By Antonya Nelson
Ed. note: “The There There” from Antonya Nelson’s latest book of short stories Funny Once was excerpted in our current issue of Telluride Magazine. The following is the complete story. You can purchase the entire collection of stories online here.
Once, when they were still a family and the boys were mostly grown yet still living at home, they were sitting, the four of them, at their customary seats at the kitchen table discussing the perfect crime. That is, the murder you would get away with.
“Out on the ocean,” said their eldest, Will. He had just returned from a college recruiting trip to UCSB, so the ocean would naturally come to mind. “You could rent a boat, get them a little tipsy, then dump them overboard. Later you would tell the cops you searched and searched.”
“If it was a girl she could be on her period,” added his little brother, Drew. “To explain the sharks.” Though he was the younger, he already had more experience with girls and their periods; he’d imagined maybe his difficult girlfriend on that boat. “If she was on her period,” he went on, “you could also go into the forest and wait for a bear . . . ”
“You’d have to do some weeping to the authorities,” Caroline said, ignoring the disapproval radiating from her husband, “but not too much. Shock tends to dry up the tear glands.”
“Or,” said Will, “I also like the idea of putting poison in a pill that’s a prescription, so the victim will take it who knows when.”
“You’d have to want to kill a pill taker,” Caroline said. “A capsule-pill taker. And you’d have to find some poison that fit inside it.”
“My perfect murder,” said Drew, “would be where there are two people and each of them whacks the other one’s enemy. Some strangers-on-the-plane kind of thing.”
“Train,” said Will. “Not plane. Mom?”
“Up in the mountains,” Caroline said. For many years she’d not really lived anywhere but Telluride; when she took her daily hike, she always half expected to find a body, an aspen-limb-like leg or arm amid the blowdown. “Up somewhere high and remote, some slippery trail. Maybe after a wine-and-cheese-picnic tryst situation, way above the timberline, just where the trail starts to have frozen spots. One tiny misstep and, whoops, over they go.”
Gerald rose from the table and set his breakfast dishes gently in the sink, that condemning clink of porcelain on porcelain. He was saddened by the conversation, disappointed in his family, his closest associates. The boys hung their heads, regretful, silenced; they would later make it up to him and he would forgiving them, but how much more horrified her husband would have been to know that it was him Caroline was imagining, standing too close to the edge at the picnic tryst, next tumbling over a cliff.
That August Will moved to Santa Barbara, where he rented an apartment from a Peruvian woman named Adora Zabron. His parents heard about the landlady frequently, her gift for all things domestic, gardening, cooking, kindness. Will changed his major at UCSB to international studies (he’d intended to study philosophy), and then, after his first year (three classes in Spanish; maybe they should have seen it coming), he was clearly more than merely her tenant and young hungry friend.
Caroline’s son was in love with a woman her age. His brother, Drew, then sixteen, could not quite solve this confounding dilemma, no matter how many times he played with the pieces, no matter his angle of approach. A true conundrum. “When Will’s thirty,” Drew would say, “she will be fifty-six.”
His father the romantic said, “Love is not logical.”
“And when Will’s forty—”
“Love is not about math.”
Adora Zabron had two daughters older than Will who still lived with her. In his second year of college, he moved from the apartment into their home on the ocean. He returned to Telluride for holidays, and then Drew took his first trip alone to visit in California. This visit did nothing to solve the riddle of his brother’s romance; he told Caroline, confidentially, that were he in Will’s shoes he would opt for one of the daughters, that they were both very pretty but the mother was, “Well, no offense, because you definitely don’t, Mom, but Adora even smells old. Nothing like you. She’s exactly opposite of you.” Now who was the most perplexed? Her son had apparently chosen a woman who was not Caroline in every way except the most alarming one of her age.
The Peruvian, Drew reported, was frequently overwhelmed by feelings that brought on tears. “Happy tears,” he clarified. “She hugs everyone. She cried at the airport and gave me this necklace so the plane wouldn’t crash.”
