Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
5886 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010


Jack Driscoll

There’s a ladder that leans against the back of the house, a sort of stairway to the roof where Marley-Anne and I sometimes sit after another donnybrook. You know the kind, that whump of words that leaves you dumbstruck and hurt and in the silent nightlong aftermath startled almost dead. Things that should never be spoken to a spouse you’re crazy in love with—no matter what.

Yeah, that’s us, Mr. and Mrs. Reilly Jack. It’s not that the air is thin or pure up here, not in mid-August with all that heat locked in the shingles. It’s just that we can’t be inside after we’ve clarified in no uncertain terms the often fragile arrangement of our marriage. And right there’s the irony, given that we fill up on each other morning, noon, and night—excepting during these glitches, of course, when we reassert our separateness, and all the more since we’ve started breaking into houses.

B&E artists, as Marley-Anne calls us, and that’s fine with me, though never before in our history had we made off with somebody’s horse. Tonight, though, a large mammal is grazing ten feet below us in our small, fenced-in backyard. This kind of incident quick-voids a lease, and we signed ours ten months ago with a sweet-deal option to buy. A simple three-bedroom starter ranch with a carport, situated on an irregular quarter acre where in the light of day we present ourselves as your ordinary small-town underachievers. And that pretty much identifies the demographic hereabouts: white, blue-collar, Pet Planet employed. I’d feed their C-grade canned to my rescue mutt any day of the week if I could only sweet-talk Marley-Anne into someday getting one.

I drive a forklift, which may or may not be a lifelong job but, if so, I’m fine with that future, my ambitions being somewhat less than insistent. Marley-Anne, on the other hand, is a woman of magnum potential, tall and funny and smart as the dickens, and I buy her things so as not to leave her wanting. Last week, a blue moonstone commemorating our ten-year anniversary, paid for up front in full by yours truly.

Anything her maverick heart desires, and I’ll gladly work as much swing-shift or graveyard overtime as need be, though what excites Marley-Anne...well, let me put it this way: there’s a river nearby and a bunch of fancy waterfront homes back in there, and those are the ones we stake out and prowl.

The first time was not by design. The declining late winter afternoon was almost gone, and Marley-Anne riding shotgun said, “Stop.” She said, “Back up,” and when I did she pointed at a Real Estate One sign advertising an open house, all angles and stone chimneys and windows that reflected the gray sky. “That’s tomorrow,” I said. “Sunday,” and without another word she was outside, breaking trail up the unshoveled walkway, the snow lighter but still falling, and her ponytail swaying from side to side.

She’s like that, impulsive and unpredictable, and I swear I looked away—a couple of seconds max—and next thing I know she’s holding a key between her index finger and thumb, and waving for me to come on, hurry up, Reilly Jack. Hurry up, like she’d been authorized to provide me a private showing of this mansion listed at a million-two or -three—easy—and for sure not targeting the likes of us. I left the pickup running, heater on full blast, and when I reached Marley-Anne I said, “Where’d you find that?” Meaning the key, and she pointed to the fancy brass lock, and I said, “Whoever forgot it there is coming back. Count on it.”

“We’ll be long gone by then. A spot inspection and besides I have to pee,” she said, her knees squeezed together. “You might as well come in out of the cold, don’t you think?”

“Here’s fine,” I said. “This is as far as I go, Marley-Anne. No kidding, so how about you just pee and flush and let’s get the fuck off Dream Street, okay?”

What’s clear to me is that my mind’s always at its worst in the waiting. Always, no matter what, and a full elapsing ten minutes is a long while to imagine your wife alone in somebody else’s domicile. I didn’t knock or ring the doorbell. I stepped inside and walked through the maze of more empty living space than I had ever seen or imagined. Rooms entirely absent of furniture and mirrors, and the walls and ceilings so white I squinted, the edges of my vision blurring like I was searching for someone lost in a storm or squall.

“Marley-Anne,” I said, her name echoing down hallways and up staircases and around the crazy asymmetries of custom-built corners jutting out everywhere like a labyrinth. Then more firmly asserted until I was shouting, hands cupped around my mouth, “Marley-Anne, Marley-Anne, answer me. Please. It’s me, Reilly Jack.”

