by the grave, staring at the shovel marks in the hump of dark earth
where the two Polish gravediggers had tried to smash it flat. In the
freshly packed soil were pebbles, sparkling bits of quartz, and broken
blades of grass.
not snowing yet, but a wind smelling of snow was roaring in the pines
around the small cemetery. Nick took his hands out of his overcoat pockets,
letting them hang at his sides, and felt the wind rush through the fingers.
handed her daughter, Amelia, the packed lunchbox and kissed her high
on the flushed cheeks, then on the pale forehead under the fine fair
roots of Amelia’s hair. Delighted by the sensation, she kissed her daughter
again, and Amelia cried, Mommy! She let her daughter go, and watched
her dash out the door into sunlight so bright that she dissolved for
an instant as she stepped into it.
the door, went to the sink, and stood watching through the open kitchen
window as Amelia rushed across the lawn to the waiting school bus and
clambered up into it. The door shut with the squeak of rubber and the
bus roared off, the driver waving at Carmen, who smiled and waved back.
on the edge of his mother’s bed. A sheet of plastic covered it. He stared
at a glass of water on the bedside table, next to the alarm clock. He
shut his eyes and let his shoulders sag. Wind was raging against the
sides of the house.
I’m so tired. Why don’t you all just let me die?
her skull’s face—the cracked, yellow, papery skin stretched closely
over the sharp angles of bone—just before she died, and how at the instant
her breath left her, the already stick-thin body seemed to shrink in
on itself. After a few seconds, the crisp-uniformed nurse had let go
of his mother’s other hand and, going to the EKG monitor, had shut it
it, she said.
went on gripping the hand, its fingers interlaced with his.
the nurse insisted.
at the nurse’s face. She had smooth dark eyebrows and hazel eyes. Her
lips were plump. Her skin was almost unblemished and had the flush of
youth high on the cheeks. There was a mole on her neck under the ear.
Her hair was tucked smoothly under her cap. She was young, calm, and
had decades ahead of her to live.
opened the door to Trooper Johansen and to Sergeant McGuire standing
out of the glare in the shadow of the overhanging roof. She knew Sergeant
McGuire because he had spoken to the parents not too long before at
a neighborhood watch meeting. Sergeant McGuire introduced Trooper Johanson,
who stood tall and straight. He had blue eyes with lines radiating from
the corners and thin fair hair. He had taken off his hat and was holding
it against his chest. Carmen looked into Sergeant McGuire’s eyes, which
were also blue, blue.
them into the kitchen. Trooper Johansen stood holding his hat against
his chest. Sergeant McGuire pulled out a chair for her and asked her
to sit, then he pulled out a chair and sat, leaning forward with his
elbows on his knees, his face heavy and grim.
your daughter, he said. Amelia.
stared at the blue hat in Trooper Johansen’s hands and then the fingers
holding it. His fingers were long and delicate. Her vision suddenly
dissolved, and she let her head fall and the tears flowed down her nose
and began dropping onto the thighs of her jeans. She didn’t move when
Sergeant McGuire took her hand by the fingers and gripped it briefly,
as if to say: Courage.
out on the plastic sheet, his cheek pressed to it, and shut his eyes.
He saw his mother’s face. She was old and her cheeks were hollow, but
her eyes were still startlingly blue. She was looking at him with an
intensity that caused him to sit up straight, breathing hard from panic.
that she had been about to ask him, Why did you let me die?
barefoot into the kitchen, picked up the empty kettle from the gas range,
and filled it with cold water from the tap. He set the kettle on the
range and turned on a flame under it.
for the water to boil, he found himself staring at a sheet of paper
with a typed poem on it, held to the refrigerator door at the corners
by flowered magnets. He scanned the first few lines mechanically, remembering
the rest in a rush that seemed to go right through his body: I have
been one acquainted with the night: I have walked out in rain—and back
in rain; I have outwalked the furthest city light . . .
the poem he had had to memorize in order to give before a high school
assembly. It was in terza rima, the stanza popularized by Dante in the
Divine Comedy, but it was by an American poet named Robert Frost.
For a moment,
Nick was again standing on the stage, the American and State flags spread
out to either side of the podium, declaiming Robert Frost’s poem. He
forced himself to speak slowly, to enunciate each word with a slight
pause at the end of the lines. His gaze was fixed on the dusty darkness
of the rafters. He didn’t look at his classmates or teachers, seated
on folding chairs on the parquet floor of the gym. He didn’t hear the
coughs, the squeak of chair legs. He felt that all of him—blood, breath,
spirit—was rushing into the verses. His voice rose until it sounded,
even to him, full and clear, vibrant as a bell:
looked down the saddest city lane.
passed by the watchman on his beat
my eyes, unwilling to explain.
stood still and stopped the sound of feet
away an interrupted cry
houses from another street,
to call me back or say goodbye;
still at an unearthly height
clock against the sky
the time was neither wrong nor right.