When the family took their annual trip abroad that summer, Will for the first time declined to join them. Drew missed his brother. There was nobody to share the tiny back seat of the rental car. Nobody to race around the ruins. Nobody to go adventuring at night into Rome’s or Florence’s or Siena’s streets. Drew simply had his placid parents, Caroline pondering the people, and her husband, an engineer by trade, marveling at ancient ingenuity. At the Colosseum, they had an unfortunate encounter. An American couple were bickering bitterly in the shadow of the structure. “Where the hell are we?” the man shouted at his wife, who told him she didn’t fucking know, hurling the guidebook in his direction, both of them sunburned in their too-tight red Tshirts. Caroline had begun laughing, her hand on Drew’s shoulder as they both turned away tittering. But her husband had taken pity on the couple, offering a kind smile and a patient explanation of their map. He did not like to have fun at the expense of others.
“But Dad,” Drew tried later, hoping to explain himself, “I mean, it was the Colosseum. That’s like not seeing the Grand Canyon until you fell in it, like, it’s the there there.”
But Gerald refused to be amused. And then, by year’s end, he left Caroline for another woman. How alarming this was to her. She had for years believed that it was she who had the choice, she who could claim the martyr’s virtue of staying when she wished to go. Her pride injured, Caroline indulged in her old fantasy of Gerald’s death; she would have far preferred widowhood to divorce.
He was leaving her, he explained, because love had struck him, unexpectedly, without his asking for it, like lightning.
“Oh bullshit,” Caroline said. “Even I know the function of the so-called lightning rod.”
“You won’t miss me,” Gerald said. “You’ll miss the idea of me, but not me.” Which was indeed true. Scorched by an idea, stung by a role suddenly undone, and, finally, zinged by her husband’s smarts about the whole thing.
Drew should have gone to college on one of the coasts; he should have had the same kind of adventure as his brother (minus the aged Peruvian). But he couldn’t bear to leave his mother, so he went in-state instead. That was her second boy, cursed with loyalty, and guilt, and softness. That dreamy look in his eyes. His brother, meanwhile, married Adora Zabron. His parents were not invited to the ceremony (civil; witnessed by his two new stepdaughters, those beauties) and were told, when they asked, that gifts were not necessary. Adora and he already possessed all the required gadgets and appliances and stemware. If they wished, his family could donate funds to rescue an endangered animal or build a sewage system for orphans somewhere in the Third World.
It wasn’t just his abandoned mother (his betraying father) who was responsible for Drew’s choosing to study close to home. There was also his girlfriend, Crystal Hurd. She’d been his best friend since they were children. The nearby tomboy neighbor with her bully brothers and their de-scented pet skunk. For the whole of eighth grade she and Drew had feuded and not spoken; then they had sex in the ninth grade and were once again inseparable, yet in a way quite unlike their former inseparability. No longer did Crystal walk into Caroline’s house without knocking. No more opening the cookie jar and helping herself to a treat. Instead of calling Caroline by her first name, she used no name at all to address her. In fact, when she spoke it was exclusively to Drew, as if she’d never had her bottom wiped by Caroline, or gum snipped very gently from her quite long and ratty hair. Crystal’s parents worked at the same places Drew’s did, but in utterly different capacities. Her father served on the crew reclaiming the mine ruins, wearing a hard hat, while Gerald supervised from a trailer. Her mother was a lunch lady and custodian at the high school where Caroline had taught English before being promoted to vice principal. Labor and management.
Drew came home frequently from college, and Crystal joined him in his bedroom, yet when they emerged neither looked pleased. He missed Crystal, he told Caroline, when he was in Fort Collins, but at home he didn’t wish to see her.
He wanted his old feelings, Caroline believed. They were gone and he resented Crystal’s not being able to inspire them any longer. During his second semester, he returned only once, for spring break. By the time summer came around, he had met Elizabeth. Never Beth, Liz, or any other nicknames, always the full royal title. Drew kept his mother apprised of the marvelous and mysterious Elizabeth: her father the Manhattan lawyer! Her penthouse childhood! Her current astonishing inability to operate a motor vehicle! For her part, Crystal seemed to have talked herself into thinking of this rift like the eighth-grade one: a necessary separation that would yield, eventually, another reunion, an intimacy as yet unknown.
Caroline didn’t think it likely. Drew’s Elizabeth was heading back to New York for the summer, and he planned to go with her. There would be no European vacation this year, and when Caroline lay alone in the Telluride house where they’d all lived for so long, she imagined her former family members pinned on a U.S. map, each man with another woman, one on the West Coast, one on the East, and her ex-husband relocated two hours south. How had it turned out that she was the only one sleeping by herself?
