“Never Too Late” p. 55

Driv­ing home, he kept think­ing about her eyes

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By David Ber­gen

The dog showed up at his ranch on a cool morn­ing in April, two days af­ter a spring bliz­zard blew in off the Rock­ies, leav­ing a foot of snow and trap­ping cows and calves in the gulches of the south sec­tion. When he stepped out onto the porch, the dog was wait­ing for him. “Who’re you?” he asked. Sad eyes. Black. Curls like it’d just come from hav­ing a perm.

He stepped around the dog and walked out to the barn, lifted the latch, swung the door, and stepped in­side. The dog slipped through the door.

The sta­ble was in shad­ows. Warm. The smell of hay and horse and ma­nure.

He sad­dled Blue and slipped on the bit while the dog sat and watched. He guided the horse out into the yard. Steam from his nos­trils. A quick side­ways move­ment. He swung up into the sad­dle and set out for the south pas­ture. The dog fol­lowed. Three hours and one dead calf later, he sta­bled and curried Blue, walked out­side, closed the barn door, and walked out to his pickup. He low­ered the rear gate and the dog scram­bled up into the bed. He shut the gate.

“Don’t talk much, do you?” he said.

He climbed into the pickup and drove to town and parked in front of Lach­lan’s. The dog jumped out of the box and fol­lowed him into the clinic. He ap­proached the front desk and said, “Hi, Julie.”

Julie looked up at him with her clear blue eyes. “Hi, Bev.” “Bit of a storm we had,” he said.

“Was. My man was stranded in Cal­gary for two nights. Got in at five this morn­ing. Said the ditches were full of cars emp­tied of all their fools.” She grinned. The deep­est dim­ples.

“Lach­lan around?”

“He’s out. Calv­ing sea­son, as you know.”

“I do.” Bev turned and looked down at the dog. “This here girl found me this morn­ing and won’t let me go. Like LePages.”

Julie rose and bent over the desk for a closer look. “That one be­longs to Jan­ice Col­li­cutt. Curly-coated re­triever. Spayed her last year. She’s a run­ner. And a mute.”

“That a fact.”

“It is. Born with­out a voice. Ex­cept when she smells smoke. Then she howls like all get-out.” “Well, I’m not a smoker.” “Good thing, then. You’ll want to find Jan­ice.”

“I do.”

“She lives at Al­ton Manor. Jan­ice will be happy to see her dog. She loses her at least once a week.”

“Might want to tie her up.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t do that. She’s too kind-hearted. She needs a good trainer.”

He took note of Julie’s dim­ples one last time and then turned to go.

“Care­ful on the roads,” she said.

“Sun’s out. Ice is melt­ing.”

“Still.”

As he loaded the dog in the bed, he won­dered what the mutt was called. Curly, he sup­posed. He drove to Al­ton Manor and parked in the load­ing zone. He put on his haz­ards and walked up the side­walk to the front door. In the lobby there was an in­ter­com and a list of names and num­bers. He found Col­li­cutt, Jan­ice , and punched in 542. A sign on the glass door read, NO PETS ALO WED. The ringer went off six times be­fore a woman an­swered.

“Who’s that?”

“My name’s Bev. I have your dog.”

“Keller? You found her?”

“She found me.”

“Where, then?”

“On my ranch. Sit­ting on the porch.”

“Oh my.”

“Should I come up?”

The buzzer rang to free the lock and Bev stared at it and then pulled the han­dle and en­tered. He took the el­e­va­tor to the fifth floor, pat­ting Keller on the head. “Atta girl,” he said. “You’re go­ing home.”

When the door opened, he was sur­prised by a num­ber of things. Jan­ice Col­li­cutt was in an elec­tric wheel­chair, and her face was too smooth and un­lined and young for her to be liv­ing in an old folks’ home, and her hair was curly like her dog’s, and she had a green eye and a brown eye, and she was a looker.

Keller en­tered, sniffed the wheels of the chair, and lay down in the mid­dle of the liv­ing room.

Jan­ice spun around and turned left and dis­ap­peared. “Come in,” she called. “In here. Sit down.”

She was parked at the ta­ble, eat­ing plain mac­a­roni and ketchup. He sat. Looked around. The dishes needed wash­ing. “I sup­pose you’re look­ing for a re­ward?” Jan­ice said. “I can’t do that. Keller would break the bank. I can of­fer you noo­dles, though. You hun­gry?”

