Story — From the May 2015 issue

For Something to Do

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Past Howell, he kept the speedometer needle at seventy for almost six miles, until he was in sight of the mailbox. Then he eased his foot from the accelerator, braked, and turned off the highway onto the road that cut back through the trees. The road was little wider than his car — a dim, rutted passageway that twice climbed into small clearings, but through most of its quarter of a mile kept to tree-covered dimness until it opened onto the yard and the one-story white farmhouse. He left the car in the gravel drive and went in the side door. It was almost seven o’clock in the evening.

“Ev?”

He heard Julie’s voice and passed through the kitchen to see his wife at the end of the hall, coming out of the bedroom. She went to him quickly, kissing him and holding herself against him for a moment before looking up.

“I was starting to worry —”

“They haven’t been here?” Evan asked.

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

His wife’s hair, smooth and dark, parted on the side and clipped with a silver barrette, hung almost to her shoulders, where it turned up softly and moved as she shook her head. She was twenty-three, with a slight, boyish figure and a perhaps too thin face, though her features were delicately small and even, with freckles that she did not try to conceal, because her husband liked them.

“Did they call?” asked Evan.

“Not a word since Cal telephoned this morning.”

“If they left Detroit at two —” Evan paused. “Isn’t that what Cal said?”

Julie nodded. “He was picking up Ray at two o’clock and coming right on.”

“They would’ve been here three hours ago if he did.”

She started to smile as she said, “Maybe they were in an accident.” In the dimness, but with light coming from the kitchen doorway, her teeth were small and white against the warm brown of her face.

Evan smiled, too, looking at his wife and feeling her close to him. “Thank God for small blessings.”

“Or Cal forgot the way,” she said.

“Or they stopped at a bar.”

Her smile faded. “That’s all we’d need.”

She followed Evan into the kitchen and leaned against the white-painted, oilcloth-covered table as he washed his hands at the sink. She liked to watch him as he lathered his hands vigorously then rinsed them until the callused palms glistened yellow-pink and fresh-looking. She liked what she called his honest farmer tan: face and arms a deep brown with a line across his forehead and upper arms where the color ended abruptly. She even liked his farmer haircut, with too much thinned out from the sides — just as he liked her freckles and the way her hair moved when she shook her head. They had been married less than a year and noticing and liking these things about each other was as important as anything they shared.

“I was beginning to worry about you,” she said.

“It took longer than I thought it would.”

“A reluctant calf?”

Evan nodded, drying his hands.

“Did he pay you?”

“Not yet.”

“He didn’t pay for the brucellosis shots either.”

“He will, when he gets his wheat check.”

“Eight miles both ways and I’ll bet he didn’t even thank you.”

“He mumbled something.”

“Ev, that’s a sixteen-mile round- trip . . . and a messy afternoon in his barn. For what? Eight or nine dollars.”

He looked at her curiously. “That wasn’t a child I delivered, it was a calf.”

“Four years of veterinary medicine to charge eight dollars —”

“Twenty-five. I had to cut.”

“It’s still too little, with the attention you give.”

“Do you expect him to pay more than the calf’s worth?”

She shook her head faintly. “Good Sam.”

He frowned, moving toward her. “Julie, what’s the matter with you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You sound like Cal, talking about money like that.”

“I said I was sorry.”

For a moment Evan was silent. “You’re upset about them coming, aren’t you?” He was standing close to her now, and he drew her against him gently. “All of a sudden you sound like a different person. Listen, don’t let him get you down like that.”

She closed her eyes, her arms going around his waist. “I was afraid they’d come while you were gone. Then I hoped they would because I didn’t want you to be here.”

“The worrier.”

“Ev, this isn’t like the little worries. First I thought: It’s better if you and Ray don’t meet. Then I thought: No, I don’t want to be here alone. And I wasn’t sure which would be worse.”

“Julie, Ray knows you’re married.”

“That’s just it.”

