Fiction Selection from the 2012 issue.
What Goes Around
By William Cass
I was driving home from a business dinner and thinking about the likelihood that my wife was having an affair when I saw the woman perched on the bridge railing. High clouds draped a full moon. The dinner I’d been at had been a lengthy one, and it was after ten as I rounded the big turn on the river road towards home. Our house was located in an abandoned apricot orchard out in the country, and as usual at that time of night, the road was empty. I hadn’t passed a single car since leaving the restaurant in town, nor had I seen one behind me.
I didn’t see her until my headlights swept across her crouched figure on the railing, her purse slung over the shoulder closest to me. She was fiddling with the strap and seemed preoccupied with what to do with it when her eyes turned flatly towards me, as if she was considering items in a bakery case. I stopped the car at the end of the bridge with the headlights on, got out, left the door open, and approached her slowly. She stayed in that pose, crouched, one hand grasping the strap of her purse, her gaze steady, a small breeze coming up the river rustling her short dark hair and the hem of her dress.
Woods were all around with the whine of the cicadas and the roar of the river in full spring run-off a hundred or more feet below. The old, wooden bridge was short, built consciously where the river narrowed a century before. There was no trellis, and she was on the downstream side. The wooden boards groaned as I made my halting approach, and we kept our eyes on one another. I tried to keep mine calm—neutral and mildly friendly, though I wasn’t sure at all how to do that.
I stopped a few yards away. A little fog drifted in the milky glare of the headlights between us. In that wash of light, I could see a tiny tattoo of a red and yellow butterfly behind her ear closest to me. I let a minute, maybe two pass before I said as evenly as possible, “Hey, what’s going on?”
She said nothing. Her left calf seemed to be quivering slightly. From that distance, I took her to be about my age, perhaps thirty. Her dress and shoes were of good quality, the sort of attire that might have been worn at the dinner I’d just left. But she wore no coat, and the late night temperatures in that northern part of the state in the mid- March couldn’t have been much above freezing. I was trying to keep my mind clear and alert, but for some reason, I thought of that prior weekend when I’d opened our phone bill and come across a series of early morning calls I hadn’t made to a number I didn’t recognize. I took another tepid step forward and the woman straightened a bit, teetering. I imagined the railing to be damp and slippery. Her shoes had short heels, so she was balancing precariously on their instep. A louder, lingering call of an owl came from the woods, to which she gave no reaction.
I said, “How about coming down from there? She didn’t reply, but appeared to try to straighten further. Her expression, her gaze remained unbroken.
“Hey,” I said and started to take off my sports coat. “It’s cold. Why don’t you climb down now and let me give you this? It’s nice and warm.”
I swallowed. I took another small step and was almost within arm’s length of her when she straightened a bit more, teetered, and jumped. As she fell, she seemed to reach for me.
My voice said, “No!” And then I was at the railing where she’d stood and looking down as she hit the water. She entered it feet first, with one knee lifted, and both of her arms over her head. There was no scream. She disappeared under the surface, and I scampered to the other side of the bridge. In the moonlight, her body bobbed up again perhaps twenty feet downstream from the bridge and tumbled through some mild white water between two boulders. The fast-moving current tossed her like a ragdoll, and I couldn’t tell for certain if she was dead or not. I called 911 on my cell phone, gave a quick summary and location, then ran around the end of the bridge where my car was parked and started down the embankment. It was a slippery going and I knew a futile endeavor. Before I was halfway down, she had disappeared around the bend, where I knew it was less than a quarter mile of rushing water after that to the falls. I kept on to the bottom and sloshed through the shallows until I heard the sirens approaching. Then I climbed hand-over-hand back up the slope to meet the rescue folks so that I could direct them.
I drove home immediately after talking with the authorities because I was cold and wet. I thought my wife was asleep when I’d climbed into bed next to her, but she said, “You’re late.”
Her back was turned to me. I said, “Yes.”
“Something like that.”
I curled up against her and kissed her shoulder, but she didn’t stir or turn around. In a few moments, her breathing slowed into the low snore I’d grown accustomed to.