He was. “I’m fine,” he said.

“’Course you’re fine.” She mo­tioned at the pot on the stove. “Help your­self.”

He stood and took a bowl from the cabi­net and spooned him­self some mac­a­roni and sat and squeezed a lit­tle ketchup into the bowl.

As they ate, Jan­ice told him about her life. She lived at Al­ton Manor be­cause it had el­e­va­tors and wheel­chair ac­ces­si­bil­ity and be­cause she was sur­rounded by other peo­ple. They might be a lot older, but they were good com­pany. She said she had mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. Five years ear­lier, she’d be­gun to drop things, knives, pen­cils, her wal­let, and then her left leg be­gan to drag be­hind her as she walked, and one day, lo and be­hold, she couldn’t walk at all, and now here she was in a wheel­chair. “My hus­band walked away from me as soon as he found out about the MS. Crip­ples frighten Jack. He’s re­mar­ried. Has a baby on the way. Thing is, he still thinks he owns me. I have an in­her­i­tance, from my fa­ther, and Jack thinks he should get some. Courts think dif­fer­ently.” She ate some more. “What ’bout you?” “What about me?” “Your life. What do you do?” “I have a ranch. Four hun­dred head of ­cat­tle. Horses.” She nod­ded. “Mar­ried?” He shook his head. “Been?” “Once. A long time ago.” “I thought so. You have that look.” “What’s that?” “The look of a bach­e­lor. A lit­tle for­lorn. Thread­bare.” “Is that right?” “What I miss is the sex. You don’t have to be mar­ried to have sex, but it’s eas­ier. But then it turns hum­drum.”

He looked down at his empty bowl.

“Peo­ple think be­cause I’m in a wheel­chair, I can’t have sex. Not true.”

Bev took up his hat and placed it on his head. He rose. “Nice meet­ing you, Miss Col­li­cutt. You might want to watch your dog more care­fully.”

“I try. But she has to do her busi­ness, and she gets loose, and I can’t chase her down. She gets ex­cited about the big world out there. How far you from town?”

“Six miles.”

“One time she ended up on a ranch fifty miles from here. They kept her for the win­ter. Saved me feed­ing her. You want her?” “I favour cats.”

“Keller’s a pointer and a hunt­ing dog. Needs some train­ing, though.”

“That’s prob­a­bly true.” He touched his hat. “Well. Good­bye.” “Yes. See you.”

He didn’t think so. All that talk of sex. He won­dered if the sick­ness had ad­dled her brain. Driv­ing home, he kept think­ing about her eyes, the bright­ness there in two dif­fer­ent colours.

On Wed­nes­day, as was the case ev­ery other week, he filled in as the auc­tion­eer at the live­stock sale in town. Gone were the heady times of day­long sales and thou­sands of head of ­cat­tle. What ar­rived these days was a worn-out dairy cow sold by a ­sin­gle owner, a bull with noth­ing in his rocket, or a small bevy of heifers bought up by a buyer from Mon­santo. The auc­tion lasted two hours. Bev caught sight of Jan­ice sit­ting in her wheel­chair along the walk­way above the pen. He saw her at the ex­act mo­ment a bony Jersey cow en­tered the ring. He said, “Ain’t she a sweet­heart,” and he sold her for five dol­lars.

Later, Jan­ice was wait­ing for him in the park­ing lot. He feigned de­light, or per­haps he wasn’t feign­ing. He said, “Nice to see you, Miss Col­li­cutt,” and she said, “Jan­ice.”

Then she said, “What’s gonna hap­pen to that sweet­heart of a dairy cow?”

“Well,” he said, “She’ll be turned into glue.” “That’s sad,” she said.

He took off his hat. “Never thought of it that way.” He looked around. “How did you get here?”

“I rode my chair.”

“On the high­way.”

“Yes.”

“Would you like a lift back?”

“I would,” she said. And then she said his name, “Bev.”

As he helped her into the cab of his pickup, he was aware of her arm around his neck and how her chest pushed against his ribs, and he was aware too of how loose and floppy her left leg was. He found sev­eral two-by-tens be­side the feed­lot and used those as planks to drive the wheel­chair into the bed of the truck. Threw the planks in along­side. Jan­ice was tin­kled pink to see all the trou­ble he went to. When he dropped her off and set­tled her back into her chair, she touched his arm and said, “You might want to hold onto those planks. Just in case.”

