By William Borden
The body was on the beach in the morning when he went out for his swim. It was a young woman, not yet disfigured by water or time, although one thigh had been nibbled, probably, he thought, by a snapping turtle. The womans body was luminescent, her blond hair seemingly part of her skin, as if she were a marble statue carved in this awkward repose and magically deposited here at the edge of the lake.
She was naked, her breasts petite and cuplike, her nipples small and pink. Her fingernails were red, and so were her toenails. A thin gold chain circled her neck. Another, similar but smaller, hung around her ankle. A simple hoop earring hung from one ear. The other was gone, a tear in the earlobe where a turtle or a fish, maybe a northern, had torn it away. One arm was twisted awkwardly behind her back. Her eyes were closed. She seemed to be sleeping. Her pubic hair was black and narrow. He looked at her for some time, immobile himself, as fascinated as he was shocked, feeling suspended outside time and beyond ordinary reality.
His first impulse was to save herresuscitate her, push the water rhythmically from her lungs. But when he kneeled down and touched her arm, heavy and cold, he realized that she was beyond saving. He stayed there, knees in the wet sand. He looked around, as if there might be some explanation somewhere in sight. A few weeds and a crumpled milk carton had washed up nearby. There had been a storm during the night. The usually calm lake had been whipped to a frenzy. The pines surrounding his house had been bent like bows.
He hadnt slept well, waking from time to time as the rain pelted the windows and the lightning danced and the thunder shook the air. Finally the storm moved on, ending as suddenly as it had begun, yet he slept no better, and, when he awoke earlier than usual, he decided a swim would put him on track, even though the water would be colder than it had been and filled with particles of mud and detritus stirred up by the storm.
The dead woman wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Did she have a lover? The earring, the anklet, the nail polish all suggested that she made herself seductive to someone. Everett wondered if he would have liked her if he had known her. Would she have found him appealing? Might they have been lovers? Or would that have been just more trouble, and complications?
He had lived alone for two years now, since his wife had moved to Tacoma with his friend Ron, both to start new lives, or so they thought, leaving Rons wife behind as well, who for awhile believed it only fitting that he and she get together, a balanced revenge, as it were.
He hardly missed Martha now. He missed the sex, of course, and her fusion cookingshe liked to experiment, marrying Asian spices and techniques to homely midwestern ingredients, and her dreamnow being realized, apparently, in a small restaurant called Marthas, formerly Charlies, overlooking Puget Sound, bought with Rons money that he pocketed by selling, without telling his wife, Barb, his successful used car business. While Martha stir-fried calamari and beet greens and peanuts in Hoi sin sauce, Ron was realizing his dream of being a fishing boat captain, was foraging the seas off Puget Sound in a rented trawler.
He liked living alone. He wasn't sure why. He was seldom clear about his motivations. He usually figured them out, if at all, only after he had done something. Indeed, he thought motivations were complex and largely hidden, and he wondered if all explanations for ones actions werent ultimately off the mark, werent a pretense at rationality for what were actually the instinctual firings of inarticulate neurons. For example, he didnt know why he had slept with Barb until after he had broken it offa nasty, turbulent scene, just as he had expected, which was why he had put off the confrontation for several weekswell, all winter, actually, the northern Minnesota winters being so long and dispiritinguntil spring, when more daylight gave him couragewhen the ice broke up on the lake, accompanied by unearthly booms and rumbles as the ice heaved and shuddered in the lackadaisical sun. And, he speculated later, his reason for breaking it off with Barb was not dissatisfaction but simply indifference, accumulated like the snow that piled up, month after long dark month, burying the memory of grass and flowers. He had, he decided, slept with Barb not, as he first thought, out of a hankering for revengewhich was admittedly and unabashedly Barbs motivation for arriving at his door at midnight that night in Januarynor out of lust, Barbs thighs rippled by cellulite, her stomach slack, her breasts flagging, her breath stale from cigarettes, her hands, as they tugged earnestly at his too-frequently daydreaming member, rough and desperate, her mouth more a starved devastation than Marthas languorous teasing. Barbs passion, erupting mostly when she was drunk, which occurred more and more frequently, embodied an awkward naive dominance, wanting him to kneel while she stood before him as he licked her, tasting an acrid seaweed in the secretions of her excitement.
He lifted a strand of green from the young womans breast. He tried to fling the weed away, but it clung to his fingers, clammy and rough. He pulled it off with his other hand and threw it, but it only floated down to the sand, beside his bare feet.
