It was going on a month that Lilly had been staying with her parents, Bill and Caroline, at their lake house in Vermont. Although Bill had been a full-bird colonel in the United States Army, there was only one commander in that family, and every time I called I could hear her evil whispers poisoning his ear. “Again?” Caroline would ask. Then the sliding door would whoosh open, slam shut—a retreat to the deck—and Bill would say, “Just take it easy” or “You get to a meeting today?” I could see him out there in the snow, looking in at the women, hand raised in a situation-under-control-type gesture.
Lilly had left after I put my fist through the window, severed an artery, and almost bled out. It had been a bad scene, with ambulances and police, concerned neighbors milling around in their robes. I let her go. I knew that Caroline—who, I’m sure, to this day is convinced that I laid hands on Lilly—would do her worst to turn her. But I had faith in the colonel. Bill was a peacetime soldier—his twenty had fallen smack-dab in the sweet spot between Vietnam and Desert Storm—and, in his mind, somehow, that was a debt he’d never quite repay.
There was no cell service at the lake house, and the first time I called the landline Bill picked up, said Lilly wasn’t ready to talk. It was the same story the next night and next. Finally, I told Bill I’d quit drinking and joined a support group at the VA. He promised to relay the news.
“She’s delighted you’re doing that for yourself,” Bill reported when I called the following evening.
“I’m doing it for Lilly,” I said. “Anyway, you can tell her to come home now, it’s safe.”
“That’s her decision, son,” Bill said.
I allowed myself a swallow from my favorite coffee mug. It was my favorite mug because there was vodka in it, always, instead of coffee.
“Some colonel,” I said.
For weeks, it went like that. Then, one day, we arrived where we’d been heading. “I’m sorry, I think we’re gonna have to put an end to this,” Bill said.
“End to what?”
“These talks. You calling here every night.” There was a pause, then Bill added, “Your belligerence. Your obsession.”
“Let me talk to Lilly.”
“She’s afraid of you, son.”
“Because of the window incident?”
“The window incident? The window incident? What she says, the window incident was the least of it. Did you tell her she made you want to kill things?”
I tried to think back . . .
“ ‘Someday, Lilly, you’re gonna make me kill something,’ ” Bill said. “You never said that?”
“There was a context.”
Bill sighed. “Stick with those meetings, hear. You deserve not to be so fucking miserable.”
I called again—every few minutes, then every minute—but Bill wouldn’t answer. In the end, he was the same as Lilly, same as everyone. People who did not respect the covenant of human relationships. People who believed you could just hang up, walk out. When the Stoli ran dry, I fetched my Bushmaster, threw it behind the bench seat of my truck, and headed north.
It was blizzarding. Not far over the Vermont line the big flakes rushed the beams like I was at warp speed and they were star tracers in a wormhole through the galaxies. The hills became mountains. At the top of a high pass I spotted a pair of red hazards blinking on the shoulder. It was one of those vehicles between a station wagon and a minivan. Two sets of expensive-looking skis were clamped into the racks.
A man and a woman sat up front. I watched them watch me stagger through the snow. I could see they were concerned. The woman said something to the man, and the man, still watching me, said something back. Then I glimpsed my reflection in the paint of that car. The tattoo on my neck, that problem with my eyes.
I motioned for the man to roll down his window.
“You okay, buddy?” he said.
The man was wearing a turtleneck sweater and snow pants. The woman had something on that looked high-tech: moisture-wicking and breathable. The man had only rolled down the window an inch or two, and all the doors were locked—I caught the woman checking. She shivered when I looked at her. She shivered and squeezed her hands tight between her thighs.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Us?” said the man. “We’re okay, yeah.”
He seemed to think it was my turn to talk. After a while, he said, “We’re just waiting on the plows.”
“Where you headed?”
“Nowhere,” the woman said.
The man laughed a little too loudly. “Road’s too slick to get down, is what she means,” he said.
“I wouldn’t try it.”
I regarded the far end of the pass, where the road that had brought us all up the mountain dropped down its back side.
“Is that just you, though?”
The man frowned. “We’ve made this trip a thousand times. Some stretches, there’s no guardrail. Nothing at all between you and the drop. Hell, last winter, was it? We saw—”
“Nathan,” the woman said.
The man turned to her, turned back to me. “But hey,” he said, “you be my guest.”
The road switchbacked down the slope, and each time I rounded a bend my rear tires squirreled out from under me, toward the lip. I was blazing trail: the first thing I’d done since Lilly had left that made any sense. Languishing in that room, awaiting happy news from Bill? There had been my blunder. I’d been acting like a Nathan. Going nowhere.