I found her in the farthest far reaches of the second floor, staring out a window at the sweep of snow across the river. She was shivering, and I picked up her jacket and scarf off the floor. “What are you doing?” I asked, and all she said back was, “Wow. Is that something or what?” and I thought, Oh fuck. I thought, Here we go, sweet Jesus, wondering how long this time before she’d plummet again.

We’re more careful now, and whenever we suit up it’s all in black, though on nights like this with the sky so bright, we should always detour to the dump with a six-pack of cold ones and watch for the bears that never arrive. Maybe listen to Mickey Gilley or Johnny Cash and make out like when we first started dating back in high school, me a senior and Marley-Anne a junior, and each minute spent together defining everything I ever wanted in my life. Against the long-term odds we stuck. We’re twenty-nine and twenty-eight, respectively, proving that young love isn’t all about dick and daydreams and growing up unrenowned and lonesome. Just last month, in the adrenalin rush of being alone in some strangers’ lavish master bedroom, we found ourselves going at it in full layout on their vibrating king-size. Satin sheets the color of new aluminum and a mirror on the ceiling, and I swear to God we left panting and breathless. You talk about making a score...that was it, our greatest sex ever. In and out like pros, and the empty bed still gyrating like a seizure.

Mostly we don’t loot anything. We do it—ask Marley-Anne—for the sudden rush and flutter. Sure, the occasional bottle of sweet port to celebrate, and once—just the one time—I cribbed a padded-shoulder, double-breasted seersucker suit exactly my size. But I ended up wearing instead the deep shame of my action, so the second time we broke in there I hung the suit back up where I’d originally swiped it, like it was freshly back from the dry cleaners and hanging again in that huge walk-in closet. We’re talking smack-dab on the same naked white plastic hanger.

Now and again Marley-Anne will cop a hardcover book if the title sounds intriguing. The Lives of the Saints, that’s one that I remember held her full attention from beginning to end. Unlike me she’s an avid reader; her degree of retention you would not believe. She literally burns through books, speed-reading sometimes two per night, so why not cut down on the cost? As she points out, these are filthy-rich people completely unaware of our immanence, and what’s it to them anyway, these gobble-jobs with all their New World bucks?

I’d rather not, I sometimes tell her, that’s all. It just feels wrong.

Then I throw in the towel because the bottom line is whatever makes her happy. But grand theft? Jesus H., that sure never crossed my mind, not once in all the break-ins. (I’d say twenty by now, in case anyone’s counting.) I’m the lightweight half in the mix, more an accessory along for the ride, though of my own free will I grant you, and without heavy pressure anymore, and so no less guilty. No gloves, either, and if anyone has ever dusted for fingerprints they’ve no doubt found ours everywhere.

Foolhardy, I know, and in a show of hands at this late juncture I’d still vote for probing our imaginations in more conventional, stay-at-home married ways. Like curling up together on the couch for Tigers baseball or possibly resuming that conversation about someday having kids. She says two would be satisfactory. I’d say that’d be great. I’d be riding high on numbers like that. But all I have to do is observe how Marley-Anne licks the salt rim of a margarita glass, and I comprehend all over again her arrested maternal development and why I’ve continued against my better judgment to follow her anywhere, body and soul, pregnant or not.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get pissed, but I do so infrequently and always in proportion to the moment or event that just might get us nailed or possibly even gut-shot. And how could I ever—a husband whose idealized version of the perfect wife is the woman he married and adores—live with that? I figure a successful crime life is all about minimizing the risks so nobody puts a price on your head or even looks at you crosswise. That’s it in simple English, though try explaining “simple” to a mind with transmitters and beta waves like Marley-Anne’s.

Not that she planned on heisting someone’s goddamn paint, because forward-thinking she’ll never be, and accusations to that effect only serve to aggravate an already tenuous situation. All I’m saying is that a bridle was hanging on the paddock post, and next thing I knew she was cantering bareback out the fucking gate and down the driveway like Hiawatha minus the headband and beaded moccasins. Those are the facts. Clop-clop-clack on the blacktop, and in no way is the heightened romance inherent in that image lost on me.