The fol­low­ing evening, a Thurs­day, he ar­ranged to pick her up and take her out for steak in Cal­gary. They drove up High­way 2 and found a Keg on the south side of the city. As they en­tered the restau­rant, he won­dered if he could get used to be­ing with a woman who wasn’t able to ride or rope or wran­gle, a woman whose head would al­ways reach only the height of his belt buckle.

She or­dered a Sil­ver Cloud and a sir­loin medium rare and mush­rooms on the side. She said, “You’re not par­tic­u­lar. I like that.”

“Not sure what you mean by that.”

He won­dered if he could get used to be­ing with a woman who wasn’t able to ride or rope or wran­gle, a woman whose head would al­ways reach only the height of his belt buckle.

“Not squea­mish.” He lifted an eye­brow. “You’re not put off by a gimp.” “Never crossed my mind,” he said. “You see. That’s what I mean. I tried In­ter­net dat­ing once, just for a month, and you should see the freaks that come crawl­ing out from un­der the rug. One fel­low wanted me to sit naked in my chair while he sat­is­fied him­self. I sent him home.”

“Sounds dan­ger­ous,” he said.

“Not re­ally. These are very weak men. Morally. They have no back­bone.” She watched him care­fully. “Am I too blunt?” “You are blunt. Too? I wouldn’t say.” “I fright­ened you the other day, talk­ing about sex.” He smiled. “And now you’re talk­ing about it again.” “I don’t have a lot of time left. Maybe a year. All the old rules have been chucked out.”

The food ar­rived. “Would you cut my steak?” she asked, and pushed her plate to­ward him. He cut it for her and thought of chil­dren.

He said, “I couldn’t have ba­bies. That’s why Dorothy left me.” “I never wanted ba­bies. Too old, any­ways.”

“That’s not what I’m say­ing. I’m just try­ing to be hon­est.” “I knew who you were the mo­ment we met.” “Yeah? Did you know I’m celi­bate?” “That a threat?” She laughed. “I’m a Chris­tian as well.” “Makes sense.” “How ’bout you?” “I could be if it’s use­ful.” “This isn’t a ne­go­ti­a­tion. It’s about faith.” “I know that.” Driv­ing home there was a deep si­lence that didn’t feel like si­lence be­cause he sensed her breath­ing and her move­ments, and at one point she reached out her strong hand, her left, and stroked his head and then ran it down to his neck. It was shock­ing to feel once again a woman’s touch.

“Could I spend the night at your place?” she asked. “I get tired of my apart­ment.” “I only have one bed,” he said. “Per­fect.” “What would we do with the wheel­chair?” “Put it in the barn with the horses,” she said. “You can carry me in­side.” He was quiet. “You think too much,” she said. “Think so?” “This isn’t life or death,” she said. She took her phone out of her purse and en­tered a num­ber. He heard her talk­ing, say­ing her door was open and Keller needed water and food and she needed to go out­side. “Don’t let her off the leash,” she said. “She’ll run.”

Bev had not had sex with a woman for twenty years. The last woman he’d slept with was his ex-wife, Dorothy, who left him af­ter years of try­ing to have chil­dren. The doc­tors de­ter­mined that he was at fault, per­haps be­cause of his ac­quain­tance with Agent Orange dur­ing his tour of duty in Viet­nam. When Dorothy left him, she claimed to be heart­bro­ken. And then she mar­ried a town man, man­ager of the credit union, who gave her three chil­dren. Bev saw them in church, sit­ting five abreast, all clean and won­der­ful and con­tented. He was happy for Dorothy, and this was his great­est prob­lem, that he imag­ined hap­pi­ness was found else­where, cer­tainly not in his own home and heart.

The pre­vi­ous fall, he’d driven to IKEA in Cal­gary and picked up kitchen cabi­nets and then gone home and in­stalled them, lay­ing out the boxes and read­ing the in­struc­tions, as­sem­bling the cabi­nets and then hang­ing them. Mak­ing love to Jan­ice Col­li­cutt was like putting to­gether an IKEA kitchen, only in this case the in­struc­tions came from Jan­ice her­self, telling him to move her leg just so, to ad­just his weight, and to help her hand find his cock. Sex with Jan­ice was sur­pris­ing for its me­chan­ics. There were no tricks, there was no hes­i­ta­tion, ev­ery­thing fell to­gether just so.

