Scott NadelsonFiction / Number 99
The boy comes running across the backyard, hunched oddly, hands pressed to his belly, elbows jutting out. He wears an army surplus jacket and work boots that have been spray-painted black, with silver highlights on the sides that might be misshapen stars or anarchy signs. On his head is a dark purple scarf more fortune-teller than pirate. His legs move quickly but in short steps and close together, as if he’s holding in the contents of a full bladder. Though the day is windless, the movement splits the unzipped sides of the army jacket and makes them flap like olive flags, revealing a white t-shirt printed with the blue and red of the RAF roundel. Sunlight catches his face and makes him blink equally round, dumbstruck eyes, and if witnesses were present they might notice the wide nose between freckled cheeks, the sharp chin and small feminine mouth before he slips into the dense shade of a horse chestnut. Once there he slows, edges closer to a wooden fence, and bends low, still holding his belly. If the same witnesses were to watch him now, they might think he is suffering stomach pains, possibly the first symptoms of appendicitis. They might wonder if he has been wounded, stabbed perhaps, or shot. Or they might realize he is hiding an object beneath his t-shirt. If they guess the object is stolen and that the boy worries it will slip down into his jeans before he gets away, they would be correct.
But there are no witnesses, and beneath the chestnut, he adjusts the hidden object until it’s secure in the elastic of his briefs. When he’s certain it won’t slide down, he straightens and peeks over the top of the fence to make sure no one is on the other side. Just another backyard, with the same general configuration as the one he’s in, a brick patio giving way to an oval of lawn edged with evergreen shrubs and rhododendrons, though this yard also sports exuberant flower beds blooming with late spring perennials: iris, peony, delphinium, gladioli, none of which he could name if he were asked. The house, too, is just like the one he left, a ranch with two squat wings and a daylight basement, big windows facing his direction. But he spies no faces in any of them, so he pulls himself to the top of the fence, rolls his legs over, and eases himself down. Then he’s low again, creeping along the boards until the fence meets another, this one older and silvered, with a gap in the far corner he can squeeze through sideways. Behind it is a stretch of scrubby oak woods that follow the power lines from one electrical tower to the next—stretching out their arms like the skeletons of giant robots—until they cross the freeway half a mile to the north. When he reaches the concrete sound barriers he breathes easier and takes a moment to congratulate himself, imagining a future as a master thief, pursued futilely by teams of detectives, grudgingly admired by his victims, though the house he’s broken into happens to belong to his stepfather, and he happens to have a key.
Those, along with the time and place—May of 1990 in Union Knoll, New Jersey—are the broad strokes. In the absence of witnesses, we might add some details to fill out the picture, such as the small hoop earring the boy wears in his left ear and the red and swollen lobe around it. Or the hand-stitched letters on the back of the army surplus jacket, spelling out “The Jam.” Or the overwhelming smell of the bearded irises, their upright petals a lighter shade of purple than the headscarf, the lower draping ones an orange-brown, their vaginal openings letting loose a scent that makes the boy think of overly sweetened iced tea. We should certainly take note of his seasonal allergies, triggered by the abundant pollen in the flower beds, which causes his eyes to itch and water, his nose to tingle. And we should register the sneeze he tries to muffle in his sleeve, but which escapes before he can smother it, echoing off the weathered fence boards and carrying farther than he imagines, across the flower beds and oval lawn, over the brick patio, and through the sliding glass doors of the daylight basement.
In this last case, we aren’t alone. A resident of the house, the only one at home, hears it, too, and sits up straight to listen. She has small pale ears, one of which is made prominent by an asymmetrical haircut, short on the left side, long on the right. The haircut is new, urged on her by an eager young stylist, and she isn’t yet used to the way it exposes the left side of her neck to the breeze. Nor does she like the way it shows off the increasing amount of gray close to the scalp. But she refused the coloring the stylist offered, in part because it would have added forty dollars to the bill. Even more, it would have meant another hour in the salon, where the music was loud and insipid, the chatter between another stylist and her client even more so. “I’m forty-nine years old,” she told her stylist, waving off the tubes of dye she held up, one reddish-brown, the other a sultry black, neither close to her natural walnut. “I don’t need to pretend to be something else.”
