The Raccoon

Lori liked hanging out at her sister’s pool. It was an aboveground pool, plenty expensive, couple of thousand dollars at least, not to mention the upkeep; and now that Lori’s boyfriend, Hank, had built the sister, Barb, a deck to wrap around it—for nothing, Lori’d like to add—it really did seem sort of uptown.

She was beside it now, listening to Carrie Underwood. She’d voted for Carrie every week on American Idol, before the credits even began to roll, sneaking onto the American Idol website every few hours at work to read Simon’s blog or to check, avidly, the latest posts from the Carrie-ites. When Carrie finally had won, Lori’d jumped from the couch, full-fledged whooping, upsetting her Bud Lite and her ashtray from the arm of the couch, a Doral 100 still burning. Even as she’d swatted ash from the carpet and rubbed at the burn with a spit-wetted forefinger, she still beat her fist on the floor. It felt like—and she knew how this sounded—one of the happiest moments of her life, like she was a part of something bigger and better and bolder than anything she could ever hope to be. Hank was happy, too—he’d also been rooting for Carrie—but he did say, “Goddamn, woman, you’d think you’d just won the dang lottery,” and she’d felt ashamed, silly. It was as if she’d been preening, twirling around the living room in a brand new dress, flush with pride, and some voice, not Hank’s, but some older voice, had reprimanded her from the night outside.

The sun had lacquered everything a blinding white. Lori had to squint, even through sunglasses. Her son Dougie asked, “Mom, do we have to listen to this shit again? You already played it once.” Dougie was twenty-five, though he looked about sixteen, a young sixteen, because of his diabetes; and he had two kids, her grandkids, April and Jeannie. Hank was always saying to anybody who would listen, “Lord, you’d think the sun rose and moon set on them grandkids the way she makes over them.” He always said this affectionately, and in those moments her love for him felt solid and certain as steel.

“Well, you’re not listening to that goddamned rap if that’s what you think,” she said. That fairly well shut him up because rap was all he did listen to.

Almost everybody was there: Dougie’s wife, Sue; Lori’s other son, Timmy; his girlfriend, Darla; and Judy, Lori’s other daughter.

People always said, when something like this happened, “It all happened so fast.” How many times had she heard that on CNN after some car wreck or tornado, after 9/11? Now she knew why. Suddenness was the motor that drove whatever was out of control and careening itself into your life. One second you were lifting up from the lawn chair for a sip of beer, to rub in some more sunblock—it was hot as a blister out. You were saying, “Jeannie, get your butt away from the edge of that pool before Nanny comes over there and swats your bottom,” and you were thinking how good those grilled burgers were going to be later—you’d just come to the edges of real hunger—when, suddenly, “it all happened so fast:” there was this godawful racket, screeching like braked car tires on wet pavement, and huge thumps on the newly constructed deck, and just out of the corner of the eye, something gray, brown, big, furred, tumbling behind you, and Jeannie’s screams, and then Barb’s, and then everyone’s. “Holy fuck,” Hank said, and then, by magic—that was the only possible explanation—Jeannie’s small, sun-soaked body was clutched against your own, her wet bathing cap cool and rough against your shoulder, and then time skipped like a needle across an old-fashioned record: you were in the pool, you all were, the water was freezing, and Jeannie’s bathing cap scraped across your shoulder as she turned away from the violence, but she didn’t stop screaming, and it vibrated into the hollow where your breast used to be, and you pressed her against you as if you could press her into you and tried, vainly, to blink the chlorine from your eyes. Your hair was soaked. You hated to get your hair wet.

It was two raccoons: one smaller, and one the size of a three-year-old, a four-year-old even. Lori didn’t know how large raccoons were supposed to be, but this one seemed unnaturally large—a Goliath of its species—and it was on its hind legs, billowed above the smaller one, tearing into it with long, curved, black and shining talons and swooping down to bite out ragged chunks of fur and flesh. He—it could only be a male—yanked out her eyes—it could only be a female—and seemed to be trying to push her through the floorboards. Lori felt this terrible, scalding tenderness for the littler one, the dying, or the dead one.

Jeannie still screamed, and so did Lori’s sister. Sue was saying, hysterically, “It’s alright, it’s alright,” to April, who was wrapped around her, red-faced and bawling. “Lord God,” Hank kept saying. Dougie started yelling, “Do something,” and so Timmy began to beat water toward the fray, his hands crashing across the surface, arcing clear, tattered sheets through the air; and Lori, who had been gripped in a grim silence as tightly as her granddaughter was gripped in her arms, shouted, “Stop, stop, stop!” because the water, shattering over the stained and varnished boards of the new deck, had gotten the murderer’s attention, and his triangular head had jerked up from his victim, and he had stared directly and deeply right into Lori. His eyes were black and polished and flat, remorseless—there was nothing there, they were just sunk into his face like two perfect stones in a crystal clear creek above his bloody, expressionless mouth—above a dingy, white chest streaked bright red and linted with bits of grass and leaf, throbbing with the labored breath of his task. “You, you, you, you,” she heard with every breath.

“Goddammit,” Hank said, and he leaned onto the porch, grabbed the pool skimmer, and threw it, spear-like, at the raccoon, missing; but the animal did drop to all fours, arch its back, and lift the enormous brush of its gray tail. It leapt from the porch, sprinted across the yard, and scrambled over the fence.

Jeannie whimpered into the crook of Lori’s arm, and water lapped against the blue vinyl of the pool’s sides. Those were the only sounds. There was this incredible stillness until a crow’s caw ripped the air above them. Lori pulled her bathing suit strap from Jeannie’s hand and righted it back on her shoulder. Everything had this extraordinary clarity. The chlorine was dazzling in her nose. Her own heart, which she now realized had been whizzing in her chest, was thudding back down. She could not stop staring at the small, dead raccoon. She could see it, but she could not see it. Or rather, she could see the bloody lump of it, but she couldn’t see in the way she felt she needed to see, which was beyond it, or into it, or somehow a part of every single solitary thing around it so that it was whole again. But it stubbornly refused to be anything but the fact of what it was—dead and only dead.

Hank hauled himself up the pool’s little stepladder, his ponytail a curled and frozen snake across his back, water gushing from his shorts. He took the plastic yellow bag they’d brought the Tupperware bowl of spaghetti salad in and made a crude glove of it around both his hands, then formed it around the dead raccoon. The bag sloped heavily and grew brackish with blood, which mixed eerily with the letters of SAFEWAY. Blood everywhere—who would have thought such a tiny body could contain so much?—on the boards of the new porch, the lawn furniture, the cooler. Tufts of fur like dandelion down and a quarter-sized flick of flesh, pink and innocent as lip gloss, had found its way to her beach towel, which featured a napping banana in a sombrero and exclaimed “Wasting away again in Margaritaville” in large, swooping script.

Hank slipped into his flip-flops and scooped up his chiming keys. “I’m gonna go throw this in the woods. I don’t think we should just put it in the garbage.”

The woods? There were “the woods?” Where? Lori couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen anything that could be called “the woods.”  All around them were mini-malls with nail salons staffed by Korean women, and discount cigarette shops, and Sizzlers. It was like some form of Morse code: mini-mall, gas station, McDonald’s; mini-mall, gas station, Shoney’s.

They stood in the pool until they heard Hank’s truck crunch out of the driveway. First Dougie got out, then Timmy, followed by Darla. When Sue tried to set April on the deck so that Sue could get out, too, April screamed bloody murder and Sue was forced to lug the both of them up the little ladder, which wobbled.

That left Lori and her sister Barb in the pool. Jeannie had gone from horizontal to vertical and now clung to Lori’s neck. Her arms had never felt so fragile. They felt like the slightest breeze might snap them.

“Well,” Barb said, “I guess we need to go and clean this mess up.”

But neither of them moved. Lori thought that it was entirely possible that they might stand there forever, listening to the efficient hum of the water pump, looking at the azalea bushes garlanding the house that were about to burst into gales of pink and white (that’s what she’d turned to when she couldn’t bear to look at the deck anymore), letting the sweet scent of the grass tickle its way through chlorine, a kind of respite. But then Dougie said, toweling off his hair, “That’s the damndest thing I ever saw,” and Lori realized that she wanted one of the cigarettes on the table by her lawn chair.

Jeannie wasn’t about to let go, so Lori lugged herself and her granddaughter up the rickety ladder, stained with rust in patches. The boards of the new deck were scorched with sun and burned the bottoms of her feet. The lawn chair wasn’t any better, and she sat on the very edge of it, the wet bottom of her bathing suit absorbing some of the heat. Still, it was too warm.

“Barb,” Lori said. “Come get this baby, so I can get a cigarette,” but Jeannie shook her head furiously, no, so Lori sighed and leaned back, found the pack in its leather case embossed with tiny periwinkles, the blue rubbed away. She had to stretch even farther for the lighter. With the baby anchored to her, it all felt like the hardest labor. She shook a cigarette out and lipped it to her mouth so she wouldn’t dampen it, got it lit. When she pulled it from her mouth with the scissors of her fingers, that’s when it started—the shaking. Though it all happened in a blink, the shaking proceeded logically, with a mind of its own. First, her fingers shook so badly she thought she’d drop the cigarette (and now the filter was damp and wrinkled). Then, it sped up her arm, and, after that, she lost track—it was everywhere. The sun still blanketed everything with its sodden heat; she definitely did not feel cold, but she shook like rain battering a storm window.

“Barb,” she said a little too emphatically, her voice vibrating now. “Come and get this baby.”

“No,” Jeannie said, muffled, into the skin of her neck.

Barb already had the hose out and she was blasting the new deck, flooding away the blood and the fur. The tainted water slid between the slats of wood, but you could already see that there would be at least one flat, black memorial, irregularly shaped like a singular map of an unnamed continent. “Hold up,” she said. “Let me get this cleaned up.”

“No, now,” Lori said, and there was no disguising the scrabbling panic in her voice.

“Alright, alright,” Barb said, looping the hose over the glass top of the patio table.

