by Megan Anderegg Malone
Marty sits in the car, letting the engine idle. Wasting gas, he knows, and now it’s over three dollars a gallon. It’s hard to feel guilty over something as relatively insignificant as gas, when he’s wasted so much. Has been wasted so much.
He unwraps another stick of gum, his hands shaking a little, fumbling the thin paper as he throws another stick of hot cinnamon kindling onto the fire in his mouth: old-whiskey taste, plus burn and saccharine. He wonders how many sticks it will take to totally kill the fumes. He can’t smell his own breath—lord knows, he’s tried, and failed, on several occasions.
Marty opens the car door and steps out into the night, feels the cold air freeze the little hairs in his nose. He has noticed that his sense of smell has gone downhill since he started drinking again. He knows what a snowless December evening smells like, metallic snow, dry branches. He misses that.
As he slips up the driveway, Marty remembers their first lunch together at Weezy’s Deli after he first got sober, all those years ago. He’d ordered his usual, a Reuben on white instead of rye. The sweaty smell of the corned beef, the tang of the sauerkraut, the sweetness of the Russian dressing had overpowered him, almost made him cry. John always ordered the same thing, but as he watched Marty bite into his sandwich, he had laughed, “I want what you’re eating. You make it look so much better than mine!”
Marty shoves his hands in his pockets against the bite of the wind from off the lake, meaner than a trapped badger. As he picks his way up the slippery walk, he notices that the blue spruce that used to stand smack in the middle of John’s yard is gone—not even a stump left behind. He wonders how long the tree has been gone—it’s possible that it’s been months, that he was just too busy, or too addled, or too hurried in these late-night dashes to the door to collect borrowed money to notice that it had been chopped down.
When John bought the house, years ago now, he had brought a Polaroid of the place to their standing Monday lunch date at Weezy’s Deli across the street from the courthouse. John had been proud of the house’s three-car garage, the faux Tudor solemnity of it, the fenced-in yard for the German shorthairs to burn off energy in when hunting season was over. Marty had taken the Polaroid in his hands, apprised it; the house was significantly smaller than his own. No pool, no finished basement for foosball table and wet bar. But that was the price John paid for giving up the more lucrative law practice for the more prestigious judgeship. Back then, squinting at the house’s shabby almost-elegance, Marty wasn’t sure it was a good trade.
“That little spruce is going to end up sucking all the life out of your sod,” Marty had said, handing the Polaroid back. “Twenty bucks says you’ll chop it down eventually.”
Marty pauses before approaching the door. Maybe this is his point of entry, a joke: “I’m calling in that old bet about the tree,” he will say. “With interest.”
He isn’t sure how much to ask for. A hundred isn’t enough. Really, he needs five. He still owes Maria for that bounced paycheck. Really, he needs a grand. But he knows he can’t ask for that; that is overstepping, even with John, who has never, ever said no to him.
He settles on five hundred. He will promise to pay it back by Sunday. He will promise to bring a check over, and a six-pack of John’s favorite Canadian beer, and they can watch the Packers whup the Vikings together.
But he can’t offer to bring a six-pack, of course.
Marty swerves away from the door, moves around to the side of the house, where the kitchen windows are. He sees Maggie loading the dishwasher, her broad rear end with bowtied apron strings crowning it like a present. The flickering blue glow from the television in the family room leaks into the kitchen, and he hears the familiar voice of the host of the weekly Packer Plus talk show. He’s interviewing someone, probably that burly lineman who intercepted a beautiful pass and converted it into a game-winning touchdown on Sunday.
They used to watch the Packers every week in Marty’s basement, the uniforms green as grass and gold as bullion, the players larger than life on the huge TV screen, the neon Lowenbrau sign behind the bar casting its pale blue glow. That was before Sue got sick, before her doctors recommended that she go South for the winter like someone out of a Victorian novel. That was when their girls were all still little, skittering around upstairs with their tiny rabbit feet, thumping dolls and balls against the floor above them, and Sue and Maggie would share coffee and roll their eyes—kids, husbands, dogs: easy problems.
Marty wonders about that basement, whether the new owners will tear out the wet bar, whether they will keep his foosball table. He left it there when he moved out—there was no place for it, of course, in his new apartment.
It is too cold to stay outside much longer. There is a hard crust of ice glinting on the surface of the snowbanks flanking John’s driveway like decorative lions. They don’t have their Christmas lights up yet, but their next-door neighbors do, seizure-worthy flashers that play tinny music as they chase each other around the garage door.
When they have their stilted, awkward conversations on the phone, Sue says it’s unseasonably cold in Florida this year. By which she means 60 degrees, by which she means a decent spring day in Upper Michigan. There is so much she has forgotten in such a short time. It’s as if they excised that part of her brain, the long-term-memory part, the back-home connection part, along with her cancer-eaten lymph nodes.
Marty moves back toward the front door, claps his gloved hands together. He must appear to be in a hurry. If he doesn’t, John will invite him in, offer him a cup of coffee, ask about his cases. He will ask how his new secretary, Robin, is working out. Marty will have to tell him a lie. Robin didn’t last a week, just left the office for lunch one day and didn’t come back, not even to collect her paycheck. Which was good, really, since he wouldn’t have been able to pay her, anyway. Maria probably warned her off, or maybe some collections kind of guy showed up and threatened to shut off the gas or something.
If Maggie answers the door, she will ask about Sue: Is she still in remission? Any plans to come back for the holidays? The summer? And she’ll say, activating the dimples in her cheeks like little warning flares, “Please send her my love the next time you talk. Tell her we all miss her. Tell her she’s in our prayers.”
Marty will say no such thing. He doesn’t talk to Sue much now, really only when the girls are down at her place for spring breaks or winter vacations from college, the two of them sleeping on blow-up mattresses in their mother’s condo like shared-custody children instead of independent adults, taking jaunts to Disney World, SeaWorld, Epcot Center, pretending that this is all just a holiday and not a permanent thing. They will not divorce. Sue needs the health insurance. Marty let the health insurance bill lapse two months ago. He wonders if she knows this yet.
He sees the curtain in the bay window stir. Someone’s noticed him; he has to go in now. John or Maggie might even call the cops, can’t be too careful, with some guy prowling around your house, a strange car parked in front. And of course, it is a strange car—Marty sold his Cadillac and is driving a borrowed Ford Escort. It’s shit in the snow. He can’t believe a car manufactured and designed in Michigan can be so worthless in bad weather.
He blows hot air into his hand, flexes his hand as if he’s holding the breath, capturing the last of the whiskey smell so it can’t leak out and betray him. Marty clears his throat. “I’m a little short, John,” he says, by way of rehearsal. His voice sounds too loud in the quiet of the car. He realizes he hasn’t spoken to anyone in three days, not since he picked up that girl at the casino, not since he cried out while he was screwing her on the sofa in his apartment, not since his half remembered rant, yelling at her to get the fuck out of his house, telling her that he is a married man, a family man, a good and decent man.
If he can ask John for five thousand, he can start to pay back the money he borrowed from his client’s auto crash settlement. Marty isn’t exactly sure how much he has taken, but he knows it’s more than that. Maria manages the accounts. Lately, she has been flinging the statements at him without saying anything. Maria is not good at confrontations.
Marty reaches out to ring the doorbell. His hands are still shaking. He attributes this to the cold, to his lack of gloves, to his too-thin coat. It’s his trench, suitable for work at the courthouse, ridiculous over jeans and a sweatshirt in 9-degree weather. He left his parka somewhere, with someone, he’s not sure about the details.
Marty hears the dogs bay, hears John’s heavy footfall heading for the door. He has a fleeting thought that what he should really do is to ask John for twenty thousand. He’s got the tax lien, the credit card with the 33% APR. He’s got almost a thousand in parking tickets. Parking tickets! Twenty thousand should have him well on his way. With twenty thousand, anything is possible.
John opens the door, grins out at Marty from under his moustache. “Hello, sir,” he says, stepping back, waving Marty in. He has a napkin in his hand, and Marty can see dishes steaming on the table. “Come in, it’s freezing. I’m having a late dinner, you hungry?”
“Nah,” says Marty. “I was just in the neighborhood. And I—I was actually wondering—”
He stops. “I was wondering if I could have that muzzleloader back. The one you borrowed last winter?”