She has been living with the haircut for three days now, trying her hardest not to let anyone notice how self-conscious it makes her. She has been aware of co-workers glancing at her, though none has said a word. Her husband Jeff has told her, on several occasions, that the style suits her, shows off her attractive jawline, gives her face a look of seriousness and allure. But Jeff’s job is to make people feel good about themselves: he directs a private hospital foundation, raising millions every year by shaking hands and doling out compliments. She trusts his judgment only when he’s let his guard down—after sex, for instance—but in bed she has yet to ask what he really thinks. Nor has she brought herself to snap Polaroids and send them to either of her daughters, both of whom are away from home, one a freshman at Amherst, the other a recent Penn graduate now working as a legal secretary while preparing law school applications. Neither has ever held back in their criticism of her, and she suspects they wouldn’t now. Her son, on the other hand, would simply shrug and say, “I don’t know, Mom. I don’t care about your hair.” He, too, is off at college, finishing his junior year at a mediocre state school in the Midwest. He has always been her favorite.
The woman’s name is Dana Millen. Though it’s a Tuesday, she has stayed home from work due to a runny nose and sore throat, hoping to fend off what will likely turn into a full-blown head cold, though she has spent much of the day typing up reports in her basement office. A trained toxicologist, she works in research and development for one of the large pharmaceutical firms whose sprawling campus takes up several hundred acres of hillside a few miles down Route 10. Much of her work involves convincing executives to put safety ahead of profits, and her reports have gained a reputation for their bluntness. Unlike Jeff, she gives people her honest opinion—what the evidence has shown her—without fear of consequences. Argue with the data all you want, she often tells superiors, but in the end the numbers don’t lie. In response to the stylist’s hopeful grin and cheerful parting words—“I hope you love it!”—she said, “I think I can live with it.”
Now, however, with her throat burning and a headache developing behind her right eye, a chill running down the exposed side of her neck, she isn’t sure if even that much is true. And when she hears the sneeze in her backyard, she is sure the haircut has been a terrible mistake, one she will remedy as soon as she feels well enough to return to the salon. The sneeze makes her think, briefly, that she is being punished for going to the salon in the first place, for letting a sudden burst of vanity—or rather, a fear that it is too late for her to be vain—get in the way of practical thoughts. For three days, everyone has been staring at her, silently judging her, this woman who has always told people, without hesitation, exactly what she thinks, and now someone is watching her in her bathrobe, in her own home.
She leaves her desk. Through the sliding glass doors she glimpses a purple shape, round, among the blue-gray spikes of her iris leaves, a deeper color than any of the flowers. Then it dashes to the left, disappearing through the gap in her fence she has asked Jeff to fix more times than she can remember. Though she has the heat turned on in the house, she thinks she feels a sudden cold breeze blow in through the glass, creeping under the hem of her short robe and up between her legs.
By the time she has dialed the number for the police non-emergency line and described her situation to the dispatcher, the boy, Justin Blankenfein—for the past few months he has introduced himself as J.B.—has made it most of the way to the sound barriers. In their shadow, he slides the object from his jeans and examines it closely. It’s dark metal, oiled, a little more than a foot long, pointed at one end, cylindrical at the other, with an elbow two-thirds of the way through. A bayonet. His stepfather, Ivan Shapiro, bought it at auction earlier this year, to add to his collection. He’s a history buff, especially partial to the Revolutionary War. After all, they were living just a few miles from Jockey Hollow and Fort Nonsense, he has reminded J.B. on more than one occasion. Washington himself walked these roads. How could anyone not want to own a piece of that? So far he’s acquired half a dozen uniform buttons, three musket balls, a belt knife, and a pewter spoon, all of them found within a ten mile radius of Union Knoll, many by people digging pools in their backyards.