Several years later, it was from Crystal Hurd that Caroline learned of her younger son’s intention to marry. She learned it at three in the morning, when Crystal slammed her palm on the fragile glass of Caroline’s front door, simultaneously kicking with her steel toed boot at the wooden base. The dogs were in such a barking frenzy that Caroline could not at first make out what Crystal was yelling. “Why doesn’t he want me?” she was demanding drunkenly on Caroline’s porch. “What did I do?” Her hair was wet with snow, her eye makeup smeared, her clothes muddy or bloody from a spill in the street on her way home after the bars had closed. “I can’t be alone!” Crystal said, falling into Caroline’s living room and landing on a footstool. Then she abruptly stood up and headed for the kitchen, where she lowered her pants and sat on a kitchen chair to pee.
“Oh for God’s sake,” Caroline said, lifting Crystal and leading her shuffling into the bathroom.
“Why?” Crystal kept inquiring, through the removal of her wretched clothing; during the hot shower; while being outfitted in Caroline’s spare pajamas, which were startlingly too large; and over the scrambled eggs and toast she ate by using her fingers to load the fork. The girl, although twenty-six years old, had never really grown up. Her logic, to which Caroline was treated between bites, was a child’s.
Crystal had been waiting, it seemed, hoping in the way of the faithful, in the way of a family pet, for Drew to graduate from college, then finish graduate school, then finally come back to his senses, come back home, come back to her. All that time he’d been with Elizabeth. Elizabeth. Who’d been denied the Ivy League and sent far away to a state school as punishment for teenage rebellion. Who was disdainful of the West and frightened of nature. Who was allergic. Who, when she visited Telluride, had to stay in a condominium instead of at Drew’s house with Drew’s mother and Drew’s old dogs. Elizabeth, who had the power to keep Drew at that condominium with her; he returned home without Crystal Hurd’s knowing he was there, approaching from a side street so as to avoid her front windows.
“He was gonna date in college and I was dating here, but we were gonna be together when we had some more experience,” Crystal wailed. “He can’t get motherfucking married!”
There wasn’t any answer for this; Caroline’s three men all either had gotten, or apparently were going to get, motherfucking married. She sympathized with Crystal. When Crystal was in high school, when it had become clear that her family had no intention of even considering the possibility of college, Caroline had approached the girl with an offer of help. Help in finding scholarships, help in persuading her parents, help in the form of a modest stipend. “I can help,” Caroline had said, the word there between them sounding suddenly utterly impotent. Crystal’s face had clouded, a belligerent pride, the same expression her father had worn when he was laid off at the mine reclamation site, or her mother had worn as she mopped the halls at the end of the school day. The face of her brothers when they were cited for poaching or trespassing or parking a trailer home on their property. The delicate truce that existed in Telluride between its local classes was easily breached. “You know, Ms. Wright, college isn’t the only thing to do,” Crystal had icily informed Caroline.
Now she was afraid to leave Crystal alone, so she sat on the chair beside the couch to oversee the remainder of the dark hours. Clean-faced, sated, exhausted, and spent, the girl slept with her hands palm to palm beneath her cheek, as peaceful as an angel. When Drew and Crystal began sleeping together, Caroline had provided condoms and promised not to tell Crystal’s parents. Her husband hadn’t liked that about Caroline, her willingness to conspire against others to serve what she believed was the greater good. He said it was disrespectful. “You patronize,” he said. “You think you know best.”
Which was true: she thought she knew best.
The next morning, there was nothing of the angel left in Crystal. She woke up furious with her hostess. “You wouldn’t want him with me anyway!” she said. “You’re the one who made him go to college! You’re the one who always thought I wasn’t good enough!” She tore every single one of the buttons off the borrowed pajamas as she ripped them from her body. Caroline would find the buttons for weeks afterward, while cleaning. The slamming door shook the house.
“Well that didn’t seem very fair, did it?” Caroline said to the dogs.
A few nights later Crystal was back; once again it was three in the morning. Once again she’d been at the bars. But this time when she banged on the glass and kicked at the frail wood below, she was yelling about all the pills she’d swallowed. She was having second thoughts, she shouted to Caroline, to the street at large.
