(Unpublished – please contact the author if you wish to publish this story)
Marg and her husband Frank were in the kitchen with their dog. Frank was sitting at the table and Marg was picking up the dishes. She had just put her plate, still with a few peas trapped by mashed potatoes, on top of Frank’s empty plate when the call came. The dog stood up with nervous feet. Marg stopped and stared at the plates in her hands and Frank tilted his half empty wine glass. Marg was expecting Jerry to call, but this call was early. In a few minutes Frank would be in the den watching the news. He never missed it, and that gave Marg a little time to talk with Jerry.
Another ring and the dog’s thin black nose pointed at the phone and then back at Marg. Marg clattered the plates in the sink and picked up the phone before the third ring died in the bell. The dog sat back down with her nose low and eyes on Marg.
Marg held the phone to her ear without speaking and when she glanced at Frank he gestured with his hand to get her to talk. “Hello?” the voice on the phone expected someone to answer.
“Hello,” Marg said after a deep breath.
“Good evening, is this Marg Henderson,” the receiver buzzed in her ear and she relaxed. It wasn’t Jerry.
Frank held his glass up to see the color of the wine in the overhead light. She used to love to watch Frank drink a glass of wine, loved everything about Frank back then, but she didn’t feel that way so much anymore. In fact, he mostly irritated her now and she turned her face away and watched the dog lap water from her bowl by the back door. The dog kept an eye on Frank while she drank and it was endearing, even if it did make her look a little paranoid.
“Yes it is, well, Marg Green now, what…” Marg answered, hesitantly, “How did you get my number?” She held the black phone cord in her hand while she talked.
“This is William Pruitt. I’m a lawyer. I got your number from Sam Walters. Well he had it in his address book. I’m afraid I have some bad news Mrs. Green. Is this a good time?” The voice on the phone was diffident, but confident and too calm.
She had known Sam Walters as long as she could remember and he’d never given anyone her number before, and he’d never called her. “Is this a good time?” She repeated the question with eyes on Frank, thinking it was not. She wanted Frank in the den when Jerry’s call came. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Jerry, but she knew she wanted to talk to him.
“Well I’ve got some bad news,” said the voice on the phone. Frank looked at her with the edge of his eye. The voice continued, “I need to speak to you for a few minutes.”
“Okay, go ahead.” She coiled the cord around her index finger and her eyes turned back to the solid black phone, its dial still, like a broken clock. This stranger’s bad news would not affect her, would not impact her.
“It’s about Sam Walters.”
“Yes,” she said breathing in. She looked at Frank, and then continued, turning toward the phone, hearing her own voice vibrating through the receiver, “what is it?”
“It’s bad news,” the voice stopped and waited. She tried to invent bad scenarios involving Sam, but at their core they were all the same and she felt her thoughts drawn from the call she was expecting. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” it paused again, “but Mr. Walters passed away two days ago.” The voice said that and stopped talking, and Marg forced herself to breathe in again. She pulled the phone cord against her neck and glanced at Frank and his eyebrows pushed up wrinkles in his forehead.
“What? Who is this?” she asked.
“I’m the executor of Mr. Walter’s estate, William Pruitt, Attorney at Law,” said the voice, defensively official.
“Passed away? What happened? Three weeks ago he was fine.”
“Well, Mr. Walters wasn’t young, you know, and two days ago he had a heart attack. The mailman found him in his driveway, next to an overturned wood cart. He was beyond help when they got him to the doctor.”
“But he was healthy,” she protested.
“He’d been chopping wood, must’ve overdone it. He’d cut and split more than a face cord, and he was hauling it, a bit at a time it seems, down the drive when he collapsed. That’s how they found him.”
“Down the drive?” she asked more to herself than to the phone. “What…” She turned her back to Frank and leaned against the counter and it hit her right on the waistband of her black stretch pants. “He looked after us, he looked after our cabin.”
The last time she’d seen Sam was three weeks ago when she’d taken the dog to the cabin for a secret rendezvous with Jerry. Sam had seen her car pull in the drive, and he had brought over a wheelbarrow of seasoned firewood to counter an early autumn chill.
