Fiction and Drama
Or Things I Did Not Do or Say
Only yesterday I drove my wife, I still think of her as my wife, to the new Denver airport, no longer new. The great white Mylar-covered peaks of the terminal, or perhaps they’re meant to evoke teepees, came up from the plains, they were catching the late afternoon light, and she said, “I will miss you baby.” Many years ago she dropped her faintly braying banker-Irish accent in favor of a somewhat imaginary, Western way of talking distinguished among other things by a liberal use of the word baby. “Oh likewise. Christ,” I naturally responded after a poignant week (the mood of last week was quiet, gracious, and frail) in which my wife, or ex-wife, rather, had spent each day packing boxes and I’d returned from the office each night to a slightly emptier house. I looked to Viv, who smiled her frank smile from the passenger seat. Of course she was wiping her eyes.
We may have fought for two years plus, but the last week was very nice, we ate take-out and drank copious wine in the emptying house, we even made love or had sex every night, the way evidently you will when your spouse is leaving for good. The last week was very gracious and untypical, and we’d hardly talked at all. I’m the one being left with the house, I am the one staying put, and so for me the last week seemed strangely like the visit of a guest. It seemed as though she’d come, albeit for twenty-seven years and change, only in order to leave, and all week long we were quiet and even ceremonious with one another. It occurred to me that it was as if we were bowing to each other, at a little distance, in robes. “I’ve become as polite as you are!” Viv said once hostilely, but only once.
She dressed yesterday in a tailored blue suit, for Vivian air travel has remained a formal occasion. I packed the trunk with her two suitcases and then drove her the three hours to the new airport. I’m the one who originally enticed her out here, I had boasted of the open space and ideal climate, the friendly people and the tucked-away valley for ourselves, and now I was sending her back. Her mother lives these days in an assisted living facility, the big house in Boxford, Mass., was sold many years ago, yet all the same I felt I was sending her home.
There wasn’t much talk until we’d passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel. Then we began talking about Tim, who pleases us. In my case a large part of the pleasure derives from his being the sort of child you don’t have to worry about too much, except in the vague sense that you think of him always. Mostly what Viv and I discussed was Tim’s fiancée (his second), their new apartment, his new bio-diesel car (Tim believes in a small impact, a minimal environmental footprint, it’s a matter of strong conviction with him).
Small talk has an aspect of bravery when things are winding down. We came out of the mountains, down through the foothills, with Denver spreading at their base, and talked about little and then about nothing. And then the peaks or teepees, or perhaps they are notionally sails, of the new international airport rose up from the plains, we’d reached the place where the airport road bifurcates, and I bore right, toward terminal A, and Viv, as I said, was wiping her eyes.
“We did all right,” I told her.
“We never killed anyone,” she allowed, it was only a joke, and yet this was where something shifted for me. I stopped at the gate to the parking garage and received a paper punchcard from the electronic sentry.
“No,” I said uncertainly.
“Made you think for a second.”
I made an effort to smile. The things you never speak of quickly forfeit their reality, or so it seems, the deeds or intentions which you not only do not mention either casually or seriously but which you know you will never mention in any mood or tone at all, slip so easily into a factitious oblivion—but now Vivian’s casual mention of murder brought back to me the memory of a certain single day. It was as if that day or more precisely that long afternoon, those several hours or perhaps they were no more than forty minutes, spent, almost thirty years ago, inside a stranger’s house, still existed somewhere (this is how I suddenly felt, with a feeling of nausea) like a piece of food under glass.
“Oh don’t sulk things up,” Viv was saying. The forgiving mood of the week was broken. “Have I told you once or twice what it’s like to live with this guilty-acting man?”
By then I’d parked the car in a numbered spot and had opened the door and got out, wanting to help her with her things. I wanted to behave normally and well. Yet as I unlatched the trunk I found that the skin on my arms and back was prickling, and that in spite of the cold March air, colder still in this sunless dusty garage, I had begun to sweat.
We made our way with her bags to the elevator bank. Unaccompanied, we took an elevator to the appropriate level. Viv’s anger had dried her tears. “Just because a marriage didn’t work out,” she was saying, “that doesn’t mean your life—”
“I agree, Vivian,” I said, as the elevator door opened and we debouched into the sterile sparkle of the sunlit terminal. I set down my wife’s or, rather, ex-wife’s baggage and prepared to hug her goodbye.
“You’re freaking me out,” she complained, and indeed the memory of something I had never told her had induced a fear of plundered secrecy, as if I might be found out now, at the last moment.
“Say one word.” Bitterly she was shaking her head.
There was nothing to do but to embrace, and to say, as I did say, that I loved and would miss her, and then to let her walk away, however angry and perplexed. “My best to your mom,” I called out with senseless final politeness, her mother does not remember me, her dementia is too advanced. Viv walked away shouldering one bag and pulling the other on wheels (the rest of her things have been shipped East in boxes), and even from behind I could detect the instant when she raised her eyes and looked straight ahead.
I returned to the car and collected myself. I put in a CD of Neil Young’s recently re-released On the Beach. I drove back home on I-70. I passed through the shuddering lees of huge semis and passed by the ski-lifts with their chairs descending empty, and I listened to the album on repeat, particularly lingering on track 6. When I drive along I-70 these days or recent years, all the buildings are half-transparent to me and I see through them to the trees and bare rocks that were there when I was a kid and a young man and the state was less discovered. And then on the other side of the Eisenhower tunnel, with all the other traffic suddenly slowing, taillights lit in warning, I entered into the enormous blizzard that, according to the radio, covered much of the western slope yesterday. It was something like six o’clock when I turned off the Interstate to head up Eby Creek Road. There is something terrible, frightening in seeing a tranche of frenzied snow lit up by headlights while all around snow falls invisibly through the perfect dark.
