issue eighteen

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(4000 words)
WJ Rosser
The Robber
[Updated monthly on the full moon]

It was a painful stretch of road, and each time we drove it she would grip the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned white; and even when I slowed down, she would hold her breath, trying not to see the curves or the rocks or the sheer drop-offs. For three quarters of an hour, we would wonder aloud why we drove it when there were campgrounds and cabins closer than this one and Terry and Traci had moved away, and he didn't even use it anymore  -  and why did we still go there every year? - and we vowed again her stomach wouldn't have to endure another trip. But a left turn up and into the forest put the pavement behind us and the dirt roads, never maintained except for grading once or twice a season, turned the trip into a bouncing crawl and color always returned slowly to her face, icy nervousness gradually giving way to relaxed warmth and then excitement. Here was the tree a ranger had pushed to the brush while we waited patiently behind an old tan station wagon almost overspilling with children; and the youngest boy made faces at us, and I made faces back, and she laughed and couldn't stop until finally, tears running down her cheeks, she begged for no more faces through halting, giggling breaths. There was where that deer stood right at the side of the road, and it stayed there even when we stopped the car right next to it so that its breathing fogged the windows, and she clapped her hands like a little girl, which finally startled it, but its breath remained on the window long enough to keep the moment magical as we closed the gap to the cabin. And then, by the time we got there, she'd be ready to jump out and twirl, sighing, her head leaning back and her arms extended as she breathed air free of the cars and the factories and the desks and the telephones; and as often as not, she'd stop and look at me, her eyes suddenly predators, her lips curling up in a half smile. I'd stand there, arms full of clean linens and bread and canned soup, and I'd ask her why she did that when my arms were full; and she'd call me her big strong man in her sing song voice, and I'd nearly drop everything trying to get us to the door and inside. Then, she was pulling off my clothes and throwing them on the floor next to the spilled groceries, and I'd fumble with the door again to close it, and she'd laugh at me through her kisses and ask me if the squirrels or the sparrows were embarrassing me.

Later, in the shower, she would lather herself off of me, her eyes tracing the path of the washcloths (she always packed washcloths, bright ones with patterns of roosters or frogs or ducks or polka dots), her mouth pursed in concentration; and I would watch the water turn her blond hair brown and think of how it made her look so young again, like she did back on the Green. It was there (in front of a negligible mass of twisted metal someone in the department had dared to label "art"), standing in the shadow of Anderson Hall, that I first kissed her, and it was there, sixty-two units later that she told me she would make of me a man and my childish days were behind me and I would be her husband; and as she turned the tassel away from my face I kissed her and whispered that she would never tame me. And even though I  meant it as a joke, she stared up at me and told me sincerely that she'd do her best anyway and she was pretty sure she could do it, and her face had that same pursed lip look only without the water or the washcloth or the afterglow.

The temperature never really got cold enough for it, but after a first dinner of thick beef stew flavored with wine and filled with thumb-sized cuts of celery, onion, potato, and carrot and after we stood together at the sink, her washing forks and spoons and plates, and me pretending to help but really sneaking touches and pats and squeezes, she would finally command me to build a fire while she finished up. I'd get one more good pinch in then, and as she squealed, I'd duck away, usually fast enough to avoid the wooden spoon swung or hurled in joyful exasperation; and she would threaten, "I'll tame you yet, Buddy Boy!" and I'd yell back over my shoulder as I stepped into the mountain night that she never could. Outside, I'd linger at the woodpile savoring a cigarette and enjoying the stars, visible only now in the darkness the city withheld from the sky, until the soft humming in the kitchen stopped; and then I'd crush out the smoke and gather together split logs in a plastic dairy crate and haul it inside to the hearth, where I stacked the pine with crumpled newspapers and watched the fire lick its way over the wood. She always found me there, watching the just-started fire, and she would smile and hand over the blue enamel kettle, from which would later come mugs of hot chocolate, steaming and thick because she made it with milk and not water; and I'd hang it from its hook over the flames and turn to hold her, my cheek against her stomach and my hands clasped at the small of her back; and she'd stroke my hair softly and I'd breathe her as the fire warmed us so much that sometimes we'd open the window to let in the night air.

