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.
"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 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.
"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.
"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?"
"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.
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?"
"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?"
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?"
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.