Authors: Suzanne Berne
hirtsleeves rolled partway up his forearms, Bill
Downing was describing a crisis with the network server at his office while he and Margaret sat on the patio by the pool, having drinks and waiting for the lasagna in the oven to finish baking. A tall, balding man with light blue eyes and a bladelike nose, he often wore pink button-down shirts with his gray summer-weight suits. In the dusk his shirt was nearly the same color as the pink sky lowering into the trees.
“Everything went dead. Roche was going nuts.” He noticed a daddy longlegs scaling his trouser leg and brushed it away. “The IT guys got us up again after about twenty minutes. But for a while we were all just sitting there. Passano kept joking that it was some kind of hostile takeover.”
“Weird,” said Margaret.
His office had a seventh-floor view of the Charles, and during those twenty minutes he'd looked down at the plaza below the building, at Storrow Drive and across at the river, glassy and full under the afternoon sun. While he was staring out of the window, the strangest thing happened: he saw himself walking across the plaza below. There was his pink shirt, crossing the street, strolling toward and then over the stone walkway that stretched above Storrow Drive. Hands in his trouser pockets, he took the steps down to the Esplanade, where people were sitting on the grass, having lunch or sunning themselves by the water as sailboats tacked back and forth. For a minute or two he'd stood by a bench, still with his hands in his pockets, gazing at the sailboats. It looked as if he might be whistling. Then he walked across the grass to the river and threw himself in.
“Well, I'm glad it all got fixed,” said Margaret.
“Yeah,” said Bill, staring at the pool.
The pool had come with the house; it was small and oval, more like a reflecting pool, ringed by fieldstones. Margaret had never liked the idea of owning a poolâshe thought it required too much upkeep and later worried about Julia falling into it as a toddlerâbut he'd always wanted one. A pool was a sign, his father used to say, of “having it made.” The summer before Julia was born Margaret had added an electrically powered waterfall trickling down rocks at one end, banked by tall hydrangeas tumbling with pink and blue flowers. It had been a kind of mania with her, planning that waterfall. “Margaret's Niagara,” Bill's father had called it. Yet he was the one who helped Margaret build it, first wiring the pump, then spending days piling up rocks and taking them down until Margaret was satisfied. Already the waterfall had been switched off; in a week the pool would be drained and covered with a tarp.
An acorn caromed off a patio slate. Binx had been asleep beside Margaret's chair. He scrambled to his feet and began barking at the pool. Margaret grabbed his leash and ordered him to lie down, and with a reluctant groan he obeyed, metal tags clinking.
“So, how was your day?” Bill asked.
She sighed and lifted her wineglass. “I'm trying not to get too freaked out about it.” The chardonnay in her glass caught the light, a minute twin to the sun going down behind the trees. “I found a dead dog at the park.”
“A huge dog. A white bullmastiff.”
“That's terrible.” He watched a line of black ants emerge busily from a crack in the patio slates. “Had it been hit by a car?”
“The animal control guy said it looked like the dog had been poisoned.”
“That's what the guy said. I had to call the owner.”
“That can't have been easy.”
“No,” said Margaret. She was rubbing Binx's belly with her foot. “It wasn't.”
The pool lights had come on. For a few minutes they sat looking at the shifting web of reflected watery light thrown across the hydrangeas. When Margaret began speaking again her voice sounded disembodied, as if it were coming from a dark margin beyond the hydrangeas, somewhere at the edge of the yard below the oak trees.
“I can't stop seeing that dog. How could someone do something like that? And of all the people who could have found it, why did it have to be me?”
Bill shook the ice in his Campari and soda, listening to the low whine of the pool filter. Noticing also a smell mixed with the scent of chlorine. Earthy, dank, slightly fecal. The daddy longlegs he'd brushed off a few minutes ago was now delicately ascending the side of Margaret's chair. From near the back steps, a cricket had started its steady
“Well,” he said finally, “I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation.”
Another acorn ricocheted off the patio. Binx tried to scramble up again, but Margaret held him down with her foot.
