Dave liked the fog. Only 3:30 in the afternoon, but the world was as dead as 3 a.m. Fog changed a lot of sounds, but didn’t have a whole lot of effect on the truck. Some forces of nature are stronger than others. It was companionable, the rumble of the truck’s engine, the thump of that one belt he was still needing to adjust. He sat back in the crinkle of the vinyl seat.
The fog added a kind of suspense to the drive. He knew exactly where he was going. Hell, the road hardly even curved the whole way. The fog, though, warned that anything could happen, that a rabbit could dash from a patch of weeds to under the balding tires with a last red splash of life in this gray world, that a rock could spit up from the road and put the whorls of its fingerprint on the windshield glass.
Off to the left, Dave could see a few almond trees, representatives of the paraded ranks. Farther away to the other side, cars, lights lit against uncertainty, swam along the river of the highway. Dave sighed.
Years ticked by, but somehow went unmeasured without the structure of childhood. Dave knew he had met Roxanne when they were fourth-graders, suspended in the amber of a hot September day. He remembered his brown striped t-shirt with the snaggly hole in one shoulder where he’d caught it on the orchard barbed wire. She had been skinny, her teeth too big until she grew into them. She stood with her hands on her hips and told him to put his trash in the can.
It was harder to place the last time he’d seen her. He calculated and approximated and finally just guessed that it had been about four years now. He’d been out drinking and then to the movies. He stumbled into the bookstore and she was sitting in the café idly turning the pages of a magic realist novel. She was gone when he came back from the bathroom, but it didn’t matter since they hardly spoke by then.
Dave turned the truck off the road onto the pebbly shoulder. Because of the fog, no dust rose up in his wake. He shifted the transmission into park. He set the parking brake. He unclipped his seatbelt.
And looked at the tree.
With the fog around it, the tree had no context. Cloudy scissors cut it out and pasted it on its own white background. Dave looked at the scaly trunk, the drooping hair of dead leaves, the arching green of the palm fronds. A hospitable pineapple, it welcomed someone, anyone, to this strip of wasteland between the orchard access road and the interstate.
It was all that was left.
In the fog, in the chill, Dave could hardly call up the memory of the house. It had been, in its way, as outlandish as the tree. Its scaly bark was made of yellow scalloped shingles lapping the walls. The wide steps and the expansive porch promised iced lemonade and a gingersnap or two to a visitor wanting to creak down into the wicker settee in the heat. Roxanne had been good at that, once. He remembered coming up those steps, ringing the bell. Roxanne had to yank the door—it stuck in the heat with the settling of the house. In 17 seconds, she’d called for Bill, shoved the kids off Dave’s shoulders and knees, got him settled on the yellow-striped cushions with food and drink, as if her red canvas tennies were winged.
He came to see Bill Monday morning. Dave brought plans and samples and folders. “How you doing on the permits?” Dave asked.
Bill smiled. He was a compact man, looked smaller than he was unless there was a story to be told. Most of the time, Dave liked the stories. A visit to the grocery store became an epic adventure filled with menacing shopping carts determined to draw blood, checkers who collected wads of gum with consummate connoisseurship, and comic relief in the form of cascading rutabagas. The ultimate point of the story could be one of two things: how Bill, like clever Odysseus, managed to outwit the forces against him, or how Bill had been the victim of wrathful and unsympathetic gods.
Bill took a breath to answer. His hair became sleeker, eyes brighter. His very ears, pink from the sun, seemed to vibrate in anticipation of the sound waves to come.
Dave made a split-second decision. “Actually,” he said, “just tell me if you have them or not. I don’t care about the details.”
Roxanne stopped loading Teddy and Joe into the old blue station wagon for their ride to preschool and school. It was an infinitesimal pause. Then she blinked, clipped a car seat strap, and began another verse of the nonsense song she was making up for the occasion.
“I don’t have them,” Bill said.
Dave slapped his clipboard down on the pile of folders he’d brought. “There’s no point in continuing until we have them.”
Bill, crablike, scuttled toward the tale. “I went down there…”
Dave interrupted. “When will you have them?”
“The woman behind the counter, she’s been there since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden…”
Bill, deflated, answered, “Just have to fill out some more forms and bring a check. As soon as I get my checks from the bank, I’ll go.” Bill jingled the change in his pocket the way a ruminant turns over cud, exploring for anything interesting.
Dave picked up his coffee mug and went into the house to set it in the sink. The living room was full of enthusiasm. Bill collected playing cards, so the bookcases had narrow shelves to hold ranks of the little boxes. Some uncut cards were framed on the wall and glass cases housed some particularly rare packs, fanned open. One corner was given over to the kids’ blocks and toys, another colorful jumble artfully contained. Dave continued through to the kitchen where he set his green mug in the sink under the watchful eye of a jack held to the fridge door with a magnet. He liked the order of the kitchen, the folded dishtowel on the counter, the week laid out in meals, the foods in their jars and canisters and bowls.
When Dave came back a week or so later, Bill wasn’t home. Roxanne gave him the essential coffee of welcome. “I think,” she said, “he’s coming right back, but you know Bill and errands.” She pushed a curl of hair behind her ear. It sprang back in front of her eye almost immediately. “You’re welcome to wait, but I really have to do some stuff in the kitchen if you don’t mind.”
He didn’t mind. She was making soup and baking cupcakes. “Dinner and teacher’s birthday,” she explained, stripping a yam with quick clicks of the peeler. “I have to do it now, or it won’t get done before I need to get Teddy and then go to Joe’s conference.” The vegetables in the pot spat in the hot oil until Roxanne stirred them around with her admonishing spoon. “See what glamorous stuff you and Rose miss out on?”
