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Short Story

ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, Ray Martin ran into a crowd at an early season indoor track meet, hundreds of kids in a dozen colorful uniforms lounging all over, if they weren’t high-stepping in some warm-up ritual dance or actually lining up for a sprint. Everywhere you looked there were perfectly formed bodies, as if there’d been no such thing as the Fall, kids smiling and laughing or munching cold pizza from a hundred open boxes, parents and friends behind them aboard bleachers someone dragged in and set up down the home stretch.

The pistol goes off and down at the south end five or six women begin to make the turn around the first bend—100-meter dash, he thought, but who can tell on the small, indoor track? Four kids stand in his way as he makes his way to the weight room. They’re talking about quads, making faces, women and men almost indistinguishable in sweats and the equality that sports has created. He tries to get around them and it doesn’t work, so he touches a guy’s shoulder and begs pardon for simply trying to get past. Any other time it might bother him to touch someone, but all these people, all these athletes create such a physical world.

He angles over toward the track where Tom Sturdevant is lining up runners for the 400-meter run. Tom says there’s a place for him and points to an empty lane. It’s a joke.

“Not even when I was a kid could I have run 400 meters,” he says.

“How about I give you a break?” Tom says. “I’m an official, Ray. Things can be arranged.”

A half dozen sprinters, still in their lanes, come charging up from around the last curve, and he spots a student of his, maybe the best in his whole class last semester, and he’s amazed that he never guessed she was a runner, an athlete. Small and muscular, she’s eating up the field. She crosses into the inside lane once she and the others come out of the turn. It’s clear she’s far out in front, and even though he’s a whole track away, he sees that student, the very good one, throw her shoulders back as sprinters do to break a string that isn’t even there.

Shedding tears had stopped long ago, but when he stands there, surrounded by all that sweat and vitality, he’s angry with himself, and with her, with Carolyn, so angry he can feel it in his face, something he has to hide even though no one is looking at him because it’s as if he isn’t there. And he wonders, just for a moment, whether what she’d done hasn’t robbed him of life, jailing him the way she has. He didn’t realize the girl—the great student—ran track and even did it well, and the fact is he can’t even remember her name. He’s a ghost, a wanderer just like Carolyn, like the babies they’d lost.

“That I’m fighting not to come back,” she wrote him some time later, maybe the third message, same gmail address, “has to mean that the old life is still part of something in me.” Another morning, months later: “What you are will always be an unfinished story.”

Little else, and everything she wrote cryptic, and never—not once—even singularly referring to anything he’d sent her. “I don’t read your notes. It is too painful.”

No calendar, no system to the few e-mails he’d pick up suddenly on his computer. Once, they came twice in the same month—July. That startling frequency gave him hope, and then nothing again until what?—October. Days and nights he’d spend just trying not to think of her, not to remember. “Coping mechanism,” somebody might call it. Call it what you will, he thought, sometimes he wished she’d never be found. In unguarded moments all alone, he’d begun to wonder whether he hated her.

He’s encircled by a crowd of people he doesn’t know, hundreds of kids whose seemingly reckless sexuality he finds somehow disturbing. He is no one, neither single nor married—no longer a husband, no longer a pastor, no longer vital. He’s adjunct faculty who doesn’t even know his best students.

She’s crippled him in every way, he tells himself.

He ought to be judging track meets. He ought to be shooting the starter’s gun. Like Tom Sturtevant, he ought to helping out, doing something. He ought to be alive. That’s what he told himself before he left.

The only joy he finds is alone in the hills west of town. Since Carolyn left, it has become ritual to head out on Sunday mornings and look for the dawn. Two and one-half months it was since he’d heard a word, almost a year and a half she’d been gone.

Therapy. The open sky comes into view. Once dawn sheds its buttery hue, once the long shadows start to run back down the hill from the cottonwoods just beneath him, once the sun is a ball of blinding fire, he stands there in silence beside the tripod. What he comes for, out there in the hills, is a moment alone in a honey-ish morning, the slightest opening back into life itself. Therapy.