But within seconds she was no more than a vague outline and then altogether out of sight, and me just standing there, shifting from foot to foot, and the constellations strangely spaced and tilted in the dark immensity of so much sky. Good Christ, I thought. Get back here, Marley-Anne, before you get all turned around, which maybe she already had. Or maybe she got thrown or had simply panicked and ditched the horse and stuck to our standing strategy to always rendezvous at the pickup if anything ever fouled.

But she wasn’t at the truck when I got back to it. I slow-drove the roads and two-tracks between the fields where the arms of oil wells pumped and wheezed, and where I stopped and climbed into the truck bed and called and called out to her. Nothing. No sign of her at all, at least not until after I’d been home for almost two hours, half-crazed and within minutes of calling 9-1-1.

And suddenly there she was, her hair blue-black and shiny as a raven’s under that evanescent early-morning halo of the street lamp as she rode up to 127 Athens, the gold-plated numerals canted vertically just right of the mail slot. Two hours I’d been waiting, dead nuts out of my gourd with worry. I mean I could hardly even breathe, and all she says is, “Whoa,” and smiles over at me like, Hey, where’s the Instamatic, Reilly Jack? The house was pitch dark behind me, but not the sky afloat with millions of shimmering stars. I could see the sweating brown and white rump of the pinto go flat slick as Marley-Anne slid straight off backward and then tied the reins to the porch railing as if it were a hitching post. The mount just stood there swishing its long noisy tail back and forth, its neck outstretched on its oversized head and its oval eyes staring at me full on. And that thick corkscrew tangle of white mane, as if it had been in braids, and nostrils flared big and pink like two identical side-by-side conch shells.

I’d downed a couple of beers and didn’t get up from the swing when she came and straddled my lap. Facing me she smelled like welcome to Dodge City in time warp. Oats and hay and horse sweat, a real turnoff and, as usual, zero awareness of what she’d done. Nonetheless, I lifted Marley-Anne’s loose hair off her face so I could kiss her cheek in the waning moonlight, that gesture first and foremost to herald her safe arrival home no matter what else I was feeling, which was complex and considerable. Her black jeans on my thighs were not merely damp but soaking wet, and the slow burn I felt up and down my spinal cord was electric.

But that’s a moot point if there’s a horse matter to broker, and there was, of course: Marley-Anne’s fantasy of actually keeping it. Don’t ask me where, because that’s not how she thinks—never in a real-world context, never ever in black and white. She’s all neurons and impulse. Factor in our ritual fast-snap and zipper disrobing of each other during or shortly after a successful caper, and you begin to understand my quandary. She does not cope well with incongruity, most particularly when I’m holding her wrists like I do sometimes, forcing her to concentrate and listen to me up close face-to-face as I attempt to argue reason.

Which is why I’d retreated to the roof, and when she followed maybe a half hour later, a glass of lemonade in hand, I said, “Please, just listen okay? Don’t flip out, just concentrate on what I’m saying and talk to me for a minute.” Then I paused and said, “I’m dead serious, this is bad, Marley-Anne, you have no comprehension how bad but maybe it’s solvable if we keep our heads.” As in, Knock-knock, is anybody fucking home?

She’d heard it all before, a version at least, and fired back just above a whisper, “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

“No,” I said, “you can’t, and that’s the point. You don’t get it. We’re in big trouble this time. Serious deep shit and our only ticket out—are you even listening to me?—is to get this horse back to the fucking Ponderosa, and you just might want to stop and think about that.”

She said nothing, and the raised vein on my left temple started throbbing as Paint thudded his first engorged turd onto the lawn, which I’d only yesterday mowed and fertilized, and then on hands and knees spread dark red lava stones under the azaleas and around the bougainvillea. All the while, Marley-Anne had stood hypnotized at the kitchen window, re-constellating what she sometimes refers to as this down-in-the-heels place where the two of us exist together on a next-to-nothing collateral line.

