Story — From the January 2010 issue

My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain

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Time passes slowly up here, the hours squeezing out like toothpaste at the flattened end of the tube. I noticed that the days got a little longer and then they started to get a little shorter. The sun hung up in the trees. I fed the birds and the squirrels, stared at the faded place on the wall where the TV had been, and thought about various projects I might embark on to fill the lonely hours, building a chicken coop maybe (though chickens wouldn’t last half an hour up here what with the coyotes and the bear and his cousins), buying a horse or a dirt bike so I could get out in the woods more, overhauling the engine on my snow machine. None of these came to fruition. And if I’d taken some satisfaction in how much my neighbors drank, half of them with corrupted livers and at least two I know of working on a single kidney each, now I was drinking so heavily I found myself waking up all day long and in places I didn’t even know I could get to, like on top of the refrigerator or underneath the pickup.

Lily was the problem, of course. And Jessica, who’d moved in with her mother in Sacramento and refused to return my calls. I did give Jessica some thought, remembering the good times like when I held her head down for a full hundred and ten seconds during an apple-bobbing contest at the county fair, or how we’d make up a big pot of chili beans and sit out on the deck and listen to the sounds of nature, but it was Lily who occupied my thoughts. My leg was getting stronger and more and more I found myself drifting past her cabin on my daily walks or driving by after dark just to see if her lights were on.

One day, late afternoon, September touching the leaves of the aspens so they went from green to gold overnight and the breath of winter impatient on the air, I just couldn’t take it any longer and decided to dig out my bird-watching binoculars and maybe just stroll through the woods a bit — and if I wound up on the ridge across from Lily’s with an unobstructed view of the lower deck and the Weber grill giving off smoke in the corner there, so much the worse. The thought of that — not just the way she did tri-tip with her special sauce that managed to be both sweet and sour in equal proportions and how she leaned over you to refresh your drink so you could smell the bourbon on her breath and her perfume at the same time, but the sad fact that I’d once shuffled across the boards of that very deck as an honored guest — got me feeling nostalgic. I sat there on a hard lump of rock, the binoculars trained on the windows, nostalgia clogging my veins like sludge, till the sun shifted and shadows tipped back from the trees and Lily finally appeared, a platter of meat in one hand and a spatula and tongs in the other. She was wearing a pair of red shorts that emphasized the creases front and rear and a low-cut white blouse. Her feet were bare. I wanted to kiss those feet, wanted to come down off my perch and worry over the splinters that were certainly a danger on that deck that hadn’t been treated since Frank died, wanted to warn her, make a joke, see her smile.

We all have binoculars up here, by the way, which are necessary to the enjoyment of nature, or so we tell ourselves, and we like to compete as to whose are the most powerful, just as we compete over our four-by-fours, snow machines, and the like. Jessica got my good ones, the Bushnell Elites that allow you to count the whiskers on a marmot’s snout half a mile away, but the ones she left me — bargain-basement Nikon 7x20s — were more than adequate to the purpose. I could see not only that Lily’d had her toenails done, in a shade of red that came as close to the hue of those clinging shorts as was humanly possible, but that both of her big toes sported a little white rose painted right in the middle. She was wearing her hoop earrings, the silver glinting in the long tube of sunlight as she bent to lift the top off the Weber and employ the tongs, and though I was maybe a football field away, it was close enough to hear the first startled sizzle of the meat hitting the grill. Or maybe I was imagining that. But I could see that she was all made-up, beautiful as a porcelain doll, with her eyebrows penciled in and her lashes thick as fur.

So I’m only human. And what I was thinking was that even if she wasn’t ready for my company, even if she wouldn’t glance up when I mounted the steps to the deck with a sad forgiving smile and invite me to sit down and break bread with her — or, in this case, slice tri-tip — she would at least have to acknowledge me and maybe even hear me out on the subject of the ski mask and the roof and all the rest. Because I loved her purely and I wanted her to know that. As if it had been decided all along, I pushed myself up from the rock just like that and kept to the cover of the trees while she fussed around the little picnic table on the deck, and as I got closer I could hear the strains of some Eighties band leaching out through the screen door in front. At the foot of the driveway, I bent to secrete the binoculars under a bush so as not to give her the wrong impression, and then came silently up on her, looking to the surprise factor, though I wasn’t yet sure if I was going to chime out “Guess who?” or just “Hi” and add that I was in the neighborhood (a joke: we were all in the neighborhood twenty-four seven) and just thought I’d say hello.

As it turned out, I didn’t have the opportunity, because at that moment Frank Jr. came backing his way out through the screen door, a big wooden bowl of salad clutched to his chest under the pressure of his arm and the rim of a sloshing cocktail glass clenched between his teeth. When he saw me — I was at the landing of the six steps that led up to the lower deck — he just about spit the glass into the bowl. As it was, he fumbled the bowl awkwardly for half a second before it hit the deck, spewing romaine and cherry tomatoes across the bleached boards, and I was worried he was going to bite through the glass, but he caught himself. Lily saw me then. Her look was blank at first, as if she didn’t recognize me, or more likely couldn’t place me in context, so far had she gone in wiping me off her personal slate.

Frank Jr. broke the silence. “Jesus, you got brass.”

I couldn’t be sure but Lily looked as if she was smiling at me — or maybe, considering what happened next, she was grimacing. Honestly, I don’t know.

Frank Jr. moved across the deck to put himself between me and her, as if I was some sort of threat, which I wasn’t and never have been, and I couldn’t help comparing him with the skinny kid who’d come up here to violate people’s space and steal what little they had for his own use. Frank Jr. was older, better-looking, but they were both kids to me and they shared the same general look, a kind of twitching around the mouth that only showed the kind of contempt they had for older people, and in that moment I half wished I’d turned the kid in. I never did find out what happened to him. They found a stolen Mustang convertible abandoned on one of the logging roads not a mile and a half from the development, but whether he was responsible or not no one could say. For my part, I just pushed open the bedroom door after the sheriff left and found the room empty, as if the kid was nothing more than my own invention.

Frank Jr. was real enough though. And he let out a low curse and said, “Neither me or Lily want to see you on this property, not now or ever.” And he turned to her and squeezed her to him and I saw something there that made my heart jump. “Right, Lily?”

I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself all the way up the six steps and standing there on the deck as if I belonged, and I started to explain, but that was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life because all the factors had been churning around in me through all those washed-out months, so I just said what I’d said to her that night. “Lily,” I said, “I’m sorry if I offended you or whatever” — I paused, and her eyes weren’t so much hateful as just stunned — “but you know why I did it.”

She said nothing.

Frank Jr. took a step forward. “No,” he said, low and nasty, “she doesn’t.”

“Because I love her,” I said, and maybe I took a step toward him too so that we were three feet apart, and the next thing I knew I heard the sound of one fist clapping. Against my cheekbone. Frank Jr. — and he has a lot of power in that arm because when you think of it that arm has to do the work of two — lashed out and hit me, and I tell you it was bad luck, pure and simple, that sent me into the rail that maybe wasn’t up to code with regard to height requirements and then pitched me right over it into the duff ten feet down. On my leg. My bad leg. Which broke all over again with a snap you could have heard in Sacramento.

But that wasn’t the worst. The worst was that Lily, instead of coming to my aid as even an anonymous stranger would have, instead took hold of Frank Jr. with both her strong shapely bare suntanned arms and pulled her to him for a long soul kiss that left not a single doubt in my mind. And I tell you, he was the stepson. The stepson, for Christ’s sake. I mean, morally speaking, isn’t that what they call incest?

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

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