“Sure, sure.” John wipes his face with the napkin, strides toward his den. “You going out this weekend? I thought the season was over.”
“Two more days,” Marty says jovially. “Still need to get my buck.” He peers at the photographs lined up along the top of the piano: Robin’s wedding, Laura’s college graduation, John and Maggie sunburned and plump against the railing of a cruise ship. He wonders what happened to the framed photographs that he left on the walls of his house when he moved out. They were probably thrown away.
“Took the liberty of getting a new bag for it,” John says. He unzips the new camouflage-fabric case, lifts the rifle out.
The gun is a relic Marty inherited from his father, a real clunker. But now, he barely recognizes it. John has buffed away the scratches on the muzzle, polished the birdseye maple of the stock until it shines. The scope, which had been mounted a little crooked, has been reset. Marty holds it up to his eye, looks through the scope at the pictures on the piano. “Perfect,” he says. “I can’t remember it ever looking so good.”
John laughs. “My policy is, you borrow something, you give it back as good, or better, than it was before,” he says.
“Perfect,” Marty says again, feeling the ponderous weight of the gun in his hands.
As Marty runs his hand over the smooth bourbon-colored wood, John furrows his brow, says, “How’re you doing, Marty?”
“Ah, you know,” says Marty. He twists his face into a grin. “It’s an adjustment. The good news is, the new place is a lot easier to keep clean—I just have the dog sort of sniff around and eat the crumbs off the floor.”
John does his duty; laughs. “And how’s business?”
“Ah, you know,” he says again. His own repetition catches him up. “I—well— there’re some good things in the pipeline, I think.”
“Why don’t you come on over Sunday? I’d love to share the pleasure of watching Favre get his ass kicked with you.”
Marty steps backward, replacing the gun in the case, not bothering to strap it down into place before tugging the zipper shut. “You know, that would be just the thing. But I’ve got so much to do—new personal injury case, I really should be working on it. In fact, I should go now and get the deposition questions started.”
John shrugs. “Suit yourself,” he says. “But we hate thinking about you sitting in that place all by yourself on game day. It’s like the tree falling in the forest—you need someone to hear you swearing.” He chuckles a little. “Come on over and borrow my family any time.”
Marty hears John closing the door behind him, but doesn’t look back to collect John’s amiable good-night wave. He walks down the path toward his car, nearly stumbling on the slickness of the just-shoveled, packed-down snow. When he reaches the mailbox, Marty stealthily doubles back toward the house and opens the side door to the garage.
It’s a wreck—not enough room for one car, let alone three, with all the hunting and fishing equipment, the moldering boxes, the deep-freezer full of venison and trout filets, the canoe and the kayak and the dog kennels, all the trappings of a cheerfully clutter-prone outdoorsman’s life.
Marty leans the gun case in the corner, hides it behind some boxes of back issues of Field and Stream. God knows when John or Maggie will find it. Marty leaves it there, heads back toward his car, his breath running out in clouds before him.
Probably, by the time they find it, the new owners of Marty’s house will have redone the kitchen and the bathrooms. Probably, Sue will have started dating again. Maybe she’ll even be remarried. Probably, Marty will have been arrested for all of those outstanding parking tickets, or for driving with an open container, or for contempt of court for blowing off a trial. Maybe it will even be John who finds him in contempt, finally tired of Marty’s lateness and his disorganization and his lies.
Probably, by the time John finds the gun tucked in the corner of his garage, someone will have noticed that Marty has been dipping into his clients’ money for years. It’s hard to imagine what comes after that. Marty wonders who will sign for his bail.
Probably, John will see the article in the newspaper, stare at the disheveled mug shot, read about the accusations of embezzlement, bad faith, fraud. He will take his glasses off, shake his head. “But that doesn’t sound like Marty at all,” he will say to Maggie, and he will push away from the table and go out to the garage to putter around, to try to make sense of things. He’ll vow to rearrange things, to clean up the mess, to find some order in a nonsense world. And as his hand closes around the gun case shoved against the wall, John will realize with dread that it’s possible he never truly knew his friend at all.