er mother died on a cold, gray Sunday in February, at home, more or less gently, in her own bed. Sandra had anticipated the grief; had braced for it, even as she knew there was really no preparing for the grim finality of the day. She’d anticipated as well the secret relief. For her and her sisters, managing the logistics of keeping their mother settled at home had been practically a full-time job. So much was needed for the maintenance of this one small woman: home sitters, visiting nurses, reams of forms and insurance papers, shifting arrays of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Caring for their mother required the sisters’ unceasing attention, and one day it simply stopped.
Like whiplash, that part of it. There was the funeral, of course, and the weeklong project of closing up the apartment, but the day-to-day urgency was gone. The release, this sudden freedom, was quite stunning, and induced its own steady pulse of guilt. Sandra had anticipated this as well, the freedom, the guilt. That everything had its price, basically. What she hadn’t expected—hadn’t even imagined—was the sensation of vulnerability that came with her mother’s death. She’d felt it almost at once, the turn, the instant of grace withdrawn. Not so much a spiritual trauma as exposure in the here and now, as if protection as physically present as steel or brick had vanished at the moment her mother passed.
It was the literalness that confused her, feeling the threat as an actual thing in the world. It didn’t make sense except as emotion, psychology—a response, perhaps, to the fact that both parents were gone now. You were never too old to be an orphan, apparently, the child abandoned, lost in the woods, the oldest fear realized. This was how she interpreted it, as an ancient pattern playing out in herself. She was an intelligent woman, educated, aware; mother to three grown sons, all doing well in their own ways; wife to a successful man whose distance and critical habit of mind she’d learned to accommodate without paying too high a price in resentment. There were trade-offs, always. Stability in lieu of intimacy. An orderly home in which to raise her boys, and for herself, a comfortable middle age without money worries. A house on the water, a boat dock, several acres of woods. She’d made her choices with more deliberation than most and believed she was as content as a person had a right to be.
Even now, she told herself. Even in her grief. Count yourself lucky to be orphaned at the age of fifty-five, but she was spooked by how quickly her million-dollar view of the water could take her down. Turn on a dime, balm to poison from one minute to the next: a trick of the light, she supposed, the water’s hard winter chop digging at her nerves, or the pallor of the marshland across the way, the tall grass still as a cemetery. It was Paul, her husband, who’d wanted the isolation and quiet of a home outside town, and what she’d gotten in return was a three-story Colonial with colonnaded porches, antiques in every room, Spanish moss bearding the trees. A showplace. Now one glance out the window could tempt her back to bed at any hour of the day. Serves you right, she told herself. Maybe they had it all wrong about original sin. Maybe it was survival, not sex. The obscene presumption of living while others died, carrying on with the whole insipid business of eating, dressing up, going places—maybe this was the source of our shameful nature.
She resisted, of course. Going back to bed. Evidently desperate moods would just be part of it for a while. She resumed a low-key version of her routine, walking Seth in the mornings and evenings, keeping house, tending the yard. She went dormant on her several church committees, and when friends called she politely put them off. People understood. You were allowed a period of withdrawal, and walking Seth in the early morning with all the world gone gray, she found herself sliding toward the haunted side of things. Easy for intuitions, faint tinglings, to get the better of you. Easy to imagine she’d passed over into some new territory—new to her, though the terrain itself seemed older than time. A wandering place, neutral but not necessarily benign. Over and over on her walks she replayed that final afternoon with her mother. “Mom, are you scared?” she’d asked near the end. By then her mother was beyond speaking or even opening her eyes, but she’d firmly rocked her head back and forth on the pillow, No.
A difficult woman, volatile, often cruel, but so brave and fine at the end. Not scared, no. The heartbreak of it knocked Sandra out of the rhythms of anything like normal life. She could return to the house after a solid hour’s walk, unhook Seth from the leash, hang up her coat, and have no real memory of where they’d gone. She’d been somewhere else, over there in that wandering place that had this same smudge and blot of a lingering Southern winter, and the broken man materialized out of that same gray space. Broken man, her phrase—how could he be anything but? Pedaling his creaky girl’s bike out of the early morning fog, huge, hulking, a black beard like storm clouds hanging off his face and a dark knit cap worn low on his brow, thickets of woolly black curls forming a cowl around his ears. So he appeared that first morning wobbling out of the mist, frightening and vaguely clownish with his knees sticking out from the too-small bike. Seth set up a terrified yapping, and Sandra herself had a good lord sort of moment. She shushed Seth and offered a brisk hello, but the man said nothing. His only acknowledgement was to steer into the opposite lane and give them as wide a berth as possible.
A veteran, maybe. He wore combat boots and layers of loose, floppy camo, but these could signify any number of things. A few days later she encountered him again, the slow eek eek eek of his bike like needles in her ears. She spoke, he rode past with that same silent veer, and after that she swallowed her irritation and let him be.