Barb pulled at Jeannie, but Jeannie wasn’t going without a fight, and she held tight against Lori’s neck with all the force her tiny arms could muster, and Lori held her cigarette at arm’s length, scared she was going to burn her granddaughter in the chaos of the tug-of-war and the shaking, and now she was falling from the edge of the chair and the sun-bleached whiteness of everything was blinding until, when she couldn’t take one more second, she finally yelled, “Let go of Nanny,” and the arms broke from her, and she stopped herself and the chair from tumbling over with her left hand, which somehow, miraculously, did not drop  the now hopelessly wet cigarette, though it was broken, the ember dangerously close to her pinky, a little bouquet of tobacco sprouting from the crack.

Jeannie sat in the hammock of Barb’s arms, sucking her thumb. Lori didn’t have the energy to tell her to get that thumb out of her mouth. Jeannie’s pink bow barrette was sunk in a nest of wet hair, and her bathing suit looked like it had been twisted on her, and rhinestones of water glittered on her brown skin, and her blue eyes were wide with disappointment and curiosity. This was not the nanny who indulged her and scared away the spooks, who ruled everywhere she went.

“Are you alright?” Barb asked. She seemed, how could Lori describe it, so reassuringly normal, like the only normal thing left, standing there in her one-piece (they’d both gotten theirs on sale at the Wal-Mart in the spring), nose zinc-oxided, even the small tattoo—a palm tree at sunset in bright oranges and greens and yellows—above her ankle.

“I just need to sit for a minute,” Lori said. She wanted, desperately, another cigarette, but she knew she’d never get through the whole ritual of lighting one again, what with the shaking, so she wrapped her arms around her middle and breathed deeply, which set off a coughing spell.

“You’re shaking like a leaf.”

“I know.”

“And you are as white as a sheet under that tan.”

All Lori could do was shake her head. She felt white as a sheet. Her blood felt like it was in all the wrong places—not enough here, too much there.

“Do you want a nerve pill?” Barb asked.

A nerve pill. Yes. The floaty clouds of it. She nodded, tired of hearing her voice quiver against her will.

“Come on, baby,” Barb said, nuzzling Jeannie’s face, who smiled but turned her head and the thumb fell out of her mouth. “Let’s go get your nanny some drugs before she shakes clean off this deck your papa built. That raccoon like to have given all of us a heart attack.”


That night, Hank had suggested that they go to the Moose and have a couple of beers. Debbie and Steve were gonna be there. Joe and Cathy, too. But no, Lori said, she was tired from the sun, and that was partially true; she was tired from the sun and still a little bit swimmy from the Valium, but there was this other bone-tiredness. She hadn’t even changed her suit when she’d come home, just flapped the beach towel over her end of the couch. To hell if the cushion got damp. If anybody else had done that, she’d have pitched a fit, but Hank of course didn’t notice. He was already out on the patio, sipping a Busch beer and firing up the grill. They hadn’t cooked over at Caitlin’s after all. No one had been hungry. Lori had just left her spaghetti salad.

Now she clicked on the Program Guide, gazing as the words scrolled by; but when she got to Animal Planet, as “When Animals Attack” sailed serenely up, she flipped to CMT to be done with it. A George Strait video was on, an old one, “All My Exes Live In Texas,” which had tickled her when it had first come out—she sometimes youtubed it. Tonight, she found it vaguely depressing, all those exes, but not enough to search for another channel.

The patio door slid open and she started. But it was only the head of Hank poking through the curtains of the patio door, as if he were holding it on a stick, saying, “Baby, steaks going on the grill. Get those baked potatoes and corn in the microwave.”

But Lori just sat there. This must be an Oldies Block or a Night of Nineties because now Faith Hill was on, “Breathe,” a pretty song, though Faith Hill, with her unnaturally bright hair, got on Lori’s nerves. Carrie Underwood had been a nobody until Americans like Lori had voted her into a somebody, and that, somehow, seemed more forgivable.

This was ridiculous. The steaks were on the grill, and there she sat. The cushions behind her were now officially damp—she’d have to take a blow-dryer and some Febreeze to them before she went to bed; otherwise, they’d smell of mildew by morning. The patio door curtains were closed, and the room was dusky; but a shaft of setting sun, a perfect triangle of it, illuminated the television, and she could see every smudge, the shimmery layer of dust, specks of God only knew what across the screen.

That did it. She got up, grabbed the towel from behind her, and gently rubbed the screen. She’d read somewhere that you could damage the screen if you rubbed too hard, and Hank would scream bloody murder if that happened. The TV had cost close to a couple thousand dollars, which still seemed unreal to her. If only she’d known how the world would change: how she’d pay for channels and bottles of plain old water, five dollars for a pack of cigarettes and no end in sight, not that she could smoke them anywhere anymore, anyway. At work, she and Steve and Linda and a couple of the others had to stand practically beside the dumpster, which always reeked of something. “AT LEAST TWENTY FEET AWAY FROM THE DOOR,” the sign read, and, at least once a week, Steve would take a big drag and blow the blue cloud as far as he could toward the door, wink, and say, “Yep, we’re a dying breed.” The first time, she really had laughed. Now, she faked a smile back at him and sometimes said, “Yep.” More and more, she didn’t want to be reminded of death on her break.

Under the glide of her towel, the Dixie Chicks were singing a song she couldn’t remember the name of. But it was one back from the days when they were really country, with plenty of fiddle, before they up and got political, saying terrible things about the president, getting their CDs burned by the country fans, finally making that weird video where they swished their black dresses and did those weird dance moves, thumbing their noses at the whole country community. To be honest, Lori wouldn’t give you two thin dimes for politics. From what she’d occasionally glean from CNN or the Top Stories on her Yahoo homepage, most politicians seemed like little more than crooks looking after their own kind, and she was pretty damn sure she wasn’t their kind. She’d never voted; but it did seem wrong to speak against your country when the troops were over in Iraq and Afghanistan—she sometimes even forgot about Afghanistan until the six o’clock news showed the high school picture of some local boy who had been blown-up or friendly-fired, anyway dead—fighting the terrorists. She was half-glad Dougie had diabetes and couldn’t serve. The one time Timmy, between the cable TV installer job and the pizza delivery one, had said he was thinking about joining the service, she’d been stirring a pot of beans, and she’d said, “Over my dead body,” and that seemed to have been the end of it. She knew that was probably unpatriotic, but she’d be damned if she was going let one of her sons run off to the desert to die, even if it was for his country. Country or no country, dead was dead.

She put the potatoes in the microwave and the corn in a pan on the stove. All her pans were bent or burnt or both. She briefly considered asking Hank for a new set for her birthday come fall, but was so instantly and utterly depressed by the idea—she knew she’d end up picking them up herself—that she literally shook the thought from her head.

Upstairs she ran a brush through her hair, got into a pair of shorts and an old NASCAR T-shirt from when she and Hank had gone to Daytona a few years back. The letters, the race car, the plume of smoke: all of them ghosts of themselves. The bedroom looked careworn tonight, like it hadn’t been properly looked after, some foster care child of a bedroom. Her makeup and her fingernail polishes and a couple of genuine china figurines she’d ordered on a whim from the Home Shopping Club looked exactly like what they were, set down wherever she had set them, with no rhyme or reason. One of the figurines was of Venus, goddess of love, and the other was of Bacchus, god of wine. At the time, she’d thought they were pretty in their peach and pink and azure glazes—the saleslady had gone on and on about how they’d been hand-glazed in Italy—and she’d thought that the goddess of love and the god of wine were the perfect deities to preside over a bedroom. But now she could see that Venus looked sad, not as if she were bestowing love, but as if she’d lost one; and Bacchus looked grim, not some god of revels, but a mean drunk itching for a fight. She had a half a mind to stow both of them away in the box in the closet where she kept the things she didn’t want anymore but couldn’t quite bear to throw away yet. Maybe later.

Downstairs, the microwave beeped and the patio door rumbled open and Hank hollered, “Steaks ready.”

She looked in the mirror, grim as Bacchus, shook a finger at herself, and said, “That’ll be quite enough out of you, lady.”


Sometimes the heat, even at night, was choking, stuffed into the air around you. But this evening it had slunk away, and little silken summer breezes, perfumed by the tomato plants she grew around the edges of the patio, whispered over her skin, which was still faintly hot from the day’s tanning and faintly sticky from where she hadn’t showered off the Hawaiian Tropic. Even the coconut of that, which could be sickly sweet, was fragrant in a delicious way. Yes, that was it exactly. Everything seemed delicious. Even the paper plates, speckled in pepper and smeared in A1 and flaked in potato, didn’t seem the aftermath they usually did, but the evidence of domestic—what did they say?—bliss. But it wasn’t bliss; bliss was too wild and too strong. This was more evidence of contentment, which had bliss beat all to pieces. How she loved their little patio tonight: the way the light from the red jar of the mosquito candle wavered over the fishing net Hank had draped over the back fence, the conch shells and starfish, and a real stuffed marlin he’d bought off some old dude on the pier where he liked to fish when they went to the beach for the weekend, and a Little Mermaid. Hank was thoughtful that way. He would think to throw in a Little Mermaid for the grandkids.

This was their little piece of the pie, even if it was just a patch of earth off the back of an apartment. There were these pockets of life when everything was peaceful and nothing had ever gone wrong or ever would.

She was actually feeling, well, romantic, and she slipped a foot out of her flip-flop and began to stroke his leg with her big toe. The hair of him tickled, and she giggled.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.


“I’m not funny. You’re the one laughing for no good reason.”

“You are one hairy motherfucker.”

“A regular caveman.” He beat his chest and howled like Tarzan. Loud.

“Hank, hush. We don’t want the neighbors calling the cops again. Lavinia’ll have ‘em out here quicker than a minute.”

“Aw, let her. She’s just jealous ‘cause she don’t never have any fun and she probably never did,” and then he let loose with a wolf howl—ew, ew, eeeeeeeeeewwwwwwww . . .

“Hank, I’m serious,” she said, but she knew she didn’t sound the least bit serious because she was laughing, so she scratched him a good one with her toenail to get him to quit.

“Ow. You know what that there’s called, don’t you? That there’s called spousal abuse. I saw it on TV. When Lavinia calls the cops, you’re gone be the one they’re toting away.” He grabbed her foot with one hand and tickled it with the other.

