“Look, Frank, trick-or-treaters,” Carrie said, breaking the silence of the last hour. “What are they doing all the way out here?”
“Here” was a country back road, eastern Alabama.
“Those aren’t trick-or-treaters,” Frank said, easing the truck onto the sandy shoulder of the road. Up ahead, flipped on its side, half on the shoulder and half in the ditch, was a red-and-white striped Jimmy Blazer, one taillight blinking off and on, a maniacal, fluttering eye. Behind them, perhaps twenty yards, a knot of people huddled on the side of the road, not moving.
“Maybe we should drive on to the bait shop,” Frank said.
“Call the police from the pay phone.” There are stories, stories every day, of people faking accidents in order to rob or rape unsuspecting Good Samaritans, and Frank couldn’t help but wonder if this was it, the night a knife slid across his throat, or worse, Carrie’s. The night everything was written out for them, the decisions made. The next morning, a work crew or a vagrant searching for aluminum cans would find their naked bodies on the side of the road, half-covered in wet pine needles, red clay.
“What’s your problem?” Carrie snapped. She opened her door, slid from the truck. “They might be hurt. Don’t just sit there.”
The first thing he noticed when he opened his own door was the smell, something hovering and sweet, like just-bloomed honeysuckle. That mixed with gasoline and burnt rubber.
“Are y’all all right?” Carrie half-yelled at the unmoving knot behind them, but she stayed close to the truck.
A man, maybe forty, his lip pulpy and torn, loped over, extended his hand to Frank in a strange semblance of formality, although he didn’t offer his name. He had hair cropped so short it had no color, light eyes to match. He wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt the blue of summer, little monkeys surfing. Behind him trailed a young woman and a little girl, just past toddler, both of their faces pretty banged up. Carrie walked toward them, awkwardly opened her arms, and they rushed to her as if they had known her a lifetime.
“You’re the third car to come through here,” the man said, grounding the heels of his boots into the grainy road. “No one else would stop. No one. Who could see two hurt girls and keep going?” He tugged a hand through his short hair, his bloody forehead stretched smooth. “I just don’t get it anymore, man. The big IT. I mean IT. You know what I mean?” He began crying, heaving gasps that horrified Frank. The man was shitfaced.
The woman, her two-toned hair the yellow blond and rusty red of poor white, wailed in response, pressed her face against Carrie’s leather jacket. “I think they’re more scared than hurt,”
Carrie said to no one in particular, protectively pulling the girls closer to her. When the man reached for his wife, she bit at him.
“My face, you idiot.” Her fingers moved over her cheeks as if she could piece it back together. “You’ve ruined me. I’ve told you a thousand times. A thousand. Slow. Down.” The little girl clamped her eyes shut and didn’t make a sound. She wore a striped leotard, one foot bare, the other in a tiny ballet slipper, the remains of her Halloween costume, a bumblebee.
“That car flew out of goddamn nowhere,” the man said, suddenly angry. When he yelled, his teeth were bared, tiny Chiclet teeth with spaces in between. He sprayed blood instead of spit. He slammed a fist into his palm. “Nowhere.” His wife and kid tried to burrow holes with their faces into Carrie; they seemed familiar with his anger.
“What car?” Frank said. He’d assumed that it was a one-car accident, a drunk man overcompensating for veering off the road, something anyone could do, including Frank, who’d had a beer or two himself that night.
The man pointed behind them, into the fringe of woods off the oncoming lane.
“You checked it out?” Frank asked. The man looked at his boots, shook his head no. The woman began whimpering, soft and wet.
Frank walked to the overturned Jimmy, perhaps trying to avoid what he’d find in the woods where the man had pointed.
The cab was filthy, caked mud and cigarette butts everywhere.
A stuffed Strawberry Shortcake, a velvet purse, a trick-or-treat pumpkin overflowing with candy, and a half dozen crushed beer cans were pushed against the far end of the floorboard. He leaned into the cab, balancing his hips on the edge of the seat, and pulled the pumpkin from the mess, trying not to cut himself on the glass from the shattered windshield.
“What are you doing?” Carrie yelled. “Go check on the other car.”
Frank looked to where the man had pointed. There, as bright as the harvest moon that lit the night, was a yellow Camaro, its front crushed against an oak like crumpled paper. Glass and bits of metal glittered against the asphalt. There was no reasonable explanation for how he could have not noticed it until that moment, and he could hear the refrain Carrie had been saying lately, “You only see what you want to see, Frank. That’s your problem.”