Now the voice on the phone was saying, “Yes, I’m sorry,” it paused. “There will be a memorial service in Blairsville tomorrow morning at 11:00 and a reading of the will immediately following.”
She put her hand flat on the counter and leaned on it until her bodyweight started to pull her shoulder blade away from her spine and her shoulder hit her earlobe. Three weeks ago she’d told Frank she had to winterize the cabin. In truth, Sam took care of winterizing the cabin and it wouldn’t be needed for another month, but Frank didn’t pay attention to the seasons.
Shortly after Jerry arrived at the cabin, Marg put the dog outside and she darted off, nose to the ground, eyes in the trees. Marg wanted to go for a walk, crunching through the first fallen leaves that covered the ground around the cabin, but Jerry had other ideas.
The dog didn’t tolerate any intimacy with Marg and she was tenacious when she locked onto and idea. She moved like a dog much smaller than her 50 pounds, and she was wiry strong, very quick and had teeth like razors.
Jerry’s car was parked in behind a bank of rhododendrons just before the drive, and Sam hadn’t seen it. He’d been about finished stacking the wood when the dog cornered him and he’d stepped through the unlocked cabin door to get clear of her snapping teeth.
Now, in the kitchen, Marg let go of the phone cord and looked past the table to the dog. The dog lifted her ears high. “This is so… so sudden,” Marg said holding the receiver with both hands, shaking her head.
“Yes, it must be a shock,” the voice paused and then went on, “Mrs. Green, you’re named in the will. Mr. Walters left you a few personal items – nothing of any great value – and an old shotgun. I wanted you to have a chance to come to the service and to the reading if you could. It will be very short. I expect the reading will be over by 2:00pm and if everything goes smoothly, as I’m sure it will, you could take your things, just small items, and be home early.”
Frank put down his wine, held his hands in front of him palms up, his brows now pinching deep creases.
“Of course, we could ship the things to you, but the shotgun might be awkward, and I thought it might be more convenient, might be easier for you, if you wanted to have them sooner, if you could come up for the service and then to the reading of the will. I could give them to you then.”
“Who is it?” Frank whispered, but Marg turned away. She saw him glance at his watch with her peripheral vision.
The voice on the phone continued, “…and if there was any contention, from the family, not that that’s likely at all, but if there was, we could settle it right there.”
Marg took down the details about the service and the will and said, “I’ll be there.” Frank shook his head and held his hands out.
She put the receiver back on its cradle. “Who was that?” Frank asked, but the words just went into her ears and didn’t get through. The dog came over and leaned against Marg’s leg. “Marg? Frank repeated, and she looked at him. “Well, who was it?”
“Oh, that was a lawyer from Blairsville,” she said reaching down for The dog’s head, but the dog ducked out of the way with a quick motion so Marg patted her side with the back of her hand. Marg eyed Frank directly, “Sam died.”
“Oh, the cabin neighbor?”
“Yes,” she said. Sam’s family had lived next door to the cabin since before Marg was born. “When I was a girl, He used to hunt birds with Granddaddy. He was the same age as my father, but daddy didn’t ever hunt or even shoot a gun,” she said.
Suddenly memory flooded back in vivid detail. When she was a girl, Marg’s family was gathered around the cabin fireplace. Her grandfather had spent the day hunting with Sam and as they relaxed by the fire sipping mulled wine, he’d said, ‘Sam, why didn’t my wife have you instead of that bookworm,’ and she thought that was a bad thing to say right in front of her father, but then everyone laughed. Marg’s mother looked at the floor and pretended to laugh, and Sam looked out the window with his muscles pulling his lips up into a sort of smile.
“Sam left me granddaddy’s shotgun and I need to go get it,” Marg said quietly in a single breath. She knew the gun. When she was a girl, Sam showed her how to press it against her shoulder and relax to avoid the kick. It was a 16-gage bird gun – too small for a grownup, and he let her carry it. She could not see all of the detail now, but she’d fired up into a tree, maybe there was a bird. The kick almost flattened her and when she looked up a man was falling out of the tree. His face was bleeding. Her grandfather cussed about poachers and Sam ran over, but he wasn’t moving. Her grandfather and Sam talked fast, and then she and her grandfather went home with Sam’s gun and Sam took granddad’s. Sam went to town and reported the accident and came home later without her grandfather’s gun. After that Sam didn’t go out with her grandfather anymore, and she never went hunting again.
