Swinger

By  |  July 15, 2016
All photographs © Galina Kurlat All photographs © Galina Kurlat

Marnie surveys the house and everything in it daily knowing this could be the last time she is here, the last time she fills the deep tub with bubbles so she doesn’t notice the rust stains around the drain, or waters the large overgrown azaleas out front. It could be the last time she sits on the porch swing and watches the convicts who regularly pick up trash along the Interstate that runs just beyond the pasture where the neighbors have a few goats and cows, or the last time she settles into the too-soft mattress on Roland’s bed wishing she could feel him there beside her. It is just a matter of time before they come to take everything and send her on her way. It isn’t her house after all. She owns very little in this world, never has—an old Honda, her clothes, a couple of pieces of furniture and a quilt she holds onto for sentimental reasons. Roland said that some day she would own half of this house, but that day never came to pass and now his daughter and wife will come and take whatever they think is of value and be done with him once and for all. They will take the will he never finished filling out and they will take the heavy safe box in his closet where he has a pistol and some old foreign money and all sorts of important papers. 

They didn’t even let her know where he was or what had happened until after they had already sent him off to the crematorium; two days later they pulled up in front of the house in a brand new looking car they never even turned off, and left the heavy box containing all that was left of him on the stoop with a piece of yellow legal pad paper taped to the top. Do with him as you please and vacate these premises as soon as possible. She was there when they came and a part of her wanted to rush out onto the porch and scare them. She thought of taking Roland’s gun and aiming it at them but she had never held a gun in her life, so instead she picked up Roland’s old Polaroid camera he used for work as an insurance adjuster—every day bringing home photos of what he referred to as the crime scenes: bent fenders and dog bites and faulty steps or wiring.

There were no accidents waiting to happen in their yard but the wife and daughter stopped and pointed at where she had used an old tire as a planter, filling it with pastel-colored snapdragons and petunias. They shook their heads and laughed as if to say it looked stupid and then they pointed at her car where she has a bumper sticker that says I’m pretty sure when Jesus said love your enemy he meant don’t kill him. Roland loved that bumper sticker and she reminded herself of that as the two women stood there shaking their heads. She snapped a picture when they were at their car and wouldn’t see the curtains move or hear the whirr of the machinery as it spit out a cloudy square that slowly turned into their image. The daughter looked a lot like Roland, olive complexion and dark wavy hair, a small muscular body like that of a gymnast. It looked better on a man but she was cute enough. The wife was long and bony looking with a poof of yellow hair strategically brushed and sprayed to leave her looking like someone whose hair is naturally that way—wild and carefree; her dress was cut low to reveal her pale throat and cleavage where she still wore Roland’s mother’s tiny gold cross necklace. 

That cross was something Roland had told Marnie about one of those nights they lay there in the dark and talked about any and everything that came to mind, like he asked about her name, saying how before her he’d only heard it in a Hitchcock movie which kind of creeped him out because that Marnie came out of nowhere and was frigid and a kleptomaniac. 

“Well I didn’t come from nowhere,” she told him. “And I’m neither of those other things either.”

“Well, I know you aren’t frigid,” he said, his broad hand heavy on her abdomen. “Found that out the day I met you.” He laughed. “And nothing’s missing that I can tell.”

“I have never taken anything that wasn’t mine,” she told him. “In fact, I am so the other way that I always had a hard time voting for myself even if I wanted the job.” She told how she was once nominated to be a student council representative and really wanted to win, people raising their hands with their eyes closed to vote, but she thought the other girl would probably be better at it and she didn’t want people to see her with her hand raised for herself.