She. Could. Not. Stand. To have her feet tickled. “Hank,” she shrieked, between explosions of laughter, “you stop that this instant. Hank . . .”—she writhed in her lawn chair—“QUIT. I mean it. Hank. I am not playing. I am gonna throw this beer all over you.”

“I dare you,” he said, tickling even harder.

And so she did. Even with the writhing and the wobbly candlelight, she could see she’d gotten him good: wet streaked across his face; pearls of it in his beard, his moustache; slashed across his T-shirt.

“Oh, now you’ve gone and done it,” he said, jumping toward her.

She wasn’t exactly petite anymore, what with the years and a few kids; but Hank was strong from years of construction, and he lifted her straight into the air with one arm and smacked her ass with the other. “You see what happens to girls who misbehave? Do ya? Huh? Do ya?”

“Hank, put me down right this second,” she said, slapping his back just as hard as she could, “or I’m gonna—,” but she couldn’t finish, partially because she was still laughing and partially because she couldn’t figure out what she was going to do. She was a kid again, swinging so high she might wrap herself around the swing set, running hard and fast for no good reason except it felt good, stomping in rain puddles until she was soaked.

“What are you gonna do, huh?” he said, still swatting her.

“I’m gonna holler for Lavinia.”

For some reason, that stopped him—probably the memory of the cops she had called, though he still held her firmly in the air. “Oh yeah? You go right ahead. I’ll whup her ass, too. She could use a good spanking.”

“She’d die of a heart attack.”

“Ooooohhhhh Laviniaaaaaa,” he called. “I got something for yooooooouuuuuuu . . .”

She wished she could stop laughing because she knew it was only encouraging him. “Hank Haney, you stop this minute before you get us in trouble.” She pushed up on his shoulders and looked down at him. One stubbled cheek glistened with beer. Candlelight undulated under a crosshatch of gray hair on his bald spot. His eyes were a little rheumy from one too many beers on one too many nights. His breath smelled familiarly of Winstons. “You need to trim this,” she said, tugging his beard. It was coarse as a Brillo Pad. When you said, “I love you,” you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. At the time, it seemed like it’d be all shaking-the-rafters sex and the strut of love, the confidence of it, the secret between the two of you; but then there was the first fight, and then there was the second, and once or twice something had gotten broken, and Lavinia really had called the cops that one time, and, to be honest, Lori was glad that she did because she hadn’t known how that one was going to end; and then there were the nights when you were up and down the stairs every five minutes, looking for the NyQuil, getting him another glass of ginger ale, checking his temperature for the umpty-babillionth time. There was boredom and there were weeks when he couldn’t say anything to please you and stretches when you wondered what in the world you had ever been thinking. And then there was this; but even this couldn’t be uncomplicated because, even if you made it to the end together, there would be an end, death stranding one or the other of you on the tiny island of yourself, where nobody knew you anymore. Breast cancer had taught her that. What did the greeting cards say? Better to have loved and lost . . . Maybe. Big maybe.

He took as much of her breast into his mouth as could fit. She was braless under her T-shirt and the thin cotton went from warm to moist to slobbery wet in less time than she could begin to comprehend the pleasure of it.

“Welp,” she’d said to Barb after the surgery, “now I’m stuck with him.”

“What do you mean?” Barb’d said. “Ya’ll seemed pretty well stuck before.”

“Well now I’m really stuck.”

And she told her the whole story; how, after the scar had healed and her hair was at least baby chick fuzz again, she’d rolled her T-shirt over her head and flung it to floor and said, “Well, you may as well know the worst.” She wasn’t going to get any implants. One surgery was enough for her, thank you very much. She looked, she knew, like a sideshow freak—the Amazing One-Breasted Woman. She knew because she’d been studying herself in the mirror when she could stand to, first the angry wound and the snarl of the black stitches, then a bright red smile, like gum disease, and, finally, this lip of a pink scar, which she decided was probably about as acceptable as it was going to get. She’d waited, propped up against the pillows, and she stared straight ahead, refusing absolutely whatever look crossed his face. He’d just kissed her right on the scar, then planted one on her cheek, and said, “Hell, one titty’s as good as another. You just let me know when you’re ready to fuck again. I’m hornier than a goddamned bear.” Then he turned over on his side, knowing she wasn’t ready that night. She couldn’t describe how grateful she was that he hadn’t made more of it, just one more day at the office, here a tit, there a tit, but not everywhere a tit, tit. Yep, sure as shit, she was stuck with him.


Afterwards, she sat draped over him, naked, in the lawn chair, him snoring after about a minute, the crickets as their orchestra, the shadows of her tomato plants wobbling across the fence. He was musky from the sweat of fucking, but it was threaded through with chlorine from her sister’s pool and smoke from the grill. He smelled like summer. She was starting to wonder what they had that was sweet. Some Oreos for the grandkids, leftover cheesecake, sugar-free popsicles for when Dougie came over. But she couldn’t rouse herself. Even though Hank was sawing logs in her ear and she definitely needed a shower, she liked the gentle ride of his chest pumping out the slow, unconscious rhythm of sleep. She liked the hair of his body matted against her. But she was getting a crick in her thigh.

She heard something up in the branches of an old magnolia tree that hung over their patio. The tree itself was actually off apartment property and so they couldn’t tear it down. She liked the tree, even though it did drop leaves and petals the size of her hand that she had to sweep up. Mr. Bell had told her that it was at least a hundred and fifty years old, and sometimes the beauty that something could have been here so long before her and would be here for so long after practically knocked her down. Mr. Bell was in his seventies, with the remnants of his gray hair smoking around his head. He walked with a cane, which didn’t stop him from his nightly hobble around the neighborhood. He’d talk to anybody who’d listen, and sometimes she did if she was flip-flopping home from the pool with the grandkids or back from the Colonel with a bucket of chicken.

It was a scrabbling noise, and she looked over her shoulder and up. One of the branches was swaying. A smoky half-moon was fractured behind the web of the branches. The cricket orchestra stopped suddenly, or seemed to, as if they’d been wiped out. The thick of the magnolia’s flowers was taking the night back from the charcoal smoke of the grill. Lori went dry from her lips all the way to her belly. She’d heard of the hair standing up on the back of peoples’ necks, and she’d always thought it was just a saying. Now she knew it wasn’t.

“Hank,” she whispered.

“Huh,” he said, blinking, looking around, trying to figure out where the hell he was.

“There’s something up in that tree.”

“Baby,” he said, stretching his whole body and swiveling his neck, “there’s probably always something up in that tree.”

“No, I mean—,” but what did she mean? Long, stringy wisps of clouds raced by the moon and the magnolia flowers gleamed dully, like flat lanterns. The embers in the grill still pulsated orange. There, now she could see it: a shape, indistinct but not part of the tree’s design. Then she saw the eyes—were they eyes?—yes, definitely, eyes, dark, unremitting, the dark inside of darkness.

“Hank,” she whispered. “It’s that raccoon again.”


She untangled herself from him and the lawn chair, half-crippled by the crick in her thigh that had gone full-blown charley horse on her. Her nakedness felt spotlight bright. She crossed her arms over her chest. On one side, the droopy softness of her breast; on the other, the bones of her chest—that brittle braille. There were still times when the strangeness of having one breast was tidal and might just sweep her out to sea and never let her back.

A car whooshed by on Magnolia Lane. The bright ink of the raccoon’s eyes shone balefully. She felt like the sex she’d just had was radiating in squiggly white cartoon lines around her, the heat and stench and damp of it, like every creature for miles around was making its way toward her, that soon she and Hank would be engulfed by the polka dots of predators’ eyes. Hank reached over to the table, picked up a steak bone and hurled it sidearm up into the tree. Nothing. Whatever she’d thought she’d seen was gone.

“There’s nothing up there,” Hank said.

“I’m telling you I saw that raccoon.”

“We woulda heard it run off if it was up there.”

That was true—there was really no arguing it—and she could have convinced herself that she was making up spooks, scaring herself in the dark, except for those eyes. Those she couldn’t have made up in a million years. She’d never even imagined that the black judgment of them could exist. She and Hank stood there, naked. Barges of clouds lumbered past the moon. After a good minute or so, Hank finally said, “Let’s go on up to bed.”


The usual week: the alarm clock socking her awake; a sandwich or a burrito or, if she was feeling despairingly fat, a salad for lunch; a couple of cigarettes gulped hungrily down on her breaks; either something on the grill or something picked up on her way home for dinner; a few beers while Hank played online poker upstairs in the bedroom and she watched America’s Got Talent or The Bachelorette or House (she loved that doctor, he was mean as a snake); then lights out. She refused to think about the raccoon, and by Friday, she’d pretty well put him out of her head.

Now it was Saturday and Dougie’s birthday party. She liked celebrating it because it was a small miracle that he was still with them, what with the diabetes. When he was three, she’d heard this man-sized snoring from his room in the middle of the night, and she’d said to Steve, “What in the world is that?” and Steve had mumbled and pulled a pillow over his head. She sometimes thought that had been the beginning of the end of that marriage. She’d never ever quite trusted him again to be there in a pinch, and marriage was a series of pinches that left some pretty ugly bruises.

There had been no way that that noise could be her three-year-old son. But it had been, and when she’d tried to shake him awake, he was rag-doll limp. That’s how it had started, and, ever since then, it had been nothing but insulin and needles and blood-checks and all-night vigils in intensive care and eyes rolling back in the head and keeping him away from pop and Yodels. She bought Equal by the case.

Since it was his birthday, they had to listen to that goddamned rap. She’d gotten streamers and birthday signs and helium balloons from Party Central, and had made a sugar-free cake with his name scrolled across it in blue. She lit a cigarette and took the party in: Hank grilling hotdogs and hamburgers; her brother and her sister and their kids, mostly grown now; the grandkids engaged in a tug-of-war over an Elmo, still in the package, that Lori had gotten a few weeks back at a nearby yard sale for a buck, so cheap it had almost felt like stealing, which was the deep pleasure of a yard sale in the first place.

“Ya’ll play nice,” she yelled over, “or I’ll take that Elmo back quick as a wink.”

“Hey, Mom,” Dougie said.


“You wouldn’t believe the shit I found out about raccoons on the internet.”

“I don’t want to know.”