I no longer remember the date, I can only remember the day. I do recall that the day fell on the date I had picked out for it, a Saturday sometime in early June, this would have been June of 1974. Of course I had no intention of being arrested and jailed for my crime—I planned to take every precaution—but all the same or just in case I could not allow my new wife to become an accomplice before (or after) the fact, therefore I had waited to put my plan into action until Vivian was away. Something like a week had passed since the event that precipitated my murderous rage when Viv flew back East to recover from her ordeal. Her mother and father had withheld all but the most formal approval of their daughter’s marriage to a young man of no established family, a Westerner, however well educated, without ambitions in medicine, business, or law, a land surveyor (as I was then and have in some sense remained), and I suspected that while Vivian lay recuperating in her girlhood bedroom, her parents would indulge in subtle efforts to convince her that she had made a mistake, but not one she must live with, she was still young, the East was full of eligible young men, and after all, as was only too obviously the case, there was no child to complicate matters. And much as I suspected that my in-laws would make this case against me, I was equally inclined to believe, without being comfortably certain, that Vivian would reject their arguments and return to me in the same state of love, and committed still to our life together in the beautiful mountain valley that I had proposed and she had accepted for our home, notwithstanding the brutality of some of our neighbors, of whom there would be (for this was my settled plan) one fewer, very soon.
The intention to kill Winokur had sprung into my mind the moment I located the first of our missing dogs in the field of sagebrush not far from our house, where the animal lay on his side in the wet dust, it had only just rained, with a look of apology on his soulful canine face. His belly, pale and nearly bald like an old man’s head, was visibly torn and bleeding in one place, and I knew immediately that our surmise must be correct and that, true to his reputation on the basis of stories told in town, Winokur must have poisoned our dogs with hamburger meat spiked with ground glass, just as he was alleged to have done to the dogs of several other people living at the time on Brush Creek and Salt Creek. My sudden appearance at the dog’s side seemed to supply him, Sam was his name, you don’t forget the name of a dog, with the occasion to cry, and in spite of his look of embarrassment he did yowl and loudly whimper. Naturally I bent down for a moment to pat the dog whom I loved and whom my wife loved more intensely, but the more necessary thing was to leave him and return with a gun. And as I walked back to the house already I had determined to kill Winokur, an act I knew or believed would cause me infinitely less pain than to shoot Sam or, as I feared I would also have to do, once I found her, our other dog, Lola. Winokur was notorious in Eagle and the surrounding area for his meanness and drunkenness, for his hatred of dogs and of hippies, Winokur was widely loathed and had accumulated numerous enemies among people like us and ranchers alike, and I saw no reason why if he were murdered anyone would cast suspicion on so gentle a person as myself, bearded and idealistic, nor could I see why the death of Winokur would give anyone cause to grieve.
You found her? Viv said when she saw me come back through the front door. Him, I said. But yes . . . I reached in back of the incongruous walnut highboy, an heirloom from Viv’s grandparents, shipped by her parents at great expense from Massachusetts, and felt for the barrels of my elk gun and my .22. The .22 rifle would do, I pulled the gun out, I opened a drawer and shook a few bullets into my pocket, telling Viv that I’d found only Sam so far, that I needed to take care of him (the ambiguous but crystal-clear phrase I believe I used) before going to look for Lola. After a moment she said, How can there be . . . ? and I understood her to mean such a person, how could Winokur exist, just on the other side of Horse Mountain, not two miles away as the crow flies, for that was where he lived, a man who had allegedly bragged of his hatred of us in the saloon in town, a man who wished nothing but ill upon the modest idyll we’d worked so hard and peaceably to establish in this narrow mountain valley where in the evenings we ate rustic homemade food, drank jug red wine and sometimes smoked a little dope, reading enlightening books, as we conceived them, out loud or to ourselves, and playing music for one another whether on the record player or my Guild F30 guitar, meanwhile expecting the birth of our first child. (I can admit I had some misgivings about a pregnancy before our second year was up, yet all the same I know I was pleased.)
I hugged Viv of course but it was cruel to the dog to linger, so I left her in tears on that absurd silk-upholstered settee of ours, decorated with mirror-bedizened throw pillows she had picked up in some incense-smelling emporium in Harvard Square, and walked back through the sage (the sweet cool scent had been brought out by rain), scattering a few jackrabbits as I went, and when I returned to Sam naturally I knelt down again and patted him, saying some comforting meaningless words before standing up and aiming the .22 at his temple. I didn’t so much hear the report as I thought of Vivian hearing it a few hundreds yards away, distraught in her nightgown and far from a banker father’s well-appointed house or a dorm room inside a solid fieldstone building on the arboretum-cum-campus of Swarthmore College, where we’d so recently met and fallen in love, and where she’d first heard me talk, in romantic tones, as she observed, reserved for only these two subjects, of our future together and the mountains in Colorado.
It was several hours later when I found Lola across the little footbridge, on the other side of the gabbling creek, among the scrub oak at the base of Horse Mountain. She was panting and perplexed and I took care of her just as I had Sam. And when I stood up and carried her, still very warm, toward our little creekside garden plot, next to which we had decided to bury her and her companion, I thought again that I would kill Winokur, and gladly, without the least disruption of remorse, perhaps this was in order not to have to think of Lola and Sam, they would not be alive again, death is death, the fact is hard to learn.
Do they need to be so deep? Viv asked, and I told her we wanted the dogs too deep for anything to dig them up, therefore it was already dark by the time I had filled in the two graves behind the patch of rhubarb that bordered our garden to one side. Viv was still wearing nothing but her nightgown and sweater and a pair of clogs. She had piled at the heads of the mounds two cairns of chipped red sandstone from the mountain across the road. You promise you’ll go see sheriff first thing? she was asking me again and I was assuring her again that I would go see him, in spite of my settled knowledge (while everything else was turbulent) that I would tell neither the sheriff nor any of our friends who it was that I suspected of the crime, the better to escape suspicion when it came to my own crime, not that anyone would blame the act or regret it. Probably the sheriff was no friend of Winokur’s either, maybe he’d hardly bother to investigate.
