The Emerald Light in the Air
By Donald Antrim
February 3, 2014 Issue
In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and, during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital in Charlottesville, where, each stay, one in the fall and one the following summer, three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred; and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collection—it wasn’t a collection so much as a big box stuffed with comics—that he’d kept since he was a boy. He had long ago forgotten his old comics; and then, a few days before, he’d come across them on a dusty shelf at the back of the garage, while looking for a carton of ammo.
It was a humid Saturday morning. Thunderstorms had come through in the early hours after dawn, but now the rain and wind had passed, and sunlight lit the puddles on the road and the silver roofs of the farmhouses and barns that flickered into view between the trees, as he steered the ancient blue Mercedes—it had been his father’s, and his grandfather’s before that—across the county he’d grown up in. Maybe on his way back home he’d stop at Fox Run Farm for a gallon of raw milk. Or no. He’d drink a glass or two and then, in a month, have to dig the rest out of the refrigerator and pitch it. He reminded himself to vacuum the living room and clean the downstairs toilet. His name was Billy French, and he was carrying a Browning .30-06 A-bolt hunting rifle in the trunk of the Mercedes. He wasn’t a gun nut, and he didn’t hunt. He was a sculptor and a middle-school art teacher. Every now and then, he liked to stop on his way home from school and shoot cans off the rotting fence posts that surrounded the unused cow pasture where, at sixteen, in the grass and weeds, he’d lost his virginity to Mary Doan. He hadn’t thought about Mary in ages, and then, recently, he’d run into her—surprise, surprise, after all these years—at a bar in the Valley. He’d recognized her right away—he remembered her limp—but it had taken her a couple of tries to remember his name. They’d had a laugh over that, and he’d bought her a drink, and she’d bought him one, and now she was coming across the mountain, she was coming that night for dinner.
He’d told her seven-thirty.
Ahead on the road, a tree limb was down. He was on a small rural route, a cut between two lanes, not much used. He stopped the Mercedes, unbuckled his seat belt, and got out. A locust bough had sheared off in the wind. The bough was long and twisting, green with crooked branches and smaller, thorny stems. His tree saw and his axe were back at the house, but it might be possible to drag the bough from the tip and more or less swing the whole thing—swing wasn’t the right word, maybe—over and around and off the road, enough at least for the car to pass. He reached through the leaves and grabbed a narrow stem that stuck up in the air. There were no flowers—it was late in the season for that—but the locust’s seedpods had begun to sprout, and many of these were scattered across the asphalt.
He swatted a mosquito and got the branch in both hands. The wood was damp, and the end of the bough flexed and bent when he pulled. He moved down to a thicker part, planted his feet, and leaned back. After four or five difficult heave-hos, he’d opened enough clearance, he thought, to steer the car through. He was out of breath and his shirt was wet and sticky. He got in the driver’s seat and eased the Mercedes onto the oncoming side of the road. The ground sloped down from the road’s edge and the soil had taken on rain. As he was working his way around the branch, wheels partly on the shoulder, the car tipped to the left and then shifted further, and a piece of ground seemed to fall away underneath. It was startling: a little slide and the Mercedes plunged. Then the tires dug in, and, abruptly, a distance off the road and at a steep angle, the car settled and stopped. Billy pushed his foot against the brake. He gripped the steering wheel. When he took his hands off, he saw that he’d scraped his palms on the locust. He was bleeding.
“Shit, fuck. Shit,” he said aloud.
He turned off the engine. He hadn’t slept the night before. It wasn’t the thunder and lightning that had kept him up—he’d been going through the art works that Julia had left rolled in tubes or stacked against the wall in the upstairs bedroom that had been her studio. They were piled in the back seat now. The paintings, he thought, while sitting in the car perched on the berm, were not as strong as the drawings, which, though more or less precise studies for their oil counterparts, all rural Virginia scenes—trees in a field, a dying pond, a rotting house in a mountain hollow—nonetheless had about them, with their bold erasures and smudges and retraced pencil lines, the feeling of something abstract and, in comparison with the worked and reworked paintings, complexly three-dimensional. The paintings seemed to exist as strangely flat fields—they put Billy in mind of Early American naïve art—and, in looking at them and, back in the day, talking to Julia about them, he’d come to see how purposefully she distorted light and shadow. “I’m searching for something that isn’t quite there,” she’d once said.