She considered this stretch of road her street, so to speak; she’d been walking dogs out here for years. They had no neighbors to speak of except the Kivetts a quarter mile through the woods, and nothing for a mile in the other direction until the small outpost where Cane Creek flowed into the Intracoastal. There was a cluster of falling-down trailer homes on the creek, an old motel with a history of drug busts, and a small, dingy store, basically a beer shack with a couple of shelves of groceries. Sometimes, in a pinch, she’d stop at the store for bread or milk, but it was unpleasant how the men—they were always men—fell silent when she entered the store. And so it was for a woman walking her fancy lap dog on the empty stretch of road: you could expect to be honked at from time to time, fleetingly hassled, but Sandra would not be put off. You couldn’t live your life in fear of strangers and fools. Hurricanes were to be feared, and certain species of snakes, and the black widows that nested inside the septic gauge, but even then you took account and went on about your business.
Which was how you dealt with skulkers, oddball strangers; you took account and went on. She wasn’t stupid. She always brought her cell phone on her walks, but the broken man seemed to merit her special attention. After two weeks of seeing him every few days, she went online and ordered a can of pepper spray. She didn’t tell Paul. She refused to vary her routine. Not live in fear. Not even with something like a curse dogging her, the turn she’d felt in the moments after her mother’s death. But perhaps this was nothing more than a new appreciation for her own mortality. Surely a mother’s death would do that for you, drive home this ultimate truth. And as for curses, death itself would seem to suffice.
The man put worry into her days, so be it, but could he at least scrounge some oil for his damn bicycle chain? Someday she might tell him that, or maybe just flag him down with a can of WD-40 and hand it off with a half-sarcastic, Go with God. The mornings that used to be her solitude were now a test, an expense of spirit she needed for other things, or maybe a sign that pettiness was getting the better of her. So deal, she told herself, just go on about your business, but every morning she’d be clenching as the driveway curved toward the road, the woods thinning on either side to a kind of glade.
It was here that the dogs broke from the woods one morning and crossed the driveway twenty yards ahead of her. They were quartering toward the road at a brisk trot, ears up, eyes forward, snouts tipped to the wind. Sandra knew at once these weren’t the Kivetts’ dogs, forever escaping their pen. These three were bigger, sleeker, too well-fed to be strays: somebody’s dogs, but there was a tension in their carriage, the brisk avidity of their trot, that made her instantly alert.
She stopped short. The dogs would have passed without noticing her, but Seth had to give them a parting yap. In a second they wheeled around and came straight at her, and for all the rest of her days she would recall the awesome beauty of that movement, like they were drilled, no break in stride or even demeanor, just that smooth silent pivot and their eyes locking on.
She knew at once she was in trouble. If she ran she wouldn’t make it halfway to the house, her mind factoring speed and distance even as she lifted Seth with one arm and put her back to the nearest tree. Oh they were coming, they’d be on her in seconds. Two she took for pit bulls, one black, the other the mottled brown of a turd. The third was some kind of rangy boxer mix, deep tan with empty topaz eyes. The mottled pit held the center as the others swung wide and moved slightly ahead. In Sandra’s arm Seth had become very still.
“Stop!” she screamed. They startled, shied, and—miracle—stopped. Fifteen feet of open ground separated her from the mottled pit, slightly less from the other dogs. Not once had they barked, and she inferred a dreadful discipline in that. Fast as it was happening she seemed to have unlimited time to process things. Distance, angles, the width of the tree at her back, and an imprint on her mind from several moments ago, the tidy jiggling of the dogs as they trotted toward the road. All males, none of them cut: this seemed like information. She became aware that her legs were trembling, a numbness in her thighs spreading down through her knees. Was it true they could smell your fear, she wondered, silently cursing her weakness, her traitor legs. The all-too-human chemistry of her essential self.
By now she had the pepper spray in her right hand, fumbling slightly as she oriented the device. She raised her arm and fired at the mottled pit. The spray came out hot pink, the stream dissolving to nothing before it reached the dog. She groaned deep in her chest. They would have to come closer for her to hit them, and her mind went to work on that. How it would go if all three rushed her at once; how cool and quick would she be in the clutch. She could charge at them firing the pepper spray, but the tree at her back felt like the one sure thing. At all times she was aware of the road in the near distance, and how much she’d give for a car to come along just now. For a second she thought of the broken man, her mind’s eye gauging his bulk, the enlarging effect of his beard, and whether his bike rattletrapping over the dirt driveway might derail a dog’s nerve.
