Phil met Maggie Curran through his dog. They had been in Longmont six months, and he had made exploratory visits to two other veterinarians before trying Long's Peak Animal Clinic, where Maggie was the junior partner of three women.
"Wanna pack?" the receptionist said incredulously when he called to make the appointment and gave her the dog's name. He was used to the confusion.
"Hunapac," he repeated, emphasizing the first syllable and broadening the 'a.' "H-u-n-a-p-a-c. It's a long story," he added, "just say 'Poc.'"
"Not 'Pac'?" she said, sounding hopelessly confused.
He laughed. "Write pee-oh-see," he said. "I'm sorry. It's pronounced 'pock' but not spelled that way."
Poc was half English mastiff. He had been as ugly-faced as a bat when Phil picked him out eleven years ago, a puppy the size of many full-grown dogs. He was purple, the deep red-brown that used to be called "ox blood," and his face was already, at ten weeks, wrinkled and collapsed with excess skin, like a Shar-Pei "who's been hit with a brick," Phil sometimes said. But he had merry eyes and an infectious grin, and he and Phil loved each other from that day forward.
"So, what's the story?" Maggie said as she passed her hands along Poc's back looking for flinches and hot spots that would signal arthritic zones. She was kneeling beside the dog; she gave Phil a quick glance so he would know she was speaking to him. "The name?"
"Truly dopey. He looked like a bat, and I thought this Mayan god was named 'Hunapac' and it meant 'eight bat' or something. Turns out his name is Hunapu and it means 'blowgun.' But it was too late. And I certainly wasn't going to call him Pooh."
She laughed. She had a dark, meaty laugh, rich but economical, there and gone, almost masculine. He watched her hands move deftly along the huge dog's spine. Poc weighed 163 pounds that day. He stood motionless. Once he looked up at Phil nervously, and Phil murmured, "It's Ok, kid."
"He's very good. Aren't you, Poc old guy?" She put her head next to the dog's ear as she confided this opinion to him. Poc grinned, his jowl shiny. His fangs were as flat-topped as fingertips. Phil made a note to ask her about the brown spots, whether there were places where the enamel was worn away to sensitive tissues.
Maggie Curran was a square, solid woman in her late thirties. Poc probably outweighed her by fifty pounds, Phil thought. Maybe more. She was built like that gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic cannonball. Phil would have called her "big" if she were not a mere five feet and an inch or two tall. She wore a green tunic over jeansscrubsand her arms were muscular, heavy but not fat. Her hair was short, the color of straw, a grey blonde, and she had a rich California tan, gold as deerskin, that was incongruous with the short, colorless hair. She had a heavy, male nose and a square jaw but fleshy, feminine lips; they looked soft as down pillows. Her nose, he suddenly realized, had been broken. It was asymmetrical in a way that suggested mended bone. His grandmother would have tutted over the nose but called her "handsome."
His grandmother was two months dead, and the smell of her decline into senility was still there in the house, in spite of rug shampoos and discarded furniture. He'd moved to Longmont from north Denver to take care of her, and as the only child, he had inherited the house, a big stone place incongruous on a row of old frame houses. Suddenly a homeowner again, he had stayed in Longmont, only a half hour commute from his job in Broomfield.
"There's one," Maggie said, her left hand stopping and then circling a bit forward of Poc's right hip. Her hands were small but venous, and the slab of muscle between thumb and fingers looked firm as a biceps. She had a little girl's coarse nails, neglected, possibly chewed. She nodded to herself, her face turned away from the dog, and her hands moved on, gliding toward the stump of Poc's tail. The guy who had sold Poc to him in Reno, a UNIX programmer with bad teeth, bred mastiff bitches to a variety of big and fierce studs. Poc's father was supposedly a Rhodesian Ridgeback. He cut off the puppies' tails, the breeder said, to "make them fierce." Thinking he was talking to a kindred spirit, he had explained how he toughened his own dogs by adding gunpowder to their food. Phil nodded uncomfortably, wrote the check, and fled.
Maggie prescribed pain killers; Phil explained that he was already using Ascriptin.
"Ok. Rimadyl is better for him. The buffering is good in the Ascriptin, but it's not as good as Rimadyl. You give him two maximum strength twice a day?"
"If he seems to need it."
"Well, if it's regular, you should think about switching. Aspirin is Ok for the occasional dosage, but if he's on a regular regime, he is getting too much stomach upset. You give him anything for his stomach?"
"Tagamet. One with the pain killers."
She rose on her knees to reach for the stethoscope on her desk. "He can have three times that if he needs it. Spaced out." She listened to the dog's heart. "No murmur," she said. Poc turned suddenly and gave her a quick tasting lick on one cheekbone. She said, "Blech" unconvincingly and pushed his head away. "A lot of his discomfort is delicate stomach, I think. Think about the Rimadyl."
She put the stethoscope aside and leaned her body across Poc's back, simultaneously giving him affection and making her dominance clear. Phil smiled to see Poc accept it graciously. "What a good dog," she said, hugging his ribs and then sitting up to scratch his ears. "We all get old, eh?" She stood up, wiping her palms on her chest. "So. How do you know about Mayans?"
"I teach history. At Front Range." He made a face. "Obviously not Mayan history."
She smiled. "It's a nice name." Then she was businesslike again. "He's fine, as fine as we can expect for his age. You know dogs this size, all the Molossers"
"Die young. Yeah. I know. I'm not trying to keep him alive. We're past that. I'm trying to keep him comfortable."
She nodded. She removed her glasses and studied his face, as if she were about to speak. Then she rubbed her eyebrow with one knuckle, put the glasses back on, and looked at the dog. "I know," she said. She took a dog biscuit from a jar on a shelf. "Sit, babe," she said to Poc, and his butt dropped as if his legs had collapsed. His eyes were intent on the prize and his expression as businesslike as hers. She smiled and gave him the biscuit. Not gingerly, Phil noticed, but trusting those massive jaws. Phil wondered if she was married. No ring. He snorted at the odd direction his mind had taken, and she glanced at his face again.
"Oh nothing. He's such a slut about treats."
"Well, aren't we all?" she said to the dog, smiling warmly at his huge grinning Hallowe'en pumpkin of a face.
Phil thought about her all the way home. And asked for her when they made a second appointment, a few weeks later, for a heartworm shot.
They saw her a dozen times in the next year or so. Then Poc's stomach trouble took a terrible turn, as if he had an ulcer, and they began using the expensive veterinary pain pills. It made no difference. They did nearly a thousand dollars of consulting and visits and revisits, even a sonogram before determining that he was having trouble with dairy products.
"I should have told you about the cheese," Phil said, the day it finally resolved. Phil had been dumping leftover shredded cheese on Poc's dry food and he loved it. And suffered terrible pain a few hours later.
"Well, yes, but wishes are horses." It took him a second to recognize the reference and then another to figure out how it was pertinent. "Let's see how it goes with no cheese for a while."
Cheese forbidden him, Poc seemed to rally, and Phil stopped getting up in the night to see if he was alive. He had described what that was like to Maggie, one day when they were discussing Poc's sleep habits, and she had put a hand on his, startling him. He thought about her hand that evening, sitting outside with the dog. But he didn't see her again until she did Poc's certification a month later, so that the two of them could go up to Winnipeg for six months.
"Running away to Canada, huh?" she said. They had a casual sort of friendship which neither of them ever had ventured beyond. He thought about it, but how to broach personal things with someone you paid to see? He had never determined if she was married. She talked about her personal life sometimes, but only historically. She'd grown up in Minnesota. Went to school at Cornell. Lived in Colorado about ten years. He talked vaguely about his own background, and Poc's, and she was always interested. "What for?" she said.
"Research on Louis Riel. He was"
"Red River Rebellion. Minnesota girl, remember?"
"Right." He was impressed. "I got a grant for the summer."
"Here," she said, scribbling on a business card. "Get in touch if you guys need anything." He glanced at the card. She had added an e-mail address. She and Poc said their goodbyes, then she and Phil faced each other awkwardly. They shook hands like children imitating grownups. When he left, he wasn't sure if she was as disappointed as he was. He was sure he was. But a few days later he and Poc were on the road, crossing the Dakotas and up the Red River into Manitoba.
"Not a veterinary thing, but I thought you'd be interested," he wrote the night they arrived. "We hit a deer in the Black Hills. I've never done anything like that. It was just suddenly there in the headlights and no avoiding it. I nearly lost control of the car. Poc was thrown on the floor of the back seat, but he's Ok. I couldn't stop, with the traffic. I don't even know if I killed it. I hope so." He went on to describe the rest of the drive. He mentioned that he had thought of her when they crossed into Minnesota briefly to spend the night in Moorhead. He hit "Send"; he wondered if she would even reply.
"How nice to hear from you," she wrote the next day. She offered sympathy to him, Poc, and the deer, and closed with "Give the bat a kiss for me." He read the e-mail over a number of times in the next few days.
"We sure miss you," he wrote cautiously a few days later. "The vets here leave a lot to be desired." He described his encounter with a callous male veterinarian obsessed with "helping prepare for the old guy's death." She wrote back about the machismo aspect of large-animal practice, and described a hike she'd taken up Long's Peak. He wondered if she had hiked alone. He was thinking that the summer was dragging on. They'd been in Manitoba a week. He wrote again later the next week, after driving over to the Peace Gardens, halfway to Saskatchewan. He mentioned being horrified by the flats, which he understood extended a thousand miles across Saskatchewan and into Alberta.
"My husband's from Saskatchewan," she wrote a few days later, and the words went through his heart like a blade. "He used to say that the reason the wind is so bad in South Dakota is that there's nothing to slow it down between the Yukon and the Badlands."
He recovered from the shock, which was like having a door shut suddenly in his face. He applied himself to his research, teasing himself for being a foolish man. After nearly a week of silence, she wrote, "You Ok?" and he answered, feeling a bit ashamed that he hadn't written. He offered more casual news, a story about Poc seeing his first badger and surviving. They began to correspond again. She picked up that something had changed; he could tell from the tone of her e-mails. She probed for information, but she seemed worried that the dog was having a problem that he was keeping from her. He made another note in his mind's inventory, about foolishness and fond men, and he reassured her that Poc was doing Ok.
In the heat of late August, a humid heat they had endured since mid-July, Poc suddenly went downhill. Phil took the dog to the vet he'd settled on, and she put him on cortisone, which seemed to ease the pain. "But he sleeps all the time," he wrote to Maggie Curran. "I mean literally. He's up for maybe an hour a day. It's sickening. I wake up in the night, and I go see if he's alive. And his breathing has changed. When he's sleeping. Phlegmy and labored. But then I'll look up from the computer, and there he is, bright-eyed and ready for a walk on the river."
"He's old, Philip," she wrote late that night. Her message was waiting when he got up. He noticed she'd sent it after midnight. "He's slowing down. It doesn't hurt him to sleep. If he enjoys his walks, then he's doing Ok. And he's lucky to have you. He knows that. I talked to his vet, back when she got his records. Keep her current on what's happening, and she'll take care of him till you get back." She suggested that the breathing could be an allergy. "It's a possibility, especially in a new environment. Dog's get 'em, you know. The whole maguma: sneezing, runny nose, eyes, ears, itches. I had a Lab in here last week who could have done a Contac ad. He can take over-the-counter antihistamines. Check with the doctor for dosages, Ok? It isn't obviously that, but it could be. You do good symptoms. You pay close attention, and you're a good observer. If you tell her what you've seen, she'll give you a solid diagnosis."