Once, during an ambush in Kunar, I saw a private stooping to pick spent casings out of the dirt and put them in his pocket—proof positive of the old maxim “You fight how you train.” Muscle memory, however, has its limits, and some knowledge defies inculcation. For example, another maxim: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” That is as true, when you are all keyed up, as it is difficult to remember. I was halfway to the valley floor when my truck went sailing like a ship without a keel. The last thing I recall is trying to steer away from the cliff side of the road and toward an escarpment buried in white ice that looked like molten crystal. That euphoric breath right before the boom, when your asshole puckers and you wait.
When I came to, a fat teenager with crumbs on his lips was tightening a device around my neck.
“What the?” he asked when I broke free.
I plowed out of the cab and fell onto my knees. Back on the road, a group of men stood among a fleet of four-wheel-drive Jeeps with tall radio antennas and bright lights on their roofs. The kid slipped his arm under mine and nudged me toward a plastic spine board half sunk in the snow.
“No,” I said.
He unbuckled a strap, brushed off some wet.
“Protocol,” he said.
I got to my feet. “I need a tow truck.”
One of the men from the road stepped forward. He wore a winter hat with the earflaps down, a heavy coat with a star-shaped badge. A deputy badge. “Only place that truck’s getting towed to is the wrecking yard.”
It was a fact. The front end was crumpled against the escarpment, accordion-like, and the shattered windshield sagged on the dash like a limp sheet of Saran wrap.
“You’re lucky someone drove by,” said the deputy. He was registering it all—neck tattoo, field jacket, face scar—and not liking it.
“Who was it?” I said.
“Called it in? Couple on a ski trip.” The deputy squinted at me, like I was small or far away. “Said they saw you on the pass.” The teenager had retrieved the collar and was approaching me again, this time real cautious, at a creep, like he was fixing to snare a rabid coon. “Is that really necessary, Mitch?” the deputy said. “He’s walking and talking.”
“Could have a broke back and not even know it.”
The deputy sighed. “Just give us a minute, huh?”
Mitch muttered something and sort of oozed away. “First responders,” the deputy explained.
“Sure,” I said.
“You mind?” Without waiting for an answer, the deputy sidestepped me, brought out a Maglite, aimed it in my truck. “Gotta ask,” he said, craning to see, working the beam. “What were you doing out here, conditions so bad?”
“I’m going to Lake Champlain.”
“Got people up there?”
What they say about the way a man stabs versus the way a woman stabs? How he holds the knife high, like a spyglass, whereas she holds it low, like a spatula? Same goes for flashlights, I would argue. There are aberrations, of course, and the deputy was one. He held his like a woman.
“Deputy,” came a plaintive voice from the road—Mitch. “Can I at least assess the patient? At least got to assess the patient, that’s bare minimum.”
I trudged over to the Jeeps and sat on a tailgate. The others huddled round. They were heroes, these boys—stewards of the radio, who longed for hunting mishaps and barn fires. When Mitch brought out a stethoscope and asked me to lift my shirt, I didn’t resist. I let them look.
“Damn,” said a Mitch-like slob with a chin beard.
Except for the one on my neck, it was all heavy, martial imagery. Intense, I’d been told. Also: gross.
Mitch was pressing the cold diaphragm against my back—reading the names, probably, on the tombstones there—when suddenly the deputy let out a whistle. He’d opened the passenger-side door of my truck and was halfway in the cab, foot in the air. When he emerged, he had the AR in his hand.
“Hello,” Chin Beard said.
“That a Bushmaster?” asked Mitch.
“You betcha.” The deputy raised it to a firing position, nestling the buttstock in his shoulder, peering down the sights. “Seen one like it at the Brattleboro show.”
The deputy hit the button, and the two legs shot out.
“Damn,” Chin Beard said.
The deputy brought the weapon to his Jeep and laid it across the seat like it was a napping babe. “Relax, son,” he said. “This is Vermont. You’re among friends.”
Later, though, after Mitch had finished his assessment, and I’d signed a paper refusing medical assistance, and we were all preparing to head into town, the deputy, almost reluctantly, as if he were embarrassed to have to bring it up, said, “One thing. Those folks who called it in—the skiers? They mentioned when they saw you on the pass . . . well, they seemed to think you might’ve had a few. Anything to that?”
