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Randall Silvis | Young Love - Page 2

Young Love
By Randall Silvis
Date of publication: 
February 28, 2012

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1

A few days later the telephone calls began. The sky above the hills was lavender, the sun a last streak of crimson smeared across the horizon. Just as we were coming up the front porch steps, returning from a long walk down the macadam road, the telephone rang. In those days I was always waiting for an editor or publisher to call, always waiting for success to surprise me. But when I hurried inside and grabbed up the receiver and said hello, all I heard was the click of the line going dead.

Out on the porch Annie was pulling cockleburs from the long hair on Berrigan's chest. "Who was it?" she asked.

"I was too late."

That same evening there was a second call. I had fallen asleep on the floor, reading, and awoke to see Annie standing with the receiver to her ear. "Hello?" she said. "Hello — who is this?"

She held the receiver for a quarter of a minute, listening.

"Hang up," I told her.

She put her hand over the mouthpiece. "I can hear him breathing."

"Hang up," I said.

She did. I sat up and rubbed my neck. "What time is it?"

"A few minutes before midnight."

"Jesus.” Anger flooded into me like something fluid, as hot as blood.

"It was probably just a wrong number," she said.

"Right. Two the same night. Probably two different people as well. Just a happy coincidence."

"Why are you being so snotty to me?"

"Snotty," I repeated. "Is that one of your professional terms?"

"I guess you enjoy sleeping on the floor," she said, and went into the bedroom.

I looked across the room at Berrigan, who was lying against the wall, watching me, waiting for a signal. "So are you going out or not?" I asked, and he leapt to his feet and raced into the kitchen, then skidded across the floor and stood there at the back door, his tail snapping back and forth.

I stood on the back porch then and watched his dark shape wheeling in wide circles through the yard. He paused here and there to sniff the ground, trying to find just the right spot.

I looked at the few dim stars, the moon opaque and milky with faint gray clouds scraping across its face, the air cool and clean and smelling of wet leaves, the hills behind the house black and deep against the sky.

Afterward Berrigan came and lay at my feet as I sat on the porch steps and listened for the whippoorwill. We stayed there until the anger drained from me, leaving only the chill of night air. Finally then we went back inside and into the bedroom where Annie lay awake, smiling and warm and nicely scented in the darkness.

~

Throughout that week the telephone calls continued, always in the evening. If I answered, the caller immediately hung up, but if Annie picked up the phone he stayed on the line and said nothing. After two nights of this Annie stopped answering the phone. By Friday night there were no more calls.

Saturday morning as we cleaned up the breakfast dishes I tried to make a joke of it, as if the heavy gray air of the week had subsided. "So how did you get your boyfriend to stop calling?"

"I thought I asked you not to call him that. Besides, I don't think it was him. He's not the type."

"He'll tell a married woman he loves her but he won't call her on the phone?"

"Not just to hear her breathe, no."

"Love makes fools of us all," I teased.

She tried not to smile. Then she flung the dishtowel in my face and jabbed me in the ribs and started running. I caught her by the arm in the living room. Berrigan yelped and leapt and jumped on top of us as I pulled her to the floor and pinned her arms down. Then I blew raspberries in the soft warm hollow of her neck while Berrigan lapped at her face and she screamed threats about castration and other things she would do to me while I slept.

Afterward we lay together on the floor and I stroked her hair and she said, "It wasn't him, you know. I honestly don't believe it was him."

"Let's not think about that anymore. Just think about your son and me."

"Your son has a cold nose," she said, because he was shoving his snout where it didn’t belong. "And he's very rude sometimes. Don't you teach him any manners?"

"Where do you think he learned how to do that?" I said.

~

Later that night when we returned from a movie in town I unchained Berrigan and saw that his post was bent at a sharp angle toward the house. The grass at the end of the chain was torn up from his clawing and digging. He wheezed when he breathed, having nearly choked himself in an effort to get free. And when I released him he did not leap at me as he usually did, he raced to the house, sniffed at the steps and the front door and around the side of the house, yelping and running wildly. He finally stopped beside a small basement window. He assumed a threatening stance and snarled at the window, the hair bristling on the nape of his neck.