He was fearful of shifting his weight and starting another slide—the car had gone four or five feet already, and the embankment fell maybe ten more. He could hear running water. Was there a creek off in the woods? He knew this country, or thought he did, but it was always surprising him, just the same.
He wiped his hands on his pants. Gently now, he ratcheted down the brake. He eased open the driver’s-side door.
Anyway, her drawings and paintings—he knew better than to throw them out, but the fact of them in his house was terrible. He’d meant for some time to do something about them. At first, of course, he’d tried to get them back to her, but she’d told him—this was during one of their five or six phone conversations since her departure, two years earlier—that her old work was no longer meaningful or important to her. “I’m not doing that kind of painting anymore,” she’d said. “I’m engaged with a more total realism.”
“Photo-realism?” he’d asked.
“No, nothing like that.”
He was standing in the kitchen in his socks and underwear, drinking bourbon and Coke—his mother’s drink. Ice rattled in the glass. The floor was brown and dirty, in need of mopping.
Julia said, “Billy, you’re drinking.”
Oh, God, how to get out of the Mercedes safely? The hillside was steep and the grass was wet. And what if he made it, with both feet firmly on the ground, and the car slid down on top of him?
He pushed the car door open all the way and, clutching the doorframe for balance, tumbled out onto the incline. Fuck Julia. He could take her pictures and toss them into the woods right now.
He had weed in the glove compartment. Might there be a stray Ativan or two in there as well? The thing to do was slog around to the uphill side, the passenger side, reach through the window, and feel around in the glove compartment for whatever he could find. But wouldn’t you know it? He got partway around the Mercedes, and the whole car seemed to shudder and tremble. Billy watched it start into another drop—it was as if the car were shaking its wheels free of the mire—and then down the grade it rumbled, through the mud and across the grass, sliding to a rest at last in a patch of milkweed at the foot of the hill.
He felt a raindrop, and another. The clouds were not in sight yet, but Billy could sense the weight of low pressure bearing down. An emerald light was in the air. The birds and other animals had gone quiet; the world was still, as it can be when bad weather is coming. He was thinking of Mary. By the time he’d managed to have sex with Mary, back in high school—she was a senior and he was a junior, and that fact alone was thrilling—she’d already had one abortion and one marriage proposal.
He half walked, half slid down the hill. The Mercedes was sitting in a gulch between the woods and the embankment. He heard running water again—the creek had to be close. He reached gently into his pocket and took out his phone. His hands were a cut-up mess. The garage he used for the Mercedes was on the other side of Charlottesville, close to Julia and Mark’s farm, and, anyway, too far away for a tow truck to come. Could he drive back up to the road? It didn’t look to Billy as if there’d be much room to maneuver.
Daily life’s frustrations, even the big ones, no longer ruled him, not the way they had for a long time in his life. He’d been psychotic with agitation that had grown from his grief, and it was hard for him to remember what that had been like, exactly: not the grief—he had plenty of that still—but the urge to die. He’d got all but there. He’d had the Browning loaded. He’d had it ready and at hand, a few times.
He smelled storm. He might be able to drive for a while beside the road. The sun was high. Billy put his phone in his pocket and got back in the Mercedes. The car seemed all right. He drove slowly. He was in a wide but navigable trench. It wasn’t bad driving. The trench curved slowly around to the right, and then came to a straight section that reminded Billy of the Roman road that he and Julia had walked a length of during that difficult vacation in Italy, the winter before she left.
They’d gone to see the paintings and frescoes of Tiepolo. Billy had become vocal about Tiepolo after seeing “Bacchus and Ariadne” in Washington, and Julia had got into him, too. After Christmas in Rome, they had taken the train north to Venice, and had spent a week walking around in the cold, searching out churches and palazzos and wandering the Gallerie dell’Accademia, where they had both become enchanted, though for different reasons, with “The Rape of Europa.” Julia got excited over the distant meeting of clouds and sea in the picture’s right-hand corner, while Billy fixated on the encroaching cloud plume to the left, the spire of pink and gray—it looked to him like a mushroom cloud—exploding upward from behind the rocky outcropping on which Zeus, transformed into a bull, seduces the Phoenician princess Europa, dressed in white and attended by ladies-in-waiting. The cloud threatens to wipe them all out, but Europa and her entourage seem either unconcerned or unaware. She sits enthroned on the back of Zeus. Two other bulls wait nearby. A maid tends to Europa’s hair, and another bathes her feet; shepherds and an African are on hand, and putti fly about and urinate from on high, and a black bird perches on a strange little cumulus cloud that has floated in over the princess’s head.