No one had told him to do it, no shrink—although he’d been there. No grief counselor had said, “Ray Martin, what you need to do is shoot landscapes, early morning landscapes.” It was a therapy he’d stumbled on alone in the Jeep, his only passenger a fancy Nikon he bought after she left, compensation his abandoned soul deserved: the camera and an open, waiting world, fields and plains so flat and wide it sometimes seemed nothing at all was there, and yet in all that nothingness, something.

In February, and it was cold—February of 1884—two hearses stood outside Fifth Presbyterian Church, New York City, one of them holding Teddy Roosevelt’s mother, another his wife, two women so close to the man it’s a wonder he ever lived through their deaths, both on the same day. Ray Martin found himself drawn to Teddy because the man had found comfort in the vast openness. The hills had become, for Ray, a comfort and a blessing, just as they’d been for Teddy.

When Carolyn had left Freeport, he’d left not long after, giving up the ministry too. An old friend told him they needed a religion prof to fill in for a colleague, a woman who’d had the baby that Ray and Carolyn had always wanted.

Therapy. His. What did Calvin say in the early passages of the Institutes?—“Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world that does not exhibit some sparks of beauty. It is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.” He’d read it a week ago, typed it out into his ideas file, as if he were still preaching. He wanted to let it work on him, something, at least, in all this nothingness. And Pascal—“You should always keep something beautiful in your mind.”

That Sunday, he had stood there looking out over lines of trees and beyond to the little river town a couple miles east, all the way to the long stretch of open land, here and there a farmstead like a charcoal smudge against the burnished gold of early morning, the closest he could come to prayer. He’d come out, as he did every Sunday, to find words to praise, the words he’d lost forever-ago when she’d left and taken so much with her, leaving him with nothing. It was the closest he could come to prayer because at least this—what was spread before him—seemed God’s workmanship.

Meister Eckhart, the German mystic: “There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” He wasn’t sure whether anyone else fully understood that or could, but he did—and TR, who had to know it too. And God did, and that was all he needed to know on a Sunday morning, a hedge against the emptiness at home, whatever it was he called home.

Roosevelt, out by himself, was hunting in the Badlands no more than a week after arriving from New York, escaping the stranglehold of two horrific deaths. He’d started a campfire, an antelope steak already eaten, then looked down toward a creek bed, where in the half light of full moon, he swore he’d seen his mother and his wife’s spirits as vividly as if they’d actually been there, arms outstretched, as if in water—not talking to him either, but to each other. At first, he thought his own madness had projected them there.

Yet, their presence, side-by-side, seemed as verifiable as Manitou, his horse, just a few yards away. Their mouths were moving, but he couldn’t hear words. It was as if he’d been invited into the next world, where the two of them seemed alive but not anguished. Teddy was alone in the Badlands, a place someone once called “hell, with its fires gone out.” But Roosevelt had no doubt that he’d been given a vision of a moment of the afterlife there on the Little Missouri. More than once, it happened, and he was sure they were trying to speak to him. He was sure they had something to say.

Sometimes Ray Martin looked for Carolyn in the darkness of an apartment she’d never seen. Sometimes, after a night class, he wanted her to appear beneath the streetlights or along telephone wires as he walked home from the campus. Sometimes on Sundays he thought to find her in the mist and cottonwoods. At least Teddy had seen Alice.

Carolyn left behind a handwritten note stuck beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. She’d contact him once she got somewhere. “Somewhere,” the note said, “somewhere I haven’t determined yet.” A magnet held down the note, John 3:16 printed in a rounded style that made it look like a child’s handwriting.

The first e-mail came four months and counting after she’d left. She simply said for him not to worry, even though she knew him well enough to know that wasn’t possible. “I’m okay, sort of,” the note said, sent, he guessed, from some public library or a Starbucks, who knows where? “Just to let you know I’m alive.”

He typed something back immediately, words to which she’d never responded because she’d never responded to anything he’d sent back, part of whatever damned therapy she was doing, self-imposed or otherwise. Who knew what was going on in her head?—a woman he once thought he knew inside and out, before what had happened. She just left, period. Just took off.