None of the items in the collection impressed J.B., not until Ivan shelled out three hundred and fifty bucks for the bayonet, a British make, most likely used by a member of a Loyalist militia. The only history J.B.—seventeen, a junior, and solid C+ student—finds interesting is that depicted in Quadrophenia, which he has watched more than a dozen times. Whenever Ivan describes the heroism of the patriots who freed themselves from tyranny, J.B. says something along the lines of, “They weren’t patriots. They were rebels. Traitors to the King.” He argues that they would all be better off if they’d stayed British subjects. Just look at Canada, Australia. They’d have free healthcare, less crime, and better music. Ivan, who listens mostly to Romantic symphonies and show tunes, reminds him that Americans invented the rock ’n‘ roll he loves so much. There wouldn’t have been any Beatles without Buddy Holly, he says. J.B. replies, quoting something he’s read in a book about the British Invasion, “Anyone can find a diamond, but it takes skill to polish it till it shines.”
As far as stepfathers go, Ivan isn’t the worst J.B. has heard of, though he tries too hard to find common ground. He’s a balding fifty-year-old marketing executive on his third marriage, this time to a woman more than a decade his junior. J.B.’s mother had him when she was twenty-two and did without a husband for twelve years, preferring boyfriends instead. Why she decided to marry this one, J.B. doesn’t understand, though afterward she quickly got pregnant and gave birth to J.B.’s baby sister, who is now four months old. Whether his mother really loves Ivan or not, J.B. isn’t sure; she seems annoyed with him most of the time, even though Ivan does everything he can to stay on her good side, including refraining from scolding J.B. for leaving messes around the house or drinking the six-pack of Lowenbrau Ivan brought home from the grocery, leaving his stepfather not a single can.
Stealing the bayonet might be pushing his luck too far, he knows, so he tells himself as he walks along the sound barriers that he is only borrowing it, that he’ll replace it before Ivan even notices it’s gone. But it’s too perfect a weapon for his needs not to take this chance. For over a year he’d saved up all the money from his job stocking shelves at Bradlees to buy himself a vintage Lambretta, a two-seater 1965 vt200, in almost pristine condition, which he drove to school for six weeks, until someone backed into it yesterday in the parking lot of Union Knoll High School, flattening its rear tire and crushing its rim. It will take him at least another three months to save up for repairs, and in the meantime he has to ride the bus to school again, ignoring, or trying to ignore, the kids who call him Prince Justin and ask in a butchered Oxford accent if he wants a cup of tea.
He doesn’t know which of the cars parked across from his spot hit the Lambretta, but he won’t take any chances—he hates all the kids who own those cars anyway. When he reaches the parking lot, he starts with the Monte Carlo directly opposite. The edge of the bayonet has no trouble scoring the paint, and its tip slides easily enough into a rubber tire surrounding a chrome hub cap. “For Queen and Country,” he says when the Chevy tilts to one side, and then moves on to the jacked-up Bronco beside it. This one has thick, off-road radials that give him more trouble. He has to jab a few times and then kick the socket to make the blade go all the way in. When it does, the tire gives a satisfying hiss, followed by a sound like a sigh when he pulls it out.
It’s around this time that the police car pulls up in front of Dana’s house. She has tried to return to her report on a recent toxicology screen: a new compound designed to stimulate insulin uptake in Type 2 diabetics has shown some early promise in rats, but it consistently shrinks the testicles of its male subjects. She is recommending against clinical trials, over the objections of her supervisor who has repeatedly tried to convince her to soften her stance. But now, every time she begins to type, she finds herself looking over her shoulder to see if someone is peering through the sliding glass door. She has never been accustomed to people looking at her. No one would call her pretty, though perhaps some would use the word handsome to describe her. She is slender, just shy of medium height, with sharp features that, in recent years, have grown more severe. As a young woman, she was put-together enough to catch men’s attention when she wanted it, but she has always preferred to think of herself as forgettably attractive, dressing in a way that keeps people from noticing her. Who would want to peek at her when she’s not aware? And why on the only day she has come downstairs in her robe, a knee-length silk one her husband bought her for some anniversary more than ten years earlier?
By the time the officer rings her doorbell, she has changed into work clothes: dark slacks, cream blouse, tweed blazer. The only thing she wouldn’t wear to the office or the lab are the fleece slippers she keeps on to avoid scratching the oak floors. The officer is middle-aged and mustached, broad in the shoulders and imposing behind his sunglasses. She immediately feels ridiculous for having called, even more ridiculous as she imagines him scrutinizing her behind his mirrored lenses, the haircut that obviously belongs on someone else, someone younger and prettier and more fashionable. Her nose has grown so stuffy she can hardly pull a breath through it, and her eyes itch, but she doesn’t want to rub them and make them any more red. She especially doesn’t want him to think she’s been crying over what happened.