“But you went with the guy for two years. He can’t be that bad.”

“He was hard to get along with and conceited and . . . I don’t know. I can’t even think of one thing in his favor.”

“Well, maybe he’s grown up.”

“I think that would be asking too much,” Julie said.

They spoke little during supper. Julie thought of Ray Perris. She had gone with him during her senior year in high school and off and on during her first two years at Michigan State, whenever she came home to Detroit and Ray bothered to call her. Then, in her third year, shortly after Ray was called into the army, she met Evan. There was no formal breakup with Ray, no ring to return, no goodbye. Ray never wrote; only once called her when he was home on furlough; and as far as Julie knew, Ray was still unaware that she was married. Until now.

Not long ago she’d heard that Ray was out of the army and had become a professional fighter. This didn’t surprise her. He had entered the Golden Gloves in high school; but, it seemed to Julie, more for the sake of wanting to be known as a fighter than for the actual boxing. Since meeting Evan, the only time she thought of Ray was to wonder how she could have ever gone with him. Perhaps only because she had been seventeen.

Then the phone call this morning from Cal, her cousin. Ray was in Detroit and he was bringing him out. And from that moment, suddenly realizing she was going to see Ray again and not wanting to see him, she was afraid.

Evan thought about Cal. How he would pull up into the drive unexpectedly, uninvited, and sit in the living room with them until all the beer was gone. Cal was twenty-three, Julie’s age, four years younger than Evan; but aside from that they had almost nothing in common.

The first few times he came, Evan tried hard to like him. He offered to show him around the farm, but Cal wasn’t interested. For conversation he brought up the Detroit Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings, in that order, going from baseball to football to hockey. But Cal was a fight fan and Evan was familiar with few names, none of them current, in the boxing world.

Cal did talk. After a few cans of beer he carried the conversation and invariably his remarks were directed to Julie.

Why would anybody who knew better want to live in the sticks? I mean, what do you do for kicks, sit and look at each other? Nothing to do, you work your francis off and all you got to show for it is a one-story house and a four-year-old car. If Ev wants to be a vet — I mean it takes all kinds of people, believe me — why don’t he get one of those dog-and-cat deals? Plenty of them in Detroit and those guys are making dough.

Evan argued with him mildly the first few times, but when he realized his anger was rising he would stop. It wasn’t worth it. Cal had more success with Julie. She was easily drawn into an argument, as if she were obligated to talk some sense into Cal, to make him see that living on a farm and not making much money didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t happy. And when she became angry, Evan would see Cal smile. A number of times he had to restrain himself from throwing Cal out bodily.

Evan would tell himself, The next time he opens his mouth, out he goes. Even if he is her cousin. But he sat quietly and put up with Cal, because he couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him.

But it’s not the same now, Evan thought. It’s nice to be nice, but you can carry it too far.

He thought then, You’re feeling sorry for yourself.

But that wasn’t it, for he was almost always completely honest with himself. He was thinking that he and Julie had been married for almost a year and everything was going smoothly, but for one moment this afternoon his wife had sounded like Cal and she had not even been aware of it. You did not let a man ruin your marriage, or even try to or begin to or even have it remotely in mind.

They had eaten supper and were doing the dishes when the two-tone ivory-and-green station wagon swung onto the drive and came to a sudden, gravel-skidding, nose-down stop behind Evan’s car. The horn blew, and kept blowing until Julie and Evan came out on the front porch.

They heard Cal’s voice as he got out of the station wagon, almost stumbling, slamming the door, and Julie closed her eyes. When she opened them he was coming toward the porch. “We were starting to worry about you.”

Cal winked at Evan as if they were old friends. “That’s the day.”

“What happened to you?” Julie’s gaze went to the station wagon as she spoke. The curved windshield was green-tinted and she could not make out the figure behind the wheel, though she was certain it was Ray Perris.

