Me and Arbutus are sitting in the swing.
Lynn bought the swing to put on the front porch, before we realized we might want to sit in it and neck. So I built a frame for it and put it in the back yard. Last summer Lynn planted some kinda viney flowers at one end, and it looked real pretty, but we couldn't sit in it because of the bees. And at night those great big moths that are like hummingbirds. So now it sits all by itself in the grass.
"I always like a swing," Arbutus says.
"You're baby-sitting me, ain'tcha?"
"We just thought maybe you were tired of being alone during the day." I look at her and she laughs. "Yeah, I guess I'm baby-sitting you. You want me to leave?"
"You don't need to."
She reaches over and takes my hand. She likes to hold hands. I don't mind it myself.
I've heard people call her a masculine woman, but I don't get that. Yeah, she's got sort of a deep voice for a woman. And she doesn't wear make-up. At least I don't think so. I can't see it if she does.
Her hair's gray-streaked and she wears it plain, either just in a tie at the back, or in a braid.And yeah, she's better at some things than most men, like shooting. But she's not masculine, not by a long shot. I think you could tell she's a woman from ten feet away with your eyes shut. At least I could.
There's something……I don't know what you'd call it, but there's something interesting between her and me, since she's been keeping me company the past coupla weeks. It's sorta like an understanding, but that's not exactly it.
We sit and swing and hold hands. I'm not sure Lynn knows what to make of it. But she can't say too much 'cause it was her idea for Arbutus to keep me company.
"When you gonna start going about again?" Arbutus asks.
I raise my arm and point out the big long-legged bird flying just up over the trees. She nods and watches it with me till it's gone.
"I have been."
"Damn little. You gonna sit here till you die?"
"You think that's what I'm doing? Wishing myself dead?"
"I woulda never figured you for that, but, in truth, we don't know quite what you are doing."
I look up at the blue, blue sky. No clouds at all today, so clear you feel like the sunshine's gonna grab your shirt and pull you right up there with the birds.
"If I was gonna die, this wouldn't be a bad place. Lots worse places to die than this. I feel like……" It takes me a minute to try and figure out how to say how it was. "When they put me in the trunk of their car and shut it, it was like watching the lid of my coffin come down…….I feel almost like I was dead all the time I was away. Buried in the snow. Now I'm coming alive again." Lynn's got a big bunch of some kinda big puffy pink flowers on stalks. The butterflies love 'em. Always all kinds of 'em flying around. And bees. "I'm glad to be here, watching the birds, holding hands, swinging. I like being alive."
Arbutus considers. "Maybe it takes some time to come back from the dead."
If I told that to Lynn, she'd get teary, and cry, and feel bad for me. And I like it that she cares that much for me. But I like it that Arbutus doesn't do that. I like it that I can tell her something and not ruin her whole day. It's easy to be with her.
The breeze blows along the ground and up her legs and ruffles her skirt. I didn't bother to put shoes on this morning. I can feel the same little breeze tickling my toes and sneaking up my pantlegs.
"Richard needs you to come back to work, though," she says.
That makes me laugh a little. I pick up my leg. "Don't think I'd be much good."
"Maybe you couldn't get up on the roof, but I think there's nothing wrong with your hammering arm. Could be he'd just be happy to see a friendly face.""He thinks I won't be mad at him too?"
"I think he's hoping."
"What I don't get is why Nancy's mad at me. I wasn't even here."
"She's just mad. Don't matter who's in the way." Arbutus laughed. "It takes a lot to make her mad, but once she is, she's just like a mutt with a bone. I wouldn't worry about it too much. She'll get over it sometime. She knows her husband. She knows he didn't sleep with Lynn. And she oughta be used to his damn jokes by now. It just pissed her off, that's all."
"Yeah, I know how that feels."
"I bet he's gonna be real serious now for a bit."
