Dreams of Rescue: A Novelby Laura Shaine Cunningham
"I have spent the winter at my summer place," begins the narrator of this startlingly original literary chiller. Juliana Durrell Smythe, known for her "female in jeopardy" performances on film, fears her roles are proving prophetic. As an actress, she is accustomed to rescue. In movies, "Having known the comfort of muscled arms, I still expect, without reason, to be… See more details below
"I have spent the winter at my summer place," begins the narrator of this startlingly original literary chiller. Juliana Durrell Smythe, known for her "female in jeopardy" performances on film, fears her roles are proving prophetic. As an actress, she is accustomed to rescue. In movies, "Having known the comfort of muscled arms, I still expect, without reason, to be carried to safety and, ultimately, to be loved." But confined to her Victorian lake house, Juliana discovers the discrepancies between film and actual jeopardy. "The police have not turned out to be kindly, potential lovers...." She must walk the fault line of fiction and confront the mysterious and violent end of her marriage. An atmosphere of danger descends with the snow. The men who enter Juliana's life seem suspect; her predicament shadowed by the distress of her housecleaner. How much did she see? How much does she know?
Haunted by her past roles and the history of her romantic home, built for a wedding in 1899, Juliana's marital mystery becomes entwined with that of the original Victorian bride's. To survive, she is compelled to connect a nineteenth-century disappearance to the contemporary despair of the lakeside resort. In a snowscape of dazzling beauty, Juliana must enact the role that will save or cost her own life.
Plumbing the secrets of two centuries, Cunningham has written a hypnotic novel that will transport the reader into a brilliantly evoked world. With its hard-chiseled realities and incandescent images, Dreams of Rescue is a new take on a classic form, that shatters convention and will entrance readers long after its stunning finale.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One In Character
I have spent the winter at my summer place. Every night I watch the tabloid television shows for news of other estranged wives, and the extended coverage on those who have already been murdered.
Each evening I wrap myself in a shawl and settle on the sofa. Then I lie back and stare at the double flicker of the television and the fireplace. I am not operating at full efficiency, but am sustained as if on a dual pilot light. Some nights I play compact disc recordings, always operas, at the same time that I watch television, and the combined sound and light gives the cottage an electric liveliness, an air of camaraderie, as if I were having a party without people.
My summer place makes for an odd winter hideout. I am reminded of the scene in Dr. Zhivago, the movie, in which Omar Sharif finds his dacha transformed into an ice palace. Zhivago is freezing, but one senses that the unexpected beauty of his crystallized home sustains his soul. My summerhouse is much smaller than Zhivago's, but it, too, is iced with winter whimsy and offers its own chill consolation.
Can I call it pleasure? Perhaps not, under these circumstances, but my spirit rises to the white vista, the glittering twigs, and cushioned bushes. I love the snow -- have always loved it -- and now I need the snow in ways I never imagined.
The snow might save me, in every sense. The snow keeps a perfect palette: I can detect if anyone has tried to approach on foot. That is a practical advantage of being snowbound, but the spiritual benefit may prove more significant. To survive now, I must recall beauty, the possibility of bliss....
This house was dedicated to love, to the promise of joy. The house is not an ordinary house; Casa di Rosas was built as a chapel for a single occasion, the June wedding of a tobacco heiress in 1899. The Wedding Cake House, as it is more often called, has always depended on the triumph of charm over practicality. Only its fanciful design -- and the increased market for second homes upstate -- saved the structure from demolition years ago.
The Wedding Cake House stands at the edge of a bluff, overlooking the lake. The rationale for this picturesque but precarious position was the portico, where the bride and groom could pose, framed by latticework, the blue glitter of Lake Bonticou as backdrop.
From where I lie on the sofa, I can see their original wedding photograph, sepia and further faded from the century of sunlight. The Victorian bride and groom appear formal in their garb and expectation. They are young and extraordinarily attractive, but they look to one another with the solemn intention of the past, displaying none of the abandon of my own wedding photograph. My Kodachrome print fell from its hanging nail long ago and now leans against the wall below the more formal 1899 portrait. The contrast is acute: The unposed picture shows me bare-armed as I look up at my new husband; we are laughing, I remember, because the day was chillier than anticipated, and we tried to feign composure. I am wearing a sleeveless white crepe cocktail dress and trying not to visibly shiver; the camera caught us as we collapsed in laughter. The Victorian couple's decorum and our lack of propriety strike me -- as if my husband and I, the interlopers, trespassed to carouse where the first bride and groom exchanged sacred vows.
Now, in late February, the light slices through the rooms. The halls appear as through a reducing glass, angles oversharp and outlined. Even the parquet floor seems heightened and whitened, as if the cold raised wax to its surface. The windows tremble and the furnace roars. Every several minutes the boiler grunts and fires. The house vibrates at the effort of keeping the wind outside these walls.
The Wedding Cake House was never intended to be used in winter, let alone converted to a home. Many years ago, the previous owners inserted a bed, dressing, and bathroom under the eaves, and the heat still travels toward the original vaulted ceiling and escapes through fissures in the attic. The upper story rooms overheat, while the downstairs living and dining area remain chilled.
One of the challenges of this winter has been to stay warm. My husband and I added, at some cost, this fireplace into which I now stare. The leaping flames provide a visual cue, but the fireplace loses more heat than it provides. There is a small radius of warmth directly in front of the crackling hearth, and I huddle toward that. I feel warm as long as I don't move, keep my shawl tucked around me, and sip my hot tea and listen to operas. I hope the arias will, in a magical aural equivalent to the beauty outside, counteract the ugliness of the events that happened here.
I have a mental habit, perhaps it qualifies as a tic, the reverse of tic douloureux, tic of sadness. My tic is the prediction of happiness, or at least pleasure. Before I actually see a person or a destination for the first time, I visualize appealing men and women, beguiling locations. I'm not conscious of projecting these people or places; they present themselves, full blown, in exact detail. En route to the actual meeting or on the phone, I conjure a face, a home, an office.
I'm not always accurate; I'm often disappointed, occasionally alarmed, when confronted with "the real thing." I have no idea why I project these visions, as they run counter to my experience. But I cannot stop, nor do I wish to. I have my successes -- perfect matches of expectation and reality and a few spectacular improvements over fantasy. I believe my dreams-come-true, my good fortune, predict that I will be blessed somehow. I have always entertained the idea that, someday, someone will come forward on my behalf and offer me love, in all its most magnanimous incarnations, and I will be forever changed, blessed. It's almost happened, just that way.
Seventeen years ago, en route here for my surprise honeymoon, I "saw" Casa di Rosas in my mind's eye. I pictured a pleasant cottage, nothing fanciful. My projection was specific as usual: I saw a blanched cabin, listing blue shutters, picket fence. A single rosebush, thorny. Hummingbirds. The entire vision was blanched, as in an overexposed print.