“We stopped for some hunting,” Cal answered. “Ray figured if we’re going out in the woods let’s have some fun. So you know what the punchy guy does? He stops at a hardware store and buys two .30-30’s.” Cal snapped his fingers. “Just like that. The guy’s loaded.”

“You stopped for more than that,” Julie said.

“So we picked up a case of beer.”

Evan watched him. Cal stood with his hands on his hips, one blunt-toed cordovan shoe in front of and almost perpendicular to the other in a fencing-like pose. “You’re a little early for the hunting season,” Evan said.

Cal looked up at him. “Is that right, Doctor?”

“What were you hunting?”

“I don’t know. What lives in the woods?”

Don’t let him get you, Evan thought, and he said, nodding to the station wagon, “What about your friend?”

“He’s a shy guy,” Cal grinned. “Waits to be invited.” His eyes went to Julie. “Ask your old boyfriend in for a beer.”

“I think you’ve already had enough.”

“Is that right?”

“You could hardly get out of the car.”

“Is that right?” Cal turned to the station wagon. “Ray, we’re going to get a drunk-o-meter test!”

“Cal, act right today, please!”

They heard the car door open and slam closed. Cal said, “There’s a real bomb. Two hundred and thirty horses. Digs out from zero to sixty in ten flat. Something?”

Neither Julie nor Evan answered. They were watching Perris rounding the back end of the station wagon, taking his time, his hands in the back pockets of his khaki pants.

He wore a tight-fitting short-sleeved yellow-and-white sport shirt and both of his forearms bore tattoos: a tombstone with the inscription in memory of mother on the right arm, and on the left, a dagger with ray in ornate, serifed letters on the hilt. Air Corps–type sunglasses covered his eyes (though the sun was off behind the trees and it was almost dark) and his dark hair, curling low on his forehead, was thick and combed straight back on the sides. At the nape of his neck his hair ended abruptly in a straight line.

Cal scratched idly about his shirtfront. He was hatless with light-colored hair that was crew-cut on top and long on the sides and his entire face, pale and angular, creased as he smiled.

“Ray’s next fight’s in Saginaw,” Cal said. “So he figured, hell, train at home for a change.”

Perris nodded. “Besides wanting to see Julie.” He was staring at her, ignoring Evan.

She tried to smile. “It’s nice to see you, Ray. I don’t believe you’ve met my husband —”

It was Evan’s turn to smile, but his mouth was set firmly and his expression didn’t change as he extended his hand and almost drew it back before Perris eased his from his back pocket.

“Cal said you were hunting,” Julie said to him.

“We shot sixteen beer cans.”

“You should’ve had Ev with you.” Julie stopped. “I mean if it was the season. Ev was practically born in the woods; hunts every year, sets traps in the winter.” She watched them shake hands briefly.

As they did, Cal said, “Like in the ring, huh, man?”

Perris’s hands went to his back pockets again and he stood, hip cocked, looking at Julie. “This cousin of yours, all he wants to talk about is fights.”

“He’s already notched twenty-three wins,” Cal said. “Only lost four and drawed one. Another year and he’s in line for a shot at the middleweight title. How about that?” Cal paused. “You know what they call him around the gym? Tony.”

“Tony?” Julie said.

“Tony Curtis! You don’t see it?”

Julie nodded, not sure if he was serious. “There’s some resemblance.”

Some — hell, he looks like his twin!”

Perris was studying the house. His gaze moved to the chicken house and beyond that the barn. His eyes returned to Julie as he said, “How much land you got?”

“Eighty-five acres, most of it wheat. Some corn. Of course Ev doesn’t have time to work it all now, with his practice. A neighbor sharecrops it for us.”

“How much money does this Ev make?”

The question startled her and she hesitated before saying, “We get along fine.”

“He makes about four thousand a year,” Cal said. “Tops.”

Perris grinned. “I can lose and make that in one night. Honey, if all you got out of school was him, you should’ve stayed home.”

She glanced at Evan and away from him quickly. “You can’t help whom you fall in love with.” She smiled as if carrying on a joke.

