At six a.m. he strode back and forth in the road. Across the ditch and the big front yard, he could see the lights in the kitchen. He sidled over to the next window. The candle burned on the dining room table. That’s when he knew. She always lit the candle when sentiment swept over her, a sentiment that led to the giving of herself. Led to surrendering herself to a man. Once to him.
He slunk closer – he couldn’t see her face. He was sure it was her.
Skulking there in her road, in disguise, must have been a plan, but he didn’t know who had made it. What was he doing there? He wore the new coat and also a hat he hadn’t worn for years. The muffler circled his throat dull and black, anyone’s scarf. Even the breath, someone’s breath, swirled out gray and ghostly, exiting the scene up into the dark, wreathing him in a disguise. He should walk down to the end of the road and back; he should maintain the disguise with lying steps. Just a guy out for a walk.
The houses were far back, and small. They deserved their isolation, set on big lots out here on the edge of town. Back, back to her house, as if he was reeled in by a string that she held. His steps stumbling a little in the unevenness of the grass, he caught a glimpse of her through the sheers, at the table. There in front of the candle, she was writing, writing. On paper as white as the curtains. In front of the candle that should have been lit for him. He was paralyzed peering into the room, beside himself with anguish. He could see his breath, as gray as the winding sheet around a corpse. He rubbed his frozen painful face, his shoulders hunched in the sharpness of winter. He was dead cold, but his blood hammered, his pulse jumped. He felt his eyes starting out of his skull, his head beginning to explode.
The breakup hadn’t happened here, not at this house – the meltdown had ripped through his place and shredded its way out his door. His life stopped when she had slammed that door.
She had come into his home office, laid a hand on his shoulder, said his name. He turned. She was so beautiful, perfect really. Tall and graceful like a sapling in the wind. Her face so fair, her nose a snub, her mouth an unhappy shape. She took two steps back, leaned away. She flipped her blonde hair; she always made that gesture before she spoke. “I can’t take it any more. I’ve thought hard about it, and I can’t do this. Not since last night.”
“Last night? I told you, it’ll never happen again.”
She shook her head. A bright bomb of light as her hair created a whirlpool around her skull. “I have to break this off – it’s no good for either of us.”
What could she mean? “You mean you’re not going to move in like I planned? Okay, I understand. Too fast. You can keep your place.”
She crossed her arms, kept backing up until she reached the door jamb. “I don’t want us to be together. In fact, I don’t want to ever see you again.”
He glanced down at his hands in his lap. They were clenching and unclenching. “No. It’s not going to be that way.”
“My girlfriend’s picking me up now. My bag’s by the door.”
What had he said then? He couldn’t remember. He followed her through the house, seized her arm. There was screaming, maybe his. Her eyes were like a wild animal’s, open so wide, so blue. She jerked herself out of his hand. Ran through the door to the car. She left the suitcase.
He could remember – putting his head on the door, leaning against it with the wood molding pressing into his forehead. He smashed his hand into the sheetrock beside the door, cutting it, breaking two knuckles and the little finger.
He hadn’t been able to use the keyboard for a week.
Now he watched her finish the letter, as he touched the frame of the window. He watched her hands in the candlelight, her arms, so beautifully brown like caramel.
It was a letter that should have been written to him. He could see her fold it in thirds, saw it as it slipped into its paper reliquary. She had written a letter, in that delicate, scratchy hand of hers, bowing down her face to the paper that lay before the candle, a candle that should have been lit for him. He watched as she stamped it – she looked up the address from her book, not a known address like the one she had so often written three years ago. Not his address.
Soon she would make another cup of tea, from the limp teabag she had already used and he would watch again through the kitchen window. She would eat a small carton of fat free yogurt, a piece of toast. She would come out to the small silver car in the dark; she would stop at the mailbox and place the letter there. It would lie in wait for the postman, an intermediary of focus, of infatuation, of love. A letter that should have been his.