We arrived in June. The orchard was in bloom, an aisle of cherry and apple blossoms. The white-veiled trees were bridal for us, as they had been for the original newlywed couple. We, too, walked that blossomed aisle, kissed beneath the boughs of the most bountiful tree, the weeping cherry. Matt and I admired the roses for which the house was named -- "antique" roses -- white, scarlet, teatime yellow. It was not that there were so many roses; it was their run of the property that charmed me. Roses climbed trellises; they poked up from behind the rusting wrought-iron gate and rambled in hedges round the house. The white roses twined and twisted through the wedding latticework on the portico, then descended the cliff, adhering to the rock ledges all the way down to the lake. These renegade white roses had escaped, domestic joining the wild, and they flourished in aromatic profusion.
I inhaled, sighed. We came to honeymoon, and remained to purchase. It was I who cried, "Oh, this is the place." The house was so inexpensive, it seemed to be a gift, sold "below market" with all "the original furnishings," including the four-poster bed upstairs and the rather sunken sofa, upon which I now recline. Even the rugs remained, faded Orientals, showing bare at the tread of my predecessors. The style, Victorian, with many griffin-clawed, ball-holding furniture feet, was not especially fine, just old. But the bureaus were filled with creamy linens monogrammed AJD, almost my maiden initials. Folded sheets, lace-trimmed shams and cases, embroidered holders for every household object -- Spoons, Buttonhooks. I was beyond charmed; I felt enchanted.
The house met my criteria at that time -- a perfect set, I thought, for romance. I could walk outside naked by moonlight and not be spotted by neighbors. The night we took possession, my husband and I dove naked from our dock into the lake. We laughed as he carried me, nude, over the threshold. Propriety was not a problem then...
Now seclusion has become ironic. My desire for privacy boomeranged; no one witnessed what happened to me here. Yet, even after all that occurred, I still find solace in this place during its winter metamorphosis. The orchard bears blossoms of snow. The lake has become a Lalique; the house itself a confection. True to its conception, Casa di Rosas looks like the bakery's best wedding cake, kept fresh under refrigeration. Icicles double its Victorian frills; frost fern retrace the curtain lace.
Outdoors, the grounds are decorous as a deco lounge, draped in white, dust-covered to stay fresh for the next season. The summer wicker furniture, casualties of my distraction, remains unstored for winter, arranged in conversational circles on the white lawn. The porch swing sways, carrying its plumped white pillows, a wind-sculpted passenger. And over all is the whisper of the snow, the unending snow.
Never before has there been so much snow. The locals, the Bonticouans, as the summer people call the natives of Lake Bonticou, swear that this winter surpassed all records. The snow fell before the leaves, aborting autumn. More snow has fallen than the town plows can push; the roads have narrowed to lunar canyons.
I must be the single person here not to complain about the snow; it serves my purpose. The snow has become my buffer zone, kept my situation on literal ice. The blizzard seems to have drifted selectively: The roads may be impassable, but the wind whisked a magical passageway from my front door to the woodpile, a route along which I scurry several times a day to feed my now continuous fire. I have lost only my driveway; the snow drifted over it, obscuring even the delineation of the road that used to lead to me.
I have had an order of protection since New Year's Eve. The actual order, a smudged Xerox, I keep in an old Bendel box, labeled THE ATTACK. In my mind the order is strung round my property like a red surveyor's ribbon, looped through the gray trees, to define my new boundaries. My husband may not step within a thousand feet of me. If he does, I can summon the sheriff of Lake Bonticou. I imagine the sheriff striding from the woods, with his own order of blue knights, the state troopers.
I should know better than to entertain such visions. I already know the reality: I have dialed 911; I have summoned the police. The squad car, red light pulsing, has skidded up this driveway. I know what actually happened next...
Yet, even after this experience, I am too attuned to fiction to contemplate danger without rescue. I'm infected with optimism. I have seen too many melodramas in which the heroine is saved "in the nick of time." I am conditioned now to expect cinematic salvation. I confess that I am implicated in these fictions, having performed in those movies known in the trade as "FemJep" -- female in jeopardy. For sixteen years, in a dozen films, I have played the victim-heroine. The aftereffects have been insidious: Having known the comfort of male, muscled arms, I still expect, against reason, to be carried to safety and, ultimately, to be loved.
Now it worries me that I was so often cast as a victim. What is it about me that I must play the hunted, the frightened? I once asked my friend the casting director, Elsbieta, and she said, "It's your eyes: They widen so nicely in terror. And the pointy chin...You look sympathetic yet vulnerable." She used a word I loathe -- plucky. I put plucky right there beside spunky, which is my usual character description in scripts -- "spunky but vulnerable." And I am light for my height: I can be carried or thrown without too much stress on the actors playing either my attackers or my saviors.
Of course, I imagined a different career. In fifth grade, we were asked to select a play and dramatize a scene for class. Other girls brought in Peter Pan or Grease. I enacted the climax of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer. I can laugh now at how I flattened myself against the blackboard and recited, in breathy tones, the murder of my beloved bisexual Sebastian: "Against the white wall," I recall saying. "Blood against the white wall." I modeled my performance on Elizabeth Taylor's in the film, American Classics Channel version. The teacher's eyes widened and her jaw dropped, but I was recommended to the drama club, and in a sense never left. Soon after I went out to audition for ingenue roles, I was cast -- my first strangulation by a serial killer who preyed on schoolgirls. I recall being bent backward in a school coatroom. My legs kicking. I wore small white boots.
Once cast, my trajectory has been direct -- straight to Wardrobe for the costumes that would ultimately rip, to Makeup for cosmetics that would smear, and to Special Effects for the fake blood packets, to be concealed and burst upon puncture. I have, most often, been stabbed. Thirteen stabbings, three strangulations, two drownings, one gunshot to the head, and, most inventively, a single impaling with a decorative sword. I survived all. In that sword sequence I had to do ten takes; I was "speared" for days. I cannot even count the hours I have worked on hospital sets, tucked into beds with artful bandages on my head.
Last year I began to refuse scripts in which I was threatened. Now I wonder: How much was premonition? Was it possible that deep within, in some untapped subconscious from whence all motivation springs, I had begun to question whether I wanted to play victim-heroines anymore? Had I sensed in that core of the self, where all is known, the reason?
I should have paid closer attention to the tabloid news, on which most heroines appear in the past tense. FemJep as genre is, I am discovering, criminally false. The producers themselves should be stalked and shot. I had always supposed that such films were not realistic, but the gap between truth and fiction is wider than I would have guessed, and I have taken an almost fatal fall into the abyss.
The first night under the new order, I flipped the yellow pages to Security and telephoned around the county, trying to hire a bodyguard, only to discover that I could not afford one. Even the decrepit, crackle-voiced self-described "seventy-five-year-old retired cop" said, "Have to charge you fifty dollars an hour. And how many hours do you need?"
I have no answer. My case could go on for years; it may never be resolved to my satisfaction. In my economic situation -- my bank account emptied, unable to work -- I could not be protected for a week. My assets, like my house and grounds, are frozen.
In movies, security cost is no object. In my female jeopardy roles I was accustomed to quality alarm systems and even the occasional high-tech electronically sealed half-million-dollar so-called panic room. In my actual low-budget, low-tech life, the cost of being fully "armed against intruders" is prohibitive. I must settle for sound waves that cover my "main points of entry," the downstairs front and back doors, the ground-floor windows. This arming of doorways strikes me as comical, as if my attacker would observe the etiquette of a polite form of entry.