There was nothing in the news about the woman the next morning. My wife was still asleep when I left for work, but I stopped by the portion of the barn that she used for her pottery studio before getting in my car. I wasn’t sure why. I picked up a few of the pieces she was working on and looked at them. I spun the potting wheel. It was cool, dank. I reached in the pouch of her hooded sweatshirt that was hanging on the back of a chair and took out a chrome lighter. As far as I knew, she didn’t smoke, and I could think of no purpose for a lighter in the studio. I replaced it, shook my head, and drove away.
It was a busy day at work, and I didn’t leave for home until after six. I turned on the radio as soon as I got in the car, but I found no information about the woman, nor from the clerk at the police station on the edge of town where I stopped to ask about her.
Darkness had almost completely fallen by the time I reached the bridge. I pulled over on the shoulder just before the wooden planks met the road and walked out onto it to where the woman had jumped the night before. There wasn’t any indication that she’d ever been there. The railing was smooth and unmarked. I looked down at the flowing river. What had taken place there suddenly seemed as impossible as my wife having an affair. But there was no mistaking the first, and the likelihood of the second seemed nearly as certain. I’d seen what I thought was my wife in the window of a passing bus a month before. She appeared to be smiling at a man next to her who had his arm around her. At the time, I was in the town next to ours having lunch in a diner. I’d stood up at the booth where I was sitting, but then the bus was gone and had disappeared out of sight around the next corner. I remember convincing myself at the time that the woman I’d seen must have been someone else who bore a resemblance to my wife. There was, after all, no reason for her to be in that town or on any bus at lunch hour. I remember picturing her instead in her overalls at her potting wheel blowing a loose strand of lovely hair out of her face. I couldn’t recall if that had been the first instance of suspicion for me or not. I walked back to the car.
My wife wasn’t there when I got home. She’d left a note saying she was having dinner with a friend but had left soup on the stove. I sat at the dining room table and looked through photo albums as I ate. I started off with pictures of the days when we’d first met in college, then continued through the time we’d spent doing volunteer work together in Guatemala, and the few years when we both tried to make a go of it as artists, and stopped when I got to the ones of a vacation we’d been on to Jamaica that I’d won as a sales award the previous year. In the last one, we were smiling and standing arm in arm in matching tropical shirts at sunset. The number of photographs, I realized, had decreased with each advancing year. And, of course, there were none of any children. We’d agreed on that before we’d married, although I was reluctant to do so. My job at the advertising agency had been a reluctant, but necessary, choice, too. We were nearly out of money by then, so one of us had to find a steady income. At some level, I guess, we both understood that I resented that it had been me, and she made no attempt to hide her contempt for the work I did.
I looked at a movie on TV for a while and then went to bed before my wife came home. I woke up when I heard the soft click of the back door and looked at the clock. It was after one. I sat up when she came to the bedroom doorway, where she stopped.
“Hey,” I said.
“Pretty long dinner.”
She shrugged. “You know. Got talking.”
She was silhouetted from the light behind her in the doorway, so I couldn’t see her face. I nodded, though I wasn’t sure she could see mine either.
“Listen,” she said. “I feel like I’m coming down with something, so I’m going to sleep on the couch.”
I nodded again.
“Goodnight,” she said.
She left and the light blinked off in the hallway. I lay awake for a long time afterwards. I don’t remember hearing her snore, so she may have been laying awake, too.
My wife was gone for good when I got home the next evening. She’d left another note and this one said that she needed some time away. It said she needed space to think, that she would be in touch. It didn’t say where she was going. I tried calling her cell phone immediately, but received a recording saying it was no longer in service, which was the same thing that happened when I dialed the unknown number on the phone bill. I called her family and friends; no one knew anything. She worked alone out of her space in the barn, so there were no colleagues of that sort to try. In less than a half-hour I was left with little recourse but to wander and search the house for some clues or indications, but I came upon nothing. My last stop was her studio, which I found exactly as I had the day before except for her sweatshirt, which was gone.
It’s been three years and I haven’t heard a word from her, nor has anyone I know. I wish I could at least claim that time has dimmed the pain of her leaving, that the sense of rejection and loneliness has diminished, or that I’ve moved on and embraced new relationships, but none of those are true either. Instead, it’s as if there is a hole in me that refuses to budge – a barren, aching, empty place. I find myself thinking of her during ad presentations, seeing her in the faces of woman in line at the grocery store, hearing her voice on the wind’s howl. Sometimes, I go into the bedroom closet and bury my face in her clothes, which still retain vestiges of her scent. I hug her pillow when I can’t sleep, which is almost every night.
