Story — From the January 2010 issue

My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain

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You want pain? Jessica filed for divorce before they even got the pin in my leg, and when I had to rely on the jerk whose name I won’t mention to drive me home from the hospital and help me up the steps to my own house, and then make a second trip out to the car for the wheelchair, she was already gone. As was about 87 percent of the furniture and the plasma TV that had been my only solace the last couple of years, that and the squirrels, and she’d cleaned out most of the microwave dinners and canned goods, so that I had nothing to eat on top of nothing to watch. Oh, that was a cold house. And I tell you, for the rest of that winter I never showed my face for the humiliation of what had gone down, and if I drank bourbon I drank it alone.

If we’re anything, though, we’re a community that forgets if not forgives — hell, half of them up here have done things twice as bad as looking in on a woman out of concern and love in the dead of a winter’s night — and by spring I was feeling almost back to normal. So much so that I even took the wheelchair down to the lodge one night, up and down those looping murderous hills for a good mile till my palms were bleeding, and sat there over a medium-rare steak, a pitcher of Fire-stone, and a shot glass that never stayed dry for long because everybody who came through the door stood me a round and slapped me on the back and said how good it was to see me out and about. And that was fine. Time heals all wounds and such. Except that my nerves were like guitar strings twisted too tight and my heart was undergoing cardiac arrest at the thought that Lily might walk through that door at any minute. Which she didn’t. I tried calling her when I got back home — Ed Secord gave me a ride, thank God, or I’d probably still be down there — but she had caller I.D. and wouldn’t pick up.

It must have been a few weeks later that I ran into that kid out on Tamarack Lane. Tamarack intersects my street, Aspen, and then swerves past our little man-made lake and continues on to the lodge and the main road beyond, so that if I want to go anywhere at all, 90 percent of the time it’s going to be down Tamarack. We have only a couple of roads up here anyway, snaking, wide, frost-buckled blacktop thoroughfares to nowhere, hemmed in by the towering sequoias, ponderosa pines, and the like that give the place its name, with maybe a cabin tucked back in the woods every couple of hundred yards, and these roads loop back around on themselves so the plan of the development is like a big hamster maze, one way in and one way out. Beyond that, there’s the state route winding its way down to Porterville to the north in case anybody would want to go down there and buy a plasma TV to replace the one lost to them, and to Kernville on the other side, where there’s nothing much but a couple run-down bars and trinket shops for the tourists. In winter the Kernville road is closed due to the fact that nobody lives out there and the snow, which averages twenty-four feet per annum and goes to as much as forty and more in an El Niño year, isn’t worth the expense of plowing. Which puts us, for a good four or five months of the year, at the end of the road, for all that indicates or implies about the quality of people we sometimes unfortunately wind up with.

This kid was one of them, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was getting around pretty good by then with my cane, my leg still shrunken and white as a grub where the cast had constricted it, and I’d just turned onto Tamarack, thinking to hobble down to the lodge for a little exercise and maybe check the mail and see who was around, have a drink or two, get social, when there he was, striding along in this jaunty hey-look-at-me kind of way. Now, it was pretty rare to see strangers walking around the development — somebody goes by my house and nine out of ten I can tell you their first, middle, and last name and all the regrets they’ve had since they got out of elementary school — but there are hikers and day-trippers and whatnot coming by occasionally, so it wasn’t unheard of. Anyway, the kid looks to be twenty or so, and he’s tall and greyhound skinny, with a little patch of soul beard just like mine, and so of course I’m neighborly and call out my standard greeting (“What up?”), which he returns with a big doggy smile that shows off the gap where three of his teeth are missing in front, one upstairs, two down. Next thing we’re standing there chatting, and if I was vaguely aware of one of the house alarms going off up the street (we’re always getting cabins broken into up here because you leave a place vacant long enough and somebody’s going to notice), I barely gave it a thought.

He was pretty winning, this kid, a real talker. Within sixty seconds he was asking me about the quality of the construction up on the mountain — he was a big aficionado of cabin architecture as well as being a master carpenter, or so he said, and why not believe him? — and three minutes later I found myself humping back up Aspen with him to show off what I’d done vis-à-vis layout, exposed beams, roof pitch, and all the rest when I took early retirement and built the place for Jessica six years ago. We got talking. I made a pot of coffee. He leaned back in the one armchair my wife had left behind and observed that the place was pretty spare. I agreed that it was. And I said to myself, What the hell, what have I got to lose? So I told him my story. When I was done — and I have to admit I went to some length to wring the very bitterest dregs out of it — I offered to freshen up his coffee with a shot of Jim Beam, and he took me up on it and then, because we were just being neighborly as all hell and maybe I hadn’t had as many people to talk to as I might have liked these past months, I encouraged him to sit right there and open up. What was his story? How’d he wind up on the mountain? Was he somebody’s kid? Grandkid?