His fingers buzzed. Maybe he was allergic to the weed. But he knew the tingle was rather a reaction to the touch of her cold breast.
He touched her breast again, at first lightly, his fingertips barely brushing the oddly stiff skin, then let his fingers extend to feel the curve and roundness, finally resting his palm on the small hard nipple.
He took his hand away. He looked around. Of course there was no one. His house nestled amidst tall red pines and tamarack. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, separated from him by thick woods. His small beach fronted a cove, hiding him from most of the shoreline. There were no boats in sight. Across the lake, a mile away, there were only a handful of cabins, all set back into the woods and hidden. He rubbed his palm over her breast.
He pinched her nipple. He half expected her to jump, cry out. That was when he realized he could do anything to her that he wanted, and she wouldnt care.
He caressed her face, the thin blue lips, the cheekbones, the worry-free forehead. He let his hands drift down her arms. He held her hands, examined the chipped polish on her nails. He felt her clammy hair, from her head down to where it stuck to her shoulder. He stroked her thighs down to her knees, kept going to her ankles, cupped her heels in his palms, observed the curves of her toes, the incongruity of the red polish. Her arch was high, her feet small. One knee was bent to the side, as if for comfort.
Finding her like that, presented to him, as it were, made her seem like a gift from the lake, as if she might have been some mythic sea creature, a mermaid or a selkie or an Ondine, who had taken on human form out of love for some mortal and then died.
Died for love, he thought, then played with the phrase, saying to himself, We all die for love, meaning We all want love, and, as well, We all die as a result of love, or its loss. He wondered how he had died, inside, after Martha left, or maybe it was before she left, the small deaths that prompted her to find Ron the used car entrepreneur more exciting than he. Or the death he inflicted on Barb by ending their volatile grapplingsor the little deaths she gave him by her sudden furies, her ceaseless whinings, her rebarbative obsessings about Ron. It seemed to excite her, to remember out loud all the offenses Ron was guilty of, to tick them off like a litany, while he kneeled before her, his hands gripping her thighs, his neck getting stiff, his jaw cramping, until finally the firing of nerve endings obliterated her rancor and she gave herself over to what passed, too briefly, it seemed, for exultation.
He had a skeptical mind but one that liked to entertain fantasy. He liked stories of metamorphosis, from Ovid to Kafka. The legend of Proteus, who could change into anything, intrigued him. Thus it was not difficult for him, sitting now on his heels beside the woman, to imagine that she was, or had been, a magical creature, a figure of myth and dream.
Sometimes he dreamed he was swimming in a large murky indoor pool, where giant grotesque fish would suddenly appear in the green-brown water and lunge at him, fish with goggle eyes and spiky whiskers. They never touched him. It was merely their presence, their threat, and the aberration of sea monsters in an indoor pool that frightened him and thrust him into wakefulness.
He had readwas it Freud? Jung?that water in dreams represents the unconscious. He had had this dream for years, although not frequently, and he had had it before he had known that Rons dream was to be a deep-sea fisherman, before even he and Martha had moved to northern Minnesota and their house on the lake, before he knew that his friend Ron, with whom he fished for walleye and northern in summer and shared a fishing house on the ice in winter and with whom he played poker year-round, was fucking Martha in the backs of vans at the far corner of his used car lot in summer and, in winter, in a trailer in the woods, with a kerosene heater, that Barb didnt know about. It had gone on for three years. Looking back, he would have to say that he had seen signs; but he hadnt wanted to look for signs, and, in fact, his and Marthas sex had never been more intense, more varied, more spontaneous, her maneuvers in cramped quarters and the frisson of secrecy inspiring ever more inventive gyrations on their king-size bed, suddenly provocative with slippery sky blue silk sheetseven if her meals were now more hastily prepared and her creative fusions more cursory, there apparently not being enough inspiration for both bed and wok.
The womans legs were slightly spread, one leg bent. He kneeled on the sand. He gazed at the wedge of black hair. He was aware of his heart beating faster, his breath quickening. Thats when he realizedand he wondered why he hadnt thought of it soonerthat he should call the sheriff. And in the next instant he wondered if he would be a suspect. Hed seen the TV news magazines, and so he knew that the police always went for the most likely suspect, even fabricated evidence, just to make their case.