“Well that was just stupid,” he told her. “If you don’t go after what you want who will do it for you?” The answer in the silence was nobody. Nobody will do it for you. She thinks of that often now. But then she had laughed and turned the conversation to John the Baptist and how she always hated that picture where they have his bloody chopped-off head served up on a platter and found it hard to understand why somebody would want little children in the Sunday school room to see it and that’s what made him think of his mother’s gold cross necklace and what he called the whole salvation thing. He was a good storyteller and following his stories was like a history lesson or a scavenger hunt as she sought the various parts of his life she did not know. The cross was all he had left of his mother and he had once, in the middle of a long drawn out fight, snatched the necklace from his wife’s throat, marched way down the road near that little churchyard at the edge of the pasture and hurled it into the ditch where there was always debris and litter from passing cars, which is why the work crew was used so often. He had never given it to her to begin with. She had taken it—stolen it—from his special box where he kept a lot of things like a medal he got for going to Vietnam and another medal he got as a young boxer. “It didn’t belong to her,” he said. “She ruined it.” 

 

A nurse who lives down the road told Marnie that he was likely already dead when they brought him in to the emergency room. “If I’d been at work, I would’ve known to call you,” the woman said apologetically. She was an older woman, plain in her lack of make-up or adornments of any kind, and did not look at Marnie with an eye for judgment as so many people did. Perhaps it was because her own husband did not work at all and hadn’t for years; perhaps she had her own fears of being judged that kept her in a neutral place. “They called what they thought was his legal next of kin,” she explained. “Everybody in town knew him.” The woman touched her arm. “He was a really fine person.”

 

Now she goes through the house touching the fabric of the drapes and the bedspread she picked out herself to surprise him. “It’s blue,” he said, which was true though that was not the answer she had hoped to get. She touches the mystery novel he’d been reading, turned facedown to hold his place. One night she opened it and read up to where he’d been but it was scary so she watched an old sitcom instead, that Nanny woman with the good hair and awful accent. He loved telling her the details of all those mysteries, always fascinated by how crimes are solved. He liked all those television shows, too, the ones that zoom in and show you cells and tissues and such like you might be in science class. She could take or leave that kind of show but what she did love was sitting there in the dark close to him and the way he always shielded her face with a pillow if something gory was coming. He told her their DNA was everywhere. His toenails snipped and flown off into the carpeting never to be seen again, which he took great pleasure in doing since his wife had always demanded he step outdoors to clip. He said when Marnie sanded her rough dry heels with that little sandpaper paddle that the DNA blew around in the air like little dust particles, that he had probably breathed and eaten her DNA. You are everywhere, he had said and pointed to the hair in her hairbrush, or a single strand caught in a necklace or on the neck of her sweater or stuck to his own body after a good night. 

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His razor is still on the edge of the sink, an old timey straight edge razor like the one she first used shaving her legs, white thin strip up her shin, proof of the danger. He had once run his finger up the scar lightly and told her how he wished he had known her then, that young girl with all of life ahead of her, but she is so glad he didn’t know her then; she was a wandering accident looking for a place to happen. The toilet seat is up and she stares, trying to remember why that would be since he has not been home since last Monday. Six days ago he left to go to the store. Her fingertips linger. He didn’t always lift the seat to pee and sometimes he even sat. She teased him about it and he laughed. “I’m not lazy,” he told her more than once. “But the doctor told me not to lift heavy objects.” 

There in the linen closet, at the back, under a stack of rags he used when washing the car, is a shoebox full of Polaroids. She found it almost three years ago, not long after they met and she moved in. What first got her attention was that it was his wife’s old shoebox, a brand she had only seen in magazines and wasn’t sure how to pronounce. The little picture on the side showed a strappy high heel and said it was peacock blue. But inside were photos. Most were crime scenes, wrecked cars and burned houses and mug shots of dogs that bite, but there was also a manila envelope with others, nude shots, twenty-three of them in fact—all different people. His wife was in there, she recognized a much younger version of her and she recognized other people she had seen in town from time to time, that woman who runs the dance school and always runs around town in tights and leotards, and the woman who is married to the mayor, who knows if she was then or not. Marnie didn’t know any of these people; she grew up two towns over and likely would have passed on through this town except she met him and he asked her to stay awhile. She closed the box back, suddenly feeling like a thief, and placed it back just as it was.