It’s strange, but on his walk over to the Camaro, this is what he thought: What a lovely night! How could anything so violent happen on such a night? It was still and pleasant, warm for late October, and if he tilted his head back, he could see nothing but blue-black and stars for what seemed like forever.
When he arrived at the car, he saw a teenage girl in a black leather dress, the bottom half of her body still in the driver’s seat, her trunk slung out the opened door, her long, blond hair matted to her head with blood, her face pale and still as the night, a girl he will always see as model beautiful, like Cheryl Tiegs, even though the pictures he has of her make her seem no more than ordinary.
The girl looked dead, but to be sure, he kneeled, put the plastic pumpkin by his knee, then placed his finger against her neck for a pulse. Her skin felt silky, soft. From the looks of her she was the kind to pamper it, to spread creamy lotion over her neck, arms, elbows, chest. He held his finger there for a full minute before he felt a flutter, soft as eyelashes.
Frank cannot help but ask himself now, should he have pulled her from the car? Would it have somehow made a difference, maybe lessened the loss of blood? But what if? What if he had pulled her from the car and jostled something vital, maybe paralyzing her for life? Would he have received a phone call from her by now cursing him for his incompetence, blaming him for her wretched life? “Well?” Carrie yelled, impatient. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a girl,” Frank said. “She’s hurt. Bad.”
At the sound of his voice, the girl’s eyes popped open like a horror flick. “Hi,” he said, as if they were meeting at a cocktail party. He took one of her hands in his. She wore a gold ring on each finger, gypsyish, a peculiarity he imagined some boy in her life found endearing. Her hand was cold, limp. He rubbed it as if he were warming a child’s hand after a winter’s day outside. He whispered all the things he thought you were supposed to say when someone was suffering. Then he said nothing.
It’s not quiet, death. Frank knows this now. Not like they tell you sometimes in books or on tv. Tales of people slipping from this world to the next like we slip in and out of clothes, just a change, a new or no body, another world, a light in a tunnel, perhaps, weightlessness, something like peace. The girl whispered things he never imagined himself whispering when he thought of his own death, something he had done compulsively in the year before he found her on that Halloween night, 1981. He imagined declarations, secrets revealed, illumination of spiritual truths.
Instead, small things gurgled from her throat: the name of her kitten, the boy she had a crush on, the color of her bedroom. But it was not painless, her giving up these details. She choked. She clawed. She wept. She cursed.
Frank looked up to see a red-bearded man in a camouflage jacket standing over him. The man’s face was grooved, aged, the skin thick. He looked calm and resolved, as if this was where he knew his day would end. Frank hadn’t noticed anyone approach.
The man reached for the girl, put his finger against her neck. “She’s dead alright. I’ll call it in on my CB radio, but I can’t be around when the cops get here.”
Just like that. All of it took maybe twenty minutes.
When the man left to call in the accident, Frank reached for the girl’s crushed chest, exactly where the steering wheel had hit, and put his hand against her heart, perhaps believing it could not stop so easily. When he pulled his hand away, he had her gold locket in his palm, which might have been his intention all along. He slipped it into his pocket, wiping the girl’s blood on his jeans.
When he thinks of this moment, which he does less and less, a forgetting that upsets him, he remembers that he saw all this by the light of the moon, but worries that he might have made parts of it up, and it’s a thing like getting something wrong that haunts him, not ever knowing truth, really.
Later, after they waited for the ambulance and answered all the questions for the police, Frank and Carrie finally started the drive to their cabin, where they’d hoped for a few days of quiet.
He remembered too late that he’d left the candy-filled, plastic pumpkin beside the Camaro, and this angered him, because he wanted that little girl to recall his act of kindness years later, to mention to her lover or best friend or child the man who remembered something so small as the importance of a candy-filled pumpkin to a scared little girl.
“You know what makes me sick?” Carrie said. “That drunk might as well have put a gun to that teenager’s head and shot her.
And more than likely, nothing will happen to him.”
It was true. Back then, no one much cared about drunk drivers.
Everyone carried coolers on their floorboards, wrapped beer cans in those Coke disguises just for that purpose. Frank had done it a hundred times, and he would do it again, although he told himself differently that night.