There was no evidence of a crime, that he could see, anyway. Maybe she had been swimming and got caught by the storm. It had come up quickly. On the other hand, maybe she had been pushed into the lake, maybe from a boat. She might have been raped, then drowned. Anything could have happened.
Now that he had touched her, now that he had had certain thoughts about her, he realized he couldnt tell the sheriff everything. He wouldnt be able to relate events with a calm and innocent mind. He would fail a lie detector test. The guilt he would feel, not from a violent act but from his thoughts, might implicate him. He was already guilty.
His fingers weaved through the tangle of pubic hair. It was more wiry that Marthas, thicker than Barbs.
His fingertips nudged the crease. He pushed. The lips were unyielding. He rested his hand on her thigh.
The sun was rising through the pines. He became aware of the morning bird songs. A breeze came up, ruffling the water.
He bent over her. He kissed her blue lips. He sucked on her nipple. He kissed the black tangle of pubic hair. He licked the impenetrable crease between her legs.
He sat up. Out on the lake a loon surfaced. He watched the loon, which seemed suddenly a witness. He stood. He smoothed the sand between her legs. He climbed the short hill to his house. He washed his hands. He called the sheriff.
The woman who answered said they had just gotten a call about a missing woman who had gone for a swim in that lake. The dispatcher said it might be an hour or more before anyone could get there. There was an accident outside of town, a semi and two cars, it looked pretty bad, and they were short staffed this morning, one deputy laid up with a slipped disc, another on vacation, the sheriff not answering his pager.
He took a shower. He put on a clean shirt and shorts. He slipped his bare feet into his old loafers. Hed been wearing loafers without socks since hed seen a photo in a magazine of a man wearing loafers without socks, a style clearly in fashion. The man in the photo had a two-day beard and had flung a sweater over his shoulders.
He made himself a cup of coffee. He walked out onto his deck, the cup in his hand, and looked out at the white body a hundred feet away. He was almost surprised to see it, as if, leaving it, it might have disappeared, like a dream.
He wondered why the boy friend had waited until this morning to call the sheriff. Didnt he care that she was out in the storm? Had she left the house naked, or taken off her clothes by the water? Had he killed her?
He looked for the loon, but it was gone. He loved to listen to the loons mournful wail and its giddy tremolo, but he knew the loon could be vicious, rising from under the water to stab with its sharp beak an intruder into its territory. It might be under the water now. It might pop up anytime, anywhere.
He wondered if he should cover the body. He decided not to. Better to leave everything undisturbed.
He sipped his coffee.
The dirt road, still muddy, wound within sight of the lake through tall pines and birch, past summer cabins and year-round homes hidden from each other by the trees. Some driveways had signs at the entrancesThe Jensen's, Hildebrandts Hideaway, Broke But Happybut there was no sign at the one he turned into. The gravel driveway curved through the trees and ended next to a frame house of modest size. A small yard in need of cutting sloped the short distance to the lake. A dock jutted into the water. A small boat with an outboard was tied to the dock. A Ford that had seen a few years was pulled up on the grass. A Honda, not quite as old, sat at the end of the driveway.
He sat in his car for a minute surveying the scene. That was the yard she ran down. Was she naked already? Did she dive off the dock, or did she wade into the lake?
When he got out of the car, he eased the door shut so that it wouldn't make a noise. He walked through the grass to the shore. Dandelions were going to seed. The white fluffs flew up from his shoes like careless thoughts. A light breeze rippled the water. The boat swayed gently in and out next to the dock.
He had tried to put her out of his mind, but he couldn't. Her image floated before him, her nakedness, her vulnerability, her aloneness.
He had found himself constructing a kind of memorial to her on his beach. He had gathered stones, some the size of a baseball, others larger, whatever he could find in the vicinity, and had made an oval around where her body had lain. He couldn't explain why he felt compelled to do it.
He had cut iris that were growing in the garden Martha had planted with such care and had laid them inside the rocky shrine.
He walked out to the end of the dock, which swayed under his footsteps. He looked into the boat. There was a gasoline can, a pair of pliers, a pool of water from the storm still in the bottom.
The brief news story said she had been swimming when the storm came up and had drowned, and her body had been found by a lake resident. The paper said she had been visiting a friend on the other side of the lake. The paper didn't mention that she had been naked.
He had never been to this side of the lake. It might have been a different lake altogether. He felt displaced, suddenly unsure of where he was or who he was or why he was here, an instant's interruption in the continuity of his life. For a surprising moment he missed Martha.