He had several times referred to his swinger years and the long list of women who preceded her, many before he ever got married, a couple during but only there at the end when it got really bad, quite a few after he moved out and into this house. He had grown up in this house and then rented it after his mother died. He said it was a good thing he had held onto it. No place like home, he said. He had told her that his wife had allowed her family down in Georgia to assume they were still living together as man and wife, that for her the lie and appearance was more important than anything else, and he decided just to wait her out, figured someday she’d actually want a divorce and a life. 

“And don’t you want a divorce and a life?” she asked.

“Sure, sure I do,” he said, but that was in the very beginning and so she didn’t ask anymore. 

 

“Where do I fit in?” she asked one night, but he was already sleeping, the moonlight catching the face of the much younger man, the person who had teased and asked all those women to strike a pose. The next time he asked her to tell him something about herself, she almost said no one had ever asked to take a picture of her naked, but instead she said she was a really good student in school, which she thought might surprise him given she had always worked entry level retail and waitress jobs. They said she was a girl with potential and when they made groups based on IQ she was always out of place, separated from her group—the kids most likely not to go to college—and eventually she decided to quit trying so as not to be taken out of her comfort zone. She saw herself as similar to those goats out in the pasture, with their wide blank eyes. When one got lost it freaked out; even when the grass was better, it suffered to be away from the warm comfort of its own kind.

Now she longs for the warmth she has depended on and gotten used to. A lot can happen in three years. You can get pregnant and see your baby turn two. You can put in an asparagus patch and have it ready for harvest or a vine that leaps after sleeping and creeping. Wine and cheese can age and bones can heal. You can do most of high school. One leap year ends and then three years later another one begins. You can look back and feel relieved by the distance, like miles and miles in your rearview mirror. It is a long time when you string together all the nights and hours of it.

 

In all the pictures, the women held onto the poster of his bed, the very one right there. The closet door is standing open and she goes over to push it closed. The women all pose with the window behind them, the very window she is standing in front of, the window that is not on his side of the bed but hers—her window. She had long thought that it was a matter of time before he asked to shoot her and she had often practiced exactly how she was going to pose when her turn came. The photos made her feel bad, like he had a big secret he kept from her even though they talked in the dark in a way that seemed everything got said. One night she even brought up that old camera, “the Swinger,” saying how for some reason the little jingle got all stuck in her head. It’s Polaroid’s camera, it’s almost alive, it’s only nineteen dollars and ninety five. He joined in Swing it up—yeah yeah it says yes . . . He said he hadn’t thought of that in years and what about those Benson and Hedges commercials when the cigarettes kept getting stuck like in elevator doors. All the cigarette ads for that matter, and he did the music for Marlboro country. Hey, and what about I’d rather fight than switch! She tried to keep it on the camera and how it told you what to do, when it was a perfect time to take the shot. Wouldn’t it be nice to be told the right answer, she asked. Like the Magic 8 Ball. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a swinger for life? 

“You do,” he said.

“Are you a swinger?”

“Used to be.”

“I wish I had the answer in my head. Should I stay or go? Like I wish I had a GPS implanted in my head saying things like Recalculate! Don’t go there! Make a U-turn.”

“How about stay?” he asked and pulled her close. He had a tattoo he got years ago—barbed wire around his bicep. “Is this to keep people out?” she had asked. 

“All except you,” he said. “It’s to keep you in,” and once again she chose the comfort in the moment to an interruption. To keep you. The memory of him saying that stays there like a bright patch of life when you are so aware of your happiness even as you are sitting smack in the middle of it. She had had another patch but she had to go all the way back into childhood to find it—her great aunt and uncle, a shade tree, the ping of peas being shelled into a large tin colander, the smell of hard work and rusty well water, sweet fermenting peaches by the big enamel sink and a yard full of paper-shell pecans in the fall. That was a bright patch and she had wanted to stay there forever, too.