At night, he woke to find that Jan­ice’s left leg had clamped him to the bed and held him with a fe­ro­cious pos­ses­sion. He lifted her leg and slid out of bed and walked naked into the kitchen and ran a cold glass of water. Drank it look­ing out at his pickup and the sin­gle yard light that fell like a sharp sun across the barn that held his three horses and a few chick­ens and housed a mo­tor­ized wheel­chair. What was he do­ing? He laid the glass up­side down in the sink and went back to

bed and dreamt of a talk­ing dog.

HIn the early morn­ing, as Jan­ice slept, he stepped out onto his porch and looked at the foothills to the west. They were not grand com­pared to the Rock­ies be­yond, but they were a step­ping stone to some­thing ­greater, and he saw him­self step­ping into a new life, and the moun­tains dwarfed him and the foothills were miles away, and the sun ris­ing be­hind him seemed just as happy for him as he was — in fact, the sun seemed to wink at him. As a young man, he had suf­fered anger and fits of rage, and he had fought any­thing and ev­ery­thing that was pre­sented be­fore him. This all stopped one day. It had been im­me­di­ate and true. A real con­ver­sion. He had been out rid­ing fences, lean­ing into a west­erly, fight­ing the snow and cold, and he’d got­ten off to splice the fence when the barbed wire snapped and wrapped around his neck and threw him to the ground. He would have bled out if his horse hadn’t nuz­zled him out of the drifts and walked him home. On the horse, lean­ing for­ward, his face pressed against the mane, he’d had a ­vi­sion of him­self ­trav­el­ling down a wide road to­ward a bright light, and it was that bright light that stayed with him. From that day, he stopped all fight­ing, rid him­self of his rage, for­gave Dorothy, for­gave him­self. He got him­self a cat, an an­i­mal he’d al­ways dis­liked. He grew to love the cat, a fat cal­ico that proved to be a tremen­dous ­mouser. He was a changed man — still res­o­lute, with lit­tle pa­tience for fools, but kinder, softer, and some­times lean­ing to­ward tears.

e saw her seven days in a row. He’d drive over to her apart­ment late in the day and roust her and wheel her out to his pickup and place her in the cab and drive the wheel­chair up the

planks into the box and then climb in be­side her, and each time he did so, he was deliri­ous. He’d take a deep breath and then say, “Here we go.” And she’d grin and ad­just her loose body and an­swer, “Yes.” They’d drive the roads be­low the foothills, watch­ing the light fade pink and then dark green and then dusty grey and ­fi­nally a soft black­ness that verged on pur­ple, which meant that the moun­tains were catch­ing the last of the sun on their back­sides. She was a big­ger talker than he was. She’d grown up in town and been wooed by var­i­ous men from a young age, per­haps be­cause her fa­ther had money, or maybe be­cause her eyes were dif­fer­ent colours. “Men seem to like that,” she said. Her fa­ther had made his money sell­ing mud to drilling com­pa­nies. “A mud mil­lion­aire is what he calls him­self.” He’d bought her a house af­ter her di­vorce and of­fered her a full-time nurse, but she pre­ferred the com­pany of the ten­ants at the Al­ton. “A lot of wis­dom there, along with some un­wanted ad­vice,” she said. “My fa­ther flew me to Italy last year for that op­er­a­tion that opens the jugu­lar ve­nous sys­tem. That Zam­boni guy dis­cov­ered it. For a month I was leap­ing about like a new­born colt. And then, bang, I lost feel­ing in my leg and arm, and I was back in a wheel­chair.” She talked about her­self as if she were de­scrib­ing some­one else. Like she was watch­ing her re­flec­tion in a triple-glazed win­dow. And ­al­ways, when dark­ness had ar­rived com­pletely, he would drive her to his house and carry her in­side and drop her on the bed and un­dress her and then take off his own clothes and lie down be­side her and they would make love. One time, he dis­cov­ered that he was cry­ing, and she wiped at his tears and said that he was the sweet­est thing she’d ever known. He said that with age his tears came more eas­ily, and though it em­bar­rassed him to ad­mit this, he said it any­way.