Cal said, “While Ray is off in the arm services.”

“Ev and I would’ve gotten married even if Ray had stayed home!”

Cal shrugged. “That’s not the way I see it. Ray turns his back and the horse doctor comes along.”

“I don’t care how you see it! All you want to do is argue. You’ve nothing better to do than that.”

“Nobody’s asking me,” Perris said. “I don’t think you’d of married him either. What do you think of that?”

Julie hesitated to control her voice. “I think you’ve had too much to drink.”

“And what’s Ev think about it?” Perris turned, his expression cold and partly concealed by the sunglasses. “What’s old Ev the horse doctor think about it?”

Evan met his gaze squarely. He stood with his feet apart, unmoving, and said, “You better get out of here right now. That’s what I think.”

“Ray,” Julie said quickly. “There was never anything between us. That’s what makes this whole thing so silly.” She stopped. Perris was not paying any attention to her.

“What was that, Ev?”

“You heard what I said.”

“Something about getting out.”

“I can’t say it any plainer.”

Cal grinned. “Man, he’s talking now.”

“Asking for it,” Perris said.

“Sure,” Cal nodded. “Why don’t you deck him and get it over with.”

“I’m waiting for him.”

“You got a long wait.”

“Stop it!” Julie stared at Ray Perris, her face flushed and tight with anger. “What are you, some kind of an animal that you fight over nothing? Ray, I swear if you even make a fist I’ll call the state police!”

Perris glanced at Cal. “Take her inside and open the beers. I’ll be right in.”

“Ray, I swear —” Cal’s hand closed on her arm and pulled her off balance. “Let go of me!” She saw Evan rushing at Cal and then she screamed.

Perris took a half step and drove his fist into Evan’s body, stopping him in his stride, and as he doubled over, Perris’s left stung against the side of his jaw and he went to his knees.

Perris stood close to him, waiting. Beyond, past his legs, he saw Cal forcing Julie up to the porch. Cal stopped to watch and called out, “Ray, be careful of those hands!”

Evan breathed in and out getting his breath, then lunged at Perris, swinging his right with everything he could put behind it.

Perris came inside, taking the roundhouse with his shoulder, and threw four jabs pistonlike into Evan’s body. Evan went back, staggered by the force of the short punches, and Perris came after him. Evan tried to bring up his guard, but Perris feinted him high and drove his left in. When Evan’s guard dropped, Perris threw the right that had been cocked, waiting. It chopped into Evan’s face and he felt the ground slam against the back of his head and jolt through his whole body.

He felt himself being dragged by his legs, heard his wife’s voice but wasn’t sure of it. Then he was lying, half-leaning against a tree. He felt his shoes being pulled off and he opened his eyes.

Perris was walking away from him toward the station wagon. He saw him look at it, then open it again and take out the two .30-30’s. He held both under one arm, the shoes in the other hand, and called to Evan, “You touch that car and I’ll break your jaw!”

He turned and walked to the house. On the porch he said something to Cal, who was standing in the doorway holding Julie. Cal came outside. He went to Evan’s car and let the air out of both rear tires, then returned to the house. The door closed and there was no sound in the yard.

Evan was perhaps sixty feet from the porch, not straight out from it but off toward the side where the cars were parked; and as he lay propped against the tree, staring at the house, at the lighted living room windows, not believing that this had actually happened, his lips parted with a thick throbbing half-numbness, he tried to assemble the thoughts that raced through his mind.

He thought of Julie, forcing himself to remain calm as he did. He pictured himself getting a pitchfork from the barn and breaking down the door. Then he remembered the .30-30’s.

They wouldn’t shoot. No? You think they’re not capable of it? And they’re drunk — beyond what little reason they have. This doesn’t happen, does it?

He could run for help. Even without shoes he could run down to the highway and stop a car, get to the state police at Brighton.