Still, knowing that shoebox was there haunted her and made her feel left out but what else was new? She was one of those women that people didn’t give things to and never had. Not flowers or jewelry or love poems. She was the kind of invisible woman who then after some hard time passed might be referred to as sturdy or dependable, smart and practical. Roland had even called her his rock, which is what she felt she had been for a series of different men in her life. It seemed they all sowed their oats and dabbled in romance and then settled with the big hard rock; they could climb under it or use it to mark their cave. And she tried her best to roll into it. After all, what did she really deserve? She came late into a clean clear sense of what she wanted in life and, oddly, what she had found here with Roland had been it—home, a dream come true—and everything in place and hung out to dry except that box and his getting divorced, which she had begun to trust would one day come. 

Once, when she asked again where she fit in, he called her his caboose—the last car in a long line—“no one can ever come after you,” he said and hugged into her backside. She was aware then more than ever before how she had the kind of body that should have had children but she had not been so lucky. No one can ever come after you. And now that was true. His death had guaranteed that. But they can make me leave, she tells him, whispering the words as she runs her hands across the back of his chair. She would swear she heard him sigh, heard him sniff, heard the creak of the floor behind her.

 

She wanders back out onto the porch to watch the highway crew. Lately they are often out there, picking up trash and weeding, down in the ditch where Roland had gone to discard his mother’s necklace and who knows what else? His wife had found it. He said she spent hours searching so she could walk back in twirling it around her finger, nearly hitting him in the eye with it, and saying wouldn’t it be a shame if people knew he had broken and trashed the one thing his mother had treasured. The one thing she had asked him to keep and hold close to his heart. 

My heart,” he told Marnie, his voice catching and she was relieved they had already turned out the light. It was my heart.

  

The men arrive in what looks like an old school bus now cheaply painted a pale sick yellow with the words INMATES WORKING CREW stenciled on the side. Steel mesh covers the windows and all the men wear orange vests. Sometimes they turn and look at her; on occasion one has lifted his hand in a wave until jerked back to attention by one of the men at either end of the line with a rifle. They stand with their feet apart and their guns held out front, ready at a moment’s notice. One day she returned a man’s wave. She felt ashamed not to, somehow ashamed that she was watching them, and then she also felt ashamed for the officers in charge to see her being friendly to a criminal. If they were without their guns, those men would disperse like buckshot, arms and legs pumping down the ditch and across the pasture and churchyard or in the other direction to the Interstate and on into the woods beyond. It might be that some of them had already gotten used to the small life of prison—the bad but filling dinners, the comfort of one’s own cot. Right after Vietnam, Roland worked briefly in the prison system. He said they hired him for his muscles and his tattoos and because he knew how to throw a punch that nine out of ten times would knock somebody’s lights out. 

A punching bag hangs from the front porch and now she goes and wraps her arm around it and pulls it close, breathes in the sunbaked dustiness of the old leather. Every day Roland would come out and move around, punching and dancing; his gloves reminded her of enormous eggplants and she loved the heavy rhythmic thuds of his punches and the squeaks and whines of the flooring as he moved. He was in his sixties, twenty years older than her, but it would be hard to guess that. His muscles were tight and he kept himself lean, no paunch or love handles. The only thing that might reveal his age was the papery texture of his skin, thinner and looser than a young man’s skin; it made her think of those old paper-shell pecans she used to love to pick up as a child in her aunt and uncle’s yard. Penny a pecan her aunt once paid her. Penny for your thoughts, people sometimes say, though she had never felt anyone honestly cared before Roland. Those pecans cracked so easily, not like the tough hard-shelled ones in the yard of the people she stayed with after her aunt died. They’ll stain your fingers, children were always warned, but everything good did, it seemed. Pecans and pomegranates, peaches and blackberries, those magic markers that smelled so good at school.

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They will likely take the television, still tuned to the Weather Channel where he always kept it for a quick forecast during the day. Even if she turns it to watch something at night, she always puts it back where he liked to keep it. Sometimes, she leaves it on, turned low as she stretches out in bed and tries to sleep. Sometimes she can convince herself that he is right in there listening and that very soon she will hear the creak and feel the slope of the bed, smell the scent of him as he moves in close and reaches for her.