When the kettle insisted on attention, I'd take it from its hook and place it on the coffee table Terry had worked himself from an old stump, saw and plane and sander wrestling from the gnarls and knots a thing of beauty so that I told my brother on more than one occasion that it belonged in a gallery or a museum and not on an old pine-plank floor next to a bearskin rug, and he'd smile and change the subject. Of course, that was before he came home to find Traci beneath the new associate professor of literature, her hands gripping his shoulders, her eyes half shut until she noticed Terry; and then they opened wide in fright and shame, and she tried to push this man - this man who could so easily explain to her the significance of the world ending in a whimper - tried to push him off; but he didn't understand, and already almost done, he cried out and finished and collapsed on top of her, nuzzling her neck. Traci lay there, helpless beneath him, her eyes locked on Terry as his face, so devoid of feeling that fury would have been mercy, turned away, and he walked out of the bedroom and out of the house; and she finally kicked her Byron off of the bed and ran after him, but he had already started the car and she stood naked in the garage while the high school boys playing basketball in the driveway across the street stared in shock and Terry drove away without once acknowledging her.

When he called me from the Denny's parking lot at the foot of the mountain, he was already well into his first fifth; and as I sat in my office smoking and listening, I couldn't wait to hang up because even though I loved Terry I wanted to run to my wife; and I did, and I wept on her breasts, and she knew why because Traci had called her moments before, and she soothed me as I sobbed until she whispered that we had to go, we couldn't let him drive; and not once did she let on that she knew I wasn't weeping for Terry but for the terror that had suddenly seized me that she might some day come across a paramour of her own, one better credentialed in art or music or poetry to gain and keep a woman's love. I was still in the midst of those phantom nightmare visions as I pulled Terry's car up to the cabin and he stumbled to the door and fumbled with the lock until I balanced the rest of the case of scotch on one shoulder and opened the door myself to let him crawl in to collapse on the loveseat where we sat for the weekend eating hastily cooked remnants and memories of past trips, plates resting on that table next to highball glasses that weren't empty until the scotch and a half bottle of gin we found in the cupboard was all gone, the bottles lined up side by side reading, "Single Malt! Single Malt! Single Malt! Single Malt! Single Malt!" On Sunday morning, I cleaned up the table and dropped the bottles into the trash can one by one, making sure they shattered - a peculiar habit acquired capriciously some time before as a petty rebellion against haughty recycling advocates - and somehow I managed to get Terry to shower and I managed to shower; and then she was there in our car. She hugged him and cried and patted and clucked, and the two of us got into our car and drove home, and Terry got in his car and drove away. But I didn't discover until months later that one of those bottles left a ring on the finish of the table that seemed to cry out, "Single Malt!" until the blue kettle obscured it from view, and she always covered it with a coaster and a mug, realizing that for a man - or if not for any man, then for me - concealed from view was nonexistent and she gave me this kindness with a practiced, unspoken indulgence as we sipped our chocolate every first night by the fire.

When they split, Traci kept the house and Terry kept the cabin, and he sent me a grant deed, but I wouldn't take it because Dad meant it for him, and I shredded the document in the little wastebasket-sized shredder next to my desk that made streamers of so many consulting agreements and trade secrets and dreams, but I paid the caretaker and paid the taxes; and she and I would drive there to see the wagon and the deer, to make love in the foyer, and to sip the chocolate until the ghosts of memories that haunted its log walls weren't Terry's or Traci's but ours. And after our chocolate, as we sat in the porch swing and watched the stars and listened to the mountain, it wasn't to talk about Traci, who had disappeared the way all divorced in laws do; or to talk of Terry, unless in passing in any of the quotidian conversations a man and his wife might have. I would smoke and drink and name for her the birds making calls or the sounds of the cicadas; and she would call me her Grizzly Adams, her Jeremiah Johnson, her wild mountain man; and Terry and Traci released their hold and I lost my fear of an interloper, but she never left the ring on the coffee table uncovered.

When the air grew cold or the cups were empty we would rise and pause at the door and almost theatrically take a final breath, deep and filled with the heaviness of the trees and the brush and the stars before we walked inside and into the bedroom. There, under quilts sewn by relatives I'd met only in old sepia images pressed between the pages of the Bible that listed the generations of my father; we would make love, not playfully as in the doorway, but still urgently, feeling the significance of the room and the patchwork that covered us, and when we finished, we would breathe in sync, heavily at first but slowly returning to normal, and I would listen to her breath and drift off, but usually I'd hear her say softly, "My man," before I slept.