He pictured the blue-and-gold police car pulling up and two troopers going into the house and Cal and Ray looking up, surprised; and one of the troopers saying, “Don’t give your pals so much to drink and they won’t get out of hand.” He saw Cal wink at Ray, waiting for the troopers to leave.

He was aware of the night sounds: an owl far off, crickets in the yard close to the house and in the full darkness of the woods behind him.

No, he thought. You do it yourself. You have to get them out. You have to do it so that it’s once and for all, or else they’ll come back again. They’re not afraid of you, but they have to be made afraid. Do you understand that?

He heard the owl again and he could feel the deep woods behind him. The woods . . .

For perhaps a quarter of an hour more he remained in the shadows, thinking, asking himself questions and groping for the answers, and finally he knew what he would do.

His hand went up the rough bark of the tree to steady himself as he got to his feet. He moved along the edge of shadow until the station wagon was between him and the house, then stooped slightly and ran across the yard to his car.

With his hand on the door handle he noticed the ventipane partly open. He pulled it out to a right angle and put his arm in, pressing his right side against the car door. He rolled down the window, brought out his veterinary kit, and stooped to the ground with it.

The inside pocket, he thought, remembering putting his instruments away after delivering the calf that afternoon. His hand went in, came out with a three-ounce bottle of chloroform, went in again, felt the mouth speculum — No, too heavy — then his fingers closed on the steel handle of a hoof knife and he drew it out, a thin-bladed knife curved to a sharpened hook.

The rifles, he thought then. No, they won’t follow you without the rifles. Just bring them out.

From the edge of the drive he picked up a rock twice the size of his fist, walked to within six feet of Perris’s station wagon, and hurled it through the windshield. He waited until the front door swung open, then ran for the trees, hearing Cal’s voice, then Perris’s, hearing them on the steps —

“There he is!”

“Get the guns!” Perris’s voice as he ran to the station wagon.

Cal came out of the house with the rifles and Perris said, “Come on!”

“Where’d he go?”

“Not far without shoes.”

From the shadows again, but deeper into the trees, Evan watched them for a moment. They stood close together, Perris talking, describing something with his hands, then taking a rifle from Cal, the two of them separating and coming toward the trees. Evan moved back carefully, working his way over to where Cal would enter. Perris was nearer the road, perhaps thirty yards away.

Evan crouched, waiting, hearing the rustling, twig-snapping sound of them moving through the scrub growth and fallen leaves. Cal was coming almost directly toward him.

He let Cal pass — one step, another — then rose without a sound and was on him, one hand clamping Cal’s mouth, the other pressing the hoof knife against his side hard enough that he would feel the blade. He felt Cal go rigid and he pushed against him, turning him to make him walk to the left now, broadening the distance between them and Perris.

About twenty yards farther on Evan stopped. His hand came away from Cal’s mouth, went to his shirt pocket, and brought out the chloroform.

Cal didn’t move, but he said, “Ray’s going to beat you blue.”

Evan said nothing, putting the hoof knife under his arm. He drew his handkerchief and saturated it with chloroform, then returned the bottle to his pocket. “How is Julie?”

“She locked herself in the bedroom.”

“Did he touch her?”

“Ask him.”

“All right, Cal. Call him over.”

“What?”

“Go ahead, call him.”

Cal hesitated. Then he screamed, “Ray, he’s over here!”

The sound of Cal’s voice cut the stillness, rang through the darkness of the trees, and was loud in Evan’s ear as he clamped the handkerchief against Cal’s face and dragged him as he struggled into dense brush. In a moment Cal was on the ground unconscious. Evan picked up the rifle and started running. He heard Perris’s voice and the sound of him hurrying through the foliage and he called back over his shoulder, “Come on!”

He kept running, driving through the brush, feeling sharp stabs of pain in his stockinged feet. Twice again he called back to Perris, making sure he was following. Within a hundred yards he reached the end of the woods.