“So,” he says, in a voice that’s surprisingly high-pitched and nasal, as he flips open his notebook. “You’ve got a peeper around. First time, or repeat?”
“First,” she says. “As far as I know.”
“Usually they been around a while before anyone notices. Were you in the shower?”
“I was in my office. I’m not home most days, but I’ve got a cold—”
“He was probably watching before that. Shower, bedroom. They’ll do anything to catch the moment you drop your drawers. When did you change into those?” he says, waving his pen at her slacks.
“Just after I saw him. I was in my robe before that. As I said, I’m home sick—”
“There you go, then,” he says. “Best defense is good thick curtains. Especially in your bathroom and bedroom.”
“I was in my office,” she says again.
“Well, let’s take a look around and see if our friend left any treasures.”
She leads him through the house, and he pauses every few steps to make notes. About which windows have curtains, maybe? About the likelihood of someone wanting to watch this nearly fifty-year-old forgettable woman drop her drawers? She’s conscious of the movement of her hips as she walks ahead of him to the stairs, and then suddenly finds it disconcerting to have a strange man with her in the house while her husband’s away. How many times has that happened during their marriage? The odd plumber or electrician, some dad come to pick up his kid, never a lover. She and Jeff haven’t had sex since she got the haircut, nor for the several weeks prior, so of course she hasn’t yet asked what he really thinks. In the basement, she shows the officer where she was sitting with her back to the door when she heard the sneeze, and then where she spotted the purple dome of what she guesses was a baseball cap before it disappeared through the hole in the fence.
“No other details you remember? Skin color, maybe? Hair?”
She can offer him nothing else, and he lets out a long breath as he nods, as if he has expected her to disappoint him. Without asking, he opens the sliding door and steps into the yard. For a moment, she sees it through his eyes—her flower beds bursting with color, the collection of gladioli that gives her such pride, even though no one but she knows how many rare varieties she has gathered—and hopes he might say something that suggests admiration. But he only turns and stares in through the glass, judging the angle, perhaps, and what he might see if he were a peeping Tom in a purple hat. She pictures herself in her chair, facing her computer screen, her thighs exposed when she crosses her legs and the robe hitches up. Does he like what he imagines?
He doesn’t say. He’s already crossing the yard to the far corner, where the hat disappeared through the fence. “First thing you oughtta do,” he calls as she follows, “is fix this. No need to roll out a welcome mat.” She doesn’t bother to tell him how many times she has asked Jeff to do so. Because now she sees how many of her irises have been trampled, a huge swath of them, their saber leaves cracked, bent, and bleeding sap.
“Son of a bitch,” she says.
The officer lifts his sunglasses, revealing small pale eyes that blink fast in the light. “These types are usually harmless beyond looking. This one’s reckless, though. They don’t usually leave a trail.” He follows it—a trail of destruction; no, devastation—across the beds lining the back fence. Her peonies toppled here, a dozen of her precious gladioli stomped near the bulb. The unease she felt earlier has begun to crimp into rage. If she had it to do over again, she thought, she’d run into the yard in her robe and thrash the creep for abusing her plants. “He came from over here,” the officer says, reaching the opposite corner, beneath the neighbors’ horse chestnut, the only attractive thing in their yard, which is otherwise functional and ugly, nothing but over-fertilized lawn and bark chips and boxwood hedges trimmed so severely they show more sticks than foliage. “Jumped the fence and went straight across. Doesn’t look like he came to your window. If he was peeping, he was doing it next door.”
Of course, she thinks, and can’t believe her disappointment. Even in her robe, even with the silly haircut, even if she dropped her drawers in the middle of the yard, who would bother to glance in her direction?