“Faith is all I have,” she told him once in a later note. “But it’s not like it once was—faith I mean. It’s not like it was at all, but it’s all I have to believe in.”

That was the only note he’d ever shown anyone—a friend of theirs who did family therapy. “Is this depression?” he asked her.

She’d shrugged her shoulders, smilingly. “It’s hard to know from a single note, Ray,” she told him. “I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess based simply on something like that.” They’d been at a café. She put down the note, then took her sandwich in her hands, then put it down again. “Maybe you simply need to believe her,” she told him.

“Believe what?” he said.

“That she’s looking for something,” Ann told him.

“And what about me?” is what he should have asked.

§

On Wednesday, a kid named Shawn came to see him, on appointment, wanting to do a story on the photography show. A thick, shadowy beard made him look older than he was, an odd contradiction really because the kid’s round cheeks and ceaseless smile made him seem like a child.

The show, Ray knew, was a warm gesture by good Christian friends to salve his pain. His landscapes were representational, even clichéd, just so many calendar-ready inspirationals; but some friends in the art department offered a space. After all, it would be good for Ray—the man needs a break and people will love his stuff, they said.

He was a rank amateur and he knew it, just one of countless bugs who bought fancy digitals and snapped thousands of shots. How many monkeys would it take to put up something from the darkroom of Ansel Adams? If you take a million pictures, three or four ought to be stunning.

Everybody knew the outline of his story, but nobody knew the guts because nobody else saw the e-mails. He was the only one to read what she said, what she didn’t.

“So what happened?” the student named Shawn asked, spinning his pencil in his hand. “Somewhere along the line you just determined that all you’d ever shoot was landscapes?”

He was from the school paper, he’d said when he’d called Monday morning. They wanted to do a story on the landscapes of the adjunct religion prof. Everybody knew he was two-year terminal and most kids—those who wanted to—knew he was alone. It took little effort to garner loads of sympathy when your wife deserted you. Or pity.

“People don’t think of this region of the country as being particularly beautiful,” the kid said. “I mean, if I could have got into Pepperdine, you know?—maybe I would have. This ain’t Malibu.” He was unfolding his tablet, flipping pages to something empty. “Good at corn and beans maybe, but you go somewhere else for postcards, you know? How come you started doing pictures?”

“Maybe I’m just good at ’em—and you do what you do best, Shawn.” He’d written the name down on the pad beneath his computer, for reference. “Why mess around in another world when you’re invested where you are?”

“That’s understandable,” the kid said, then looked up quickly, this wry smile spreading across his face. “You got something against human beings maybe?” That smile took the edge off what might have seemed an accusation.

“Hey, ‘some of my best friends,’ and all of that, right?” Ray told him. “It’s just that human beings don’t like to be photographed.”

“I read some place—some journalist—who said that no matter where he went in the world, if he had a camera with him—you know, a TV camera?—people opened their doors.” He hunched his shoulders as if the idea were preposterous. “Hovels or caves or cardboard shacks—whatever,” he said, “people just want to be on TV, I guess.”

“That’s not my experience,” Ray said.

“I know what you mean,” Shawn told him. “I can do an interview for half the day and everything’s fine—the minute I pull out the camera,” he kicked his bag lightly as if to warn him, “people wrinkle their noses, you know?”

Salesman, Ray thought. The kid is going into marketing.

“I saw this book once—don’t remember the title anymore either, but it had all these pictures of people lying in coffins, you know? Like at funerals in the Wild West? Can you imagine that?” he said. “People taking pictures of dead loved ones? Ever shoot dead people?” the kid asked him.

The kid was immensely likeable, but far off the subject. “Listen,” he told Shawn, jokingly, “I’ve never once shot a dead man.”

“Fair enough. How about a woman? Answer me that.”

“I need a lawyer,” Ray told him, both hands raised.

“I just wondered, you know—I mean, I saw the show. I walked in last night when Professor Foster was hanging it.” He shook his head as if befuddled. “The whole thing is landscapes. I loved ’em—I really did. People will think they’re gorgeous, I’m sure.” He stuck that pen in his pocket and folded up the tablet he’d used for notes. “I guess I just sort of wondered.”

