Thursday was nothing unusual. I came home. Donna was on me the minute I walked in, yapping how she'd cut my balls off the next time I did whatever it was she thought I did and kicking holes in the sheetrock. I bulldozed her into the wall just to calm her down. And one of the neighbors called the cops.
Sergeant Woznik came, in his gay little uniform and sunglasses and his moustache that made him look like someone dressing up like a cop for Halloween, and pulled Donna out to his car. He told her what he always did: one of these days he'd be back here with the coroner. She bitched about me loud enough so I could hear from the porch, to make me sweat. Really she was just wasting his time. She came crashing back into the house after 20 minutes, slammed the bedroom door behind her and turned on the TV full-blast. I left.
I came back Sunday night. The lights were off. Cold air was pouring inside through the open sliding glass doors in the den. In the back yard the pool's underwater lights were on. Donna was face down in front of the skimmer intake. Dead leaves were gathering against her shoulder and between her legs. On the pool deck a nearly empty bottle of peach Bacardi sat on its side. It was just like her to do this.
I stood in the silence so long the sound of the cordless phone ringing in the den struck me like shattering glass. I ran to it. Whoever it was, I had to tell them. I ran inside, right into the coffee table, and fell over it. The phone was on the couch somewhere. It got louder each ring. I threw my hands all over the dark to find it.
When I got it, I pressed the Talk button and heard that cancerous voice.
"Donna? Donna, are you there?"
It was Donna's mother, Jerri.
"Donna? I've been calling all day. Donna?"
I held the phone out, inches in front of me, but I didn't see it. I saw the white cinderblock hallway in the death house at Michigan City, leading to the room where they stick the needle in you. I hung up on Jerri and got to work.
I helped Donna out of the pool and wrapped her in the blue sheets she spent $75 on, then thought were too nice to put on our bed. As I was bringing her down the hall I looked up and was eye to eye with her picture on the wall. It's from the campground, two summers ago. She's standing in the stream in a bikini and boots, leaning forward, her freckled white tits nearly falling out of her top. She's buzzed, trying to pick something out of the water. She's looking right at you, red hair blowing in her face, her smile pushing her cheeks up in her eyes.
I looked down and it was like I'd missed a step on the stairs and was falling and falling, but the ground never hit me.
What the hell was she doing in the pool? This late in the year and shitfaced? It's always me who's cleaning up her messes.
We drove down to my brother's land, outside Cayuga. I buried her in the woods, a half-mile back on the road, by a big Red Pine. It was getting light out. I couldn't stay.
I could hardly see through my own fog as I was driving back, until I remembered what Grandma Halvsen told me years back, when grandpa died. He came back—that's what she said, those exact words, and I remembered how sure she said it—he came back in a dream, the night after. He was dressed all in white, and they were sitting in their old car. This sweet gold light was coming through the windows, and he told her, she said, he said "everything's okay." And that was true. She'd sooner knit "cocksucker" into a sweater than lie.
Donna would come. Grandpa Halvsen was a hard SOB when he was alive and he came. Donna would come soon. Tonight even. Where would it be when she did? The campground, I always liked. It didn't matter where, though. I knew her, she would come. I rolled down the window and laughed. She'd be there. She didn't even need to say anything.
I couldn't wait to get to sleep. I crumpled on the carpet in the living room as soon as I got through the front door. But I was too jumpy and just laid there blinking a hard long time, until I blinked into darkness.
Even though someone was pounding on the door so hard I could hear the lock plate cracking the molding, I could hardly care to get up. Eventually, I dragged myself to my feet and opened the door, on to Jerri. My first thought was Fuck. My second thought was to wonder how she had found out.
"Where's Donna?" Jerri's voice was as tired as I was. "I know she's in there. I know you've been beating on her. Let her out right now or—" she turned her head and kept muttering. She told Donna often that just looking at me made her sick.
I shoved myself in the door, out of instinct, to keep her at bay. But what was there to see? A bottle of rum by a dirty pool?
"Donna's not here." I said, stepping aside, looking like I didn't care. She pushed right past me and into the living room, like Donna would be right there. Nothing.
"See what I told you?" I said. I could hardly keep from laughing. She shook her head, sending her jowl fat flopping. She licked her twig lips and stomped into the den. Nothing. Ha ha bitch. She shouted Donna's name, then checked the bathroom‹slower now. I followed behind her at my own pace.
"Where is she?" Jerri asked, by the stairs.
"I don't know. We had a big fight Thursday and . . . " I was out of truth. That should have sent me all twitchy, but it didn't. Think you can come to my house and accuse me of shit? Hell no.
