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Vol. 5, No. 1

Queen Devil
by Kathy Hepinstall

The Queen Devil has left the building. She took the kids and walked out nearly a month ago, although my brother, Nick, talks as though it just happened yesterday. My legs hang over the side of his bass boat. My bare feet shadow the water beneath them. Nick ties a length of leader to his Carolina rig and says: "You should have seen her the night she left. That damn smirk. And the kids were screaming. They knew." He shakes his head. "I swear I saw big horns on her that night. Must have been the reefer, but Jesus."
    This patter has worn me down, these calls at odd hours of the night, my brother high on something, drunk on something, telling me what a bitch she is, how pretty she used to look on Sundays. "All dressed up for church," Nick says. "The devil takes many forms."
    I can't think about the two of them right now. Of course I'd like her to come back, take up roost again, but all I can think about is Michael. He came to my house an hour late last night and we fought. "We have to be discreet," Michael said. "I can't just run off right after dinner. I've got to wait around awhile."
    "And my feelings don't matter, I guess."
    We had sex later, not tender but rough, the fight unspoken but reached for between breaths.
    The boat bobs. My feet touch the surface of the lake, a tea sweetened by the bloodbait of bank fishermen.
    "We were the perfect couple," says Nick. "Everyone said so. And then she up and frigging left me."
    I want Michael's wife to up and leave him. Better yet, I want him to up and leave her. Nick finds no comrade in me on the subject of leaving.
    The lake is so calm that Nick's not even using his trolling motor to keep the boat's position. He finishes tying his elaborate knot, cuts off the trailing fireline with his pocketknife, and asks how things are going with Doctor Perfect.
    I've kept Michael's marital status to myself. Nick looks down on adultery, along with the IRS, dachshunds, AA meetings, liberals, and fishermen who cast onto the spawning beds. "Everything's great," I say. My stomach hurts. I look up. Bluebird sky, curse of the angler.
    "How could everything be great? He's a doctor. All doctors are assholes. Like people who own red Gamblers, especially the ones with the gold-trim package." Nick finishes another beer, crushes the empty can, and throws it into the backwash. He stands up and makes a quick cast into a weed bed. "Get me another one, will you?"
    I hesitate and he says: "Come on, Jill, it's Coors Light. That's the closest thing to water you can find."
    I reflect upon this statement briefly, imagining a lake full of Coors Light, catfish bumping into sunken boats, herons staggering through the shallows. Nick is busy with his rod and reel, so I put the can of beer by his feet, strip down to my swimsuit, and ease over the side of the boat so as not to disturb his balance. He glances at me between casts, his eyes uneasy. Twenty-four years ago he fell off the dock at Lake Shasta and sank like a stone. Our father went in after him and pulled him out. I stood over the two of them, watching my father press on Nick's chest until water ran out of his mouth and onto the dock. Years later, little boys stepped on that very same spot on the dock where the water dried.
    "Jill! Chrissakes. Get back in the boat."
    "I know how to swim." He makes another cast. "If you come back in, I'll tell you my theory about why a man shouldn't marry a woman who has never seen The Outlaw Josey Wales. In fact, I'll even-"
    When I look back his rod is bent double. "Got a good one! Yeah, you bastard!" Sweat runs down his face as he struggles to keep the rod tip up. I can hear his breathing, an urgent whoosh pouring through the gills of pure win-or-lose. I tread water and watch the battle. The line breaks. The way the rod tip snaps back makes me think of Michael, and of loss. I think of last night, his perspiration running over my chest and down my arms. I was still damp with it when he left.
    To the mistress goes the sweat. And to the wife, holier things. Tears, coffee, the water used to brush one's teeth.
    "Damn it to frigging hell," says Nick.
    My toes point straight down to the bottom of the lake, where an old cemetery rested before the river authority built the dam. The ground beneath me was dry, once, and covered with tombstones. People entered the gates weeping. They knelt down and moved their hands over the new fresh mounds. They planted alyssum, perhaps, or pansies.

