......He could get to work fairly quickly by taking the Interstate. Five turns of the wheel and he was pulling up at the shop. The blacktop was smooth; the state had resurfaced it only last summer and the traffic was light at 7:00 a.m., mostly eighteen-wheelers moving steadily to the west.
......But he hated driving the Interstate, miles of jockeying with traffic that passed through the area as quickly as possible; every Mom and Pop cafe that had catered to the truckers for half a century had failed in the last few years and even the distraction of billboards had disappeared. He had driven that road into the city for years when he did detective work and had to travel it. Every time he gave into the Interstate's promise of a swifter trip now, he was transported back to that time and its gut-wrenching tension.
......So instead he usually drove a circuitous route that took twice the time, much of it passing through farm country. He liked to watch the lights coming on and then blinking off in the farmhouses, the smoke drifting out of the chimneys, the distant figures moving toward outbuildings or into the fields, the children waiting on jiggling legs for the school bus to take them into town, the occasional braying of animals, the smell of dung, bacon, cheap fuel.
......She was standing on the road for the fourth Tuesday in a row. He had debated offering her a ride the second, then third time he saw her, but she looked away as if sensing his intention and declining. The fourth week, he held her glance and stopped. He said the usual things; she laughed the way his mother's friends always had, with a hand covering her mouth. A true farm woman's gesture. It made him feel protective. She climbed into his truck, hugged the door for the twenty-minute ride, and thanked him profusely before scuttling into the library.
......He still lived outside Shelterville though his ex-brother-in-law told him he could make triple his salary if he moved to Chicago, Kansas City or maybe even Des Moines. He lost track of Cindy, his ex-wife, a million years ago, but her brother, Buddy, his best friend before and after his brief marriage, still called him on the occasional Sunday when the rates went down.
......Don't you ever crave a Thai dinner? Buddy asked him only last week. Don't you ever want to bang a girl you didn't know in grade school? Or, better yet, her daughter.
......"Sure, Jim agreed. But I can drive into the city once or twice a month for that stuff. How often do you really want Thai when you got good burgers and pizza here at half the price?
......She's pregnant again, Buddy said softly.
......Third one? Jim guessed.
......Fourth. Craig's still chasing after a son.
......Cindy was made for motherhood, but he hadn't been ready for anything like that ten -- no, fifteen-years ago. Wasn't sure he was now. If men were rated on the simplicity of their needs, he'd be at the top of the list. In descending degree of urgency, he looked for: beer, books, basketball, broads. He didn't need many friends -- hadn't really made a new one since high school. Hell, he had hardly met anyone new in the twenty years since he graduated.
......He wasn't attracted to the woman on the roadside, or at least he told himself that. A small degree of revulsion actually flitted through his stomach: a warning perhaps? Each time he saw her she was standing just to the right of the mailbox, perilously close to the edge of the drainage ditch like this precise spot had been agreed on. Her legs were pressed together as if standing in an open-legged stance was improper. Or maybe it was just habit or a family thing. Maybe her whole family stood like that, much the way his folks walked on their heels and had earlobes attached to the skull.
......Even from the distance in the flat terrain, he could pick out her lavender raincoat and her black patent leather purse, hanging limply from her right arm. She never wore another coat in all the months he knew her and never once went without it. It hit 90 degrees more than once that summer and she must have been sweating heavily beneath the polyester. Even on the warmest days, she wore stockings that made her knees gleam as they pressed together on the seat beside him. Her knees were large for such a slight woman, nearly the size of his. Once, but only once, he mistakenly put his hand on a knee when reaching for the gearshift. She jumped as if he had struck her, and his hand heated up like an electric stove burner in the moment or two it rested there. A second passed and then she laughed, a muffled, choking sound he was both drawn to and repelled by.
......After his daily tour of the countryside, he arrived at the body shop at 7:30 a.m., leaving each day by 4. He was good at the work. He had looked for work like this -- something clean, simple, uncomplicated -- after leaving the force. Eventually, he'd realized it wasn't just the administrative crap, not just the series of sadistic superiors and guffawing peers who couldn't make the force in any other town on earth. It was the nature of police work itself that ground him down to a shivering nub of the man he'd been.
......He'd set up on his own, briefly, as a P.I., but that stint was neither financially rewarding nor psychologically appealing, and had only underlined that it was the work itself he couldn't take. He was simply not suited for tangling with people in the midst of domestic strife: the bread and butter of the private investigator. He was not made for scrutinizing the detritus of humanity on a daily basis: women cheating on their husbands, employees with their hands in the till or scurrying back to their workplace after hours to siphon some gas out a tank, some paper our of a backroom, some spare parts out of the garage. And, most especially as in his last case, men chasing down teenage boys or girls through the Internet. That one had chewed him up more effectively than the bout of cancer he had dealt with last year.