I held on to Vivian while she beat her fists once or twice against me and cried. It was largely for the strength of her emotions that I loved her at that time. She was tall and pale and black-haired, Black Irish you would say, with a steep, tall face and pale and clear eyes that were gray when they were not green or blue. And the steep nose and tall forehead, the wide mouth and flattened planes of her bones, and especially the changeable eyes, gave her such a look of candor that everyone else, by comparison, seemed to have had his face mixed-up or blended with a mask. Her feelings were strong, she could never conceal them, and so she was crying, with her stronger feelings about all things than my own. These after all were the first dogs she’d had, her parents though generous in other things hadn’t allowed pets.
Back in the house on our quilted bed we proceeded to have sex very forcefully. I lay on my back and she would you say? bestrode me, one hand working between her legs beneath her slightly swollen belly, and the other shading her eyes as she continued to sob. We were twenty-four. But sex altered nothing, afterward the situation was still mercilessly the same, we lay naked on our sides and couldn’t help each other.
I would have thought my rage at Winokur incapable of increasing, but of course when, the same night, grief at the loss of our dogs was compounded with greater grief at the apparent loss of our would-be baby (a word we didn’t manage to pronounce at the time), then my rage against Winokur was only redoubled. A murderer asks for murder, I thought, the only injustice is that he cannot be murdered more than once, I will take pleasure in the deed, I’ll merely wound him at first, then he will lie in his blood and howl and beg on the floor. I’ll curse his vanishing existence and relish out loud the task of his overdue murder, torture is nothing immoral when it comes to such a person. And my fury at Winokur made me only the more furious at him, because it distracted me from my wife even as I drove her at high speed to the hospital, one hand on the steering wheel and the other clasping hers. I’ve always been inexpert at commiserating Viv, sometimes it seems I was so solicitous of her feelings that I neglected to have my own, and as we sped through Glenwood Canyon—not that there was any reason to speed, anymore—I knew there was something distracted in my words, how Vivian dislikes that quality of distraction in men.
We will have children, I was nevertheless saying, or something like that, and they’ll have dogs. I was on the verge of promising, absurdly, a future for us of plentiful dogs, when Viv broke out with what in later years or at least the last two years I came to think of as her note of customary scorn: You can’t replace—she said. But before she specified what could not be replaced, grief overtook her scorn and she sobbed with a sound of surprise. Agony—all these tears—at first is such a surprise, we were young at that time and more or less beautiful, we were happily married and, as the phrase goes, making a life, therefore agony (in spite of our convictions vis-à-vis the bombing of Cambodia) was not something we believed in, not for ourselves. Moreover I knew the pain and surprise would not be so intense if, without either of us having said so, we did not suspect the miscarriage of being the far-reaching deed of Winokur, not a misfortune so much as a cruelty. The loss was like a kick, it was accompanied by such a feeling of contempt.
Vivian spent a night in the Glenwood hospital (I was later reimbursed by her father), and came home to Salt Creek the next evening. It was June and I went outside to gather some wildflower—I can see my fists filled with white and purple lupine and wild geraniums, with Indian paintbrush and glowing staffs of scarlet gillia—but the gesture was somehow incorrect, too little or too much, our rapport had been disturbed, and by the time Vivian flew back East to see her parents, not only were the dogs gone, and not only the prospect of the baby or child (we had discussed proper names but now didn’t know what term to use), something else was gone as well. Perhaps it was a certain mood of spreading ease between Vivian and myself, a certain sensation of enlarging contact and lighter, surer touch such as no doubt sweeps through many newly married couples, especially those, more common at the time, who haven’t lived together before their wedding night. (We’d honeymooned in a rented clapboard house on Martha’s Vineyard, then came the drive out west, the succession of motels, the long ramp of the plains, followed, one evening, by the foothills at dusk. Viv had wanted to see the Rockies in daylight, but we were reluctant to spend another twenty dollars on a room, therefore her first proper or sunlit view of the mountains she had from the floor of our new house.) With the help of some friends Viv and I had added a living room and new bedroom to the cabin which already stood on the property. Around the kernel of the pre-existing cabin we had constructed a small house of pine and cedar and beetle-killed spruce, and perhaps our common labor had seemed to create between or around us a shared spiritual or emotional condition, I don’t know. But now in the days since the dogs talk came less easily, touch was unfortunately deliberate, and Vivian had wondered aloud whether it was really so smart for a young educated couple like ourselves to be homesteading off in the mountains, eight miles from a town that was itself just a highwayside hamlet in those days.
Therefore when on the determined day I set out to kill Winokur, I despised him not only as a murderer but also as the despoiler of our happiness. It was a Saturday, bright and crisp with that fragile warmth of an alpine day in June. I assumed that with hunting season still several months away Winokur would spend a Saturday afternoon at home alone, no doubt drinking himself blind by six o’clock, and I knew that if I did succeed in finding him alone no one could then trace the crime to me except perhaps by dusting for fingerprints or by the use of some trained dog, there was no DNA evidence in 1974. Therefore in Grand Junction, where no one knew me, I had purchased a new pair of work gloves as well as a new .358 Magnum. And lest the trail of my particular scent lead some talented police dog along a trail of footprints to Viv’s and my place on Salt Creek, I had determined that I would make my approach to Winokur’s from another valley over. In this way too I could avert the possibility of some neighbor’s saying he’d seen my truck heading toward and then returning from Winokur’s on the same day the man was killed.