And then silence.

“Earth and sky and trees?” Ray said. “There’s not much out here, you know, on the plains. Not so easy to get all that beauty in a lens. I mean, you can’t lie with a photograph, can’t fake anything. What you see is what you get.”

“And a little Photoshop,” the kid said.

“Sure, a little Photoshop,” he said. “You interested in photography?”

The kid hunched his shoulders. “I got this journalism scholarship. Something I got to do, you know: interview people. Just to keep the scholarship. I need the bucks.” He held that pen up like a license.

“And your major is?” Ray asked.

“I’m thinking youth ministry,” the kid said, that smile turned down a notch for a minute. “I had this biology prof who said that after the Fall, you know—after the snake and the apple—nature really wasn’t all that much affected—that we were, I mean human beings, but not the ecosystem.”

It seemed like the kind of idea a class could discuss for a session or two.

“So when I’m checking out your show last night, I’m thinking that landscape photography—I mean, I like your work, really, it’s so beautiful, like a little bit of heaven. Maybe that’s what you’re after?” Ray shrugged his shoulders. “But then I got to wondering about people, I guess.” He laughed in a way that attempted to cover some guilt. “I don’t know—just idiot speculation maybe.” He’d picked up the jacket from the shoulders of the chair behind him and pulled it on. “I wondered if maybe you thought human beings weren’t as, well, beautiful as creation?—you know, affected by sin and all of that.” For a moment—for the first time—the smile flattened. “No offense, but in my lit class we’ve been talking about deconstruction, and it gets into you, you know?” And then he stopped.

“Why should I be offended?” Ray asked him.

“I mean, last night when I was in the gallery and Foster was putting up those pictures,” he grabbed that pad by a corner and pointed it at him like an old teacher. “I’m thinking maybe the story is in what’s not there.”

“I’m getting played,” he told the kid. “What are you trying to weasel out of me anyway?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Problem with college is that if you don’t look out all that thinking goes to your head.”

“Deconstruction, huh?’

“What do I know?” the kid said, getting to his feet. “Thanks anyway,” he said.

“Get your story?” asked Ray.

“It’s just a job, you know?” He pointed back behind him. “But that stuff—what you do with a camera—that’s not just a job, is it?”

You’re the one who said it—‘it’s something of heaven,’ don’t you think?”

“Like the elysian fields,” he said. “You ever think of that?—I mean, this world out here where we live—it’s something like the elysian fields. Just smells worse.”

§

There were two, finally, after a thousand tries and a few shots at adoption, all of which ended in tears and frustration, little more than horrifying sadness and bitter regret at having believed that “maybe this is what God wants.” There were two, finally, when the doctor confirmed what all the home pregnancy tests had already said, even though they were far too skeptical to believe them—they could have bought them by the gross. There were two, finally, after thousands of dollars in procedures and a time when they used to say that both of them might just as well move into the hospital or clinic or whatever—they seemed to spend so little time doing anything else, but monitoring and making love in ways that had become silly, so much more science than art. There were two, finally—there they were on ultrasound; and it took all the strength they could gather not to give them names right there in the office. There was not just one—but two. And great rejoicing in heaven, he thought.

There were two finally, and the horror of baby commercials had in a moment become heralds of triumph. There were two, finally, and her tears were wrung from joy, which was new and glorious, an answer to his silent prayers because they’d long before already stopped praying about it aloud. There were two, finally, and for a long time, fearfully, they had to temper their enthusiasm simply because they’d suffered so much heartbreak.

There were two, finally, and neither of them lived.

Six weeks later he found the note on the refrigerator.

§

One of the notes mentioned Dachau. “I met this woman who survived the Holocaust. She told me when the war ended, she knew she had to close the book on that part of her life. She’d lost her fiancé in Dachau. She had to start over. It got me thinking.”

That was all. That was the whole blessed note.

He wanted to scream at her, to throw flames.