He felt the dock move under his feet. He turned. The man was a few years younger than he, in his thirties. He was wearing shorts and a striped wide-necked seaman's shirt. He was barefoot.
"Peter? Peter Wilson?" The man nodded warily.
Everett looked back at the lake, as if he could see his place across the water, but he couldn't. He said, "I found her body."
Peter Wilson gazed at the far shore of the lake, as if he might see something, too. After a moment he looked down at his feet and said, with a kind of resignation, "Come on in."
In the living room Peter gathered his discarded clothes off the chair and couch and floor and carried them into another room. When he came back he grabbed the dirty dishes that sat scattered on the floor and coffee table and took them into the kitchen. Everett looked around the rooma deer head and a muskie mounted on the wall, a couple of pictures of ducks in flight, a fireplace, a TV, a couple of outdoors magazines, a couple of sports magazines, a fishing reel on the dining table. Everett didn't sit. He wasn't sure he wanted to sit. He wasn't sure he should have come.
He had resisted trying to imagine the boy friend, but an image came anyway, of a man older than Peter, with a deep voice, more settled, maybe an engineer or draftsman. Peter was young, with an air of not having been tested by life. His voice was pitched a little high and had a whine to it, as if he hoped you'd feel sorry for him. He had a stubble of goatee and a crewcut. His bare legs were skinny and almost hairless. Everett decided he didn't like him.
Peter stood in the kitchen doorway, his hands empty. "Sit."
Everett sat in the chair.
"Coffee? Beer? Jim Beam?" It was late afternoon. Everett settled on coffee.
Peter disappeared into the kitchen to put on the coffee. Everett perched on the edge of the chair. He noticed a pair of women's sandals under the couch. She sat there, he thought. She took them off. She left barefoot. Her nails were red.
Peter came back. "It'll be a minute." He stood for a few seconds, as if he didn't want the comfort of sitting, either. Finally he pulled a chair from the dining table and sat several feet away, one ankle on the other knee.
"I didn't mean to intrude," Everett said.
"I was taking a nap. I have trouble sleeping at night."
"I found her."
"That's what you said."
"I feel some connection."
"She was on your beach?"
"I was going swimming."
"Must have been a surprise."
Was he being flippant? Sarcastic? "I was curious to know more about her," Everett explained.
"There's not much to know."
"You must have known her pretty well."
Did Peter mean he hadn't bothered to know her? Or that she was inherently enigmatic? "It's not easy to know another person," Everett offered. Peter didn't say anything. "Everybody's a mystery, when you get down to it," Everett concluded.
Peter stood. "I'll get the coffee."
Alone for a moment, Everett reached under the couch and picked up one of the sandals. It was red and blue and had a high heel. It was a cheap, gaudy thing. He had expected her to have better taste. Maybe Peter had bought them for her. He put the sandal back. On the table next to the couch he noticed the gold hoop earring and the thin gold chain anklet she had been wearing.
Peter appeared and handed him a cup of coffee. They both sat down. Neither spoke for a moment. Finally Everett said, "I was going to go to the funeral."
"There was no funeral."
"I didn't see the point."
"It was up to you?"
"They were going towhatever they do with an unclaimed body. I said I'd take responsibility."
"Her mother died two years ago. That's what brought her here, to take care of her mother."
"She was all alone then."
"We were seeing each other."
"A year. A little less than a year. I met her at the Lumbermen's. I used to cook there."
"You're a cook?"
"I'm at Calistoga now."
"I've eaten there."
"They pay better. You get benefits. But the hours are worse. Lumbermen's closes at seven. Calistoga kitchen stays open till nine, ten on weekends. We seemed to fight more after I switched. I don't know why. At the Lumbermen's we were a team."
"You should have stayed."
"The owner kept hassling me. Wanted me to come up with new recipes. That's not my job. I just cook what's on the menu. I'm not a fucking chef." He took a swallow of coffee. He went on, "Maybe I should've had a funeral, I don't know. But it seemed like it would be worse to have it and nobody there, you know? Me and a couple of waitresses from the Lumbermen's?"
"One of the waitressesJanellesaid she would've come."
"She gave me your name."
"Anyway, Marlys wasn't religious. You can't have a funeral without a religion, can you?"
"I suppose you could have some kind of gathering. Some recognition."
"Just sit around and feel bad?"
"Otherwise it's as if she never existed."
"She never said what religion she was."
"I was going to come."
