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Vol. 5, No. 1

Queen Devil
by Kathy Hepinstall

Michael pours merlot into my glass. The waiter has just left the table and now Michael ducks his head and says: "I'm starting to think, for the first time, that Betsy and I just aren't meant to be together."
    "What does that mean?"
    "Just what I said."
    "Are you leaving your wife?"
    Michael looks around the restaurant. "Don't say 'your wife.' We're in a public place. Say 'Betsy.' And stop thinking so much about yourself. I'm trying to figure out my own life here."
    "Aren't I a part of it?"
    "Keep your voice low."

~

Nick asks me to go to court with him on the day of his divorce. He has dressed carefully, in the manner of someone who never gives up hope, right to the very end, and the sight of his favorite blue tie and a white starched shirt makes me want to cry, imagining him without an ironing board, pressing the collar of that shirt against the kitchen table.
    Nick wipes his eyes several times during the proceedings and doesn't look at Linda as he tells the judge: "I was married before God. On my wedding day I made God a promise-that I would love this woman every day of my life. And I have so loved her. I do not want this divorce. She does. Your honor, I do not recognize your authority. I remain a married man. Do what you will. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever." The judge looks at Linda and, although I doubt he's caught the reference to the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez PercÈ, a flicker of anger seems to cross his face. After all, the judge is a man, and men have been drinking with Nick for months now, clapping him on the back, paying his bills, and saying you shoulda dumped that bitch ten years ago.
    Outside the courtroom, Nick leans against his truck, pressing his hand against his stomach as though wounded there. He draws in his breath. "God," he says with difficulty, "demands a certain stoicism from us all."

~

Michael hasn't called. I drive to the hospital and park on the street, kill the headlights, and look straight up into Michael's office. The curtains are open, his desk lamp glows. I see him hold up something to his mouth-probably his Dictaphone. I wait for an hour, watching him. And yet I can't see him. The light goes off in his office. Ten minutes later his car pulls out of the parking garage and goes the opposite direction down the street.
    I sit in the car another hour, just thinking. Temperature of early summer, nothing needed, neither the heater nor the air conditioner.
    I drive to Nick's house, sure of my mission but dreading it.
    Nick is sitting in his office, surrounded by his stuffed bass and his tournament plaques and all his empty beer cans, crushed in the middle. He flips through a copy of Fisherman's World without looking up at me. "Funny thing, Jill," he says. "You don't use the right test line, you jerk the rod when you should be holding it still, you let some stupid bass get under the boat, you don't keep the rod tip up, you use the wrong color of worm, or you let your sweat get on it, you make one stupid little mistake and you lose, you lose."
    "Are you talking about Linda?"
    "Screw that horned devil."
    I take a step and a beer can attaches itself to my heel. Nick looks terrible. Unshaven, gaunt.
    He stares out the passenger window as I drive.
    "Where are you taking me?"
    "You'll see."
    "We need to stop," he says. Meaning beer.
    I want to say to him you need to stop all right, but instead I say: "We can stop on the way back."
    Nick leans against the headrest and closes his eyes. "My wife is probably out with someone else."
    "Don't think about it."
    "I don't care. I only married her for breeding purposes anyway. She had nice wide hips and clear skin. I knew we'd have pretty children."
    "You do have pretty children."
    He slaps the dashboard. "We were happy, Jill! That's the damnedest part of it! Everyone we knew said we were the happiest couple ever! You know what I think happened? She started looking at all her friends' houses and cars and thought, 'I could marry some asshole doctor and have that myself.' And I can't offer her that. You know what I can offer her? Chips. Barbecue and Ranch."
    I pass through the quiet streets. Families inside the houses. Late-night talk shows. Sleeping children.
    "For ten years, I did not leave that house without telling her I loved her. I did not go to sleep without saying it. I did not make love to her without saying it."
    I find the neighborhood and turn down a street.
    "I've lost my family. She took them. She took everything from me. I think I'm gonna lose the house. I can't afford it with the child support she wants."
    "I can help you."
    "Jill, you're a frigging English teacher."
    We park under the shade of a maple tree. Nick asks no more questions. The two of us-brother and sister-creep through backyards, climb over fences, avoid pools and dogs.
    Lurking in the dark is a children's game. Adults have no business here. Fence rows are boundaries, and those that look for truth and hurl tomatoes will be sued in a court of law.
    We climb over more fences, not so nimble as when we were children, and yet we do it. We do not fall.
    No dogs announce us when we reach the house. A clear stream runs through the back yard, lined with tiny holly bushes. The stream trickles into a pond edged in stones. I have counted the houses carefully and know this is the one. I've glided past it many nights.
    The two of us find a patch of grass and sit down cross-legged. We watch the house for a while. Through the French doors that lead to the living room we can see a man and a woman sitting on the couch together, watching television. I thought the sight of the woman would pain me more than it does. Instead she fascinates me. I can see the way her hair flips at the ends.
    I turn to my brother. "So . . . ?"
    He's watching the house, his face very still. "You really want to know?"
    "Yes."
    He licks his lips and stares at them another moment. Finally, he speaks. "Married too long. Man is restless. Thinks a lot of himself. Probably got a couple of kids, upstairs. He's the kind that wanted a boy and then, two years later, a girl. Making everything nice and neat. Probably got two girls instead. Somehow he blames this on his wife. But mostly he's just tired of her. He pictures himself as this great sufferer, just staying in a loveless marriage when he's a doctor and he can have any woman he wants. The truth is, he's forgotten how to love. His children don't really have a dad. Their mother always says, 'Daddy is working late. Daddy is saving lives.'"
    I hesitate for a moment and then ask: "Will he leave his wife?"
    "No." Nick's voice is gentle. "Never. Just because it's all set up. He's happy being a miserable bored bastard. At night he can go out to his backyard in his bedroom slippers and stare at his pond and imagine himself as a real sad man. That's his pleasure, really." Nick looks at me and continues, very quietly. "The man has a woman on the side. She is so beautiful, and so rare. She can have anyone she wants, but she doesn't think so. Doesn't see how much better she can do. She looks the other way when things turn bad. She can't let go."
    Inside the house, Michael gets up and stretches. His wife points the remote at the television. The channel changes.
    "Thank you, Nick." My voice breaks.
    "Want me to beat him up?"
    "If you're sure you can win."
    "He looks kind of old, but I dunno. That crazy Frito-Lay man kicked my ass last summer, and he was sixty-four."
    We are still sitting there together when all the lights go off in the house. Nick says he has to take a piss.
    I say, "Use the white man's pond."