There was the creek. It came out of the woods and flowed into a concrete drainpipe that tunnelled under the road. A stretch near the trees looked fordable. He could angle the car just so, over and between the rocks. Once he got to the other side, though, where was he going to go? Trees pushed against the embankment, and the way was overgrown. Billy nosed the car forward anyway. He felt a curiosity. The undercarriage of the Mercedes was not high, and when the wheels dropped into the water Billy heard and felt the bumper scrape the rocks. He jerked the car, not across but up the creek—maybe he could follow it out into a field or a yard somewhere upstream. The retirement home where his parents had ended their lives was up the way he’d come that morning, not on the little lane but on the bigger road at the end of it, heading down from the hills toward town. He saw lightning in the distance, and peered through the windshield at the dark clouds now crossing the sky over Afton Mountain.
He turned on the headlights and the wipers.
In the hospital, he’d had hallucinations. He remembered looking in his bathroom mirror—it was made of metal, not glass—and seeing his face deformed. He’d known better than to believe what he saw, but, on the other hand, he hadn’t known better, far from it: there it had been in front of him, his bent, misshapen skull. Now, as he drove into the forest, Billy recalled that, for a long time, the time of the locked ward and his sick brain and the torn-up suicide notes to Julia, he’d felt the burning. He’d felt it in his temple. It was, somehow, he knew, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet. Of course he’d thought always of the Browning, of loading it and getting into position on the living-room floor, or maybe out back in the barn, maybe laying down a tarp first.
The barn on the hill behind his house—that was where he made his art. When he wasn’t teaching seventh graders how to draw, he made big untidy installations that he referred to as his trash heaps. Along with the rifle and the comics and Julia’s art, he had in the back of the Mercedes a canvas bag with about two dozen cans that he’d saved from trips to the shooting pasture. He was planning to include them in a piece. He needed more, but he didn’t eat much canned food, and his personal use of the materials in his work was crucial to him.
The thing about Mary was that her limp looked good. It wasn’t a very noticeable limp. One of her legs was shorter than the other. Billy remembered her swaggering down the hall in high school, thirty years before. Her father had been a country doctor, the sort who got out of bed and drove into the hills at all hours to treat people who couldn’t pay or get down the mountain to town. Mary was a year older than Billy, but she’d let him put his hands down her pants. He’d ridden his bike up Route 250, past the Episcopal church, to her house. There was never anyone home but her. She’d been provocative and graceful and unembarrassed. He remembered her standing on her short leg, the other leg propped out at an angle, toes touching the floor, a dancer’s pose.
What he needed to do was fix up the car. It was a 1958 220S with a white roof and a gray interior, and there had been rust on the body and the chrome and underneath, on the chassis, for a long time. Billy wasn’t a car buff, and didn’t know what this one might be worth cleaned up. People had offered to buy it. He remembered riding in it with his grandfather, who never drove faster than twenty-five miles per hour. His grandfather had told stories, actually, of driving his old Ford up creek beds, back in the thirties.
Billy urged the car up a mossy rise and over a little waterfall. Branches scraped the roof.
After Julia left, in his worsening he’d walked and moved as if crushed by some stronger form of gravity. The air had pressed him down, and he could not get out from under it. Some days, he’d curled in a ball on the floor and promised himself that soon, soon, soon—it would be his gift to himself—he’d walk up to the barn and lie down with the rifle.
The car was swamped. Or it wasn’t, exactly, but the creek had risen and the tires now made a wake. The Mercedes didn’t have much acceleration, and the steering felt loose. Billy powered over a high rock, or maybe a tree root—it was hard to see—then, suddenly, precipitately, the wheels dropped in front and the car slammed down and stopped.