That was when he stopped responding, stopped writing, altogether. Refused. She wasn’t reading whatever he’d said anyway, she’d told him. Why should I waste my breath?

So he kept silent, left the ministry, and went west, like Teddy Roosevelt.

§

Tom Sturtevant came into his office Friday, after classes, and said he’d seen the show, the pictures, and one in particular brought back a story, a story he thought maybe Ray ought to know. “The one with the single maple tree up on the hill—looks like a dancer—ballet. You know it?”

It was a story how Sturtevant, a young pastor, got this phone call, first year of his ministry in that little church just outside of Bainbridge, you may have seen it? “Young woman was killed in an accident just north of town here, and the police called me—that was the practice then. Expected that I’d go out there and break the news,” Tom said. “It was behind those hills somewhere—I don’t remember where, but that old dancing maple looked familiar.”

Sturtevant had been young, and it was something he’d never done yet—gone to a place with that kind of bad news, and he’d had all sorts of trouble finding the farm. “The whole place was wild,” he said. “And it was dark, too, and there I was chasing around in those hills.”

“Awful job,” Ray told him.

“It was hell,” he said. “You know—you’ve been in situations like that. I don’t have to tell you what happens to people’s faces when they answer the doorbell, snap on the light, and it’s the preacher at eleven o’clock—or worse—on a weekend. They know.”

And then he stopped, as if he’d stumbled into an obstruction. “I don’t know if you need to hear this.” He reached for his book bag. “Maybe it’s stupid—but the story came back to me when I saw that picture—you know, the one I was telling you about.”

“What happened?” Ray asked him.

“She wasn’t the only one out that night, so they wanted me to stay there until the others came in, the other teenagers.” He looked up at the walls of the office. “You know, you really ought to put something up in here—the place looks like no one’s home.”

“How many others?”

“Two,” he said. “Whatever they knew about birth control they rejected out of hand, I guess—there was a whole string of kids younger. Don’t even remember their names anymore—that’s forty years ago. There I sat in a house I’d never visited before, waiting for kids to come home to tell them their sister was gone.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just remember those hills. It all came back.”

“Three times?” Ray asked him.

“I think so—three times. Not a square corner in the place. On the edge of those hills somewhere, down close to the river. Three times I had to tell the story. Could have flooded the place with tears.” And then he looked up. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this—you don’t need to hear it. It just struck me. When I saw that maple, leaning the way it was, as if the wind was forever blowing, like a woman dancing. I swear it was right around there—that farmhouse. Probably long gone now. They didn’t have a pot to pee in.”

“You ought to try to tell me where sometime,” Ray told him.

Tom swung his bag over his shoulder. “And how you doing anyway? Students driving you nuts? I worry sometimes,” he said.

“About me?”

He let that go for a while, then stepped to the door, as if to leave. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I worry about you.” The bag fell from his shoulder so he pulled it up again. “I can’t say a thing to you that doesn’t have double meaning.” He held up both hands in innocence, as if to swear off evil intent. “I walk in here because I got to tell you this story—it’s your photograph that brought it back. I walk in here and I start to tell you and it all goes sour because I’m worried about how you’re going to take it. Ray,” he said, “you really can’t be you, can you?”

Ray knew what was meant. “I can be me all right, but I can’t be anything else.”

“We keep praying,” Sturtevant said.

“For what?”

“For you,” he said.

“That can’t hurt,” Ray told him. “Where was that place anyway?—that old farmhouse.”

“It’s got to be gone,” Sturtevant told him. But he tried to explain as best he could.

§

It was stingingly cold—on a gravel road beneath a bluff just east of the river, the sun already up far enough to lay long lines out from the fenceposts and the spruce trees that threatened the hills’ otherwise naked lines. It was another Sabbath morning gamble, looking for the place Tom thought flooded out with tears: somewhere north, somewhere west—off a bluff and beneath a huge old maple, broken branches. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he had this strange feeling that if he found it, he’d know it.