Caroline pulled her, wet and muddy and freezing cold, into the house. “I don’t want to die!” she screamed in Caroline’s face. “He might divorce her later! His mom and dad got divorced—you guys, I mean! I don’t want to die!” They rode together in the ambulance. Caroline sat beside her at the clinic after her stomach had been pumped. And once again Crystal was not happy to see her when she woke up.
“Should I come home?” Drew asked, sighing into the phone. He wanted to “be told no; Caroline was tempted to say yes.
“Don’t come,” she told him. “You can’t do her any good. She has to get used to not having you.”
The problem was, Crystal didn’t have anybody. Her father had died (lung cancer), and her mother, although relocated nearby in Montrose, failed to comprehend a problem as puny as this—depression? “She needs to snap out of it,” she told Caroline on the phone. “She has a house, free and clear. What more does she want?” If Caroline hadn’t immediately said goodbye, Crystal’s mother would have repeated the information that everybody knew: the land under that house was worth two million dollars. Two. Million. Dollars. What more does she want?
That was the problem: wanting more.
Crystal’s brothers were also gone (prison, the Army, Hawaii). The neighbors were newcomers; their houses had been built in the former yards of the old places, giant homes that, despite filling the lots and resting nearer to one another, also managed to declare an aggressive architectural insistence on privacy. Young families with beautifully sporty mothers, second or third homes for skiers from California or Texas, one mansion halted midway, bankrupt and now occupied by a handful of hippies squatting behind the plywood and Tyvek.
Caroline and Crystal were now equally alone in their homes half a block apart, newly aware of each other, both lonely for Drew, although they rarely mentioned his name. When Caroline walked to school in the morning, she’d check for signs that Crystal had come home the night before—boots left outside the door, overhead porch light extinguished. Some evenings she went to the Mexican restaurant where Crystal waited tables and she sat in her section, drinking margaritas and talking. They had more to say to each other in public than they did in private. Or maybe it was the margaritas. Maybe one of them needed to be drunk before they could really converse.
Sometimes Caroline would see the girl bring home somebody from her nights out. Telluride was still and forever that same vacation destination; there was always a party to attend, people to meet and drink with, and Crystal was pretty, confident in the way of the insider, needy in the way of the lovelorn, and always familiar with someone on either side of the bar, tending and drinking. She could tell stories about the town’s history. She knew who sold coke or pot, and which cop was the most lax if you happened to get caught. She had a within-walking-distance house where a drunk boy could crash, and she was desperate to fall in love. But she didn’t, or couldn’t. Drew might have forever stunted her in that capacity.
As perhaps Caroline had been stunted, not so much by her marriage to Gerald as by his wishing to exit it, to undo it. He’d never surprised her before. If anything, it was her ability to so easily predict him that had made her feel close to him: she knew what he was thinking, what he wanted, what he would say. Some mornings, they woke having had the same dream—except that in Gerald’s dream his companion was Caroline, and in Caroline’s there was no companion.
There was no man. In middle age, she had no patience for new intimacies. The groundwork was exhausting: all the accumulated details of some other person’s life, the numbers of siblings, the catalogue of troubles, the high potential for some ludicrous deal-breaking belief in magic or miracles or money.
Caroline’s sons would never mention her love life, or its lack; the idea would disgust Will and embarrass Drew. One morning, passing by Crystal’s house, Caroline ran into a man who’d spent the night, a stranger. Behind him, in the doorway, stood Crystal. The women appraised each other, Crystal still languid and unguarded, wrapped in a quilt, and Caroline bundled for the weather, waterproof, armed with trekking poles. Crystal’s expression said, You envy me, while Caroline worked to communicate, I disapprove! Behind the girl, a dark room with a rumpled bed, the odor of sex likely still pungent.
“I have to go to New York,” Caroline told Crystal in May. “For the wedding.” Ostensibly she was asking the girl to take care of the two dogs for her, as she had a couple of times in the past. She fully expected to be punched.
Instead, Crystal’s eyes filled and she dissolved into Caroline’s embrace. Her warm and pliant body shook and she sobbed for a good long while. Holding her, Caroline was struck by how long it had been since she’d been so passionately and physically near another person, how sticky and paralyzing a hug seemed.