I made a hearty breakfast for myself, and then drove away from Salt Creek, down Brush Creek, through the town of Eagle and up Highway 6, turning then off onto Lake Creek, where I followed a lonely dirt road to its end. There were no subdivisions or second homes up Lake Creek then, nothing at all except for the seasonal cabins of some cowhands, and where the road dead-ended I parked and got out of the truck. I removed my gloves and new pistol from under the glove compartment, I shut the door behind me, and then walked away through the rabbit brush and wheatgrass. I straddled some rancher’s sagging barbed wire fence—if I’d had a dog with me I might have parted the middle strands to let him through—and then vanished into the trees.
I would walk along one ridge and then the next, I would come at length to Horse Mountain and then (putting on the gloves, and withdrawing the gun) I would drop down onto the Brush Creek side. Honed and enlivened by a project of revenge, is how I believe I felt as I walked along through stands of quaking aspen. It must have taken me several hours to reach my destination but I have hardly any memory of the trek along Bellyache Ridge, with the ragged peaks of a portion of the Sawatch off to my right-hand side and a sky above of hard enameled blue, familiar sky of any clear day. What did I think, what did I imagine or believe? Maybe anger made me simple and purified my mind. In later years the land-surveying company I worked for would become my own, and as people poured in from the coasts and the real-estate market boomed, I would prosper along with the business, Viv and I would finally escape the charity of her parents, we would move to this development up Eby Creek called Pilgrim Downs, a place from which we have a fine, expensive view of these same mountains, and in those later days (which are these present days) the sight of snowcapped New York Mountain together with the thought of its name would always set off an obscure sensation of irony in me. New York Mountain, I would think and still do think, there it is, as if the city of New York somehow presided over even the lower Eagle River and its tributaries. After graduation Viv and I had briefly entertained the idea of moving to Greenwich Village, but I convinced her to come out here, otherwise New York City means nothing to me.
At last I came down from the second ridge onto the slope opposite ours, and began to look for some sign of Winokur’s cabin. Like any southern face at that altitude, this one was covered with pinyon and juniper, and once I’d put on my gloves (a needless precaution out of doors) and placed my hand on the gun in the pocket of my down vest, it was among cinnamon-colored trunks of pinyons and peeling gray strips of juniper bark that I walked, looking past these trees for a glimpse of flashing window or straight roofline, truck or woodpile, outhouse or septic tank. Of course needle-covered boughs of pinyons and juniper boughs with their tiny fingered leaves hardly obscure your view, and before long I’d caught sight of a dark roof. Probably it was covered in tarpaper, certainly it lacked shingles, and the crudity of structure which this implied seemed to me of a piece with Winokur’s raw-boned rudimentary being.
I came slowly though the trees. I took a wide berth of the cabin and walked below it, so as to swing around to the driveway (a Dodge pickup in bad shape was parked there) and knock like a gentleman at the front door. I wanted him to know who had killed him when he sat down on the floor.
There was no bell or chimes on the door, that would have been too decorative for him. A person who merely exists, subsists, respires—who meanly survives, who can be said to breathe but not really to live—has no need of ornamental elegance, of course no flowers bordered the crude gray box of a cabin, no birdfeeders hung from the eaves, it seemed in fact he’d hardly bothered to treat the wood. The steps to the front door, up which I’d walked, were not redwood or riverrock, they were plain cement. I knocked hard on the door. Possibly he would hear the hostility in the sound, possibly he would approach me with a rifle, but I doubted he would be quick enough in his wits or with his index finger to aim and shoot and kill me before I had plugged him in the chest. If he carried a gun I would fire at his heart, if he was unarmed then at his stomach, I hadn’t forgotten the need to torture him.
Mr. Winokur? I said as sternly as is possible at the age of twenty-four. Yet I heard no footsteps and saw no motion through the large plate glass window, of course the window was without curtains.
I turned the knob and pushed open the creaking door. I noticed first of all the faint smell, cool and slightly sour: a bouquet in which there was the taste of firewood, but also something indefinable, the peculiar musk of another man’s life. The cabin consisted of one main room containing an institutional-looking banquet table, too big for the space, of the kind you might see at a wedding, as well as several metal chairs, a squat woodburning stove, an unmade bed with a peeled-back quilt, and, in a kind of kitchen corner, a stove-and-range and aluminum sink. The shelves above supported ranks of canned food, doomsday rations of a man without a woman. (Viv was an excellent cook and getting better, venturing beyond the authority of the cookbooks, in this way too becoming skilled in the art of her pleasure and mine.) Of course there was no couch, why buy or steal one when you never entertain? His bed would do to host his solitude, and as for visitors he had a 10-inch TV.
To all appearances Winokur lived every bit as badly as might have been imagined, except that he did have a bathroom, the door was open to a little closet built into one corner of the house, I could glimpse the toilet therein. At least he had the sense not to shit exactly where he ate, civilization had made such inroads with him that he had availed himself of indoor plumbing. Otherwise I was unimpressed. I turned around and took in the room, feeling haughty and juridical. I saw no mitigating much less exculpatory evidence, nothing to encourage the commutation of his sentence.
However, the thought of legal procedures awakened a scruple in me and I realized that I had no certain knowledge that this was Winokur’s house at all, rather than simply a house or rather cabin located beneath the ridge of Horse Mountain at approximately the place where someone had mentioned that he lived. Keeping my right hand at all times on the gun inside my vest pocket, I walked over to the banquet table meant to support trays of food and pitchers of water, baskets of bread and soup tureens, and which instead Winokur (or, a slight possibility, someone else) had covered with papers and crinkled old magazines, a hammer and a toolbox, assorted junk. The first torn envelope I picked up had been sent by the First National Bank, our own bank too, and addressed unmistakably to Albert Winokur, specifying his post office box as well as the zip code still so familiar to me today. I stuffed the envelope into my left hip pocket, a souvenir. And the deductive confirmation that this shabby cabin with its stale sour smell was indeed the residence of my enemy, whose minutes or hours of remaining life were therefore numbered, filled me with the same sort of nervous alacrity that in those days I experienced before getting it on with Vivian, or lighting a joint of good grass, or tuning in to watch the Broncos play an important game on TV. I smiled at the thought of reporting to my wife, with a masculine shrug signifying the regrettable necessity of occasional violence, that someone must have offed old Winokur, you didn’t acquire as many enemies as he did and expect to grow old around here.