Billy pressed the gas. The motor raced and the car shook but didn’t move. He gave the engine gas again, and the rear wheels spun, churning the creek and throwing mud. He put the lever in park. Lightning hit, close and loud. Billy reached across the seat, opened the glove compartment, and felt around for the pot. There was the registration paperwork, and there was a pill bottle, his Ativan; and there were his pliers (he’d recently begun preparing the cans, tearing and disfiguring them before shooting), and the joint and the lighter, and the driving gloves that his grandfather had worn and that Billy’s father had kept in the car after Billy’s grandfather died, and that Billy had left there after his own father died. He took the gloves out and felt how old they were, then worked his hands into them.
On or off—he wasn’t sure what felt better.
He put the pills in his shirt pocket, turned off the ignition and the wipers and the lights. He remembered how the misery had bowed him over: he’d gone everywhere, in those days, with his head down, barrelling rigidly forward, compounding the pain by moving at all; but when he touched himself to find where the pain was coming from he couldn’t find the spot.
It was dark in the woods without the headlights. He lit the joint and the car glowed inside. Julia’s paintings were in back. She worked with tiny brushes, and he’d wondered, sometimes, when he saw her at it, what she was thinking while she slowly built up the paint on the canvas. He exhaled smoke and watched the saplings at the edge of the creek bend in the surge.
She’d talked to him, as they stood together at the Accademia, gazing at “The Rape of Europa,” about the singular cloud hovering over Europa, its complete non-relation to the more natural-seeming clouds that dominate the painting as a whole, the delicate, pale clouds on the horizon, the spire of darker cloud rising up behind the rocks. “Everything is off in Tiepolo,” she’d said. “Spatial relations don’t cohere. It isn’t simply that people fly with angels through the air. What world are we looking at? The paintings at all points lead the eye toward infinity.” She might have been anticipating his own predicament, his own crisis of perception, when, nine months later, and again the following year, he’d lain on the operating table, crying and holding the nurse’s hand, while the doctors got him ready. The hospital ceiling was white foam tile with fluorescent lights, and the doctors had looked to Billy as if they were levitating beneath them, beneath the lights—as if they, the doctors, had descended from heaven to perform electroconvulsive therapy.
Someone was coming toward the car. A figure moved between the trees beside the creek. It was a boy carrying an umbrella. He was skinny and wore jeans and no shirt. He stepped down to the bank and splashed across to the car with the umbrella over his head. Billy rolled down the window, and the rain swept in, drenching him.
“Are you the doctor?” the boy said.
“Doctor?” Billy said.
“Luther said he saw car lights. We prayed you’d come. Are you smoking pot?”
“I’m stuck on this rock,” Billy said.
“I see that,” the boy said.
“I was making good progress, and the next thing I knew the wheels were spinning.”
“Creeks aren’t the best for driving in a storm,” the boy said.
Billy rolled up the car window. He opened the door and put out his foot. The rock was massive and slick; the creek was about to overtake it. He eased himself out and stood clear of the car. He was still wearing his grandfather’s driving gloves, and holding the joint. He lowered one foot into the creek, leaped in, and lunged toward the bank, where his feet sank into the wet earth. “I’m fine,” he said. “I made it.”
“Don’t you have your doctor’s bag?” the boy asked.
He looked to be twelve or thirteen, the age of Billy’s students, but Billy didn’t recognize him.
“It’s our mother,” the boy said.
“She’s up that way.” He held the umbrella over Billy, who said, “What’s wrong with her?”
“I’m sorry,” Billy said.
“She’s up here,” the boy said.
There was no need to lock the car or take the key. Billy put the joint in his shirt pocket with the pills—it would get soaked; he should have left it in the car, but there was nothing he could do about that now—and said, “I doubt I’ll be able to help her. I want you to know that,” and then followed anyway, a few steps behind the boy, to the place where the boy had crossed the creek on his way down. Billy watched the boy wade through the water, and then slogged in after him. The creek here was deep and fast. The car would be all right or not. Billy leaned against the torrent and struggled up onto the bank, and then he and the boy pushed ahead, slipping in the mud and on the mossy ground, pushing branches away from their faces. Once, Billy stumbled, and the boy held the umbrella over him while he got up. The umbrella was torn and bent, and water poured down it onto Billy’s neck.