It’s not the Pierce-Arrow of homes, I agree. Hollow-core doors and a bath and a half, but we’re not yet even thirty, and for better or worse most days seem substantial enough and a vast improvement over my growing up in a six-kid household without our dad, who gambled and drank and abandoned us when I was five. I was the youngest, the son named after him, and trust me when I say that Marley-Anne’s story—like mine—is pages and pages removed from a fully stocked in-home library and a polished black baby grand, and to tell it otherwise is pure unadulterated fiction. “Maybe in the next lifetime,” I said once, and she reminded me how just two weeks prior we’d made love on top of a Steinway in a mansion off Riverview, murder on the knees and shoulder blades but the performance virtuoso. And Marley-Anne seventh-heaven euphoric in hyper-flight back to where we’d hidden the pickup behind a dense red thicket of sumac.

Nothing in measured doses for Marley-Anne, whose penchant for drama is nearly cosmic. Because she’s restless her mind goes zooming, then dead-ends double whammy with her job and the sameness of the days. Done in by week’s end—that’s why we do what we do, operating on the basis that there is no wresting from her the impulsive whirl of human desire and the possibility to dazzle time. Take that away, she’s already in thermonuclear meltdown—and believe me, the aftereffects aren’t pretty.

She works for Addiction Treatment Services as a nine-to-five receptionist filing forms and changing the stylus on the polygraph. Lazy-ass drunks and dopers, jerk-jobs, and diehard scammers—you know the kind—looking to lighten their sentences, and compared to them Marley-Anne in my book can do no wrong. Her code is to outlive the day terrors hellbent on killing her with boredom, and because I’ve so far come up with no other way to rescue her spirit I stand guard while she jimmies back doors and ground-level windows. Or sometimes I’ll boost her barefoot from my shoulders onto a second-floor deck where the sliders are rarely locked. In a minute or two she comes downstairs and deactivates the state-of-the-art security system, inviting me in through the front door as though she lives there and residing in such splendor is her right God-given.

“Good evening,” she’ll say. “Welcome. What desserts do you suppose await us on this night, Reilly Jack?”—as if each unimagined delight has a cherry on top and is all ours for the eating. Then she’ll motion me across the threshold and into the dark foyer where we’ll stand locking elbows or holding hands like kids until our eyes adjust.

At first I felt grubby and little else, and that next hit was always the place where I didn’t want to fall victim to her latest, greatest, heat-seeking version of our happiness. I didn’t get it, and I told her so in mid-May after we’d tripped an alarm and the manicured estate grounds lit up like a ballpark or prison yard. I’d never taken flight through such lush bottomland underbrush before, crawling for long stretches, me breathing hard but Marley-Anne merely breath-taken by the kick of it all, and the two of us muddy and salty with perspiration there in the river mist. No fear or doubts or any remorse, no second thoughts on her part for what we’d gotten ourselves into. It’s like we were out-waltzing Matilda on the riverbank, and screw you, there’s this legal trespass law called riparian rights, and we’re well within ours—the attitude that nothing can touch brazen enough, and without another word she was bolt upright and laughing in full retreat. And what I saw there in front of me in each graceful stride was the likelihood of our marriage coming apart right before my eyes.

“That’s it,” I said to her on the drive home. “No more. Getting fixed like this and unable to stop, we’re no better than those addicts, no different at all, and I don’t care if it is why Eve ate the goddamn apple, Marley-Anne”—an explanation she’d foisted on me one time, to which I’d simply replied, “Baloney to that. I don’t care. We’ll launch some bottle rockets out the rear window of the pickup if that’s what it takes.” I meant it, too, as if I could bring the Dead Sea of the sky alive with particles of fiery light that would also get us busted, but at worst on a charge of reckless endangerment, which in these parts we’d survive just fine and possibly be immortalized by in story at the local bars.

“We’re going to end up twelve-stepping our way out of rehab,” I said. “Plus fines and court costs. It’s just a matter of time until somebody closes the distance.” All she said back was, “Lower case, Reilly Jack. Entirely lower case.”

She’s tried everything over the years, from Valium to yoga, but gave up each thing for the relish of what it robbed from her. Not to her face, but in caps to my own way of thinking, I’d call our prowling CRAZY.