When he’s finished with the Bronco, J.B. crawls over to a red LeBaron to its right. Even though it’s unlikely to have been the culprit, given the difficult angle it would have needed to hit the Lambretta with much force, it feels too good to wield the bayonet to stop now. He’s punishing traitors to the King, crushing the uprising. He’s standing up for the Mods against the greasy Rockers, like his hero Jimmy Cooper, except he has no intention of ending up like Jimmy, wrecked on pills, his Lambretta crushed and gone for good.
This time, however, there is a witness, tracking him in the rearview mirror of a little black Celica in the row opposite. She watches him crouch between the cars, run the pointed object the length of the LeBaron’s driver’s door, and then stick its end into the rear tire, near the pavement, where it might be hard to spot the hole. When he pulls it out, over the hiss he hears someone call, “Hey,” which makes him flatten himself against the ground. But the “Hey” isn’t alarmed so much as curious. He searches for its source and finds it in the face of a girl hanging out of a car only a few yards across the asphalt. He recognizes her—Jeannie Catanzaro, the younger sister of a kid in his biology class—though he’s never spoken to her before. But she waves him over as if they’re old friends. When he gets close, he hears that the car is running, and the stereo is on. If she’s listening to some hair-metal band—Poison or Ratt or Warrant—he’ll split. But the sounds that come out are jaunty quick drums, moody synthesizer, a mournful and agonized voice with an unmistakably British accent. The Cure. He can live with that. “How about you get the one over there?” she says, pointing down the aisle. “The white pick-up.”
“Friend of yours?”
“Asshole of the century,” she says. She’s a pointy-faced girl with frizzy hair that falls in dark ringlets over much of her face. Skinny arms stick out of the loose sleeves of a too-large black t-shirt, the four faces of Depeche Mode screen-printed across its front in white. She chews gum frantically, shifting it from her back teeth to her front, pushing the start of a bubble out with her tongue, sucking it back before blowing it larger. “Deserves the knife somewhere else. But tires’ll do.”
“Not a knife,” he says, and holds up the bayonet so she can see its full length. “This baby’s been taking out traitors since 1776.”
“Whatever the fuck it is,” she says. “Long as it causes pain.”
He pops his head up to make sure no one else is in the lot. He doesn’t have a watch but guesses it’s still third period, which means another hour before kids start skipping out of study hall and driving aimlessly around town. The white pick-up, a Sierra, is brand new, its paint job perfect. This time he makes Xs on the doors and takes out all four tires. He glances up once to see Jeannie watching him without expression through her curls. She can’t be more than fifteen. The Celica must be her brother Vic’s, a sporty kid in golf shirts and spiked hair, friendly to everyone, including J.B., who can’t stand him. She watches until the truck settles on its rims and then pulls her head back in. For good measure, he cuts the wires to the license plate lights.
When he creeps back to her, she’s leaning against the seat, eyes closed. Out of the speakers comes Robert Smith’s lament, Whenever I’m alone with you . . . “You want to wait and see how he likes it?” he asks. “Or should we get out of here?”
“I can’t drive,” she says. “I don’t even have my permit yet.”
Instead of doing what he suggests, she opens the driver’s door, shoves him aside with the heel of her hand, and walks around the hood to the passenger side. He drops into the seat and looks for a place to stash the bayonet. When she climbs in beside him, she grabs it out of his hand, gouges the dashboard, the armrest, the fabric around the door handle, and lays it across her lap, as if she might soon need it again.
“Not so big on Vic,” he says. “Another asshole of the century?”
“Millennium,” she says.
“I thought everyone loved him. Isn’t he supposed to be all Mr. I’ll-do-anything-for-people-even-if-they-think-I’m-a-wanna-be-douche?”
“Including pimping out his sister. To assholes who already have a girlfriend.”
Now Robert Smith moans about Spiderman eating him for dinner. “You ever listen to All Mod Cons?” he asks as he backs the Celica out of its spot.
“Touch my fucking music,” Jeannie says, lifting the bayonet, “and I’ll stick this through you, too.”