 

She has seen pictures of Roland when his young tanned skin stretched tight on his flesh: a high school football star, a young father, a young Marine on his way to Vietnam, and once she even felt guilty that in her mind she was making love to the man her own age with his dark thick hair and broad muscular chest. In her mind, his duffle bag was in the corner of the room—just home from the service and starved only for her. There is no wife and there is no daughter in this picture. She is not the caboose but the engine. She is a star, the first and most important part. 

He really was a star in this town, someone everybody knew, and he walked like somebody who had been a star, arms slightly lifted but held out from his sides. He was solid and strong. When she first met him you could tell he had been and still was a prize. That’s how he introduced himself to her at Jiffy Lube. He just right out front told her that he was a star in this town and he laughed. She thought how he reminded her of a creature she had seen in a book at school years before, half-man and half-horse, legs and chest as stocky as a Shetland pony. Centaur. She looked it up and rubbed her fingertip around the lines of the image. Part man and part myth. He had always seemed that way to her.

And he did love her; he did. He would have married her in a second if he’d ever gotten divorced. She wanted to ask why didn’t he then? Why didn’t he get a divorce? She wanted to say that if he didn’t, she would have to leave, and maybe that’s why she had waited, not wanting to have to make good on such a statement if it came to that. Still, she had promised herself to at least ask all the questions. But she didn’t get the chance. Like so many things in life, she didn’t get the chance and now she has to just let it go. She hears a sound in the living room, probably the cat, but her first thought is that it’s him, leaning forward in his chair to lace his sneakers so he can come out here and box in the late afternoon light that makes everything look so much better than it is, like the whole world has been airbrushed. Even the convicts start to look soft and muted, their bending and picking graceful as if in slow motion.

That old yellow bus is parked right near the churchyard, waiting for late in the day when all those men—who knows what they did to get there?—will file back on, taking the same seats that were once filled with children whose worries might have been about undone homework or not wearing the right brand of blue jeans. If they reached their hands deep into the creases of those cracked vinyl seats, there’s no telling what they might find, so many clues to so many lives, so much DNA. People are getting released right and left because of DNA, people who have been forced into lives and punishment that didn’t belong to them. How do they keep from hating—or do they? What do they do with resentment and anger? You could reach your hand deep into the cool of a seat and find a pencil once used and chewed on by some kid on the bus on an average day with weather like today. Once upon a time a single individual with a whole life up ahead sat there. Clues are good. Clues are important. But they are no substitute for a warm body; they are no substitute for a voice in the darkness.

The prison guard closest to her stands, lazily leaning on a fence rail with his gun held across his chest. The other one is at the other end, pacing back and forth from the ditch to the pasture and back. And all those men just look hot and tired in those orange vests. They look old from this distance, bending and stooping, sweat pouring and hearts pounding and what are they thinking? Are they thinking of home or how they might break off and run? And what was Roland thinking? He was in someone’s driveway under the hot midday sun. He was getting the facts about someone who was going door-to-door selling aerial photographs from another time. You could see how your house or land looked a hundred years ago. Only when the man got to this house, a little orphaned terrier mutt had come rushing out from under the steps and tore into the man’s ankle. When Roland arrived to take the picture, the little dog wagged its tail and flipped onto its back like it had never hurt a flea. She heard all this from the owner of the dog when she went to get Roland’s car and try to put together his last day. She had a spare key and no one else had bothered to come get it. She wanted to sit where he had sat. She wanted to slide down onto the ground and see what he saw. There was a hedge of abelia, the little white blossoms filled with bees in the glaring sun and there was a green and white webbed yard chair leaned against the carport wall where a child had written his name in chalk—Max—a pair of jumper cables hanging close by. There was nothing extraordinary for him to see, hard baked dirt and an unkempt porch, and that alone made her feel so sad and needing to roll his day back to their waking, the sky just turning light in the window on her side.