“No, you don’t. They’re vicious little fuckers, especially the females if they got babies.”

“That a fact?”

Mothers, she could understand. Anybody came near her kids, and something took over. Dougie being so small from his diabetes, he’d been picked on a lot; and, once, she had marched out to the street corner with a baseball bat to let those teenage boys, hoodlums every last one of them, know exactly whose brains she’d be wiping from that bat the next time any one of them so much as said, “Boo,” to Dougie on his way to school or from school or any other goddamned time. One of them yelled, when she was halfway back down the block, that they all carried guns, and, while she wouldn’t put anything past them, she figured that if they had guns she’d have seen one by now. For a couple of Halloweens afterwards, they got TP-ed and egged and soaped; but they never bothered Dougie again and wouldn’t even look at her if they pulled up beside her at the pumps or if the pack glided past her at the mall. There’d been a certain thrill to being feared.

“Well, that’s not all,” Dougie said. “There’s more and more attacks on people for no good reason. Scientists say it’s because their habitat’s getting destroyed. This one lady tried to shoo a bunch of them away from her front porch, and they went after her good. Clawed and bit her all to hell.”

Fluttering in her stomach, but Lori said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

“Oh, this won’t no internet story. It was like, CNN, MSNBC, one of them sites.”

Her skin prickled, and she lit another Winston to still it.

“I think I’m getting low,” Dougie said.

“You got your insulin?”

“Yeah, I got some, but it’s old.”

Dougie didn’t have insurance. He worked full-time, with no benefits, as a clerk at a garage that also rented cars to folks with bad credit: Toyotas and Hondas and other small Japanese cars that were a good twenty years old or older. Each car had a GPS system that Dougie could track by the work computer; and if they weren’t returned on time, he could actually turn them off with that same computer. It was all a mystery to Lori. Sometimes she felt like a Flintstone who had stumbled into an episode of the Jetsons. But you had to admire that Jimmy—she’d gone to high school with him—it was a devious, clever racket, though the cars as often as not came back with bullet holes and the windows blown out. They were popular with drug dealers. You’d have thought Jimmy could at least have sprung for health insurance, but he had all that figured out, too. He staggered all their hours so that they all worked full-time but weren’t officially full time. He’d loopholed and white-lied and finagled his way through his whole life, the tight bastard. Back in high school, he’d sold pot ‘til he got arrested, and he’d squirmed out of that by narcing out every, single one of his buddies. She was surprised somebody hadn’t shot him by now. There were days like today when Dougie was low and using old medicine that she’d considered doing it herself.

The insulin seemed to work, though afterwards he was still tired, and after a burger, which he took about three bites out of, he said he needed to go home and take a nap.

“Well, at least blow out your candles,” Lori said, and then added, as the tiny flames quivered orange over his face, giving him an odd glow of health, “Make a wish,” but she could tell that he hadn’t because he didn’t even pause, just blew. She couldn’t blame him, really. What was he going to wish for? His health? Insurance to cover it? A goddamned break? That was all pie in the sky. Maybe with the new health plan he would finally get some insurance and wouldn’t have to rely on free clinics and out-of-date insulin, though she couldn’t make hide nor hair of what Obama’s plan actually was, or even when it really started.

She really wished he hadn’t of mentioned those damn raccoons because now it was all she could think about. Hank snored on the couch, and, as she yanked the twirled red crepe from the walls, it was the bloody entrails of that small raccoon. The paper plate where Hank had stacked the raw burgers was pink with blood. The throw pillow Hank had propped behind his head was gray and matted, raccoon fur. It was another crushingly bright and soakingly humid day that barely seemed survivable. Everything—the patio furniture, the apartment complex, her own stupid life—seemed flimsy and temporary and terribly perishable. The first good wind might just blow it all away. Everything, that is, except for the magnolia. She’d recently seen a documentary on the History Channel about a place called Angkor Wat somewhere over in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat was a vast collection of temples that had been abandoned, she couldn’t exactly remember why—invaders, maybe—and the jungle it had been built in the middle of was taking it back bit by bit, the roots of trees, like giant talons, overturning walls and threatening to reduce the whole thing to rubble and dust. Just as the enormous hand of the magnolia, gnarled and towering, might one day crush the life out of her own apartment, the ghost of which was reflected in the patio doors. Ghosts. She didn’t ever want to be one, ever. She always wanted to taste the warm sweet of a tomato fresh off a thick summer vine; she always wanted to know who was going to win next on American Idol or The Celebrity Apprentice or America’s Next Top Model; she always wanted her evening beers and cigarettes she could smoke on her couch and her cell phone ringing with the kids calling to borrow money or the grandkids calling to say goodnight or one of her girlfriends calling to gossip. She knew it was a life that didn’t amount to a hill of beans to anybody else, but to her it was everything, and the cruelty of it—to be given something so dazzling only to have it snatched away—was so dizzying that she had to steady herself against the cool glass of the patio doors. She wanted to shake Hank awake and say, “We gotta do something.” But, if he did wake up all baffled with sleep and say, “OK, baby, what we gotta do?” she wouldn’t know how to say it; it went something like dancing and naked and howling and bloody, beating drums and bowls of incense burning, something she was pretty sure she’d seen on the Discovery Channel and didn’t know why it occurred to her now, and what would Hank say to that except had she lost her goddamned mind? She’d have said the same if he’d woken her up ranting about naked dancing and bloody drums.

She and Hank had gotten drunk Saturday night after he’d woken up from his nap, and not just beers, either, but shots of tequila, and when they’d run out of that, she’d found a dusty, old bottle of Southern Comfort under the kitchen sink, a mistake because that led to bed spins and hugging the toilet in the middle of the night, but not before they’d fucked like animals right there on the living room floor; and Hank had leaned over in the flesh-slapping, sweat-drenched middle of it and whispered, “Goddamned, baby, what’s got into you?” and she’d grabbed him by his ponytail and pulled his mouth down to her neck and said, ferociously, “Bite me,” which he did, ferociously. She had a hickey, if you could call that ugly purple and green planet of a bruise a hickey. She didn’t remember much after that, certainly not how she’d gotten to bed or that knot on her forehead. She’d tried to cover it with foundation, which only seemed to make it glare. Now it was Monday, and she and her girlfriend, Shelly were having lunch in the break room, or “the bleak room,” as she sometimes called it with its grimy whitish walls, a few fake, unnaturally yellow flowers shoved into old salad dressing jars, its wobbly tables and plastic chairs that were a spinal injury waiting to happen. There used to be a “HANG IN THERE, BABY” poster of a kitten hanging from a pull-up bar; but, about a month after she’d gotten back from her breast cancer, she’d found herself alone there, some late lunch or another, and she’d crossed out “IN THERE” and scrawled “YOURSELF” in green magic marker, which she’d thought was pretty fucking funny, though apparently no one else did because the poster was gone by the next day and there’d been a group email about the serious nature of office vandalism. “Who would do such a thing?” Tina, cashier and cat lover, had replied-all, and Lori had pretended to be equally as dismayed, saying only a couple of times, “Well, it is sort of funny,” until Shelly had said, pausing before she bit into her tuna sandwich, “You did it, didn’t you?” sounding genuinely shocked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lori said. “Have you ever known me to do something like that?” But Shelly had only eyed her and said, “Hhhhhhmmmmmm . . .”

Shelly was her lunch buddy, though sometimes one of the other girls or Steve joined them. Lori basically liked the people she worked with though Judy was always going on about her how dazzling her children were, the kind who had one of those bragging “My Child is an Honors Student at Moody Middle” bumper stickers, and sometimes Steve’s Monday replays of his wild weekends irritated the shit out of her. He was, she had to admit, a good-looking guy with his bramble of salt-and-pepper hair and his sharp nose and his thirty-inch waist that hadn’t grown since high school. How did she know that? He told them several times a year. Steve had gotten divorced about fifteen years ago—he had grandkids the same age as Lori’s—and he’d never gotten over it, meaning once he’d shut the door on that marriage he had no intention of opening the door to another and so he’d become adolescent with a vengeance; and there were Tiffanys and Shannons and Angels, and none of them lasted longer than a minute but they were always “the prettiest little gal” he’d met at the clubs he went to downtown that were meant for kids half his age, and these girls, who could have been his daughter, were always showing him “stuff he didn’t even know existed,” or he wasn’t “bragging but that little gal would never be the same again” until she either got “too clingy” or started talking like she was his goddamned wife, and he’d already had one of those, and you got the feeling that those pretty little gals broke it off with him just as often as he did once they realized exactly what it meant to date a guy twice your age and set in his ways and a man-whore to boot, though God knows you never heard about those breakups from him. No, to hear him tell it he was Tom Cruise and Tom Selleck and any other Tom you could think of all rolled up into one tomcat of a package. True, he could make Lori laugh, and if she was honest, she did like it when he flirted, saying, “Hey, Sexy,” and winking and telling her she ought to stop by some weekend without Hank, and he’d show her what a hot tub was really for, though she didn’t even like hot tubs. The one time she’d been in one she’d felt like a dumpling in a bowl of soup. But more and more his stories exhausted her, and she’d find herself rolling her eyes at Shelly and recently she’d said, “Goddamnit, Steve, life is more than just one long pussy parade,” which could have been funny she realized afterwards except she’d said it with real venom, and he’d just shrugged and said, “Not for me it isn’t,” and chugged down his Diet Dr. Pepper, not the least bit bothered or worried. Now, some Fridays, if he passed her in the hall, he nudged her and said, “Getting my float ready for the pussy parade,” and, that first time, she had to laugh.

But today it was just her and Shelly, and Shelly said, “Looks like you had one of Steve’s weekends,” nodding at her. Shelly had gotten a lap band and now she ate doll-sized portions of lettuce and tuna and little flaps of cheese. She’d lost forty pounds, and while she looked good, Lori missed the old Shelly, actually thought she was prettier with her plump red cheeks. Some sparkle was gone from her eye. She ate her tiny meals with grim determination.

“Ha,” Lori said. “I wish I had half his fun,” which she was actually surprised to hear herself say. Was that true?

“What’s that knot on your forehead and that hickey on the back of your neck?”

“Can you see that?” she said, pulling her collar up.