So far we’d been blessed with dumb luck the likes of which I wouldn’t have believed and couldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t been kneeling next to Marley-Anne in the green aquatic light of a certain living room, our noses a literal inch away from a recessed wall tank of angelfish. Great big ones, or maybe it was just the way they were magnified, some of them yellow-striped around the gills, and the two of us mesmerized by the hum of the filter as if we were suspended underwater and none the wiser to the woman watching us—for how long I haven’t the foggiest. But in my mind I sometimes hear that first note eerie and helium-high, though I could barely make out, beyond the banister, who was descending that curved staircase. Not until she’d come ghostlike all the way down and floated toward us, a pistol pointed into her mouth.

Jesus, I thought, shuddering, oh merciful Christ no, but when she squeezed the trigger and wheezed deeply it was only an inhaler, her other hand holding a bathrobe closed at the throat.

“Sylvia?” she said. “Is that you?” and Marley-Anne, without pause or panic, stood up slowly and assented to being whoever this white-haired woman wanted her to be. “Yes,” she said. “Uh-huh, it’s me,” as if she’d just flown in from Bangor or Moscow or somewhere else so distant it might take a few days to get readjusted. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” Marley-Anne said, soft-sounding and genuinely apologetic. “I’m sorry.” As cool and calm as cobalt while I’m squeezing handful by handful the humid air until my palms dripped rivulets onto the shiny, lacquered hardwood floor. The woman had to be ninety, no kidding, and had she wept in fear of us or even appeared startled I swear to God the lasting effects would have voided forever my enabling anymore the convolution of such madness.

“There’s leftover eggplant parmesan in the fridge—you can heat that up,” the woman said. “And beets. Oh, yes, there’s beets there too,” as if suddenly placing something that had gotten lost somewhere, not unlike Marley-Anne and me, whoever I was standing now beside her all part and parcel of the collective amnesia.

“And you are...who again?” the woman asked, and wheezed a second time, and when I shrugged as if I hadn’t under these circumstances the slightest clue, she slowly nodded. “I understand,” she said. “Really, I do,” and she took another step closer and peered at me even harder, as if the proper angle of concentration might supply some vaguest recollection of this mute and disoriented young man attired in burglar black and suddenly present before her.

“Heaven-sent then?” she said, as if perhaps I was some angel, and then she pointed up at a skylight I hadn’t noticed. No moon in sight, but the stars—I swear— aglitter like the flecks of mica I used to find and hold up to the sun when I was a kid, maybe six or seven. I remembered then how my mom sometimes cried my dad’s name at night outside by the road for all her children’s sakes, and for how certain people we love go missing, and how their eventual return is anything but certain. I remembered lying awake on the top bunk, waiting and waiting for that unmistakable sound of the spring hinge snapping and the screen door slapping shut. I never really knew whether to stay put or go to her. And I remembered this, too: how on the full moon, like clockwork, the midnight light through the window transformed that tiny bedroom into a diorama.

“Emphysema,” the woman said. “And to think I never smoked. Not one day in my entire life.”

“No, that’s true,” Marley-Anne said, “you never did. And look at you, all the more radiant because of it.”

“But not getting any younger,” the woman said, and wheezed again, her voice flutelike this time, her eyes suddenly adrift and staring at nothing. “And Lou, how can that be so soon? Gone ten years, isn’t it ten years tomorrow? Oh, it seems like yesterday, just yesterday...” but she couldn’t quite recollect even that far, and Marley-Anne smiled and palm-cupped the woman’s left elbow and escorted her back upstairs to bed. Recalling the run-down two-story of my boyhood, I noticed how not a single stair in this house moaned or creaked underfoot.

Standing all alone in the present tense with that school of blank-eyed fish staring out at me, I whispered, “Un-fucking-believable.” That’s all I could think. As absurd as it sounds, these were the interludes and images Marley-Anne coveted, and in the stolen beauty of certain moments I had to admit that I did, too.