With a flashlight from the car I examined the window but could find nothing unusual. There were no smudges on the glass and the window was still locked. The lawn had been mowed just that afternoon, so it was impossible to tell if anyone had knelt by the window or not.

"Look at him," Annie said, meaning Berrigan, his teeth bared and the fur raised stiffly behind his head.

"He almost strangled himself trying to break loose from his chain."

"Should we call the police?"

"There's nothing to report. No evidence. The police can't smell the way Berrigan can, and Berrigan can't talk."

"Oh, why can't you talk?" she said, and she knelt beside Berrigan and pulled him close. He was rigid and shivering. She stroked his belly. "Shhh, good boy. It's all right now, boy, calm down. It's all right now."

We went inside then and turned on all the lights and examined every room but there was nothing out of place, nothing missing. Afterward we did not talk about the implications or possibilities, but we stayed up later than usual watching TV until finally, conceding something unspoken, we went to bed and lay side by side on our backs, holding hands, with Berrigan asleep near the foot of the bed.

"Relax," Annie told me. "You're as stiff as a board."

I said nothing; there was nothing to say.

"It was probably an animal of some kind," she said. "A raccoon probably."

"Nobody said it wasn't."

Another five minutes passed. Then Annie squeezed my hand. "Just so you know," she said. "I'll never love anyone but you. Only you forever."

"And Berrigan too," I said.

"Of course Berrigan. He's our bodyguard."

"Not everybody has a bodyguard for a son."

"We don't know how lucky we are."

Sometime later I thought I heard the telephone ringing and I leapt out of bed and ran into the living room and yanked up the receiver. "You son of a bitch!" I screamed, hearing only the dial tone. "You cowardly little son of a bitch!"

I stood there breathless and shaky, staring at the dead receiver. Then Annie touched me on the arm and I spun toward her, furious.

"The phone didn't ring," she told me softly. She slipped both arms around my waist. "I haven't been to sleep yet. Honestly, it didn't ring. You must have dreamed it."

I looked at her and felt how tightly she was holding me and how hard my hand gripped the receiver, and only after what seemed a long time the room began to look familiar again and I laid the receiver down, off the hook.

~

On Thursday morning, Annie's birthday, while working at the kitchen table, I heard a single distant gunshot. Almost immediately I wondered whether I had actually heard or only imagined it, but then I remembered that Berrigan was outside and unchained and I ran out onto the porch and after a quick glance at the empty yard I raced up our path and into the woods.

Ever since the previous Saturday night I had been reluctant to chain Berrigan again. He had wheezed for two days afterward, and I was unwilling to let that happen again. I told myself that antlered deer season would not begin for another two weeks and I did not think Berrigan would be mistaken for a rabbit or squirrel. Anyway hunting was prohibited in these woods and there was no reason to believe that Berrigan would not be perfectly safe.

Also there had been a drizzling rain all morning, and the almost imperceptible sound of it on the porch roof had made me fidgety and irritable. It was Annie's birthday and I had been trying for hours to write a poem for her. She had come to expect three poems a year from me, one each on her birthday, our anniversary, and Valentine's Day, and because I was having a hard time that morning I blamed it on Berrigan and the rain. So I had put Berrigan out on the porch and told him sternly, "Stay!” Inside again I promised myself that as soon as the poem was written I would fry him a hamburger and two eggs and then I would brush his coat until it shone.

But I was anxious and trying too hard to be clever and nothing I wrote that morning satisfied me. Of the numerous sonnets and haiku and free verse I penned, only one line survived. Slinking after the mouse of love like a rain-drenched cat. I thought it was a good line, funny in a self-denigrating way. I wrote it in the center of a clean sheet of paper, then sat there staring at it, wondering how to build upon it, how to expand outward from the heart.

The gunshot came out of the silence like a thing remembered, an old fear conjured up by a scent or fleeting image. I seemed to be watching myself then as I ran into the woods, watching some man who was heavy and slow and who had no hope of ever making things right.

I slipped several times as I raced up the hillside, the rain coming down now in a fine gray mist that ran coldly down the back of my neck. I did not call to Berrigan because I did not want to frighten away whoever had fired the shot. There was no noise at all to follow, so I sprinted toward the top of the ridge and hoped that Berrigan would come running up to me somewhere along the way.