He hadn’t been up north this far too often before, so when he spotted an old barn in a crystalline sky, he figured he needed the hike. There was no dancing tree, but something drew him anyway. To get there required a hike because what there was of a driveway had long ago been erased by fence-line-to-fence-line corn or beans, but when he’d left that morning he’d made sure he was ready for the cold—long johns, boots, turtleneck, and fleece because, as Carolyn used to say, you could never have enough fleece.

If he’d known the country well—if he’d been a farm boy—he could have described that barn by type or genre, long and straight, not slumped like some old nag the way many others were along the river roads.

The river had determined its own path some long-ago April or May, when the rush of melting ice and snow had turned tumultuous. Years ago already some hardscrabble farmer tried to make a place for a family, a passel of kids. But the river’s new course had made the place treacherous, parked as it was so close to the water; and, all around, thin grainy soil of bottomland almost sure to dry up by July.

It was a long walk, but what he wanted to shoot were the lines the dutiful morning sun would make through all that aged siding, long lines of sun and shade across whatever was inside. The contrasts would be strong, and it wasn’t a landscape. He remembered the kid’s admonitions—Shawn, his name was.

When he got down there, he shot a couple close-ups of the siding panels, graying wood with old raised grain, its surface almost serpentine with shadows that would soon disappear when dawn cleared into morning. Beneath his cap, his hair was wet with sweat from marching through the edge of ice atop the snow.

The north wall was pretty well gone, so, watching for nails in the mess beneath his feet, he made his way into the place, then looked up and saw her—a body dangling from a rafter. There she was, a dark, suspended bundle against lines between the slats behind her—a dead woman, a suicide, the body up high and out of the reach of whatever animals might otherwise have made her frozen body their own feast in the desperate cold.

Somehow—maybe it was Tom’s story, maybe it was the obsession about Carolyn—but somehow that body being there shocked him less than he might have anticipated; and when he thought about it later, he thought it strange that coming on her so suddenly, seeing this woman hanging there, suspended as she was, hadn’t really upset him more than it did. He’d felt no quickening of the pulse—none of that.

Three bales of hay lay beneath her, the one beneath the other two, tipped on edge, having fallen from the stack when she’d determined to jump.

He reached for his cell.

Her face was hidden away beneath a shock of dark hair that fell at an awkward angle. Somehow he knew, again, as if by instinct, she wasn’t anyone he’d ever met. But she was a human being, he told himself. Once, she was alive.

He flipped open the cell.

There was no house on the place, so she’d walked here?—left a car maybe? He hadn’t seen one. Must have been tramping along this gravel road—but why? Maybe someone let her off, knowing she was going to do what she was. Accomplice to murder?

A bottle lay on its side, just a foot or so away from the broken stack of bales beneath her feet. She’d had something to drink, maybe plenty, some final communion, a final drunk maybe.

Frost lined the folds of the sweatshirt, a gash of pale gray skin left exposed on the right side of her misshapen body. She was heavy and she was dead, perfectly dead. Beside the bales of straw at her feet, there seemed no sign of a struggle. Couldn’t have been a hanging. This wasn’t the Wild West.

There was no way of knowing her age. He flipped the phone shut again and stuck it back in his pocket. Her hair wasn’t silver or gray. She was motionless, a few stripes on her back and sleeves from the morning sun slashing between ancient slats.

That it wasn’t Carolyn wasn’t something he even had to tell himself. Not until the thought came to him did his mind make that kind of jump. It wasn’t his wife, who was blonde, dishwater. It wasn’t her, he told himself again, even though from the moment he’d first seen her he hadn’t really thought it could be. Maybe it was her. She might have dyed her hair. Who was she looking for anyway? Who was he?

It could have been Carolyn, despite her promise two years ago already.

He stood there motionless, as if hammered into time and place. Who she was was not his business. She was a woman, and she was dead, and it was clear that if she had been missed somewhere in the neighborhood, he probably would have heard.

He wondered if maybe not feeling shock was the shock itself—that he was breathing easily, that it seemed clear to him that there was nothing he could do, that this wretched discovery seemed painless, as if his finding this woman was something that happened every other Sunday.

