originally appeared in Kestrel
The dog barked again.
Ray lifted himself out of bed for a glass of water too warm from the tap in the bathroom, like drinking blood or drinking the night air that heat and humidity had thickened to the consistency of oil. He grimaced at himself in the mirror over the sink, looking just as sweat-grimed and tired as he felt, unshaven, rings like bruises around his eyes, then groped back to lie beside his wife on the sticky mattress. Sandy was breathing evenly, but he knew she was only pretending to be asleep. How could anybody sleep? The fan hummed and insisted air across their legs, but the artificial breeze seemed only to emphasize the night’s dankness, pushing heat around the small room where it was trapped, not much larger or better ventilated than a jail cell. Ray closed his eyes and willed himself to sink into the static drone that usually pulled him down into dreams of childhood.
Anita Maelin’s dog barked next door, a thin, sharp sound like the edge of a chisel tapped into Ray’s forehead. He had heard lots of barking dogs in the trailer park since he and Sandy had moved in over a year ago, but Buzzer, their neighbor’s Pekingese, had the most hateful, grating tone, a piercing sound which began shortly after sunset and continued in a slow, punctuated rhythm of yaps until the early hours of morning. The barking seemed to have gotten worse in the past week, since the heat had moved in and settled on the rows of trailers like a vast hand cupped over them, soaking all day into the ground and the metal boxes that radiated it back at night, so that there wasn't even dew on the yellowing grass in the mornings. Ray imagined that he could understand the dumb beast's need to protest, since it was probably suffering like everybody else, and just wanted to make sure no one missed hearing about its misery. Or maybe his resistance to the interruption of sleep had simply weakened.
The dog barked. It seemed to wait until Ray was just starting to slip into a doze, then yap, that pained and painful, pointed jolt of sound cutting through the darkness. Mrs. Maelin lived in the next trailer over – the next mobile home, as Sandy’s mother always corrected him, a nicety that Ray resisted, preferring to meet the unvarnished fact of their circumstances — but the damned dog might as well have been just outside the bedroom door, with the window open in the hope there might be a breath of air moving through the screen.
Ray had disliked the animal since the day he and Sandy had moved in. He had been lugging an armful of dishes from his brother's borrowed truck when the dog ran up sniffing at his ankles, so he had eased the boxes down and knelt on the gravel drive to scratch behind its ears. But the dog had snarled, showing him its yellowed teeth, and backed away from his hand, low to the ground, as if he had come at it with a stick. Then Mrs. Maelin – Ray had never heard anyone call her Anita, couldn’t imagine her as an Anita – turned from eying their furniture and picked her little dog up and cradled it against her well padded breasts with a few stiff, unmeant words of apology, all the while eying Ray suspiciously as she carried her pet back inside.
The dog barked.
Sandy stiffened when Ray put his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move or interrupt her breathing, but Ray sensed her joints locking, as if she were tensing to flee some threat, the muscles in her back tightening against him like panels of wood, waiting. Her shoulder was damp and hot beneath his palm, and sexual energy moved there, too, desire, though he didn't need to be told, now that he was touching her, that the desire moved in one direction only, from him, nothing returning. He drew his hand away and lay on his back. He felt a moment of something like anger or a little dust-devil twist of deep-down, tired and direction-less despair. But he told himself Sandy was probably right, anyway, it was too hot for sex, even if it would be the first time in weeks. Ray wasn’t exactly sure just how many weeks it had been. He wasn’t going to start keeping a tally.
After another half-hour, he went back to sleep, but it was a shallow, unsatisfying rest, cracked at intervals by the light blows of sound that ruined his dreams long into the dawn.
The morning light was like cigarette ash tipped into their pouched eyelids, light as grainy and unaspiring as that of worn black and white newspaper photographs. Ray and Sandy ate breakfast almost without speaking to each other, no words beyond the mechanical operation of laying out two bowls and pouring milk, crunching corn flakes and drinking coffee that could not do enough to cut through the grogginess of the night's poor sleep.
It was still early, as familiar pieces of the world settled into place. Through the window, Ray watched trees across the road becoming clearer against the sky, the dark silhouettes drawing color from somewhere as they went from black to green, and electric lights in the windows of the surrounding trailers grew faint. The streetlight at the corner where the driveway met the road into town sputtered and went dark, paradoxically making the faint natural sky seem brighter. Bird song skirled in. Most days, Ray would have enjoyed listening to the birds, would maybe even have carried a cup of coffee outside to stand under the trees where they had built nests in the spring, but this morning he was tired and trying to corral his irritability.