A long silence followed, broken only by the cricket. Bill could sense Margaret waiting for him to go on, to say things were never as bad as they looked and that a dog being poisoned wasn't a sign of anything else. Instead he kept staring into the depthless turquoise glow of the pool. From where he sat, a single underwater light was visible, round and convex, like an enormous, unblinking yellow eye.
Something is wrong with me, he thought.
But he didn't know what it was. He didn't know why every time he looked at Margaret, for instance, he noticed the faint puckering above her lips or the moth-colored spots dappling the backs of her hands. On the side of her neck was a small dark mole. It appalled him. Even her gallantry in carrying on despite these indignities, in getting manicures and facials, buying lotions, taking yoga classesâeven that appalled him. He couldn't help it. Just as he couldn't help flinching when she put her hand on his back at night, or straightened his shirt collar. Hoping she wouldn't notice, knowing that she did.
And yet once she'd been all he could think about. Every evening that first spring he'd walk across the Back Bay to meet her for dinner, repeating her name like an incantation as he strode through the rinsed air of late April, passing magnolias along Commonwealth and stolid old brownstones, smiling at girls and women on the sidewalks. Smiling especially at the homely ones, the ones with big noses, heavy legs, pitted cheeks, smiling at the pains they took to fix their hair, wear earrings. He'd wanted to sleep with every woman he saw, the unbeautiful ones most of allâfor their hair and their earrings, for their continued brave hopefulness despite not being Margaret, despite not being loved by him.
Usually when he arrived at the girls' school on Exeter Street where she taught English, Margaret would be playing the piano at the back of the building, in a hall used for assemblies. She liked to practice at the end of the day, so he would wait for her by the open front windows in the high-ceilinged parlor where the school secretary had a desk and corkboards on the walls held notices that rustled whenever anyone opened the door. Ivy hung over the window casements, leaves glowing in the evening sun, turning the light greenish. As he stood reading announcements for auditions and swim meets, listening to quiet piano music, he felt suspended within that greenish light, surrounded by a sweet, lucid membrane, like being inside a grape. By the time Margaret appeared, walking quickly, shyly, smoothing her blond hair as she crossed the uneven parquet floor, he was often trembling.
At dinner she liked to talk about her students and whether she should go for a master's degree in English or music. Sometimes she talked about Schumann, whose music she loved because, she said, it was full of heightened awareness of the world's beauty and pain. Wine made her categorical and vague. “Musicians are the true poets,” she might declare. Or “Human loneliness is literature's only subject.” Becoming more ardent as she drank glasses of wine, making pronouncements, describing emphatic arcs with her hands, cheekbones finely outlined beneath her fair skin, the pulsing hollow at the base of her throat the exact width of his thumb. As he watched her talk he would find himself holding his breath. Once he even passed out in an Italian restaurant. Woke up with his forehead pressed against brown wallpaper garlanded with gondolas and Venetian palazzos, and to Margaret's hand on his shoulder, a confused look on her face.
Now and then, in bed in her apartment, as he drowsed against the pillows, she would read aloud poems she'd assigned to her class or poems she liked. There was one poem he used to ask for, though it put him to sleep. He could still recall a snatch of it:
Oh the after-tram-ride quiet, when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond
Â .Â .Â .
He remembered the bright, spacious feeling those lines had opened within his chest, a feeling that he was heading toward exactly the life he wanted to have. He was going to find a good job that paid good money and come home to a nice old town in the evenings; someday he was going to say “my wife,” and have those words mean Margaret.
All of which happened. The wedding in West Yarmouth. His job with Roche Capital Management. Margaret quit teaching when they moved out to Littlefield, planning for the child on the way.
But that part had not happened.
The losses, Margaret used to call them, which to him sounded like “the lasses,” little girls in white nightgowns, although it had been too early, in all but one case, to know. “Don't talk about it to anyone,” she'd said fiercely, after the first. “I don't want people feeling sorry for me.” Tests, procedures, on and on. Until one summer night when she turned to him, face gleaming like wet stone, and said she could not take any more. Not knowing there was going to be Julia. And then there was Julia, and he thought it was all going to be all right.