But she wasn’t no one. She was someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter.

He walked closer, then stepped around her. She wore a silver down vest over a red hooded sweatshirt with a graphic that was all but gone. Lot of miles on that shirt, he thought—Salvation Army, Saint Vincent de Paul?

Her face was emaciated, colorless, her skin drawn tight over high cheekbones, bulging eyes, just nothing but murky darkness, mouth open crookedly. What hung there in the stillness bore little resemblance to what she must have been, no fire in her, no breath. She was the end of a story he alone was privy to, even though he knew nothing of what had come before—who she was, why she’d ended it here so wretchedly, on the river, in some old barn even the poor long ago left behind. All he knew—and what he knew—was that something was over here.

Someone could find Carolyn like that and know nothing, just as little. But for someone there would be no more mystery. She was what he’d been looking for—an end.

He looked up at her again, at arms and hands that fell easily at her side, no sign of distress, her body at rest.

He reached out for the edge of her sweatshirt and held it, frosty and hard, in his fingers, then his hands; and when he did the body swung toward him. She was cold and lifeless, but she was something. And for a moment, stepping even closer, he wanted to hold her, not as if to bring life back into her, but simply to have her in his arms because she felt like an answer to prayer he’d never received, a gift.

He shouldn’t touch anything. He knew that. He didn’t take off his gloves, but he picked up the open purse, one of those roomy ones woven from something hemp-like, a long shoulder-strap, then swept a half-empty pack of cigarettes back in, and brought it up to his lap. A pack of gum, a compact, some sales receipts from a grocery store.

He opened the wallet to a face on a driver’s license he didn’t recognize, couldn’t recognize. She wore a stiff smile, and her name was Joleen Meersberger. The address was someplace far south.

What had brought her way up here, walking, was not at all clear. Behind the plastic window that held her license, he found a picture—three kids, Sunday best, against a background of snowy mountains in some cheap department-store studio, dated—ten years ago at least, twenty maybe; you could tell by the haircuts. All three wore stiff, obliged smiles.

He looked back up and stood, holding the picture of the children chest-high as if that way he could see them. It was always about children, he thought. It was always related to kids, the one they’d wanted for so very long.

The place Tom Sturtevant visited, somewhere near here—he had no way of knowing if this had been it—had once been full of prayers, three times at least, three choruses for a child that was gone. Here he sat in the presence of someone whose life had mattered so little that she took it herself in a frantic, drunken leap from a pile of straw bales. What had happened to him that he couldn’t pray, couldn’t cry?

What if it was Carolyn? Would he cry? Would he raise his hands right here and pray—and if he would, what would he say?

He looked up into a misshapen, gray face that was somehow peaceful.

He opened the cell again and called 911, then told the dispatcher that it wasn’t really an emergency. “A suicide,” he told her, “a woman. I’m in an old barn maybe five miles south of Chester, right along the river, east side—gravel road, river road. Place stands all by itself, and my Jeep is parked up on the road.”

She asked if it just happened, this suicide, and he said no, that she’d likely been there for some time, how long he couldn’t tell.

“Someone will be there shortly,” she said.

And that would be the end of things. But he couldn’t leave. She needed a vigil.

He couldn’t pray. It would have seemed pretense. He remembered the disciples, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” But this was different because what did God have to do with this? Where was he when this woman emptied that bottle, whatever it was? Why weren’t there guardian angels in the damn rafters—even a bad rope? Why wasn’t God doing something about Carolyn, about him?

He listened for some kind of vehicle up the gravel.

If he’d get up on a few bales and hold her body against his side with one arm—she wasn’t that big—he could loosen the noose. What could he possibly spoil about the place by doing that, by letting her rest? He simply couldn’t let her hang.

He walked over to a stack of bales where she’d picked out a few herself. He grabbed strings and lugged them back into the center, packed them with the other three, then grabbed a few more until he had a platform tall enough.

Outside, the wind was building, singing a frozen song through the open siding. He looked through the open north end and up the road east. Nothing. No one.