For twenty years he had for­saken women and had even de­nied thoughts of sex. Like a monk, he had cleansed him­self. And now Jan­ice was in his life and he had tum­bled down the hill of virtue into the slough of car­nal­ity and he had never felt so free and so lib­er­ated and so full of life. She was beau­ti­ful and yet she wasn’t. He wanted to tell some­one about her, and one after­noon at a café just out­side Cal­gary, when the wait­ress told him that he had a glint in his eye, he agreed and said he’d just met the love of his life. “It’s never too late, I guess,” the wait­ress said, and he saw that she was call­ing him both old and lucky. He couldn’t ar­gue with that.

On a Fri­day morn­ing, af­ter eat­ing fried pota­toes and eggs with Jan­ice, he dropped her off at the Al­ton and went to see Harv Engel, the man­ager of the credit union, the same man who had mar­ried and promptly seeded Bev’s ex-wife.

Harv was a big man. Some might have called him fat. He liked to say things like “Let me be frank” or “Let’s cut to the chase” or “You need to line up your ducks.” Harv was in his of­fice, hold­ing down his chair. He was breath­ing heav­ily, as if he had run a long dis­tance to meet with Bev. He sighed and said, “Let me be frank. I’ve cut you slack for the past year, re­duc­ing your in­ter­est rates, for­go­ing pay­ments, but the time has come to face the mu­sic. You ei­ther sell the ranch or declare bankruptcy. Sell­ing seems the big­ger op­tion.”

Here was a flan­nel-mouthed bar­rel of a man who soaked up num­bers and spat them back at you as if the num­bers them­selves were the only truth in the world.

Bev crossed his legs, laid his cow­boy hat on his lap, and laid out a few num­bers him­self. “Give me sixty days,” he said. “May thir­ti­eth. I’ll have the thirty thou­sand.”

“Where you gonna get that much money in that time, Bev? I hate to say this, but we can’t keep post­pon­ing the in­evitable. The feed­lot’s look­ing for a new man­ager. They could use a good man like you.”

“Aww, heck, I’m too old to start all over again. And I can’t live in town, Harv. It’d kill me.”

“That ranch is killing you, Bev. Maybe there’s a lit­tle house in the coun­try you could rent. I’ll keep my ear to the ground.” He touched an ear­lobe as he spoke.

“How are the kids?” Bev asked.

“Fine. Fine. Crys­tal’s play­ing vol­ley­ball this year. She has ­Dorothy’s legs. A real jumper.”

“Say hi to Dorothy.”

“For sure. For sure.” They shook hands. “Give the feed­lot a call,” he said.

He drove home slowly, tak­ing the back roads, win­dows open, won­der­ing if he were an ig­no­ra­mus. He dis­missed this thought and watched two geese, wings reared, land on the grass­land.

At home, he dis­cov­ered a Cadil­lac in his yard, parked near the barn. Jack Col­li­cutt climbed out. Bev sat in the pickup and watched Jack ap­proach. Rolled down the win­dow.

“Mr. Wohlge­muht?”

“That’s me,” Bev said.

Jack stopped a few yards from the pickup. “Stay away from Jan­ice,” he said. “She’s not ter­ri­bly clear these days and is ­eas­ily in­flu­enced.”

Bev waited. When noth­ing more was of­fered, he said, “That it?” “I think that’d be enough.”

“Last I heard, you were mar­ried to an­other woman. Makes no sense why you should be con­cerned with Jan­ice.”

“Like I said, she’s not at the top of her game. I’m con­cerned that you’re af­ter more than Jan­ice.”

“I’m not af­ter any­thing, Mr. Col­li­cutt. You can climb back ­into your slick car and get off my prop­erty.”

Jack looked around. “Tit­tle-tat­tle tells me it isn’t your prop­erty much longer.”

Bev opened the pickup door and stepped out. Jack moved back­wards, palms held out, and then turned and scat­tered back to his shiny car.

Over the next three days, Bev and a neigh­bour boy who was all arms and acne rounded up bull calves and to­gether they branded and in­oc­u­lated and cas­trated. The skies were clear, the sun shone, the world was end­less. Dur­ing that time, Jan­ice left him three mes­sages that he didn’t re­ply to. He told him­self that he was tired, that his ranch was de­mand­ing his time, but he knew Jack’s visit had sur­prised him. He now saw him­self as Jack ­Col­li­cutt saw him — a bank­rupt rancher who had fallen into the arms of a wealthy di­vorcee. It wasn’t a pretty thought. One night, late, the phone rang and he picked it up. Jan­ice’s voice was soft and happy.

“There you are,” she said, as if they had been play­ing hide-and-seek.