" . . . and she left me. Said she was going to see some other guy. Who lives down in Dallas. Texas." And what do you got that says different? I asked Jerri in my head.
Jerri took her cell phone out of her purse and dialed. The tinkling-bells ring of Donna's cell came from the upstairs bedroom.
"Must have left quick," I shrugged. "I was out all weekend." I was out all weekend, drank at half a dozen bars. Tons of people I know saw me. What did she, or anyone, have that said different? Years she made me miserable, talking up Donna against me, turning her back to me, grating on me with her voice and her face and never letting up. Now—how sweet it fucking-is—I had her where I wanted her. She should've had me dead to rights, but she was just a bug, and I was pushing her around my palm with my little finger.
Jerri rubbed her runty eyes. "I hope she did leave you," she spat. "I know she didn't though. In my dreams, I guess." And she headed for the door.
Dreams: that's the word that called it up. Last night, in my dreams, Donna didn't come. The air disappeared from my lungs. If she didn't come . . . why would she do that? Where was she? Where the fuck was she? It was like I saw her sliding into the pool and couldn't move or anything. I knew that part was already done with. There was nothing I could do now, I told myself. But still. And I didn't feel it then, but I knew, too, that something heavy rolling towards me and there was no way out of its path.
Jerri was out the door and waddling down the driveway to her car. She was the only one who knew Donna as good as me. And, when Donna was nine, her dad, Jerri's husband, got hit by a semi while he was out on a road crew. Jerri knew what this was like.
I caught up to her just as she was going for the car door. If I'd known what was good for me, I'd have told her to go to hell.
"What am I going to do?" I asked her. "How am I going to live with Donna gone?"
Jerri looked at me like I was speaking Spanish, then pushed out a short spike of a laugh that had been hardening in her for years. She took a step to the door.
Goddamn it. I got between her and the car.
"Seriously. I'm in a state here. You got to tell me . . . Come on . . . ," I trailed off.
"A real bullshit artist," she rumbled to herself. She shouldered right through me and got to the door. Oh fuck no. Something this big, with me doing it all by myself; she was going to listen to what I had to say and she was going to say what she had to say.
I grabbed her wrist as she pulled out the handle, and I almost dropped it right there. The skin on her forearm squished out from under my fingers and her wrist felt like a slimy turkey bone.
"I swear to God Jerri, I've had enough of your fucking with me. Donna's gone and I don't know if, and I don't know—" It was just as well I didn't finish, I couldn't put it into words.
My hand was getting tighter on her wrist. She looked up at me the same way I looked down at the neighbor's barking dog.
"I don't know what on earth you're looking for," flecks of spit were forming at the edges of her mouth. "But I'm not her. Whatever it is, you're not going to punch it out of me."
I looked down at my hand on her wrist and it felt like, all of a sudden, instead of my hand I was standing out there in the cold with my dick out. She pulled her arm away and before I blinked she was in her car and backing out of the driveway, the goddamn bitch. I pulled a clump of wet weeds and grass off the lawn and flung it at her hard as she pulled away. They fell straight down.
I knew it, right then: she was calling the cops. Once they came even Woznik wouldn't believe she left without anything. I jogged back to the house, and saw in the driveway—sitting there all along—Donna's car. Fuck me.
Everything was in the bedroom. I ran in and started emptying her closet into a garbage bag. Then I saw a pink Panama City tee-shirt on top of the pile of sleeves and denim legs I'd made. I saw that shirt before. Did I give it to her? Did she wear it a lot? If she did, I thought, I should keep it.
And how about all the rest of the stuff? When I pitch it, it's gone forever. I should keep it. No. I couldn't keep it, I knew. I froze. Maybe I thought if I didn't move, time wouldn't either.
All this stuff was hers, but most of it I didn't recognize. Somewhere in here was the stuff that was really hers; the clothes she loved. How was I supposed to know which ones? I remembered how at night sometimes, when I would lie on the bed, she would cuddle up next to me, and rub her face across the shirt on my chest, the shirt I wore all day to work, from armpit to armpit. It tickled a little. She inhaled all the way. She said she liked my man smell. I would chuckle and squeeze, pulling her into me until she giggled.
I never smelled it. But if I had a smell only she could smell, she must have had one that was there all along but that I never noticed. I pulled the pink tee-shirt up to my face and sucked in until the inside of my nostrils cracked. I didn't smell anything but dryer sheet. Maybe she just did a load of laundry. I pulled out a white shirt and pushed it to my nose. Then shorts, socks, skirts, and even her panties: nothing.
Then there was a siren in the distance. I grabbed everything in a blur, got to her car and burned out of the driveway. The siren was closer. Turning onto South Road I was doing 60. Red light swept the corner of my eye from the side mirror. An engine accelerated over the cresting, screaming blast and then the ambulance passed me.