“And who would drive drunk with a beautiful little girl in the car?” Carrie said. “What kind of father would do that? What kind? They don’t deserve that little girl.”
Frank turned on the radio so he wouldn’t have to talk or think, an old country ballad about a man who drinks an ugly woman up to a ten in a honky-tonk.
“You know what else?” Carrie said a few minutes later, turning down the radio. Her face shone white in the moon’s glare.
She was trying not to cry, something Frank wished he hadn’t noticed, because now he would have to deal with it, and he didn’t know how. “What’s even sicker?” Her voice lowered in a way that let Frank know she expected absolution. “I didn’t really want to touch that girl and woman because they were all covered in blood and I have on my new leather blazer. I didn’t want them to ruin it.”
She began weeping, pulling at her blazer, slapping at her chest like a madwoman. “Can you believe that? What kind of person thinks that kind of thing?”
Then later, “Frank? Why does everything have to be so relentlessly cyclical? Why can’t we move in some other direction? Why?”
The next Monday, instead of going to the office, he got in his truck and meandered, stopping at country gas stations to call Eliza, his secretary, for the info on his next appointment, where he’d meet with some carefully casual rich man in khakis and talk about how to renovate his summer home’s driveway, how to make it a work of art.
The Tuesday after the accident, he asked Eliza to cancel his appointments, and he headed out for Alexander City. There were 107 people at the funeral, Alexander City Graveyard. Lois Brown, the mother, wore hot pink instead of black. William Brown, the father, wore a navy suit and an old-Vegas style hat. The sister, a plump, red-faced preadolescent, threw a lily on the casket, then wailed, very theatrical. The brother looked like every other pissed-off teenager. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and “Peace in the Valley”
and “Just As I Am.” The preacher offered dozens of platitudes Vivian Leigh Brown would have hated. About an hour after the cemetery cleared, Frank finally got out of his truck where he’d watched the entire ceremony, trying to match the names in Vivian’s obituary, which he’d clipped out of the Sunday paper, to the faces at the cemetery. She was survived by a younger sister, Elizabeth, an older brother, Bert, a father, William, a mother, Lois. For the first time Frank noticed how they said that, “survived.”
A mound of flowers curved over Vivian’s grave. There were dozens of stuffed animals holding hearts in their various paws, photos of her with her friends, a few of which he took, and handwritten letters in loopy script. Frank kept one: Dear Viv, I know we grew apart this year because of me getting the cheerleading spot and stuff, but I thought you were awesome and you should’ve made the squad and I just cannot believe you died. Ms. Mise’s first period class won’t be the same without you. BFF, Penelope.
Vivian didn’t have a tombstone yet, just a tiny metal marker, 3356 L. They’d placed her under a huge oak, and Frank thought it nice, thought she would like the look of it.
“Man, she was one fucking crazy chick,” a raspy voice said from behind him. “Got a grip on you like a goddamn snapper and wouldn’t let go.”
Frank turned to see a slight young man, eighteen at most, his body pulled long and lean from nervousness, black hair to his 150 JENNIFER S. DAVIS bony shoulder blades, black jeans, black tennis shoes, a black concert T-shirt with a band’s name Frank didn’t recognize.
“Yes,” Frank said, annoyed at the intrusion. “Indeed she was.
One crazy, special girl.”
The teenager knelt beside him, growled, cupped a handful of dirt from near the grave, then slung it across the graveyard. Most of it ended up in Frank’s mouth.
“We were supposed to be on a date,” the boy said, his dark eyes watering. “We were supposed to be together but I was a fucking idiot and started some shit and now look.” He tapped a Marlboro out of a crushed pack and lit it, sucked hard, exhaled violently.
“I found her,” Frank said softly. “At the wreck. I found her there.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “But I knew her before then.” The last part slipped out, but felt true enough.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked, suspicious. He stood up, towered.
“Frank. Frank Wright.”
“She never mentioned a Frank. And the papers said a stranger found her.”
“You know women,” Frank said. “And when have the papers ever gotten anything right.”
“Where’d you meet?” the kid said. Frank realized that to this boy, he must have seemed old, a distant destiny, an impossibility in Vivian’s world, and for some reason this made him angry or sad or lonely.
“Out,” Frank said. “We talked about things. Lots of things.”