"It isn't allergies," he wrote a few days later. "She doesn't know what it is. But it isn't an allergy. It only happens when he's sleeping. His lymph nodes are swollen in his jaw, so we're doing more cortisone. She thinks that might be it. And that could be lymphatic cancer. Yippee."
Her next message began, "I thought about that after I wrote, the fact that it only comes on during sleep. Sorry to mislead. I was trying to make you feel better. Stupid. Just hang in there, Philip. He's having a good life. He's had a long good life, and he's loved. He's happy. As long as he's happy, you are doing what he needs."
That message he read late in the evening. Afterward, he sat in front of the computer, listening to labored sounds of his dog sleeping behind his chair. He wished she had said, No, it can't be cancer. His eyes filled with tears. He pushed them dry with a knuckle and got up and lay down beside Poc's chest, as big as his own, and put an arm around him. The stump of Poc's tail wagged tentatively, bumping Phil's knee. "What a good dog you are," Phil murmured, ritual praise. Poc sighed, a long, much-enduring sigh. Phil went back to work, feeling a bit foolish.
It was not cancer, or it didn't seem to be; the glands went down as they were supposed to. In the next month, Phil and Maggie corresponded daily, sometimes two and three messages of an evening, mostly trivial things, but not always. She wrote about her Uncle Charlie, who had also been a vet, a retired naval officer who got his degree when he was sixty-two and practiced in Fort Collins for more than ten years, dead of a stroke a few weeks after her graduation from high school. Her parents were dead too: her mother a year after her father, who had died of emphysema. She did not smoke. He answered by telling her about his father, a soldier, also dead, in Viet Nam. His mother had moved to Florida some years ago with her second husband. "Definitely not dead," he added.
In one message, he mentioned his ex-wife, Estelle, a brief comment that she did not respond to, and there was nothing about her husband, her husband's family, her marriage. Maggie had no brothers or sisters; she had inherited the farm officially after her father's death, and promptly sold it to a combine. She skirted quickly past that and into other territory, movies she'd gone to, local news. Twice she ventured into some risqué territory, once by describing her sleeping habits (she slept nude) and again a few days after, describing a rather comical servicing of a mare that she had presided over. "It would not have done, to have children present," she had concluded with schoolmarmy primness. It occurred to him that he didn't know if she had children. He found himself liking her, thinking of her as, at least, a friend. And he imagined her walking nude through an imagined bedroom. Not good, he thought, not good; and he put a man, a lumpish form, in the imagined bed. A friend. It was an odd way to have a friendship, one governed by appointments and illnesses and conducted by e-mail.
"So, you'll be back in a week!" she wrote when he gave her their travel plans in late October. "Get Poc in here so I can see how he's doing!" Two exclamation points for twenty words, he observed, smiling a bit.
He made an appointment for the day after they would arrive. The drive took three days, and he spent them thinking about her hands. There was no ring. The chewed cuticles, he had decided, were charming. "Gamine," he said aloud, tasting the exotic word. But there was nothing childish about her, he had to admit. Small, not delicate. And her eyes, a turquoise green with flecks of brown. She had beautiful eyes. She wore big homely glasses with circular lenses, but she would take them off to make eye contact, and the effect was to make her eyes suddenly bigger and, he had to confess, beautiful. The women in his life had been, as if he had selected for it, five or six inches taller than she was, and he wondered what it might be like, to lean that far down to kiss a woman. Then he remembered the husband, and he sighed and he began to watch the monotonous scenery.
The receptionistBecky, Phil recalledwelcomed them and came around the counter to fuss over Poc. Phil watched the two of them together, smiling like a fond father. It was late in the day, and there were no other clients in the lobby. Poc squirmed and danced while the girl on her knees beside him scratched his butt vigorously and told him, over and over, what a good dog he was. There was an older woman, in her fifties, gathering things in a back office, and she looked out, made eye contact with Phil as she donned a light jacket, nodded politely. Janet something, he thought. The senior vet. A phone rang in one of the other offices. A female voice answered, began a conversation like distant flute music, her voice too low for words to reach them.
"You made it back in one piece," Maggie said softly, and Phil jumped. She was standing in the doorway behind him, a blue file folder in one hand, her face as strange and exotic as he remembered. It was not her eyes, he thought, but her mouth, curved and firm but soft-looking, like fresh, soft caramels. Or her nose. How could a lumpy nose be attractive? His lips parted unconsciously and then he felt suddenly foolish and self-conscious, and he came out of it, almost shaking his head to clear the fuzz. But they had stared at each other, both grinning, for what seemed a minute. The receptionist was watching Maggie, smiling as well, while she scrubbed Poc's shoulders and praised him. Maggie looked down at the dog. "Pockey!" she said, and the huge dog turned and did a grand cartoonish double take when he saw her and careened to her side, the receptionist forgotten.
"Pockey?" Phil repeated ruefully.
"Oh, it's just our little private joke," she said. She knelt beside Poc and hugged and scrubbed him without looking up at Phil. "Let's get him back here and get busy."
She gave the dog a thorough going over, including the lengthy, subtle passing of her hands along his spine. She suggested X-rays. She asked how the drive was. She was businesslike, but she kept looking at him as if expecting something he didn't know to do, or to say. She would make eye contact and flash a tentative grin, then look stern and go back to the dog. Phil stared at her when she looked away. It was like dancing, a strange tango, or half-written messages, in a language he couldn't quite read. Twice he almost spoke, then reconsidered. She glanced at the clock. "Last patient of the day. I'm ready for a beer," she said.
He hesitated longer than was polite, perhaps, not dubious but surprised and uncertain if she meant what he hoped she meant. "Sounds good," he said.
She looked at him when he finally spoke, almost a disapproving look. "There's a pretty good pub just up the street." She stood up, turned her back on him, and leaned over Poc from the hip, lifting the dog's right front leg and rotating the joint. "If you're interested."
He almost laughed. "I'm interested," he said to her back.
She snorted, a very unfeminine chuckle. Then she knelt and took Poc's right hind leg in both hands, turning the toes under and watching him correct. She lifted her knees off the floor, rotated on the balls of her feet, and looked up at Phil. "It takes me a half hour to close up. You only live about a mile away. Want to take him home?"
"Yeah. I'll meet you here? Or there?"
She nodded. "Here." She finished the examination. Phil drove home, feeling vaguely ambushed. He was halfway home before he thought about her knowing where his house was.
The pub was a steakhouse, the Spirit Buffalo; they walked over from her office. "They have Grain Belt," she said as they settled into their booth. "Old habits..." she added, grimacing. He'd eaten in the Spirit Buffalo a few times, but the bar was not familiar. He studied the walls. It was decorated like the dining room, an Old West theme, posters and Indian art. Two televisions offered baseball, a third showed a talking head, the lips moving unheard.
"Over here," she said.
He laughed self-consciously. "Sorry. Never been in here before."
She had a leg bent so that her foot was on the bench and her knee above the level of the table. She scratched the knee through her jeans. "Old hangout for me," she said, and the waiter confirmed that, greeting her by name and only asking Phil for his order. "Got yours, sweet pea," he said to Maggie. She nodded, confirming. Phil ordered scotch and water.
They talked about Canada. She was from St. Cloud. She had been to Winnipeg a few times as family outings, once with a gang of high school friends.
"I was pretty wild in high school," she said.
"Not me. I was the studious guy pushing his glasses back up on his nose."
She grinned. "The quiet type. We made fun of you. I hung out with the bad boys and smoked."
He shook his head. "Scandalous."
"Yeah. Well, I outgrew it. You?"
"I guess not."
"Oh, sorry. I guess I didn't outgrow it. Being the quiet type."
"Nothing wrong with a little quiet," she said, and he heard invitation in her tone, potential, that made him stare at her. When their eyes met, she smiled and the smile became a grin. He smiled too, struck by how beautiful she was. Well, not beautiful. But she was. Beautiful. He was staring again.
He told her about college. Four years at Colorado State, then off to Nebraska for a Ph.D. "I kicked around for a while, wrote a book about Jefferson's Indian policies. Taught at the University of Nevada. Got bored. Quit for a while and worked for a computer company. Got bored. Came home, got on at Front Range."
"You bore easily?" Again, their eyes met while he interpreted. She waited, her expression saying, "Well?" almost offensively. She made no attempt to step into the silence, just waited.
"Depends on the subject matter," he said.
She ordered another beer. He was nursing his scotch. "I bore easily," she said. "I nearly didn't make it through vet school because I got bored. Not the animals. I got to thinking I could manage a riding center or work in a kennel and be fine, so why am I studying my ass off?"
"Why'd you stick it out?"
She shrugged. "The money?" She read the change in his expression and laughed and shook her head. "Not the money as in 'Get rich, buy a Mercedes'! The money as in, I'd already invested about forty grand, mostly student loans. Took me five years to get us out of hock."
"You like your work."
"Well sure," she agreed dismissively. "It's a little bit of everything. Some challenges, some mysteries, some grateful patients, ego boosts for consulting up at CSU. I get to be every dog's second most favorite person. Cool beans."
"Poc thinks a lot of you." After he said it, he thought about it and chuckled.
"He talks about me a lot?" she said.
"In his sleep." She snickered. "Oh, Dr. Curran, you have such nice hands," he added in a theatrical baritone.
"He just wants to sniff my" she stopped suddenly, realizing what she was about to say.
"I wasn't going to mention that part," he said with a straight face, and they both laughed, but her ears were charmingly pink. He wondered if he was blushing.
"I could go for a steak," she said. "What do you think?"
"I think I could spend the whole evening here and wonder where it went."
"Why, Dr. Trent, thank you so kindly."
"No, Dr. Curran, thank you!"
They moved to the dining room and ordered steaks, mushrooms, baked potatoes. They ordered the same salad dressing. "Love blue cheese," she said. "Ummm-um that mold!" And they both ordered their steaks medium rare.
"We must have been separated at birth," Phil said as the waiter walked away.
"Oh, please don't turn out to be my long-lost brother."
"You have a long-lost brother?" She gave him a withering look. He thought about the husband. It was not a puzzle he wanted to clarify just then, though he felt a pang like guilt as the anonymous man crossed his mind. "I have two brothers and a sister. Well, half. I mean, they're half-brothers. And sister. Half, too." He felt like an idiot, stumbling through the explanation. "She's about your age, actually."
"Now how would you know that?"
He was flustered. He had assumed she was about thirty-nine, five or six years younger than he was. But he didn't know. He could be wrong by five or even ten years.
"Come on, cowboy, how do you know that?"
"Oh just guessing."
She was enjoying his discomfort. "So. How old is your sister?"
"This has been really nice."
"Sure wish he'd bring those salads."
"You're saved. I'm forty-one."
He felt a wave of childish relief. This isn't happening, he thought, looking at her smiling face. Then her smile faded a bit.
"Don't be lookin' at my nose," she said, but she smiled again after.
"Oh bullshit. Eat your salad," she said, glancing at the approaching waiter and gesturing with her head at the bowls in his hands.
After dinner, they squabbled ridiculously but amicably over the check and then, in the pitch dark, they walked the half dozen blocks back to their cars. His was in front of the clinic, hers in back. She stopped at his car, as if waiting for him to get in and leave.
"Shouldn't I, well, walk you to your car?" he said. In answer she stepped closer, staring at his eyebrow.
"You've got something...." she said, and she brushed his eyebrow with one finger. Her head was barely up to his chin. This close, her head was tilted back awkwardly. She brushed the eyebrow again, a smoothing stroke of her middle finger. Then she touched the tip lightly to her tongue and said, "There," as she stroked it a third time. He put a hand on her hip, his heart a vivid presence in his chest. She stepped in again, firmly, closer, so that their bodies were touching, and let her hand drift from his eyebrow to rest on his shoulder.
