t jump up to greet her, didn’t dance on his hind legs. He didn’t move, the side of his head matted with dark blood, a fly on his lip.
The place was deserted. In the kitchen, a shaft of dusty sunlight through a smeared window fell across a sliced tomato and a bunch of scallions on a cutting board, a still life. Richie’s ancient VW bug sat hidden behind the camp, keys nowhere to be found. Cathy sat gingerly on the splintery plank that passed for a front step.
Jeremiah was a bull frog! Was a good friend of mine!
The song had been running roughshod through her mind for 3.1 eternal miles, all the way to Fiddler’s Green, frantically at first, with a manic beat, then slowly, like a funeral march. Dillard was right. She was in a vacuum. Someday, it would all be missing. I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine! Splinters from the plank pricked the back of her legs, and she felt as though she were drowning beneath twenty thousand fathoms of sunshine.
Lonely is the least of it. What she would give if loneliness was all that she felt. He always had some mighty fine wine! Through the prism of the moisture, she watched Doggy’s fur soaking up all the sunlight.
But she isn’t there. She is not a speck in a vast forest teeming with life and decay. She is not stranded, alone, not without love or hope. Richie is not lost. Joy to the world! All the boys and girls! Joy to the vicious— She is playing with Barbie dolls, with her best friend Marsha, and they’re singing, joyfully, as loud as they can, and sure enough, today is nowhere to be found.
Dennis McFadden, a retired project manager, lives and writes in a cedar-shingled cottage called Summerhill in the woods of upstate New York. His collection Jimtown Road won the 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and his first collection Hart’s Grove was published by Colgate University Press in 2010; his third collection The Signal Tower was a finalist for the 2020 Brighthorse Prize for Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in dozens of publications, includingThe Missouri Review, New England Review, The Sewanee Review, Crazyhorse, The Massachusetts Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories,and in the inaugural volume of the new series The Best Mystery Stories the Year 2021, edited by Lee Child. In 2018 he was awarded a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he is currently guest short fiction editor for Prime Number Magazine.