After the officer leaves, telling her as he walks to his car that he’ll patrol the neighborhood for a few days, keep an eye out for anything suspicious, Dana goes next door and rings the bell. Despite headache and sore throat, she thinks it’s the right thing to do. And she’s already dressed to go out. She doesn’t know the neighbors well, though she has lived next to them for most of a decade. Or at least next to one of them. Ivan Shapiro was married to a different woman when he first moved here, but she and her children left three years ago. The new wife appeared not long after, with an odd teenage son who stayed with them half the week, puttering up and down the street on an old scooter, wearing a big round helmet with a clear visor that made him look like the alien from Bugs Bunny cartoons her kids once watched on Saturday mornings. She looked too young to have a teenage son, slender but full-hipped and bosomy, and soon enough she had a baby as well. She’s carrying the infant when she opens the door now, her fine features pinched as if she expects to find someone selling vacuum cleaners on her front steps, or a religion that would make her give up drinking wine. Dana has met her on a couple of occasions, but she can’t remember her name, and there’s no sign of recognition in the woman’s eyes. Unlike Dana, whose body always returned to its natural boniness after each of her kids was born, she is still curvy after pregnancy, with wide soft lips and big sleepy eyes, a woman built, it seems, for sex and childbearing. The officer would have no trouble imagining someone peeping at her.
“Sorry to bother you,” Dana says. “I’m—you probably don’t remember—from next door?”
The woman looks at her strangely, leaning away. The haircut, she thinks. It’s even more hideous than she realized.
“We met at the Sambors’ barbecue,” she goes on. “It was a while ago. And you were still pregnant then.” She pauses, glances behind her, half-expecting to see someone in a purple hat watching her. But there’s nothing but empty street where the police car has been. When she turns back, the infant has eyes locked on her, its tongue working at its lower lip. “Your baby’s lovely,” she says. “Is it a boy?”
“Does she look like a boy?” the woman asks.
“She’s beautiful,” Dana says. “Anyway, I wanted to let you know . . . there’s been an incident in the neighborhood.”
“An incident,” the woman says, a statement rather than a question.
“I called the police.”
The infant starts to squirm, and the woman grips her tighter. “What sort of incident?”
“A pervert,” she says. “Looking in windows.”
The woman leans back farther. “Are you accusing my kid?”
“No, no,” Dana says. She’s confused for a moment, thinking the woman means the infant, before remembering the older son, the alien on a scooter. “It wasn’t even my window.”
“He’s a weirdo, but he’s no perv. And he’s at his dad’s till Friday.”
“I’m sure it was a stranger,” Dana says. “The policeman. He saw footsteps leading to your yard. That’s why I wanted to let you know.”
“He was probably peeking in your window. You know, when you were dressing, or in the shower.”
“He watched me in the shower?” the woman asks, not horrified, it seems, but puzzled, possibly intrigued. The infant’s tongue, meanwhile, works hard now at an absent nipple, nose nuzzling the woman’s chest.
“Thick curtains,” Dana says. “That’s the best defense. But the police’ll be keeping an eye out. I gave a description.”
“What did he look like?”
“Well, all I saw was his hat.”
“That’s it?” the woman asks, and now her look turns to one of disdain, as if Dana has betrayed her by not seeing more.
“It was purple.”
“I have to feed her now,” the woman says, taking a step back again, the disgusted look deepening. And now Dana understands why. She feels the drop hanging from her left nostril, and having nothing else to use, swipes it with the sleeve of her blazer. But it’s too late. She feels the sneeze coming on even as she tries to hold it back. She swivels away, and it rocks her body, splattering her arm. Behind her, the door slams shut.
J.B. isn’t comfortable driving a manual transmission, and he grinds the Celica’s gears every time he has to downshift. But Jeannie doesn’t seem to care. On their way across town, she occasionally jabs the seat between her knees with the end of the bayonet and digs out a handful of stuffing. While he drives, J.B. grieves out loud over the Lambretta, describing its perfect paint job, not green and red like Jimmy Cooper’s—too Christmas, he always thought—but blue and white, everything original but the handlebars. “Those fuckers had to go out of their way to hit it,” he says. “I parked it all the way up at the front of the spot, and they backed into it straight on. Took out the basket completely, and the spare, too. I’ll never get originals to replace them.” Jeannie doesn’t answer. She leans forward and reaches for the knob on the stereo. He expects her to jack it up, drown him out, but instead she turns it down. He takes this as an invitation to keep talking. “They won’t be backing into anything now, right? But you gotta promise not to tell anyone you saw me. I’ve already got one suspension this year. They’ll boot me for good.”