A god damn ambulance. Can you fucking believe it? Because I was shaken up and because it was the smart thing to do, I drove exactly the speed limit all the way out of town. Didn't matter. There wasn't a cop for miles.
I could have turned right around and sorted Donna's stuff right and kept everything that had her in it. I thought about it. If I went back, I would pick everything she ever touched up, and turn it in my hand, look at it every way and set it down—like an old man wandering through the house. It would take hours. I knew I didn't have hours. And I knew slowly, that the time for that was lifeless now too.
I drove to the train station in Lafayette. I locked the car and tossed her keys into a trash can with the bag. Across the street was a Burger King. I got a coffee and planted myself in a booth by the window, where I could see her car.
Why didn't she come to me last night? I wrung my brain trying to think if maybe she did and I forgot. No. Maybe she was mad at me. She would be, for me not being there when she went in the pool. What if she never came? What if she didn't come because there was no more her?
I went around and around that idea and the circles got smaller and smaller. If there was no more Donna, anywhere, what did I have? What I remembered? My head bobbed up and I was aware of the train station lot again. Drizzle was falling through the thin orange light under the lot lamp. There were only four cars there but it took me a second to find which one was Donna's, and make sure. It hadn't even been a day—and I was going to get through the rest of my life on memories?
I didn't realize the cold was coming in from the open door behind me until I heard it whack shut. Walking in from the door, across the dining room, was a skinny little brown guy dressed all in black and soaked through. When he turned to order, at the counter, I saw he had the white priest-thing in his collar. He reminded me of that episode of "Law & Order" where the priest knows the guy who did it, but can't tell. I could tell him. I had to tell him. He couldn't tell anyone. Even, maybe, he'd have to tell me it was okay. I was waiting in the door when he came back through, his little hands clutching his bag of grease tight.
"I want to talk," I said. To my surprise, I was yelling. "I mean, can I talk to you?"
He opened his mouth but didn't say anything.
"What I tell you, you can't tell anyone else, right? Even the cops? Or whoever?
"Are you Catholic?" he asked. I never knew what I was. "It's not quite like it is in the movies," he added, pushing through the door. I followed him out. The cold pushed into me again, and sharpened my mind.
It was all laying on the tip of my tongue like a sharp rock. But now I wasn't sure. He wasn't leaving without me though, I knew that. The rain was falling in sheets now. He kept looking behind him at his beat up old van. I said I needed a ride down to Rockville. He closed his eyes and nodded.
While he was driving and stuffing fries in his mouth three at a time, I thought about how to put it. After he searched the bag for more fries and came up empty, he asked me what was wrong.
"Well . . . ," I stiffened my jaw to try to hold it in, like maybe the truth would catch on my teeth before it got all the way out. "Sir, the situation is, the woman, my woman, who was with me for 10 years, she's gone and she's never coming back. I can never get to her. She doesn't want to come back to me and, sir, it kind of feels like someone is . . . " I looked over at the priest. His eyes were glued to the road. His arms, resting on the steering wheel, hardly looked thick enough to steer with. "I guess, it's like I feel like I won't ever be able to breathe."
"Tell me about her," he said nearly in a whisper. I didn't know where to start. So, as we're driving down county routes in the dead of night, I tell someone about Donna for the first time ever, I think. I tell him about how we met at the bar in Sayersville, when I was working demolition, traveling a lot, and she was working at Wal-Mart. I told him she put ketchup on toast, and I teased her that that's how she got red hair, eating so much ketchup. She liked that. I didn't tell him how she went out to bars by herself, after a while, or how she spent every last one of my dollars on her stupid porcelain cats, or her temper. What good was that? I told him about how she wallpapered the bathroom so bad it was kind of funny. We must have drove for 45 minutes at least and I never shut up. When he slowed down for a blinking yellow light I realized my hands were moving around in front of me and that the heaviness I'd been carrying in my chest had fizzed away. For good.
I stopped just to feel it. The priest asked what had happened between us. I'd thought that maybe I wouldn't be able to stop the truth. But it wasn't so hard. I was rid of the pain now. Why cut my own throat? Plus, down the road, two people hearing me say the same story was better than one. She left me, for a man in Dallas, I said. As I said it, in my mind, I even saw her get on the train.
After a while more the priest said that God didn't ever abandon us. That I was supposed to change. Stop doing what I did that pissed her off. And if I said sorry to God and her, maybe he'd bring her back to me.
What kind of advice was that? Say I was sorry? He didn't know me, or her. Not in ten years did she once apologize for any of her shit. Now he was saying it was me? It didn't mean anything cause she was dead. But he didn't know that. And God. If God was going to bring her back, why didn't he stop that bitch from leaving in the first place?