“You fuck her?” the boy said, his voice rising. “Because if you fucked her, I’m going to need to know, you know?”
“It wasn’t like that,” Frank said.
The kid looked soft for a second, vulnerable, like a little boy.
“Can you show me where it happened? You know, where she died?”
After the baby, things got ugly. They gave Carrie some pills to dry up her milk, but she wouldn’t take them, and for a few weeks there were bottles and cans and bowls of pumped breast milk everywhere, the smell sour and unbearable. Carrie walked around the house in the same pink pajamas, her belly rounded, her hands cupped around her breasts like she wanted to protect them and rip them off at the same time. Something about watching her sit in the empty nursery in his grandmother’s rocking chair, a suction cup on her breast, her rocking and staring and crying, something about it made Frank put-his-fist-through-the-wall angry. Not at Carrie, but at something he couldn’t put a name to, which made it even worse for her because she couldn’t tell the difference.
And then one day he came home from work and she wasn’t there. The phone calls started. The police calling to ask Frank to pick Carrie up from the diner or the Wal-Mart or, most often, the elementary-school playground—her narrow hips swallowed by a child’s swing, her bony legs extending and retracting rhythmically, her not knowing how she got there or refusing to tell. He’d find her in the T-shirt with the photo of the baby on it, its date of birth and death and weight printed below the photo, its puckered face pink beneath a little, white knit hat, which always startled him, a lifeless thing looking so alive. Carrie named her Mary Grace without asking Frank. She had the shirt made at the local mall from one of the photos his in-laws took at the hospital. Cutting-edge technology.
Across the chest it read: Angel Baby Mary Grace. The store made sweatshirts, key chains, coffee mugs, too.
Frank found it odd how a body could turn on the life it makes.
He’d heard once that when a couple’s fluids aren’t compatible, a woman’s juice will massacre the semen, work like natural birth control. And Carrie, her umbilical cord had snaked around Mary Grace’s neck and noosed her. Maybe if things had been different, they wouldn’t have been driving down a country road a year after the death of their baby, looking for quiet on Halloween, 1981.
They would have been dressing up their baby like a bloated pumpkin, carting her around to some shoddy carnival with sheets hung over the clothesline for fake fishing, cooing at all the other babies, smug in the knowledge that theirs was the prettiest, smartest, funniest, etc.
Frank handled things his own way. Carrie needed reminding of the baby, and he needed reminding of her. The few times he reached for her after the doctor gave them the thumbs-up, before Carrie decided they should try again, she looked at Frank as if he had lost his mind, and said just that: “Are you insane? Have you lost your mind?”
Frank doesn’t use this as an excuse, didn’t even then. And he doesn’t think this made it right, him and Eliza, but finds it important, the why of it all.
“Mr. Wright,” Eliza had said the day he hired her, swinging her black pageboy with a toss of her chin, sucking on her bottom lip in the peculiar way she did, “I have oomph. That’s what I have.
And if you hire me, I’ll make this office have oomph. And do you know how much oomph is worth? Well, I’ll tell you. Oomph is priceless. You can’t pin a wage on it.”
Just the two of them worked in the little trailer Frank had set up as an office, the rest of the men usually out on the job, and it wasn’t a month before Frank had her naked in the narrow bathroom. In addition to the sex, Eliza was good at her job and good at advice.
“Just listen to her,” she’d say about Carrie when he complained.
“Just listen,” Eliza would say with that warm, warm mouth. “And don’t pass judgment, and be patient.” Sometimes she’d say this right after they’d made love, her shirt still unopened, her panties on the dingy linoleum floor, and Frank thought that for as long as he lived, he’d never understand the mind of a woman.
He assumed she would take it well when he told her it had to stop a few months in, that he was married and had principles and right was right and wrong was wrong. Assumed she’d treat him almost like a doctor treats a cured patient.
The next day she showed up at work with a shaved head.
“You’re a user, Frank,” she said, the flimsy screen door of the trailer flapping behind her. “This is what I decided.” She sat down, threw her long legs on her desk, crossed them at the ankle. “But a person can only give you what a person can give you. And you are what you are and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
“What the hell happened to your head?” he said.
“Your hair records the history of your body,” she said.
From then on, she slanted her eyes at Frank from across the room, “accidentally” hung up on Carrie when she transferred her calls to Frank’s phone, gnawed on her bottom lip until it was as torn and pulpy as the torn-faced guy he and Carrie met on the back country road looking for quiet, Halloween, 1981.