They went over a rise, and then walked down along what looked like a lane—maybe the land had been cleared at one time—a grassy, open promenade between the trees. The lane led into a hollow. There was a cabin, a shed, really, with a sinking roof and small square windows and a chimney overtaken by ivy. The cabin featured a porch, though not much was left of that, only a few boards elevated on piled stones, with no steps leading up from the yard to the door. The cabin had two front doors, oddly—one beside the other. Billy didn’t see an actual road, or a car parked nearby, but there was trash littering the ground.
The boy hopped onto the porch, closed and shook the umbrella, and stomped clay from his shoes. Billy climbed onto the porch—he had to heave himself up—and kicked the red mud off his own heels. The boy pushed open the door on the left. “I brought the doctor,” he called inside.
“Show him in,” a man answered.
The boy held the door. Billy had to duck under the frame. Water ran from every part of him. The floor inside was missing in places, and the air felt cold, like a draft from underground. Water dripped through the roof. Two windows, one in the rear and one on the side of the cabin, let in faint light—their panes, if they’d ever had any, were gone.
Billy’s eyes were adjusting. The cabin seemed bigger from inside than from out. As he came in, he saw, to the left of the door, a tumble of bags and suitcases. A dividing wall ran down the middle of the cabin, splitting the space—that explained the two front doors—and there was an interior door, partway down the dividing wall, leading to the cabin’s right-hand side. The room on the left, the one he was in, might have been ten feet wide by thirteen or fourteen feet deep. The fireplace and the chimney were over in the other half.
Billy saw a bed pushed up under the window at the back of the cabin. A woman was lying in it, and a man stood over her. The man spoke to the boy on the porch, “Caleb, put down that umbrella and get the doctor something to dry himself.”
Billy heard the other front door open and close, and he heard the sounds of the boy moving behind the dividing wall. Billy could feel his footfalls travelling through the floorboards.
“She’s struggling,” the man said to Billy.
The bed was an old iron thing with a mattress on top. The woman had a coat draped over her, and a bundle of clothes for a pillow. Rain spattered the windowsill above the bed but didn’t seem to be getting on her.
“We’ve moved her from corner to corner, all night, except where the floor’s out. The water follows her,” the man explained.
“It’s been quite the storm,” Billy said.
He picked his way across the damaged floor to the bedside. His shoes squished.
“Don’t fall through,” the man said.
The man was bald and hadn’t shaved—he wore the shadow of a beard. It was hard to tell if he was old, or maybe just Billy’s age, and he spoke with an accent that reminded Billy of the Appalachian mountain speech he’d heard when he was a boy, but which, even so, he couldn’t place—it wasn’t local.
“I’ll be careful,” Billy said. He felt as if he were seeing through a fog. The splashing rain on the windowsill made a mist in the air, but it was also the pot, deranging his balance, his sense of perspective.
At the bedside, Billy leaned down and saw the woman shudder beneath the coat that was covering her. Then she was still. The door in the dividing wall opened, and the boy appeared and handed him a damp, dirty piece of cloth, a towel, of sorts.
“Thank you,” Billy said.
The man said to the boy, “Go find your brother and tell him the doctor’s arrived.” The boy left the room through the front door. To Billy, the man said, “We didn’t mean to be staying here.”
They stood over the woman on the bed. Why were there no chairs? Everything looked wrecked and rotten.
Billy went down on his knees. The man said, “I know there’s nothing to be done,” and knelt, too.
The woman’s eyes were closed and her mouth was open. Her skin seemed stretched, and her lips were parched. The man told Billy that she’d taken neither food nor water for some time. He and Billy faced each other over her. There was a moment when Billy’s heart raced. The man studied him. Billy looked down. The man said, “You’re not a doctor, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m sorry.”
“But you’re here.”
Billy explained, “I teach junior high over in Crozet. I was on my way to the dump to throw some things out.”
“The dump’s not up here.”
“The road was blocked. I took the creek and wrecked on the rocks.”