She doesn’t promise anything, instead leaning her head against the window and saying, “Let’s go down to the lake. I need to look at something calm.”
“Scooter people, they’re crazy for Vespas,” he says. “But Lambrettas are way classier. You ever see Quadrophenia? Every time I watch Ace Face’s ride go over the cliff at the end, I feel sick to my stomach.” Jeannie doesn’t give any sign that she knows what he’s talking about, but neither does she tell him to quit talking. “There’s a rally in eastern P.A. next month. I’m definitely going. At least if I can get it running again. Scooters from all over the country. It’s a great scene.” He stops short of inviting her to join him but does add, “It’s a two-seater,” and gives her a quick glance. Her head is tilted back again, eyes closed, and what look like tear-streaks run from their corners, though they might just be shadows cast by branches of overhead trees. “When it’s fixed, I’ll give you a spin,” he adds. “I could take you home from school in the afternoon, so you don’t have to ride with this asshole,” he says, tapping a knuckle on the Celica’s dashboard. “Except for Thursdays. I got fencing practice right after ninth period.”
“You’re seriously into swords,” she says, twirling the tip of the bayonet in small circles near his shoulder. She says it without inflection, and he can’t tell if the words suggest interest or derision.
“It’s authentic,” he says. “Standard issue for the colonial British army.” And then he decides to try out the line that has so far failed to move Ivan. “Think about how much better off we’d be if they won.”
“Higher taxes,” Jeannie says.
“You’re a fucking traitor,” she says, twirling the bayonet closer to his chin, but this time her voice has some life in it, and it’s accompanied by a quick smile, the first he’s seen.
“Next year, after I’m done at this turd of a school? I’m going straight to London. I don’t care what I have to do to stay. Wash dishes under the table for nothing? I don’t care.”
“They would’ve won if the French hadn’t helped us,” Jeannie says. “No one ever talks about that.”
This is more encouragement than he’s ever gotten from Ivan, and it spurs him on. “We might not pay as much tax, but look what happens. We end up with shitty schools where assholes of the century get to act like royalty.”
They’ve reached the edge of the lake, and as he downshifts to turn onto Lenape Road and skirt the north shore, J.B. thinks he smells smoke from the Celica’s transmission. The trees are denser here, and now that the shadows are stable, he can see that Jeannie’s cheeks aren’t tear-streaked, but the skin below her eyes is dark, her upper lip and nostrils chapped and raw. “He was nice at first,” she says, quietly now. “That’s what makes it so awful. The way they trick you into believing they give a shit about you, and then they’re off with some fucking—I don’t care. I’m done with it now.”
Development thins and then peters out at the west end of the lake, and he follows a gravel road to a small clearing at its end. Beer cans are scattered all over the dead leaves where he parks, but on a Tuesday morning, it’s otherwise empty. They walk down to the water, Jeannie still holding the bayonet, swinging it at tall weeds and blackberry canes like a machete. He knows his stepfather will notice any nicks or stains or smudges, but he’ll never say a word about it to J.B. Maybe it’s unfair of J.B. to take advantage of him—or rather, to take advantage of his fear that J.B.’s mother will lose interest in him—but he enjoys the freedom it allows, the power he’s never had over anyone, especially not his own father, who doesn’t let him get away with anything: knocking five minutes off his curfew for every minute he’s late, for example, or making him scrub the driveway when his scooter leaked a few drops of oil on the pavement. Still, he has always planned to return the bayonet before Ivan comes home from work and let them both pretend nothing has happened. Only now does he wonder if he might be able to sell it instead, use the money to fix the Lambretta. If his stepfather paid three-fifty, maybe he could pawn it for two.
But Jeannie is moving quickly down the steep path to the muddy shore. When she gets there, she holds the bayonet by its socket high over her head. “Excalibur,” she calls. “I cast thee back into the depths!”
“Wait,” J.B. cries, but it’s too late. Her arm snaps forward, her fingers separate, and the bayonet flies end over end a dozen yards before slicing the surface and vanishing. The water is deep at this end of the lake, twenty feet easy. “That was two hundred years old,” he says when he catches up to her.