The spruce branches were scratching at him, moving in the cold wind. His eyes knew her intimately, the black hair, the smooth brown skin, the eyes so dark. Why had she changed her hair color? His eyes fondled their way over her long muffler, the short jacket, the jeans slightly too tight where she carried extra pounds he loved. The door of the car slammed, cutting off his adoration. She drove away. He emerged from behind the blue spruce. The chill seized him now – his teeth chattered. How could she drive away? Involuntary twitches raced through his shoulders. He clenched all the muscles in his body to stop the trembling. In the watery predawn, in the sad winter, the letter called to him. The tomb shaped opening of the mailbox gaped black in front of him, the letter lay white and waiting, the space small and intimate. The envelope leapt across the space as his fingers approached it, at least he felt it did, offering itself into his hands. He slapped the door shut, dropped the flag. He glanced up and down the road, guilty, secretive, caught in his own act.
On the envelope she had inscribed a name, the name. He had the name now. But what had she said? Did she use the same words, the same motif, the same song she had once used for him, in the beginning three years ago? He marched to his SUV, the letter held firm inside the coat against his chest. He dropped it on the console by his phone and he traveled home. The envelope lay there in the corner of his vision, waiting. At his breakfast bar, he shoved aside unread papers, a stack of mail, a coffee cup that dropped to the floor and – unnoticed – broke. The letter, white against the red tile, named his rival. He knew now to hate a man named Jeremy. He scribbled down the address on a cover of a magazine about wine. Fishing a six-inch deboning knife out of the wooden block, he teased the letter open.
Words crawled like ants in front of him – she was in love. He trod on the broken cup, kicked pieces aside. Something awful should happen to Jeremy.
An old woman lived on the corner up from her house – Neighbor One. She had an overactive fox terrier that she wasn’t walking. He offered, she accepted, deal struck, but he was no better for it. He would take the little beast out twice a day, up and down the block, past the mailbox, past the table and the candle. After dark and without a dog, he could return to wait for Jeremy. How long would it be, days, a week before her arms opened in welcome for Jeremy?
He sidled up to her mailbox, opened it and rummaged it while the terrier sniffed at the post. Piss flowed across the frozen ground and around his shoe. A note from Jeremy, blue envelope, magic tape on the flap. Down the road they went, the dog darting to the right and left as he strolled, all slow and innocent. As the terrier rushed up to the leash end, he delivered satisfying little pops that jerked the animal, the oblivious dog straining at the lead. When he reached the next box, he opened it also. Why not? They had committed the odious crime of being her neighbors. He found a statement from the bank and an envelope from a mortgage company –they dropped into the copious pocket of his pea jacket. At the next residence he purloined advertising supplements that he deposited further down on the other side in the fourth neighbor’s mailbox. Neighbor Seven provided two personal letters and a catalogue in a brown paper wrapper. He slipped it halfway out – a catalogue for male latex clothing. He gave it to Neighbor Eight’s mailbox, down at the dead end of the street.
He found it a pity the road had so few houses, he so enjoyed the series of senseless petty acts. Maybe he would write them, tell them what she had done to him. A love letter in every box. He returned up to the corner, dumped the dog on the grateful old woman. She bent crooning to the short-haired little rat – he came close to kicking both of them. In the SUV, he filed his new mail in the console, cruising home, smug – now he would put a voice on Jeremy, having his letter, having his secret words, having his balls.
At the breakfast bar, he discovered Jeremy’s letter to be – horrible. He didn’t want to read it, to cut at himself with their happiness, but he had to know. Jeremy’s words scrolled out fawning and snobbish, both self-denigrating and boastful. Worst of all, Jeremy was all charm.
“Oh my darling, we’ve come so far together in so little time. You are eating me up, becoming my very core. I can’t think about anything but us. Why, its not even safe for me to drive – I can’t even see the road as I go, just how you look as you look at me. I’m worthless at work, and I just wait. I just wait until I can see you again.”