Frank’s mouth puckered like it did when he was tasting wine, even though his glass was empty, and he said, “I’ve got meetings every day this week and in the morning Saturday, but we could go up Saturday afternoon and come back Monday morning.”
“No. The memorial service is tomorrow and I want to get up there. The dog lay down with a small grunt. Marg smiled at the dog, “I’ll go up in the morning.”
“You know I can’t cancel my meetings.”
“You don’t need to go,” she walked to the sink and picked up the plate with the mashed potatoes on it and scraped it into the trash. “I can manage by myself.” The dog lifted her head quickly and her floppy ears popped up and framed her narrow face. Marg pulled on rubber gloves, turned the hot water on full and started rinsing the dishes with her back to Frank.
Three weeks ago, Marg and Jerry had been about half on and half off the sofa at the cabin. Sam had walked through the door and closed it behind him to escape the dog. ‘Is everything alright?’ Sam had asked, startled to find Marg with clothes in disarray, in the carnal grip of a strange man. Sam was holding a good-sized piece of firewood, hand still on the doorknob. The dog barked wildly outside. Jerry jumped off of her and covered himself with a pillow. ‘Oh! Sam!’ Marg whispered, barely able to speak – Jerry had knocked the wind out of her when he jumped up. ‘I’m fine, we were just…,’ but the instant he recognized the situation, Sam had jumped back through the door and the dog’s barking shifted to a snarling growl. Marg pulled her clothes on and struggled for breath as she followed Sam. She got through the door just in time to see the dog’s teeth flash across his leg. He still held the firewood, but reached for her collar with the other hand. The dog scampered out of his reach leaving a bone-sized tear in his tough work pants. Marg caught the dog and would’ve helped Sam, but he was moving quickly down the driveway. “It just got the pants, don’t worry, just some old work pants,” he said waving over his shoulder without looking back.
In the kitchen Frank asked, “What will the neighbors think about your frequent trips to the cabin alone?” Steam rose in the sink.
She kept her back to Frank and wiped the side of her face against her shoulder. “They’ll think you’re busy at work and I have to go out of town for a funeral,” she finished rinsing the dishes, locked the stopper down with a quarter turn and squirted dishwashing liquid into the steamy, bubbling stream from the faucet, “anybody who bothers to ask. And who cares what anybody else thinks anyway?” She held a plate in the sudsy water and swirled the dish cloth vigorously around it and then passed it under the hot water and placed it in the drainer. She grabbed the other plate and repeated the process.
“I worry about you going up there, alone,” he thought for a moment, then continued, “what if something goes wrong at the cabin? What will you do with Sam gone?
The sink was full of scalding water. Marg plunged her hands in to feel for silverware, the water burned right through the gloves, but she kept them in until she’d found every piece, and then she just held them under the scalding water using the pain for strength. “I’ll be fine.” Marg didn’t look at Frank as she finished the dishes, but the dog stood up and pointed at Frank with her ears.
With the dishes done and the used dish water spiraling down the drain, she stared at Frank. The dog looked from Marg to Frank and back. Frank said, “If you want to go up there, I’m not going to stop you,” and he had no idea how true that was.
The phone rang again and she glanced at the clock and remembered Jerry. When Frank started for the phone she said, “You’re missing your news.”
Frank checked his watch, said, “Damn, it’s half over,” and started for the den, but stopped when the phone rang a second time. Marg stepped up and stood over the phone and looked at Frank, and then said “I’ll get it,” in a flat voice.
Frank tilted his head, and the dog leaned to one side with one foot off the floor and watched him.
Marg picked up the phone and said “hello,”
“Marg, can we talk?” it was Jerry.
“Oh hi, how are you?” she said into the receiver and watched Frank walk toward the den.
“Is he in the room?” Jerry asked.