I found him in a shallow depression at the base of a large oak that was half dead from blight. I knelt beside him and brushed the leaves away and stroked his long elegant back and his beautiful face, and as I held his thickly padded, still warm paws I felt such a swirl of dark emotions that for a long time I could not isolate any of them into any kind of positive action. In the crown of his head there was a hole made by a small caliber bullet, and I knew that he had been shot while frozen in his stiff, intimidating but all-bluff posture, and perhaps because there was no question in my mind as to who would do such a thing I never bothered to look beyond the depression in which he lay.

He weighed nearly sixty pounds but I was not conscious of the weight as I carried him down the hillside. His fur smelled of wet leaves and the thick musty scent of damp earth. I carried him into the back yard and laid him beneath the hammock where the grass was still dry.

On the very edge of the yard, adjacent to the woods, I dug the hole. The ground was damp and sticky with clay. When the hole was finished I stuck the shovel into the mound of earth and then with a braided rug from the porch I covered Berrigan where he lay beneath the hammock. Then, with my pant legs and shoes still splattered with mud, I got into my car and drove to the clinic.

Without a word I walked in past the receptionist and yanked opened the door to Annie's office. She and one of her clients, a teenage girl, were sitting in straight-back chairs pulled close to the window, facing one another, Annie holding one of the girl's hands in both of hers. The girl turned suddenly, startled by my entrance. Her eyes were red and swollen, her face streaked with tears. None of that mattered to me.

"Where is he?" I said.

The girl looked at Annie, frightened. Annie patted her hand and spoke softly. "Would you mind getting us some coffee?" she asked the girl. "I need to speak with my husband."

The girl stood and came toward me haltingly and I stepped aside to let her pass. Then I stepped back inside my wife's office and closed the door. She sat there looking up at me, professionally calm.

"Where's your goddamn boyfriend?" I said.

"He only comes in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. What's wrong?"

"He shot Berrigan."

"No," she said, and I watched her eyes grow shimmery and damp. Then she stood and came across the room to me. "Baby, no," she said. "No."

She tried to slide her arms around my waist but I took hold of her wrists and held her away. "Tell me where he lives."

"Now wait a minute," she said, her voice too soft. "Sit down a minute and tell me what happened."

I pushed her away and crossed to her desk and started flipping through the Rolodex. "How could this happen?" she asked. "Where? Was Berrigan in the woods? I mean, did you actually see him get shot? How do you know it was Gary?"

I found his address card and ripped it from the Rolodex. When I turned away from her desk she was standing there and put both arms around my waist and held me tightly and pressed her face to my chest. She was crying now and I could feel the warm dampness of her tears through my rain-damp shirt.

"You can't protect him.” My voice sounded flat, my body felt numb.

"It's you I want to protect," she said. "Baby, please don't do this. Please. You'll only get yourself in trouble."

"I'm just going to talk to him," I said.

"Let me call and ask him to come here. He lives just a few minutes away. If he won't come then we'll know he's hiding something, and then we can call the police and let them handle it. Sweetheart, please, please do this for me. Please let me call him."

I looked down at her and for a moment I hated her. The recognition made me sick to my stomach because I had never felt anything for her except love and admiration and respect. I felt suddenly weak and I wanted to cry too because I knew now that not only Berrigan was gone.

I held out the Rolodex card. “Do you need this? Or do you know his number by heart?”

She snatched the card from my hand, went to her desk and dialed his number. When he answered she assumed her disembodied professional voice and asked if he could come to the clinic for an impromptu meeting. She said something else then and smiled and hung up and frowned and looked at me and said, "He'll be here in five minutes."

I went to the window and looked out.

"Promise me you won't do anything."

I did not answer.

"Don't you think that if he did it he would know why I called and he would be too afraid to come over here?”

I said nothing.

"Was Berrigan in the woods?" she asked.

I looked out the window.

"If he was in the woods it could have been anybody. It could have been a small game hunter or somebody hunting deer out of season. You know what people are like out there."

