Story — From the January 2010 issue

My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain

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I like my wife fine and we had a pretty smooth run of it over the years but there was a sort of — oh, what do I want to say here? — expectedness to the days that sometimes bore down on me till I felt like a piece of furniture that hasn’t been moved in a lifetime. An end table maybe, made of maple, with some fine beveling that serves no other purpose than to collect dust. Which is why — and I’m not making excuses, just stating the facts — I pulled on my black jeans and turtleneck that night, dug my ski mask out of the closet, and climbed up the backside of Lily Baron’s cabin to the patch of roof where the deck projects on the second floor and peeped in the window with no other intention but to see what she was doing at eleven forty-five at night, and maybe, if that was what she wanted, to surprise her. Give her a little jolt. In the best possible sense, that is, by way of amiability and with the promise of mutual enjoyment.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

You see, Lily has had it rough this past year. She’s only forty-three, but Frank, her husband who’s no longer with us, was in his sixties, and when he retired she quit her job as a legal secretary and came up here to Big Timber to live out the rest of her days in tranquillity amidst the giant sequoias. They built their dream house on the double lot Frank had bought back in the Eighties and became full-timers. (Or dream cabin, I should say, since the twenty-eight of us who live here year-round as well as the fifty or so part-timers like to think of ourselves as roughing it, and while a couple of us do have actual log cabins built from kits out of actual peeled logs, most of us settle for houses with alpine touches, like cedar paneling, stone fireplaces, and mounted animal heads over our hand-hewn mantelpieces. To a man, woman, child, and dog, we call them cabins.)

Frank volunteered for neighborhood watch and he helped out in winter with snow removal, and Lily, with her heartbreaking face and a figure unruined by childbearing because she’d borne no children, not to Frank or to her previous husband, who, I understand, worked for the Forest Service over at Mineral King before he drank himself senseless and pitched headlong over the rail of the fire lookout, began organizing potlucks and bridge nights down at the lodge, that sort of thing. And she began drinking more than was probably good for her. As did Frank. This — and we’ve all joked about it — is just one of the hazards of living in a fishbowl community at 7,200 feet and a good twisting, brake-eating hour from the nearest town in a place of natural beauty so all-encompassing God might have thought to set it aside for His wife if He even bothered to get married.

Anyway, Frank liked nature, liked the hills, and despite his age he was always out there hiking no matter the weather. You’d look up from the fire or the TV or your first double vodka and tonic on a snow-bleared winter morning and there he’d be, with his daypack and alpenstock, heading off into the woods without a thought as to trails, compasses, or the weather, and if he had a cell phone it really wouldn’t have mattered since the reception here is what they invented the call failed indicator for. He went out one spring afternoon with his fly rod and a daypack containing a pint of Jim Beam and two cream-cheese-and-olive sandwiches Lily had wrapped neatly in plastic wrap and he never came back. As they later reconstructed it, he was fishing Hellbore Creek for goldens when he must have taken a tumble because his leg was broken in two places, though with his eyes gouged out by the ravens and the way the bear had frolicked with the corpse no one could be sure. He’d been missing four days by the time search and rescue found him, the sandwiches gone along with the soft stuff of his eyes and the bourbon drawn down to less than a finger in its intact glass shell. Lily said she was sure he’d suffered and we all tried to reassure her, citing the solace of the bourbon, the soothing rhapsody of the stream, and the sun that made way for the stars as if to give him a glimpse of eternity when the nights came on, but privately we knew she was right.

Of course he’d suffered. Alone with his pain. Hopeless. Fighting off the ravens till he could no longer lift his arms. He’d tried to crawl his way out of the canyon, according to Bill Secord, who was one of the first on the scene, but the pain in his leg was too bad apparently and he didn’t make it more than maybe two hundred yards despite all the scratching in the undergrowth and the way his fingernails were torn down to the nub.

As if that wasn’t enough to lay on any woman, especially one as sweet and undeserving of it as Lily, there was the further complication of her accident. And this wasn’t much more than maybe three or four months after the funeral, when she was just starting to climb out of her own personal canyon and was entertaining a man whose name I don’t want to mention here because the sound of that name — hell, the look of him, with his fat gloating face hanging out the open window of his pickup — makes me burn up with jealousy like a dry stick of pine laid on the coals. That’s funny too, I mean, that this particular image should pop into my head, because Lily’s accident involved just exactly that: burning. She had one of these old-fashioned popcorn makers, with the hot oil bubbling in the guts of it, and the way I see it she was a bit flustered when this particular individual showed up at the door with a bottle in one hand and a fistful of wilting wildflowers in the other, no way ready even to start thinking along those terms with Frank still intact in the ground, or mostly so, and maybe she was rushing a little, overcompensating in her role as hostess, and when she settled into the couch with her second drink her foot got tangled in the cord and the whole business, scalding oil, Orville Redenbacher’s crackling yellow kernels, and the gleaming aluminum cylinder of the popcorn maker itself, came down on her.

The oil melted the skin across half her back down to the panty line and wrapped a big annealed scar around her left shoulder and upper arm and burned what looks like two teardrops into the flesh under her left eye, which the plastic surgeon says he can remove and smooth over just like new once she saves up for the next round of operations, because, of course, Frank, who never even bothered to carry a compass with him out into the doom-haunted woods, didn’t have adequate health coverage from his insurer. Or life insurance, for that matter. I remember we all chipped in to defray the funeral expenses, but even then we fell short of the actual cost. Which Lily had to absorb with no help from anybody, not Frank’s sister in Missoula or his one-armed son Lily’d had to put up with through the first ten years of her marriage.

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is the author, most recently, of the story collection Wild Child (Viking).

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