~

My bedroom faces the north side of the lake. The little cottage I rent sits right on the shore, so that the beams from passing boats shoot across my front lawn, illuminating the ornamental grass in the garden. Michael lies on the other side of the mattress, so far away that I must reach for him, sliding my hand across the cool fitted sheet. He seems as one with the bed, happy with himself. My touch seems to annoy him, scatters the hummingbirds of his own company.
    I'm the one who wants too much.
    I move over to him anyway, kiss him, then move my mouth down to his chest, his stomach. Down lower his scent reminds me vaguely of a live well full of caught bass, that pungent aroma of wild things forced to be still. After a few minutes he sighs deeply. The bedposts stop thumping against the wall. Rhythm abandons the cottage, shimmies out into the lake and moves a bobber, somewhere.
    After he leaves, the phone rings. Nick's words repeat themselves. I want to say something to him about it, but I'm afraid of sounding like his mother or his wife.
    "I'm telling you, Jill, she's been doing her bangs funny. They stick straight up and make kind of a horn." He's trying not to sound angry, trying to be funny. "What if she impales my children in the middle of the night?"
    "Go to bed, Nick. You've got to work in the morning."
    "And what a career it is. Linda's always wanted someone with a higher social standing than the poor Utz Chips man you're talking to. I'm telling you, Jill"-his pause is filled with two gulps, a sigh, and the sound of aluminum buckling in on itself-"a white woman will never be happy with a noble savage type." Nick divides all humanity, male or female, into white people and Indians. In Nick's mind his wife is pale and merciless, Winchester rifle in one hand and a torch in the other. Shoot, burn, abandon.
    "I have to go to bed."
    "You understand me, Jill. You're not like Linda. You're an Indian."
    "Nick, I'm English, Irish, Scandinavian, and a little French. Like you."
    "Don't forget the one/one hundred and twenty-eighth Cherokee." He goes on to tell me about the bass that broke his heart that day. Snapped an eight-pound test line three feet from the boat . . .
    "I was there. Remember? I went swimming?"
    A long pause. "My soon-to-be-ex-wife likes to swim. Now she's got that horn to cut the water with."
    I'm thinking of Michael again.

~

As children, Nick and I would sneak out of the house at night and follow the pressure-treated cedar fences into the yards of our neighbors, climbing the stiles, careful not to wake the dogs. Sometimes we picked ripe tomatoes off the vines of jerry-rigged gardens, the kind middle-class people have growing by their swing sets, and hurled them at the houses of neighbors we didn't like. I called him Tatanka. He called me Dancing Horse. The tomatoes hit the tan brick siding. Bursts of red in the moonlight, the closest we could get to blood sacrifice.
    Later, our night stalkings became ritualized. We crept close to a house, knelt into monkey grass or button weed or periwinkle, and looked through the lighted windows. Nick had a gift. He could look at the everyday gestures of people and see some larger force at work. The way a person straightened a pillow on the couch or held a glass up to the light or salted a piece of chicken somehow told Nick everything he needed to know. He would stare for a moment at a family sitting around the television. Then Tatanka would speak. "The man in there loves both kids the same. But the mother loves the girl more than the boy. She feels guilty. And this is terrible, Jill, but I don't think that little boy's gonna live too long. Something bad is going to happen to him. I wish I could tell her to pay more attention to that boy."
    Nick never made much of this miracle, nor did I. It was something handed down to him, savage God to white boy. One night Nick looked through a window and said: "See that man in there? One time he watched his son try to dive off the high board at the pool. The boy wanted to dive in so bad because he wanted his father to think he was a man, but he couldn't. He was afraid of drowning." Nick shook his head. "His father has never been proud of him, and he never will be."
    I said nothing because we were kneeling in our own grass, facing the back of our own house, looking at our own parents as they sat reading in the living room. My brother had been that boy, his toes so close to the edge of the board.

~

When Nick's wife told him she was leaving him, he called me up and was not my brother, suddenly. He said, "Remember, I'm a hunter. Remember, I have a closet full of guns."
    He was asleep on the couch when I walked through the door. I found my sister-in-law standing on the porch, a dozen citronella candles on the railing, lit out of pure nervousness. Behind her, I saw the remains of an illegal bonfire from Nick's last party.
    "Where are the kids?" I asked.
    She answered: "At Cindy's," naming someone who didn't matter, an every-woman's-friend who waits to take charge of practical matters in a sudden drama. Linda lit a cigarette and I stared in the direction of the squirrel feeder, unsure of what to say. Throughout history, sisters and wives of untamed men have been forced into these conversations.
    "Get him out of here," she said.
    "OK."
    "He's gone crazy."
    "He loves you."
    She took a deep puff on her cigarette and the sound made me turn to look at her. She exhaled the smoke and ground out the cigarette on the porch rail as if scorching the very thought of Nick's love. I imagined him as a boy of twelve kneeling out in the grass, tongue still burning from Red Hots candies, watching her.

~

Michael hasn't called lately. I imagine him at the hospital, making his rounds. Speaking into his Dictaphone back in his office, next to the desk lamp. I drive by and look up into his window, at his face.
    Mornings before work, I walk down to the edge of the lake, wading in until the water comes up to my chin. I begin to swim. This is the lake that contains Nick's bass and his lost Rattletraps, his spat-out Skoal and his pissed-out beer, and if I swim out a little farther, toward the old river channel, I will once more travel over the remains of disregarded graves. The water seems darker there. Colder.
    Some of the fish in this lake will be caught before the sun goes down. They will strike at a wacky worm or a spinner bait or a Texas-rigged crawfish. They will be pulled through the water, against the currents, helpless against the set of the hook.
    I'm growing tired. My arms and legs move slowly. My brother would worry to see me swim this far. This is Nick at his best, protecting me.

~

One night I pick up the phone, sure that it's Michael. It's my brother. His voice sounds so young, so sweet, that it takes a few minutes to realize that Nick is drunk. His laughter rings through me and I want to take it in, feel the ripples of it, feel the currents and tea-colored warmth of it, but accepting the laughter feels wrong, and so does speaking out against it. Scolding is for white men. Look at how they scolded the Indians, step by step, pushing them back in a single chastened line all the way to the western coast.
    He goes on for a while, the usual patter. Then his voice grows tight. "She filed papers on me, Jill! The bitch can't even make out a decent grocery list, but she can file papers!"
    "I'm sorry."
    "I know what you're thinking, Jill. It's not my partying and not my drinking. I'm just not good enough for her. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer or some frigging asshole that buys her big cars. She looks at me and doesn't see a man."
    "You are a man, Nick," I say. Unlike Michael.
    "She won't get away with this." His voices startles me.
    "Nick?"
    "All I mean," he says, the sweet tone back, "is that she'll miss old Nick some day."

~

Later, a call comes from Michael. I try to keep my voice even. He says he's sorry, he misses me, so many patients, God he's so tired, God he just wants to come over and lie between my sheets.
    The bedsprings creak. He moves up a little and his head hits the wall. He laughs a tiny painful laugh. Outside, down the sloping bank, across the lake and near the dam, a little boy drowned last week. He fell off a boat while his father was trying his luck with a slow-moving crankbait. Nick told me he won't fish near the dam anymore. It hurts him too much to think of that boy.
    When the sex is finished, Michael asks-in his doctor's voice-how Nick is doing.
    I say fine.
    "It sounds like he's falling apart."
    "It's hard when you love someone, and they don't love you."
    He must hear the tone in my voice because he says, "You know I love you."
    In the dark, I pull away from him, sliding off the bed, leaving the house through the back door. I walk barefoot down to the water's edge and wade out between the cattails. I swim so far that Michael will never find me. I could live among the bright fish, fearing simple things: the talons of osprey, hooks borne by false salamanders, chemicals from pig farms sliding waterway by waterway into the lake.
    When I return he is gone. I lie down on the bed and soak the sheets with the lake water running off my body. Tiny invisible dead and living things. An ecosystem roiled by unexpected loss. He has not left a note. I realize that he has never left a note.

~

Nick's bonfires start up again. "Might as well have some fun," he says, "while the devil's busy coming to her senses." His friends laugh. He opens a beer. The women in the neighborhood hate him, the way he steals their husbands, returns them wild, their horseshoes pried off. The men around the fire barely draw breath as my brother holds court.
    "Women hate fire," Nick says. "Why? Because a fire can't be controlled. Sure, you can put less logs on, more logs on, but the fire's got a mind of its own. If women had their way, men would have no beer and no fire. Women like things dark and sober."
    The maidenhair fern around his house has been dead for months. His fishing box is a knot of tangled things. Cotton Cordell Red Fins, skirted jigs, pink finesse lures, some old fishing line wrapped around the secretive smile of a Bagley's DB 3.
    A rusted pocketknife. An emery board and a child's pink comb.
    My baby, he says. My sweet girl.
    Nick calls me over one night. I find him slumped on the couch, his eyes the bright color of fish blood. I smell something strange and find the smoke alarm melted on the stove.
    "What happened?"
    "Damn thing kept beeping, so I fried it."
    "What if there's a fire, Nick?"
    "Hey." He gestures wearily. "There's two of those beepy things upstairs. Smoke rises." He wipes his red eyes. "I saw Linda at the day care center today. She had on pink nail polish and some bigass earrings and a frigging ankle bracelet. And she's got these weird sideburns now. Jesus, she looked possessed." He falls asleep in a few minutes. I cover him with a blanket and watch him, worried and yet envying him in a way. His pain is real to people, all the neighbors and everyone on the loading docks of the stores he services. And yet, let a man mistreat his mistress and that crime is lost to history.
    Nick groans slightly in his sleep. I lean down to him and whisper, "Ta-tan-ka," drawing out his name.

~

I see Nick's wife for the first time in three months. She's in the Food Lion, eyeing a rack of Utz Chips. Nick hasn't been servicing the stores. Bags are stuffed helter-skelter on the shelves; they litter the floor at Linda's feet.
    "Hey, Linda." My words sound high and strange. I am Nick in a woman's form, uncertain, wounded, full of pride.
    She looks at me a long moment and then smiles. "How are you?"
    "Fine. And you?"
    She narrows her eyes, and I can read her thoughts. Should she speak to me woman to woman, or enemy to enemy? "I'm fine," she says flatly. "I miss the house. The apartment's too small." She waits a moment. "How is your brother?"
    "Great, great." (Nick has given me urgent instructions on what to say if his wife asks about him.) "He's being a lot more responsible. He went to his accountant and got all of his finances straight and he paid his taxes."
    She looks at me a long moment. "And the drinking?"
    "Much better."
    "Jill . . ." she says. She takes a step forward as if to confide in me, accidentally stepping on a bag of Utz Chips. The bag explodes with a loud boom. Chips shoot out across the floor.

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