My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain, by T. C. Boyle

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January 2010 Issue [Story]

My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain


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.

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.

I don’t think I ever talked and wheedled and apologized and extenuated as much as I did that night, stretched out on my back in the snow and freezing my ass off while Lily looked at me as if I were something she’d stepped on in the parking lot at Costco and Frank Jr. ran in to phone for the sheriff, the fire department, and every last living soul on the mountain, including old Brick Sternreit, who’d won the title of Mountain Man three times running during the Memorial Day chili cookoff despite the fact that he was closing in on ninety, and Bart Bliss, who ran the lodge and sported the longest beard on the mountain, plus three widows, two widowers, and my own sharp-honed steel-eyed rapier of a wife, Jessica. There was an interval there, Frank Jr. in the house and phones ringing everywhere, when it was just me and Lily and the dead cold of the night. Lily had lowered the .38, thumbed the safety, and dropped the thing in the pocket of the big cardigan sweater, which I now saw was decorated with a pair of prancing reindeer done up in red stitching, but the flashlight was still leveled on my face. “Lily,” I gasped, fighting for breath against the pain, “could you lower that light? Please? Because my leg’s broke” — I almost said, Just like Frank’s, but suppressed it — “and I can’t move and the light’s right in my eyes.”

The beam never wavered. “What in hell were you thinking?” This was framed in an accusatory tone, and her voice was anything but melodious and sweet.

“I love you,” I said. “I’ve loved you since the day Frank brought you up here and we all got drunk on pitchers of margaritas down at the lodge . . . remember?”

Her voice was flat. “You don’t love me.”

“I do.”

“You have a funny way of showing it. What did you think, you’d see me naked or something?”

There was the sound, in the distance, of snow tires crunching the crust of ice on the blacktop road that twisted below us past the Turners’ place, and already the headlights were dancing in the tops of the stripped aspens out front of Lily’s. “You must think I’m like a Peeping Tom or something, but really, I just, I mean —”

“No,” she said, cutting me off, “I don’t think you’re a Peeping Tom — I think you’re a slime. I mean, really, how could you? With Frank barely cold in the ground and what about Jessica? What about her? What about your wife?”

The pain — the comet that was shooting from my lower leg to my brain and back again, fighting to explode into the night — seized me up a minute and I had no reasonable answer to give her. I wanted to say, She won’t mind or, She doesn’t have to know or, I don’t love her, I love you, but I couldn’t.

“And the mask? What’s with the mask? I mean, that’s just sick.”

And so I wheedled and protested but it did no good because those tires and those headlights belonged to Bill Secord, first responder, and before I could blink twice the whole community was gathered there to contemplate me in my sprawled and broken disgrace. (Wildly, it came to me that I could say I was just checking the chimney braces as a favor to Frank, in memory of Frank, that is, and to help out a poor widow who didn’t know the first thing about winter maintenance.) Voices drifted over me. Two dogs slunk up to sniff my boots. I noticed a bottle of vodka passing from hand to hand, but no one thought to offer me any, not even to wet my lips. People debated whether or not I should be moved and Bill was all official about back injuries and the like and the sheriff appeared out of the shadows to take his report while the ambulance was jerking its lights in and out of the trees and Jessica, my bedmate, my companion, my old rug and sweet married bride, lurched up and leaned over me with her face so disarranged with hurt and confusion and rage I barely recognized her as she let loose with a cold wad of spit that wound up freezing right there on my cheek as the paramedics lifted me onto the stretcher and the doors of the ambulance slammed shut on the night and the mountain, which until that very moment had been my home and my hideout and my refuge from the bad old world.

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.

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?

I won’t go into detail about Bill Secord and the sheriff and the whole playing out of the same charade of the winter past, but I will say that when you talk about pain, it comes in varieties and dominions nobody can even begin to imagine. And when you talk about fate, which I reject as a useful proposition, you talk about some kind of wheel you can never get off of. Fate doesn’t leave you any margin for hope or redemption or even change. With fate, the fix is in, but I’m going to tell you that luck is different, bad luck anyway. Bad luck can change. I sit here in my rented wheelchair and look out into the trees present and see the ghosts of the trees past and tell myself it has to, because nobody — not Lily with her scarred back and two permanent tears or Frank Jr. with his missing arm or the snatched kid who had to degrade himself every minute of every day without hope even of the faintest flicker of love — could stand to be as lonely and miserable as this.

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

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