The man told her that it all happened so fast—Roland went pale and asked the man for a glass of water and when he came back out, Roland was slumped in the passenger seat of his old Honda. He never said anything else. For her, the last word was later. Usually he said, later gator. But that day he ended on later. He said he was off to the crime scene, yet another angry terrier bites annoying trespasser. He said, “It’s hard for a terrier to forgive those trespasses,” and he laughed. He said, “Later.”

 

The wife and daughter will come and expect her to be gone or they will ask her to leave. Then they will root through all of his things and likely throw most everything away. They will find that box of Polaroids and the wife will likely root through and steal her own before she proclaims him trash and worthless. They will say that’s just like him and thank God they have been spared living with him all these years.

Why did you leave me out? she asks out loud. And why did you leave me here alone to tend to all this? There is silence and then she thinks she hears a sigh.

  

By the time the bus is loaded the sun is disappearing and she dreads stepping back indoors and turning on a light. She dreads having to face the looks of his wife and daughter, the judgment and ridicule they will bring. They likely will point and laugh at her just as they had her garden. But they don’t know her. They don’t know a thing about her, no more than if someone had peeped and seen how she voted. What did any of it matter? Why did you leave me alone? she whispers again, opening the door to see him there, only as soon as her eyes see him her brain has sent the message that no, this is not him. 

The man in the shadows is much taller than Roland. When her eyes adjust she can make out his features better—dark burnt copper arms with a big tattoo of a purplish rose with a knife through it. He’s a white guy baked in the sun too long and he hasn’t aged well at all, deep ruddy creases in his neck and forehead, hair bleached like straw. He has Roland’s pistol, the foreign money on the floor behind him. 

“Can I help you?” she asks. 

“Maybe.” 

Her heart is pounding. “That’s my husband’s gun,” she says. “If you’re wanting to buy or borrow it you’ll need to come back when he’s here.”

“Your husband?” he looks at her hand where there is no ring.

“Yes.”

“What’s his name?”

“Roland.”

“I believe I just saw Roland. I believe he’s in a box in yonder on your dresser.” He laughs. “Barely cool, too. My sympathies for your loss.” He says he may look like somebody that don’t read the paper but he does and he knows Roland died. “I used to rent from Roland, right here in this house. Me and my wife lived right here and when the wife come to the door of the big house when I took my rent check, she won’t you.”

“So what do you want?”

“Hold your horses,” he says. “I’m the one with the gun.”

“I’m not scared.”

“You would be if you saw what I left behind me three miles down the road.”

“Are you with the prison bus?”

He laughs. “No, and I’m doing my goddamn best to avoid it, too. Been there before.” 

“Are you gonna kill me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “What I need is some wheels.”

“We got some wheels.”

“I see that.” He walks around. “It’s one reason I’m here. Who would even know if I killed you? Would anyone care?”

“Those are two very different questions,” she says, “the knowing and the caring.” 

“Well?”

She imagines it might take awhile, unless the wife and daughter show up as they have threatened to do. The cat would certainly notice and she would care. She’d be hungry. And the work crew, they’d notice. They’d say what’s become of that gal that watches us all day? They might see a buzzard circling, might notice there are still sheets on the line and a collection of newspapers on the walk. She pictures herself dead and waiting and the stark harsh view of that snaps her back. “The convicts would notice I’m not out on the porch cause I’m out there every day. And my co-workers would wonder where I went.”

“That could be,” he says. “But that’s still a lot of time in there ain’t it?”

“Maybe I could read something aloud and save you like that woman did the man in Georgia, remember?” She looks around but all she sees is the TV Guide and that murder mystery of Roland’s. “I think they became good friends and everybody went on to live a much better life.”

“I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about,” he says. “Not much of a believer but you can try. I’ll be here till the sun goes down.”

“Not much of a believer myself either. Are you gonna kill me?”

“I said if I have to. Do you want to die or something?”