"I could kiss you good night," he said. "Or something." He could smell her hair, her breath, her skin. Her hip was hard as a horse's flank.
"You could. If you really wanted to."
"On the mouth, I mean."
"For like, four or five hours."
"I have to get up in the morning."
"Not me. Afternoon classes."
"Are you going to kiss me or not?"
"Definitely. Sure you don't mind?"
"Oh for Heaven's sake," she said, and she launched her face at his mouth. Her lips were indeed soft as pillows. He thought he might die in his sleep that night.
"Wanted to do that for a year," she said, dipping the side of her head onto his chest. Then she stepped away. "Go home now, Philip."
He waited in his car for the sound of her truck starting. In a minute or so, it came roaring around the building, a cacophony of lights and rumbling engine, and she waved and was gone.
When he got home it was around ten. He gave Poc a bone and sat outside with him for an hour, and then most of another. The deck was new, something his grandfather had ordered up ten years ago. It was only a few inches above the ground, just a clean, dry place to sit. His grandfather had died nearly ten years ago, not long after building the deck. They were not close, and he was in Reno then, teaching at the university. He wondered how much Grandpa had used his new deck. Gram hod no interest in it. Gram had lived alone in the house since the funeral, until he and Poc came up from Broomfield. She had been pleased when Phil moved back to Denver, but she'd shown no real interest in spending time with him. When he visited, she would sit silently, busy with some choreknitting, mending, reading homilies or tractsas if he wasn't there. He would read magazines, watch the huge television she turned on each morning and then ignored.
It was fitting, terrible as it was, that she should get throat cancer. "I never was much for talking," she said crisply after she told him the diagnosis. Already her voice was changing, he realized. He felt some irrational sense of guilt, that he hadn't noticed sooner.
He was all the family she had; Phil's siblings were just his mother's kids. And his father had been Gram's only child. Divorced when Phil was nine, he had died in Vietnam. Gram thought of him, in her latter years, as a tragic hero of the war. Phil knew he had been mugged and knifed outside a Saigon bar. History was less important to her than memories, which are more malleable. Phil had been renting in Broomfield for four years, and it was a small matter to break his lease, store his furniture, and move into the old Longmont house when she needed home care. She wouldn't have a nurse, but she accepted him and his lumbering, gentle dog. She called Poc "Bear" because "It's a proper name for a dog. Though he looks more like a hippopotamus," she added. The amiable dog adjusted to his new alias well enough. He had learned gentleness from Phil's ex-wife Estelle and her nieces, who loved him but were, he had quickly learned as a gigantic puppy, fragile.
Gram had been there for Phil when his own mother remarried, taking him in for an entire summer while his mother honeymooned, and she had been there again, so many years later, when Estelle announced that she was in love with her boss. Back in Denver, when the time came, he had given Gram six months without stint, and she had willed him the house. He had consolidated his furniture with the best of hers, and painted the interior. And yet he still thought of it as Gram's house.
The moon was about half full, Phil noticed, and the night air a bit chillier than he had anticipated. He spoke a vague reassurance to the dog, who glanced up when he rose to go inside. He got a sweater. Coming back, he remembered that he had sat in his own backyard, on just such a night, in the Broomfield house, with Gwen, his Gwen. They had talked. He had turned off the porch light that night when the moon set and knelt in front of her and slipped his hands under her skirts, pushing them up to reveal her soft thighs naked under the long waves of cotton. He had kissed her in the dangerous, scandalous dark, and she had opened her thighs to him and draped her legs on his shoulders and suffered his attentions. Another lifetime. His eyes were suddenly full of tears, and he blurted an obscenity that made Poc glance over.
On an impulse, before going to bed, he sent Maggie an e-mail. "I'm not very good at this. I forgot to ask if I could see you again. Without an appointment, I mean."
The answer came back ten minutes later, as he was about to shut down the computer: "Well, you have all those degrees, so we know you can be trained. Why don't you call me?" She added a phone number; he wondered if she meant now. It was after midnight. She was up, obviously. He called. They planned dinner for tomorrow. Only after he got off the phone did he think again about the husband. He must be out of the picture somehow, he thought.
"We're separated," she said brusquely when he brought it up at dinner. "Two years of divorce court, and no end in sight. You think divorce is ugly. Try doing it with international borders." Her husband had inherited the family ranch, and she'd had property she'd sold to invest in improvements. Her investment was huge, and it had been appreciating for five years. He couldn't give her back her share without selling the place. "That's his problem, not mine," she added.
There was an uncomfortable silence. He had brought it up clumsily, his curiosity about the husband. He wasn't sure if she was offended.
"Your house must be a hundred years old," she said.
"Hundred twenty-three," he replied automatically. "My great grandfather bought it from the original owner, in 1913, I think."
"I'd love to see the inside some time."
He stared at her. "You are amazing," he said.
"Well," he said, a bit flustered, "some guys might take it wrong, things like that."
"I like antiques," she said drily.
It took him a moment to get it, and then he laughed. "Thanks a lot."
"Well, you are so old-fashioned," she said, spooning soup.
He took a last bit of salad, chewed, and swallowed. Pushing his fork into the steaming center of his potato, he mumbled, "Not."
The next weekend, she came to his house for dinner. They toured the house, he touched her back in the bedroom, and then she was in his arms, and they were on the bed. They made love. She would not undress until the lights were out. When he lay on top of her, he was aware of something odd in the texture of her abdomen, but he was too busy to give it much thought. She finished before him, and then again on the crest of his orgasm.
"You are wonderful, Miss Margaret," he breathed in her ear. His breath was labored still, and he could hear her drawing air deep into her lungs as their heart rates calmed.
"It's not Margaret."
"Mary Magdalene Ignacia Rachel Sophia Angeline... Curran."
"Sweet Mother of God," he said, impressed. "I'm just Philip. Phil if you're in a hurry."
"Protestant," she murmured, an accusation.
He rolled away and lay beside her, chilled a bit by their sweat. She groped for his hand, pulled it onto her stomach and moved it across the scar tissue.
"So, you want to see?"
"What is it?" he said. He rolled on his side and rested a knee on her thigh. When she released his hand, he spread the palm and moved his hand, a delicate, smoothing gesture, down the length of the scar tissue. It ran from sternum to pubic bone, a narrow, slick stripe of unnatural skin.
"I had the stuffing knocked out of me," she said. "I'm the world's largest Beanie Baby."
"You don't have to tell me," he said. "It isn't"
"Yes it is. You haven't seen it." She leaned toward the end table and flicked on the light. She lay back for him to look, craning to look herself. "When I was a baby, my organs were all in a mess. They unzipped me, rearranged everything, and sewed me back up. String bikinis really grab the guys' eyes."
He was on his elbows and belly, examining the scar. "It's not so bad." He kissed the seam.
"Yeah, right. That's enough," she added, and she swivelled back to the light, turned it off. In the dark again, Phil remembered that he'd left the kitchen light on. It gave a faint golden cast to the hall outside the bedroom. He rested his head on her stomach. He had offered to use a condom, and they had interrupted themselves for a brief, urgent negotiation. She was "safe," she said, meaning on the pill. So he told her about his vasectomy. He had been celibate for four years; shewell, it didn't really worry him that much. They lay in the dark for a minute or so, and then Poc barked, a single syllable, more inquisitive than demanding.
"Uh-oh," Phil said. "That's the 'Hey, if you're going to bed, where's my night treats?' bark."
"Snacks before bed. Not good." She was drawing patterns on his back with one finger.
"Seriously?" he asked as he levered himself over her and rolled out of the bed. He grabbed his robe and slipped into the sleeves.
"Oh, semi-seriously. What do you give him?"
"A couple of charcoal dog biscuits."
"Well, that isn't going to give him heartburn." She got up and followed him downstairs to the kitchen. Poc was sitting politely by the sink. The charcoal biscuits were less than a yard from his head. "Is it going to confuse things if I go outside?" she asked.
He wondered if she was thinking of going out naked. She'd freeze solid. "No. He'll just try to con me into more biscuits when I go to bed again."
She knelt behind the dog, a knee on either side of his hips, and hugged his neck. It was perversely sexythe bare, clinical overhead light of the kitchen, her naked skin touching the dog's back, the spread of her straddling legs and the soft, peach-like cleft of her bottom, the contrast of Poc's deep red brown fur and her dark honey skin, the prurient nakedness of her torso where she didn't tan. Poc suffered her, crunching his biscuit. She shifted her weight, got her balance, and stood up.
"Eeek. The window," she said, scampering to the refrigerator and pulling the door open so it was between her and the kitchen window.
"It's Ok, Maggie, there are trees."
She made a big-eyed face. "Lordy," she sighed. "Where's my T-shirt?"
"I think you threw it across the bedroom. I was busy kissing your left nipple and it was dark. But I think I heard it hit."
"Smart ass," she said, and she disappeared down the hall.
"Yes," he called after her. "But I'm your smart ass."
They sat outside and talked about places to go in Colorado. She had never been to Mesa Verde. She wanted to bicycle to Vail. He told her about a cross country trip he and Estelle had made, the first year they were married, taking off after she finished school to spend a summer bicycling from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. A joke. "And we took South Pass, not the Rockies. We figured, if pioneer oxen could haul creaky wagons over it, we could haul our creaky butts."
She had dressed, but not her shoes. It was cold, but she didn't seem to notice; Phil suppressed a shiver and was greatful for no wind. She had one foot up on the seat. She clenched her toes absentmindedly while they talked, gripping the aluminum frame of her lawn chair with them. She held his near hand. While he described cranking up South Pass in first gear, she counted his fingers, closing each on its count, making a fist of them. When it was complete, she pressed his fist against her abdomen, low, almost touching her thigh. When the bicycling story was finished, she left. They kissed good night and held each other longer than was really necessary. But it felt good.
It began a month of gluttony before they settled into quiet pleasure. She called him from work. He called her at work. She called his office and left slightly risqué messages. He called her house and pretended to be Poc. They went out to dinner and came back to his house and made love. They rented movies and made love afterwardonce during, when the movie was dull. He sent her silly e-mails supposedly from Poc. She replied to them. At Christmas, they kenneled Poc and went to New Mexico and camped. One night, when he met her as she was locking up, she hauled him into her office and they made love on the desk, him standing with his pants ridiculously around his ankles, her shoes digging into his bare bottom. He wondered if she'd worn a skirt that day planning this, or got the idea from wearing the skirt. It didn't matter. He plunged into her joyfully, and she rode him with fierce, comical abandon.
One night while she was on top she grabbed his wrists and pinned him to the bed. He struggled half-heartedly, and she said, "Come on! Try to get loose!" He discovered that she was much stronger than he had imagined. They wrestled for a minute or so, then he went limp.
"Wuss," she hissed into his ear. They were still engaged, his penis lodged in her, and she gave him a squeeze of delicious intimacy. "Fairy."
"I let you win," he growled.
"Bull shit!" she said, suddenly angry. She rose up over him, hauling his wrists with her. "Don't you ever do that! Don't you ever patronize me!" She fell on her back and rolled off of him. The sudden loss of her enclosing flesh was like a splash of ice water. Her momentum carried her off the bed, but she recovered, landing on her feet with her rump still touching the edge of the bed, her back to him.
"Hey, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean it. I was trying."
"I hate being patronized," she said sullenly.
"Maggie. I'm sorry. It was a joke."
She turned and sank onto the bed, shuffled forward and crawled onto his torso, her knees beside his ribs, for all the world like a koala clinging to a tree. She rubbed him with her groin, but did not take him inside. The sensation was at the same time delicious and unsatisfying. He could feel her flesh parting to either side of his cock. He squirmed a little, trying to angle in, and she dodged with a quick clench and shift of one hip.
"I'm a true bitch from Hell," she said, resting her chin on his chest and grinning up at him with melodramatic fiendishness.
"Yes, but you're my bitch from Hell," he said, smiling.
She lifted up, so that she was staring down at him. Her weight was solid across his belly. She put her hands on his shoulders and leaned onto them. "Don't you count on it, boy," she said.
They settled into a comfortable routine. After an evening of conversation on the deck, sometimes preceded by dinner, more often begun when she arrived long after dark, they retired inside. Some nights they made love, some nights they curled up on the couch with books or watched a movie. They discovered a mutual interest in country dancing, and they drove down to Boulder on Thursday evenings to dance to the Flatirons String Band. One Friday, they went clear in to Glendale and Greek danced together at Yanni's, her natural grace quickly catching up with his mixture of experience and clumsiness.
Rarely, of an evening, they didn't see each other. And on those nights one or the other would call. Out for monthly drinks with her partners, she called him from the bar lobby. If she hadn't called by eleven, and he knew she was home, he would call her, sometimes waking her, and they would talk each other to sleep. But she never invited him to her house. It was weeks before it registered with him that this was deliberate. He began dropping hints and confirmed that she was avoiding it for some reason.
"So," he said one night, "how come we never go to your place?"
"Mad husband in the attic. I'm afraid he might set fire to the place," she said, so quickly it sounded rehearsed.
"Oh, come on! I thought you were educated. You never read Jane Eyre?
By the time he realized she hadn't answered the question, there was no easy way to bring it up again.
After a month, Poc knew the sound of her truck better than Phil did. The dog would head for the door before Phil even heard her, and he would be right every time. Sometimes Phil would come to the door before she knocked, and Poc would begin to squirm, waiting for the door to open. They spent long evenings outside with the dog, talking, watching the moon.
"Was Estelle the only major woman in your life?" she said one night without looking away from the crescent moon.
"I thought women hated having us talk about other lovers," he said.
"I'm not women. Answer the question."
"No. I guess there were a couple of 'major women' before Estelle. Linda," he added. He was thinking of Gwen. He was not ready to talk about Gwen. "That was in college. We lived together a year. She was dealing drugs. Ugly ending."
"You were in love with a junkie?"
"Love is blind." She didn't say anything. "I didn't know. I suspected, but I didn't know. You know how you lie to yourself, make excuses for people you love? I knew she was using, but we'd been together nearly a month when I figured that out. The dealing" He shrugged. "Well, I was dumb, Ok?"
"You do drugs?"
"Not really. We smoked some grass together. That's all it was. The selling, anyway. She was selling pot. Not serious stuff; too dangerous. But it turned out she was using some bad stuff. At least by my definition. Everything but heroin, it turned out. It all came out like rotting teeth, one fact at a time, through a whole month of surprises. I got upset. It got ugly."
"And after her?"
"Cindy Thornton. Graduate school. Very nice lady. Got seriously mad at me one night, broke a bottle of Jack Daniels on the hood of my car and lit it."
She laughed. "You're kidding!"
"I did something like that once," she said soberly. He wondered why she told him that. "Come on. Next?"
"How about you, huh? You live in a convent before you marriedWhat's-his-name?"
"No, I was pretty busy in high school. I had the libido of a teen-aged boy. Paid for it. Two D'n'C's before I was twenty-five."
"Cindy had a cancer scare. Uterine cancer, I mean. That's it, though. After Cindy, dates here and there, then Estelle and the big contract. Couple of years after I finished school."
She was watching the dog. Poc had gotten up, listening to something, and he suddenly rushed around the house at full gallop, rumbling threats.
"So, after Estelle?"
"And?" she said when he lapsed into silence.
"That was a few years ago. Nothing good about it, Ok? Let's not?"
Poc reappeared, returning to his bone. He was moving slowly, burdened with dignity or exhaustion. Maggie watched him walk. He dropped, collapsing, next to his bone, and stared at it as if considering his options before he nosed it tentatively and then, finally, began to work at it again. She continued to stare at him without responding to Phil.
"How long were you married?" he said. She gave no sign of hearing. "How's he look?" he said after she had been silent for more than a minute.
"Phil, I think he's had a minor stroke."
"No, no, relax. Not just now; a while ago, maybe a few days. I don't mean he's going to keel over or anything. But watch this. Watch how he walks. He's favoring one side, but not as if the problem was in his leg. Look. Hey Poc, come 'ere, Paco!"
Poc lurched to his feet clumsily and rushed to her knees, skidding to a stop in front of her.
"Did you see?" she said. "The way he got up? Now look." She put her hand under Poc's chin and held his face straight-on. "Look. See his eyes. The lids. One is lazy." It was true; one eyelid was lower than the other. The dog's face was distinctly asymmetrical, in fact, once Phil viewed him head-on.
"What can we do?"
"Tests to confirm. Medication to regulate his heart if you want. Go work on your bone, Batface," she said to the dog. She took Phil's hand while they watched Poc walk away. "We know not the day nor the hour," she said softly, pulling his hand into the comfort of her lap.
"What do you mean by that?"
She raised the hand and kissed Phil's knuckles, looking at the dog. "He's going to go, Phil. Someday, he'll want to go, and if you don't let him, you will be hurting him for your own selfish ends."
"When he goes.... He's all I have." She didn't reply. In the silence, he imagined what she might have said, had she replied, and he was ashamed and embarrassed. "I mean, he's been my whole household, everything, for more than five years. I can't imagine my life without him. I'm sorry," he added. "Our relationship is important to me"
"I don't do 'relationships.' Let it go, Phil. I understand."
They sat in uncomfortable silence. Then she said, "Bring him in tomorrow. I have surgery at nine, so I'm free for an hour at eight. If all you want is to make him comfortable, there are things we can do."
They were so quiet that the sound of Poc's teeth scraping the bone began to bother him. He felt foolish and petty, and yet he could think of nothing to say. His roses were blooming. He stood up, pulled out his pocket knife and went over to the bushes. He cut a big red bloom, not quite at its peak, and brought it to her.
She didn't look up, but she took the rose between finger and thumb, delicately avoiding the thorns on the stem. He could see a smile touch her lips, even with her head down. She looked at the rose. Then she stood up and stuck it under his nose. He inhaled the fragrance. She wiggled the stem so that the petals tickled his nostrils. "Come to bed," she said.
The next morning she was efficient and professional with the dog. They found nothing that warranted medication, and they did not discuss plans for the evening. That night, she didn't call. He thought of calling her, but even after picking up the phone, he didn't. There was a message on the phone when he got home Tuesday afternoon.
"Hey, handsome. I have a friend from out of town, so I'm going to be busy. He's here till Thursday. I'll see you Thursday night? Let me know." He stared at the machine for some time. He erased the message and took Poc up to Lyons so they could walk along the river. On Wednesday, they went down into Boulder, he and the dog, and walked on Boulder Creek. Thursday night came and he watched the nearly full moon rise. When it was descending in the west, Poc decided the evening was over. Phil gave him a biscuit and read till midnight.
He had classes Friday morning. That afternoon he did research at CU, getting home after dark. Poc greeted him happily. They ate, they hung out. The phone didn't ring till Saturday morning around eight.
"Oh good. You haven't been kidnapped by gypsies," she said by way of greeting.
She waited. When he said nothing, she sighed through her nose, making a papery clatter in the phone. "What's going on, Phil?"
"Not much. We might go to Estes later."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know. Sorry. I haven't been up very long."
"Are you mad at me?"
There was another silence. "Ok," she said, finally.
"Would you like to come by this evening?" he said. It was hard; he made himself say it.
"Ok. I can bring cauliflower. You cook?"
He smiled. "Yeah. I cook."
He roasted a leg of lamb drenched in Mediterranean herbs and lemon. She made a fuss over the savory roast, and they drove over to Baskin Robbins, Poc sitting in the back seat of his car, tall as a man, afterward. She had cherry ice cream; he made a face and ordered Rocky Road. "Yeah, well at least I can share with the bat," she said, loud enough for the clerk to hear.
Back at his house, they made love with a kind of gentle indolence. The tension seemed forgotten. He lay on his back, her shoulder tucked under his left arm. She scraped his chest with a fingernail. After a few strokes, he realized she was writing her name. When she saw he was paying attention, she drew a quick heart around the invisible scrawl and, with a flourish, scratched an arrow through it. "You're jealous," she said.
"Don't do that, Phil. Don't play games."
"It caught me by surprise. It's not like we're married. I'm sorry."
"You think I had sex with Rick?"
"Rick. It's none of my business."
"Well no, it isn't, but that's what you think?"
"I don't think or not think. It's none of my business."
"Ok. It bothers you that I might have had sex with him."
"It's not Ok. Why did you think that? Why did you think I would have sex with any man I was friends with?"
"I didn't think that!" He stopped; he had snapped at her. He took a breath. "I didn't assume anything. I just prepared for... whatever."
"Yeah. Ok. The worst."
"Do we have expectations?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Do we have expectations? What's hard about that? Do you expect me not to date other men? Do you think about other women? Do I have to come over every night or you'll be unhappy? Are you going to buy me a birthday card? Expectations!"
"I expect to get nailed," he said without thinking. She sat up.
"Thanks a bunch." She gathered her calves under her. It was dark, and she hovered over him, a pale triangle in the dark room.
"I'm sorry. Oh shit, Maggie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I meant, I try to be prepared for the worst. Not just you. Generally."
"So all your surprises are good ones," she suggested.
"That's a pretty shitty-eye-view of life."
"Just don't take it personally," he said. He took her hand and kissed the knuckles. "We get in ruts. It's hard to break out."
"What do you mean? What kind of ruts?"
"Our expectations. How we treat people, the things we say."
He could see her eyes examining his face. She lay down beside him, on her belly. She kissed the side of his mouth and settled back into his armpit. When they were both relaxed again, she said, "You ought to stop feeling sorry for yourself and grow up."
He closed his eyes.
"My husband had an affair while I was pregnant," she said after a few minutes. "I had a miscarriage," she added. After a silence, she said, "Your turn."
"Estelle wasn't meant for marriage," he said into the dark.
"Yeah. She was three years older than me. We got married late. I was her third husband. The other two marriages lasted about two years each. First one she dropped out of high school for. She went back to school and got a degree in languages. Taught Spanish for a while. Which was funny, because she was Italian."
"They're related, aren't they?"
"Yeah. But ordinarily, you would teach your native language. She was good with languages. Her dad was in the foreign service, a diplomat. We lived together for a year, while she was finished an M.A., and she reserved the right to screw whomever she pleased. Before we were married, I mean. Because we were 'just living together.' She bragged that she had had sex with five of her professors and two deans. She would tell me, while we were making love, about the last man she'd had before. I thought she was wonderfully worldly and decadent, and I hated it. We got married so there would be expectations."
"You married her so she wouldn't cheat on you." Her tone made him flinch.
"Pretty stupid," he said.
She let the judgment stand. She sighed.
"It kept up. Except now she lied about it and pretended it wasn't happening. To this day, she claims she never cheated on me. She went to lunch with an old boyfriend and didn't return home till nearly midnight, and I was supposed to believe they sat in his motel room and talked. I would call her room at conferencesthree, four, five a.m.and she wouldn't be there. One time I walked into a bedroom at a party, and she was making out with a guy I didn't even know. He had her nailed to the wall like a rutting dog. She was too drunk to be held accountable. That's what I said. She apologized. But I quit trying after that."
"So you finally separated?"
"That wasn't the reason. I had an affair."
"One of my students came on to me, and I figured, Why not? So we had a drink after class. It was a night class. We went to a motel, we did the dirty boogie for a couple of hours. I got home at three a.m., Estelle met me in the doorway and started shouting at me. I shouted back. It all came out. I admitted my crime, she denied hers. I kept saying, 'bullshit, bullshit,' because it was useless; honesty is always trumped by lying."
"You're sure she was having affairs," Maggie asked.
"Yeah. I was sure. A couple of friends told me about things they hadn't wanted to bring up while we were married. And two of her friends, women we both stayed close to, told me they knew too; one said she even knew with whom, and the other had seen her with someone, too intimate for just friendliness. Like that bedroom, I guess. They wondered why I put up with it. 'Love is blind,' I told them."
"And deaf, dumb and halt," she added in an undertone.
They lay quiet. Then she said, "Well, look, I didn't have sex with Rick, and I didn't want to have sex with Rick, and I don't just hop into bed with guys if they take my fancy, present circumstances notwithstanding." She kissed his ear, then licked it, tracing the ridges with her tongue. "It would make me unhappy to share you. And I try to follow the Golden Rule: Don't screw around if you don't want to be screwed around."
He chuckled. He rolled enough to kiss her. She accepted the kiss and dropped her arm around his ribs.
"Now make my self-control worth my while," she said.
That was the first time she spent the night. It was an accident, the two of them falling off to sleep exhausted and then, suddenly, it was morning and they were still together. He got up while she was sleeping, trying not to wake her. He threw on his bathrobe, went downstairs, started coffee, and then sought out his dog. Poc was deep in sleep, tucked in his favorite corner. His breathing was even but labored, and he gave no sign of noticing Phil's approach. Phil knelt beside him and leaned down to cover his chest in a light embrace. The dog jumped slightly, startled awake by Phil's touch. He settled back and sighed, and they lay together. Phil rested on the floor beside him, his hand on the dog's rising and falling chest.
When he rolled onto his back to get up, Maggie was standing behind him, her arms crossed. She had thrown one of his work shirts over her shoulders against the morning chill. Her skin gleamed, a column of gold defined by the framing dark green flannel of the shirt. He stood up and came to her, pulled the sides of the shirt closed together and kissed her. She settled against his chest.
"Coffee," she croaked softly.
"Yes ma'am. And eggs and English muffins."
"Coffee. Don't mention food. You'll wake up my tummy, and thenbig trouble." She squirmed into the shirt. Poc raised his head when he heard her voice, then dropped it again, as if the effort were too much. Phil slipped past her, on his way to the kitchen. He heard Poc struggle to his feet as he left the living room. Glancing back, he saw the dog stretch broadly. Maggie took a step toward Poc.
When he came back with mugs of coffee, they were outside. Maggie was kneeling beside the dog, who stood obediently, his face quietly happy, while she dug her nails into his fur. His blunt tail was wagging like a slow semaphore.
"Go pee, you silly thing," she said, rising and returning to the deck.
"Not you. Him." She took the coffee, sipped, made a face. "Honey," she said.
"You put honey in coffee? How perversely wholesome."
"Sorry. I should have asked. I don't have sugar. I remembered you sweeten yours."
"Shh. It's Ok." She sat down on the lawn chair, then bounced back up with a squeal. "Cold aluminum!"
"Nothing like getting the morning off to a quick start," he said ruefully.
"Well, I'm awake, anyway." She knelt on the cedar deck and sipped the coffee. "It's good." Poc returned from his morning business and put his face in front of hers. She pushed him away. "Gack. Morning mouth."
Phil glanced at his watch. "You have to work today?" Before she could reply he added, "Oh. Sunday."
"Connie's on call. My turn next week. I smell burning."
Phil jumped up. "Grease," he said, rushing inside.
They ate on the deck, scrambled eggs flavored with shredded cheese and onion, and English muffins. Maggie shared her fork with Poc, making him sit for carefully selected bits of pure egg, untainted with cheese or onion. He glanced at Phil occasionally, mildly embarrassed by the bent rules, but carefully lipped each tiny bit from the tip of the fork.
"Let's go to Colorado Springs," she said to the dog.
"Can I come too?"
"If you promise to behave."
They spent the morning walking Poc in Garden of the Gods, then packed him up to Manitou Springs and after a light lunch, they left him in the shade while they toured The Cave of the Winds. They were back in Longmont late after dark, and she said, "What the Hell," and offered to stay a second night.
After they made love, feeling wistful and sleepy, Phil started to say, as if a joke, "I love you, I guess." All he managed was, "I love you."
"Don't say that."
"What? 'I love you'?"
"Don't say it. I don't like it."
He was hurt. He lay silently beside her.
"Darrin is always saying it. I hate it."
"Darrin? Your ex-husband?"
"He thinks it's some sort of 'open sesame.' 'I got drunk and rough, but I love you.' 'I porked the rodeo queen, but I love you.' 'I." She didn't finish her last example.
"Kind of useful words," he said.
"I don't believe in love," she said matter-of-factly. "I mean, the words are such bullshit. You think Poc looks at you and thinks, 'I love that man'? He just does it. He just feels. What is love anyway? People love each other and chocolate sundaes. Big deal."
"Ok, I don't love you."
"Oh, go fuck yourself. You and your words. It's just words, Phil." He chuckled. "What?" she snapped.
"'Words are all I have, to take your heart away.'" he sang. "Old Bee Gees tune."
She hissed a long, exasperated sigh and rolled on top of him. "There's only one way to shut you up," she said.
In the morning, he woke to the bustle of her dressing. "Gotta run," she said. "I have to go home before work."
"So you do have a home," he said. She shot him a glance, pushing her foot into a boot. She kissed him goodbye and disappeared. By the time he got downstairs, her truck was gone, and Poc was sitting, sleepy and bewildered, at the door.
At lunch the next day she said, "I live in a dump. Why is it so important?"
"It's not. It's just weird."
"All right. Come over tomorrow. That should be Ok. I'll cook." She gave him the address. It was not far from the clinic, in a residential area west of the main drag.
It was a characterless house on a block of characterless houses, the sorts of places where trucks sat on blocks and weeds dried to thick tinder. It was run down, with an untended lawn and junk piled against the chain-link back fence. A dump. He was shocked.
"It's a place to sleep," she said, a bit defensively. "I don't live here." She was grilling chicken out back. "You didn't bring Poc?"
"I wasn't sure what to expect. You might have had savage poodles or pekes."
"Nope. No animal companions. I get enough of that at work."
They ate at a linoleum table in the kitchen. The kitchen was clean and tidy. The whole house was clean, but neglected, as if she'd never quite settled in. She was civilized and polite and reticent, answering questions but not making conversation.
"Ok," she said while they cleaned up after dinner. "You've seen it. Let's go to your place."
He put his arms around her. "We don't have to," he said.
"We do if you want what I think you want. We aren't going anywhere near my bedroom. It's a mess," she added.
"Ok. This is silly."
"Give me a minute," she said, disappearing down the hall. He wandered into the living room. There were photographs on the television; he looked through what he took for her family. The toilet flushed in the distance. Outside, a truck approached and the engine stopped. He walked over to the bookcase and scanned the shelves. There was a thud that shook the house. It was a big sound, like an animal throwing itself against the door. He turned to face the door, not sure what to do, and a man's voice shouted, "Open the fucking door!"
He took a step toward the door. He heard Maggie running down the hall. She was cursing; she pushed past him. "Go away!" she shouted at the door, standing a few feet from it.
"Open the fucking door!" the voice repeated. "Open the fucking door!"
Phil approached her. She gave him a glance and an impatient wave of one hand. The man hit the door again and it seemed as if the house shook. The door did move. Maggie picked up a hardwood baseball bat beside the door.
"I can call the police," Phil said.
She gave him another strange look, as if to say "Why?" and she flung the door open, taking the bat in both hands and holding it across her chest, sternum high, as the door swung wide.
The man on the porch staggered with surprise. He was big-boned and tall but not heavy. He took a step forward, staring at Maggie, oblivious to Phil. Maggie made an abrupt, warning gesture with the bat, pumping the heavy end a few inches toward him. He stopped. "Put that down," he said reasonably. She didn't speak. Then he noticed Phil. He gave him a quick once-over with his eyes. "You're fucking that?" he said, staring at Phil.
Phil took a step toward the door. "Stay out of it!" Maggie snapped. "Go away," she added, never taking her eyes off the stranger. Phil was uncertain which of them the last referred to.
"She show you her surefire trick yet?" The man said to Phil, "With" Maggie punched the bat into his solar plexus and he folded over with a squawk. He didn't go down, but he crumpled, gripping his chest.
"Go away or I'll break your arm," she explained. The man straightened back up; he had started to cry. Phil realized then that he was drunk She took a step toward him and he backed away. "Go away," she repeated.
"I know, you love me you can't live without me why can't we be friends. Go away! Drive away." He didn't move, and she snapped, "Now!" and her voice broke a bit. He gave another wrathful look at Phil and opened his mouth. She said, "Nothing!" and pumped the bat again without quite connecting. "Nothing! Go!" He took a step back, shot another look at Phil, turned to step off the porch. Out of her reach, he pointed a finger at Phil, like a movie tough guy.
"I can remember you," he said. Maggie took a step toward him and he turned again with drunken dignity and walked back to his truck. It was a big red pickup, high-wheeled and beat-up. Maggie stood on the porch until he roared away.
"Darrin?" Phil said when she shut the door. She nodded. She put the bat back by the door. They returned to the kitchen.
"I thought he was in Canada."
"The title is in Canada. The ranch is south of Berthoud."
He was not, Phil mused, the prosperous ranch owner he had expected.
"Does he do this every night? Check your house?"
"He made friends in the neighborhood. They call him. I should move."
"Now can we please get out of here?" she said with exasperation.
"You think he'll come back?"
"I don't know. I don't care. Look, I'm tired. We can go to your place or call it a night. Ok?"
"Let's go. I'm sorry. Let's go."
Poc did not greet them at the door. He was curled up on his blanket when they came in, and he raised his head a bit to look at them, then struggled to his feet for Maggie. Maggie went right to him and put her arms around him. Once she was there, he quit trying to get up and sat, suffering her attention, his head hanging a bit, grinning at Phil. They gave him biscuits and went to bed. They did not make love, though both of them were naked, but merely lay in the comfort of each other's arms. Phil wondered if Darrin could have followed them to his place.
"He's pretty out of control," he said. He imagined Poc attempting to protect them from an intruder and he almost shuddered. Poc would put a man like that in the hospital. It would probably cost him his life, though. He tried to remember if he had locked the door. Of course he had.
"You don't know how to take care of yourself," she said.
"I don't think I've ever been in a fight in my life. It's not that I'm afraid; I'm just realistic. I would get creamed."
"But you would have gone after him to protect me." There was something in her tone, almost a sneer. Cynicism, at least.
"I'd do anything for you."
She lay beside him thinking. Finally she said, "Yeah? So if I wanted to screw some guy, would you stand by the bed with ice water in case we got thirsty?"
He came out of the bed in a rush. She sat up. He could see, in the moonlight, a whimsical half-smile on her face.
"That was shitty," he said. He felt foolish, standing there naked and indignant.
"Don't exaggerate, Phil."
He grabbed his bathrobe and left the room. He went outside and sat in the cold. He didn't hear her moving around until the front door opened. Before he could get to the door, it was shut, and as he opened it, her engine turned over and she was gone.
The next morning, there was an e-mail. "Dear Philip," it began,
"I'm sorry. It was a bad joke. I was stressed, Ok? But talk is cheap, you know. People say things like 'I love you,' and what does it mean? Nobody knows what it means. If you think you love me, what does that mean? Would you love me if I hated you? If I made fun of you? If I quit having sex with you? If I started seeing another man? If I said, 'I love you,' you would expect it to mean the same thing you mean, even if you couldn't tell me what you meant. Words. Poc doesn't think, 'I love this man.' He just loves you. He doesn't analyze. He doesn't define things.
"And all the exaggerated bullshit that goes with love makes me puke. I should erase that, but it's true. 'You are beautiful.' I'm NOT beautiful; I'm kind of attractive in a busted up sort of way. Easy to look at, mostly, but I could fill a page with the not beautiful stuff, and you'd be stuck: either agree or lie. 'I'll give you anything!' Right. Give me Poc's head on a plate. But, you say, that doesn't count because you KNOW I would never ask for that. It counts. It counts, Phil, because you said ANYTHING. Don't say it if you don't mean it, and who knows what we mean half the time? Darrin used to say that, you know, when he was trying to buy me back. 'I'll give you anything you want,' he would say. I would say things like, 'I want you to go away and never come back,' and he would look, like betrayed. He gave me a broken nose. That's when I got the bat. It kind of leveled the weight difference and he's a coward, when you come down to it.
"He took our dogs out and shot them. You believe that? That's who he is, Phil. You think I like to admit I had sex with that? Twelve years! When I moved out, he came over and got the dogs out of the back yard and I never saw them again. He said he shot them, and I believe him but I can't prove it, and he said they were his as much as mine, which was true legally anyway. And he could do what he wanted. He said. That's why I don't have animals around.
"He knows a family up the streetfrom church. Can you imagine, from church? And they check up on me, see if I have company. So I don't, Ok? They call him and I hear about it. Or he comes over and makes a scene. I'm going to cost him his damn ranch, wait and see. Those dogs will cost him his damned inheritance, I promise. But that won't bring them back, and it won't make me happy, just justified.
"I'm not very nice, Phil. Is that a surprise? I gave up on nice a long time ago. But I try to be honest, and I care about things you care about. I don't have your talent for saying things, and I don't trust them anyway. So I pop the bubbles sometimes. And I'm sorry after. But that doesn't mean I'll stop doing it."
She signed it, "Mag."
"I don't know how to answer this," he wrote back. "Without words, I mean. I think about your skin while I'm driving to work. When I see that you aren't here, I feel incomplete. I would be happy if you were asleep in another room."
"That can be arranged," she wrote back; just that one line. He had to leave for work. He wondered all day what it meant. When he got home, there was another message: "You're pissed. Spirit Buffalo at seven?"
"You need someone sweet and nice," she said that night as she cut into a broccoli spear. "Not me. I'm all edges."
"That's talk," he said without looking up.
"That's talk. Exactly what you complained about. I don't need an abstraction. I have what I have with you. It can be nameless, but it's what I want."
"The love without a name," she said dramatically.
"Careful. 'L' word." Her mouth tightened. He continued. "You are completely different from any other woman I've been close to. Not just unique in your own right, but fundamentally different, like cats and dogs."
"Is this a good thing?" she said ironically, sipping wine.
He laughed. "Oh yes. Oh yeah."
"So, what am I? Cat or dog?" He did not reply. "Dog," she said. He nodded, but he was not sure he would agree. "Your women were cats?"
"I never told you about Gwen," he said.
"No. The girlfriend after Estelle."
"No. Not exactly." He was not sure he could discuss Gwen in a restaurant.
"You were married twice?"
"She was a girl I knew from teaching. We lived together for a year. Nearly two, altogether. Before I moved to Longmont. Your comment about giving you Poc's head? It was five years ago. When she was unhappy, when I was trying to make it work. I'd have done anything." He flinched after saying those words. "Really anything," he added ruefully. "I thought that it was because of Poc, her unhappiness, and I considered getting rid of him. I'd had him, well, a long time. SheAfter she was gone, I was ashamed. It was bad."
"Well, tell me."
"She moved in with us one night after a big fight with her boyfriend. He was abusive. Not physical, psychological. She told me, later, that she had sat outside his apartment door once, having hysterics because he wouldn't unlock it, and he was inside, ignoring her. She stayed ten months, with me I mean, then she went back to him. Just like that. One day. He called; she left. She was gone two days, then she called and told me they had 'reconciled.' I wanted to die. I spent two months coming home every day, knowing exactly when it was no longer possible for the hedge to hide her car, the exact last moment, if she was there. I would walk in and check the phone for messages, check my e-mail. I was convinced she would wake up one morning and think, 'Oh my God! What have I done!"
"Hope is such a whore," she said half under her breath. He stared at her.
"What do you mean?"
"You knew she wasn't coming back. Your brain knew it. But hope. God. Women who hope for years that a stolen kid will turn up on the porch one night. Or the husband will just quit hitting them one day. Hope. Bitch."
"She did come back."
"She just showed up one day. She had a key but she waited in her car. I guess she was afraid of Poc, now that I think of it, but she made excuses. My privacy, not to presume. She wanted to talk. We talked. I fed her. She went home. She moved in again a few days later. We made it through half a year, five or six months. Then she asked me to marry her. Then she started telling people I was pressuring her to get married. We fought about that. Then I found out she was cheating on me. It was pretty ugly. She left a diary open on the kitchen sink. As if I was supposed to find it! I glanced at the open page. It was about some guy at work, his tight little buns, how she wanted to touch him and what that meant about me. It was, well, graphic. I read it. I couldn't not. I was ashamed but so sick. I didn't say anything. She left it there through a night and another day, looking untouched. Then it disappeared and no mention of it. A couple of days later, reaching for the phone, she knocked her purse over and there were condoms. In her purse. They fell on the rug between us. Not the brand I keep around. Not any kind we'd ever used." She nodded.
"I mean, Christ, I'd been through that with Estelle, the cheating, and now this. What was she doing with condoms in her purse? We had used one, once in two years, because she had a bad yeast infection. We had a terrible fight, and I left. I fled. I wanted to hit her. I've never wanted to hit anyone in my life. I wanted.... I left Poc behind, and just left. I didn't even have a shirt on, so I parked in a Safeway lot and spent the night."
He looked around the room, realizing where they were. He had kept his voice low, but he looked embarrassed, even so.
"Did you get back together?"
He had begun to cry, she realized. Not sobbing, just leaking moisture from his terrible eyes, looking down at his plate. She was unnerved by the silent tears. He shook his head.
"You still love her."
"Is that bad?"
She gave him her wry, ironic smile. "It complicates our future. Not sure I like competition."
He scrubbed the moisture from his cheeks with one finger, brisk gestures. "She's gone. She's gone. Don't worry about her."
"Gone but not forgotten."
"Gone. If she could be hereIf she were here, I'd leave with you. Let's drop it, Ok?" She went back to picking at her food. He watched her hands; her silence troubled him. "It was five years ago," he said lamely. "I've been alone ever since, except for Poc. I quit on people. You were... like an accident." She met his eyes, looking a bit offended. "Not a bad accident. But I wasn't looking for you. I wasn't looking for anyone. I had my life all planned out, all tidy around Poc. I was watching him die. I was waiting. To be done with it. And you."
"I'd like some more wine," she said, and she gestured with her glass at their waiter.
"I'm sorry. I'm not much of a catch, if I'm caught."
"Oh, stop that. I don't have any complaintsyet. But I have to say, your taste in women isn't doing my ego any good."
The tension was broken and they both smiled, but he did not meet her eyes
"Just don't go dying on me," she said, sober again.
He stared at her as if she had struck him. "Poc," he said, and left the sentence incomplete.
Her wine arrived, and they went back to eating.
It was a few nights later that something woke him, some sound alien enough to bring him from sleep but gone before he was conscious. He lay abruptly awake for some time and then thought of the dog and got out of bed. Poc was a yard or so from his blanket, lying on his back, an uncharacteristic pose, his back legs splayed and his front feet tucked at his chest like a cliché bunny. His eyes were open and aimed at Phil; his jaws were parted and his tongue visible on the lower side. He was not moving.
"Hey, Paco, what's happening?" Phil said as he approached. The dog gave no sign of hearing him. He knelt beside Poc and touched his chest. There was no reaction. "Poc?" he said. He put his hand more firmly on the warm chest, feeling for a heartbeat. The dog seemed to be paralyzed. He couldn't find a pulse. Phil's neck went cold, then he felt it, a throb between two ribs. "Poc," he said again, and he shook one of Poc's front feet. Poc did not respond. He considered calling Maggie. Instead, he reached under the dog's neck and lifted him a bit. Except for the open eyes, it was as if the dog were unconscious, warm but boneless. "Come on, Poc, wake up," he said. "Come on, babe, wake up!"
Suddenly the dog reacted as if he'd had an electric shock, his whole body in motion, struggling to get free of Phil's awkward embrace and writhing to get his feet under him. When he was up, he stood with Phil, as if to reassure him. Then he went to the blanket and sank down, resting his chin on his paws, his expression vaguely worried. Anthropomorphism, Phil muttered to himself. He's not "worried," he's in pain. It just looks likehe stopped thinking, like turning off a switch, and lay down facing the dog, pillowing his head on one arm. His chest felt like it had been scooped out with a spoonterrible, terrible pain. He wanted to scream and cry, but it felt artificial, that need, as if it would be faked if he did it, operatic. The real pain was too consuming; there was no time, no energy for noise or hysterics. Poc's eyes sagged into sleep, slowly, slowly, while Phil watched his face. Phil reminded himself that it was sleep, just sleep, but it was no use. He sat up and rested against the wall, one hand on the dog's backbone. He could feel some rise and fall of the lungs, even from this angle. He sat there for half an hour. At last, his own head began to sink and jerk, and he went back to bed.
"Petit mal," Maggie said when Phil described it to her the next morning. "It doesn't mean anything. They're random, for all practical purposes."
"What should I do?"
"You did fine. They just come out of it." There was something in her tone, something evasive.
Her face went hard. "No, Phil. Not always."
"They die. Sometimes they die."
They had a quick lunch that day at the little café down the street from her clinic. She ordered a salad. He had a burger and played with his french fries, writing in ketchup with one. "Did you ever consider getting a puppy?" she said.
"He's not crazy about puppies. It wouldn't improve his life."
"I meant for you, Phil."
He ate the french fry. "I'm not going to add a puppy to his life. He's got enough challenges." He paused, doodled with another french fry, watching the patterns in the ketchup. "That's all I need, new chains."
"What do you mean?"
He raised his head to look at her, putting the french fry in his mouth. "I've made almost every decision of the last few years based on his needs, his welfare," he said. "A payback for that day I would have traded him to keep Gwen. You know, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere if he hadn't liked you. No offense."
"What's not to like, eh?"
"The Queen of Butt Rubs."
"On my gravestone," she muttered. He looked sharply at her. Then he went back to finishing the french fries. "A puppy is a lot of work," she said after a while, as if finishing a conversation.
They didn't see each other for two days; he was finishing finals for Front Range, and he batched two nights straight. When the grades were in, he called her.
That night they went to a movie. Afterward, sitting on the deck, they talked about favorite movies, favorite books. He went on for a few minutes about a controversial biography of Jefferson, quickly sketching an arcane controversy about Jefferson's mental health. Then he lapsed into silence when he realized that she had been looking at him cross-eyed for some time.
"Boring," he said uncomfortably.
"I could tell you about my favorite vet book, huh?" she said. "Vascular Entropy in Canids."
He sat silent for a while. Then he said, "You made that up."
"You aren't sure, though."
"A common problem in overweight dogs."
"Vascular entropy. It doesn't make any sense."
"Well, I could try to reduce it to lay language for you. See, there are these tubey things, like, inside the doggie, and they are supposed to change extraphrasictally, but sometimes they vellinate inclusing, and it can cause serious entropic morphosomnalis."
"I take it I was boring you."
"Don't you ever read anything with guns and sex in it?"
"Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Wait. No guns."
"You are a cute old fart."
"I resent that. Cute?"
Poc was coming toward them, his head hanging. Phil watched him walk. He moved like a sleepwalker, or someone overdosed with painkillers. He passed between them and Phil lowered his hand so that the dog's flank was rubbed as he passed.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"He never does that. Go inside first. Never."
They went in then. He got Poc's evening medicines together. When everything was ready, he came to the living room. Maggie was massaging Poc's abdomen.
"I think he's got some gas trouble. Not stinky, but he's tender. Give him two Tagamet. It's Ok in an emergency."
He handed her the hamburger balls loaded with pills. "This one first," he said, indicating the empty one. "No medicine to taste. Primes the pump, sort of." He went back to the kitchen and returned as Poc was taking the last ball from Maggie.
"Hey, kid, special surprise extra bed treat! What's the world coming to?" he said, handing the extra ball to Poc. The dog lipped it gently and swallowed.
Maggie put her arms around him and her head on his shoulder. "Good ole Paco," she murmured. "What a good ole dog." Then she kissed Phil good night and left.
A week later they missed a couple of nights again. Wednesday night she had business in Fort Collins, at the college. Poc wouldn't go outside. It was hot, just coming into summer, and Phil was tired, so they made an early night of it. Maggie called at seven, during a break, and he told her they were going to turn in.
"Ok. Give him a kiss for me. If you need me, call the cell."
He palpitated the dog's belly, found no hardness, and gave him his standard doses of medication. Phil stripped and went to bed. He lay for some time thinking of Maggie. It would be nice if she came by on the way back from Fort Collins. She wouldn't, of course; he fell asleep.
He woke at four. Poc was dead. He couldn't say he knew that when he woke, because for weeks he had thought it might be so, the first thought on waking. But he knew before he saw the still form on the blanket. It was nothing mystical, just trivial details below conscious attention but now missingthe faint stirring of breath, the sound his breathing should make. He knew and denied it as he crossed the room.
The body was cold. Not cold exactly, but wrong, not warm, not alive. He had wondered if he would be emotional this time, and he had doubted that he would. His doubts were right. He felt empty, wrapped in silence. Not the terrible, gutted emptiness he'd felt the night of the petit mal, but hollow, disembodied. And it wasn't silence, in the house, not really; he could hear mechanical pops and clicks from the kitchen. The coffee maker; he could smell coffee. He sat with the dog for some time, then he went to the kitchen and got coffee. His head hurt, but he didn't want to mess with the aspirin yet. There were things to do. He stood in the kitchen, the coffee forgotten in his hand, sorting through them. It was after seven. He called Maggie.
"He's gone," he said when she answered.
"He'sOh shit. I'll be there in ten minutes." She hung up before he could say another word. He put the phone aside and returned to the dog. He put his coffee on the floor, settled beside it, and leaned against the couch, one hand on the dog's hip. He was sitting there when she knocked. He didn't get up. She used her key and came inside. He had not opened the drapes or turned on any lights, not even the kitchen. It was dark in the house, but she could make them out on the floor even with the drapes shut. She touched the dog. He knew there was no question, but he let her confirm.
"He's cold," he said. "There's coffee. It's automatic."
"Can I turn on a light, Phil?"
She examined the dog again in the light, pulling back his lips, opening his eyes. When she was done, she kissed Poc's temple and slid away, leaning on the couch beside Phil.
"He didn't suffer. It was the best way."
"A good way," he agreed. "I always thought best would be to have his heart burst while he was chasing a squirrel. Hard," he said, pressing his fingertips against the dog's dead chest.
"That hurts," she said. "This didn't hurt. He just fell asleep and didn't wake up."
"So quiet. I always thought I'd wake up. When it happened. I'd wake up and be there."
"He was asleep, Phil."
"He's been dead for hours, right? He's cold."
She nodded. "At least two hours. More."
He breathed through his nose. "I always thought it would wake me up."
He rolled away from her and lay on the dog's body as he had done so many times in the night, his hand against the shoulder.
"If you had been there, you'd have wakened him. It would have been harder for him. Watching you suffer."
He did not reply. His eyes ached, but there was no moisture in them, a dry ache, like bad wind on a hot, dustless day. The body was hard and cold, and it felt like wood, cold, dry wood. He lay still.
"Phil, I'll take care of it. Ok? Phil?" She came down on him, putting her own arm around him. His hair smelled of cut grass, she noticed when she kissed his cheekbone. He must have mowed the day before.
"Yeah," he said eventually. It was as if he'd heard her long after the words were spoken.
She rolled back into a sitting position and called the office on her cell. there was no answer. She glanced at her watch and put the cell on the rug. They sat for a while, not speaking, then she called again. "Becky? It's me. Is Janet there yet? Can you put her on?" Janet Macklin was the other partner. Janet. The older one. Connie Fletcher. Phil wanted to go back to sleep, but that was not right. Quickly she explained to Janet what had happened. "I need some help. It's only a few minutes away. Can you come over?" She listened, then shook her head as if Janet could see. "Can you send Connie, then?"
Twenty minutes later, she and Connie helped Phil carry the big body out to Connie's truck. They needed Phil's help; they couldn't manage alone, even with two of them. Phil went back inside while Maggie draped a blanket over the body. Connie said, "Why couldn't you just use your truck?"
"I need to stay for a while. Thanks, huh?"
"You want me to cremate?"
"Not yet. Give me an hour."
She went back in the house. She found Phil outside. He was picking up chunks of bone in the back yard. "Need to clean these up," he said.
"Phil, Connie will cremate him, Ok? We can bury the ashes somewhere. Ok?"
"Sure," he said, continuing to scour the yard for bones. "That's fine."
"Phil!" He looked at her, startled. "Let's go get coffee. I need coffee."
"It's on the sink."
"No. High octane. Come on."
Over coffee at Starbuck's she talked to him about the dog. That it was a good way to go, in his sleep. That there was probably no pain. She explained and explained, and he watched her face, read her lips, said nothing. She lapsed at last into silence. "What can I do, Phil?" she said, studying his face.
"You probably have appointments. I'll be Ok." She looked dubious. "I'll be Ok," he said again, in the same abstracted tone. She drove him home and went to the office. She called him twice that morning. The second time, he picked up after the machine kicked in, and they had a frustrating conversation through the message before he remembered how to stop it.
She made a Wendy's run at noon and brought him a hamburger. He didn't answer the door when she knocked. She was frightened, and she used her key. He was sitting on the floor in his office. "Didn't you hear the bell?"
"I didn't," he said. He struggled to his feet. She kissed his cheek.
"What were you doing?"
"Bad for you," she said, meaning it to be funny. He didn't laugh. "Come eat with me."
He didn't eat, of course. He chewed a couple of french fries while she finished her burger. When she went to the kitchen for ketchup she noticed that Poc's dish was gone. She looked in the pantry. The dry food was gone as well. When she came back, she stared at the bare place where the blanket had been.
"Got rid of it," he said. "Everything."
"You mean threw it away?" He nodded. "Oh, Phil. In the trash? At least let me haul it over to the Humane Society. Ok?"
They left their half-finished lunches and went outside. Maggie opened the trash can. They pulled the discarded things out of the trash and put them in the truck bed. When she turned after dropping the last pile, he was gone, back inside.
"I'll be back after work, Ok?" she said when she found him. He was washing his hands in the bathroom. "I have a surgery this afternoon, but it's routine. Could you go out and get steaks? I'll cook."
"I can cook," he said.
"Ok. Baked potatoes would be nice. And asparagus. Ok?"
"Yeah." He kept washing his hands.
She called twice more in the afternoon. He didn't answer the first time; she assumed he was shopping. She got him the second time, made excuses for calling, and went back to work.
By dinnertime, she had worked out what to do, and how. She spoke to him about it while they were eating. "Phil, I need to go up through Lander on business. I thought we could do that and then swing up through the Yellowstone area."
"I could use the company, if you'd come. Not a good time for the park, but we can stay with some friends of mine."
"If you like. When do you want to leave?"
"No time like the present. We can eat first," she added with a grin.
"You mean tonight?"
"Ok. You talked me out of it. First thing in the morning? I've already thrown a bag together. We can swing by and pick it up in the morning."
He studied her face. "I'm not sure where Lander is," he said.
"North of Rawlins. It's on the way to Yellowstone, by 287, through Dubois."
She stayed the night. He was awake when she finally fell asleep, and she woke once, twice, and a third time aware that he was lying quietly beside her, his eyes open, his body unnaturally still. The second time, she touched him for reassurance. She got up three hours later, at six, aching from bad rest.
They drove to Laramie up 287 through Virginia Dale. It was a favorite drive of hers; she loved the red ridges northwest of Fort Collins.
"You know," she said as they came down a long slope, "this scarp runs all the way from Lame Deer to New Mexico. A big fold of red sandstone."
"What is a 'scarp,' anyway?" he said. He was watching the flats pass to the east of the road. The red cliffs were on the west side.
She made a hiccup of laughter. "I don't know, now that you mention it. I mean, I know what it is when I see one, but I don't know what it means. You're the word guy," she added.
The drive to Lander took about five hours. Maggie stopped in Laramie to call the office, then again in Rawlins, where they left the freeway. Phil sat in the car while she talked for five minutes, then they were on their way again. As they left Rawlins behind, she said, "I made us a reservation in Dubois. It's just an hour north of Lander. Then we can go up to the Tetons and Yellowstone tomorrow." He nodded. "I have to do some business, a half hour or so. Can I drop you at the museum and come back?" He nodded again. "Then I want to show you Sink Canyon. Ok?" Another nod.
She called the clinic again after she picked Phil up fron the Fremont County Museum. She was making her way into Sink Canyon State Park when she got a connection. "Finally!" she said into the phone. "I've been trying for ten minutes. Rotten signal; and then I missed you." She glanced at Phil. He was watching the landscape. They were in the park, headed toward the sink turnoff. "Look, it's all arranged. First thing Monday, Ok? All paid in advance, huh? Great. Great. Thanks, Connie, big debt, many kisses. Gotta go."
She set the phone aside and pulled into the parking lot. While they walked to the sink, she described it to him. "It goes underground for miles. And it's" she faltered. He looked over at her. "It's gorgeous," she said, turning her head to see a bird that made a clattering cry on their left. "Really beautiful."
"I know what you're doing," he said softly.
"I know you know!" she snapped. "I know! I'm trying," she added, then she closed her mouth hard and an angry tear slipped from her eye. She struck at it with a knuckle, her mouth twisted in anger and unhappiness. "I'm trying, Ok?" she said.
"It's Ok," he said. They did not speak for some time. Then he said, "I used to drive up to Jackson from Reno. Up to Pocatello and then east on the Snake. The Snake is a great river. In early summer, it can be terrible. Roaring, trees ripped up and floating. I drove the mountain passes, after Palisades Reservoir, once late at night. We saw something the size of a deer in the road, swerved to miss it. It was a boulder."