“And that’s how I ended up driving that road. Trying to make things good with my wife. And that’s why I drive around during the day, trying to make things easier on Eliza.” Frank said all of this to the kid in black, who offered a name when he slid into Frank’s truck, immediately flipping the radio stations. Keith. Frank had started talking by the grave and, although he wanted to, couldn’t stop.
“No way,” Keith said. “She shaved her head? Shaved it bald?”
“Yes,” Frank said, pulling out of the cemetery parking lot where they’d sat with the motor running for the last half hour.
“Why didn’t you just fire her?”
“It wouldn’t be right.”
“That’s some strange reasoning, dude.” Keith laughed like men laugh when they pretend they’re comfortable talking about women and sex. “And your wife, she lost her marbles?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Frank said. He wondered if he should be insulted by Keith’s comment, if he was betraying Carrie, but in some ways, it was a relief that someone else had said it.
“And she doesn’t know about the other woman. That Eliza?”
“No,” Frank said.
“And now Viv? Shit, man, maybe I ought not be in a vehicle with you if this is the kind of luck you’re having.”
“You mind if we make a detour?” Frank said, swinging the truck in front of the pay phone at the bait store. He pulled the keys from the ignition, just in case Keith was the kind of person he thought he was.
Keith shrugged. “I got a lifetime,” he said, unsmiling.
Lois Brown greeted Frank at the door in a hot-pink jumpsuit, which she smoothed over her hips compulsively. There were a few people still milling around from the funeral in the kitchen, probably freezing casseroles and hams and cakes. Kids screamed from somewhere. When Frank had called from the bait store to see if Mrs. Brown wanted to meet with him, she had told him to come right over. Keith opted to wait in the car. Bad blood, he’d said.
“It drove Vivian crazy,” Mrs. Brown said, fluttering her hand at nothing in particular. “All the pink.” She was seated across from Frank in the formal living room. The floor was pink marble, the walls the color of the belly of a seashell. The decor as ornate as a French palace. The rest of the house, at least what Frank had seen, was done in conservative neutrals. “This was the only room William would let me have my way with,” Mrs. Brown explained.
She smiled a wobbly smile. The skin beneath her eyes hung purple.
She looked to be heavily medicated. “Pink. It’s just my thing.”
“It’s very nice,” Frank said. If Mrs. Brown heard him, she showed no indication.
“My whole life I was in love with the South,” she continued.
“I was raised in Connecticut, but I never felt at home there.” She pulled a hand through her blond hair, thin as cirrus clouds. She had an angry red sore at the base of her thumb. “I read Gone with the Wind a thousand times. At least.” She sighed. “When the Tarleton twins died in the war, God I cried.” Suddenly, she got down on her little pink knees, started clawing at the Oriental carpet, held up a fake handful of dirt, fake screamed, “As God is my witness!”
Mr. Brown stuck his balding head in the door. “Everything okay in here?” He had the veranda porch accent of old money.
Mrs. Brown waved him away. “He hates it when I do that,” she said, climbing back on the couch, completely demure. “That’s where Vivian got her name. From the movie. Vivian Leigh Brown.” She smoothed her hands over her hips, thighs, smiled her wobbly smile, and Frank tried to imagine the Vivian he imagined living in this house, coming from the flesh of this woman.
“Is Mr. Brown joining us?” Frank asked.
“Emotion gives him the hives,” she snorted. “Cool as a cucumber. Cold as ice. Dead as a doornail.”
Frank smiled. Fingered a pink, embroidered flower on the sofa pillow.
“They were just babies,” she said. “Just babies.”
“Who?” Frank said, confused.
“The Tarleton twins,” she said. “So sad.” She shook her head as if remembering long-lost loves. “Everybody at home laughed at me, said all I’d find down here were rednecks and racists, but I thought it was magical, a fairy tale even. Then some white-trash drunk runs down my daughter, and no one is going to do a damn thing about it. They think I don’t know, but I saw the Blazer.
I went to the wreck yard. I saw the beer cans.”
She stood up, began pumping around the room in her hot-pink stilettos, gouging at the sore place on her hand. Somebody laughed a pinched-off laugh in the kitchen, as if they remembered where they were in the middle of it.