“Yup.”

“What are you do­ing?”

“Soak­ing in the tub.”

“Nice. I miss you.”

“Well.”

“You wanna come over?”

“I’m naked as night.”

“Get dressed, come by, and get naked again.”

“I don’t know. I sort of fell off the path and I’m not sure it did me any good.”

“Good? What garbage.” “You don’t know me at all,” he said.

“I know more than you think I know.”

“Well, put it this way, then. I’d rather you didn’t know all that I think you don’t know.” He paused. “What do you know?” “That you’re about to lose the ranch.”

“There a sign on my back or some­thing?”

“Jack told me.”

“He in­formed me of the same.”

“You talked to Jack?”

“He paid me a visit. Warned me to stay away from you.”

“And you’re go­ing to obey him? Get over here, Bev.” She hung up. He climbed from the tub and shaved, angling his head to catch the dim light above the bath­room mir­ror. Splashed on af­ter­shave. Dressed. Donned his white suede She­p­lers. Stepped out­side and smelled the air. A warm wind was blow­ing from the south. The stars were com­pletely hung.

Go­ing on 3 a.m., they were still talk­ing. He’d told her ev­ery­thing vi­tal about him­self. His time in the men­tal hospi­tal af­ter his tour in Viet­nam, the death of his fa­ther and mother and how much he missed his mother, his bar­ren mar­riage, his un­kind­ness to Dorothy when he learned that he was to blame for the lack of chil­dren, the money short­age, and his dis­cov­ery early on in life that hard work kept him sane, even if that same hard work failed to pro­vide him with the means to hang on to the lit­tle that he had. He said he lacked gen­eros­ity. In love, in life, and with him­self. He paused, sud­denly shy. He had never be­fore spo­ken so clearly of him­self, and his hon­esty sur­prised him, and the words and what they meant sur­prised him as well. He was like the man who wakes from a deep sleep and looks down at his feet and comes to rec­og­nize those feet as his own only by ad­dress­ing them.

They were ly­ing side by side in Jan­ice’s bed. Jan­ice held his hand as he spoke and when he was fin­ished, she said, “You’re way too hard on your­self.”

“I might dis­agree.”

“Not very bright, then, are you?” She ma­noeu­vred her body on top of his. “Help me here,” she said, and he lifted and pulled un­til she had set­tled. Her weight was lovely. Her mouth was strong. Her gen­er­ous heart.

The fol­low­ing night, alone in his own bed, he dreamed of a dog howl­ing and he woke from a sinister sleep and heard the howl­ing in his yard. He walked naked to the front door and opened it to dis­cover Keller in the drive­way howl­ing at the fire that was con­sum­ing his sta­ble. He ran for the barn. Blue was cir­cling his pen, snort­ing and quiv­er­ing. He laid a gunny sack over his eyes and led Blue out and set him free. He fetched the two re­main­ing horses and then stood at a dis­tance and felt the heat on his face and crotch and arms and he watched the sparks tear off into the night and he lis­tened to the chick­ens burn. No use in call­ing the vol­un­teer fire depart­ment.

He made sure no sparks came near the house. At some point, he dressed and made him­self a cup of cof­fee and sat on the stoop with Keller, and to­gether they watched the roof cave in. An un­holy sound. Keller emit­ted a for­lorn howl. Al­ley, his cal­ico, ­ap­peared and walked a fig­ure eight be­tween his legs. He rubbed her ears.

Jonesy, the neigh­bour to the south, drove up in his pickup and climbed out and asked about the live­stock.

“Lost a few chick­ens. I freed the horses.” Bev waved a hand out to­ward the road in­di­cat­ing the di­rec­tion they’d run.

Jonesy rested a boot on the steps. “Any idea how it started?” “Well, horses don’t start fires.”

“Per­haps elec­tri­cal,” Jonesy said.

“Per­haps.”

“You don’t think so.”

“No. I don’t.”

“I doubt it, too.” Jonesy went in­side and came back out with a cof­fee. “You have en­e­mies?”

“The bank?”

Jonesy lifted an eye­brow.

The in­sur­ance man showed up the fol­low­ing day. He’d dragged along a fire in­spec­tor from Cal­gary, and the two of them spent the after­noon go­ing through the rub­ble. Bev watched them from the kitchen win­dow as they walked in rub­ber boots around the rem­nants of the barn. A neigh­bour five miles east had rounded up his horses and de­liv­ered them. He’d put them out to pas­ture, and that’s where they were now, stand­ing with their rumps against a cold wind. He made cof­fee, poured two mugs, and car­ried them out to the men.