“Just the tip of it, but it looks like a doozy.”

“Well, I’m not dead yet, Shelly. Hank and I do have, you know, romance.” Though there had been nothing romantic about it. It had been more like a prize fight.

“That how you bumped your head, too?”

“Yes, if you must know,” though, of course, she had no real idea what had happened.

Shelly snapped her Tupperware lid closed. Today it had been one slice of turkey, one cracker and a cigarette-sized tube of muenster cheese. “Sometimes I worry about you.”

“That’s ridiculous. Hank has never raised his fist to me.” This wasn’t exactly true. He had hit her once— it was a real shiner, too—and she’d packed up the kids—they were all her kids, anyway—and gone to stay at her mom’s. But he’d been so pitiful—calling, crying, and then driving over and just sitting in the driveway for hours, even after her mom had gone and called the cops and they’d convinced him to go on back home before he got himself in real trouble. She wasn’t going to be hit; but there were the kids, and, by Saturday night, her mamma was already complaining that her house was a mess and could Lori please turn off that light, she wasn’t made out of money; and besides, who would ever love her enough again to cry buckets and camp out in the driveway and then sneak back anyway, though the cops had told him they’d have to arrest him, and stuff her mamma’s mailbox with flowers and cards and candy and a T-shirt with a crudely drawn picture of a child holding its arms as wide as it could on the front and the words “I LOVE U THIS MUCH” printed on the back. Corny, but she could be corny, too, especially when she had a few beers in her. By Sunday night, she was back with him. One pop in fifteen years seemed like a pretty good record to her, especially compared to the marriages on Maury or some of the ones their bar buddies at the Moose had. Shelly’s marriage wasn’t so hot itself. Anytime you mentioned her husband she rolled her eyes and told the latest story about what an idiot he was.

Shelly made this sound with her lips, like a motor stalling. “I know Hank don’t beat you. It’s just—” and she traced her lips with her finger, something she’d taken up now that she didn’t eat anymore. “It’s just, I guess I see things I didn’t used to now that I can’t drink anymore,” and she nodded down at her lap band. “I used to show up Mondays with a bruise or a cut or a knot, and I’ll be honest, half the time I didn’t know where I got ‘em.”

“Oh, so now I’m an alcoholic?”

Shelly smiled as if she were in on some great cosmic joke that Lori could never understand, the smile of somebody on her high horse who went to concerts at the Botanical Garden instead of stopping by the Moose for a few beers, of somebody who’d gotten a prescription for Wellbutrin to quit smoking and would no longer have to stand out by the dumpster with the rest of the degenerate hackers, of somebody who was on her way somewhere far better than the dumps of the lives around her.

“Lori,” Shelly said. “It’s none of my business what you do on the weekends. Hank can bite you from here to kingdom come for all I care. Let’s go outside and have us a smoke. This is my farewell week, and then I’m finally kissing this nasty old habit goodbye.”

“You said you’d be dead in the ground before you’d quit.”

“I decided I didn’t much like the idea of being dead in the ground.” Lori tried not to shudder visibly, but she was pretty sure she did. “And you should quit too, and you know damn well why.” Lori knew exactly what she meant—breast cancer—and yes, she should quit, except that she’d tried: patches and gum and hypnosis. She should quit, but she felt so mournfully lonely without her cigarettes, and she knew that was silly—walking around feeling like you’d lost your best friend—but it did feel that way, it did, and it was such a pleasure to her, her pack there on the arm of the couch, the comfort of it, the home of it, although she really and truly hoped that one day she’d snap to, come to her senses, though in her gut she knew she never would.

It was suffocating outside. The air was a swamp. Lori dug into her purse for her sunglasses and cigarettes. The parking lot beside the dumpster was a mess: AA batteries sprinkled in coffee grinds; the large empty pink box of doughnuts that were in the bleak room, every morning mangled; her own water bottle, clawed open; a used-up lipstick; what looked like a whole filing cabinet of papers blown hither and yon; a smashed ink cartridge—and those were just the first things that caught her eye. It looked like the whole dumpster had been viciously rooted through, the frenzy of looters in a city on fire.

“Good Lord,” Shelly said, lighting a Parliament. “It looks like a tornado tore clean through here.”

Lori tried to light her cigarette before the shaking started, but it was too late, the shaking had already started, and she was hard pressed to keep the end of the cigarette steady long enough to get a real ember going. Finally, she settled for half-lit. When she dropped her lighter and it clattered to the pavement, she didn’t even bother to pick it up. She’d fetch it before they went back inside, or if it came down to it, she’d buy a new one.

She dragged deeply, then gripped her wrist with her other hand to steady it. “It’s raccoons,” she said as she exhaled, and the words were jagged and too bright, like lightning.

“Raccoons?” Shelly looked around the office park and Lori looked with her: a large and humming green generator, cars as far as the eye could see, the watery reflections of those cars in the dead matte of the gray-tinted windows of red-bricked buildings. Tiny, solitary birches stood still as mannequins in their mulch, in the little cage of their wire fences. They could have been anywhere or they could have been nowhere, and raccoons, or animals of any sort, except for the crows that occasionally squawked overhead, seemed about as likely as pterodactyls.

“They’re losing their habitat. Dougie saw it on the internet.” Her voice sounded strange and high-pitched, as if she were about to sing something fast and unpredictable. Shelly eyed her thoughtfully through the waver of smoke from her Parliament.

“I guess anything’s possible,” she said. “It had to be something.”

“I’m telling you it’s raccoons.”

Steve beeped at them from his Toyota. He was coming back from lunch and sipping from a Burger King cup. Lori just held her cigarette at her side, not even bothering to smoke it. Each moment felt pregnant with something stillborn.

“Are you OK?” Shelly said.

“I’m fine,” Lori snapped.


Sometimes she knew, she knew, it was going to be one of those nights. Late afternoon, usually on her afternoon break, she’d feel a vague elation at the idea of her first drink; but, in recent years, that was followed almost immediately by the panic of where it might lead. She liked to listen to her music, loud, when she was half in the bag; and so Lavinia might call the police, which wasn’t that serious—Lavinia had called the cops on just about everybody in the complex at this point—but that last time a young, handsome cop had said, wearily, “Ms. Lewis, we’re gonna need you to keep that music down,” and that had unnerved her. She did not want to be the drunk lady on a first-name basis with cops who made fun of her later at the station.

But there were other things, too: the D&Ds, drink-and-dials; late-night calls to Barb or Shelly or her mother or Dougie or somebody, it occurred to her, she hadn’t talked to in a while; conversations either dripping in too many I-love-yous or taking a nasty turn she hadn’t expected—she always called with the best intentions—and landing her in some weed-infested field of accusation and recrimination and, either way, leaving her feeling remorseful and ashamed all the next day, wondering if she could just pretend it never happened or if she could laugh it off or if the situation called for an all-out apology.

Even those weren’t so bad, and neither were the mysterious bruises and bumps and cuts and sore muscles, though recently a sore pinky had required a trip to the doctor and had turned out to be sprained; and when he’d asked, casually, “How’d this happen?” in the gleam of his sterilized examination room, she’d fumbled out, “Oh, I, jammed it on the refrigerator,” and the rest of him wrapping it up had been an agony to her. The lie—she had no idea how she’d sprained her finger—felt preserved but unsterilized in the medicated air, even though he had hummed a song she didn’t recognize and had even said, “Okey dokey,” when he was done, like this was merely some episode of one of the long-dead sitcoms she sometimes watched on TV Land.

Nothing terrible, but nothing really good either.

Tonight she decided to keep it light—a couple of vodka tonics before dinner. While picking up limes at the grocery store, it occurred to her that spritzers would be nice. She didn’t usually drink wine, but it was another hot summer night, and they sounded refreshing. She’d recently seen someone making them on a cooking show; she couldn’t exactly remember which one, but they were all in their short sleeves and festive little chili pepper lights dangled above their heads. Besides, there wasn’t hardly any alcohol in spritzers, was there? Very little danger there. It was not going to be one of those nights.

The grocery store was delightfully cold—the weatherman had said there was no end in sight to this ghastly heat—but she’d forgotten what a chore it was picking out wine since she didn’t know the first thing about it. She tried to look like a person who knew what the hell she was doing and who was not helped by a couple who looked like they’d stepped from the pages of an architectural magazine at a doctor’s office and said things like, “No, not that one, I prefer something a little oakier.” Oakier? What the hell did that mean? She peeked at the price of their wine: $19.99. For that price, you should get the whole damn oak tree. She settled on a pinot grigio, whatever that was, because it was $5.99 and had a cute picture in silver of a small bear on a limb, chewing leaves. On a whim, fueled by the whiffs of her growing exhilaration, she also got five-layer bean dip and Tostitos, Vidalia onions instead of regular—Hank, the maniac, was grilling in this heat and had asked her to pick up a couple for kebobs—and then a coconut cream pie because she could not resist the brown swirls of its airy meringue, and she had no interest in the Oreos and popsicles they had back at the apartment. Tonic, limes, seltzer, Hanover tomatoes for a salad. By the time she got to the check-out, she’d spent close to thirty bucks on one measly little supper and ended up using her debit card. Fuck me, she thought.

She sipped her V&T while she hacked up lettuce, sliced onions, cut the tomatoes into little chunks. The drink was yummy and bracing and vaguely medicinal, and she remembered seeing something about how people used to drink quinine to stave off malaria, and, while malaria was an old-timey disease that no one ever got anymore, she felt a small and silly satisfaction that she still might be preventing it. That was, she knew, partially the early, giddy effects of the vodka, but what the hell?

She had her second cocktail on the patio with Hank while he fired up the grill. This one was a little stronger because she’d gone light on the first one, and they sat there stabbing at the five-layer dip, or Hank did. Who could eat in this heat? After she polished off the second drink, she wasn’t quite ready for a spritzer, and so she poured another real drink while she fetched Hank his beer. He was on his third or fourth, but Hank could drink a six-pack easy and he always ate supper and was in bed by ten. He’d never lost a day of work to a hangover, and, while she rarely did, either, there were some days that were just too much to bear. She called them her mental health days and she spent most of them on the couch, dozing and flipping aimlessly through channels until she sprang up just before Hank got home, showered, straightened the place up, started dinner. She was usually starving by then and wanted something hearty—meatloaf and mashed potatoes—unless she was still too tired to cook, and then they ordered a pizza.