......So here he was-a grease monkey at almost forty.
......But he had his routine down pat now and felt sane. His trailer required about 20 minute's maintenance a day and he only turned on his TV to watch sports and the occasional old movie. Most nights, he made himself a quick meal and headed for Taffy's, the nearest bar that didn't make him worry about fights and food poisoning. He took his usual stool, where the bar made a turn, and ordered two beers over the next ninety minutes, listening more than he talked, breathing in more smoke than was good for him, sitting too long without exercise.
......Everybody liked him well enough, but he wasn't sought out -- not by either sex. Maybe no one quite trusted him with even the most ordinary stories or gossip -- he still was a cop to them. Maybe they thought he'd been privately hired to tell their wife about their Friday night destination, or to report to their boss that they carried an awful lot of change in their pockets. All the actual paraphernalia of his years as a dick sat in a storage unit out on the highway, but apparently the essence of it still clung to him like yesterday's sweat. You've got those crazy eyes, one of his scantily dressed escorts had told him once. It always feels like you're watching me. She shivered a little and he understood what she meant even though he couldn't change it.
......Maybe he just didn't understand how to be one of the guys. He never played pool at the table in the back and never sank quarters into the juke box. He never picked up a woman at Taffy's, not wanting to piss where he lived. For that urge, he frequented a second place farther out of town, but only two or three times a month. The only other thing he did was read but he was a champion at that, reading four or more books a week. That habit, one his mother had insisted on in childhood despite his father's derision, had stuck.
......Louise -- that was the woman's name -- was talkative despite her mousy exterior. Her high-pitched voice prattled on about the price of gas, a soccer game her son had played in-yes, she had children, two of them -- or the surprising success of the lantana in her garden. He didn't listen closely to much of what she said, at least the parts about recipes for watermelon pickles and fundraising drives. Instead he watched the pulse beat in her wrist, the throb of it. Steady at times and jumpy at others, it nearly hypnotized him. And he breathed in her scent, a sort of loamy, yeasty smell that had all but disappeared from other country women.
......Do you bake your own bread? he asked once and she nodded.
......Perry likes fresh bread every morning. I get up before five to have it on the table. She didn't say this proudly but with a kind of resignation. Perry and Louise owned a small farm, but both of them worked in town to make ends meet. On Tuesdays, Perry went to Lynchburg and beyond on deliveries so Louise was without transportation. He picks me up on the way back when he can, she told Jim, looking out the truck window. Oh my, the Ryan farm is up for sale. He leaned past her to look and they sighed simultaneously.
......Louise never said what kind of deliveries Perry made and Jim didn't ask, but her emphasis on the word - deliveries-made him uneasy. Was that idiot selling drugs? He tried to picture this husband of hers-this Perry-but failed. He could check to see if there was a police file on him, but that would send him back into the fray. Asking about Perry would make it seem like he was setting out on his own again. Was he? Was that it?
......Likewise, Louise's son and daughter seemed like characters in fiction until one day when she pulled out their school pictures. Both were slightly stout, square-headed farmer's children wearing clothing as well-worn as hers. Perhaps it was her clothing, saved from her childhood in the seventies in some attic trunk.
......For her contribution to the family income, Louise worked the checkout desk at the library, coming in early to dust, mop and clean the unisex restroom.
......I get the first pick at new books, she said with a giggle. Trouble is, I don't read much. When she saw what was probably a look of disapproval on his face, she amended it. Well, if I do get a chance to read, I like romances. I buy used paperbacks at the bookshop.
......He nodded, knowingly. The back table at Fred's Books was a veritable landfill of love stories. He preferred crime fiction, biographies and stories set in Africa or Asia-some place exotic-although he'd traveled so little most places could qualify as that. After he'd been driving Louise to town for a few months, he picked up a romance out of curiosity but couldn't get beyond the first few pages. The writing was stiff, the characters stock. But mostly he was embarrassed by such sentiment and lust.
......It was always on Tuesday then: Louise chattering away and Jim mostly looking at the road ahead. When he had the temerity to look at her face, he sometimes saw the bloom of purple and blue on her chin, her cheek, her eye. She was shockingly inept at covering it up. He would have thought it deliberate except for the badly-applied lipstick, the run in her stocking, the hem coming loose. He could smell the soap on her hands, but the nails needed filing.