Billy heard footsteps on the porch. The door opened and the cabin shook as Caleb and his brother came in. The brother was bigger than Caleb, older, and wore a dark shirt. They stood dripping side by side at the foot of the bed, and Billy remembered sitting at his own mother’s deathbed, feeding her a mixture of morphine drops and Ativan, squeezing her hand, and telling her he would miss her, while her breaths came farther and farther apart.
The woman on the bed inhaled. Her dark hair was fanned out around her head.
The man told the boys, “I want you two to go down to the creek and bring the doctor’s car.”
“It’s stuck,” Caleb said.
“That’s what the doctor told me,” the man said, and added, “The doctor and I will stay with her.”
“The flood may have washed it away,” Caleb said.
“Go see. Go on.”
The brothers backed away from the bed.
The man asked Billy his name, and, in that moment, Billy could not say—he felt too dizzy to speak. He raised one hand and pulled the coat more neatly and more fully across the woman, tucking the collar around her neck; the tail reached almost to her feet. He saw that she was wearing socks. Her feet were tiny. He was shaking.
He tried to take a deeper breath. He felt his grandfather’s gloves shrinking and tightening as they dried on his hands.
“I can help her,” he said finally.
Light came dully through the window, and seemed to drip down between the beams overhead. Billy listened to the softening rain. He reached inside his shirt pocket and clumsily got hold of the pill bottle. He said, “This will help her rest.”
It took him some time to open the cap. He peered down into the bottle. There was a handful of pills. He thought to take one himself, maybe more than one. But there were so few; he didn’t. Instead, he asked the man, “Do you have any water?”
“Water?” the man said.
“Is there a tap?”
“No,” the man said. “There’s a pump out back.”
Billy held the open bottle in one hand. With his other hand, he reached up to the window. He stuck his hand out to catch the rain in the bottle cap. He said to the man, “I want you to watch what I’m doing.” Then he held the bottle cap over the woman’s mouth. He let a drop, and another, fall.
He shook a pill from the bottle.
“Like this,” he said.
He leaned over the woman. He held the pill unsteadily between his thumb and forefinger, between the raised seams at the fingertips of his glove. He tucked the pill beneath the woman’s lower lip, near her cheek, and then reached up and caught more rain. “Give her water with the pill.”
He shook the cap dry, then put it back on the bottle and told the man to give her four or five a day. “There should be enough here to get her through,” he said.
“Thank you for your kindness,” the man said.
After a moment, Billy left the bedside. He stepped across the broken floor planks and opened the front door. Thunder rolled in the far distance. He stood on the porch, in the drizzle, and tried to stop trembling.
It isn’t the shock. It’s the brain seizure, brought on by the shock. Atropine goes in, to keep the heart working. The anesthetic follows, and, after that, succinylcholine, which paralyzes the body. Life support is necessary. A blood-pressure cuff inflated tightly around one ankle keeps the succinylcholine out of the foot, which, when the shock is given, shows the seizure as twitching toes. The head and the heart are wired: electroencephalograph to scalp; electrocardiograph to body. A bite plate goes between the teeth, and an oxygen mask covers the face. The anesthetic has a sweet smell; the patient loses consciousness ten or fifteen seconds after it enters the blood. That done, the doctor places the paddles against the forehead. Optimally, the seizure, the convulsion, should last twenty, thirty, forty seconds. Shorter or longer is less effective. There must be enough anesthetic in the blood to keep the patient unconscious but not so much that it soaks the brain and dampens the seizure. The anesthetic is short-lived, and the procedure is over in minutes. The anesthetic goes in, blackness comes, and then, suddenly, as if nothing had taken place, the nurse’s voice asks, “Can you tell me where you are?”
He heard a noise and saw lights. It was the Mercedes, coming toward him along the avenue of trees.
He stepped down off the porch, into the mud.
The boy was driving. His brother sat beside him. The boy parked in front of Billy, like a valet at a restaurant. He rolled down the window and called, “We brought the car.”
“You brought the car,” Billy said.
“The flood almost took it down the mountain.”
“I thought it surely would have.”
“We got it in time,” the boy said, and Billy said, “Your mother is sleeping.”
The boy got out, leaving the door open for Billy. “Come on,” he said to his brother.
The hood and the roof were covered with leaves, and scratches and dents ran along the body of the car, where it had crunched onto the rock.