When the kebobs were almost done, she really was ready for a spritzer, which she made while she microwaved Rice-A-Roni, and she started humming “The San Francisco Treat,” in her head, which suddenly struck her as very, very funny, and when she went back out to the patio, trying to balance her drink and the bowl of rice and the paper plates and the silverware and the salad and the Thousand Island they both liked, she began singing it loudly, and Hank said, “Don’t quit your day job,” and she dropped the dressing, shattering the bottle on the patio’s concrete like she’d dropped it from the roof—relish-specked orange glops all over her bare legs, glass everywhere in chunks and sprinkles—and Hank saying, “Why you got to carry every goddamned thing all at once?” and that soured her mood, just a little, it was only dressing for Christ’s sake, so she downed the spritzer when she went back for the ranch and the Russian and the honey mustard, and made another. She was not going to let a little dressing spoil her mood, and so she pretended she was going to juggle the bottles cradled in her arm to make Hank laugh, and he did grin, so everything was alright except now she had a mess to clean up, and she said, “Go ahead and start without me, let me get the broom,” and he shrugged OK, but, in truth, it really was too hot to eat, just the thought of it made her a little queasy, and so after she got the patio swept up, she sat down with her spritzer and said, “I’ll eat after I finish this,” and since Hank was almost done and was anxious to get to his internet poker, he didn’t give her any shit about it, which he sometimes did. He’d say, “You know what happens when you don’t eat, baby,” which either led to her listlessly forking and sullenly chewing, or provoked a fight, not a big one, just the end of talk and no kiss goodnight; but even Hank knew there was hardly any alcohol in spritzers and that was probably why he’d let it go.

She had another little spritzer, a nightcap, really, while she loaded the dishwasher. When she was done with that, she turned on CMT, an Alan Jackson block. She loved Alan Jackson, it couldn’t hurt to turn it up a little bit. Hank always shut the door to their bedroom anyway when he played poker; it was only later that he might say, “Turn that shit down, I gotta go to work tomorrow, and so do you,” but all she had to do was say, “I’ll be up in a minute,” and wait a tiny spell—he slept like the dead—for the distant thunder of his snoring, and then she could volume it right back up unless she went too far, and then he’d be standing at the top of the stairs, yelling, “If I come down there I’m gonna put my foot through that goddamned TV,” or some such, and then of course there was always the danger of Lavinia and her cops, but that wasn’t going to happen tonight, no sirree. These spritzers really had been a good idea. They were refreshing and hardly any alcohol at all. She might take them up for the summer.

Soon enough the wine was gone, and so that only left the vodka. One more wouldn’t hurt, though she had to admit she was feeling a little drunk; maybe that wine had more alcohol than it tasted like. But she still wasn’t ready for bed, she was thinking about calling Barb; Barb was her only sister, after all, and they didn’t talk as much as they used to. There’d been a time, back when they were both divorced, when they had seen each other three, four times a week, going out to karaoke and singing duets together, trying on perfumes they couldn’t afford at the mall, sometimes dinner at the Olive Garden or Sizzler. But then they’d both found men again, and Barb’s—let’s face it—wasn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys. Barb’d even said, “I’ve had it with the party boys. I’m ready for some peace and quiet,” so you didn’t see them out at the Moose all that much. Sometimes one or the other of them would say, “We should just go out and have girl’s night, just us sisters,” but they never did, what with being tired from work and this and that on the weekend, and before you knew it, it was the grind of Monday morning again.

Barb’s answering machine was on, which meant she was already asleep; they went to bed early over there, strangely early, eight o’clock some nights, but now Lori had the itch to talk. It was the same everywhere she rang. Dougie, voicemail, though he never picked up the damn phone no matter when you called. Her daughter, Judy. Shelly. An old high school friend she’d hooked up with recently on Facebook, and every other damn body she could think of. Hell, it was only, what, nine thirty, quarter to ten? She began to get the uncomfortable feeling that people were glancing over at their caller ID, seeing it was her and not picking up. But that was ridiculous.

She caught the end of CSI: Miami, which only made her melancholy with its deaths and its perpetrators of death and people having to spend their lives searching for the perps. What a world. By the time Hank yelled down, “Time for bed, baby,” and she yelled back her usual, “Be up in a minute,” which nine times out of ten she was, she felt this desperate desire to talk to someone, anyone, and she had a sudden and brilliant idea of a hotline for people who just needed to talk to someone for no particular reason—not for sex or for suicide, but for just a good, old-fashioned chat—and that somehow led her to thinking about Steve from work. He really was an alright guy, and she wanted to ask him what he thought about the raccoons, if he even knew they were raccoons, and if he didn’t, she should tell him about these strange attacks and invasions, and, even though she had never called him before, she didn’t think he’d mind the way he flirted sometimes, and maybe she’d flirt back just a little bit if that’s what he wanted. But really, she was calling about the raccoons, and maybe to gossip a little bit about work. Didn’t he think Shelly had gotten all high and mighty since she’d lost weight? Lori was sure he was up, every night was a late night to hear Steve tell it, and if he wasn’t already marching in his pussy parade, she was pretty sure he’d answer, and so she called 411 and asked for Steve Bray’s number, even though she knew it was going to cost her a fortune. It was like two, three fucking dollars to get a simple number these days, and she had a good mind to tell the cocksuckers after she got it that they were nothing but a bunch of damn crooks.

“Hello,” Steve said. He did sound a little groggy. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. It was what, ten thirty? They did have work tomorrow. It was only a Wednesday. So she sat there, wishing she’d rehearsed something, whether to say, “Hey, Steve,” or “Hi there, Steve,” or a simple “Hello,” like him, but now nothing seemed right. “Hello?” he said again.

Well, it was too late now. She settled on, “Hey, Steve.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Lori.”

“Lori? From work?”

Lori. From work. That’s all she was to him, and the calamity of what she’d done struck her full force. How in the hell was she going to get out of this? Maybe she could joke her way out. “No, Lori from the moon.”

“Well, hey,” he said, chuckling in a downright filthy way that, if she were honest, was also a little bit exciting. “I thought you lived over in Lakeside.”

“We moved.”

“Must have been quite a move.”

“The spaceship cost a fortune.”

He laughed again, but this time it sounded innocent. “So what can I do for you, Lori? Something up at work?”

“Did you see all that trash in the parking lot today?”

“Yeah, what a fucking mess.”

“It was raccoons, you know.”


“Yep.” She walked with the cordless to make another drink. “They’re everywhere.”

“Come again?”

“You wish,” she said, and she was pretty sure she was slurring so she began to speak. Very. Slowly. And. Very. Carefully. She also instantly regretted the joke. A little harmless flirting in broad daylight where there were time clocks and bookkeeping and packets of Cremora for your coffee was one thing; but it was getting on eleven o’clock, and her husband was asleep, and she was pretty darn certain that Hank wouldn’t like this one bit, and she didn’t care how harmless it was, raccoons or no raccoons.

“You’d come again and again if you were with me,” but he was still laughing, it was still a joke, he didn’t really mean it, not when he had Tiffanys and Shannons and Ambers galore.

That was long about when the brown-outs started. At least that’s what she called them. They were the parts of the evening when the lights of her mind began to flicker. She could remember that he made fun of her for being an Alan Jackson fan and of country music in general—not seriously, of course, just a little joshing around—and that she’d asked him at some point how he kept in such good shape, and he’d said, “Staying single,” and then he’d said she wasn’t half-bad herself, and then there was this long, winding conversation, mostly on her part, she thought, where they talked about how much their lunches together meant to them, and then he’d said, “What’d you really call for, Lori?”

She thought for a minute. For a second, she couldn’t remember. Oh, right. “The. Raccoons.”

“Raccoons, huh?”

“Yeah. They’re. Everywhere.”

“I think you called because you want my body,” he said slyly. A joke, but not a joke.

“Oh right,” she said. “I have. Fantasies. About doing it right there in the. Break room.”

“Me, too,” he said, and this time it was no joke.

She had to admit she was flattered to be included in the pussy parade, even if she wasn’t the majorette or the tiara-ed Tobacco Queen waving from her float. Maybe she was just one of the clowns throwing candy to the kids from a glittery pouch, or a Shriner in a Shriner hat wheeling around in a tiny, tiny car. But if people could still see you that way, and not just Hank, God love him, but someone like Steve, then that meant you could still be seen, that old age hadn’t yet cloaked you in its invisibility. On the other hand, it did sound like Steve would fuck anything that moved.

“Oh, get out of here. I’m a married lady.”

“I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.”

She did think about it. She’d bet he talked a lot of shit in bed, and she wondered how he’d smell up close and sweaty, and what kind of kisser he was, and if he was generous or selfish and what he’d look like in the buff, and then the vision of what she looked like naked jabbed her, one tit and that one sagged, and the cellulite beginning to pock her thighs, accompanied by the tiny purple veins threading her calves and a hundred and one other imperfections, dear God, sometimes getting older felt like you were being beaten to death in slowest motion by vicious thugs.

So she laughed. “I’ll. Think about it. Killer.”

Now she felt mournful, so mournful, filled with a terrible wailing, like she had died and risen, a ghost in the cavern of herself, endlessly keening. One more vodka on the patio and that was it.

It was warm out, not stifling anymore, but still too warm for midnight or whatever the hell it was, and an orange moon, as if it were reflecting wildfire, glowed dimly behind the gray gauze of the clouds, and everything—the patio table, the backyard fence, the magnolia tree—had the strange solid solemnity of its own darkness. The magnolia tree, the velvety scent of its luxurious flowers—she felt cradled by it, protected. Surely a world that still had this in it had other things, too, like redemption and hope and life everlasting. She must have one, a flower. Some were the size of baseball mitts, and she wanted to hold one prayerfully with both hands and bury her face in it; she wanted to drink it in, the jagged places in her made smooth again, the echoing places filled, the body, the precious body, it was all you had, and when it was gone everything—all music, the orange moon, every flower, every night spent with Hank out on the patio, the memory of her teenage self swinging naked and stoned from a rope, letting loose and flying through the air and crashing into the river—all joy in fact, all and utterly gone; and you didn’t have memories anymore, you became one. No, no, no. She actually beat the arm of the patio chair and tears began to drip and the snot to flow. No, not this, her one and only life.