Over the past few months, I’ve begun travelling out of town more for work. I’ve had even more trouble sleeping on the road than at home. A couple of weeks ago, across the state, I gave up on sleep altogether around midnight, and went down to the hotel bar.
It was a typical place in a big hotel like that: red carpet and upholstery, brass, dark wood, bottles lined up on short glass shelves on a mirrored wall, a dark TV mounted in the corner . The place was pretty empty. A few men still in business suits sat at a cluster of armchairs, and two more of the same ilk huddled together at one end of the bar. I sat down on a stool at the other end. The woman tending the bar was drying glasses across from me. She didn’t glance my way, but she asked, “What’ll it be?”
She looked up and seemed to study me. “Any particular kind?”
I shook my head. “Just trying to make sleep come.”
She nodded slowly. She poured my beer, set it on a coaster in front of me, and stayed there herself. “So,” she said. “What’s making it so hard to sleep?”
I looked her over. She seemed sincere enough. Her eyes were kind. So I took a chance on the truth and said, “Grief.”
I took a swig of beer and watched her nod some more. “That’ll do it,” she said. “What sort of grief?”
I watched her brush dark bangs from her eyes and shrugged. “My wife left me. Oldest story in the book.”
We regarded each other until she said, “I understand that kind of grief, and it’s awful. How long ago?”
She frowned. “That’s quite a bit of time to still be hurting so bad. You must have really loved her.”
I felt foolish because my lips immediately began trembling and I felt moisture gathering at the corners of my eyes. She sighed, stepped away, filled two shot glasses with some sort of whiskey, and brought them back. She set one in front of me and held the other herself.
She said, “If it’s sleep you’re chasing, this will work better than beer.” She held her glass out in front of her. “To hell with grief.”
“I guess I could live with that,” I said and touched her glass with mine. We both drank.
I wiped my lips with the back of my hand.
The men at the end of the bar put money on the counter and left. We watched them walk across the lobby towards the elevators. Then she asked, “Was she involved with someone else?”
It was my turn to nod. “I think so. I’m pretty sure she was.” “But you don’t know for sure.”
“Neither did I.”
She walked to the other end of the bar, cleared away the glasses there, and put the money in the cash register. She came back, stood in front of me, and folded her arms.
“So what’d you do?” I asked. “When you were in my shoes?”
“Silly things, desperate things. Kept loving him until he came back. Kept loving and loving and loving. Boy, did I love.”
“But he did come back?”
She nodded. “You’ll do the same. Keep loving. No choice.”
“You think so?”
“Yes.” Her gaze was steady. “I can tell. You’ll have to.”
“And what do you think the chances are that my wife will come back?”
She shrugged and said, “Doesn’t matter.”
We regarded each other some more until she looked over my shoulder. “Last call,” she said in a loud voice. The businessmen shook their heads, finished their drinks, left money on the glass table between them, and went on their way, too.
I took out my wallet, but she put her hand on mine and shook her head. “On me. You tried to help me once.” She tossed her long hair, and it was then that I saw the tiny butterfly behind her ear.
The air went right out of me. I sat blinking until I could finally find my voice. “You?”
“What goes around, you know.”
“You,” I repeated. “I can’t believe this.”
“Believe it,” she said evenly. “And now you’ll go back to bed and go to sleep. And tomorrow will be better.” She smiled. “I have to close up.”
I watched her go around the end of the bar, collect the things from where the businessmen had been sitting, and carry them through a swinging door under the TV. The door swung slowly back and forth behind her until it stopped. The lights in the bar blinked off, and then I saw the sliver of light beneath the door where she’d gone expire too.
I took the elevator up to my room. I brushed my teeth, splashed water on my face, and got back into bed. There were no sounds outside except the distant hum of the highway a half-mile or so away. My bags were already packed for leaving the next morning, and I had no plans in the future or any particular reason to return to that city. Even if I had, I wasn’t sure that I would come to that bar again. I wasn’t sure there was anything more to be gained beyond that bit of time we’d spent together. What more could there be than the recognition we’d shared or the relief she’d provided? What more could one person do for another?