It sometimes happened to me then, before the constipations of middle age, that the eager anticipation of some event would be felt in my stomach and cause my bowels to move, and I would have to repair directly to the bathroom before indulging in the sex, or the joint, or the big game. And that was what happened to or befell me on that ancient afternoon as I waited for Winokur to walk through the door, imagining the look of blasted surprise that would appear on his dry gaunt face. (Not that I recalled his exact features, having only seen him the once, but there are faces which, without remembering them, you know you will recognize if ever you see them again.) I walked off to the little windowless bathroom, pulling behind me the door of untreated pine, and it did not even occur to me to think what an awkward scene of murder might ensue if Winokur were to come home at this moment. Everyone enjoys an estimation, however inaccurate, of his own luck, and my youthful sense of my own luck did not include the possibility of having to get up from a toilet with my pants around my ankles to shoot someone in the guts or, in that case, just to be safe, the heart. I’d formed an idea of the right way of killing Winokur, it was allied to an idea of dignity (mine, not his), and as I sat on his commode (with one of those grotesque padded seats), it never occurred to me that he might return through the door at this most inopportune moment. And he didn’t return then, my sense of my luck was not wrong, not altogether, I had always been, what to say? an efficient person in the bathroom, despite the pleasure taken in the act.
I stood and cleaned myself (he wasn’t such a savage that he lacked toilet paper), I pulled up and buttoned my blue jeans, I put on the work gloves again to open the faucet over the tub—there was no sink in there—and then, shouldering the shower curtain to one side, poised above the grimy tub, after returning the gun to my pocket while I clamped the gloves beneath my left armpit, I soaped and rinsed my hands (as perhaps I would also do when I got home: it must feel natural to wash your hands after committing a murder, gloves or no gloves). I regloved my wet hands, I took hold of the gun with one hand and with the other shut off the faucet, then moved to flush the toilet.
Nothing happened. There was no sound or motion of swallowed water, the telltale ordure remained just where it was. I didn’t know what to do, it offended my sense of dignity to leave this mess in the house of the man I’d come to kill, it did not accord with my plan. I tried the handle again, and again: nothing. For the first time I began to be afraid, indeed the crazy fear came into me that police dogs would smell what I had left in Winokur’s house and detect the same distinct odor in our bathroom on Salt Creek, I would not only be arrested for my crime, but when the nature of the decisive evidence was revealed in court the story would find its way into the press, no one would be able to resist laughing at a murderer convicted on the basis of such evidence. So I returned the gun to my pocket and lifted the porcelain lid from the porcelain tank, feeling my mood of enthusiastic vengeance give way to a fear of frustrated ambitions and miscarried justice, a rapidly generalizing fear of thwarted happiness and botched life. My sense of providential luck, so robust a moment ago, as I’d sat on Winokur’s toilet in a moment of blameless animal release, was giving way. Somehow I felt unworthy of my wife. I wished to be a graceful and decisive man, deft, kind, and strong, and here I stood holding the lid off the toilet tank of the man whom I’d allowed to kill our dogs and doom our first child, presently letting the gun fall out of my pocket—it hit the padded toilet seat, then clattered to the floor, I was lucky it didn’t go off—as I tried like a plumber to determine what the hell was wrong with Winokur’s broken commode.
I set down the lid—too loudly: what if he should come home?—and retrieved the gun from the floor. The fear of being arrested on grounds of my own shit inspired thoughts of leaving in disgrace. I contemplated going away and coming back tomorrow, never mind that I had originally ruled out killing him on Sunday, I was not a religious young man but still. . . . These or something like these were the thoughts I was still thinking (in moments of panic your thoughts go in circles) when I heard the door squeak open and heard heavy masculine steps tramp into the main room. The front door creaked shut as, instinctively and all but silently, I stepped into the bathtub and hid behind the plastic shower curtain. I’d hardly noticed the shower curtain before: it was printed all over with a childish motif of cartoonish parti-colored daisies, and Winokur had turned the bright decorative side inward, as if to entertain himself while he bathed. Or did the curtain testify to a vanished female presence? More likely it had been the cheapest thing available.
The thing to do now was to step out of the bathtub, stride straight into the main room and shoot him from ten paces in the gut. Yet I had not completely discredited the idea of my being tracked by dogs to Salt Creek. Certainly I’d arrived at no resolution of my dilemma when I heard soft footsteps (he’d taken off his boots) quickly coming close. The pine door swung open not five feet away. Now he would see or smell the shit, in angry curiosity he would yank back the curtain—I held the gun out straight before me, my elbow at a right angle—and I would blast him in the heart, no room now for playing around with torture. And yet this wasn’t what transpired. I couldn’t believe it, but I heard Winokur unbuckle his belt and unbutton his pants, I heard him establish himself heavily (a big man, or else clumsy) on the cracked horseshoe-shaped seat. In a moment he made a vile sigh of relief, and it wasn’t long before I detected an odor complementing unpleasantly the naturally somewhat pleasant odor of myself. Now I must kill him, I thought, really it is intolerable that he should visit such affliction on my family and then force me to savor, at close range, the warm stench of his solid waste. Not that it sounded terribly solid, the stools of gone alcoholics are notoriously loose.