I stared out the window but all I could see was Berrigan beneath a dirty braided rug and the rain dripping through the canvas hammock.

"The police can easily find out if he has a gun or not," Annie said.

Again I did not answer. She said nothing more. Finally there was a light knock on her door. I heard her standing up behind her desk and heard her crossing to me and felt her hand on my arm. "Please," she said very softly. "You promised."

I could not look at her. I only said, “So did you. A long, long time ago.”

A moment later she went to the door and opened it. I turned and started to move at the sound of the door opening and just as he smiled at her I lunged forward and hit him hard on the side of the face. He fell backward, already dazed, but I caught him by the arm. His free arm came up in a weak attempt to defend himself, but I was already swinging, and this time I hit him so hard that he jerked out of my hand and fell across the edge of the receptionist's desk and onto the floor.

I had known immediately, even as I took those first angry strides in his direction, that I was not being rational. But something I could not curtail was at work in me. I saw in him the destruction of everything that had held me together and made me whole. He was already unconscious as he lay there on the floor but I reached down and lifted him by the front of his jacket and drew back to hit him again, and would have done so had Annie not seized my arm and wrapped her arms around it. And soon there were other people from other offices taking hold of me too. Everybody was shouting at once and none of it made any difference to me. I looked down at his bleeding face and when I looked up again all I could see was Annie's teenage client standing pressed against the far wall, thin and small and terrified, holding two cardboard cups of coffee close to her chest.

Somehow Annie and I ended up alone in her office. I stood with my back against the door. She stood very close to me, looking up into my face, her hands against my chest. “How could you do this?” she asked in a whisper. “How could you behave this way?”

I pulled away from her, and I went to the window. “Go take care of your boy.”

A few seconds later I heard the door open and close. For most of a half-hour then I sat in the chair facing her desk, my eyes closed as I tried without success to think of nothing at all.

Finally the door opened behind me and somebody stepped inside. It wasn’t long before Annie said, "Why don't you just get out of here?"

I turned to her and smiled. "You mean he doesn't want to call the police?"

"He should. But he isn't going to."

"Isn't that considerate."

"Don't worry, he's not doing it for you."

"Ahh," I said, "young love."

"Just get out of here," she said.

~

By ten that evening the sky had cleared and the moon was full. I lay on the still-wet hammock with Berrigan's covered body beneath me, the canvas of the hammock just touching the braided rug. I could see the shovel sticking up in the pile of loose dirt out on the edge of the yard. Today was Annie's birthday and she had not come home yet. Inside on the kitchen table there was a line from an unwritten poem and I wondered if I should tear it up or leave it there for Annie to find. The only reason I wanted her to read it now was so that she would feel badly about the way she had treated me. It wasn't a very noble ambition and I wasn't proud of it but it existed nonetheless.

In the end it was easier to merely lie on the hammock and to look at our small yellow house. The moon showed clearly the flaking paint, the faded and blistered walls. It was a small and ugly house and there was not enough furniture in it. The night was growing cold and all of the nocturnal songbirds that Annie had loved had migrated to warmer places. I lay there and shivered and kept listening for a whippoorwill.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Last December saw the publication of Randall Silvis’s 12th book, The Boy Who Shoots Crows (Penguin/Berkley). Over My Dead Body mystery magazine describes the novel as "a work of genius, a novel so filled with such immense imagery and strength as to make you catch your breath." Bestselling author John Lescroart praised it as "poetically written, finely-wrought, richly imagined, and finally as surprising as it is devastating ... a literary thriller of the first order. Randall Silvis gets to the hearts and souls of his characters like few other, if any, novelists."
Next month brings the publication of Flying Fish (PS Publishing, UK), another of Silvis’s genre-bending works, called by Nebula Award nominee Christopher Barzak "a pitch-perfect coming of age story that shimmers like light on water." And the March issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine features the Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner’s novella The Indian.
Of his connection to the Great Lakes, Randall Silvis says, "Lake Erie provided my first glimpse of a body of water too wide to see across. And there’s something very beguiling about a watery expanse that swallows the gaze. It invites the spirit to levitate, I think, and teases it with the promise that the higher it goes, the more it might see."