......On occasion, a small scarf around her neck slid up or down to reveal what looked like fingerprints or small cuts. Once she wore a sling for two weeks, and another time, she couldn't climb into his truck because of the pain in her hip. He jumped out and gave her a hand, feeling that strange heat again when he touched her.
......You're the clumsy sort, I guess, he said, thinking maybe she would confide in him, but hoping even more that she wouldn't. What would he do with such information? Take her home with him? Challenge her husband to a shoot-out? Was he still trying to put a case together?
......That's what Perry always says, she said hurriedly, wincing. I hope the kids don't inherit it, she said, looking at him hard. Later, he would wonder if she meant him to do something about it that day. But Perry was rarely mentioned after that except in terms of having needs and desires she had to meet. Perry needs me to go to the bank. Could you drop me there? Or, Perry has a prescription needs filling at the drugstore.
......Talk of her children though brought light into her eyes. She talked about Brownies, dentist appointments, soccer, piano lessons and PTA meetings till he knew their schedule as well as she did. My parents never let me do any activities, she explained, emphasizing the word. So I make sure my kids join all of them. When he looked at her quizzically, she said, My mother was always sick and my dad needed me to do her chores after school. He wondered if her mother had been beaten too. He knew such patterns existed. Wife-beaters looked for women used to such treatment. Women who didn't talk-who expected it. That was the profile he saw again and again in his years as a detective. Dully the same.
......Despite his revulsion at her treatment and their growing, if odd, friendship, there was something about her that made his fists clench. She wore her wounds like a soldier might, like they'd been earned or were signs of some personal valor. Why couldn't she cover them better? Or why didn't she put an end to it all and leave her brute of a husband? If she was so sensitive to the needs of her children, why did she continue to expose them to his savage treatment? He thought about mailing her a brochure on wife-battering he had seen circulating at the police department years ago, but feared her husband-Perry-might find it first. There was nothing to do but go on, continue driving her into town each Tuesday and hoping for the best. Trying not to investigate every aspect of her life as his old training suggested he do.
......She brought the little girl with her in October. This is Sierra, Louise said, lifting the little girl onto the seat and climbing in after her. The school boiler broke down so she has the day off. Perry took Dylan along with him.
......Hi, Sierra, he said, helping the child to slide to middle of the bench. He couldn't think of anything to say after that and Sierra seemed similarly at a loss.
......Sierra's gonna help me put the books away today, Louise explained, smoothing the little girl's skirt down and adjusting her coat.
......He wondered if this was true. Sierra looked too young to know the Dewey Decimal System, too short to restock shelves. It was then he noticed a yellowish bruise on Sierra's upper arm and felt the coffee and oatmeal he had eaten an hour earlier rise in his throat. The child couldn't be more than six or seven. He jerked the wheel without thinking and all three of them lurched toward his door, Sierra nearly falling on the floor.
......Be careful, Jim, Louise ordered. We don't want any more accidents just now. She looked pointedly at the child's arm. Sierra's inherited my clumsiness, I guess.
......Jim nodded. Looks like it's a family problem. He realized at once the double meaning of his remark but Louise looked placidly out the window, patting Sierra's knee every now and then. He had never seen a sadder little girl. When they got out of the truck in front of the library, he realized Sierra had never said a word. Was she afraid of men because of her father?
......Two Tuesdays later, Louise wasn't there. As he approached the spot from the distance, he thought perhaps she had finally put on a new outfit-something less noticeable than lavender-and that was why he didn't see her. But when he pulled up to the mailbox, she wasn't there. He stopped the truck, got out, walked around, waited for nearly fifteen minutes and finally drove off.
......On the way home from Taffy's that night, he drove by her house. It was dark by then but no lights were on inside. He drove by the next morning too and the next night and still saw no lights, no movement. Louise had told him more than once that they had cows, chickens, and a few other farm animals so someone must be feeding them-a neighbor, a relative. He drove as close to the house as he dared but saw nothing.
......Why did he feel that he couldn't drive right up to the house and knock on the door? Why couldn't he at least pick up the phone and call? She must have told Perry she had a ride from him on Tuesdays. He had been giving her a ride for six or seven months. But for some reason, he felt he should keep a distance. Was he afraid of a face-to-face meeting with this mythical Perry who beat his wife and child and probably sold drugs? Was this part of the real reason he had left the force and detective work? Was he a coward? Was that at the heart of it? Or was he afraid of himself, of his own reaction to this monster?