been one acquainted with the night.
fifteen years ago. Nick reflected, with a horrified pang, that his mother
must have read Frost’s verses many more times than he ever would.
the cabinet beside the refrigerator and took down a bottle, examining
the label closely: V.S.O.P. cognac. His mother didn’t drink much but
she always kept some liquor around for visitors who did drink. That’s
what she had always called her guests: my visitors. He poured some of
the cognac into a water glass and drank it one burning swallow.
instant the kettle began whistling shrilly.
off the flame and stood over the kettle with the empty glass in one
hand. Slowly, burbling a little, the water in the kettle went still
and the jet of steam thinned and disappeared. Nick picked up the cognac
bottle with his free hand and walked into the living room. He sank into
an armchair, poured more cognac into the glass, and swallowed it, throwing
his head back.
Johansen saying, Yes, m’am. I found her.
thinking: How much younger is he than I am I wonder? Ten years?
Johansen (after a prolonged stillness), saying, Do you want to know
any of this, ma’am. I mean the particulars?
laughing, choked by the rush of tears. Sergeant McGuire’s strong grip
on her fingers. She bending forward, almost losing her balance and Sergeant
McGuire putting an arm around her waist to hold her back from slipping
to the floor.
No, no, I don’t want to hear anything.
control of herself.
in his mother’s car. There were dead leaves clinging to the windshield.
She had not driven it in some time. He was drunk. He wondered if he
had the energy to turn the key to start the engine. He did, finally.
He backed carefully out of the driveway and drove through light and
shade. He was really OK, he thought. There was nothing wrong with him
a little time wouldn’t fix.
into town and stopped the car by the river. There was a railroad track,
actually a few rusted tracks curving away from each other. He got out
and walked slowly, feeling the wind penetrate his overcoat, to the windowless
storefront: RANDY’S TAVERN.
the dimness shook with blasts of music from the jukebox. He shrugged
off his overcoat, folding it, and placed it on a stool at the long curving
bar, then sat on a stool next to it. When the bartender came over, he
asked for a cognac.
looked at him for a moment, then turned and searched the top shelf,
and finally took down a bottle and showed it to Nick.
brandy. Four stars, Nick said. Great. That’s the stuff.
to the bartender, slurring his words. Hey, are you Randy? If you’re
not Randy, then why, why—I mean—why is this place called Randy’s Tavern?
bartender saying, Pal, I think you’ve had enough.
and saying, You’re right. I have.
by the river with his overcoat swinging open, tears streaming down his
cheeks and stinging the places he’d shaved that morning, thinking, How
does it go? And then shouting into the wind: I have been one acquainted
with the night . . .
whirling around him. Snow sinking into the river.
into a flashlight beam.
stand on your own?
spreading his arms wide, his chin on his chest, and holding his arms
apart like the Crucified Christ. A warm hand on his arm gripping and
helping him to his feet.
from his overcoat. Snow on his shoulders like epaulets. In his hair.
against the shape, which holds him upright.
you. Christ. How long you been out here?
bent over on a kitchen chair, shuddering, as the caretaker filled a
kettle with water and put it on the gas flame of the stove. He clutched
the edges of the wool blanket the caretaker had draped over him with
his red fingers. He looked up to see the worn, stained legs of the caretaker’s
trousers as the man stood before him, then felt a hand on his shoulder,
and the caretaker’s rough voice said:
lucky, friend. You would have died if I hadn’t—
and tears poured from his eyes and nose.
four cups of tea, he stopped shivering. The caretaker sat across the
table from him, watching him as he drank. He didn’t look into the man’s
eyes. He drank down the last sip of tea in his cup, placed it on the
saucer, and stood.
OK to drive?
walked with him through the dark cemetery to his mother’s car. Nick
got out the scraper and scraped snow from the front windshield as the
caretaker, using the sleeve of his jacket, wiped off the back window.
in the car, turned the ignition key, and switched on the heat. The caretaker
was standing there. He motioned for him to get in. The older man came
around the back of the car to the passenger side door. Nick opened it
and he got in and shut the door, taking off his gloves and holding his
hands to the dashboard for warmth.
little while, the caretaker said, Well, your engine’s warmed up. I’ll
best be going.
out his hand. The man shook it hard.
very welcome, son, said the caretaker.
his eyes tear up.
got out and stood there for a moment, leaning down, snow and cold air
blowing past him into the car, staring into Nick’s eyes.
slow, he said.
shut the door. Nick sat in the car watching his dark shape go up the
hill among the gravestones to the low, lighted cottage.
door, the man turned and waved. Nick pressed the horn once, twice, then
waited a few seconds and pressed it again. Then he turned the car and
around the dark streets of the town, looking at the closed up shops.