She would have a flower. She set down the vodka. Her hand was wet where the glass had beaded. One long string of ladder gleamed against the fence in the dull orange moonlight and Hank’s tools gleamed dully below that. She might could just reach the lowest branch, thick as an arm, if she propped the ladder just right. Above her, here and there, the lanterns of the flowers glowed dimly. Her feet were bare, and she half-hobbled over bruising little pebbles and stabbing, tiny twigs. She lifted the ladder. Very. Carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was cause a stir. Still, it clanged against the fence and scraped across the patio bricks, and, when she finally got it against the tree, stumblingly, it thumped against the tree and rang like a bell. She waited, the cool metal of it gripped in her hands. No light flashed on at Lavinia’s. The patio door didn’t whoosh open with Hank asking her what the hell she was doing. She seemed to be safe. She jiggled the ladder to make sure it was secure. It actually seemed sturdier than she’d expected.

She couldn’t just climb the ladder because this was something not ordinary; there was a kind of meaning to it. It wasn’t one of the hundreds of things she did almost automatically: her first cup of coffee, shifting her Toyota into D or R, punching the clock, on and on and on. No, she wanted to . . . what? Commemorate this? No, that wasn’t the right word. But she wanted to mark this, to set it absolutely apart from setting the alarm or picking up milk. She wanted it to be, not special, that wasn’t strong enough. She wanted the magic of it to be powerful and victorious, powerful enough to ward off anything. Maybe a prayer would do the trick; but, she hadn’t prayed in so long that she couldn’t quite muster one up that felt fervent enough, and so she did what seemed like the only logical thing at the time, though later she realized that climbing a tree buck naked at what, two in the morning, was a drunk’s logic. Still, it was the only logic she had, so she wrestled with the button on her shorts and peeled down her panties, keeping her drunk ass steady by leaning against the ladder, struggled out of her T-shirt. She considered taking her vodka up the tree with her, but, even as drunk as she was, she knew that would never work.

She had to laugh, and she did as she took her first step up the ladder. Here she was, naked and fifty, climbing a tree in the middle of the night to pick a damned flower. She actually wished Hank were there to see her. She wished there were someone there to witness this lunatic she’d become.

As soon as she got to the branch, she realized she’d made a mistake. The bark was sharp and there was no way her poor, naked skin would withstand the struggle of the climb. But wait. As she gazed up through the weird canopy, a crisscross vast and dense she could not see the end of, a few niggling shards of sky glinting through it; she spied a flower she thought she could get to if she could just manage to pull herself up onto that first thick branch, and now that she was this high up, bathed in the fragrance of the flowers, she lusted for one of her very own, a memento, however transient, of this particular moment in time. She could imagine herself, years from now, opening a book she’d pressed the flower in, and the fondness she would feel for the foolish, naked woman who had picked it. So she pressed her hands against the rough bark of the trunk and gingerly climbed the ladder, the ridges of its metal pressing uncomfortably into the flesh and bones of her feet, until she reached the branch she could pull herself over with. There was an instant, as she stepped from the very top of the ladder onto her branch, that the danger of what she was doing zig-zagged through her chest and showered down into her stomach as phosphorescent panic; but she took a long, slow breath and it quieted.

Though she was only one branch up, she was lost in the tree, enveloped by it. It was like stumbling into a fairy tale. The scent of the flowers was a living presence, seemed to coat every molecule of air. She drank it in and each breath was—there was no other word for it—beautiful. She looked up again through the infinite variety of the branches and the leaves—some thick as pylons, others thin as veins, all of it forming this whole—and was amazed that this one single thing could be so endlessly complex. A part of her, a ridiculous part of her she knew she would be embarrassed by tomorrow, felt she could stand there forever. All these feelings, these things, huge, unnamable, unknowable—we spent a lifetime laughing them off or pretending they didn’t exist. Instead we concentrated on paying the bills and doing the laundry and checking our email, and now there were texts and tweets and tiny phones you could video the grandkids with, then send that to a friend; and really, you had to didn’t you, just carry on? Who could live with this much astonishment? Next thing you knew you would find yourself living naked in the trees like some old-fashioned hippie, and look how all that had turned out. Besides, the bills had to be paid. But more importantly, if you felt this all the time, the strange beauty of life, you would also feel, keenly, the terrible sorrow of being yanked away from that beauty. Talk about your ultimate gyps: here you go, little girl; now give it all back, bitch.

She reached the flower easily, though its stem was green and limber and took no small amount of twisting to pry it loose, and she gripped her branch tightly to keep stable, feeling the indentations that would be left in her hand and maybe even cutting herself. A car whooshed by on Magnolia Lane and she froze, feeling the full nuttiness of what she was doing. Dear God, if someone saw her. Hank. How in the hell would she explain this?

Now that she had the flower, she wasn’t so sure. The juice of its mangled stem was sticky on her palm, and when she buried her face in it, as she imagined she would, the fragrance was almost too much, like Tanya at work and her overpowering perfumes; and while the petals were buttery soft, they also sort of tickled in a not-altogether-pleasant way; and though she’d gotten up here easily enough, the way back wasn’t looking so promising, especially holding onto a flower. She was definitely going to have to throw that down first, and still she guessed she’d have to crouch and foot around for a ladder step and then find purchase against the trunk with her hands, which meant no comforting branch for balance, and really, the whole way back seemed beyond her, except being found naked in a tree by Hank, or worse, a neighbor, in the morning was more than sufficient motivation, and now she had to sneeze from the dust of the pollen, and there was a sudden rattling of leaves, which could easily have been the raccoon—what on earth had she been thinking?—and as she fell, still gripping the flower as if it were an umbrella that might, Mary-Poppins-like, glide her back to solid earth, except the sack of her plummeted, and she did have time enough to think, “At least I don’t have to worry about the climb down,” as she thumped the ground, emptying her of all air, all of it, an awful feeling, to have no breath at all, like her lungs were a door shutting.

The door to her lungs opened in one large sputtering gust and convulsed her. When that storm subsided she lay very still, wondering exactly how bad it was. She’d fallen on her side and the flower was still clutched in her hand and rested in the hollow of her chest where her breast had been. She didn’t really hurt, which somehow worried her more than if she did. It seemed like this should hurt. Her heart beat—not quickly, but hard—and it unnerved her, mainly because it reminded her of all of the other organs in her body and what shape they might be in. She opened her eyes to the spidery legs of the patio furniture—they looked like they’d been drawn into the air in black magic marker. The smell of brick and dirt was shrouded in the overwhelming scent of the magnolia. Her breath tasted hotly, she thought, of blood. She did not want to be a cripple; but if the choice were between death and a wheelchair, she’d take the wheelchair. If the choice were between death and anything, she’d take the anything.

She lay there for she didn’t know how long, but the pain gradually set in—throbbing, sharp jabs in her head and her hip. She finally decided to test the waters and lifted up on one arm. It turned out that hurt, too, a low ache in her elbow. Still, nothing felt broken. When she’d sprained her pinky it had hurt like all get-out, but nothing hurt like that, though she was now aware of tears of warm blood trickling down her cheek, as if she were some saint, crying. Insect sounds flitted through the night air in a way she had never been aware of before. It was like she was this calm, calm animal who could hear everything for miles around. She looked down at the flower. It was ruined, petals missing, filthy, and as she looked, she splashed it with blood. It wasn’t anything you’d press into a book anymore. She’d also bitten her tongue and had to contend with that scary metal taste in her mouth.

But she thought she could stand, and she did, involuntarily groaning. God, her hip hurt. And if she breathed too hard, her ribs did, too. She still held the flower. She would not drop it; it was too hard won. She wiped at the blood on her face. It smeared warmly on her hand and looked black in the night. She took a step to see if she could, and she could, however painfully. It was as if the pain had been resting and was now waking up all over her body, stretching and yawning and gearing up for a busy, busy day. But she could walk, and so she hobbled over, bending—not a pretty feeling, a knife in her side—to claw up her clothes. Looking up, she figured she hadn’t fallen more than about six feet, not so bad. She limped to the house, passing the dull gleam of what was left of her vodka, and had to look away.

In the bathroom, she laid the magnolia on the back of the toilet by the Kleenex box and examined herself. The side she had fallen on was streaked in dirt and flecked in leaves and a bruise the size of a dinner plate that promised to be ugly was a brown shadow on her hip. Everything else—on the outside, at least—was fine. She saved her face for last. A thick, ugly gash, a meaty red, frowned from her cheek. It clearly required stitches, but there was no way she was going to the emergency room. She washed her face in the sink of her cupped hands, then poured rubbing alcohol onto a washcloth and pressed it against the cut, which ignited it, a startling, burning pain that made her yelp. It took three Band-Aids to cover it, and it really could have used four, but four seemed like the kind of admission she was not willing to make so she made do. What was worse was that she looked so pitiful. Gray peeked through her dye job, the crow’s feet were more like talons, and her eyes were bloodshot and infinitely weary, like one of those halls of mirrors at the state fair, endlessly reflecting some grief, multiplying it. And what was that, the down of peach fuzz around her mouth? Dear God, no. She had to cough back a sob.


What a lousy week. Hank had insisted she go to the emergency room the next day, and she’d refused. He’d called about six times from work, saying he’d come home and take her and she’d said, “Hank, I’m fine. Really, I just need a couple days to recover.” Which meant she missed the next two days of work, two in a row—a first. Which meant that Steve thought only God knew what. She had half a mind to call him and say, “I hope you don’t think this has anything to do with you,” but sober she knew that was crazy.

She could not look at the bruise on her hip. Huge, a brilliant tie-dye of purple and yellow and green—it looked like a drawing of outer space from the Discovery Channel. It hurt to breathe even normally. Her face throbbed like she’d been socked by Mike Tyson. That first day all she could do was gimp it to the bathroom and sleep. Hank brought home Value Meals from McDonald’s, dragging his computer chair over to eat with her, and then held her hand for maybe fifteen minutes, though it seemed like an eternity, asking her several times if she was sure she didn’t want to go to the doctor, until she finally said, “Baby, I’m fine. Please go play poker.”