There is also the fact that several years ago it was my husband who paid for this minimal security system; I have now changed the code and my password, Dot (the cat's name), but I suspect this will not be a deterrent. Even in the bygone days of "normalcy," the Be Safe system was more nuisance than reassurance: How many times have mice set off the motion detectors? I discontinued this feature; I was spending my days and nights alarmed by rodent social life.
For true safety I would have to wire every opening of Casa di Rosas and install sound and motion detectors, sensors in the ground, including, I suppose, the cliff. My daily life, given the activity of the unseen critters, would be a series of electronic screams for help and continual false alarms to the Bonticou police.
In a high-budget movie, whenever I played the victim, I was surrounded by kindly types until the denouement. Then, by orchestrated misfortune, I would be left alone for a few tense moments with my attacker until I could be saved by the man who became my next romantic interest. The kindly cast included two types of cops -- gruff older ones who became crinkle-eyed surrogate dads, and lone younger cops who had big noses or enlarged pores but were still appealing and sexually tense. The actor with the nose or the pores (sometimes he had both) would be the one to rescue me.
Also at my side I would have brisk but efficient lawyers, either a snappy skinny girl lawyer or a paternal older male lawyer with E. G. Marshall eyes. I was also surrounded by friends who put me up in million-dollar scenic hideaways, often at the risk and occasionally even the loss of their own lives. Throughout most of the movie I would sit around, worried but comforted, sipping home-brewed coffee or tea in hand-painted mugs in an attractive setting.
In recent years there has been a shift: As a film heroine, I have been forced to become less passive. It has not been enough to be rescued; I must participate and help save myself, either through ingenuity or kickboxing. In the end I may still make love with the large-nosed, big-pored, but undeniably virile man, but I also must prove that I am not helpless. The new FemJep has made an effort to be politically correct. In my last movie, Stalked by a Strangler, I am such a powerful, formidable would-be victim that I actually save the big-nosed, large-pored detective hired to protect me. I bandaged his wounds and kissed his chest. He saved me; then I saved him; the would-be killer was caught and the big-nosed cop and I end up in a clinch.
The discrepancies between FemJep on TV and in my actual life have been numerous. I have a hand-painted mug and I sip tea, but that's where the resemblance ends. In my current no-budget life, I am left with fire and smoke alarms and a voice activation system that blares: "Fire! Fire! Get out of the house!" when I burn toast.
The police have not turned out to be kindly, potential lovers. They have seemed hesitant about engaging in any rescuing at all. My "real" police officer, the one who responded, as they say, to my 911 call, was scared-looking and surprisingly short. He turned out to be short on time, also, and allotted only a half hour to resolve my situation.
On film, no one who comes to your aid is ever in a hurry to get to something else. And your saviors never kick off the relationship by demanding high fees, which actual lawyers do. My lawyer, J. J. Janis, might otherwise be castable: He has perfected a grumpy but loving grandfatherly style (against type, I had imagined him gray-bearded, plump). In reality, J. J. Janis has bright red hair draped over a bald pate, a single red eyebrow knit over the feature he always calls his "schnozz." I did predict the schnozz -- I heard nasality on the phone that forecast enormity and a deviated septum. J. J. Janis would be better typed as a Borscht Belt comic, past his prime but beloved by people who enjoy comedians with a mean streak. J. J. Janis leans forward, doubled over by his suspenders, a peppermint in hand. And he always has an endearment on his thin lips ("Let me see that gorgeous punim" is his favorite).
J. J. Janis asked for the remains of my savings, $25,000, as a retainer before he could begin to help me. He also conceded that $25,000 was an hors d'oeuvre, the "forshpeiz" that would be "eaten up" pretty fast at his rate of $305 an hour. Indeed, new invoices dressed in creamy high-rag quality envelopes, of the sort I used to associate with formal invitations, have already arrived.
Now I question my wisdom in retaining J. J. Janis. Do I connect his high price to the promise of expertise? Or is it my fear of Matt, who, though a patent lawyer, can navigate the legal maze so much better than I. Surely, I am influenced by the fact that my husband has connections and has retained a powerful trio of lawyers who seem eager to serve a colleague.
The truth, though, is that I had no time to find another lawyer. I had less than a week before Matt's arraignment, and I didn't know anyone other than the local fellow who had composed my will. So I grasped at the single connection I had: My best friend Nadine had "used" J. J. Janis and she swore he would protect me in court.
"J. J. is a shark, and he feeds on the bottom, but you will see his sweet side," she promised. "He can also do your divorce." In the rush to court to maintain the order of protection, there was no time to find another lawyer. J. J. Janis took my call; J. J. Janis was willing to take my case.
"I don't like what I'm hearing. You're in danger, dolling," he said, displaying what I critiqued as middling acting ability. "You're a nice girl. A heart knows a heart." He charged me for the call. At his going rate, plus Verizon, nighttime, off-peak.
The details fascinate me. I would never have imagined J. J. Janis's legal phone meter, which computes the charges of our telephone conversations at the same $305-an-hour rate, including, I suspect, my lawyer's digressions regarding his own slipped disc and a recent trip to Saint Bart.
Now I know the answer to one question: Why does the endangered heroine always remain in her spooky abode? For years, every time the character went down into her shadowy, moldered cellar with a defective flashlight, I mentally cried, Get out of that basement! Now I have the defective flashlight. I do actually go down in the stone dungeon that is the netherworld of Casa di Rosas, the near-flooded chamber where the lake washes in, bearing its tide of decay and rotted critters. I go to check. For leaks. For suspicious sounds. For intruders. I trip over paint cans and scream. No one hears me.
Why doesn't she move? Why doesn't she flee the isolated, atmospheric place where she is being stalked?
I can now also answer that question with certainty: She doesn't move because she can't.
In many of my films, my character has taken refuge in the homes of friends. My two closest friends, Nadine and Elsbieta, invited me to stay with them in New York. The two women live separate but similar existences in studio apartments. Even as they offered, I heard a weakening timbre in their voices. And who would blame them for not insisting I stay with them?
In so many of my movies, girlfriends die. The supporting actresses usually die in car wrecks staged by my would-be killer, or they are murdered, in my stead, at my on-screen residence. My actual friends have sometimes worked on films with me: Nadine, played a detective in the FemJep classic Kiss of Death, and Elsbieta trained me to scream without abusing my vocal chords. My presence in their studio apartments would place them in FemJep as well. I sensed their relief when I phoned down to the city and said, "I must stay up here for the court proceedings."
I could not move down to their tiny apartments in New York even if we all so chose. I have to appear in court here, in Lake Bonticou.
For the first few days after "The Attack," I did consider running away. In Kiss of Death, I dyed my hair blond, boarded a cross-country bus, and then lived incognito as a waitress. The killer found me anyway, but it took him a while, and then someone, a cop, killed him. In the genre movie no one mentions that if you press charges, as I have, you are also expected to appear in court. If you disappear, so does your case. No, I must stay here, near Bonticou County Family Court. What if I lose the case? Then I must reconsider flight, hiding. But even then, where would I go?