"Well, I didn't know you were going to come," he said curtly.
"I just meant maybe she had other friends."
"Anyway, I had her cremated."
Everett looked around the room for something that might have contained the ashes. He didn't see anything. He felt a knot of revulsion at the possibility that they had already been scattered.
"I paid for it," Peter said.
"It costs more than you'd think."
And now he was begrudging the cost? Everett felt even more protective of the woman.
"Listen," Everett said, "I'll pay for it."
"How much was it?"
"Don't worry about it."
"No, really. I want to."
"It's none of your business," Peter snapped.
Everett hadn't planned for it to go badly like this. He had imagined the two of them, having her in common, might hit it off. He had thought maybe, after they had gotten to know each other a little, Peter would share intimacies. Everett was sure that she had been intelligent, even if she was a waitress. Why had she hooked up with this shallow, cynical, jerk?
"More coffee?" Peter picked up Everett's cup. It was more a dismissal than an offer. The bare skinny legs waited, inches from his own knees. For some reason the bare legs and bare feet offended Everett.
"Tell me what happened," Everett demanded.
"You know what happened."
"You waited till morning to call the sheriff. She must have been missing all night." Everett waited for an answer.
Peter seemed to sag a little, as if some pressure had unexpectedly escaped. He said, "I'm going to have a drink. You want one?"
Everett didn't, but he thought if he had one, it might loosen up Peter. "Whatever you're having."
Peter poured the drinks. He handed Everett his, then sat again. Peter took a couple of swallows. He stretched out his legs. "We had a fight," he began. "We'd been drinking. I was ploughed. I don't remember what we were fighting about. She got pissed and left. I thought she was going home. She had a little apartment in town. I passed out. I woke up the next morning, saw her car was still here, thought she'd slept in her car maybe, then gone for a walk, or a run. She ran every morning. I made myself some coffee. I wasn't worried about her. We'd had fights before. When I finished my coffee, I went to look for her. I still didn't think anything had happened to her. I kept waiting for her to show up. I was hoping she wasn't going to still be pissed at me. I wondered if she was staying away, you know, to get back at me. I don't know what the hell we were fighting about. You know, you don't believe something terrible will really happen, do you?"
"You didn't know she'd gone swimming?"
"I passed out."
"Did she leave her clothes on the dock?"
"She was naked," Everett reminded him.
"She liked to swim naked. She liked to swim in storms."
"You should have stopped her."
"I couldn't stop her. She liked the danger."
"She was full of spirit."
"She was a good swimmer. She could swim to the other side and back."
"I never saw her."
"She liked to swim at night."
"She ran naked, too, at night, along the road out there, in the moonlight, nothing on but her socks and running shoes. She was crazy."
"She had a mind of her own."
"She was driven by some demon, I think. She'd get in these moods, do crazy things. Stand out on the dock in a storm, lightning all around, yell up at the sky, dare the lightning to hit her."
"You didn't stop her?"
"Nobody could have stopped her. I worried for awhile, then I gave up."
"Driven by demons?"
"I don't know what it was. Something in her past maybe. She never talked about it. It was like she was daring the world toI don't knowpunish her, or stop her, or tell her something. Or kill her."
Everett set his untouched drink on the coffee table.
"She wouldn't have lived to an old age, I'll tell you that," Peter said.
Everett gazed at the gaudy sandals, one upright, the other on its side. "They weren't suspicious?" he asked. "The police?"
"You watch these crime shows on TV, it seems like they're always suspecting foul play, they like to pin it on, you know, the husband. Or the boy friend."
Peter eyed him a moment. He said, "They didn't act suspicious. I guess I'm not the type they'd be suspicious about."
"But were her clothes on the dock?"
"She was naked when she ran out that door. We were both naked." Peter took Everett's drink into the kitchen.
While he was gone, Everett slipped the thin gold chain of her anklet into his pocket.
He dreamed he was swimming naked. He was swimming underwater for a long distance, and he didn't run out of breath. He noticed she was swimming next to him. Her strokes were long and graceful. She swam with no effort at all. She didn't need to breathe, either. Then they were trying to make love as they swam, and she was kissing him, tonguing him, but in the buoyancy of the water she kept floating away, and he had to swim after her and hold her, but he couldn't find her vagina, there was nothing between her legs, nothing but smooth tight skin. He woke up with an erection.