“But the computer’s in here. I don’t want to disturb you.”

“You won’t disturb me.”

“You sure you don’t want to go to the emergency room?”

“No. Go play.” He sat there for another good minute or two, as if she might disappear if he looked away until she said, “GO. PLEASE. I’M BEGGING YOU.”

“I’ll be right over here,” he said, which made her laugh, which made her hurt, which made her cup his grizzled cheek in her hand.


“Right over here,” he said, exaggeratingly pointing with his whole arm, making a joke of it.

She smiled and even that hurt. That was the worst of it, worrying him so when he’d already had so much to worry about in their time together. She took four Tylenol PM and slept dreamlessly for fourteen hours, never even feeling him get into bed.

By the next day she was better, making her way downstairs, sore, sure, but nothing serious, changing the Band-Aids, God, that was going to be some scar, easily a finger wide, plastic surgery gone way wrong. She made dinner. Did not drink. Had no interest in drinking. Could see how there could be an end to drinking altogether. Wondered how Hank would feel about that.

Saturday she vacuumed—she was determined to vacuum—and it wasn’t that bad, hard to get under the tables, under the bed, but decidedly livable. The wound on her cheek had healed, a good-sized leaf of a scab in autumn colors on her cheek. Sunday they watched the race. She made lasagna. Jeff Gordon won. She usually hated Gordon, but it was hard to hate anyone now that she could pretty much get around, and she remembered this feeling from when she’d been sick—it had seemed sinful, ungrateful to waste your time on petty hatreds.

She’d told them at work that she’d fallen helping her sister scrape her house. The scar was down to one large Band-Aid. She lied effortlessly about the fall: how Alan Jackson had been playing on the radio and the paint had made her sneeze, and no, her doctor had said she was just scraped up a bit. Shelly had eyed her like, “Sure, right, I bet,” and had even said, “Sure there weren’t any raccoons involved?” But Lori had simply laughed and bitten into another Pringle. Steve had tortured her. “I’m not sure I exactly get the timeline of this here fall. Wednesday night? What time? You know, some people call at the funniest times, all hours.” Like that, for the whole hour. Then, on their way out, he grabbed her ass and whispered, “You didn’t have to throw yourself off that ladder just cause of me, baby girl. There’s more than enough to go around for everybody,” laughing, and she’d elbowed him off her, gently—she didn’t want to create a scene—and said, trying to laugh but knowing she sounded irritated as hell, “You would think that, you goddamned egomaniac.”

“Hey,” he said, holding up his arms like she was sticking him up, “who called who here?”

God, she hated him. What had ever possessed her? That night she had a few beers with Hank out the patio, careful to pace herself, and then, out of a nagging guilt, for the fall, for the call, she blew him when they went to bed. There was no desire on her part. It was an apology pure and simple.

But now it was Friday, and she’d had to take another morning off, which her boss, Eileen, was not thrilled about. But there was nothing to be done about it because it was her check-up, the five-year one, the biggie, the one that meant that you were pretty much free and clear, that the cancer probably wasn’t lurking somewhere in the alleys of your cells like some crazed mugger.

All morning she’d been almost dizzy with anxiety. The alarm clock had been an electric jolt. She couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, as if there might be a large C branded in the middle of her forehead, and put on her makeup sitting on the ledge of her bed. God only knew what she looked like. She couldn’t smoke, didn’t want to—the disgusting stupidity of it, of HER doing it, nauseated her. One sip of coffee set her stomach into reeling. It felt like hummingbird wings, thousands of them, were vibrating just above the edges of her skin. Hank, bless his heart, had offered to go with her, but there really wasn’t any reason for him to since she wouldn’t get the results from her oncologist until next week.

The only other woman in the waiting room looked like she was dressed for lunch with the president: pearl earrings, coral lipstick, a peach silk sweater, a perfectly fitted skirt, high heels so cream-colored and smooth they looked like they’d been conjured by a fairy godmother. There was something arrogant, Lori thought, about showing up to search for tumors in that get-up, as if nothing wrong had ever happened or ever would. Plus, the bitch talked nonstop on her cell phone. “Well, I said to her . . . it was the cutest little dress . . . no, we never go there anymore . . . oh, nothing, just waiting to have my yearly mammogram.” Oh, nothing? Oh, really? Lori wanted to lift up her T-shirt and shout, “How’s that for oh nothing?” But she was also seized by the idea that she must love this neighbor as herself, or else; that her exasperation was trickling cancer into her bloodstream; that this time, the hour of the big reprieve, the shadow would insinuate itself into the picture, the black and white landscape of her breast; that she was casting the shadow with her own poison.

So she fiendishly read the People Magazine she’d picked up, but nothing worked, nothing. Sandra Bullock’s adoption of her new baby had finally gone through. Great. Terrific. Bully-Bullock for her. But what did that have to do with anything? Something about The Bachelorette. Lindsay Lohan was back in rehab. A high school cheering squad in Tuscaloosa had cheered for twelve hours straight to raise money for muscular dystrophy. Yes, she supposed that it was inspirational, but really, cheering for muscular dystrophy? It seemed wrong, out of whack. It suddenly seemed like everyone—even Sandra Bullock, even the chattering magpie in her impossible high heels—everyone was building fences out of toothpicks to fight off gale-force winds. She slapped the magazine back onto the table and snatched up the first thing her hand fell on, a Redbook. There was an article about cobblers, even something called the “new, savory cobblers” with ham and Gruyère cheese and leeks. But at least there were recipes, and the recipes were absorbing. She read every ingredient, each preheating time and temperature. She read the serving suggestions avidly, as if her life depended on it. It felt like her life did depend on it; but how could her life depend on sprigs of mint and the confetti of parsley? Magazines in a waiting room were ridiculous. Where was the Bible? It was gone, that’s where it was, long gone. People might be offended by it. But this, this news—was this news?—of some celebrity’s latest pap smear was perfectly acceptable. What on earth had happened? She was about to reread the cobbler recipes when the technician blessedly called her name.


The next week, when there was a shadow—“It could be nothing,” her oncologist had said. “Just a little biopsy to make sure . . .”—she had not been surprised. Though if her oncologist had said, “You’re free and clear,” she felt sure that wouldn’t have surprised her, either. What had surprised her was her reaction. She had imagined this moment many, many times in darkest night and brightest day and every other hour in between, and sometimes she had made herself cry. But she did not cry. Her oncologist was a strange woman who always smelled as if she’d scrubbed herself within an inch of her life with Ivory soap and was prone to saying odd and inappropriate things when she examined you, usually about animals. “I saw the cutest baby skunks on Animal Planet the other night.” Or, once, “Do you ever dream about monkeys?”

“No,” Lori had said. “Never.” And to herself: “And please don’t even mention monkeys again with my breast in your hand. It was obscene.”

But there Lori sat in the office with the diplomas and the books that looked like encyclopedias, so like the offices from doctor shows on TV that she would not have been surprised if George Clooney himself had swept in as a cameo from his ER days. Outside, the receptionist was laughing and there was an old-fashioned jar of butterscotches next to the Kleenexes she had expected to be crying into, but wasn’t, and she felt nothing. It was as if Dr. McCarty had scooped out the seeds of her, then the glistening meat, and all that was left was the rough and hollow rind.

“Are you alright?” Dr. McCarty had said.

“No,” Lori had said, “I’m not alright. But I’m not not-alright, either.”

“Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.” Dr. McCarty had her moments, like this one, when she really did sound like the voice of authority and not like some crank nattering on about a pelican on a bridge she’d seen. You could almost believe her.

All the way home everything seemed like a movie. The sixteen-wheelers on the interstate whined by her, sounding just like movie trucks. The Jiffy Lubes and 7-Elevens and dry cleaners zipped by her like sparkling sets that would vanish as soon as she passed them. She lit a cigarette—what the hell?—and had the uncanny feeling that this was exactly what the script had called for. The Ho Ho wrapper one of the grandkids had left shined, crinkled, and forlorn from the floorboard. The sky was turning that strange off-white that meant storms, and the light was going dingy too, gray as something careworn, something washed too many times and never very well.

She’d done all this on her lunch break, an idiotic decision, and she actually considered going back to work—she’d said she would—but she didn’t turn where she should have turned and instead rolled down the window and hung the V of her arm out the window, like the Fonz or somebody equally insouciant. She flicked her cigarette, raining sparks on the pavement, and wished she had a beer and that a cop would pull her over. She could see herself calmly sipping it as he said, repeatedly, “Ma’am, please get out of the vehicle.” What could anyone do to her now? The mustiness of the coming rain was at full-throttle. It wouldn’t be long now.

In fact, fat splats of it clapped against the sidewalk as she pulled up to her parking space. She could never remember wanting to be inside of her apartment so deeply. She even left her window down—she was in such a hurry—which she knew she would regret later. A crack was already asserting itself in the front seat. She half-ran to the front door, and somehow managed to avoid all but a few quarter-sized dollops of water in her hair.

She made a drink, of course. There wasn’t really enough tonic so she slurped some OJ into it and didn’t bother with a lime. For one flickering second, the drink, her making of the drink, did make her sad because it made her wonder who she might have been. But it was only the flick of a lighter that didn’t catch fire. There was no point in wondering what you might have been when you already were and might not be that for too much longer.

She stood in front of the patio doors, drink in hand, the other propped against the cool grooves of the frame, the whole world bleary through the rain-dappled glass, the patio furniture soaked, the net draping the back fence, soggy and sagging. She looked up to where the rain clattered in the leaves of the magnolia tree to see what she could see. It was nothing but an infinite green blur, smudged with gray sky and smeared with white flowers. For one faint-hearted second, she was sure she could pick out the raccoon staring down at her from a distant branch, a fat and fuzzy silhouette, but just as quickly it was gone. She wished he would come back, the fucker. She knew exactly where Hank’s deer rifle was, buried in his underwear drawer so the grandkids wouldn’t get to it. If it came down to it, she knew exactly what to do with that gun, too. In fact, after she made another drink, she might just go upstairs and get it.  end