There was zero legroom in the rear of the Jeep, and with my hands cuffed behind my back it was most comfortable to sit sideways, leaning against the door. As we eased down the mountain, the deputy would not shut up. He hadn’t wanted to arrest me, he’d explained after administering the Breathalyzer, and now it was like he was trying to make amends. At one point, maneuvering a tight bend, he said, “Year ago, gal got decapitated here. Rolled her Benz with the sunroof open. I was the one found the head—believe that?” He glanced up to observe my reaction in the rearview mirror. “Guess you’ve seen worse. Me? That was definitely a first. Head sittin’ there in the bush.” Several minutes later, the deputy looked in the mirror again. “I had to carry it back to the bus,” he said—and then, misinterpreting my silence, the deputy clarified, “That poor lady’s head.”
The sheriff was waiting at the station: Stetson, potbelly, mustache, and all. He eyed us and sniffed. The deputy guided me by the elbow down a bright white hall into a bright white room with a metal bench bolted to the floor and a narrow rectangular window in the door. After a while, the face of the sheriff appeared in that window. For a long time, he just stood there, the sheriff, sniffing at me and gnashing on a toothpick.
Presently, the deputy entered.
“Bad news, afraid.”
They’d pulled my record, found my priors. Because it was my third DUI, there was a possibility of jail time. The rifle further complicated matters. Still, all might have been resolved—patriotically, so to speak—had the sheriff, according to the deputy, not recently caught his wife “in the act” with a National Guardsman. I probably noticed, when we pulled in, the absence of any yellow ribbons on their patrol cars? “It’s not that we don’t support the troops,” the deputy assured me.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“Now I bring you to County.”
The county jail and courthouse were three towns over, and in the weather it took us more than an hour to get there. The deputy talked the entire way, mostly about Donna, the sheriff’s wife. The Guardsman, it seemed, was only the latest in a long and prolific cuckolding career. On and on the deputy went—maligning Donna. It was obvious he loved her.
The jail was a redbrick cube. The deputy brought me into a waiting room with a plant and signed some papers that were passed through a sliding bulletproof window in the wall. I couldn’t see who was on the other side of that window, but the deputy spoke in low tones—throaty, you might say.
A door buzzed and a guard appeared carrying a clipboard. He was skinny, the guard, that was the main thing about him. The tightest hole on his leather belt hadn’t been tight enough: he’d had to punch his own. Since that fix he’d gone on diminishing. He stood with his feet awkwardly far apart to prevent the sundry implements attached to the belt from pulling it down.
“Ray,” said the deputy.
“Deputy,” said Ray.
Ray was doing a double-take thing, looking back and forth from me to the clipboard, clipboard to me. There seemed to be a discrepancy there he didn’t quite approve of.
“He’s harmless,” the deputy said.
“Always are,” Ray said. “Just like to think different.”
My court appearance was scheduled for the following week. The sole collateral I would have had for the bondsman was the title to my now totaled truck. The cell Ray put me into was four walls and a floor occupied by that caliber of men who were too broke and friendless to come up with the ten percent of their bail that the bondsman charged for posting the rest. In one corner was a toilet (and, straining over it, an elderly man whose white beard had yellowed around the mouth); in the other, a pay phone.
I dialed the lake house.
It was well past midnight and the phone rang half a dozen times before Caroline answered in sleepy confusion.
“Hello? Who is this?”
I was about to explain when a prerecorded message clicked on and a woman’s impassive voice asked Caroline whether she wished to accept a collect call from an inmate at the Brook County Correctional Facility.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Caroline said, and hung up.
The next time I tried, Bill answered. “Son,” he said before I could get a word in, “I don’t know why you’re locked up in Brook County, and I don’t care to know. Just listen. If somewhere in that twisted head of yours it seemed like a good idea to come up here? To see Lilly? Think again.”
“Bill,” I said. “Colonel?”
But the line was dead. I brought the receiver down in a violent motion, stopped at the last second, and gave it gently to the cradle. When I turned around, a man in a wheelchair, a double amputee, of all things, was grinning at me.
He had a shaved head and a neat goatee, a down ski parka with a hood, fingerless leather cycling gloves, and bleach-stained sweatpants folded underneath his stumps. His posture suggested a compressed ferocity, like if you got too close he might push off those wheels and come flying out of that chair—a cranked-up jack-in-the-box ready to pop.
“What?” I said.
The man held up his hands, showing me the worn palms of the gloves. “I was wondering, is all.”
I stared at him, waiting.
He pointed at my neck. “Who’s Lilly?”