That’s what frightens me now more than anything, even more than somebody’s giant, high-ticket pinto in our illegal possession. But first things first, and because Marley-Anne’s one quarter Cheyenne she’s naturally gifted, or so she claimed when I asked her where she learned to bridle a horse and ride bareback like that. In profile silhouette, hugging her knees here next to me on the roof, she shows off the slight rise in her nose and those high-chiseled cheekbones. She’s long-limbed and lean and goes one-fifteen fully clothed, and I’ve already calculated that the two of us together under-weigh John Wayne, who somehow always managed to boot-find the stirrup and haul his wide, white, and baggy Hollywood cowboy ass into the saddle. Every single film I felt bad for the horse, the “He-yuh,” and spurs to the ribs, and my intolerance was inflamed with each galloping frame.

Perhaps another quarter hour of silence has passed when Marley-Anne takes my hand. Already the faintest predawn trace of the darkness lifting leaves us no choice other than for us to mount up and vacate the premises before our neighbors the Bromwiches wake and catch us red-handed. They’re friendly and easy enough to like but are also the type who’d sit heavy on the bell rope for something like this. I can almost make out the outline of their refurbished 1975 midnight blue Chevy Malibu parked in the driveway, a green glow-in-the-dark Saint Christopher poised on the dash and the whitewalls shining like haloes.

Not wanting to spew any epithet too terrible to retract, neither of us utters a word as we climb down in tandem, the horse whinnying for the very first time when my feet touch the ground. “Easy,” I say, right out of some High Noon–type western. “Easy, Paint,” but Marley-Anne’s the one who nuzzles up and palm strokes its spotted throat and sweet-talks its nervousness away. I’ve ridden a merry-go-round, but that’s about it, and I wouldn’t mind a chrome pole or a pommel to hold onto. But Marley-Anne’s in front on the reins, and with my arms snug around her waist I feel safe and strangely relaxed, Paint’s back and flanks as soft as crushed velour. Except for our dangling legs and how high up we are, it’s not unlike sitting on a love seat in some stranger’s country estate. Marley-Anne heels us into a trot around the far side of the house and across the cracked concrete sidewalk slabs into the empty street. Paint’s shod hooves don’t spark, but they do reverberate even louder, the morning having cooled, and there’s no traffic, this being Sunday and the whole town still asleep.

Marley-Anne’s black jeans are not a fashion statement. They’re slatted mid-thigh for ventilation, and I consider sliding my hands in there where her muscles are taut, and just the thought ignites my vapors on a grand scale, everything alive and buzzing—including the static crackle in the power lines we’ve just crossed under, and that must be Casey Banhammer’s hound dream-jolted awake and suddenly howling at who knows what, maybe its own flea-bitten hind end, from two blocks over on Cathedral.

We’re slow cantering in the opposite direction, toward the eastern horizon of those postcard-perfect houses and away from the land of the Pignatallis and Burchers and Bellavitas, whose double-wides we’ve never been inside without an invitation to stop by for a couple of Busch Lights and an evening of small talk and cards and pizza. Guys I work with, all plenty decent enough and not a whole lot of tiny print—meaning little or nothing to hide. Marley-Anne negotiates their backyards this way and that. A zigzag through the two or three feet of semidarkness ahead of us, and the perfect placement of Paint’s hoof-pounds thudding down. A weightless transport past gas grills and lawn furniture, and someone’s tipped-over silver Schwinn hurtled with ease, the forward lift and thrust squeezing Marley-Anne and me even tighter together.

There are no sentry lights or fancy stone terraces or in-ground swimming pools, though the sheets on the Showalters’ clothesline seem an iridescent white glow, and when Marley-Anne says, “Duck,” I can feel the breezy cotton blow across my back, that sweet smell of starch and hollyhocks, the only flower my mom could ever grow. Shiny black and blue ones the color of Marley-Anne’s windswept hair, and I can smell it too when I press my nose against the back of her head.

There’s a common-ground lot, a small park with a diamond and backstop, and we’re cantering Pony Express across the outfield grass. The field has no bleachers, though sometimes when I walk here at night I imagine my dad sitting alone in the top row. I’m at the plate, a kid again, a late rally on and my head full of banter and cheers and the tight red seams of the baseball rotating slow-motion toward me, waist-high right into my wheelhouse. It could, it just might be, my life re-imagined with a single swing, the ball launched skyward, a streaking comet complete with a pure white rooster tail.

