Story — From the January 2010 issue

My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain

( 2 of 6 )

So I was on her roof. With cause. And Jessica, my wife, who likes to turn in early — she’s yawning and gaping and stretching her arms out like she’s drowning come seven-thirty or eight — was at home, oblivious, snoring lightly in the frigid cavern of the bedroom we shared, with its view in summer of the blistered duff at the ankles of the trees and in winter the piled-up drifts that look like waves rolling across a stormy white sea. If I’d expected Lily to be, oh, I don’t know, putting her hair up before the bathroom mirror so that her breasts rose and fell with the action of her arms in a baby-blue see-through negligee or something of the like, I was disappointed. At first, I could see nothing but the upper hallway leading to her bedroom and the head of the mounted mule deer that graced the top of the stairway (the rock-hard nose of which I’d kissed for luck any number of times when Jessica and I were over for drinks and dinner and drinks when Frank was alive). There was a light on there, glowing faintly in the cheap smoked-glass sconce they’d got for twelve ninety-five at the Home Depot in Porterville, but there was no sign of movement. Or of her. They had a dog — she had a dog, I should say, a Chihuahua mix — but it was so old and withered and blind and deaf and pathetic it couldn’t have raised the alarm if an entire armored division rolled through the living room. So I waited. And watched.

Did I mention, by the way, that this was in winter?

The night was clear all the way up to where the stars slid across their tracks, which meant that it was cold, maybe ten or twelve above, and I was having a little trouble seeing through the eye-slits of my mask, plus my breath was condensing around the opening for my mouth and freezing there so that my lips had begun to sting even before I’d got to Lily’s (on foot, because I didn’t want to just pull up there out front in my truck, which would have spoiled the surprise — that, and you never knew who was watching up here where everybody’s business is everybody’s business). At least the roof was clear. Frank had gone metal, with a steep pitch that overhung the upper deck, and the sun had taken the three feet of snow from the last storm and dropped it down below. All to the good. I broke the crust of ice around my mouth and was just about to ease myself down on the deck to get a look in the window there, the bedroom window, when the slick, thin, all-but-invisible sheet of ice that had replaced the snow took my boots out from under me.

We don’t have gutters here, for obvious reasons — the weight of the snow shearing over the side would rip them off in a heartbeat — so there was nothing between me and a two-story drop but corrugated sheet metal and the odd rivet. I was a little drunk. I admit it. We’d been over to the Ringsteads’ for drinks and cards earlier, and after we got home I guess I kept on pouring even as I was thinking about how lonely Lily must have been because half the mountain was there but she never showed. Anyway, I did not plummet over the side and go down two stories to where the big granite boulders protruded like bad teeth from the drifts, or not yet anyway, but instead just managed to catch myself on one of the steel chimney supports Frank had been obliged to install after a Jeffrey pine came down and obliterated the chimney last winter. I was spared. But the noise I’d made in trying to save myself got the blind and deaf Chihuahua barking and that barking apparently roused Lily.

I was spread-eagled on the slick roof and just trying to inch my way across to the deck when the door there flew open and Lily appeared, dressed in the baby-blue nightie of my dreams, which I guess I must have seen hanging on the hook in the bathroom when I went in to relieve myself on one of those happy drinks-dinner-drinks nights, only with a big off-white cable-knit sweater obscuring the parts of her anatomy I’d most come to see. She let out a low exclamation in her sweet girlish voice that was like the trickle of a pure mountain spring, the dog at her feet yapping and the weight of all those stars beginning to crash down on me, and then she said, “Don’t you move, you son of a bitch, because I’ve got a gun.” And she did have a gun. We all have guns up here, twenty guns per person, as if it were a rule of the community. Of course I didn’t have one, or not then anyway. My twenty guns were at home in my own cabin.

But here was my problem. I’d come to reconnoiter, albeit with the hope and maybe even expectation of a whole lot more, but I’d lost the element of surprise and wondered now whether I ought to say something to identify myself as me and not some crazed rapist paroled out of Lompoc Prison and dressed all in black with a black ski mask concealing his face and bad intentions. And it wasn’t getting shot that motivated me, believe me, because I would have welcomed it at that point — it was what my mother, my poor dead overworked and long-suffering mother, used to call mortification. If I revealed myself now, how could I hope to convince her that my purpose was essentially romantic — and beyond that consolatory even?

As it turned out, that decision was taken out of my hands by the action of what some people would call fate but I’m here to tell you was just bad luck, pure and simple. I lost my grip. That roof was like a skating rink if you could take a skating rink and cant it at a forty-five-degree angle. Suddenly the night deserted me and I was gone. And it was my bad luck — my very bad, catastrophic luck — that I did not land amongst the drifts but on a big unforgiving incisor of rock that broke my leg just as thoroughly and nastily as Frank’s had been broken out there among the boulders of Hellbore Creek.

While I was lying there, hidden behind my mask like a second-string superhero and unable to move because the pain was like a comet trapped inside my body, I began thinking — and I don’t know why — of the stepson, Frank Jr. He’d lost his arm in an incident at the San Diego Zoo when he was fourteen, which you may have read about because it made all the papers at the time. There was still a controversy surrounding the whole business, as to whether he really was high on angel dust and provoking the polar bear where it was only trying to cool off in its fetid little pond of greenish water or whether he honestly slipped and fell, but the result was he lost his right arm up to the shoulder and maybe a little beyond. You look at him now — he’s thirty-two years old, handsome as a TV anchorman, with Frank’s blond hair and squared-off features — and from the left side he could be doing Marine Corps recruiting posters, but on the right there’s just nothing there, and when he walks it really throws him off balance so he’s got a kind of funny hitch in his step. Lily, who’s just eleven years older than he is, more the age of a big sister than a mother, had to put up with him under her roof when she and Frank lived down in the flats all those years because with his disability Frank Jr. couldn’t support himself and, believe me, he’s about as pleasant to be around as a cage full of rats, angry at the world and always pissing and moaning about the indescribable pain he feels in his missing limb.

But let me get back to it, because this connects in to what I’m trying to say here, about pain, about my pain and Lily’s pain and everybody else’s too, the upshot being that about three minutes later I’m exposed for who I am. To Lily, who’s standing over me with a flashlight and her snub-nosed .38 Special that Frank gave her for her birthday year before last, because here’s the kid — Frank Jr., who’s supposed to be living down the hill in Porterville in some sort of halfway house — appearing out of nowhere to swoop down with the one hand he’s got left to him and tear the mask off my face.

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

More from T. C. Boyle:

Story From the March 2015 issue

No Slant to the Sun

Story From the October 2013 issue

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