We had lunch a little while ago. Arbutus has been cooking. She makes stuff I never heard of before. Says her granny taught her how to cook. A couple things were kinda strange, but on the whole, it's good. Once she made peach cobbler. I knew what that was, of course, but I didn't eat any of it, anyway. I could live the whole rest of my life without seeing a peach again, and I'd be fine.
When I was here alone during the day, it was easy to do what I need to do, but now that I have company all the time, noontime, while Arbutus is cooking, is when I make my telephone calls. I talked to the sheriff in the little town of Erasmus, Montana, again today. He was very helpful.
I don't know yet how I'm gonna do it. I'll figure that out later. Gotta find 'em first.
But I will. I'll find 'em and I'll figure it out. For right now, this is just another little secret.
"You could let Doc Graham fix your leg. He's been waiting for you to go talk to him about it."
I nod. "I will. Not today. Today I just wanna sit and hold hands and smell the flowers."
I'm thinking about this thing between us, looking at her, imagining her with dark hair and a smooth face. She catches me at it, and grins.
"You stop that. What a scamp you are. Trying to make an old lady do something silly."
Nobody's ever called me a scamp before. And it might be interesting to see Arbutus do something silly.
We swing a few more minutes. Then she leans toward me and strokes the side of my face with her fingers.
Shit. I didn't think she might misunderstand me holding her hand. It seems pretty strange, I thought we kinda understood each other. How'm I gonna get out of this without hurting her feelings? Shit.
I suppose there's panic in my eyes.
She sits back and bursts into laughter. Pretty soon I'm laughing, too.
"OK, you got me," I say.
"Yeah, you were sleeping, boy."
She feels it too, that thing between us, or she wouldn't make a joke of it like that. There's that considering look in her eyes. She knows it, and she knows that I know.
If I was lots older, or she was lots younger…….if I wasn't already in love with Lynn…..if she hadn't already been married and had kids as old as me……if we coulda met in a different time and place, at the same time in our lives…..there woulda been something between us worth taking time for, to see what would happen……..
And I'm not talking about sex.
That's not the way it happened, but it's OK this way, too. We just kinda understand each other. It's comfortable.
"How's Donny doing?" I ask.
She heaves a big sigh. "I think he doesn't like prison too well."
"Angela, she's my oldest, she lives there, and she goes to visit him. Leastways she did. She said last time she was there, he was cranky and called her a bitch, and so she ain't been back for some time."
"Can't blame her."
"I figure when he gets out, I got one last chance to try to make something decent outta him. If I can't do it, then I guess he's lost to me."
"Maybe prison'll put the fear a' God into him."
Some kind of a bug flies down and gets tangled up in Arbutus's hair. A big bug. She's pulling her braid loose and shaking her fingers in her hair, and making sorta silly noises, and then I realize she's serious about this bug. She's about to cry 'cause she can't get it outta her hair.
"Here, hold still, I'll get it."
She doesn't even hear me. I put my hand on the side of her head to hold her still, and grab the bug. "I got it. Arbutus-it's OK, I got it."
"Oh, get it away, get it outta my hair." Her voice is shaking. I have to pull some of her hair out along with the bug. It's one damn big beetle. I take it over to the garbage can and throw it in.
When I walk back, she's sniffling and pulling a hankie outta the front of her dress.
"I hate bugs," she says. "Especially beetles." She looks sorta shame-faced. "I don't mind snakes, except for that they startle a person. And other things don't bother me. But I just can't stand bugs."
"It's OK." I sit down next to her again. She looks nice with her hair down.
"Well," she says after a minute. "Now you know something about me that nobody else knows. How 'bout you tell me something about you?"
"I'm not scared of bugs."
"I know that." She's thinking. "How 'bout you tell me why you don't wanna go about any more?"
"Back to that, huh?"
I have to think about it a minute.
"I feel different." That's not exactly what I wanted to say. "I went to Sam's and felt stupid. I didn't have anything to say. Nobody had anything to say to me. It's like that everywhere. I figure it's not everybody else who's different, it has to be me."