......The next Tuesday, she was back at the spot, her lavender raincoat looking freshly pressed, the buttons stitched on tight for once. What happened last week? he asked as soon as she climbed in the truck. He didn't let on he had been out to her house a dozen times in the interim. I almost called you to see if things were okay.
......Her eyes fluttered. Good thing you didn't do that, Jim. Better not to call me at home. Perry's kind of funny
......Were you visiting family? he pressed.
......She shook her head. We had to go into the City for a few days. Sierra fell down the cellar steps and broke her arm and a rib or two. Her doctor in Shelterville wanted an orthopedist in the City to set it right.
......She looked at him. Oh, it wasn't so bad. We stayed at the Red Roof Inn, ate out every night. Sierra got treated like a queen. Afterwards, he's always so ni
. She stopped suddenly and looked out the window. He just gets so mad sometimes. Her mouth clamped shut. Then, Anyway, we're home now.
......Is Perry the one who gets them off to school on Tuesdays? Jim asked after a few minutes. He could almost picture Perry lolling in bed while the kids put on their old worn clothing and ate cold cereal in total silence so as not to wake the sleeping bear.
......No, I see them off before I leave the house. The school bus comes early-at 7:00 a.m. She looked at him quizzically. Perry doesn't leave till nine or so. Says it doesn't pay to show up at his delivery stops too early, she explained. He likes having the one day to sleep in a quiet house. She sighed, shaking her head a little.
......Jim nodded and dropped the subject. In a few minutes, Louise was prattling on about an upcoming bake sale and whether her lemon squares could measure up to Lila Mueller's. He rarely listened to her conversation; he realized that again.
......It was a week or two before he went out to her house. He didn't act hastily, giving himself plenty of time to consider his moves, even thinking a good scare might be all it took to put things right. Although Jim's father had never beat his wife or sons, he was a similar sort of man. A bully. Jim's mother had never once missed having dinner on the table when he came in the door at six. Never once served him a dish he didn't like or failed to have his shirts pressed, his shoes shined. And there were a million other things she had done to avoid his wrath, his insults, his jibes. All for naught, of course. His father got too much pleasure out of humiliating her to not find a reason.
......Jim knew many such men. The town was filled with them: men who took their failures out on their wives; men jealous of their sons' youth, berating them at every turn; men fearful of their daughters' beauty, who demeaned their intelligence; men in bars looking for a fight if their opponent looked smaller or weaker; men who used the war or the government or religion as an excuse to yell, to pick up a rock or a gun.
......He knew these men, but he wasn't one of them and would never be; he had made sure of that when he left the force, had reiterated it when he gave up the lease on the private office and threw the plaque in that ill-fitting desk drawer. A friend or two had expressed surprise at his decision. But you're a natural at this work, one or two had said. And he did have the nose, the patience and even the intelligence or instinct for it. What he didn't have was the gut for it, nor the ability to step away. He was inside of every case looking out. His reclamation had begun all those years ago when he asked Cindy for a divorce the morning after he had grabbed her hard enough to make her face go white with fear.
......And here he was literally inside. The house was still when he entered it. He had dropped Louise off, convinced she had no idea of his plan despite his jittery feet, his sweaty palms, and returned via the Interstate, parking his truck in some brush down the road and walking quickly across the field. He still remembered how to be invisible, how to slip into a situation without being detected. Those skills would always be part of him but better left alone.
......Most people still left their doors unlocked in the daytime around here and Louise's house was no exception. He stepped inside, easing the door closed behind him. The kitchen still smelled of cooked cereal, of eggs, of coffee. Perry's place was set, the other spots cleared away. It was a neat kitchen but in ill repair. Plaster leaked from a spot on the ceiling, handles were missing from several cabinets, the windows rattled loosely in their frames. It was certainly Louise's house. It even smelled like her. A dull burning filled his stomach-like when he'd drunk too much coffee before eating breakfast.
......He climbed the stairs. Although the farmhouse probably dated from the late 1800s, the steps were thickly carpeted in some garish runner. Perhaps Perry didn't relish bouncing his family members off the wooden steps so had this carpeting installed. As Jim neared the top, he heard the shower running. It didn't make much difference where he confronted Perry: in the shower, in the bedroom, at breakfast, he would be equally surprised by a pistol in his face at eight o'clock in the morning. He edged nearer the bathroom door and pushed it further open with his foot. He could see the water running in an empty stall. No one at the sink either. He had begun to turn when he felt something at his back.
......Did you really think there'd be anything worth taking in this old place. Or do you have other business here?