“No. Go ahead, we’ve got a couple minutes,” she said, clipping her words.
Jerry said, “I want to see you, can we meet at your cabin this weekend?”
Their affair had begun on summer solstice at a party in her back yard. Well into the shortest night of the year, she and Jerry were talking alone and his eye sparkled starlight mixed with tiki torch, while he poured words over her, his voice soft as the summer air. “It’s a beautiful night, let’s go for a natural swim,” he’d said, and that’s when she knew for the first time she craved a man with a passion for nature.
Three weeks ago at the cabin, Marg had lain awake in the sleeping loft with Jerry snoring beside her. She couldn’t get Sam out of her mind, his running away holding the tear in his pants. She’d seen Sam so seldom over the years that she hated to leave it like that until the next time she could get to the cabin. Deep in the night, after replaying everything over and over, raindrops began to fall on the metal roof just over their heads, a soft steady rhythm, the sky washing the earth, and she fell asleep.
Now, she held the phone to her face thinking, ‘Equal parts dark and light, bad and good,’ trying to remember the poem Jerry had breathed into her ear on that first night last summer, while they held each other in the dark, warm pool under shimmering Sirius, the Dog Star, but it was hopeless.
Three weeks ago, Jerry had been eager to put the dog out of the cabin and get down to business. It was like his sense of romance was a temporary thing, a trick of summer stars.
“No Jerry, I don’t think so,” she said and then was quiet.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“You remember Sam Walters?”
“Oh yeah, at the cabin, he’s the one that caught us… with our pants down, so to speak,” he said, trying to make a joke.
“Yes,” she said making it a shorter word.
“What? Did he tell Frank?”
“Of course not, he didn’t say anything,” Marg said this louder than she meant to and clapped her hand over the receiver and tried to see around the corner into the den when she reached the end of the phone cord. The white of the dog’s eye flashed as she rolled her eye to Marg and then away.
When she was a girl, Sam had taken responsibility for the hunting accident even though he’d known it would ruin his reputation in the community. Her grandfather had protested at first, but Sam had convinced him it was better to spare Marg the trauma of the inquiry; of knowing how badly the hunter was hurt. She didn’t understand that short, overheard conversation, or learn that the hunter had died, until much later.
She went on in a softer voice, “Sam was one of those people you could count on completely. He either liked you or he didn’t, and if he liked you he accepted you as is. He would never have said anything. He…,” her voice broke and she struggled to gain composure as the emotional weight of Sam’s passing hit her for the first time. She thought of her father’s death years before. This was worse. “He’s dead.”
There was a brief silence from Jerry, and then he said with a hint of relief, “He died?” then more sympathetically, “Oh, I’m sorry. He seemed like a nice man.”
Three weeks ago, she’d needed the sound of the rain and the thought of it sifting from heaven to get to sleep. When she awoke, the rain was still softly on the roof. But when she pulled herself up and looked out the window, the sky was clear and the sun had reddened the east. There was a mist rising from the creek and the branches over the cabin dripped with dew. There had been no rain and that made her cry.
“I want to see you, Marg, can you come out tonight? Maybe make a trip to the drugstore? Tell me what to get and I’ll get it and meet you in the parking lot.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, wondering if her answer would have been different if she could’ve taken the shotgun with her; could’ve felt its cold weight on her lap while she waited. “I’ve got to hang up now.”
“How about tomorrow?” he asked, his voice rising slightly.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to see you any more,” she said and he was quiet for a while. “Good bye,” she said.
“I’ll call you next week, let you think,” he said quickly.
“No. Don’t call. It’s better this way. It’s not going to work out with us…,” she said.
“But that night in the pool, that was…,” Jerry’s voice sounded small and dry through the receiver, “it was the best.”
“It was natural then, that once,” she said to Jerry, “but now that’s just a memory. I want something solid.” She thought of when she was a girl, how Sam had warned her about the kick of the shotgun, how it hurt when she pulled the trigger the first time.
Jerry didn’t respond. “I’ve got to go, now,” she said, “good bye.” She quickly placed the receiver down on its cradle and let her fingers linger on the plastic, still warm from her grip.