Ray and Sandy could hear Anita Maelin talking to Buzzer next door, a spoon rattling inside a can as she fixed breakfast for the dog and then poured water into its dish. They heard her voice soft and soothing as she spoke to the dog. Later in the morning, they both knew, she would bring him outside and walk through the trailer park, letting him lift his leg against the wheels of cars, identical expressions of challenge on the Pekinese and on the woman, both daring anyone to object, both allowed to do as they pleased through some unspoken compact of indulgence among the neighbors. Then in the afternoon she would let the dog out for another walk by himself, while she sat in front of the afternoon soap operas. Even after spending most of the day, no matter the weather, shut up in Mrs. Maelin’s trailer, the dog would take care of whatever business he had outside and scratch to be let back in as soon as possible. Anita Maelin and Buzzer were, as happens with old people and dogs, perfect matches, passing an attitude toward the world back and forth like facing mirrors. Ray had never been sure if their apparent belligerence was real or a mask for something softer that needed guarding, though his attempts at friendliness had never been any more welcome than on the first day. Offers to shop for Mrs. Maelin and Buzzer had been rebuffed on the grounds that there was nothing they needed. Whenever Ray out got out the lawnmower, he included, unasked, the strips of weedy grass around Mrs. Maelin's door, careful not to run over flowers, though she had never acknowledged his efforts. In fact, she seldom spoke to anyone at all, except Buzzer, unless you wanted to talk about her flowers, in which case she would not let go until you were exhausted. On her small plot, she had roses and tulips and tiger lilies and many bright and colorful things that Ray couldn't have named. She had covered a small slope in back with red and purple phlox, and though the slope was not technically a part of her property, no one seemed to mind. Neither Ray nor Sandy was interested in flower gardening.
Ray guessed the old woman could be in her eighties. They had heard, just after moving into the park, that she had lost her husband to cancer only a couple of years earlier.
“Lucky dog,” Ray said, as they listened to the morning ritual going on just a few feet from their window but out of sight somewhere inside Mrs. Maelin’s kitchen, where neither Ray nor Sandy had ever been. “Wish I could get that kind of attention.”
Ray had meant it as a joke — a joke about the absurd degree of affection their neighbor devoted to the unattractive Buzzer, not a comment on their own marriage — but it didn’t sound like a joke to him when he heard the words coming from his mouth. He looked quickly at his wife. He didn’t want to be bitter toward Sandy, and he didn't desire an argument. The fatigue and grittiness of the morning were not her fault, and it wasn’t really even her fault that he was feeling lonely and restless only a year and a half into their marriage. But he was weary of being forever careful with the things he said, as if all the responsibility fell to him to avoid anything that would draw attention to the emptiness growing between them. Sandy didn’t seem to take his words badly, anyway.
“Somebody ought to give that damned stupid dog some real attention,” she said, a surprising blaze of anger in her voice. “Somebody ought to shut it the hell up for good.”
Ray nodded, more to himself than to Sandy, and went back to his cereal without speaking. It seemed to him that the tone that came into her voice when she was talking that way was a new thing, something he could not remember hearing during their first months together, never before the miscarriage. He wasn't at all sure where that tone might go if he responded to it, welcomed it, encouraged it. He thought it might lead to a confrontation with Mrs. Maelin, and Ray didn't want that. Even though Sandy was certainly right about the unfairness of having to live next to the dog's barking, and even though Mrs. Maelin had never given them any reason to like her, Buzzer was still quite possibly the only bright spot in her life.
He had to be clocked in at the factory by 7:00, so he brushed a kiss onto Sandy’s cheek and left her sitting at the table, waiting the few extra minutes until she would have to leave, too. Driving into town, Ray began to feel better. Just outside the trailer park, he surprised a pair of deer grazing in a field beside the road, and they bounded across the highway, just missing his car. The sun was higher now and burning off a light fog that had collected around the bottoms of the hills. It was the first fog Ray had seen in a while. Maybe the heat was going to break.
It had been a trifling boundary dispute a few weeks earlier, or at least a dispute that Ray would have called trifling.
“Come here. I want to show you something,” Sandy said, gesturing from the open door. Ray was sitting in front of the TV, soaking in a Saturday morning's peace as if submerged to his chest in a warm bath. Her lips were twisted up on one side, sardonic.