Arbutus uses her hankie to wipe off my hand that had the bug in it, and then laces her fingers with mine.
"You mean different than how you were before?" she asks.
"Well, yeah, but different than everybody else, too. I think I was starting to get the hang of things here, but now……"
"Different because you were buried in the snow?"
"No." I can't explain it. I can't tell her about it. I try to pull my hand away, but she won't let me.
"Different 'cause of these?" She touches the scars that show above the V of my shirt.
"Don't touch me."
That kinda came outta the blue. I didn't know I was gonna say that. I take a deep breath and realize my heart's running a race. I squeeze the hand I'm holding. "Not there. Just don't touch that."
She sits back. We aren't swinging any more. I'm looking at the grass under my bare feet.
"Bisbee looks like a sleepy little town, doesn't it?" she asks. She doesn't wait for me to answer, which is good, 'cause I wasn't gonna. "The thing is, you never know the things you don't know."
She laughs, just for a second. I like her laugh. It's a comfortable laugh, kinda low for a woman, but honest. Then she's serious again.
"I bet you didn't know Jones was in a prisoner of war camp in Japan." I shook my head. "I remember when he came home. We were worried about him for a while. But you'd never know that to look at him now. And I bet you didn't know Roberta used to live in New York City. She was the girlfriend of one of them mobsters. I bet there's lots of things you don't know about the people in this town.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is, everybody's different. You just can't always see it. Give everybody time to get used to the things they can see. Give yourself a chance to get used to everybody else again. If you wanna know the truth, you probably couldn't pick a better town to be different in.
"Look at us. We're all different here. Like me. I think I'd have a hard time getting along in a big city. But here everybody knows me. There's lots of people like that here. And you're one of ours now. You give us a chance, and we'll take care of you."
"I think you already are."
"Dammit, but you're a sweet boy," she says. "Kinda like that candy my granny used to make, with all the sugar in the inside, and the tart orange peel goop on the outside."
"I'm like candy, huh?"
She smiles a long slow smile. "I bet you would be."
"Uh-huh. I think you need to get Herbert to show you his firearms collection. I bet he would if you asked him nice."
"I'm way aheada you. Herbert showed me a little more than just his firearms."
"Yeah? How'd it go?"
"It wouldn't be right for me to kiss and tell."
"He has all those great big guns."
"I have to admit, that was a bit worrisome to me for a while. But you know what?" She leans close and grins. "That's just an old wives tale."
The birds fly outta the trees when I laugh.
"He's not the sort I could live with. But he'll do, at least for now. So I'm not pining for lack of anything. And you know what else? I've just told you a secret no one else knows, except Herbert of course."
And she waits.
I shake my head. "My secrets aren't as much fun as yours."
"Probably weightier. You might feel better if you have somebody to help you carry 'em."
"The Reverend knows some of my secrets. Sometimes I think maybe he wishes he didn't." I look at her, and wonder if she'll be able to see what I feel about her. "I wouldn't ask you to carry 'em. I wouldn't want to weigh you down with 'em."
Her eyes soften, darken. "I swear to God, you could turn me into a sinner without half trying. I wish my boys were even near as sweet as you."
She looks over my shoulder. "And speak of the devil…….," she says. "I guess I already am a sinner. I told a lie to the Reverend Skinner. I told him I have to go to the dentist, and that we're afraid to leave you alone."
She gets up and starts for the back gate; turns around and says, "Don't be cruel to the foolish old gentleman." Then she comes back and gives me a kiss on the temple. "Sweet like candy," she whispers, which makes me laugh, and she leaves..
We all got secrets. Some of 'em aren't secret anymore, but we're pretending they are.
Three weeks or so after we got back, I got up real early one morning. Lynn was already up. I walked down to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, and saw the back door was open. I didn't have a shirt on---I guess I kinda got used to being without one---and it was a little chilly. So I went to the door to shut it.