The boy pointed. “Drive between the trees and don’t cross the creek. Follow the side of the mountain. Turn left at the train tracks. There’s a busted fence. Go through it and drive across the field. There’s an empty house and a pond. Go past the house to the gate. The road is on the other side.”
“O.K.,” Billy said.
He watched the brothers climb onto the porch, kick the mud off their shoes, and go through the right-side door into the cabin.
Billy swept the leaves off the car with his hand—first the roof, then the hood—and pulled more from under the wipers. He got in the car. The rain had about stopped. He rolled up the window, just in case. His scraped hands hurt beneath the gloves, but he could hold the wheel.
He drove out of the hollow, and the gray sky opened to view. He heard the rushing creek on his left, and kept going. It wasn’t long before he had to thread between trees and under branches. He saw only glimpses of sky. A deer jumped in front of the car and scared him, and several times he had to back up and redirect the Mercedes around fallen logs. He didn’t know how far he’d come, but he could feel the slope of the mountain rising beside him on his right.
He was on the tracks before he saw them. They were ancient and broken, buried in the weeds. He turned left and followed them. The Mercedes bumped along over the crooked ties. After a mile or so, he saw the field and the fence that the boy had told him to look for, and, beyond the field, the empty house and the pond. He relaxed his grip on the wheel and took his time crossing the waterlogged grass. He stopped at the gate, put the lever in park, and got out. The gate was chained and locked. He yanked on the lock. “Fuck me,” he said, and walked back to the car.
He opened the trunk and retrieved the Browning, unzipped the case, and removed the rifle. He took a bullet from the box and loaded the gun. He walked over and stood about ten feet from the gate, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and aimed. It took one shot. The lock jumped and settled. Billy expelled the shell, walked up to the gate, removed the shattered lock from the chain, unwrapped the chain from the fence, and pushed open the gate. He carried the gun, the chain, and the lock to the car. He put the Browning into its case, and the lock and the chain into the canvas bag full of cans. Before shutting the trunk, he walked back to where he’d fired the gun. It took him a minute to find the shell. He picked it out of the grass, then tossed it into the bag with the other things. Before closing the trunk, he opened his box of comic books. He didn’t take any out. He knew what they were, pretty much. He should have given them to the boys. He closed the trunk, took his phone from his pocket, got into the driver’s seat, pulled off one of his gloves, and dialled 911. The operator, a woman, said, “What is your emergency?”
“I want to report a dying woman, a woman who’s dying,” he said.
“Can you tell me your name, sir?”
“My name is Billy French.”
“Where are you located?”
Billy looked about. He said, “I thought I was below Afton Mountain, but things don’t look right. I’m in a field. There’s a vacant house near a pond.”
“Can you be more specific, sir?”
Billy said, “She’s in a cabin on the mountain. There’s a man and two boys. You go through a field and along some rusted tracks. There’s a kind of lane or alley or something in the woods.”
“I’ll need an address, sir.”
“There is no address.”
“I need to know where the woman is, sir,” the operator said.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m not sure.”
He hung up.
He turned off the phone and put it in the glove compartment. He put the driving glove back on his hand. He buckled his seat belt, steered up to the road, and looked both ways.
It was too late to make the trip to the dump. Mary was coming, and he had to get ready. He’d thought of braising rabbit. Did he still have time for that?
Left or right? He turned the car to the left.
As he drove, he decided that he would keep Julia’s paintings a while longer. He could clear some space in the attic, or stow them under a tarp in the barn.
He went over and down a hill. He had the mountains on one side and a cow pasture on the other. The sky above the mountains glowed. Soon the sun would come out and the day would be blue again. He was certain that the road would lead him somewhere familiar if he drove long enough. He rolled down the window and felt the breeze on his face. The damp, shining road curved over the gentle foothills, and the trees alongside seemed to become greener and lusher in the growing light, and before long a car passed him going the other direction; and, a little farther down the road, he did in fact come upon a house that he recognized. He slowed the car and pulled into the driveway. How had he got so far from home? He was all the way up past White Hall.
Soft white clouds and a few birds were in the air. The thunder and lightning were over at last.
Billy circled the drive, eased the Mercedes to the road, checked both directions, and went back the way he’d come.
THE NEW YORKER