“What is it?”
“Just come. You'll see,” she said. She led him around to the side of their trailer that faced Mrs. Maelin's.
“Just look at this shit,” Sandy kicked at the ground. “This is what happens when you give people an inch, Ray.”
Someone had dug up a brown row of earth all along the base of the cinderblock underpinning and had set out a dozen or so plants, five-inch green stems branching into lacy leaves, seeming to tremble in their delicacy as the spring air held them. The line of palm-sized, round indentations in the soft dirt paralleling the row of plants must have been left by the knees of whoever planted them, Ray realized, like small cups set into the ground for receiving offerings.
“Did you —” he began.
“Well,” he laughed, “there's no harm.”
But Sandy moved down the row, yanking the plants from the dirt — Ray didn't know what they were — and flinging them away at random. Ray heard a soft gasp and turned to find Mrs. Maelin watching, her mouth a tight, dismayed circle.
“I thought, I thought they would make the wall look nice,” she said.
Sandy stepped very close to Mrs. Maelin, leaning forward, as if concentrating all of her weight into the words, slowly: “Not your fucking property.”
Mrs. Maelin's gray face collapsed, like a wrinkled paper bag snatched and clutched into a fist from inside.
Ray did not want to see that again.
Ray spent the morning sorting lengths of planed oak as they came down the belt from the saws and stacking the different lengths on carts to be wheeled over to the molders, where they would be shaped into chair rounds or table legs or pieces of bed frames. It was repetitive, tiring work, but soothing in its way, requiring little concentration and exacting just enough physical effort to work the kinks out of his limb and his mood. He was glad, on this day, that the drone and rattle of machines made casual conversation impossible while the factory was working.
He decided, again, that he wasn’t angry with Sandy. They both had been stiffly circling each other for a while now, and it only seemed to be getting worse, as small arguments flared into big arguments with no warning or apparent reason. He felt as if he were trying to repair some small and precious machine, an intricate clock, that kept falling apart in his hands. Maybe, if he had the money, Ray could take her away for a long weekend, and that would help, even if they were only gaining some distance from the routine sights and people of everyday life, the kind of thing they had talked of doing before they got married, as if it had been a certainty that they could overcome any obstacle. He would have liked to take her up into the mountains somewhere, imagining one of the gated resorts he had driven past a few times in the fall on the way to hunt along the West Virginia border, some place in the sharper, fresher air of great altitude, and rent a cabin beside a lake. Maybe they could swim naked in the cold water and lie in front of a fireplace all night, like lovers in a movie. He would like to give Sandy that. But he didn’t have the money, and the possibility that she might laugh at his foolishness or dismiss the idea with blank indifference was worse than not having the money.
Things had been hard for Sandy since the miscarriage, and Ray was sick with guilt whenever he sensed that he had been short with her. It was easy at any time for him to conjure back the agony he had felt when he had gone to the hospital that day, breathless and scared, called away from work in the middle of his shift, to find her pale and drained on the hospital bed, the color flattened out of her face as if by a hard slap. They had lost their baby in the fourth month of her pregnancy, and it sometimes seemed to Ray that she was angry with him because she thought he had gotten over the loss more quickly than she had, though the baby’s death had stunned him, too, leaving him as hurt and hollow-feeling as if he had taken a hammer blow between the eyes.
She had gone into weeks of moping grief, lying late in bed, even though she could not sleep, drinking in the afternoon, then returning to work only when money got too tight for her to take any more time off. One thing she would never get over, she had told him, was that it had all seemed so routine, an everyday happening. It seemed to her that everyone at the hospital, the doctor and nurses and family coming to visit, her mother included, were acting as if she had lost a tooth, not a baby. She felt that the baby’s death should be marked with something people would remember, at least a funeral, but there wasn’t anything to bury. The doctor hadn’t even shown them what he had taken from her. Ray secretly believed they should be grateful for that, and he didn’t want to have a funeral with an empty box.
Sandy was quiet when she came home, which she had never been before. She seemed to be concentrating on something far inside her, where Ray could not look, where, maybe, he was shy about trying to look, would rather not see.