He drove slowly past the First Savings and Trust—a large, granite building
with dark windows. He drove past the Congregational Church, the spire
lost in the falling snow. His headlights picked out snow-covered cars
and leaning telephone poles.
through the town and out of it. He didn’t know where he wanted to go.
He was startled to see, on a rusted iron bridge, a woman standing near
the rail. He slowed the car as he passed her. She didn’t look up. She
was looking down at the rushing water of the river. He didn’t think
the river was deep enough to drown in, but the bridge was high enough
for her to be killed if she swung herself over the guard railing.
the car and got out and walked slowly toward her, holding his palms
in her fair hair. She was wearing thin leather gloves, and a long overcoat.
Her face was tear-streaked. She was older than him.
sobbed, half laughed.
you think I was getting ready to jump?
Can I help?
know. Can you? she said.
I can try.
at the rushing surface of the river. He followed her gaze with his own.
There were little mounds of snow on the dark water—boulders, he realized.
he said. Get in my car. You can warm up. I’ll drive you wherever you
want to go.
not some kind of psycho, are you? she asked. Then she laughed. Actually,
never mind. If you are, that’s OK by me.
of talk is that?
know. Crazy talk, I guess.
back through the town. She was looking out the window.
have you lived here? he asked her.
in her hair had melted so that strands of it were stuck to the sides
of her face, and there were drops of water running down her cheeks.
She didn’t move to wipe them away, so when she didn’t answer his question,
Nick said, There’s a box of tissues in there, pointing to the glove
compartment. She clacked it open, took out the tissues, and held the
box on her lap as she wiped her cheeks, chin, jaw, and forehead. She
balled up the tissues and stuck them into one of the wide pockets of
said. Years. I grew up here. My husband grew up here.
husband still here?
have any kids?
did. I had a daughter.
at her. She was staring out the window at the First Savings and Trust.
the car in the middle of the street. They sat there watching snow swirl
against the windshield. He turned on the wipers, and they skreeked back
and forth a few times before he shut them off.
so sorry, he said, his voice cracking as it went high.
last summer his mother had called him at work to talk about a horrible
thing that had happened in town. A little girl—the eight year old daughter
of a local widow named Carmen Doucet—had been abducted from outside
her school as she was waiting for the bus, by a man who had taken her
out to a highway rest stop and raped and then beaten her to death with
a rock and left her body lying there almost in plain view of the passing
traffic. She was discovered within the hour.
mother had been in a state of shock, and had burst into tears as they
talked, and he had stayed on the phone with her for nearly an hour before
she calmed down and stopped asking her son wonderingly over and over
again: Who would do something like this?
he had watched the story on the national news, and the next day had
read more details in the paper.
police had captured the man that night at a motel. He had tried to get
out through a narrow window in the bathroom and had cut himself to pieces
on broken glass, but he was still alive.
to his mother again that night.
understand it, she said, her voice thin and querulous. I just don’t
understand the world.
later, Nick saw a photograph in the newspaper of the bereaved mother—wearing
sunglasses—and thought: Well, she’s attractive, and was immediately
angry at himself for thinking about the woman’s looks.
sake, he told himself. She’s in a state of shock.
was put on trial, and there were some more news stories, but Nick didn’t
know how it had ended until he asked his mother one day, What ever happened
to that guy who—and she answered, flatly, He hung himself. In his cell.
Or maybe some of the other prisoners did it.
at the woman, whose name he knew to be Carmen Doucet, and she looked
at him and laughed in that cracked way she had. He wondered, with a
brief thrill, if she’d gone crazy.
he said. Were you going to—
still, his shoulders hunched, waiting for her to answer. She pursed
her lips, staring past him, and finally said, I wish I had it in me
to do that. No. I was thinking about it, but I wasn’t about to do
anything. Will you drive me home now?
on the street outside her house. There were some pine trees in the yard,
their branches bent almost flat with snow. The porch light was on, but
there were no lights on inside the house.
in the car as he told Carmen Doucet why he had come back to town, and
then, laughing, told her what had happened so far that night. He began
to cry as he laughed. She didn’t try to comfort him, but sat still as
he sobbed and hit his palms repeatedly on the steering wheel. Finally,
with a few shudders and a long exhalation, he stopped crying, and she
placed the box of tissues on his lap.
was done wiping off his cheeks, she touched his elbow and said, simply,
out of his car and he followed her up the walk and stood a few feet
behind as she opened the door with her key. Without turning to him,
she stepped inside, disappearing into darkness.
for a light within to come on, but none did. His heart was banging in
his chest; his mouth had gone dry with sudden, deep panic. He peered
into the dark doorway. He couldn’t see Carmen Doucet, but he sensed
that she was standing just over the threshold, smiling at him. Or was
he only imagining this, because it was what he wanted most right now?
for her to ask him again to come inside, but agonizing moments passed:
hear Carmen Doucet’s breathing. Or was that his own?
the feeling as of stepping off a high ledge—he pushed himself forward,
headlong, into the darkness.