In my films, there was always a supporting cast of relatives; not so in my life. Where is the silver-haired character actress to play my mother? My mother is dead, my father vanished. No dear, worn Dad will materialize, bearded and wearing a cardigan as cable television dads do, to offer paternal counsel. There is no ingenue with perky bangs to be a cute kid sister. I am accustomed to this, the sense of being alone. I am an orphan. Closest relative: second cousin, twice removed. The cousin's over eighty years old now, and I have not seen her in many years. She lives in a high-rise, assisted living, somewhere in Florida, where I imagine her enjoying early-bird suppers that are always flounder. Could I visit her?
No. There's no place for me but here, at Casa di Rosas, and no identity to assume but my own. I can only work as Juliana Durrell (née Dubrovsky) Smythe. Even at the best of times, my employment is sporadic -- when I'm not possibly pursued. Incognito, I would fare much worse. And what of my Actors' Equity and SAG identification cards, tax bites?
So here I am, stuck in the snow, serving a life sentence as myself. I live in the limbo of adjournments: I have gone to court, only to hear that my case is yet again postponed. My estranged has been arraigned but remains free, doing his own time, I suppose, in our former primary marital residence in the city. He commutes to family court. When the weather is bad, which is often, he takes a room at the largest hotel in town, a double-gabled affair named the John Adams, after a signer of the Bill of Rights.
I can almost smile; that is exactly the sort of hotel Matt likes -- polished mahogany tester bed, brass eagles, framed historic documents, and portraits of unidentified forebears. I imagine him picking up credibility from John Adams, himself, the specter of justice. I overheard Matt say in court, "I'm at the John Adams," and the way he said it, you would think he was John Adams. He has hired not one but two Park Avenue lawyers and one local lawyer to defend him. He has an imported city law firm and a local former DA who is a member of a legal team known for fierce radio commercials -- "Family Law? Disability? Come to Regan, Roach and MacPherson."
J. J. Janis and the counselors at Bonticou county Family Court convinced me that my case should be tried here, in family court. While my husband's actions were criminal, there is not enough apparent injury for a criminal charge to stick. I've been advised to keep my case in family court, which will protect me on the basis of the evidence that I have in my possession. I must maintain the order of protection at all costs, I am told. It cuts the odds that I will be killed. I see the order as ephemeral, like the sound waves that frame my front door and ground-floor windows. Both systems require the attacker to respect certain boundaries. The assumption is that my husband is maddened, yet in enough control to follow the rules of engagement.
"Can't they put him in jail?" I asked J. J. Janis.
"Don't kid yourself," J. J. Janis replied. "That would be nice, but good-looking well-to-do white men in three-piece suits with law degrees don't go behind bars so easily. You were lucky to get an order of protection. You'll be luckier still to hang on to it. If his lawyers are as good as they claim to be, they will pull every trick out of the hat. If he can control his violent impulses for a while, he might just walk."
But what about my injuries? Don't they count? J. J. Janis answered in his one-two, case A, case B style, peppered with endearments, salted with cynicism: "(a) Bubeleh, they were not severe enough. Dolling, a woman needs a hatchet in her head to establish injury serious enough to put a man in jail right away...(b) He's innocent until proven guilty, remember. He is free. Let's hope he's just mishugunah, not berserk."
In the deco dark of my bedroom, whilst the neon clock fixes to the witching hour of three A.M., I wonder: How crazed is Matt? Crazed enough to drive two hundred miles up here in a snowstorm to finish me off? Or is his insanity an impulse in the midst of argument? The question that keeps my heart beating in time with the clock: Does Matt know his own behavior? Or does he edit his memory? Does he have an amnesiac reaction after his violence? He does wear those suits; he proceeds in a "proper" mien. I think he believes himself. My tenuous hunch is that he will not break in here and attack me now, just before we go to court: It would ruin his case. Then, again, he might.
I would not have predicted his behavior on the final night of our marriage, so I cannot speak of him now with any certainty.
My estranged husband is not an easy villain, an outlaw escapee. He is the person I trusted for seventeen years, whose chest was my pillow and with whom I shared a thousand confidences, all irrelevant in less than a minute on New Year's Eve.
FemJep has one detail down right: the fear. On my first night alone here at Casa di Rosas, I shoved a plank bench against the front door, barring it from the inside. The bench could not have stopped him from entering, but it would have alerted me on the off chance that I lay deep asleep. For the first several days, true sleep eluded me: I went under only for moments, in too-deep dives, as if lowered on a faulty cable. Then I'd be yanked up again in jerking rises, from one level of consciousness to the next, until I lurched to the surface of remembrance, there to stare the blackness in the eye and recall why I had stiffened into sleep on the sofa, still in my shoes and socks.
The memory comes back as a physical symptom, running too fast in my blood. Initially the rush was hydraulic, but another lesson learned in the past weeks is that one can become accustomed to anything, even terror. I can sleep a bit more now, and wake with only a low-grade quiver. Last week I shoved the bench back where it belonged; it would only have prolonged what I dread most: the suspense.
I don't want to lie here, listening for his steps upon the stair. I know how fast he can run up them, and what his steps sound like in that charge that doesn't end at the bedroom door but bursts through it, breaking the latch. I have replaced the latch he broke that night, but I already have proof of its laughable weakness against the weight of a six-foot-tall man going full tilt against the door. It isn't even a question of a better latch; the doorjamb itself splintered against the force.
I've taken two precautions: I carry a cell phone; I have the sheriff's office on speed dial. Of course the cell phone works only intermittently in these mountains; we, the summer people, fought the construction of the cell tower that might have given me a clear channel. I don't regret that: I value my view, the beauty of the undisturbed mountain lake vista, more than I do the convenience of the phone communication. In my business, there is too much telephone, too much computer mail -- the cacophony I chose to escape when I found this place.
I do what I can to feel safer. On my first trip into town, I bought a narrow can of pepper spray, formerly illegal in New York but now available on the counter of the drugstore where I buy blush-on. Since then, every night I set the pepper-spray can on my bedside table. Each night that passes without my need to use it makes me feel a bit more foolish. But I do not consider throwing it away.
Friends call from the city and ask, "How do you stand the isolation?" when my secret answer is "How can I maintain it?" Isolation in the country is another myth. Once the heaviest snow is cleared, blizzard opportunists appear: a ham-faced man who wanted two hundred dollars to shovel the snow cone off my roof. Repairmen in heavy-wheeled trucks fitted with plows have rumbled up the driveway, bearing torches to thaw the metal gut of Casa di Rosas. Oil tankers have rolled uphill as far as they could reach, extending themselves with hoses to nurse the thirsting boiler. Even Jehovah's Witnesses trekked in, pushing God. The Witnesses left a comic book depicting a colorful and unintentionally inviting vision of some tropical Sodom and Gomorrah, complete with belly dancers and bunched grapes.
It took two more blizzards and a road closing to secure the peace I have enjoyed for the past two days and to truly bring the repairman motorcade to a halt. Even my cleaning "person" canceled.
"I will do a lot of things," she said on the phone, "but I won't drive in snow, no, no." The housecleaner, Moira, is a young woman, a just-past-teenager with a safety-pin-pierced eyebrow. She has the Bonticou love-fear of disaster. I will not see her small figure, in her uniform of gray sweats and a flannel overshirt, "till the roads is clear." No, no. Every Wednesday, by habit, I look for her truck, a high black monster of an automotive creature with flames painted on its flanks, but she has not pulled into the drive. No, no. Moira remains wherever it is she lives, in her new double-wide, at the location she invariably describes as "on the other side of the mountain."