“It ought to be a big thing,” she said once. “Somebody died, but they all want to act like I just had my appendix cut out, or something. It’s awful, seeing the way people are at a time like that. I was so alone, lying there and not one damned person with any idea how it felt.” Ray didn’t ask if she was including him among the people. He wanted to remind her how he had come to her, his wife lying small and broken on the hospital bed, as if he had found her abandoned at the center of a vast, white plain, and she had pulled free and tuned away to curl around the coal-black stone of her own grief when he took her hand– but he said nothing of that.
Now, despite his guilt, hating himself for thoughts he couldn’t say out loud, Ray felt that she was taking too long to get over the miscarriage. That even if there was no such thing as getting over it completely, she was taking too long to be really functional again. That –- and he couldn’t help shaming himself for the betrayal the thought represented –- she might now be prolonging her mourning because she got something out of the sympathy people showed her, the margin of compassionate space they allowed around her behavior, even while she complained that no one understood or cared.
At noon, Ray ate lunch, sitting on the edge of the loading dock that opened into the lumber yard. It was cooler there than inside the building, whenever a breeze shifted in the right direction, soothing the sweat from his forehead and inside his collar. Outside, sunlight pounded straight down to bake the same dust that had been baking there since the last rain. It seemed very dim under the shed that covered the dock, and staring out into the sunlight left dazzling spots dancing before his eyes whenever he looked back into the shade. As he ate, Ray’s head was still ringing with the noise of the saws, quiet now while the operators had their half-hour break. When the breeze was not coming though the big doors of the loading dock, Ray could feel heat from the machinery inside the factory pushing out against his back.
Elmer Horton ate his sandwiches and drank from a thermos at the other corner of the dock, scrawny and gray with beard and age, who had been working at the same factory since before Ray was born, but whom Ray had known single-handedly to pick up a twelve-foot length of eight-quarter oak and flip it unto the planer he operated, as if handling cardboard. Apparently he had not been in the mood for the noise and bravura talk of the break room, either, quietly chewing as he watched clouds pass. Now Elmer stood and knocked crumbs from the front of his shirt and arched in a long stretch, fingers laced together behind his back, so that Ray could hear his joints pop, even across the yards that separated them.
“Well, it's about that time, I guess,” Elmer said, meaning time for the whistle that would call them back to their work stations. He nodded at the sky. “Rain soon.”
“Hope so,” Ray said. He glanced at the clouds, fluffy and bright, no obvious promise of any weather in them except more of the same.
“How's that wife of yours?” Elmer asked.
“Fine,” Ray said. He had a sudden impulse to tell the older man everything. “Better.”
Elmer spat off the end of the loading dock, his spittle rolling a little ball of black mud in the dust.
“Shit. Life's just life, ain't it?” he said and went inside.
The garment mill where Sandy worked across town took lunch break at the same time. Maybe she was sitting at a table in the lunchroom, eating whatever she had brought from home and talking with other women about the things women discuss. He didn’t want to think that she might be eating alone, or letting her lunch sit there uneaten in front of her, staring out into space while she waited for the signal to get back to work. He had found her like that sometimes, alone in a room.
Ray thought about taking the rest of the afternoon off. He didn’t want to go home, though. He would have liked to drive out to the edge of town and rent a motel room, but he didn’t imagine taking anyone with him, not even Loretta Lewis, whom Ray often watched smoothly feeding wood into the molder near his own station, her graceful long hands and the motion of her hips, and who would probably have gone with him, if he wanted. But he would rather have been alone. He would turn the air conditioning on high and maybe have a six-pack to himself, lie on the bed watching television and thinking of a way to make things better. It seemed he could do that –- discover a way of making things better, a way to fit the delicate, slipping parts of the mechanism back in place –- if he could only get some good time to be quiet, time out of the constant heat. He might be able to find some direction for his thoughts that lately seemed to take him around and around without getting anywhere. Ray had saved some money without telling Sandy, not much, not nearly enough for a weekend in the cabin he fantasized about, only a few bills tucked in the back of his wallet, but he knew he could get the room, if he really wanted to.
But Ray also knew he would go back to work as soon as the whistle blew. And he did.
Ray hit Sandy once, and when he did, he suddenly knew thy were near the end. He had never expected to hit her at all.
When he came home from work, the first thing he heard was Anita Maelin sobbing.