......Before Jim could respond, the voice continued. Now turn around real slow with your hands where I can see 'em so my rifle don't get any funny ideas and go off. Jim turned and saw his quarry at a barrel distance. Perry was a funhouse mirror image of his children: stout, square-headed and red in the face but of gargantuan proportions. He certainly weighed in at 275 lbs or more and was probably crowding 6'4. His hair was so white he appeared to be bald at first. His skin was only a shade darker. Jim was face-to-face with a giant.
......Jim's situation was so ludicrous that he felt no surprise when inspiration suddenly seized him. I'm no burglar, Perry. Louise asked me to come out here for her. She left her key to the library on her bureau -- or some such place. He plastered a smile on his face and looked up, up, up at his prey. The holes in this explanation were even larger than Louise's husband.
......But after a strained second, the expression on Perry's face changed and the gun was lowered. Hey, you must be Jim. That guy who runs her into town Tuesdays. Perry smiled. I bet she left her key on the kitchen table. That girl has no memory. I have to run after her 'bout half the time with her keys or her purse. Surprisingly, Perry sounded fond of Louise. Jim's father had never managed to sound fond of his mother. His voice had a curl to it whenever he said her name. He could remember it still - Ruth-the one syllable dragging out to three in his father's mouth.
......This was a new idea; that a wife-beater could still love his wife. He realized Perry was still talking, thanking him for the weekly rides, offering him coffee and leftover eggs. I usually make breakfast myself, Perry said. That Louise can't cook for beans. He laughed. Hey, for beans. Get it?
......Jim nodded, smiling nervously. What was going on here? This guy didn't seem capable of hurting anyone, wasn't nearly angry enough, didn't fit the profile. He wasn't like Jim's father or any of the men who broke into fights at the drop of a hat. Not like any of the men Jim had come across over the years. His mind tried to wrestle with this even as he stood there in Louise's kitchen.
......Though there was the rifle, Jim reminded himself. But what man living in the country didn't have firearms, he thought fingering the pistol in his pocket. Sure, he said finally. I got time for a cup. Instantly, he regretted it. The smart thing to do would have been to get out of here before circumstances changed. What if Louise called?
......Sure, Louise probably hooked up with the librarian by now and is inside cleaning her johns. Sit down. Perry poured him a cup of coffee and looked in the oven for the promised eggs. He slid them out of the iron skilled and onto a plate, pushed the ketchup across the table and sat down.
......Say, Sierra's wounds are healing real good, Perry said, after a minute, rounding up some loose sugar on the table with his finger. Did Louise tell you that?
......No, but that's good news, Jim said, barely able to hide his surprise. Did men like Perry discuss their bad deeds with strangers?
......She should of told you that. Hey, fellow, it's not your fault, you know, Perry told him, licking his sugary finger and dipping it into the pile of sugar again. I hope Louise didn't let you think we blamed you for Sierra taking a tumble when you opened the truck door. Easy to forget how high trucks are these days. He paused. And what does a bachelor know about kids? Especially Sierra who's as clumsy as her brother. That bone doctor says she'll be good as new in a couple weeks.
......And her mother too, Jim said, trying to keep up with the direction Perry was headed in. She's clumsy too, I mean.
......Louise ain't clumsy, Perry explained. She just gets mad easy and flies into things. He laughed but without much mirth. Walls, the kids. But especially me. She's taken that iron pan to my head more than once. He nodded to the skillet, sitting in the sink with water in it. He paused. Matter of fact, when I heard you in the kitchen I thought maybe she'd finally hired herself someone. A hit man maybe. Jim laughed lightly to break the tension, but Perry didn't seem to hear him. Anyway, just wanted you to know we don't blame you for Sierra's injuries. Hell, you're the guy who gives Louise a ride. He stood up. Can't imagine where her key could be. He started to look around.
......Like you said, she's probably inside the library by now. Well, I'd better get to work. Jim rose and headed for the door. Perry followed him.
......Listen, I wonder if you could tell Louise I won't be able to give her rides anymore. Jim asked, putting his hand on the knob. I've been putting off telling her 'cause I know she counts on me, but I'm changing jobs next week. I'll be taking the Interstate.
......Well, sure, Perry said. I'll tell her. She can just take the bus in like she used to. Or she'll find someone else to drive her in. Louise's real resourceful that way. He smiled. And thanks again. She'll probably want to thank you herself
......No need for that, Jim said quickly. Your thank you is more than enough. He stepped outside and the door closed behind him. He headed for the truck, taking the Interstate back to town..