I told the priest that if that was what he had, he and God might as well do something useful and work at a Burger King. The fucker pulled over and asked me to get out. I wasn't in the mood to do this all over again tonight, so I got out.
The rain was gone but the clouds still shut out the moon and sky. When his taillights curved around a bend, there was nothing. I closed one eye and couldn't tell the difference. I knew forward, and I could feel the asphalt under my feet. I walked. The night was bigger than space even, there were no stars to hem it in. In all that darkness I was invisible. It wasn't so bad.
I remembered her for a while without realizing what I was doing. I remembered us driving up to Dunes State Park that one time. She wanted to play her Dixie Chicks CD. She forgot the cooler. At first it was like seeing pictures of relatives I didn't really know. I didn't worry the pain would be back. It was in the asshole priest's passenger seat, speeding away. She wiggled her hips to get into her jeans. She wouldn't wear any jeans that weren't a size too small. Except her torn ones she used to paint the bathroom. Last month she said she wanted to take the wallpaper down and re-paint the bathroom yellow. Now it would stay wallpaper. For some reason, then, I felt like I had to run. I ran—harder and harder and harder. When I stopped, because it felt like my chest was pulling apart, for all I knew I was exactly where I started.
I heard tires behind me, rolling from miles back, and eventually I heard the Crown Vic's V8. The Sheriff's cruiser pulled up beside me, blaring the highest high beams I ever saw. The deputy told me to get in.
He drove me to the station. As I was thinking she would get a kick out this, because of how much she liked "CSI," I noticed a crack of grey blue light beginning behind a line of trees in the distance. I didn't know what day it was, but I knew that it was another one. And after today there would be more. And they wouldn't change anything. I'd have to carry Donna each and every one of them.
When we got to the station, they put me at a table in a cinderblock room with a single window pouring full morning brightness in. Sitting there, blinking into it, more exhaustion than I can put into words caught up with me.
Wozniak came in. With his back turned, and like we'd been talking all along, he said Judge Felton hadn't liked being woken up this early for a warrant, but he'd signed it. There were deputies at my house now, and a crime lab team on the way from Indy. Woznik reeled up a manila folder thick with uneven papers, and flopped it down in on the table in front of me, grinning like it was a 20-pound bass, before dropping into a chair across the table.
"All the reports, from every time I was over at your place," he said. His cell phone rang. It was his wife. He said he'd be home by noon, and yeah, spaghetti sauce and diet caffeine free Pepsi, yeah, he'd pick them up. He flipped his phone shut and noticed me again.
"So where's Donna?" he asked.
My arms were folded on the table in front of me. I buried my head in my elbow and said "Dallas, I think" into the table. He didn't hear me clear because he asked again.
The little dark room I had made wasn't staying dark. The morning was prying into my aching eyes.
He asked again, with all the same patience as the last time.
I could have told him Dallas again, and the whole story. I could have argued with him, and he couldn't have proven anything. I could have beat him at this. But it wasn't him anymore. I could get up and walk out of that room and go home and live the rest of my life. And that question would still be there. Where is Donna? Every day. Every hour.
Woznik was slowly drumming his fingers on the table. I kept my head down and mouthed the words to myself: Ask me what happened, just ask me what happened.
Woznik pushed his chair back and sighed.
"I don't have the time for this nonsense now. Maybe she is in Texas. Maybe you'll go home in a couple days and she'll be right there . . . " he trailed off.
And then I saw Donna. I was coming home and pushing open the front door. She was laid back on the couch in the living room, her legs knotted together under a blanket, her one hand paused above a bag of cool ranch Doritos and her eyes locked on the TV. She didn't notice me. But the blue green light of the screen was moving across her face, and she was there. It wasn't the dream I was waiting for, but it was the closest I've been, and ever will be, I think.
Woznik's voice destroyed her. "I don't really care," I heard him say. I pulled my head up like a startled dog. "And I have a feeling you don't either." He started to get up.
I wasn't even consciously angry until later, when his blood was all over my shirt and other cops were trying to drag me off him. He took her. Right then, that was all I cared about. My right shoulder dropped, my fist clamped and I smashed Woznik right where his nose met his cheek.
So they gave me four months in County. At first, some other cops asked me over and over about Donna. To spite the fuckers I gave them all the names of everyone who'd seen me drinking that weekend. After that they stopped asking. They never told me straight, but the crime lab must not have found anything. I still remember her, but that stuff is much easier to keep to yourself in here.
I'm supposed to get out in three days. I guess I'll go home. There's no other place to go. Really, though, I don't know what I'm going to do.