Then Mrs. Brown was in front of Frank, kneeling, her twitching hands on his knees. “What did she say about me?” Mrs. Brown asked. “Was she in pain?” Mrs. Brown asked. “Did she pray?”
Mrs. Brown asked. Frank lied when necessary, when the truth would have been too harsh, but for the most part he told her everything he could remember, down to the turn of Vivian’s body, the way she squeezed his hand right before she went. When he finished, he felt strangely exhilarated, as if he had run a great distance.
“Mrs. Brown?” he said, his hands covering hers on his knees.
“Would you mind if I saw her room? I feel close to her, somehow, you know?”
Vivian’s room was painted a deep purple, the bedspread black velvet. There were band posters on all of the walls, AC / DC, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd. A delicate Oriental umbrella hung upside down from the ceiling. The room smelled thick, like cigarette smoke and too many perfume samples from fashion magazines.
Mrs. Brown collapsed on the bed, her pink shoulders quaking.
Frank had a sudden terrifying want, an image of him pressing his mouth against her cool white neck, of taking those fidgeting fingers into his mouth and sucking them, one by one, of laying her gently down on that black velvet spread and loving her.
But of course, he only sat beside her, put his hand on hers, then removed it. They rested there for a while like old friends, comfortable in their separate silences, their separate grief.
“Crazier than her daughter, huh?” Keith said when Frank got back to the truck. He had his feet hanging out of the rolled-down window, his seat pushed as far back as it would go. “Me and Mrs. B., there ain’t no love lost there.”
They started out for the wreck site, almost twenty miles outside of town. It was unclear why Vivian had been driving on such a secluded road by herself that night.
“It was because of me,” Keith insisted, digging in his coat.
“You mind if I smoke?”
The name of the boy Vivian offered up that night, her crush, was David.
“You together long?” Frank asked.
“Off and on,” Keith said, hacking. He failed to mention that what he was smoking was dope. “You want a hit?” He offered the joint to Frank.
Half-stoned, the drive felt longer, endless, the road winding around the lake, glimpses of the sun reflecting off the water as sharp as opening a bar door the morning after an all-night binge.
“Do you get IT? The big IT? You know what I mean?” Frank said a few miles before they got to the wreck site. He hadn’t been stoned for years, and it felt good and bad at the same time, a lightness, a freeness of spirit, but fake. “That’s what the guy said.
The guy who hit Vivian. I’ve been wondering ever since.”
“IT?” Keith snorted, smoke shooting out of his nostrils. He seemed to find the question inordinately amusing. “I’ll tell you what getting the big IT is. Getting the big IT is getting that there ain’t a big IT at all. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve got it.”
He turned up the radio. Black Sabbath’s “Wicked World” blared.
The world today has such a wicked face.
“This,” Keith said, banging his head. “This is all there is.”
Frank turned down the radio, irritated. And angry. Angry that Vivian would have wasted her time on the boy sitting next to him, a loser any girl with good sense would avoid. He eased off the shoulder at the same spot from Halloween. He’d stopped by the accident several times since it had happened, studied every piece of grass, every pinecone, knelt where he had knelt beside Vivian. He had spent half an afternoon looking for that plastic trick-or-treat pumpkin. And then he’d wept, replaying that night, pressing Vivian’s locket against his chest, which he’d worn under his clothes since the wreck, against his flesh, not exactly understanding any of it.
“Where?” Keith said. Frank pointed into the fringe of trees where a scattering of flowers had been left. The Camaro’s skid marks were still visible.
Frank sat in the truck, watched Keith in the rearview mirror lope long-legged down the road behind him. The boy stood still in the road for a few moments, his dark hair shimmering like asphalt.
Frank was rocked with a sudden desire to accidentally knock the truck in reverse, a desire to accidentally gun the gas and mow the boy down. He pulled the safety on.
Keith raised his hands to the sky, then walked to the shoulder where Vivian’s car had left the pavement, crouched, took something shiny from his boot, and began sawing at his hair with it. By the time Frank realized he had a knife, Keith was whipping it against his left forearm.
Frank was out of the truck, had the boy’s arms pulled behind his back, his cheek smashed into the ground. “Shhh,” Frank said to soothe him. “It’s not worth it. Trust me, it’s not.” He placed his own cheek against Keith’s, made a sound something like humming and exhaling.