It came clear now she had to have Jeremy, and Jeremy had chosen to have her. Jeremy would keep her. He might even consider her a long-term investment. Marriage, like getting a dividend check.
He opened the cupboard over the sink and fished down the bottle of vodka. The refrigerator gave up a carton of orange juice. He found a pack of magic markers in a drawer. He took the yellow one and, reading back through the letter, marked over her name. Yellow everywhere she existed.
The first vodka had disappeared – he made another. Now he seized the red marker and defaced each mention or insinuation of intimacy, of the whisper of two pale bodies tangled in a dark room. A third vodka and the black marker. He obliterated every I and My and Mine in the letter. With the brown he blotted out every promise and blue every compliment. Slapping the letter onto his cutting board, he pinned it to the wood with the boning knife.
Collapsing onto the stool, his forearms on the countertop, the glass corralled by the circle of his muscle and bone, he reached out and fiddled with the bank statement, the mortgage letter, the two personal letters. Why had he taken them? Meanness? Distraction?
He slit open the first. The bank statement was bleak, and the mortgage letter threatened, demanded the two missed payments. Maybe this couple was so poor he could pay them to kill Jeremy and have no bothersome questions, no shocked moral superiority. But to have Jeremy dead where he couldn’t see it, feel it happen – no. Suffering welled up out of his hollowness – self-pitying tears sprang into his eyes. They dried salt on his face.
He followed with the personal letters. One was from a mother to a son. The letter had some anguish, not like his agony, but some. The Son was not to worry: his father would soon come around. No one could be angry forever. The money would soon be back and everything would be all right. In the meantime, Mother enclosed a check from her own account.
This would have been irritating if his heart had not been so broken – he wasn’t going to destroy the check. Now he had to repair the envelope and return it to the mailbox. He teased open the second letter, just in case. Father had written it, in parade ground cadences. It directed the boy not to call, not to write, in fact, to never come home again. The Son was cut off, and if he didn’t like it, maybe his prissy little boyfriend would support him.
Jeremy’s arrival still hung waiting like storm clouds. Delay made the desperation mount. A couple of nights she didn’t return home before his late rounds, but each morning he caught sight of her in the kitchen, still living alone. A snowstorm blew in and blew out – he left his tracks up and down the road, with a tracery of dog prints that laced through his in an arabesque of deceit.
The letters from the mortgage company turned more demanding. He witnessed a fight between the Son and the Prissy Boyfriend. The Boyfriend left and Son closed all the house blinds, stopped going out, seldom checked the mailbox. He understood the Son’s need to hide shame and despair away. Darkness.
He felt too obvious in the road, even with the frequent changes in coats and hats. He needed another excuse, another alias. He picked up advertising fliers at the supermarket and, carrying a shopping bag, trudged up and down the road stuffing them into the mailboxes as he stole the mail, or returned it. He pawed through everyone’s stuff, but only Two, Four, and Seven held any interest. The rest were a sea of dullness, unredeemed and mind-numbing. But not Neighbor Two – Two was hopeless, like him. After several notices, Two lost the nice car, not their junker. By chance he was loitering two houses away at a mailbox when two men drove up: one unlocked Two’s car and stole it.
Neighbor Four trudged out to the mailbox to ask him not to stuff in the fliers. He already knew that her medical insurance had lapsed. Her son shuffled along by her side. Down’s Syndrome. As they approached, he gazed down into the round face, the jowls, the limpid brown eyes behind bloodhound eyelids. If he had Down’s like the child – now, Down’s would be rough, but he wouldn’t be lost in dreams of killing Jeremy.
Neighbor Seven, the Son, covered in a blanket, huddled in a chair in his living room and drank. Now the drapes were never drawn: the Son didn’t care who knew. Maybe he should loan the Son the small revolver he had at home. Suicide wasn’t so bad, if quick. But maybe murder was better. Maybe murder would make that upwelling of feeling, the anguish that he wasn’t good enough for her – maybe killing would make that stop. For a moment.
He hated German cars. Parked out front in her drive, glimmering under the porch light, it spread its silver wings, flashed its Teutonic badge, waited for some sexy commercial to make. Jeremy.
He rang the bell, and after a moment the door pulled open. Jeremy was big: big shoulders, big nose, big hair. Jeremy gave him a hundred watt smile and said, “Can I help you?”
“Is she here? I need to talk to her.” His hands were in his pockets, his right caressing the handle.
Jeremy was all charm. “No, I’m afraid that she’s not available right now. Do you want to leave a message? Maybe I can help you?”
The knife was deep down in the pocket of his khakis. He could feel the point worming its way through the corner, pricking him in the leg. “I need to talk to her. Alone.”
Now Jeremy didn’t look so pleasant. Concerned maybe. “And you are?”
Why wasn’t Jeremy afraid? He should be afraid. “I’m the boyfriend.” The knife started to dance in his pocket. It was jabbing his thigh, wanting out.
Jeremy’s eyebrows crawled up his face, nearly to the perfect hair. “Really?”
“I think you mean ex-boyfriend.” Jeremy’s eyes went all squinty.
He took a step forward, his foot on the doorsill. “She’ll talk to me. She still loves me.”
Jeremy put his hands both on the door and the jamb, building a wall across the opening. He was huge. “Listen, I don’t know who you are, but I do know the guy she dated before me was Asian. I’m going to close the door now.”
He inched his foot forward. “Ask me in.”
Jeremy shook his head, frowning. “Get your foot out of the door, before I break it. I’m calling the police.”
He said, “Don’t do this.” He knew his voice was too loud.
Jeremy swung the door towards the jamb, shoving on his foot. “It’s best if you go away and never come back. And I don’t know what’s wrong with your leg, but you’re bleeding all over your pants.”
He dropped his head to see. Red soaked the thigh in a hand-sized patch. He rocked back, staring at his leg. Jeremy closed the door, without haste. The deadbolt snicked, loud, final. The porch light turned off.
He faced up to it. She didn’t live in her house anymore. Sure, she visited the house now and then to check on it and pick up the mail, but she lived elsewhere. With Jeremy. No sacred missives went out from her, no carnal notes arrived from Jeremy. He was as tormented by the loss of their cloying intimacy as he was relieved to avoid every flirting phrase. He had lost Jeremy’s address – why had he been so careless? He could be there, where they were. Waiting outside.
Neighbor Two received a threat from the Public Utility – power would soon be turned off. Neighbor Four’s son had sinus infections – she was visibly upset. She tramped out to talk to him for no reason, and mentioned he could start leaving the advertisements in her box again. Neighbor Seven, the Son, wrecked his car while drunk. The old woman with the terrier told him the boy wore a tracker on his ankle and couldn’t leave his yard.
It came apart in only a week. On Tuesday the Son killed himself with pills, lying naked and alone in a bathtub. He was floating in stone cold water when they found him on Wednesday, but the anklet still worked. On Thursday the boy with Down’s, angry over something, pushed his mother down the steps, breaking her wrist. On Saturday the bankrupt neighbors left in a rickety minivan, abandoning the house and all its things to the financial wolves.
On Monday a realtor stuck the sign in her lawn, struggling to get it into the frozen ground. The house was for sale.
He couldn’t even remember her face. But he could remember how she had made him feel. How all of it had felt. He could remember how it was to be loved. It wouldn’t quit rocketing around in his mind.
He tugged the boning knife out of the cutting board and made the first cut, an experiment, across his bicep. It hurt like hell and seeped a little blood, a drop running down into his elbow. Then he sliced the outside of his forearm, into skin she had once caressed. The two inch long incision sprang out in bright red song.
Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his sixth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumberyard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery. He has launched three books. Jupiter and Gilgamesh, a Novel of Sumeria and Texas in 2014, The Big Wheel in 2015, and a rising tide of people swept away in March 2016.