Later that morning he called Martha. He wasn't sure why. She was surprised to hear from him, but she seemed pleased. She and Ron had broken up. She thought it was just as well. The restaurant took all her time, although she had just hired another sou-chef, which should help, but a waitress quit and she hadn't found another one yet. Ron was finding commercial fishing harder than he had expected, and he was trying to buy a cabin cruiser to take fishermen out. She hadn't seen Ron for a couple of weeks, although they talked by phone.
Everett told her about finding the body. She thought it must have been awful for him. He said he didn't know if it was awful, but it was something he couldn't get out of his mind. She was a waitress, he said. And her boy friend was a cook at Calistoga. He told her he had visited the boy friend. She asked why. I was curious, he said. She came into my life, he said, and I want to know more about her. I think that's odd, Martha said. It seems kind of sick, she added. Well, he said, take care. You too, she said, and they hung up.
Carnations were blooming in Martha's flower garden. He cut a dozen or so and put them in a ceramic vase he had made years before when he was throwing pots. He scooped some lake water into the vase and secured the vase in the sand in the center of his rock memorial to Marlys. He tossed the dried iris into the lake.
He decided he didn't like the erratic sizes of the rocks, so he took his boat, an old 16-footer with a small outboard, and motored along the shore, and when he saw a rock that he liked, he slipped over the side and put the rock into the boat. He was looking for stones about eight inches in diameter. He especially liked the white ones and some that were a dark green.
It was evening by the time he had reconstructed the memorial with the new stones. He didn't feel so much of a need now to suggest the outline of her body, so he made a circle this time, with the vase of carnations in the center.
He took a lawn chair down to the beach and sat before the circle of stones to drink his gin and tonic. He was still wearing his swim suit, which had dried, and his feet were still bare. He wore an old straw planter's hat to shade his face. He hadn't shaved. The lake lapped the shore with small, lazy waves. He was wearing her thin gold chain around his ankle. It was about three inches too short, so he had tied a length of fishing line to the two ends. It gave him a good feeling to wear it. He felt part of her. He felt it might give him some insight into the whole mystery. The mystery of her death. The mystery of her.
Was she driven by demons?
Or was she simply a wild, free-spirited woman?
How accurate could Peter's appraisal be? He was a short-order cook, not a psychologist. He wasn't stupid, but he interpreted things to suit his own preconceptions.
He pictured them in that living room, clothes scattered about, empty whiskey bottles on the table, drunk, yelling at each other. She kicks off her sandals. Outside, it begins to thunder. She takes off her clothes. She runs outside. He follows her.
No, he forgot, they're both naked. They make love. Then they start fighting. She runs outside. She swims, to get rid of her anger. The storm comes up, and she can't get back. She's drunk, and she loses her strength.
Maybe they haven't made love. They were going to, but he says something, and she runs out. He follows her to the dock. It's already storming. Lightning flashes across her naked body, wind whips her hair. He's drunk. He pushes her into the lake. He holds her under. She's drunk too much to fight back. Her body floats away, thrashed by the waves. He goes inside. He passes out.
Or did it happen exactly as Peter said?
What is there to go on but Peter's story? Has anyone else seen her run naked through the woods? Swim in a thunder storm? Rail at the lightning? Did anyone else seen her that night?
He called the Calistoga. They said Peter was working.
The dirt road was drying up. The puddles had evaporated. Already the way seemed familiar, as if he had come this way many times. It was still daylight.
The Honda was gone. The Ford still sat on the grass. He climbed onto the deck overlooking the lake. The glass door slid open.
A tee shirt was draped over the arm of the chair where he had sat. An empty glass, a plate, and a cup sat on the dining table. The earring was still on the coffee table, the sandals undisturbed under the couch.
In the bedroom Peter's clothes were scattered about. The double bed was unmade. Everett looked through the closet, opened and shut drawers, picked through the clothes. He didn't try to put things back the way he had found them. He didn't see how Peter would be able to tell anything had been changed, everything was in such disarray.
But where were her clothes? The clothes she had to have been wearing when she arrived that night?
A towel lay on the floor of the bathroom. A disposable razor lay on the sink. In the medicine cabinet there were aftershave, shaving cream, aspirin, toothpaste, a toothbrush. There was nothing of hers.
Her things were in the wastebasket. He removed them one by onethe box of tampons, the toothbrush, the toothpaste, a small bottle of cologne, a deodorant stick, a nail file, a bottle of shampoo, a bottle of conditioner, a couple of barrettes, a brush, a comb.