She thought of her phone, but her hands were full. For how long, fifteen, twenty seconds, they faced off. The dogs were crouched with their weight tipped back, haunches tensed, ready to spring. The mottled pit gave a rumbling growl, barely audible, a vibration in the earth rising out of his throat. Then the dogs started backing and filling with weird synchronicity, first one and then another edging forward and back, slightly too much motion for her eye to track and yet she saw, could even admire the logic of it. Closer, always closer, that was the sum effect; like being skinned, having to stand there and watch. Again she was struck by the tremendous discipline in them, and then it hit her like a shock, her mind blanking at the practiced evil of it. My God, someone had trained them to do this?
She wouldn’t have any memory of the impulse, only her yell and how she tried to lunge as a fencer might, full stride with an arm extended for maximum reach. But her courage failed her. She managed only a shaky half-step, firing a blast at the mottled pit even as she backpedaled. Still too far, but a lucky breeze lifted a wisp of spray across his face. He yelped and corkscrewed back on himself, then went reeling toward the road, hacking, snorting, bulldozing the ground with his face. The other two dogs looked from him to Sandra, him to her, back and forth like blinking lights. Such confusion; they’d regressed some way toward puppies in their befuddlement. She pushed off again from the tree and fired at the black pit, close enough that he got a whiff and bolted. Then the boxer, the follower, the dumb one, ran too. So she’d guessed that part of it right.
They circled around behind the brown pit and looked back at her. He was yawing his head about as if hazed by bees, whining, dripping snot like a leaky glue gun. He stopped and gave five or six terrific sneezes, then swung around and shot Sandra the most baleful look, as much as saying, How could you? As if she hadn’t played fair. Still hacking, whining, he broke into a shambling trot for the road, pulling the other dogs with him. She stayed by the tree until they were out of sight, then ran for the house.
The woman at animal control took her call with the utmost seriousness. She’d get one of the guys out there right away, she said. You’re in your house? You’re safe? Stay put, this kind woman urged her. We don’t want you getting hurt.
“I think I will,” Sandra said.
The backwash of adrenaline left her headachy and nauseous. When she told Paul that evening what had happened, he draped his suit jacket over the back of a kitchen chair, got his shotgun out of the closet, and drove off in the truck to look for the dogs. The truck, she noted, not the Mercedes he’d just driven home in. He even had to go searching for the keys, but for this mission only the truck would do. A certain style was required, apparently, and watching him drive off she wondered if she should feel insulted at not being asked to go along.
He didn’t come home until after dark. She re-heated dinner and kept him company at the table, claiming she’d already eaten. In truth she hadn’t taken anything since breakfast.
“They could have killed you,” he said, after having her tell the story again. He ate slowly, processing it all.
“I think so,” she agreed. They hated her existence, that was her sense of it now. Pure murder in their eyes, though there was, strangely, a lack of the personal in it.
“I stopped at Kivett’s. He hasn’t seen any dogs like that, but he’ll keep an eye out.”
She nodded. The attack seemed to impinge on his masculinity. His woman, his turf. Such basic stuff. She felt oddly maternal toward him, somewhat above his elaborate theatrics of concern. Soon enough he would remember to locate her fault in all of this.
“People let their dogs run loose like that, they ought to be locked up.” He glanced at her over his plate. “The owners,” he clarified. He took a bite of his roast chicken. “Of course their damn dogs, too.”
The dogs never reappeared. It would be some time before she realized she hadn’t seen the broken man either. Later, when she began to tell people about it, the essence of the thing seemed to elude her. The odd congruence—or so it felt—of events. Some aspect of the uncanny that sealed everything into a meaningful whole, but she couldn’t find the words to say it properly.
“But don’t you see?” one of her church friends said. “That man was an angel. God put him out there on the road to warn you.”
Sandra said nothing. This woman was one of her longtime friends, not known for her towering intellect, but still. Sandra felt no call to insult her.
“You wouldn’t have bought that pepper spray if it hadn’t been for him.”
Well, yes. She’d long since considered that part of it.
“Don’t you see?” said the friend again, her eyes bright with tears. The idea clearly excited her. “He was a warning. A gift of grace. God sent his holy angel to look out for you.”
It wasn’t that she thought her friend was wrong, necessarily, just that it felt a good deal more complicated than that. Both more and less; a polarity she could not explain. If asked, she would have said this was what she knew from fifty-five years of life, the distillation of everything she’d learned from parents, teachers, lovers, books, three children, one miscarriage, and a problematic marriage of some thirty years: when someone dies who you are close to, their death brings other things close for a time. The things behind things, that elemental world of which our own is just the shadow. Then it recedes, goes back behind. Resumes its natural place. But she never said, because of course she really didn’t know. No one asked, and she really didn’t know.
Watch Ben Fountain in conversation with OA Executive Editor Sara A. Lewis here.
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