“Have you fucking lost your mind, man?” Keith said. Frank untangled their arms, let the boy sit up. His chest heaved, ached.”
Spittle ran down his chin. Keith had a knife caked with blood and dirt in one hand, a handful of his hair in the other.
“I’m mourning,” he said. “It’s a Native American tradition.”
He held out his bony arms. The cuts he had made were shallow, superficial. “The scars remind the living of the dead.” He smiled, his teeth already yellowing. “I’m part Cherokee and it’s a Cheyenne tradition, but hell, like I know the difference. We read about it in history class. Viv thought it was romantic.” Keith sprung up, kissed his shorn hair, then tossed it in the air, laughing and dancing as it rained around them in black streams.
Frank read about a man once in the tabloids, a man who recorded things, wrote down every minute of his life for the last thirty years.
He knew that he ate 3/4 of a can of tomato soup on February 4, 1976, at 12:31 p.m., that he opened the can at 12:25, turned on the oven at 12:26, washed his bowl and pan at 12:42. At first it was just kind of a hobby, but it didn’t take long for him to become obsessed, and then he became disoriented if things happened too quickly to write down, until he finally recorded every second of his day. He no longer left the house, and people had to bring him food, he’d explained in the interview, because the doing prohibited the recording, so others did for him.
Frank told the story of this man to Carrie that Tuesday night in bed, the day of Vivian Leigh Brown’s funeral. He asked her what she thought about it.
“Details,” he said. “The particulars. It’s all we have, all that makes us who we are, you know?”
How could a person just not be anymore? That’s what Carrie had asked, after the baby died. That, and if she had done something wrong. Chosen a poor doctor, a sloppy hospital. Skimped on her vitamins. Snuck one too many sips of wine. What if? she’d said, what if? When Frank couldn’t offer a satisfactory answer, she took it as condemnation.
“I peaked,” she said, ignoring him. “My temperature peaked and I called the office and you weren’t there. You’re never there.”
She’d dressed up for him, a white frilly negligee, a tornado of wispy brown hair, fat red lips. Ovulation.
“I know what you are up to,” Carrie said. She grabbed his chin with her shaking hands. Made him look into her eyes until he lost focus, and her face became one large, blurry, far away, accusatory pupil. “I wasn’t sure,” she said, letting go of his face.
“But I am now. You’re not going to ruin my marriage. Get it?”
She began sniffling, rubbing at her face, and it hit Frank like a punch, what she thought. He reasoned that he had cheated on her before, even if he wasn’t doing it at the time, so perhaps he deserved this, her anger, whatever retribution would follow.
Maybe anger was what they needed, a perverse catalyst for change.
“And I’ve decided to get better. I can. If you’ve decided that we’re getting a divorce, you can undecide. Now. So give me the locket.”
Frank unlatched Vivian’s locket, warm from his skin, and dangled it in front of Carrie, a gold heart. If Carrie looked inside, she’d find the face of a young Vivian, front teeth missing, her hair in uneven braids, and a small snippet of blond hair, probably from Vivian’s first haircut. Carrie snatched it from his hand, stuck it in her bedside table, then turned her back to Frank. She opened a historical romance, a “bodice ripper” they’re called. And things were different between them. Just like that.
“We won’t mention it again,” she said, flipping the page. “But know I know.”
When she fell asleep, soft and peaceful, as if this day were any other, Frank watched her, his miraculous wife. The breathing in and out, her chest rising and falling. When he put his hand over her mouth, her breath was warm against his palm. He placed his lips against hers, opened them slightly, inhaled. She swatted at him in her sleep, curled onto her side.
There’s an old superstition Frank’s grandmother told him as a boy. When a person dies, you have to make sure the mouth stays open at the exact moment of death so the spirit can escape the body, and that soft sigh you hear when someone breathes her last, that’s the sigh of abandon, departure. After Vivian Leigh Brown died, he worried that he’d sucked a bit of her from that bubbling mouth into him, if maybe that’s why he couldn’t let go, couldn’t stop feeling the soft shudder of her body when it no longer became hers. And he worried about this after Mary Grace died, never opening her mouth, never taking a breath. He worried she’d be trapped in that impossibly tiny corpse, or worse, in Carrie, in the core of her, fluttering there broken, until a part of Carrie died, too.
Perhaps the last part that loved him.