The first quarter moon showed an expanse of plowed field and, far off on the other side, a shapeless mass of trees against the night sky. He turned right along the edge of the field for a few yards then moved silently back into the woods. Not far in, he crouched down to wait.

There was little time to spare. In less than a minute Perris reached the field and stopped. He scanned it, his eyes open wide in the darkness.

“Cal?”

There was a dead stillness now without even the small, hidden night sounds in the background.

“Cal, where are you?”

Perris turned from the field uncertain, hesitated, then started into the trees again.

Now, Evan thought. He flipped the lever of the .30-30 down and up and a sharp metallic sound, unmistakable in the stillness, reached Ray Perris.

He stopped. Then edged back to the field.

“Cal?”

Evan waited. Through the trees Perris was silhouetted against the field. Watching him, Evan thought, Now add it up, Ray.

He saw Perris turn to the field again and without warning break into a run. Evan brought the rifle to his shoulder and fired. Dirt kicked up somewhere close in front of Perris and he stopped abruptly, stumbled, and went down as he reached the trees again.

Then — “Ev, what’s the matter with you!”

Silence.

“Ev, we were just clownin’ around! Cal says, ‘Come on out and see Julie.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ On the way out he says, ‘We’ll throw a scare into Evan.’ You know, for something to do, that’s all. We’d had some beers and that sounded okay with me. What the hell, the way Cal talked I figured you for a real hayseed. Then we come here and you get on the muscle. Get mean about it. What am I supposed to do, let you throw me out? I’m not built that way.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“Ev, I’ll forget about the car. You were burned up — Okay? I’ll let it go. What the hell, it’s insured.”

Silence.

“You hear? Answer me!”

Just like that, Evan thought. Forget all about it. No, Ray, you’re not scared enough yet. You might want to come back. He raised the rifle, aiming high, and fired again and the sound rocked out over the field.

“Ev, you’re a crazy man! They lock up guys like you!”

Now you’re talking, Ray.

Minutes passed before Perris spoke again.

“Ev, listen to me, I’m walking back to my car and if you shoot it’s murder. You understand that? Murder!”

Suddenly Perris stood up. “Answer me!” He screamed it. “You hear what I said? I’m coming out and if you shoot it’s murder! You go to Jackson for life! I’m coming now, Ev.” He started into the trees. “Listen, man, just hold on to yourself. You’re burned up, sure; but it isn’t worth it. I mean not Jackson the rest of your life. You got to think of it that way.”

Perris started to run.

Evan was waiting. He gauged the distance, crawled to the next brush clump, and came up swinging the rifle as Perris tried to run past. The barrel slashed down against the .30-30 in his hands and he went back, dropping it, trying to cover, but was too late. Evan’s fist whapped against his face and he stumbled. He tried to rush, bringing his hands up suddenly as the rifle was thrown at him, deflected it, ducking to the side, and looked up in time to receive the full impact of a right that was swung wide and hard and with every pound that could be put behind it. Evan kneeled over him and pressed the chloroformed handkerchief to Perris’s face before carrying him back to the yard.

Julie was on the porch. She screamed his name when she saw Evan, but he talked to her for a moment and after that she was calm. He went back for Cal, then loaded both of them into the station wagon and drove down to the highway, turned left toward Detroit and went about a mile before parking the station wagon off on the side of the road.

They would come out of the chloroform in fifteen or twenty minutes. If the state police found them first, let Perris tell whatever he liked. Even the truth if he didn’t mind the publicity that might result. It didn’t matter to Evan what he did. It was over.

He crossed the plowed field and passed again through the woods, picking up his hoof knife on the way back to the house.

Julie held open the door. “Ev, what if they come back?”

“I doubt if they will.”

“Then we won’t think about it,” she said.

They sat in the living room for a few minutes then went out to the kitchen to finish the dishes.

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(1925–2013) was the author of more than forty novels, including Get Shorty and Out of Sight. This previously unpublished story, which was written in 1955, will appear next month in Charlie Martz and Other Stories (William Morrow).

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