“I don’t really care one way or another. Almost did it myself once. In fact I was on my way to do it for real when I met Roland and then everything turned around. You can not love your life but love life, the idea of it, and I’m one of those stupid people who wakes up every day thinking today’s your big day, girl. Today it all gets better. But I’m just asking because if you knew for sure you were going to kill me, then I’d likely go mix myself a drink that would put an elephant in a coma. I quit when I met Roland—he’s my drug of choice, but that’s what I’d do for sure.” She knows she is talking too much but it’s been so long it feels good to shape all the words, good to exert all the breath that goes with them.

“You know when I went to prison they called me Hulk Hogan because of my hair and I liked that I scared people. It’s good to scare people. So first night, I grab me this young black fella and I took him to the bathroom. I said say a goddamned word out there and I’ll kill you and every night I’d haul his little skinny ass in there and I’d slam my hand against the wall, see, like forceful slams and I’d end with a real slap to his face to bring tears to his eyes. And nobody bothered either of us, see?” 

She wants to say that was a good thing, but decides to stay silent. He keeps slapping the pistol against his thigh as he stands sideways so he can see her and the field out front. 

“You know sometimes things start happening and you can’t help it,” he says. “And then it is out of your control. All out of your control.”

She nods.

“Sometimes you do or don’t do things even when you know you should. Jesus,” he shakes his head as if to remove something from his mind then turns back. “You’re mighty calm for a woman in this situation. I suspect my wife would be screaming her head off or maybe crouched over in the corner crying. I suspect that’s it. Crouched in the corner screaming, begging. I can just hear her—Let me explain, let me explain.” 

“I’ve lost what I care about most,” she says.

“Me too, lady, me too!” He slaps his chest and then moves the hair back from his face with the nose of the pistol. “Look, I’m not a killer, okay? Or I wasn’t. I never set out to do such a thing.” He points to the photo of Roland as a young man in his boxing trunks. “So what happened?”

 “His heart.”

“You been with him long?”

“Three years,” and she tells him all she can think to say about Roland while he watches the sun going down. How he was a man who rarely liked to go anywhere but when he did—like to hear music or to see something on a stage—he got the seats with armrests, that kind of ticket. And he had a real good vocabulary and he was proud of that, like he would use a word like copacetic like that was nothing. Or he might look at the color of the man’s skin and describe it like burnished brandy. She heard him say that once about the skin of a beautiful Indian woman they bought some melons from at a roadside market along the highway. Burnished Brandy. 

  

When the prison bus has pulled away and the sun is just a sliver of orange over the field, she goes and gets the spare key to Roland’s car. “Whether you’re going to kill me or not, I do have one favor to ask.” She holds the key out in front of her and backs into the bedroom.

“Aw come on now don’t do this. Isn’t it enough I listened to all this shit?”

“Please,” she hands him the camera. “Just take my picture.” She turns on the harsh overhead light and then quickly undresses, leaving her clothes in a heap on the floor, the key on top of them, and goes to stand where all the others had stood before her. He eyes the key and then her body, but now with the camera up near his eye she pretends he is Roland and she leans into the post, cool wood brushing her hip, as she acts out the scene she has practiced so many times; she tilts her head, she licks her lips. Her heart pounds with the thought that someone could be here any minute—the wife and daughter, the policemen on his trail. She breathes in and arches her neck, breasts pushed forward, toe pointed out like a dancer or a fashion model and she looks right at him and then beyond him where the yard has gone dark, a black moonless night. There is a click and a whirr and when she opens her eyes, it is to the sound of him running, the slamming of the door, the sound of Roland’s car cranked and running and then gone. The square on the edge of the dresser is a blur, bed post, window frame, the slow recognition of her own skin and hair. She has the thought that she should have asked him to take two. She could have been the only girl in the box with two photos. But she is not someone who has ever taken more than her share.


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Jill McCorkle is the author of four collections of short stories and six novels, including Life After Life. Her stories have appeared in the Altantic, Ploughshares, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and the American Scholar. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and teaches creative writing at the Bennington College MFA program.