"I can't go over the mountain," she says. "No, no, not till the roads is clear."
While the snow settles outside Casa di Rosas, the dust bunnies collect inside. I can write my name on the dresser top as well as etch my initials on the frost. For the past forty-eight hours within my increasingly opaque world, I have been truly alone, with Puccini and an RCA color television. Until yesterday, only a few animals, stressed by the snowstorm, invaded my white-upon-white space.
The skunk arrived first. I watched from my upstairs window as he trudged in a straight line toward my front door. I could see the skunk, a detail in black and white, as he moved through snow higher than his body. When he reached my porch, I ran downstairs to get a better look.
I'd never seen a skunk up close before. While his body was plump and his tail fluffed to Disney specifications, his face crimped into pink irritation, a near-genital look. I tossed him some high-priced granola, which he gobbled without giving me so much as a glance. Then he resumed his trek, cutting straight across the frosted lake. He seemed like a skunk with a destination.
The wild turkeys appeared next, lining up in single file, using the south side of the house as a windbreak. In the past I'd found wild turkeys exotic, but now that they've been hanging around as humped shadows, I view them more as vultures. I know too well their turkey toilette -- how they tuck their nude necks under their wings, stand on a single, scaled foot, and fire off turkey pellets that burn green-brown holes in the snow. Seeing the turkeys so numerous, so blasé, I have come to regard them as mundane, no longer members of a precious, endangered species.
I had almost begun to regard myself as safe as well. Then today that changed. The day began with more of the same: an opaque sky, a wind-driven snow. The snow flew in stinging horizontal lines, infiltrating the house and drifting onto the interior windowsills. I was standing inside my living room, scooping snow from the sill with a soup spoon, when I heard a car.
I could see a gray station wagon struggle up what used to be defined as my driveway. The car began a diagonal, backward skid; then, tires spinning, it landed with its rear end in the snowbank. The engine stopped. A man in hooded parka, carrying a gray molded suitcase, emerged from the driver's side. Then, bent against the needling wind, he walked straight and slow, as had the skunk, directly to my front door.
Inside, by the heat and crackle of the fire, I'd been enjoying a simulcast of "La Donna é Mobile" and Inside Edition. As Pavarotti hit his high C, I could also hear the television host explain why some men, previously pleasant and even distinguished, could without warning bludgeon or hack their wives to death. He attributed the personality change to " 'roid rage," anger induced by the misuse of steroids. The men bulked up mentally as well as physically; a riptide of hormone swelled their enraged brains. In the ensuing red-out, even nice men could kill.
The "sufferers" of 'roid rage had already been introduced: men thick of neck and narrow of gaze. I could hear them speaking in what struck me as deliberately humble mumbles of their past aggression. Outside, the hooded man reached my door and pounded on it, thudding the brass knocker. I could see him through the curtain lace: a stranger of linebacker proportions. I hesitate, my hand on the chain guard. Should I let him in?
"Supralux!" he screams.
"Supralux!" he screams again. "We have an appointment, Mrs. D. It's me. Chick."
That clicks. The series of phone messages left on my machine, all addressing me as "Mrs. D." from "Chick Savago" -- reminders to service my Supralux 799 vacuum cleaner.
"It's me," he says. "Chick. Chick Savago. I come all the way from Schoharie today."
I stand still, my hand on the chain lock.
"You got my card confirming, didn't you, Mrs. D.?"
I look down at the mail table beside the door. There it is -- a service reminder card from Supralux with the time 4:25 P.M. and today's date.
I stare down at myself: I'm dragging my shawl and not truly dressed. I jam my flannel nightgown into the waist of my slacks and open the door to admit Chick Savago to my home.
"No one has been able to get here in two days," I say. "I'm amazed."
"Now you're dealing with me, Chick Savago. Who did you have before -- Phil Kneff?" He makes a sound, not unvacuumlike, through both nostrils when I nod yes, it had been Phil Kneff.
Stamping the snow from his boots, Chick Savago shakes himself like a great dog. "Phil likes to sell 'em, but he doesn't like to service 'em." Chick Savago almost fills my foyer. He's football player material all right; he doesn't even diminish when he pulls off the parka and reveals a surprising suit of synthetic green-gray fiber. Without his hood, he turns out to have a polished bald head, not unlike my lawyer's, but Chick Savago's head is set lower on his shoulders, the neck stove in between the blades. For all the power of his physique, he has a baby face, full-cheeked, with a wet underlip that droops even as he smiles. His eyes are round, blue, and speckled like marbles. He seems hearty and harmless, an innocent emissary from the world where appliance maintenance still matters.
I mentally audition him as a potential bodyguard. As if reading my mind, Chick Savago instantly offers to perform more than vacuum service. "Hey, Mrs. D., can I shovel your driveway for you?"
I don't say no. "Maybe on your way out. Will you need to call for a tow for your car?"
"Aw, I'll deal with that after I've taken care of your machine, Mrs. D." He accepts the cup of coffee I offer and pronounces it "the best I ever tasted, delicio-so." Then I lead him to the Supralux 799, which squats, hydra-headed, hoses coiled, in the dark corner of my hall closet. I have long regretted the purchase of the Supralux 799; it's as heavy and hideous as it was overpriced -- a budget-busting seven hundred dollars. Its cannister looks like an underwater missile; it has a tendency to overheat and misfire, exploding snakelike plumes of compressed filth into just-vacuumed rooms.
I'd been talked into the Supralux ("more than a vacuum -- a supercleaning system") by the Lake Bonticou cleaning woman. The housecleaner refused to use my old upright and insisted that she needed "to get in the edges and cracks." I have to admit to Chick Savago that I am almost ignorant of the Supralux's many functions. I confess that I am not the one who vacuums here -- that my housecleaner, Moira, uses the machine.
"Maybe you should come back when she's here," I suggest.
For a moment I conjure Moira as if I can will her to appear in the kitchen to deal with Chick Savago. I could just see her as she always appears, a small girl dressed in those gray sweatpants with the plaid flannel shirttails out. I associate her presence with the near-shuffle of her sneakered feet as she drags the Supralux from room to room. She's young, hardly more than a kid herself, but she has kids and she knows how to be firm: She could handle Chick Savago and be sure that he doesn't overcharge or otherwise cheat, running up a bill for unnecessary repair.
"You got to watch 'em," Moira is always saying of any repairman who enters Casa di Rosas. "You got to watch 'em."
"Your machine needs servicing now," Chick Savago says. "And who knows when anyone else will risk coming back in here? When was she last here? Did she put on this filter?" There's domestic accusation in his tone; for some reason I am willing to corroborate.
"If a filter was changed, Moira was the one who did it," I say.