But they had done something to her. Not aged her, exactly, although of course she had aged, but turned her apprehensive, fretful. Overly sensitive. For years now at dinner she mostly talked about worries. Julia was eating too much candy. Wasn't wearing her bike helmet. What if she got a concussion while playing soccer? He found it hard to listen, which she took as lack of interest. But it was something else, some imbalance in her that he could no longer abide, something unreasonable, morbid, a persistent, boring dread. When Julia started middle school, he'd suggested that Margaret find an outside interest, get a job, do volunteer work. She'd seemed almost frightened at the idea of leaving the house.
“Well, wish me luck,” she often said, even when heading to the store for milk. Thank God for that dog. At least it got her out the door.
She was still Margaret. She loved him. He still loved her. But he couldn't bear it.
Mostly he tried not to think about it. Or when he did, like this afternoon when he'd stared out of his office window at the glittering Charles, aglide with racing sculls and white sails, he thought only:
I can't bear it
He shook the ice in his glass again. What
that damned smell?
Margaret was talking again about the dead dog, worried that it might have been diseased. From down the street a lawn mower started up, drowning out the cricket. He thought of his father mowing the grass on warm evenings in an old pair of dungarees and a white undershirt that turned blue as the evening deepened, later coming into the kitchen to drink a beer by the sink, tipping his head back to drain the bottle. And then again he pictured the river from that afternoon, winding along its sunny banks, while Roche scuttled around the office in his shamrock tie, using Post-its to leave messages on people's computer monitors. When Passano had started joking about the Post-its, saying, “What is this, the Dark Ages?” Roche had stared up at him like a newt under a rock.
“Something's going down,” Passano had said in the elevator.
“I should probably tell Julia,” Margaret was saying. “She might hear about it at school. But I hate to say anything. She's already so nervous about Binx.”
Under the hydrangeas bristled a row of Popsicle-stick grave markers: one for the parakeet scared to death when Freckles the cat climbed onto its cage, another for Elvis the guinea pig, which keeled over after surviving for several years with a disfiguring eye condition that had to be treated with ointments (not by Bill). The two goldfish in a bowl above the kitchen sink died biannually; Freckles had disappeared last fall, most likely eaten by a coyote. He had a memorial marker. Every time a pet died, Julia conducted rituals and burial ceremonies with somber devotion, the animal conveyed to its grave on a little red plush pillow Julia reserved for this purpose, covered by a handkerchief. Happy memories were recounted, followed by the Lord's Prayer and a poem, then the interment. Later, a moment of silence at dinner, a candle lit in honor of the dead. She even buried mice and toads that drowned in the pool. Now there was that lunatic Binx, chewing up shoes and chair legs, barking at every squirrel that ran across the lawn, sending rugs flying as he skittered from room to room. Heart failure, probably, in store for him.
Bill was starting to worry about Julia himself: how she went around with hair hanging in her face, plugged into her iPod, shutting herself for hours in her room to read books about girls falling in love with vampires. (
she said, whenever he knocked on the door.) Once when he was in her room, he'd found a little china box full of fingernail parings. She hardly seemed to laugh anymore, except when she had a friend over. That little Hannah Melman, for instance. Always a lot of laughing and joking when Hannah was around. “Hi, Mr. Downing! Hey, I like your pink shirt! Is it Valentine's Day?” That kind of kid. Fresh, but fun. Decked out in some cute outfit, little shorts and T-shirts. Margaret kept deploring how short the girls' shorts were, how their T-shirts showed off their stomachs, but he found them charming. Trying out their powers. Skin so pure, eyes so clear. The clean, sweet scent of themâkiwi, mango, some fruity shampoo. Maybe he could suggest to Julia that she invite Hannah over more often.
“Absolutely criminal.” Margaret was lying back in her Adirondack chair, waving a hand at a cloud of gnats. It took him a moment to realize she was talking again about the poisoned dog.