Peter had thrown everything of hers away.
Grief? Guilt? Indifference?
Everett's house was still full of Martha's things. He had simply left them. Some clothes remained in her closet, her toiletries were in the medicine cabinet, her boots lay in the hall closet. Occasionally he thought of throwing everything out, but he imagined she might come backmaybe just for a visitand she might want something she had left behind.
He put the cologne and the barrettes in his pocket, and he put everything else back in the wastebasket.
He searched the kitchen, opening and shutting drawers and cabinets. He looked in the nearly empty refrigerator.
The phone rang, startling him. He had a crazy notion it was for him. Peter calling from work, knowing he was there? He almost picked it up, just to see who was calling. The ringing stopped.
Next to the phone was a brown box, about the size of a shoebox. Dugan Cremation Services. It was unopened.
He picked up the box. It was very light.
He hadn't been swimming since that morning. Now the sun was rising into a cloudless sky, the lake was calm, and his body was feeling tight and creaky. He pulled on his swimsuit, grabbed a towel, and strolled down to the beach.
He stood over his memorial. He was pleased with his reconstruction. When he came back, he would cut some fresh carnations.
He hung his towel on a branch. He touched the thin gold chain on his ankle. He had grown so accustomed to it, he often forgot it was there.
He waded into the water. It was cold, but he was used to that. When the water was at his knees, he halted. He stepped out of his swimsuit and threw it back on the beach.
He waded on out and flung himself gratefully into the invigorating depth. He swam hard and fast, with strong strokes and expert kicks, turning his head to breathe every second stroke of his right arm, opening his eyes to fix on the trees to keep his direction straight. He was filled with energy, as if it had been building up and now was finally being released, carrying him along with a speed he had never realized before.
When he began to tire he treaded water and looked about. He was in the middle of the lake, farther than he had ever gone. He had a moment of fear, then reminded himself that he was an experienced swimmer, that in fact the slight breeze was blowing toward his beach, and he could just lie back, if it came to that, and float home.
He did lie back and float until he caught his breath, then did an easy backstroke toward his beach. Without his swimsuit he felt free, light, without care. He understood her. She wasn't driven by devils. She was a free spirit. Peter didn't understand her. Peter was all wrong for her. If only they had met, Everett and Marlys!
His backstrokes were regular and easy. He took his time. He luxuriated in his nakedness. He soaked in the warmth of the sun. Even the buzz of a boat engine, muffled by the water covering his ears, seemed part of the morning's harmony. As he neared his beach, he rolled over and began an easy breast stroke.
A strange boat was tied up to his dock. A man was standing on his beach.
Everett waded the rest of the way in. Peter stood on the sand examining the circle of stones.
Everett wrapped the towel around his waist. "What is she to you?" Peter demanded.
"I found her."
"She was my girl friend."
"You didn't understand her."
"You don't know a damn thing. Who the fuck are you, anyway? You were in my house, weren't you?"
"There's more than one way to know somebody."
"You're fucking crazy as she was." Peter kicked the rocks out of place.
"You weren't crazy enough, Peter. You didn't deserve her."
"You didn't know her!" Peter screamed. He was beside himself. He turned in a circle, kicking more stones. He saw the anklet. He leaped at him.
They rolled in the sand, over the stones, the vase, the carnations, into the water. Everett's towel came off. He was heavier than Peter. He was in better shape. He was on top, and Peter's head was under water. He held him under. He wasn't thinking. He was angry, that was all. He wanted Peter never to have existed.
In a burst of panic, sputtering and coughing, Peter threw him off. Peter climbed into his boat. He started the engine. "You're fucking crazy!" he yelled above the motor. He untied the rope. Everett stood, naked, the water knee-high. "Leave me alone!" Peter yelled. The engine roared, and the boat sped away, churning the water behind it.
It was evening. Everett stood beside the restored stones. He had arranged fresh flowers in the vase. A brisk breeze was coming up, blowing away from his beach. He was still naked. He hadn't worn clothes all day.
He opened the box.
Isn't it strange, he thought, what we are reduced to?
The breeze teased at the ashes, lifting a few, whirling the gray flakes about.
He had thought to keep the ashes in a vase, place it on the mantel or beside his bed. But then he remembered. She was a free spirit.
The breeze quickened.
We are so light, really, he thought, nothing but air, nothing but breath, nothing but memory, a cry lost in the wind, drowned by the thunder.