But if you’ve been deserted the way my dad deserted us, no such fantasies much matter after a while. And what could he say or brag about anyway? Truth told, I don’t even remember his voice. It’s my mom’s crying I hear whenever I think of them together and apart. He might be dead for all I know, which isn’t much except that he sure stayed gone both then and now. Marley-Anne and I have never mentioned separation or divorce, an outcome that would surely break me for good. And the notion of her up and leaving unannounced some night is simply way too much for someone of my constitution to even postulate.

We slow to something between a trot and a walk, and Paint isn’t frothing or even breathing hard, his ears up and forward like he wants more, wants to go and go and go, and maybe leap some gorge or ravine or canyon or, like Pegasus, sprout wings and soar above this unremarkable northern town. On Cabot Street, under those huge-domed and barely visible sycamores, Marley-Anne has to rein him in, and now he’s all chest and high-stepping like a circus horse, his nostrils flared for dragon fire. He’s so gorgeous that for a fleeting second I want someone to see us, a small audience we’d dazzle blind with an updated Wild Bill story for them to tell their kids.

We look left toward the Phillips 66 and right towards the all-night laundromat where nobody’s about. We keep to those darker stretches between the streetlights and, where Cass intersects with Columbus, there’s the Dairy Queen with its neon sign a blurred crimson. The coast is clear, and we stop in the empty parking lot as if it were a relay station on the old overland route to Sioux Falls or San Francisco.

“So far so good,” I say, and when Marley-Anne tips her head back I kiss her wine-smooth lips until she moans.

“Hey,” she says, her mouth held open as if a tiny bird might fly out. “Hey,” like a throaty chorus in a song. When I smile at her she half smiles back as if to say, We’re managing in our way just fine, aren’t we, Reilly Jack? You and me, we’re going to be okay, aren’t we? Isn’t that how it all plays out in this latest, unrevised chapter of our lives?

I nod in case this is her question, and Paint pirouettes a perfect one-eighty so he’s facing out toward East Main. Already one walleyed headlight wavers in the huge double plate-glass window of the Dairy Queen as that first car of the morning passes unaware of us. Otherwise the street is deserted, the yellow blinker by the Holiday Inn not quite done repeating itself. Above, up on I-75, a north-south route to nowhere, is that intermittent whine and roar of transport trailers zipping past. But there’s an underpass being constructed not far from here, no traffic on it at all, and beyond that the sandpit and some woods with a switchback two-track that will bring us out to County Road 667.

Saint Jerome’s Cemetery is no more than another half mile distant from there, and I can almost smell the wild honeysuckle by the caretaker’s shack, its galvanized roof painted green, and a spigot and hose and pail to give the horse a drink. The deceased are enclosed by a black wrought-iron fence, and there’s a gate where we’ll hang the bridle and turn Paint loose to graze between the crosses and headstones, and perhaps some flower wreathes mounding a freshly covered grave. Another somebody dead out of turn, as my mom used to say, no matter their age or circumstance, whenever she read the obituaries. Out of turn, out of sorts, just out and out senseless the way this world imposes no limits on our ruin—she’d say that too. She’d say how it grieved her that nothing lasts. “Nothing, Reilly Jack, if you love it, will ever, ever last.” Then she’d turn away from me and on her way out glance back to where I was sitting alone in the airless kitchen.

And what are the chances that I’d end up here instead of in another life sleeping off the aftereffects of a late Saturday night at the Iron Stallion, where all the usual suspects were present and accounted for, and the jukebox so stuffed full of quarters that its jaws were about to unhinge and reimburse every drunken, lonely last one of us still humming along. But here, at 5:45 AM eastern standard, I kiss Marley-Anne again and our hearts clench and flutter, Marley-Anne shivering and her eyes wide open to meet my gaze. Paint is chomping at the bit to go, and so Marley-Anne gives him his lead, his left front hoof on the sewer cover echoing down East Main like a bell.

Already somebody is peppering his scrambled eggs, somebody sipping her coffee, and what’s left of this night is trailing away like a former life. The house we lived in is still there exactly the way we left it, the front door unlocked and the pickup’s keys in the ignition. That life, before those cloud-swirl white splotches on a certain pinto’s neck first quivered under Marley-Anne’s touch.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury