you sure she's gone?" Harry said.
Harry and Chuck sat in the truck and
looked at the old Victorian house. It was dark and quiet.
"Positive," Chuck said. He
nodded, too hard. Harry could tell he was drunk by the
way he was lighting matches and tossing them out the window.
"Give me my matches back,"
They sat some more and looked the house
over. Neither of them wanted to get out of the U-Haul;
they were both forty and weren't looking forward to the
"But is she really gone?"
Chuck smacked the steering wheel with
his palm, too hard. "My wife," he said, nodding,
"said she'd clear out while I got my stuff out."
"What are you afraid of?"
"Are you all right, Chuck? You
don't look so good. Maybe you should get some coffee.
You look like you've been up all night."
"I have been up all night."
He smacked the wheel again. "I was saying goodbye
to my house."
"It's her house."
"Sure, sure. She grew up in that
house. But it was my house too for a while, after we got
married. I stayed up all night because I was saying goodbye.
It's a beautiful house."
"Where was Beryl all this time?"
"Where do you suppose Beryl got
all that anger from?" Chuck said.
His attention span was like the chamber
of a revolver; it would spin and then he would fire at
"I don't know," Harry said.
"It's not your fault. Your wife is an angry person."
"You can say that again."
The chamber of his friend's attention spun again. "Say,
I really appreciate you helping me, Harry. Thanks for
putting me up too."
"Don't mention it," Harry
said. But, he thought, Chuck really did look like hell.
They had been friends from childhood and Chuck had always
been the thinner of the two, but now the skin seemed tight
on his face as if he had eaten something sour. His fair
complexion looked as brittle as week-old newspaper, making
the shadows under his eyes darker still.
"Say, isn't that someone at the
upstairs window?" Harry said.
"It's the dog."
"I thought I saw a face. There,
"It's Boomer, damn it. I know my
Boomer, the border collie, was watching
them from the upstairs bedroom window, cocking his head
like a little person.
"Awfully quiet dog," Harry
"Boomer never barks. When he lunges,
he lunges silently," Chuck said solemnly. "The
postman hates him. Don't worry, he likes you."
"What are you so jumpy about? I'm
the one leaving his marriage. I'm the one whose life is
shattered. I'm the one who left the pounded ring on the
dining room table."
"The pounded ring?" Harry's
eyes were closed. He did not want to hear this.
"I took off my wedding ring and
took a hammer and pounded it into the dining room table.
That wedding ring looks like a twist tie you'd use to
close up a bread wrapper. Smushed." He spoke with
deep, drunken satisfaction. "She'll never get the
mark out of that table. You know, that's the one thing
I ever did that left a mark on her life. I messed up her
table that her grandmother gave her. That, and Murphy's
"What?" Harry said. But he
"Murphy's Irish Stout. I introduced
her to stout"—he tossed his head at the word—"and
now she drinks nothing else. She's got some in the icebox
right now. That was my doing. The rest of what I did for
her, pfft"—he flapped his hands and wobbled
his head. "Gone. Like water. Like ripples on a still
pond, there and gone." He illustrated with his hands.
Harry did not answer. He nursed his
cigarette. He'd never noticed how crooked the house was
at the roofline. The gingerbread molding along the eaves
was mostly intact. An unscreened porch ran nearly all
the way around the house, and turreted rooms perched at
each upstairs corner like castle parapets. The roof was
crowned with a widow's walk, with small banisters framing
a short path that led nowhere. The shingles and chimney
bricks scattered around the ragged yard proved that for
more than a century the house had been battered from without
by winter northeasters and summer hurricanes. All the
same, it seemed to be crumbling from the inside out. It
was as if it were sagging now that there was no marriage
to hold it up.
"Well, let's get started,"
Harry said, flicking his cigarette onto the street.
They got out of the truck just as a
man in 18th century clothes strolled past them. He was
wearing black leather shoes with brass buckles, stockings
rolled just below the knee, a black linen coat and a cocked
felt halt. He walked up to the front door and optimistically
twisted the doorbell.
"The bell doesn't work," Chuck
The man turned, adjusted his wire spectacles
and studied the pair of them. He turned back to the house.
"Is this the party?" he said as if he were speaking
to the house.
"The costume party has been canceled,"
Chuck said. "I'm sorry. I thought my wife had told
"Canceled?" the man said to
the door. "What happened?"
"My wife and I are getting a divorce."
"That's no reason to cancel a party,"
the man said, peering through a pane.
"Sorry," said Chuck.
"Who was that person upstairs I
saw? I thought it must be Beryl."
"It's the dog."
Now the man turned and looked at Chuck.
"The hell you say. It didn't look the least bit like
"That's what I told him,"
"You're being rude," the man
said to Chuck. "Just because you and Beryl are getting
a divorce, you don't have to be rude. Don't you call Beryl
a dog. She's a friend of mine."
"I'm not calling her a dog,"
Chuck said, "even if she is your friend, dammit.
I'm not calling anyone a dog. Beryl isn't here, do you
understand? That up there, that creature in the window
everybody is so goddamn scared of, really is the fucking
"I was looking forward to seeing
Beryl in her witch costume," the stranger said wistfully.
Catching something in Chuck's expression, he added, "No
"What the hell is it now?"
"No cracks about Beryl being a
witch. She's not a witch, she just dresses like one. Every
"I know it. I'm not making any
cracks, godammit. And she's not here. I don't know how
she's dressed, but she's not here."
"You're drunk," the man said.
"She said you were a drunk. She was right to throw
The stranger tried to slam the gate
behind him, but though he swung hard it closed gently,
as though muffled by an invisible cushion. Halfway down
the sidewalk, the stranger turned so abruptly his coattails
"Who gets the dog?" he demanded.
Chuck blinked stupidly for a moment.
"Good for her. It's a small victory,
considering how you treated her. Good day, sirs."
"Fuck you!" Chuck said. But
the stranger was gone.
"How do you like that," Chuck
said. "What the hell does he mean, how I treated
her? And why didn't Beryl tell everybody that the annual
costume party was canceled?"
"There's always somebody who doesn't
get the word," Harry said. "Well, come on, let's
They entered the hallway and Boomer
bounded down the hallway steps to greet them. Chuck started
"What's the matter?" Harry
Chuck huddled over the dog, blubbering.
"I can't stand it. I can't stand to leave Boomer."
The dog gravely licked Chuck 's face,
intrigued by the taste of tears. It made him cry harder.
"Chuck, how many drinks did you
have before you picked up the truck?"
"One at a time, maybe. Jesus, you're
in no shape to do this." Harry patted his old friend's
shoulder awkwardly, trying to comfort him, but he was
irritated. He had to go to work in the morning. "Chuck,
I'm sorry you have to go through this, but we can't spend
all night doing this."
"Jesus, I've never seen you like
this before. Women! What they can do to a man."
"I'll be all right."
"Here, blow your nose." Harry
turned his back to the blubbering. "Okay, let's start
with the big stuff."
It grew dark as they began to carry
the washed-up flotsam of Chuck 's life into the truck.
They picked up the hallway sofa, which had been Chuck's
before the marriage, and eased it onto the porch. When
they got it onto the walkway of the truck, Harry saw that
Chuck was crying again.
"Don't start that now!" Harry
said. "You'll drop it."
"I won't drop it."
Chuck dropped it.
"Damn it!" Harry said. They
picked it up again and Chuck almost tripped over the gas
can for the lawn mower, which was carelessly placed by
the coat rack. But they managed to baby-step their way
up the ramp.
"Can you see all right?" Harry
said. Chuck 's face was ablur with tears. Chuck didn't
answer, but they managed to get the sofa aboard and set
"What set you off this time?"
"The dog hair."
"What?" Harry looked. The
sofa was covered with silky bits of Boomer's white and
black fur. "What are you going to do now, collect
samples for souvenirs?"
"No, I'm all right." Chuck
sniffled. "Let's go." He led the way down the
carrier ramp with wounded dignity. Harry followed, swearing.
As they were carrying Chuck 's paperback
bookcase into the downstairs hall, they encountered a
big strapping woman in the hall. She wore short leather
pants and a leather vest, and she was carrying what Harry
took to be a riding crop.
"Can I help you?" Chuck said.
"I'm here for the party."
"Shit!" She stalked out, smacking
the riding crop against her fishnet stockings as if to
speed her departure.
"Who the hell was that?" Harry
"That's Trisha. Runs a stationery
shop downtown. Funny, she always seems so shy and quiet
in the shop."
"Good thing she left when she did.
Look at the marks those spiked heels left on the floor."
"Something funny about that woman.
Something strange about all of Beryl's friends. I've heard
"You don't want to know. It's not
your problem anymore."
The chamber of Chuck's attention spun
again. "Did you see how I pounded my wedding ring
into the table?"
"I didn't look. I trust you. Just
hope her lawyer doesn't send you a bill for the damage."
"Hah. Let him try."
"He just might do it." Harry
was getting very tired. "Did you say there was some
Murphy's Stout in the icebox?"
"Let's take a break."
"Go ahead and get something to
drink. I'm going upstairs to collect the pictures."
Harry sat in the kitchen, lit a cigarette
and started in on the Irish Stout. He was sore from moving
the furniture and was enjoying the quiet. Then he smelled
"Chuck !" he called.
There was no answer.
Harry began checking the downstairs
rooms to see where the fire was and found another woman
in the parlor. She wore a black dress from head to toe
and a black shawl with a veil that covered the lower part
of her face.
"Is this the party?" she said.
"Yes. I mean no," Harry said.
"The party's canceled. Listen, do you smell smoke?"
"I thought it must be Beryl. She's
a terrible cook."
"Who are you?"
"Dot," she said. "I'm
Dot. But I'm playing the role of Mrs. Junius Hale Throckmorton
for the party." She followed Harry from room to room
as he hunted for the fire. "Mrs. Throckmorton lived
in this house in the 19th century and watched her husband
drown from the widow's walk."
"Watched him drown?" Harry
said, frowning at electrical sockets.
"He was a ship's captain,"
she said, as he opened and closed pantry doors. "There
she was one day in 1872, waiting for his ship to come
in. It was already in Pequot Harbor when the helmsman,
who was mad, steered the ship into Gnarly's Rock over
by the lighthouse."
"Jeez," Harry said, checking
the bathroom. Mrs. Throckmorton followed him back out
into the hall just as he nearly bumped into a short man
"Is Beryl in?" the man said
in what sound to Harry like a fake East European accent.
He was about sixty, bearded, and he squinted through circular-frame
glasses that looked like they'd come from a costume shop.
He was smoking a stinking cigar.
"Dr. Freud!" Harry said. "I'm
sorry, but the party's been canceled."
"I'm not here for the party,"
the man said. "I'm a doctor."
"I can see that, and it's a damn
"Hello, Dr. Fischer," said
"Hello, Dot," the doctor said.
He gave Harry a look of sharp appraisal, as if his thick
spectacles were magnifying glasses and Harry were a rock
under a geologist's scrutiny. "I got an urgent page
from Beryl," the doctor said patiently. "It's
important that I see her. Something terrible could happen."
"She's not here. Her husband is
here. He's leaving."
"I know," the doctor said.
"Can I see her husband, then?"
"Now might not be a good time."
Harry made a drinking motion with his arm.
"I see." The doctor puffed,
regarding Harry. Then he said, "Goodbye, Dot."
"Goodbye, doctor. See you Tuesday."
The doctor left and the woman impersonating
Mrs. Throckmorton resumed her narrative.
"Mrs. Throckmorton watched the
ship go down," she said. "Everybody swam for
it except for Captain Throckmorton, who couldn't swim
because he'd lost an arm in the war."
"Look, Dot, I've got to get going,"
Harry said as he started up the stairs. "Say, what
happened to that mad helmsman?"
"No one could prove it was murder.
But no ship would take him after that. He became a carpenter
and built the chapel of St. John's Methodist. Then Mrs.
Throckmorton hunted him down in the street one day and
blasted him between the eyes with her husband's Civil
She was still talking in the downstairs
hall when Harry, who had tuned her out, reached the upstairs
bedroom. He found Chuck poring over an album of wedding
"Chuck, do you smell smoke?"
"Yes, now that you mention it,"
"Where's it coming from?"
"I don't know. I thought maybe
Dot was smoking."
"Dot was up here?"
"You know," said Chuck, "I
really like this picture of Beryl and her little niece
Dorothy at the wedding, you know? Cute little blond thing.
Just like her aunt."
Harry cursed and went into the bathroom,
where the clothes hamper was afire. He looked for an extinguisher
and saw none, so he kicked the hamper into the shower
and turned the water full blast. The fire hissed and died.
Harry stormed into the bedroom.
"What the hell happened?"
"I don't really know," Chuck
said. "It's like our relationship was a branch of
a great tree, and the branch spread out into the future
with lots of smaller branches depending from it, children
and retirement and a happy old age. And then suddenly
someone lopped off the branch and you're falling. That's
me, I'm falling."
"You're drunk. Was someone up here?"
"A couple of people have been through."
"Damn it." Harry stood in
the bathroom doorway and looked at the smoking hamper.
"Were not finished moving yet, Chuck, and you're
"Funny, that's what Beryl used
Harry gave up. He had done all the heavy
lifting he was going to do for one night. He left Chuck
to shed tears over his life's pictures and began moving
the smaller boxes out to the truck. If any of Chuck's
furniture was left in the house, Beryl was welcome to
it, he told himself. It grew cooler as he worked, and
along toward midnight he paused. The truck was almost
full. A cold crescent moon hung low in the sky like a
discarded fingernail paring, its edges sharp enough to
puncture a balloon. Boomer, who had grown tired of listening
to his master whine upstairs, joined Harry on the porch.
"Crazy people," Harry said.
He patted the dog. "Some crazy people in this world,
Boomer." After spending the past couple of days in
the company of an irrational person, Harry realized, it
was a comfort to have a dog to talk to.
He snapped his fingers. "The coat
rack. We forgot the coat rack, Boomer."
The coat rack was just inside the door
of the downstairs hallway. But, he noticed, the gas can
was gone. He went through the rooms again. He went upstairs
and found the bedroom door closed.
"Chuck ?" he called. No answer.
Harry opened the door. Fire hit him
in the face.
was a three-alarm fire, two more alarms than the town
even had, and two engines had to come from Ridgeport to
fight it. The crews saved the house if you didn't count
the bedroom, which was gutted. They found Chuck's body
on what was left of the bed; the coroner would have the
final word, but the rescue folks figured smoke inhalation
got him before the flames did. The gasoline can was turned
over beside the bed.
"Did he drink?" the police
"Well," Harry said. "More
than was good for him."
They stood outside the house in the
morning sunlight. There was no more smoke and the house,
which the hoses had sprayed for hours, seemed to have
been in a heavy rain. The pressurized water had scoured
everything and the place looked fresh and clean except
for the one window.
"Was he distraught about something?"
"His marriage ended."
The officer looked at the house. "Id
say he overreacted a bit, but that's just my opinion."
Harry untied Boomer from the porch rail
and put him in the cab of the truck. As he drove away,
Harry looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bedroom
window encircled in soot, like an eye that has been bruised
in terrible anger.