At this disgusting reflection I laughed out loud, there was no doubting the sound of my laughter, now I was going to have to shoot Winokur point blank in the heart. Presently he would pull aside the flowery shower curtain (I was gripping the gun with both hands), and I’d fire, and fire again if necessary, nothing to worry about now in terms of dogs, by now he’d thoroughly disguised my scent with his own.
My heart thumped tremendously, yet the curtain didn’t move, nothing happened, he only went on sighing and muttering to himself. Did he say something like sweet ornery Jesus or sweet Georgia peaches? He must be blind drunk not to have heard me. Or else—this was the thought that made me laugh out loud a second time, as distinctly as the first—perhaps he imagined the laughter as a voice in his head! I gripped the pistol harder, because now he would have heard, twice would be proof, time for him to die. But again nothing, nothing kept happening, the same nothing tortuously prolonged. I was too astonished to laugh again as I listened and waited for the curtain to move, meanwhile inhaling the horrible close smell (less horrible now: such are the corruptions of intimacy) and in a moment listening to him as he rose from his seat, pulled up his pants, and buckled his belt. In my astonishment I heard him try the handle, fail to clear the toilet bowl, curse at it or himself—with sloppy, smeared enunciation—Goddammit! and then walk away with his careful-sounding drunkard’s steps, surprisingly delicate in a large man. I heard the cringing springs of his bed, it sounded like lying rather than sitting down, there was a slight tone of abandonment to the sound.
The once I’d seen him he was roaring drunk at the bar. And while our eyes didn’t meet and I didn’t catch or try to catch what he was saying, my distinct impression was of his having had the look of someone talking to someone else, expecting a reply. So I’d assumed he wasn’t deaf. No one had ever said he was deaf. But then I hadn’t heard Winokur mentioned in some time, no one had mentioned him at all, his earlier alleged spree against some other local dogs, about which he was alleged to have boasted at the saloon (not in sign language either, or in the bawling utterance of the deaf, but implicitly in a hearing man’s modulated tone of voice) had happened more than two years previous. So I had heard. And I hadn’t heard a word since. Still, perhaps he was just very drunk, not blind drunk but deaf drunk, maybe such a condition could exist. Or else he’d been going progressively deaf, a development that might well pass unnoticed and therefore unremarked in a man without friends. (But where did he work, and what was his job? Or might he be a veteran, perhaps a veteran of the war in Vietnam, drawing a disability check? Too bad no VC had finished him off.) Or then again he might really have lost his mind and when a man laughed at him from behind his incongruously floral shower curtain he attributed this to one or another voice in his ruined head.
But I was afraid to laugh again. Loss of hearing needn’t be complete, insanity needn’t be without windows onto reality, possibly if he heard me laugh a third time he would come looking.
Deaf or mad or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought Winokur so far gone in his debasement that when he discovered someone else’s shit floating in his toilet he calmly took it for his own, deposited there at some earlier drunken hour, and simply added to the pile. Or else perhaps his sense of smell was poor, perhaps he’d simply sat down without looking, perhaps that’s what others do, we never really know the excretory habits of our fellow men. But then for him to casually abandon the mess that he (and I) had left! To postpone the flushing of the toilet until the bender wore off! That was just too much. And yet in fairness, why should he suspect that another man had snuck in and used the broken toilet in his tiny cabin on the south face of Horse Mountain, and now stood in the bathtub waiting to kill him?
I’d returned the gun to my pocket and was simply shaking my head. I wiped my eyes with my gloved hands. I sniffed and hardly minded the smell, it’s appalling what you can get used to, something I often thought in later years (without anymore remembering this particular day) in the context of our marriage. The faltered certainties (first hers, then mine); the withheld warmth (first mine, then hers); the growing fluency of anger (hers) while the other moods stiffened; the silence (mine) that had ultimately spread; the fights (she started those) and then the more or less perfunctory adulteries (her initiative too, though the first betrayal need not be sexual or even social, perhaps I betrayed her first)—maybe I had a premonition of it then.
In any case, the hypothesis that Winokur had gone deaf lost much of its plausibility, and the hypotheses that he was deaf-drunk or else insane, suffering at times from aural hallucinations of unprompted laughter, both correspondingly gained something in plausibility, when I heard the man rouse himself from his bed, and after making a series of abstract fumbling noises, put on a record. I hadn’t noticed a record player but here came the sound of amplified static, the familiar momentous slide of needle across bare grooves, and then at incredible blaring volume the unmistakable voice of—of Merle Haggard, the famous country singer! My opinion of Winokur immediately improved. Certainly I resented Haggard’s jingoistic songs “Okie (From Muskogie)” and “The Fighting Side of Me,” but there was no failing to admire a baritone of such rare clarity, the effortless soundings and almost elocutionary precision of such a deep and twangy voice. But the woeful, comic song wasn’t one I knew then: “Oh I’m goin’ off—of the deep end / And I’m—sure-ly los-ing my mind / And I—dis-agree with the way [small chuckle] I’m a-living / But I—can’t hold my-self—in line.” The Calvary of self-awareness this suggested! Unless the song was merely first on the LP or EP, possibly it held no special significance for Winokur, perhaps he felt no special twinge of recognition when he heard: “You give—me no reason—for my drinkin’ / But I—can’t stand my-self at times. / And you’re—better off—to just leave and—forgit me / ’Cause I—can’t hold myself—in line.” I wondered if Winokur would play the song twice (lately while Vivian was away I had been listening to “On the Beach” over and over again), that would be telling, if he played the song a second time. But the needle just proceeded across another bald interval of static to the next track, it blared like its predecessor at top volume from the speakers, the flattened range revealed they could hardly go louder.