~

I stand knee-deep in lake water, my back to Michael.
    "Look at me," says Michael.
    I turn around. The sight of him standing there at the edge of the lake means nothing to me.
    "I've been calling and calling," he says. "Is this some kind of game?"
    "Go away."
    He says something else, but I don't hear. I wade out farther into the lake and begin to swim, water so cool against my face, my feet kicking hard, kicking until the froth drowns out every last bit of him. I join the fish and the minnows and the dead wakes of ghostly boats. I am free, nothing left but the currents and the truth. Michael is gone now, gone to join Nick's horned devil in some tea-colored cove where ex-lovers lurk, all their movements now untraceable. I swim, farther out than I've ever swum before, the water so flat and inviting. My feet kick. Seventy feet below me, the water turns dark. Catfish nudge forgotten stones.

~

When I get back to the cottage the message light is blinking. Michael. Just a few days ago, that red light would have filled me with hope. Now I don't really care what he has to say. I towel off before pressing the button.
    "Jill! Jill! Pick up the phone! I just told the queen devil they were foreclosing on the house! The only thing I have left of my family! And you know what that stupid bitch told me? She says she's coming over to give me her fucking wedding ring back! She says I should sell it! This means war, Jill. This means war!"

~

Linda's little red Honda sits at the edge of the curve and I reflect, briefly, on the tendency of ex-wives not to park in the driveway. The front door is unlocked and opens without a single creak. My brother is sitting down on the living room floor, his back against the wall. He holds the gun straight up between his knees. I say nothing. He slides his fingers slowly down the barrel. I say nothing. If I look out the window I can see the backyard and the moon.
    If I look over by the couch I can see her feet.
    Important things need to be said and done. Sirens and flashbulbs will appear soon, and like the shiny parts on a lure they will attract the eye of a hungry public. But my arms and legs feel so heavy and my eyes won't travel to her feet again, black sandals and an ankle bracelet that shines in the light of a swag lamp.
    My brother's mouth hangs open a little. His chest rises and falls. He blinks.
    I kneel down next to him, closing my hand around the barrel and finding it a perfect temperature, neither cold nor hot. "Let go," I tell him.
    Outside in the backyard, a girl and a boy sit under the moonlight, watching us through the window. The boy's breath has the scent of Red Hots. The girl's hair is braided like a squaw's.
    "What's wrong, Tatanka?" she asks her brother.
    The boy stares straight ahead.
    "What?" she asks.

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