Gerald came alone to the wedding, probably a concession for her sake. He’d grown stringy with age, and his smile seemed tentative; he’d become more vulnerable without somebody fearsome there to keep him defended. “I’m worried about Will,” he confided to Caroline at the reception, after a few glasses of champagne. Alcohol had always gone straight to his head and made him sappy. “He’s depressed.”
“He’s chafing,” Caroline said. “He got married too young, to somebody too old. What was she, the first woman he ever slept with?” Adora clapped merrily at the head of a line she’d orchestrated on the dance floor, people running in a circle, partnering, creating a bower with their hands for the others to duck under, then reclaiming the circle, cheering maniacally. The antics beneath the bower got more outlandish with each pass through, a man now wielding his wife by the ankles like a wheelbarrow. Meanwhile, the bride, Elizabeth, looked on with a tight smile; sweaty people on their hands and knees wasn’t what she’d had in mind.
“Some people don’t have to have a raft of previous lovers,” Gerald said primly.
“You should tell Will to have an affair,” Caroline replied, leaning into her ex-husband’s neck to make sure he could hear. “He hooked up too early; he hasn’t had enough experience. Tell him to have a secret affair, and to let it inform the rest of his marriage.”
Gerald pulled back as if singed. “I will not tell him that.”
“Just because it’s unconventional doesn’t mean it isn’t good advice.”
Gerald squinted and shook his head. But later it became clear her son had gotten the word anyway: Will made a point of keeping his distance from her the remainder of the weekend, not that he’d been especially enthusiastic to see Caroline before that. He was careful to prevent his wife and his mother from ever being in conversation together, as if he’d told Adora something scandalous or tragic that she would inquire into, given the chance. But what would it be, Caroline wondered?
She had been assigned no duty in this marriage ceremony, no part to play larger than placeholder. “Just show up,” Drew had said. Elizabeth’s mother and sisters had done the rest. Will had been best man; Gerald had written a toast and proposed it tearfully. Before Adora hijacked the dance floor, Drew had taken his mother for a sort of waltz, holding her by the shoulders as if she were a large box.
“Mom,” he’d said, “I know you wouldn’t do anything like this, but please don’t ever ask Elizabeth about grandchildren, okay?”
“I would never do that.”
“I know, like I said, but she can’t have any, so it’s no good to bring it up.”
He needn’t have worried; Elizabeth brought it up herself, the day Caroline was scheduled to leave, during the delay at Newark. Drew had driven Will and Adora and Gerald to JFK. Elizabeth was stuck with Caroline. Whatever etiquette book she’d been brought up with dictated that she not leave her mother-in-law at the curb. “Just so there’s absolute clarity,” she began, outside security, “I want you to know that I’m sterile.” So cold, Caroline thought, a trait she herself had occasionally been accused of. As if Elizabeth assumed her mother-in-law could only be interested in her as a vehicle for grandchildren. Was she supposed to now offer sympathy? Suggest adoption? Pray for hypoallergenic pets? She could not tell; nothing in the girl’s face gave her a clue.
Such a strange way to think of oneself, Caroline thought later, forehead pressed to the chilly oval window, eyes following the country passing below her. Sterile. It suited Elizabeth, that fickle aristocrat, she who’d placed a bottle of hand sanitizer beside the guest registry, who’d sulked when the wedding party grew raucous, who’d disallowed children at the ceremony, who’d declined to invite Drew’s friends’ band to play in favor of a costly string quartet. Sterile, indeed; Caroline could almost prefer her other daughter-in-law, the plump postmenopausal weeping one she’d suggested her other son cheat on.
A FOR SALE sign had appeared in the Hurd front yard in Caroline’s brief absence, and Crystal had her stubborn face back in place. “I’m not gonna turn thirty like this,” she said to Caroline as if Caroline were arguing with her about it. “I gotta go do something.” She returned the dogs’ leashes and mentioned that the terrier had escaped and been AWOL for a day and a half. “You’re lucky the sheriff likes you,” she said to Caroline.
“You’re lucky the sheriff likes me,” Caroline told the dog who’d strayed. Hugo.