“Still is,” she says. “But you gotta hide the murder weapon. No way I’m getting expelled over that asshole.”
“It cost three hundred and fifty bucks,” he says, and feels sorry for Ivan, knowing he’ll never say anything about the missing bayonet, will just accept it as part of the payment for a young, beautiful wife who might leave him at any moment.
“The Lady of the Lake will keep it safe,” she says. “Until the rightful heir appears.”
“For the glory of all England,” he says.
“I don’t make out with just anyone,” she says, turning to him abruptly, her skinny arms crossed over her chest and cutting off half the head of each member of Depeche Mode. “I expect them to stick around.”
“I pledge my loyalty to the crown,” he says, which seems to satisfy her enough that when he steps toward her, she stays in place.
That’s where we might leave it: the bayonet in the lake, the couple embracing on its shore. Or perhaps we should add some details about the moment J.B.’s stepfather arrives home. A well-dressed man with thinning gray hair arranged carefully over the exposed areas of his scalp, he exits his car, walks through the garage and into the rec room, notices the open cabinet where he keeps his collectibles. He examines the empty space on the top shelf, billows with anger, and goes upstairs to ask his wife if she’s noticed J.B. messing around with this stuff. We might then take note that this time he doesn’t hesitate, decides he’s finished holding back. He’s tired of being married to another woman whose love feels so conditional. If she leaves him, he’ll find someone homely and desperate, he thinks, someone who’ll appreciate anything he has to offer. But when he reaches the top of the stairs, his wife runs to him, puts the arm not holding their infant around his neck, and says she’s so glad he’s home, she’s been so terrified, someone was peeping in her window when she got out of the shower. Her voice is aghast, though her eyes are wild and sultry. “The neighbor called the police, thank God,” she says. “Who knows what would have happened otherwise.” Before long he has promised to buy new curtains and install a security system, which until now he believed was a waste of money. He doesn’t bring up the bayonet.
Or else we might head next door to document the moment Dana’s husband returns from work to find her in bed. She is surrounded by used tissues. Her nose is bright red, while the rest of her face is paler than usual. Rather than resting, however, she is sitting up, reading over the report she typed earlier in the day, making edits with a green pen.
“Your hair,” he says.
She puts a hand up to feel it. For the last hour she forgot about it but now remembers and is relieved once more. After returning from the neighbor’s, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of kitchen shears and did away with the asymmetrical swoop. She cut both sides equally short, so that now her style is boyish, perhaps sexless, iron gray all the way through. Even after showering, she still feels little clippings tickling her ears. “I decided it wasn’t right,” she says, one nostril entirely clogged, her voice sounding hollow in her ears, strangely timid. She sits up, so that the shoulders of the silk robe are visible, the wide opening at the neck and the lace nightgown beneath. “What do you think?”
He nods, loosens his tie, pauses. She thinks he might finally say something honest, tell her what she has long suspected: that he has stopped finding her attractive; that he occasionally reaches for her at night only out of a sense of duty; that if he were a different man—like Ivan Shapiro next door—he might trade her in for someone younger. Such honesty would be refreshing despite its sting. But he is not one to surprise her after so many years. “Looks like your cold got worse,” he says. “I can sleep downstairs tonight. Give you some space.”
“I need you to fix the fence,” she says.
“They trampled my irises.”
“I’ll take care of it this weekend,” he says. “Can I get you some tea or something? You sound pretty rough.” He changes into jeans and a sweatshirt, says he’ll go start dinner. Before leaving the room, he lingers at the door. “I think I like it better this way,” he says. “It suits you. Shows off your lovely neck all the way around.”
Then he ducks out. Dana reaches for another tissue. And that’s where we’ll leave her, too, sitting up in her empty bed, in the old robe that has begun to fray. She raises the tissue to her face. We won’t wait to see whether she uses it to blow her nose or dab at her eyes.
Scott Nadelson is the author of seven books, most recently the story collection One of Us. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, Harvard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Best American Short Stories 2020. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.Day - End by Peter James Eisenhaure