Unfortunately the music served as an acoustical disguise for Winokur’s movements. I had no idea where he was or what he was doing, he might be asleep or awake, or eating or drinking, he might have left the house. My firm intention remained to kill him. I hadn’t decided on forgiveness, or chosen to believe in the tiny possibility of his redemption. I hadn’t concluded that vigilantism was an error and that we must place our trust in the law. I did not feel that his solitude and cruelty must be punishment enough in themselves. Nor did I want to let the sonofabitch off the hook by mawkish suppositions about his unfortunate childhood or sad romantic career, it didn’t affect his case if he had served in Vietnam (what was his age anyway? in such a hard-living man it isn’t easy to tell), nor did it absolve him of anything if he was going deaf as a post. You might hear voices, you might feel laughed at from a corner of your own mind, but surely one inner voice protests against the murder of blameless dogs and warns of the far-reaching consequences of such deeds? It was impossible to forgive Winokur, or to hold out hope for his soul, or to swap my hatred for mercy. But the desire for revenge was ebbing, I didn’t know why, it was pulling away with the afternoon light.
I peeked from behind the flower-emblazoned shower curtain (I would never know where he got it, not unless I tortured and interrogated him), and seeing no sign of him standing stupidly before me in the din of the music, I stepped out from the tub with pistol drawn. Probably I would still have to kill him, after all I had no wish to be arrested for trespassing, or to be killed myself, or to offer up any explanations to this of all people. He would see me and sit up from his bed, a look of stupid surprise would cross his face, I would plug him in the heart. Yet as I peered out of the bathroom I considered it more of a regrettable necessity than anything.
Winokur was lying on his bed facing out the window with one arm bent over his head, awake or asleep or perhaps more precisely passed out. Merle Haggard drawled and wailed from the ravaged speakers while Winokur lay on his bed in all his clothes, though his boots were now off, a hole in one sock revealed a patch of yellowish pink-gray flesh. An implication of tension in his posture suggested he was conscious, if his eyes were open he must be looking out the window, in fact the bed stood very high off the floor, maybe he had built the frame at that level precisely in order to gaze out the window on long afternoons, perhaps no one is completely free of the wish for a finer life, a life to match or at least not be embarrassed by the beauty of Brush Creek—or Salt Creek or Lake Creek—in late spring. (A bright spring day in this part of the country was and still is a hard thing to bear.) I crept across the room, waiting to be noticed. Doesn’t everyone, no matter how drunk or crazy or tired or deaf, sense the presence of any nearby living body, sense it somehow beyond his senses?
But as I crept on tiptoe across his floor he didn’t turn around, Merle Haggard after all was still emptying his bottomless lungs, besides, the degree of Winokur’s hearing loss hadn’t been established, maybe to him the blasting music sounded like a neighbor’s distant party. Several feet from the front door, also the only door, the song stopped and I had a moment of terror. Was this the end of the side and there wouldn’t be another song, now Winokur would turn around to change the record and I’d shoot him in the heart? After a standard-length pause another number broke out from the stressed speakers, the decibel level really was excessive, it would cause hearing loss if you weren’t a sufferer already.
Very carefully I turned the brass knob on the door. Carefully, slowly, knowing I might have only this rueful shuffle of a song to work with, I pulled the door open just enough to permit my exit. Winokur moved then, but not much, he merely adjusted himself, he might be asleep or awake. Placing the gun in my left hand now and keeping my eyes at all times on the man on the bed, I slipped between the door and doorjamb. And then I pulled out my left arm out into the clean air, I was standing under the same sky as before, except that a few clouds had moved in, the clouds always arrive in the late afternoon.
I took a last look at Winokur (not that I saw his face, then or again), I addressed a last glance to the back of his head—a full head of hair, at least he was blessed in one way—and then I pulled the door shut with a bang, he may have heard me do at least that. But it didn’t manner, I was running away fast as I could, sprinting immediately behind the house (no windows in back) and away through the trees, out of his line of vision, invisible almost instantly.
From behind the ancient twisted pinyon where I stood there was no telling if Winokur emerged then from his cabin or house to look around, trying to gauge whether his aural hallucinations had got the better of him again or whether in fact his door had mysteriously opened and slammed shut. He might have come out, but I couldn’t tell, no figure appeared to either side of the house. So again nothing happened, or the same nothing, it kept happening, perhaps he never once in the years remaining to him suspected that another man was there with him that day, intimately with him even as he shat. No doubt he never thought of the day, why would he? Days pass and leave no mark, even most years disdain to touch us. That day which at the time somehow seemed to break my life in two I later essentially forgot.
I hiked up through the pinyons and junipers and walked east along the ridge of Horse Mountain while the sun went down at my back. I have no recollection of what I saw then, it was what I had seen all my life and have seen every year since, the heaped summits and stream-threaded valleys, the aspens quaking beneath the astringent blue of the sky, the afternoon clouds and the tattered fields of snow plastered onto New York Mountain as they reflect each stage of sunset, going yellow and then copper-colored, turning roseate and then briefly red before assuming the color of plums or bruises and fading at last into the general blue condition of the night. It must have been like that, I don’t remember. I do recall that walking east at sunset felt acutely wrong, like wading upstream against the flow of the light. But the truck was parked back there on Lake Creek, there was nothing else to do.