There’d always been a couple of dogs in the house. The family had two types, the white terrier and the beagle. This had been the pattern from the beginning, a tradition Caroline had adopted from her parents. In fact, the family’s first terrier had been inherited from her parents when her father died and her mother was moved to a nursing home. They were Caroline’s hiking companions, two dogs who inspired other hikers to remark on their fortitude, the short legs of the terrier, the plaintive, straining expression of the bug-eyed beagle.
In July Caroline’s mother died in Denver. It was a mercy, her mind having slid far away from her long ago. Caroline’s monthly visits to the old woman had passed without recognition or notice. “Why do I come here?” Caroline once asked aloud. “What is it I hope will happen?”
“Granna?” Drew would shout over the telephone, and the woman would turn a terrified face to Caroline: why was this man yelling at her?
Soon after the death, Caroline retired from the high school. There’d been a change of regime and she had not been promoted to principal. That seemed signal enough to step aside. Her farewell party was attended by a touchingly large crowd—graduates came from as far away as Grand Junction. Caroline found herself grateful for the ritual, willing to embrace her longtime enemies and antagonists along with the more benign of her colleagues. Defused, she could be approached with generosity, or indifference. Leaving the building she swore never to step through its doors again.
And for a few months, Carolineand the two dogs went through theirdays easily enough. She felt a kind of lightness that came from having no obligation, no to-do list, no reason to change out of her pajamas. In September she traveled to Turkey and Greece with her friend the town librarian. They drank too much and made fun of the other tourists on the trip—elderly and frightened, overloud and incurious. Caroline revived the notorious Colosseum couple, and thereafter either she or the librarian would shout out, at each iconic landmark,“Where are we?” and the other would screech back, “I don’t fucking know!”
When she got home, she discovered she could no longer summon up the password to her computer, as if a journey to the ancient world had effectively caused it to supplant the present one. She tried everything she could imagine—ihategerald!,Hugo8it, whatfreshhell?—but none worked. This forgetfulness, the swirling miasmic patch in her brain, frightened her. She could not move around it, nor could she ignore it. In the night, she woke with the sensation of having been sucked inside it, a personal black hole. She could have access to the computer restored, but to herself?
“If I ever get like Granna,” she’d told her sons after a disastrous visit to the home, “somebody shoot me.” Their grandmother had accused the boys of robbing and raping her. She’d butted at them with her skull, then raised her walker, like a lion tamer. The home had learned never to send male personnel to tend to her.
“Everybody says that,” Will had informed her sniffily. “Everybody says, ‘If I get like that, just shoot me,’ like it would be easy for us to shoot you.”
“Like we would have a gun,” Drew had added.
“Why don’t you shoot Granna?” Will had asked. “Don’t you think she’d have said that, back when?”
“I’d probably use a pillow,” Caroline had told her sons calmly.
“You’re so cold,” Will had said, shaking his head. And Drew had begun to cry.
He’s the only guy I ever slept with when I wasn’t drunk,” Crystal told Caroline over margaritas. “I don’t even feel like kissing anybody till I’ve had a few drinks. Except Drew. I always feel like kissing Drew.” Present tense.“
“You need to move on,” Caroline said. She wouldn’t have offered such pedestrian advice sober.
“Easy for you to say,” said Crystal. She was supposed to be waiting tables; her boss, Howie, kept shouting out at her to look lively. It was off-season again—only locals. “I’m thinking of having a baby.”
“Yes, that’s actually possible, you know. Spendy, but possible.”
“Sperm donor. I’ve been online. You should see the sites—fucking hell, it’s something. Very different from dating sites, I might add. Night and day.”
“I wish you could get Drew to make you pregnant,” said Caroline, because she was tipsy, and because it was true. She wanted another chance at loving somebody. She wanted to be someone’s beloved.
“Really?” Crystal reached across the table and took Caroline’s hand, because she was tipsy, too, and as with her relations with men other than Drew, this was when she could be tender with this woman, this difficult woman who’d known her for so long and in so many ways: neighbor, teacher, nagger, savior.
“Make him come home,” Crystal pleaded. “Let’s make him come back here and knock me up!”
“It’s so highly unethical,” Caroline said, beginning to laugh, liking the idea precisely because her ex-husband would be appalled. Utterly appalled. From the back came Howie’s imploring, bored voice reminding Crystal that, hello, she was at work, earning a paycheck, fucking up her tips. “I have to admit that I really like the idea.”