“I would like kids,” Dave said.
Roxanne turned and looked at him, full in his face, her hand with its gnawed nails held out to him. “Oh, Dave,” she said. “I feel like such a jerk. I didn’t know. And I was just babbling away…” Roxanne’s very curls shook with the force of her remorse.
Dave looked down at his own hands and the bruise in his thumbnail growing slowly toward his fingertip. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t talk about it.”
“It’s been forever since I’ve seen Rose,” Roxanne said. “I always enjoy hearing what she’s up to. That woman can do everything.” Roxanne had her back to him, pouring broth into the soup pot and maybe it was the shape of her scapula under her blue shirt that made him say it.
The scapula lifted, the flight of a surprised sparrow.
“Dave, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I seem to be putting my foot in it over and over.” She turned up the heat under the soup, clattered bowls into the sink, rushed water over them. He appreciated the display, the distraction. It was a kind of dance she did to ward off disaster, the opening of a self-deprecating crack, then a lot of movement and light and sound to distract the deep and heavy spirits. Instinctual as a bird, she feigned a broken wing in the face of life’s cobras.
“Anything I can do?” she asked. She wiped her wet hands on a dishtowel.
Dave shook his head. He talked about Rose and her work and her friends, about her ideas for a book and the new position with the travel. “She keeps doing things, lots of them, and well. But she doesn’t feel happy and she doesn’t ask why.” He didn’t say that she cried out in her sleep. He didn’t say her body had become an alluring minefield of smooth skin he couldn’t touch because she was tense or sore or tired or ticklish. He didn’t say he sometimes didn’t see her awake for days and that the wide brown of her irises caught him by surprise sometimes in the kitchen over a cup of coffee.
Bill didn’t come by the end of the baking, so Dave left, Roxanne following him out. They ended up in lots of conversations like that, waiting for Bill. Roxanne always had her hands full of socks or needles or potatoes, glanced sidelong at Dave’s face.
Until the day the lights went out.
Dave had the rumpled feeling in his back that comes from another night falling asleep on the couch trying to summon up the gumption to turn off the TV. He’d gone to check on the progress of one of his projects and figured that graded pads were about the most boring thing in the world. Long since he’d given up on Bill’s project, but he figured Roxanne would give him aspirin if he stopped by.
She was sitting on the porch when he pulled up. Just sitting. The sound of the truck galvanized her into motion; she fluttered up and tried to smooth her hair.
“Any news?” he called, slamming the truck door.
She shook her head. “Bill’s off on some project or other. I can’t seem to reach him myself.” There was a suggestion of a laugh in her voice.
“Can I beg an aspirin or two or ten from you?”
“I ought to have offered you coffee,” she said. “Let me get he aspirin and some water.” She opened the screen and moved into the shadowy house. He followed, reaching for the light switch to banish the dimness, but it just clicked.
“Power’s out,” Roxanne said. “I’m guessing Bill didn’t pay them again. Sorry. It’s lighter on the porch.” She stepped up the first few stairs. “I’ll be right there.”
“Roxanne,” he said.
She twisted her head back toward him. He stepped up to her and put his arms around her. Maybe it was her pain he wanted to take away; maybe it was his. For a moment he could feel her beating heart and then she was up the stairs, rummaging in the bathroom, coming down with a Mickey Mouse cup and two pills. She did not meet his eyes.
“Can I help?” he said. The idea that she might need help had never crossed his mind.
“I’m sure it will all work out,” she said. “I’ll just find the candles and we’ll have a candlelight barbecue tonight. The boys will like that.”
“I can go pay the bill and you won’t have to.”
“We’d never be able to pay you back,” she said flatly. “I’ve got a new job starting next week. It’ll be all right.”
“Roxanne,” he said again. The sound of her name vibrated in his chest. He put his arms around her again, and this time she did not pull away. She shook. He kissed her.
Bill pulled up outside. He came bounding up the steps to find them coming out the screen door. “Hey!” he said. “I’ll be getting those permits Monday or Tuesday for sure.” To Roxanne he said, “Look! I found a great new pack of cards, mint condition!”
“The power’s out,” she said. “And your phone is off.”
Dave said, “Thanks for the aspirin. I’m glad you’re getting the permits. I’ll check back with you on Wednesday, then.” He fled.
The night the house burned to the ground, Bill got the boys out safely. Roxanne passed out from the smoke and ended up in the hospital with tubes to help her breathe. Fire investigators found the blaze was started by curtains blowing into candles. The insurance adjustor noted that coverage had lapsed due to nonpayment several months back.
Roxanne was pale when Dave saw her in the hospital. It surprised him because her skin tended to darken at the least touch of sun. He wanted to take her hand, but one was buried under the covers and the other had needles and tubes coming out of it. “You okay?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Sorry about the power, about the kiss, about the pain, all of it.
“Bill’s gone,” she said. “He took the kids and went to his folks.” Her voice, hoarse, scratched at his heart.
“He’s not coming back. I seem to have driven him away.” She did not push away the curls that fell in her eyes.
“Let me know if you need anything,” he said, lamely.
“Sure.” She never would.
He called her for a while once she had a new place. Her new job kept her busy; so did the boys. He never kissed her again. He found he didn’t want to anymore. The new apartment was so nearly empty of things that it was full of Roxanne, fragile, brittle, eyes dark with damp. They had nothing to talk about.
One night he did drive out toward the tree. It was the night he got the final divorce papers from Rose. Even the memory of a cookie was welcome. He never saw the truck coming the other direction because of the fog.