When had Moira last appeared? No one has cleaned since The Attack. She has not been in since the end of my marriage. I lost track of her missed Wednesdays; a check, scribbled with her full name, Moira Gonzalez Gerhardt, still rests on the mantel. (Despite the surnames Gonzalez and Gerhardt, she is not Hispanic or German but descended, like most people in Bonticou, from the French Huguenots. On her first day Moira relayed her complicated heritage: She was "old Bonticou," but one stepmother had "married out" -- Gonzalez -- and she herself had wed a young man from "the German side of the Lake" -- Gerhardt. The check is for $120 -- above-average pay for housecleaning in Bonticou. I tend to overpay out of female guilt regarding the cleaning itself and in sympathy for the woman, who bore twins at eighteen and seems as if she could use the money. The check remains unclaimed since the snows started. On our "normal" winter schedule I might not see Moira: She comes and goes on a prearranged pattern, weather and her own life permitting.
"Car's in the shop," she might say on the phone message machine. Or: "I got a doctor's appointment." Or: "The kids are sick," or "I'm not coming in; it's going to storm."
In Bonticou Gothic tradition, Moira is fond of reciting disasters, her favorite being that of the woman who drove off the road into a pond, sank through the ice, and was not retrieved until spring: "They found her with her soup cans and soda bottles and everything." No, no, Moira would not risk a skid on ice and snow.
In her absence my marriage exploded and dust gathered in the corners and under the bed. Even under ideal circumstances I am a stranger to the Supralux: In this crisis I have no interest in heaving around the heavy vacuum; I do not understand its attachments. I have made a few attempts to scoop up the actual dust, feathery clouds that were hard to capture by hand. Half the time the fluff floated back into the atmosphere of Casa di Rosas.
"I never touch the big vacuum," I tell Chick Savago.
Chick Savago examines the big Supralux. "Somebody put the bag in wrong," he says. "If it don't fit good and tight, she can't suck."
Oh, how I wish that Moira could materialize here to deal with him. She would relish this conversation; she would know how to rebut, defend, demand. She's an expert on the vacuum; I doubt that she has, in fact, committed any errors in Supralux maintenance.
Moira herself is an erratic cleaner, but she loves to vacuum. I seldom watch her clean, but I can always hear her. I associate her with the Supralux, a mechanical adjunct to her own body, the sound of her presence in my home.
Yes, Moira would know just what to say to Chick Savago, while all I can do is feign interest and hope the thing works. He is insistent that I observe him. "Watch this, Mrs. D. You see how the hose screws in here?"
As Chick Savago bends close to me to examine the Supralux, I experience something strange: I have a split-second image of him subduing other men. I try not to believe in the occult, disbelieving even what so many in my profession embrace daily -- astrological forecasts. But once or twice in my life, I have been given a flash of information regarding a person in close proximity. I do not know how to explain this transmission, but within a second Chick Savago confirms the veracity of my image:
"I'm not really a Supralux man: I'm not full-time. I work as a guard at the prison."
I picture the prison, a rather pleasant-appearing geometric castle that sits squarely a few miles to the west. I know prisons are a major industry here in Bonticou County, employing almost as many men as are imprisoned. The local men seem to be in and out of prison, one way or another.
Chick Savago drops to a squat and opens his molded suitcase. He takes out a plastic cone and attaches it to the suction hose of the Supralux. "Let's see how she picks up." He places four silver balls on the floor. "She should suck four balls. Look. She's barely sucking two."
I try to look attentive. "Can you fix it?"
Ordinarily, Chick says it would have to go "into the shop." But under the circumstances he might be able to "clean the soot from her head" right here in my living room.
What choice do I have? I walk to the counter of the open kitchen. I'm too self-conscious to flop back onto the sofa and stare at the TV and the fire. Personal torpor requires privacy. For Chick Savago's benefit, I turn the volume down on Luciano Pavarotti and click off the news special just as the " 'roid rage" men's wives are murmuring in electronically altered voices of the sweetness of their mates' initial personalities. I take some bread dough I keep stored in the refrigerator and slap it onto the butcher-block countertop and, with feigned energy, begin to knead.
"Oh, Mrs. D., you bake your own bread. I knew it, Mrs. D. I could tell over the phone."
How? I think, but say nothing, and continue my slap-slapping of the cold dough -- which, according to my cookbook, should feel as cool and damp as the flesh of a corpse when fully kneaded and ready to rise. For a few minutes we work in silence, side by side: Chick kneeling, cleaning the Supralux; me kneading the bread; Pavarotti swelling to his impassioned finale. There is something domestic in our parallel endeavors -- a man and woman working together in a snow-covered house. Custodial Adam with Eve in an arctic Eden.
He probes under the sofa with the vacuum extension. "She isn't sucking; she's coughing it back. Look at this..."
Chick Savago points to the twin husks of two mummified mice whose light corpses have been drawn from below my sofa. These mouse mummies are so desiccated, they do not seem to require burial. Chick moves around the butcher block, close to me, and tosses the two flattened mice into the trash.
"How old are you, Mrs. D.?" I don't answer, and he makes a laughably low estimate. In lieu of speaking, I snort and move away, rattling bake pans.
It's not unusual; it's maybe even common for some element of flirtatiousness or sexual tension to enter the house with a lone repairman. I had experienced remarks and attitudes from a window washer, who smirked as he used his squeegee and offered, "I do backs too." But the border -- the line of etiquette that governs such situations -- was never crossed as it is when Chick Savago continues and says, "Your husband's a lucky man. You're my ideal woman. Maybe he doesn't appreciate you. A marriage's no good unless the man and the woman make it together."
I can feel the electric pulse of the house in the silence that follows. I have nowhere to go except outside in the snow or upstairs to my bedroom; either choice seems a mistake. I inhale and say, "I don't think that's an appropriate remark."
He can't agree with me more.
"Oh, God, I'm so sorry, Mrs. D." His marbleized blue eyes bulge in contriteness. "I was just complimenting you, saying your husband is a lucky man."
"He'll be home soon," I say in what I hope is a convincing tone, without the built-in irony.
"Maybe he's stuck in the snow somewhere," Chick Savago says with a slow smile.
"Look," I say, "I don't really care about fixing the vacuum today."
His eyes widen as if I had uttered sacrilege.
"It's a bad day to be on the road. I don't want you to be stranded here." I don't add but mentally complete:...and have to spend the night.
"I'll do what I came out here to do. Chick Savago never leaves without satisfying the customer."
I do not have a clue as to what to do. I look out the window at the gray shape of his wagon; already a pillow of new snow tops the roof.
"Let's call for a tow," I suggest, moving to the phone.
As I pick up the telephone receiver I'm not surprised to hear only static on the other end. It's that kind of day. The static seems the aural equivalent of the gray, horizontal snow outside the window. Knowing it will be futile, I pick up the cell phone. An even more graveled sound, as if the storm is in the system itself. As I stare out the window, the grayness thickens into night.
Chick Savago snaps the Supralux back together and is vacuuming the living room. "Sure wish you'd told me about these stains, Mrs. D.," he says in a neutral tone. "I would have brought along some stain removers. There's no stain I can't get out, even blood."
"It's fine. The stains don't bother me."
"Look how she sucks now, Mrs. D." He demonstrates: The corner of the rug appears to levitate, inhaled by the machine.
"Wonderful," I say. "Thanks so much. I'll give you a check."