“Make him come home,” Crystal pleaded, this time with her wild eyes, with her scrawny, starved body. She had not been well since the wedding. She had what anyone in Telluride had as the weather closed in, as the social season faded, as the mountains’ majesty occasionally appeared more menacing than beautiful. Off-season all around.
Sober, the women never mentioned their notion again.
Not long after, on a frozen January morning, a highway patrolman’s car showed up in Crystal’s gravel drive. Had the girl done what she’d always threatened to do? And how had Carolin enot been roused, through her thin walls, her light sleep, her long-standing nearness to Crystal’s life? She didn’t bother to dress, found herself down the block and at the Hurd front door minus even socks or slippers, banging with her fist to accompany the banging of her heart.
Crystal answered, in her hastily drawn bathrobe, and Caroline saw her mistake. The highway patrolman was simply another of that line ofmen brought home on a drunken Friday night. “Are you okay?” Crystal asked, scowling, yawning widely. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Caroline said, turning angrily and taking herself home, one of her feet bleeding from a piece of broken glass in the street.
Thereafter, whenever Caroline saw the new man, a thick-necked figure bursting from his uniform, he never failed to touch his hat—a gesture of respect, it was supposed to be, but Caroline was skeptical. She thought perhaps she was a fond mean joke between Crystal and the cop, the crazy neighbor who ran around in her pajamas. He wasn’t from Telluride; he commuted from Montrose; he’d never been her student or a friend of her sons’. Soon, she imagined, Crystal would be pregnant. The child would sleep in the room Crystal had grown up occupying. From some sentimental urge would come the idea of another pet skunk, that odd scurrying figure from the past. Caroline could not forget Crystal’s confession that she’d never had a sober first kiss with anybody except Drew. “Not sex either, except Drew. That’s why I can’t get anywhere,” she’d said angrily, “that’s how fucked-up I am. If you want to know.” She and the highway patrolman got drunk together now. On occasion, Caroline could hear them. Their music. Sometimes something that rattled the house, its walls as thin as her own, evidence of its mining-times origins. He roared up at odd hours; he slammed his official car door and puffed out his chest. He was coarse, crude, loud, proud—as different from Drew as a man could be.
How had Crystal fallen for him? When Drew called her on her birthday, Caroline mentioned Crystal’s new beau. “That’s good,” he said. “She really, really needed somebody. I wondered why the drunk dialing went away.”
“He’s awful! He seems smug,” Carolinet old him. “And maybe not that bright?”
“Mom, you know sometimes you’re a little hard on people.”
“He’s no you,” she said. “That’s all. I’d rather be alone than be with someone so inferior.”
“Well, Dad always says you’re the only person he knows who doesn’t actually need other people.” Drew was laughing, as if this were good news. Was it good news? It was news, anyway, news to Caroline.
“I wish I could clone you,” she said, a compliment she’d paid him since he was young.
At the Mexican restaurant on a night during peak ski season—spring break, fresh powder, at capacity—Caroline found herself at the bar with the highway patrolman, eating chips and sharing a pitcher of margaritas. On the house, at Crystal’s insistence. Crystal had put on some weight in recent months, was vaguely radiant, bustling among the tourists, being sexy, stopping to check in on her new boyfriend and old neighbor now and then. “Hey, I have a question for you,” Caroline said to the cop over the happy public ruckus. She was brave and buffered by the alcohol and high spirits.
“Shoot,” he yelled back.
“What’s your opinion on the subject of the perfect crime? I mean, how would somebody get away with murder? In your opinion?”
He looked at her glassy-eyed, the man who’d taken her son’s place in Crystal’s life. How she longed for Drew, looking into those impassive eyes, and how she missed Crystal’s longing for him. This man was no replacement, not even close.
“I tell you what,” he said, leaning in, speaking into her ear so as to be heard, “I know for a fact you don’t like me and think I’m a dumbass. I could care less, I don’t give a shit. But what you’re asking? Well, here’s what I think: I think the way to get away with murder is to make them do it to themselves.” He leaned back and nodded at her. “If you see what I mean.”
“I do,” Caroline said. “I get it. Tell me your first name.”
“I’m Johnny,” he said, and held out his large, rough hand to shake hers.