“Don’t know if you take cream or su­gar,” he said.

“Black’s fine,” said the fire in­spec­tor. The in­sur­ance man, a thin fel­low who when he spoke sounded as if he had stones in his mouth, said he didn’t drink cof­fee any which way, thanks.

And so Bev, who wasn’t given to waste, took it for him­self.

Ac­cord­ing to the in­spec­tor, the fire was the re­sult of ar­son. “Scorch marks in­di­cate an

­ac­cel­er­ant was used.” When he spoke, he looked at the sky, and be­cause this was so, Bev felt that he was guilty of some­thing.

The in­sur­ance man said it would take a while to process the claim. “Po­lice and such will have to be in­volved,” he said past the stones. Un­like the fire in­spec­tor, he looked di­rectly at Bev as he spoke. Bev didn’t turn away.

“How’d you get the horses out in time?” the in­sur­ance man asked.

“Dog woke me.”

“Yeah? I didn’t see a dog.”

“She’s a run­ner. Be­longs to a woman I know. She hap­pened to show up last night and went all apeshit. Doesn’t like the smell of smoke.”

“Lucky, then,” the in­sur­ance man said. He had a name, but Bev had for­got­ten it. “Fact is, it all seems ter­ri­bly con­ve­nient, you with money trou­bles and all.”

“Where’d you get that?”

“My busi­ness to know.”

Bev said, “If it’d been me set that fire, I’d have burned the house down.”

The fire in­spec­tor thought this was hu­mor­ous. The in­sur­ance man didn’t. Truth was, Bev hadn’t in­tended to be funny. He was be­ing hon­est.

He was ea­ger to get his hands on Jack Col­li­cutt, and in his ear­lier days, when he had been im­petu­ous and full of rage, he would have paid him a visit at his high-school of­fice and threat­ened him with a brand­ing. Or worse. As it was, he stayed put. He rode Blue bare­back out along the south pas­ture. Vs of geese flew over­head. A great horned owl sat a fence post.

In the early evening, she called. “I heard,” she said.

“That’s quite a dog you have.”

“Isn’t she?”

“And quite a man you were mar­ried to.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Well, you didn’t burn the barn down.”

“You in trou­ble?”

“Might be.” It was quiet, then he said, “Noth­ing I can’t han­dle.” “You like be­ing a loner, don’t you?”

“A lot less trou­ble.”

“Yeah, peo­ple are no fun, are they.”

“Most.”

“I can help out. It’d please me.”

“Wouldn’t please me,” he said.

“’Course not. You’re a big proud rancher. If it helps, you can pay me back. Or count it as a re­ward for find­ing ­Keller. Who’s still out there some­wheres.”

“Engel, and ev­ery­body else, they’d see me as your whore.”

“That’s pure mean,” she said.

“Where can this go? Your ex-hus­band’s a mad­man, your dog’s out of con­trol, and I’ve got these two-by-tens in the bed of my pickup re­mind­ing me you won’t be around much longer.”

“’Course I’ll die. Maybe be dead next year. But right now I’m here. Here I am.”

“You lookin’ to get mar­ried?”

“For sure not. Mar­riage kills your sex life.”

“What do you want, then?”

“Noth­ing, Bev. Might sur­prise you, but I want noth­ing. I’m happy. You gotta fig­ure out what you’re afraid of.”

He sat on the couch be­fore a black TV screen and saw there the faintest re­flec­tion of him­self. He’d known out­right ­phys­i­cal ter­ror and fear be­fore and he knew the feel­ing it evoked, but this was dif­fer­ent. This fear was like a heavy ache, and yet there were mo­ments when if he turned his thoughts a ­cer­tain way, the fear be­came a peace­ful hap­pi­ness, and he was full of a bright light. It was like flip­ping a coin that of­fered two ex­tremes.

And what would Jan­ice say to this? Garbage.

He slept poorly. Kept wak­ing, think­ing he could hear Keller scratch­ing at the door. And he rose to check the night, stand­ing naked on the porch in the cold, look­ing over at the black car­cass of the barn. A few times he called out, think­ing she might be out there, but she didn’t come.

In the morn­ing, in the first pink light, she was wait­ing for him on the porch.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.