Let me tell you, if you thought Lily had troubles, this kid went her one better. Or worse, I guess. He just looked at me a long moment over the rim of his cup, as if deciding whether to trust me or not, and he never flinched when the sheriff’s four-by went up and down the road two if not three times, siren screaming, and then he said, “You ever hear about that kid the parolee snatched in the back of Safeway when he was nine years old and then kept him traveling around the country till the kid didn’t know where he was or even who he was? Not to mention the dirty things he made that scared little kid do just to earn a candy bar — or, shit, a half-rotten scrap of meat? The handcuffs — you hear about the handcuffs?”

Well, that was a story. How he had to eat dog food out of the can with the only present the man ever gave him, which was a bent spoon. How the man made him split wood for the stove and clean the house like a slave all day and wouldn’t let him get within a mile of a newspaper and never let him out of the house and didn’t even have a TV. I still don’t know how much of it was the truth, but I watched the tears come up in his eyes and you knew he had trouble whatever it was. We sat talking for the better part of an hour and then the sheriff, siren stifled now but his lights still flashing, pulled into the driveway, and who was with him but Bill Secord, stepping out carefully so as not to trample the irises Jessica planted along the drive last year, and right behind him, in her red cowgirl boots and skintight jeans, was Lily.

The kid gave me a look. “I need to tell you something —” he started, and I cut him off.

“You been breaking into cabins?”

“Not really.”

“What do you mean not really? Either you did or you didn’t.” There was the thump of the sheriff’s footfall on the weathered cedar planks of the front deck and then the accompanying thump of Bill’s boot and a lighter tread altogether, which was Lily’s. Can I tell you that I was torn in two directions in that instant, that I felt something for the kid despite myself and that the thought of seeing Lily’s pale white oval of a face and maybe catching a whiff of that $125-an-ounce perfume she dabs so prettily under the twin points of her jawbone had me all but paralyzed?

The kid’s voice came at me like a tape on high speed. “Listen, I didn’t steal anything. I mean, look at me — where would I hide it? I was hungry, that was all. Because it wasn’t normal, what happened to me, you know? And I — I’m sorry, I just get these food cravings.” He was on his feet now and he was pleading. “I only escaped three years ago.”

I didn’t say anything. Lily was right outside the door.

“Listen, I’m begging you,” the kid said, drifting like a shadow across the room. “I just want to — could I just go in the bedroom a minute and close the door?”

So he did and I opened the front door to the sheriff (his name’s Randy Juniper, he’s thirty-six years old, and he has a permanent hair up his ass), Bill Secord, and Lily. Lily looked like she was drowning. Water up to her neck and the river in flood. She and Bill stepped in the room and Bill closed the door behind him and stared down at his shoes. Randy, I noticed, had his three-foot-long flashlight in one hand, though it was broad daylight, and he squinted at me in my own living room as if it was an interrogation cell in Guantánamo or someplace, and then, in his official sheriffese, he said, “You see anybody suspicious out there this morning?”

“They broke into my cabin,” Lily whispered, not looking at me.

“Who?” I said, playing for time.

Now she did glance up, her eyes, which are the exact color of Coca-Cola poured into a clear spotless glass, hardening with the contemplation of how much had been laid on her and laid on her again. “This kid,” she said, her voice gone soft, “like a teenager or maybe twenties, real gawky and skinny and stupid-looking — I pulled into the drive because I was down the lodge for breakfast and I saw him coming round the back of the cabin and when he saw me he just took off into the woods.”

Next question, and I didn’t like the way Sheriff Randy was looking at me: “Did they get anything?”

They hadn’t. But the screen over the kitchen sink had been slit open and that was enough for her. And the sheriff.

“You,” the sheriff said finally, “wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”

My answer was a long time coming — seconds, I guess, five, maybe ten even. I didn’t like the implication here because what they were hinting at was that I was a criminal, a thief, maybe a colluder with thieves, and all because I fell off Lily’s roof with the best of intentions, with love in my heart, and so I just looked Randy right in the face and shook my head no.

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

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