The other thing that I recall—I recalled it very vividly as I drove back from the airport last night—is that as I walked along the green ridge, and then down into the slight saddle between two comparatively low mountains, I began to weep, and was still weeping as I had not done since I was a boy or adolescent when I came to the last climb. The sky was fading, then darkening, then all but dark, the sun had long since dropped away, and what did I think about to make me so upset? I believe it must have been in part the large fact of the irreparable, the irreparable death of those two dogs, for example, no matter whether Winokur lived or died himself, and of course the disappearance, equally irreparable, of our would-be child. And there may also have been something in my tears to do with Winokur’s appalling privacy, my privacy, too, and no doubt the privacy of my wife’s pain as well, she was less forthcoming since the dogs died, speaking of whom, and speaking of privacy, they had gone off to die alone. Perhaps I thought of that; I think of it now. And as I was a somewhat psychoanalytically-minded young man in those days—Vivian was the same, we were so recently out of college—I wouldn’t put it past me to have been thinking at the same time of shit, shit which an analyst might say was originally a gift or duty to our parents, they stand above us waiting, it’s greedy to withhold it, that’s the idea, therefore the character of the miser is often associated with anal eroticism. Vivian—God, she was something in those days: that face—was or became the type to leave the door open. I was not, in fact I preferred on some mornings to take a long walk by myself and squat in the woods, I don’t know whether I’d inaugurated that practice at the time. It’s frustrating to remember weeping as I did then and haven’t done since, and to be unable to remember why.
At any rate, there was no one around me, I had informed no one of my plans or whereabouts, Lake Creek was only the summer pasture of some cattle in those days, and so I wept or cried in the way that you can only do alone and out of doors. By the time I reached the truck, I was no longer such a wreck. Perhaps it had only been the release of tension, it’s not every day that one attempts a murder or spares another man’s life.
I hid the gun and gloves under the bench seat and started up the engine, I switched on the headlights and turned down Lake Creek road.
Vivian and I remained on Salt Creek for seven years. Tim was born there with the aid of a midwife, our garden expanded, we added a deck in back of the place, I built with some friends a two-car garage. And it wasn’t long after my encounter with Winokur that, at Viv’s insistence, we acquired two new dogs.
I tried to assure the dogs’ safety (and indeed they have both long since died of natural causes) by addressing and sending to Mr. Albert Winokur a typed anonymous note. After all I had my souvenir, that envelope from the bank printed with his address. My note ran something like this:
We write as two of the citizens whose dogs you have killed. If you attempt any further violence against our animals or against us or our families, indeed if you are ever again suspected of deliberately harming another living creature (outside of those animals you are licensed to hunt during the designated seasons), we ourselves will shoot you dead. Please understand that we are serious.
There was no other invisible signatory or second man, but I figured there was strength in even the impression of numbers, and indeed Winokur never bothered us again. (The last I heard of him was two or three years later, when I paid one of my occasional visits to the saloon. It wasn’t so much that I liked to go as that I didn’t like to seem the sort of man—aloof, judgmental, educated at a fancy college, married to an Eastern wife—who avoided the place. It was there that I heard a man named Harrison, also since dead, mention that some new people had bought Winokur’s twelve-acre parcel up Brush Creek.
(Winokur sold the place? I asked.
(Viv doesn’t get to church much does she? a contractor by the name of Jack Dimmock said rhetorically. How you ever going to learn anything?
(Sonofabitch killed himself, Harrison said in the somewhat affected Western-style way of talking that many blue collar guys used in those days, some of them still do, I adopt it myself at times. Shot his head damn near clean off with a rifle.
(String on the trigger deal, our laconic mayor of the time confirmed.
(Did one thing right, Harrison said and everyone laughed, I was alone in not laughing. My friend Donald, a back-to-the-lander like ourselves, he had only recently abandoned his yurt, looked at me and said, You gotta come in here more often. The mayor simply shook his head and smirked, while Harrison assured me, You didn’t know him, Ted. Presumably I thought of my afternoon with Winokur then, possibly I thought about it several times after that. But as I’ve said I never mentioned the events of the afternoon to Vivian or to anyone else, they hardly even qualified as events, and then to go unmentioned . . . )
We weren’t unhappy in the time after she returned from back East. She did return after all, soon she was pregnant again, the summers on Salt Creek were always spectacular and the fall even better. There may not have been the same flourishing ease between us, but moods are hard to keep track of, in their constancy or in their changes, and how were we to tell? Vivian—for one thing—had a somewhat wild laugh of pleasure, a bit of undirected childish liveliness about her, and it was some time yet before I stopped hearing that laugh, and before she began to think of herself as depressed.
I don’t know why I never told Vivian my story, or whether I should have. I don’t know if this is an important question, I don’t know that my memory should be interrogated like a dream. (I’ve hardly slept, I feel tired and confused.) Possibly it would have counted for something to tell Viv. But then it seemed to me of the essence of the story not to tell it, this must be why I never have, not to anyone.
I slept for a few hours this morning. Then I woke up and brewed some coffee and called Vivian at her sister’s place to make sure she had made it there safely. “I went to the saloon last night,” I also found myself telling her, of course this wasn’t true.
“Sounds like the thing to do,” she said.
“The strange thing is I ran into Winokur’s kid, remember Albert Winokur, the guy who—”
“Sure. I forgot he had a son.”
“Well this kid, must be in his late thirties, he knew who I was, he came right up to me, he was very direct, he said—”
“Does he live around here?” Viv asked. “Or I mean there. How’d he know who you were?”
“I don’t know, maybe someone told him. The thing is, he—essentially he apologized. He apologized for what his father—he said he was extremely sorry about what he’d done. He clearly wanted to say that. I found it very interesting.”
Vivian didn’t say anything. Then she said, “Seems a little bit late in the day, wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Did you tell what’s done is done? I mean, thirty years ago, baby.”
“Well that’s what seemed to bother him, what’s done is done.”
“I don’t think I need to think about those days.”
“No,” I said. “No.” A few minutes later we said goodbye and hung up. I took a walk with Nick, our latest dog, not that he’s young any more. I walked away from Pilgrim Downs (a name I dislike), out of the subdivision and up an old dirt road. The storm left four or five inches of new snow on the ground and as always the blinding brightness made the air seem to ring at a pitch just too high to hear. I went as far as the water tower, a route I often take, and then turned around. It was roughly nine o’clock my time, eleven o’clock hers.