"Wow," she said. "With Estelle?"
He nodded. "Yes," he said.
They stood at the roaring sink, where the river descended into a cave. "The other end, where it comes out, isn't all that great, but we can go look if you want," she said dubiously. She had taken his hand when they began to hear the crash of the water. "It's a couple miles. They put some dye in the water once and timed it; it takes two or three hours for the water to percolate through."
They took a quick look at the Rise, standing at the observation point. Maggie pointed out the huge trout that lazed in the welling water. Then they hit the road again, north into the Wind River Reservation. "Don't expect wild night life in Dubois," she said. He was watching Crowheart Butte rise in front of them, past Fort Washakie. "They don't have to roll up the streets; everybody knows to stay home. There's a restaurant." She glanced at Phil sidelong. He smiled for her. They found their motel, north of town, found the restaurant, a drab steak house, and spent the evening watching a movie on television.
"You sleep this time," she said as she turned out the lights. "You've never come to Yellowstone this way?" She put the flat of one hand on his bare stomach. He was lying on his back. She pushed into his armpit, so that his arm lay across her back. He embraced her, seemed to think about it, and rolled to meet her. They made love without much energy. He served her needs, and she tried to bring him to a finish but nothing worked. She kissed his glans finally, admitting defeat, then kissed his cheek, then his mouth. "Oh well," she murmured. "Next time, huh?"
"It's Ok, Maggie," he said, and he kissed her. They slept tangled together. Exhaustion might have been the reason, but they slept.
"I know some folks who run a dude ranch north of Jackson," she said when they left Dubois. "They'll put us up. If they don't have a cabin, Ted will let us camp. I brought some gear. In the back," she added with a head gesture backward. She drove the mountain road in silence for a while. "Are you a city kid?" she said. He nodded. "Not me. My dad farmed north of St. Cloud. A few years, we lived in town in the winter. I never knew why. The land floods in the spring, you know. You'd see pictures on the evening news of farmers sitting on those monster tractors, looking out of the barn at miles of water, waiting. Every year."
They were a half hour out of Dubois when she pointed at a pair of horses down in a flat along the river. "Clydes," she said. "Clydesdales. I think. Draft horses anyway." He looked at the big horses. They were alike as twins. Even at the distance, they were clearly huge. Then they were gone behind the truck as they made their way north and west.
"Have you ever seen a horse pull?" she said after a while. He shook his head.
"No," he said.
She glanced in the rearview mirror. "It's amazing. Two huge horses, huge. Percherons can weigh a ton apiece. They get in harness and they haul a sled piled with concrete. I saw a pair haul more than their own weight, 4500 pounds. Twenty feet or so." She looked at his profile. "People who don't get it think it's really dumb. But think about it. No wheels, no inertia. Nothing but strength, and courage, and timing. The driver signals, and they have to hit the doubletree together or it doesn't work. My dad had a big Belgian. I couldn't straddle her. She was built like a dinner table. You ride?"
"I never got around to learning to ride," he said.
"No? I could teach you. There's a good stable south on 119." She glanced at him; he nodded. "It's easy. We'd have you comfortable in no time." She paused. She watched a hawk pass, a big Swainson's that lofted and lit on a telephone pole. "We could take some of Ted's horses out. Want to try?"
"I was at a horse pull in Wisconsin, and these two young horses got scared and started rearing. Then one of them fell. Five guys jumped in and grabbed tack, just fell on them. One fell right on the down horse's head to keep it still. They managed to get the horses calm and unentangled just like that. I mean, it looked easy, but think about it. Two tons of hysterical horses with hooves like anvils all tangled up, one's fallen down. And these guys just jumped in and fixed it. I was impressed. I don't know if it was courage or stupidity, but I was impressed."
"It's not stupidity," he said.
"It's not having to think about what you have to do."
She nodded. "Their shoes have spikes, cleats, to dig in," she said after a few minutes. She did not speak again for a half hour. They were approaching Togwotee Pass. "Darrin used to hunt bighorn up here," she said, glancing into the trees on their right. "Outside Dubois, I mean." They were coming into a long, winding curve. "You have to see the Tetons through the pass."
It was spectacular, the panorama that opened in front of them. They stopped and she walked him to a hilltop so they could see into Montana north and south beyond the Gros Ventre basin. He smiled and nodded as she pointed to the peaks, naming each one in turn. They drove down toward Moran Junction and Jackson's Hole. They got lucky; there had been a cancellation at the Wide Hat, and her friend Ted Kinney was able to give them a cabin for two nights. They bought steaks in Jackson and cooked at the cabin. They went to bed soon after dark. She lay in his arms, listening to his heart. "Love is like the horses," she said.
"How? You mean the draft horses?"
"The pullers. That's why it's so hard, making it work. My parents hated each other all my life. They were together thirty-five years, and I don't think my father spent a day happy. He was a three pack a day smoker. He spent his last five years on oxygen. One night he fell down the bedroom stairs. He was dead before he hit bottom."
Phil pulled her close. She kissed his pectoral above the nipple. "Janet's parents are the opposite. Fifty years. They had their fifty-fifth last spring. And they are crazy about each other. But it's a quiet crazy, like two horses that have learned each other's rhythms. The drivers spend years training a good team. They have to think with one mind, to win. The momentum of their weight hitting the yoke together gets the sled loose. You have to match them for weight and strength, and you have to teach them that timing. Balance," she said, and then she was quiet. "And they have to like each other. A lot to ask." He did not speak, but he moved his hand on her arm to let her know he was listening. "I think Darrin always loved me more than I did him," she said. "We were married twelve years. Did I tell you that? Twelve years. I think I stopped loving him after the accident, but I was too beaten down to do anything about it. I didn't see the light until he broke my nose. That was that."
"The zipper. He did that. He was driving and arguing, and hit ice. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital and my liver was a patchwork quilt."
"I thought you had an operation when you were a baby."
"I did. I tell people that. It's true. But it was nothing like this. I was a preemie, and they had to open me up. I tell people about that. How can I explain living with a guy who nearly killed me for seven years?"
"It was an accident," he said.
"A stupid accident. He was shouting at me. He actually took both hands off the wheel. I can see it like it was a few minutes ago. Him shouting and I'm so mad I'm crying but I don't say anything because there's no point. And that just makes him madder. He reaches down to shift and yanks the stick like he's going to rip it loose and then we start to skid, sort of like floating, and then nothing. And you know, he walked away from it. He totaled the truck. Totaled it. Totaled me. He splintered a bone in one finger."
"What were you arguing about?"
She snorted. "He wanted to buy a new truck."
The next morning, they hiked in the hills above the Wide Hat. No point in going into the parks, Maggie said. It would be wall-to-wall people. She didn't bring up taking Ted's horses, and Phil didn't mention it. They packed a simple lunch and headed up a wooded trail. After an hour, they rested, sitting shoulder to shoulder against a pine. She was on his left, her shoulder blade a hard plate against his arm. She ate an orange, turned half away from him. He noticed a big grey bird, bigger than a blue jay, riding the top of a tree off to his right. "What's that?" he said.
"Clark's nutcracker," she said without looking.
He regarded the bird silently for a minute. It took its bill in its claws, as if to clean it, glanced around, launched into flight. "How did you know?" he said, watching it disappear.
"Call." She paused. "They're famous. Clark of Lewis and? And they get big press in animal cognition circles."
"They're good at hiding things. Well, that's not the big deal. They're good at finding them again."
"You recognized it by its call?"
"Smart ass," he said under his breath.
"Yes, but I'm your smart ass."
"I didn't tell you the whole truth," he said.
"Who does?" she said. When he did not reply, she added, "About what?"
"Gwen. I said Gwen left. That's not exactly what happened."
"It's all right, Phil."
"We fought. Not physical, but shouting, terrible accusations, words you can't take back. I told you about the condoms. I went in the bathroom and got mine. I had a couple, for emergencies. You know, medical stuff. I threw the condoms to her. I told her to give them to her new boyfriend because I wouldn't be needing them. She had picked up her purse. Her condoms were on the floor, though. She was so angry she was crying. It was like you said. And she kept saying, 'There isn't a god-damned boyfriend,' but I had seen the journal entry. I never told you about the journal entry, did I?"
"Yes. You told me. Don't."
"And the condoms? The reason I threw the condoms? Why did she have condoms in her purse, and why did she just say, 'Believe what you please; you will anyway'? Why didn't she tell me? I was so mad I couldn't trust myself, but she came to me all of a sudden and put her hand on my chest and it was like a branding iron, so I nearly screamed and I said, 'Don't touch me!' and I knew I had to go, go somewhere."
He stopped talking. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. The nutcracker cried again, a raucous, grating sound, like a jay or a magpie.
"You know, I didn't even think to take Poc with me. I just left. I just got in the car and drove away. I thought about going to a motel, but I wasn't wearing a shirt. I felt like an idiot. I couldn't think to drive. I pulled into the Safeway a few blocks from my house and parked for the night. I couldn't go back, but I had to, and I thought about leaving the dog behind and I felt like shit. So I went back, in the morning I mean. I went back in the morning, and I thought she was asleep on the couch, and I thought, 'Why the couch?' Then I saw the pill bottle and she never slept late and I had made enough noise to wake her. She was really gone, see? You know? Really gone. That's how she left, and Poc slept beside the couch, I think. He was at the door when I came in, but it was warm on the floor next to her, when I sat on the floor beside her. I sat with her. The floor was warm. She was cold. That is terrible, that cold, cold and wrong, hard. There was no question. But I called the police. She'd been dead for hours, they told me. I wonder if there was a boyfriend. She didn't even leave a note."
He was silent for a long time, long enough that she turned, finally, to look at him. His face was bleak. When they made eye contact, he said, "What do you mean, 'No'?"
"There wasn't a boyfriend, Phil. You know that."
They sat together for a long time. Then she took his hand and hauled him to his feet and they walked back to the cabin.
They stayed another day, and then headed back the way they came, late Sunday afternoon. "I thought about going down through Pinedale, but it's just more of the same. We can stay in Lander," she said as they headed north toward Moran Junction and the passes. And they did, at a grungy motel up the road from the Fort Lander Trading Post, where they spent an hour looking at badger claws and furs. The next morning they hit the road late, and they reached Fort Collins in the early afternoon. She made small talk in the morning, but he was far away, watching the landscape pass again. While they had lunch in Fort Collins, she called the clinic.
"We'll be back in a couple of hours. Everything set? Good. I'll call when it's time. Thanks, Connie. I know. Thanks." Phil was looking at her when she disconnected. "Business," she said. "Always business," and she picked up her sandwich.
"I have to run," she said when they pulled up at his house. "But I'll be right back, Ok?" She was back before he had time to sort through the few days' mail. When she opened the door, he was sitting in front of a small pile of junk mail. She was holding a puppy.
"She's a Cane Corso. Gentle stock. She's from Lander. You take her, or I'm out a thousand bucks plus." She handed the puppy to him. She was brindle, a dark brindle like black walnut, with a splotch of white on her neck.
He cradled the puppy in his arm, her spine along his forearm. She barely fit. Her belly was tight and pink as a balloon. Her black eyes settled soberly on Maggie's face and after a moment's reflection she grinned at the woman and moved a bit, twisting her spine against Phil's arm.
"What is this?" he said.
"Insurance. Well, that's too abstract. Handcuffs."
He looked at her face. It was hard, except for her eyes.
"I knew you wouldn't stay for me," she said.