And Lynn was out at the burn barrel in the back. The trash was still sitting in the kitchen, half full. She had something in her hand, I couldn't see real good at first what it was. She unfolded it----it was a bunch of papers that had been all folded up together in a square packet. She lit a match and we watched the packet of papers burn up. She dropped the last of it in the barrel.
She didn't see me until she was about halfway back to the house. She stopped for a minute, like she didn't know whether she should come the rest of the way or not.
I went back upstairs and put on a shirt. She was waiting in the kitchen, I passed her on the way outside. She followed me out to the swing.
It was a minute before she said anything. I didn't have anything to say.
"It had my name on it…….I thought…….I found it when I threw out your clothes, and I looked at it to see what it was, whether I should throw it away too…….or not……and it had my name on it, so……"
She was standing behind the swing. I didn't turn around and look at her. If she read everything that was in that packet of papers, then she's already seen inside me. She doesn't need to see my face, too.
"And then you wouldn't tell me anything," she said finally. "And I thought……"
She fidgeted with the chain that held the swing in place. "I didn't know what to do for you, because I didn't know what had happened……..I only wanted………" She stopped talking and waited for a while again. Then, "Aren't you going to say anything?"
I shook my head. "Nothing to say. You already know everything…….You had it for a long time. What parts did you read more than once?"
Silence. Total silence. That's when I turned to look at her. Her face was white. So I knew which parts. And then I took a guess. "You let Patty read it."
"No." She came around the swing and sat down in it with me. "No, I didn't show it to anybody. I wouldn't do that." I just looked at her. "She….she found it in my purse. But she didn't read it……all. Just part of it."
"Who else? The Rev? Arbutus?"
"Nobody else. I swear. You can understand it, can't you? I thought it was for me at first. And then I thought---"
I stood up. I didn't wanna stay out here with her anymore. "You didn't say anything to me about it……..'cause you knew it was private."
"But I'm your wife. You wouldn't tell me, you wouldn't let me in---"
"What do you call it when the other person says No, and you do it anyway?"
"It was just me and Patty----"
"I'm supposed to be grateful it wasn't a gangbang? OK, thanks." I shouldn'ta said that. Couldn't help it. "And how long has it been since Patty read it? And how many people do you suppose she's talked to since then?"
"Patty wouldn't say anything, Bud. You know she wouldn't."
Lynn didn't have to finish her sentence. I didn't have to answer. She knew.
I stayed upstairs till about suppertime. Came down because I could smell smoke.
Lynn was sitting at the kitchen table, letting supper burn. I moved the skillet off the burner, and turned the knob to off.
"Patty opened it up kind of in the middle," Lynn said. She sounded really tired. "She read the part about the cougar. And then I caught her. She doesn't know about……about anything else."
I carried the skillet outside, and left the back door open to let the smoke out.
"I didn't think you'd ever find out I'd read it," she said when I came back in. "I didn't really think about how you would feel if you did." She laid her head down on her hands on the table. "I don't blame you for being angry. I must be a Bracken. I didn't even think about having respect for your privacy. I just wanted to know."
I run the fingers of one hand through her curls. "I'm not mad. Much. I just feel…..naked. More than naked. I feel…….." But then I couldn't say it. Saying it woulda made it worse.
"I should probably tell Patty to stay home for a while."
"Yeah." I started back toward the stairs.
"Bud?" She looked miserable. I can't stand it when she looks that way.
"It's OK," I said. "I'll get over it. Just maybe not right away."
We don't talk about it. Talking about it'd just make it worse. We pretend it's still my secret.
And I'm getting over it. I am. And everything else. One of these days I'll be just right as rain..
The Rev's standing at the gate looking like he's not sure he should come in. I don't know why everybody's tiptoeing around me. I haven't killed anybody for several months.
Arbutus doesn't tiptoe. She tells me I'd be sweet like candy.
Yeah. That makes me grin.
The Rev thinks the grin's for him.
I guess that's OK.
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