He took a step or two up the bales and reached for her, drew her toward him with his arm, but she was stiff and frozen, no more human than the old mower in the corner. He let her go again. She was a mannequin, heavy and rigid.

He scolded himself for his cowardice, grabbed her body with both arms, pulled her up high enough so the rope slackened, then held her to his side with his right arm and grabbed the rope. He had to get rid of his glove, so he pulled it from his left hand with his teeth and spit it away, then loosened the stranglehold of the stiff rope and slipped it over her head. He put her rigid feet down beside his on the bale and held her in place as he jumped to the floor. Then he leaned her hard body back into his arms and let her down to the barn floor slowly, stood beside her and let her own bodyweight bring her down until she lay in the loose straw.

She looked younger now, with the sunlight over her face—no silver in her hair, no wrinkles. She had more life to live. We all do, he thought.

He remembered Teddy, those apparitions in his grief. This was no apparition, but it wasn’t Carolyn either.

He bent down beside her, lifted her head slowly and brought the hood up and around her dark hair before gently letting her head back down. With his right hand, he pulled strands of hair back out of her face. With both hands, he held her face, his hands outside the hood, and looked at her, this woman he’d never known, and somehow the tears came, because whoever this woman was, that she had to go, that she had to crawl to this damned abandoned barn and climb the steps of straw to a noose she must have fashioned herself, it was beyond him.

There he sat, her head in his hands, thinking she was all he’d ever loved and all he’d come to hate. He rubbed his face with the sleeve of his coat, then pulled out a dry arm to try to soak the wetness. If he was God’s workmanship, as the Bible said, then what on earth was the lord and creator of the universe shaping in him?

He put her back on the straw, got to his feet, and walked out of the barn, circled the north side to the east. The silence all around him was broken only by raucous crows in the cottonwoods at the edge of the river, the cooing of doves on the silo, and somewhere, even in the dead of winter, the quiet sound of a thin trail of running water.

He pulled up a hand to his forehead because the sun was a burning ball of fire, the sky as bright as steel. He turned away to see the grayscale colors of January on the trees over the river still bright with life.

§

There were no pictures that morning, so he had no reason to go to his computer. But he did, clicked on his e-mail, typed in his password and found three ads he never read, a note from a student, and something from Breaking News.

Nothing from Carolyn. Again.

He went to a box he’d created for the eight e-mails she’d sent since leaving. He opened the last, clicked on return, and a box popped opened, the cursor flickering at the top left-hand corner, as if he had something to say.

He wanted to tell her what he’d found, wanted to describe what he’d seen out there in a barn on the river, wanted to tell her that no pilgrim should ever find her that way, so nameless, that what they’d been through was no reason for the story to end, wanted to say so much.

He’d told the coroner that he was sorry for taking her body down, but he just couldn’t let her hang there, nor anyone else. The old man said he understood, while behind him, the noose still hung like something immoveable.

Once, on a hunting trip in the Big Horns, with bull elks sounding their bellowing mating calls, Teddy had confided in a friend, told him everything about his wife’s death. When the man told him that life would go on, TR got fighting mad. “Don’t talk to me about ‘time will make a difference,’” he’d said. “Time will never change me.” The light had gone out of his life.

Two years later, after he’d spent some time in the hills, a place so remote, he once wrote, “that nowhere else does one feel so far off from all mankind.” Two years later he’d run for mayor of New York City.

Ray looked at his hands, his fingers wrinkling with age, white like a preacher’s. Spread them out over the keyboard. Something was working in him, he wanted to tell her, something was shaping him, changing him.

“I’ve moved to the edge of the plains,” he typed in. “There’s joy in all the openness, all the nothingness. There’s something here.” It didn’t matter if she didn’t understand. He had to tell her.

“You might just like it here,” he typed. “There are places I’ll show you where you can see forever.”

That was enough for now, he thought, and initialed the note.

But it wasn’t what was in him. He deleted his initials.

“I’m going to try to come get you,” he typed in the box. “Listen to me, Carolyn—wherever you are. I don’t care where. I’m coming to take you home.”

 


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