"That's not necessary yet, Mrs. D. I want to do your upstairs. I want to vacuum your bedding."
"We all lose skin every night, Mrs. D. I say this not to disparage you, Mrs. D., because I am sure you have excellent sanitary habits. But we are all covered with nematodes; our skin dies and is crawling with microscopic organisms that live and feed on our dead scales. That is why it is important to vacuum your bedding at least once a night. Let me do your mattress. You will be amazed at what I pull out of there."
"No...really. Maybe next time."
"You know, Mrs. D., I don't want you to think that I am trying to sell you a new machine. But next year the 799 will be obsolete. We are going to a new system: HydroBag. All your dirt and effluvia will be sucked into a water sack. It becomes a sludge, Mrs. D.," he says. "A sludge that you can pour down your toilet and your home is purified."
It strikes me that he is uncomfortably clean-looking and that he is not bald; his head is shaved. Despite having been out all day in the snow, there does not seem to be a smudge or crease on Chick Savago's clothing or skin. His face has the pink shine of a new scar.
"My husband," I stress, "will be home any minute." I gesture to the door. "There is a shed right outside, with shovels and sand. Why don't you see if you can dig out of that drift?"
Chick Savago stares at me and says, "They come at me with sharpened spoons, Mrs. D. One tried to gouge my eyeball this morning. I had to subdue him, Mrs. D." He demonstrates, bringing his forearm across his own throat in a chokehold.
My low-grade quiver rises to the surface of my skin, and again I feel that racing sensation in my blood.
"I could help you dig out your car," I volunteer.
"I wouldn't hear of it, Mrs. D. I'll give it a try when it's time for me to go."
I want to say, "Do it now," but something stops me. The room has taken on the hyperreal appearance of a place where a crisis is occurring but in which, so far, the only action is internal. My blood runs but I stand still, my hands on the cold bread dough. I stare at the culinary clutter at my counter -- the copper pots, the braided chili peppers, ropes of garlic. Oh, to be inanimate at such moments. To be safe as an object.
During the final confrontation with my husband, I looked to the jumble on my bedroom dresser -- a collection of perfume bottles, lipsticks, hand creams -- and mentally addressed them: "So this is it. This is how it ends."
Now I set the dough in the bread tins, drape them with dishcloths. The next hour passes in stop-and-start conversation, with the enforced intimacy of interruptions to go to the bathroom. I feel an acceleration that makes me nearly dizzy as Chick Savago's accounts of his life move further and further from what is deemed acceptable. He tells me that he is divorcing his own wife, whom he suspects is unfaithful. He can tell by the smell of their sheets.
"Women got to provoke the man," he says. "They have to wave the red flag in his eyes." As punctuation, he interjects compliments to me: "You would never do that. You're nice."
The bread rises, swelling under the dishcloths. The aroma of yeast sweetens the air, mingles with the arias and Chick Savago's discordant song of himself. Although he is not drinking liquor, his voice begins to slur, as if a residual alcoholism, associated with these revelations from his past, can still produce symptoms. He doesn't seem to expect a reply but looks to me for reassurance that he is on track:
"You know what I mean? You know what I mean?"
I nod, although I don't know, I don't know anything except that I am becoming very uneasy. He seems more intoxicated by his tale and leans across the counter, listing toward me, breathing hot dissatisfaction in my face:
"People won't let me be nice."
The entire time he is speaking, I am thinking: Should I run upstairs? Or will that be the trigger? When he leans toward me, I inch back.
"They push you and push you," he says, "so they can laugh at you when you lose control, and ha-ha, you're reduced to this animal, smashing them in the face. That's what they want..."
At that, I become too frightened to remain in the room, so I move off my chair and walk backward, slowly, toward the stair that leads to my bedroom.
"I'm going upstairs now," I say. "I hope your situation works out for you."
There is a subtlety to a stalk. During the next hour, I lie attuned to nuance -- the sound of his breathing downstairs, his step on the stair, the creak of a door, the flush of a toilet. It seems to me that I can hear him think; it's like the electric pulse in the walls, the tick-tock of my mantelpiece clock.
There is a sexual sixth sense, also: I recall it from being sixteen and at the movies or in the backseats of cars: My girlfriends and I could perceive even the most minute motions of aroused males in our vicinity; no gesture was too tentative, no intake of breath too restrained. We knew who was touching himself or trying to graze our thighs "on purpose," no matter how surreptitious the movement. Ions seemed to rise in the charged air. My best friend said she could tell from several feet away, under cover of darkness, when a man ejaculated: She claimed she sniffed ozone in the air.
I could swear that Chick Savago makes not one but three trips to my bedroom door, hesitates there, then descends. I am sure, too, that some sort of sexual release occurs at some point during these tiptoed ascents and descents. A clichéd prickle raises the fine hairs at the back of my neck. I pick up the slim can of pepper spray and hold it, prepared to blast his marbleized blue eyes if he bursts into my room. But he does not try to enter -- although once, it seems to me, the doorknob trembled, as if he were testing it from the other side.
I sit and hold the spray can and stare at the stacks of memorabilia that now mount in evidence as the debris of my personal life. For all around me, in hastily marked cartons, are the documents requested by my lawyer: the Bendel box labeled THE ATTACK and the files that contain the history of my long marriage. In a carton on which I'd scrawled Evidence I have the single piece, what I call "The Thing in the Box," that I know will prove my case in court. On top of that, in a file folder, is " 'The Synopsis of My Marriage' by Juliana Dubrovsky Smythe."
My lawyer demanded that I assemble this synopsis. The synopsis covers my life from the age of eighteen, when I first met my husband, until New Year's Eve, when we parted so definitively. The evidence seems lopsided, for the letters document a happy marriage rather than a doomed, violent one; I do have The Thing in the Box, but even that will have to be explained in court when the time comes. It's harder to dismiss the correspondence -- a hundred love notes for every single scrawled apology: "Sorry for the psychodrama last night. I don't know what got into me."
My husband doesn't know (or at least he claims ignorance) and I don't know "what got into him." I know only that he had sudden mood changes, but until The Attack these events seemed more peculiar than threatening. His anger exploded at unlikely moments: I could never predict what might upset him.
One afternoon last July, I had gathered a bouquet of the roses for which Casa di Rosas was named, and instead of being pleased, he screamed: The roses were in a pitcher meant for drinking water, not a vase. Before I could speak, he smashed the pitcher, and it lay in shards at my feet.
My estranged husband's rage revolved around minute matters of housekeeping or personal propriety. With hindsight, as I try to understand what happened, I remember more odd moments. Last August, as I smoothed suntan lotion on his shoulders at the public beach, he hissed: "Not here -- people will see you."
I could not comprehend: Why would this trouble him? We were married, and even if we weren't, what was wrong with my touching his back and neck in public? The series of inexplicable piques soon grew into a full-blown permanent rage. By winter I was dialing psychiatrists and therapists in two counties. It didn't matter: Matt would see no one.
"They're all charlatans," he said.
I accompanied him, over his protest, to a woman psychiatrist's office in uptown Bonticou, and he disliked her sandals: "How can you expect me to listen to a woman who wears sandals like that?" They were homely, heavy-strapped, studded with nails. Whatever her footwear, I wish we had stayed for the full hour. Maybe I would not be sitting here now, holding a pepper-spray can.