After the quitting-time whistle, Ray had gone by a junk shop downtown and bought a used air conditioner, the portable kind that sits in a window and keeps at least one room cool. The proprietor, who wore overalls with the knees ground to threads and pulled a dirty rag from his back pocket to wipe grease off his right hand before shaking Ray’s, had assured him the air conditioner had been completely overhauled and would work. No guarantee, of course. Ray didn’t bother asking. The purchase had taken all the money Ray had cached away, money which might have been better spent on a new paint job for his rusting car, but he guessed it would be worth the expense for even one night of deep, nourishing sleep.
Ray had parked the car and gone around to get the air conditioner from the trunk when he heard Mrs. Maelin through an open window of her trailer. At first, he thought she was laughing, then he recognized the sound for what it was — the crying of a lost child, low, throaty, clogged weeping which had gone on too long, now hitching with fatigue. He thought maybe he should knock on her door, find out what the problem was and whether he could help, but he wouldn’t have known what to say to her. She would be embarrassed that anyone had heard, he supposed.
He lugged the air conditioner inside, its weight pulling at his tired shoulders.
Ray hadn't expected Sandy to be home yet, had been expecting to surprise her with his purchase, but she must have left work early. She was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at an open can of beer in front of her. Ray could still hear Mrs. Maelin through the window in the kitchen. Her voice, though not very loud, seemed to fill the room.
Setting the air conditioner down, he nodded at the window.
“What’s going on over there?”
“Maybe somebody should go check on her,” he said. Though Anita Maelin had repulsed any attempts at neighborliness they had ever made, Ray still hated the idea that she was sitting alone and crying with no one but Buzzer to listen to the reasons for her sadness.
Sandy shook her head and said, “No. I don’t think so.”
He paused, an emptiness behind his breastbone. “Okay. Look what I’ve got,” he said.
Ray gestured toward the air conditioner, but Sandy’s reaction was not what he had hoped for. He had been expecting the prospect of a good night’s sleep to cheer her up, but she merely shrugged again. He had a sinking feeling, a moment’s flaring, desperate wish that he could guess what she needed. But then she seemed to reconsider, visibly stopping to think and pulling her thoughts into the room with him, back from wherever they had been wandering alone. She pushed herself up from the table the table and walked over to put her arms around him. She kissed him, and it was the first kiss that had seemed more than a pantomime for weeks. She smiled and he thought it was a real smile.
“It’s good, honey,” she said. “You go put it in the bedroom, and I’ll start dinner.”
Ray carried the air conditioner into the bedroom and installed it in the window, tightening the screws around the bottom and sides so it would stay put and not rattle in the window frame, trying not to listen to Mrs. Maelin. He turned the air conditioner on and was rewarded with an electric hum and a wave of air turning cool across his face.
Maybe, Ray thought, this would be the night for renewing their love-making. He went to find Sandy, to bring her into the bedroom and show her his handiwork, maybe even lead her to the bed. She was sitting at the table once more, not fixing dinner, doing nothing.
“Hamburger and rat poison,” she said, looking up at him, defiantly. “It worked. Wasn't sure if it would.” She took a deep pull on her beer then looked back at the table. There was no thought in what happened next. Ray found himself across the kitchen in two long steps and his hand swinging open-palmed toward Sandy's face. He tried to pull back at the last moment, but the slap was still loud in the room, and the red marks of his fingers raised as if they were cupping her cheek in mock affection in the motionless seconds that followed.
“You bastard,” Sandy whispered, raising her hand to the side of her face, but she said it without conviction or even real blame, as if she had been waiting to be punished for what she had done. She had not cringed away from him. Ray thought she had raised herself into the blow, met it as her due. He trembled inside his chest, hating himself for striking her, and — for the moment at least–hating her.
That night Ray couldn’t sleep again, even though the air conditioner was working, and it was as cool as autumn in the bedroom. He lay awake with the same thoughts as always going through his head, the same worries, worse than before. Sandy didn’t seem even to need the air conditioner. She was sleeping soundly and dreamlessly beside him, as far as he could tell, sunken deep into rest, released, as if she had given herself release from the coil that had tightened around her, her hand folded under her cheek like a child's. Ray didn’t try to wake her. He was glad the hum from the window was loud enough to drown out any sounds from next door.
James Owens’s most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015). His poems and stories have appeared in Blue Fifth Review, Poetry Ireland, Kestrel, Appalachian Heritage, and Kentucky Review, among others. Originally from Southwest Virginia, he worked on regional newspapers before earning an MFA at the University of Alabama. He now lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario. His story, "Calf," appeared here in April.