I would wake in the morning to the smell of coffee and walk out and take my mug and she would pretend not to notice as I fortified it with brandy and she would kiss me good morning and ask me what I wanted to eat as though we hadn't had eggs and bacon and toast and fruit for every breakfast in the cabin for eleven years. Some two-hundred fifty odd times she'd put it before me, and I always wanted to ask for something we hadn't packed, just to tease; but I'd see the sincerity in her face and instead of pumpkin muffins or walnut pancakes, I'd tell her whatever would be fine, and it was. That morning when we found the robber, I finished the apple slices and the bacon and sopped up the yolk from three over-medium with the toast, thick with butter and charred on the edges; and she refilled my cup and poured hers, and we left the plates and bowls for later because the dew and the breeze and the leaves called us each morning to finish our coffee in the shade of branches rather than shingles.

Outside, by the rotting tire swing my brother and I had used years before cars and mortgages and newspapers and calorie counts had left us bereft of our childhoods, she and I stood, mugs warm in our hands, chuckling at jokes all wives and husbands share and believe to be unique to them; and I watched her face as the humor drained away into perplexity and concern and she pointed. My eyes followed her finger to the side of the cabin, where the steel can had fallen, its lid beside it with refuse spilled out like a scene from a horn of plenty after the feast; only she wasn't looking at the bottles, the papers, the cans, but at the matted fur that protruded from beneath the rim of the can. I drew closer and watched her eyes, those eyes that even now grew sad and wet and I wiped a tear from her a cheek and tried to offer some measure of comfort, but her face changed, her eyes grew wide, and she breathed the word "look."  There, beneath the can and the bushy tops of yesterday's carrots, the raccoon's leg moved, scratching at the ground in a feeble sort of way, and I reached for the axe on the woodpile. She stopped me and pursed her lips and told me that she would help it; and no amount of it's in pain or it probably has rabies or we're leaving in a week would stop her as she moved the can and lifted it up in her arms, and right away he proved me wrong in that he didn't bite her but lay his head in the crook of her arm.

She brought him into the cabin and pulled unrecycled broken glass bottles from his legs and his back and washed him in the sink and put him wrapped in a towel into the crate we used for firewood; and he stayed in the crate for days as she fed him scraps and fruit and milk, and she put the crate in the back seat when we drove away; and she made me stop at a warehouse store on the way to the house for a dog crate to use as his home for the few weeks (or at most, a month) he would need for his recuperation. And she bribed me with a weekend at the cabin when he was well, when we would release our little thief and she would spend two days being her wild man's damsel in distress with new purchases from Victoria's Secret; and I couldn't have resisted her even without the promises and she knew it, which made them so kind.

When we were home, she continued her ministrations and took him to the vet, who added stitches and antibiotics, and in three weeks we started to plan our return and his; and I had to admit to her that she was right, and she cupped my chin and shook her head like I was a child and told me of course she was right and the sooner I realized that she always was, the sooner I'd be housebroken and she could really work on taming me. I tickled her then. I lifted her up in the air and moved my thumbs beneath her arms as she squealed and laughed and beat at my shoulders until I let her down, and then she smiled at me and went back to the robber, who came to her now whenever she approached.

On that day, two before we were to return, she was in front of his crate when her legs gave beneath her, and she lay on the floor for hours while I talked on the plane of opening bids and price-to-earnings ratios and convertible debentures. She lay on the floor while I drove to the club and had a seventeen-dollar hamburger with crispy fried onions and blue cheese and then played eighteen holes with a hedge fund manager from Atlanta. She lay on the floor as I coordinated the efforts of lawyers, accountants, and managers to finalize a quarterly report in time for electronic filing ahead of schedule so the particularly self-serving CEO could take three weeks off for a trip to Europe. She lay on the floor as I drove home, and because I couldn't get an answer on the phone, she lay there as I stopped at Guangzhou Palace for barbecued pork, fried rice, and fortune cookies we would never read.

Her eyes were closed when I got there, and they stayed closed when I dialed 911 and when the paramedics tried to revive her and when I sat in the ambulance and when the doctors tried to explain hidden aneurysms and when the minister came and when I picked up Terry at the airport and when I dropped him off again a week later. They stayed closed when the church ladies delivered casseroles and condolences, and they stayed closed through days of single malt scotch and soda, and they were closed the day I fed the robber and remembered where he belonged.

And they were still closed when at the end of that painful stretch of road and dirt and trees and brush I opened the door for him so he could leave and go back to forest and never be confined, to have to be fed scraps by hand or to be held while a man sewed wounds together, but no matter what I did, no matter how I yelled, "You're free, damn you! You're free!" there on the porch in the chill of the mountain morning, he huddled in the back by the blankets and the towel that still smelled of her, and he wouldn't leave the crate.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, WJ Rosser. All rights reserved.