Is Chick Savago dangerous? Or am I spooked by the finale of my marriage?
On Christmas Day, I found my favorite hat outside, sitting on the trash. It had been more than a hat; it was an insignia of myself -- an old black velvet hat with a brim. I had not only loved it, I had been loved while wearing it: My husband was forever tipping that brim back, teasing me, kissing me -- "You and your old hat." It was a sweet joke between us, and when I saw the hat on the garbage pile, I knew he didn't love me anymore, and I shivered: With so much love gone, what could fill that void but hate?
I had never known what it was to be hated, but I found out. From that day until the end, only one week later, I felt his hate every second that we were together. If I spoke, he frowned; if I was silent, he screamed.
Now, sitting alone on the bed that we shared for so many years, surrounded by stacks of our letters, I suffer a reprise of my last night of marriage. Once again I sit behind the latched door, waiting for a man to break in. I stare at the splintered doorjamb, my laughable latch.
I cannot help but relive The Attack, see the latch and doorjamb shatter, remember my husband's forced entrance into this room. I was holding the phone, dialing 911. He ripped the phone from my hand and smashed it to the wall with such force that its innards had spilled multicolored electrical entrails. The disemboweled phone lay on the floor. He seized me by the shoulders, screaming. What had he said? "I love you, I loved you from the minute I saw you..." But all I saw was the blood spouting from his left nostril -- not from an injury but, I suppose, from pressure. And all I could feel were his hands on my arms...
I shut my eyes, listening now for Chick Savago. Can I foil him as I had my husband? On New Year's Eve, I fled, knowing the 911 call had registered; I heard the operator pick up. She would automatically trace me: I know that much about 911. I fled this house, knowing the police would be arriving. If they drove fast enough, over the ice, around the curves of Serpentine Road, they could save me. If I could just evade him, long enough...
The snow had been high that day too.
The police had a lot of calls, but they dispatched a car, a single patrolman. I remember him, Officer Little. The name fit: He had been...little. Hippy in a holster, a tiny man; he intercepted me, almost too late.
I shut my eyes. I do not dare remember what Matt did to me now. I will have to recite the details soon enough, in court -- if I survive this night and get to court. Here I am, I cannot help thinking, with another man in this house. I am sitting on the same bed, by the same ruffled sham, staring at the same roses on the faded wall, feeling my heart hammering, my palms sweating. Hair really rises on the nape of the neck; I note. I have the objectivity to note my objectivity: Why must I always observe? Is the actor in me learning more nuances? Am I not already overrehearsed for terror?
"No one turns their back on me!" Matt screamed. "No one walks away from me!"
Now I am "the complainant" and my estranged husband "the defendant," which reverses the roles of our final days. Yet, what good is my defense of myself? I still sit shivering on the other side of my bedroom door. Have I stopped being afraid of one man to become afraid of another?
No. I have not come through this strange season for this finale. I look to the window and see that the snow is lessening. As I prepare my next move I hear, once again, Chick Savago's light tread on my stair. I can almost feel him breathe -- he is here, on the other side of the bedroom door -- and as the clock on my mantel chimes he speaks my name.
Nothing more. But not "Mrs. D." My actual first name. And the sound of it trips off my last alarm, and I say: "It's time for you to go now. The snow has let up."
"Aren't you going to open the door?" he asks.
I clench the spray, aim it. "No."
He waits there, on the landing, for what seems like minutes. Then I hear him descend, this time with what I consider normal, heavy footfalls. A few minutes later I hear his car engine start. Then, most blessed of all sounds under the circumstances, the sustained roar of the motor as he navigates down my driveway in reverse.
I wait an hour to feel certain that he is, indeed, gone. The snow does stop, as if by the necessity of my need. The moon rises. I look out the window and see by a wild cobalt light, the now deserted driveway. I detect something moving behind the evergreen trees. Then I realize: It is a deer. I can't see the head or body, only the ankles and hooves as they pass, dainty as a dancer's, beneath the skirt of the hemlock tree.
Downstairs, the main room is freezing. I reach, out of habit, for my shawl, which I'd left draped on the sofa. I stop in mid-motion as I feel the dampened mohair -- viscous and filled with what I suppose is Chick Savago's effluvia and intent. I pick up the shawl, avoiding the wet spot -- evidence too troubling to even consider, let alone save -- and ditch the whole package into a trash bag.
I reach for the phone. The line is still dead. I'll call the police when power is restored, I decide. I don't look forward to another chat with Sheriff LaBute. Even I cringe from reciting the details -- the repairman, the dampened shawl, the fact that he moonlights as a prison guard. No crime has occurred, has it? Will this distract the police from my main case? Will I be dismissed as a woman prone to suspicion? Cast doubt on my credibility? But shouldn't someone know?
I walk outside Casa di Rosas, the snow crunching under my boots. I sling the trash bag into a garbage can and shut the lid. From somewhere not so far away, a siren sounds, a volunteer firemen call to the scene of yet another car accident or woodstove blaze. The siren alerts the wild animals in my woods; the coyotes yelp and howl, adding their indignation to the chorus of emergency. The deer that I glimpsed before appears from behind the hemlock tree, and I gasp: It's not the dainty doe I imagined but that rarely sighted creature, a buck. There are so many hunters in Bonticou, the bucks are usually shot, shot young. I myself have never seen a buck until now.
The stag seems massive, twice the size of a doe, and he wears a rack of antlers with -- I count -- nine points. I study him and see that a tenth point has been broken off at the base. His gaze is irregular also: He stares at me through a single brown liquid eye; the other eye appears opaque. The stag has a cataract, one whitened orb, the right, which adds intensity to his left eye as he seems to study me in return and offer some insight.
I imagine he is an old stag, an expert in survival in these woods. Is he my single witness to this night? I note the vapor from his nostrils, his expression of animal sanity. Then he bolts, raising high his white tail as he leaps back into the grove of evergreen.
I stand there, trying to pick up a sense of the nearest human presence. A black cloud scuttles across the face of this night's moon. The truth is that no matter how far you go, you are never so far from what we call civilization. I look off to the east and can see the insomniac glow of the state thruway, and if I concentrate I can hear its distant diesel thunder. I stand there for a long time, until the snow begins again to fall, this time straight down, in lacy flakes. I think of the other lives that have passed through this place, from the first bride to myself.
The snow continues to fall, and gradually even the far-off light and traffic sounds are absorbed by it. Soon the snow fills in the tread where Chick Savago's station wagon stood. The snow covers the footsteps, first his, then mine, leading back to the house. Within an hour the snow has feathered and filled every declivity and erased all trace of our crisscrossed encounters. The new blizzard blows in undulant veils, obscuring the winterscape.
Upstairs, I fall prone upon the eiderdown duvet, sink into its billowing warmth. It is safe now, I think, safe to dive down under and succumb to the whiteout of sleep.
Copyright © 2003 by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Meet the Author
Laura Shaine Cunningham is the author of Beautiful Bodies, A Place in the Country, and Sleeping Arrangements. A playwright and journalist, she has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times. She is a native New Yorker.
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