The Agonist Journal

Caroline awoke in the dark. Cash had unspooned himself and gotten out of bed, and her back was cold. Struggling up from the pillows, she saw him standing at the window, peering around the edge of the curtain.

“What?” she said.

Cash held up his hand. “Shush a minute.”

“What time is it?”

“I said shush. I’m trying to listen.”

Caroline rolled over and looked at the clock: just past four, on a morning in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, dark as dark as dark. Lying back on her pillows, Caroline listened to the silence, straining to hear the little watch-ticking noise that meant sleet. Usually weather was what Cash got up to see.

After a moment she whispered, “I don’t hear anything.”

Cash glanced at her. “No? Listen. I keep thinking I hear footsteps.”

“Inside?” Caroline’s whisper was shrill with alarm.

“No, out there. On the driveway. Listen.”

Obedient, she listened. Their bedroom, on the south side of the house, abutted a narrow plot of raised-bed gardens, tangled now in their winter neglect. If she closed her eyes, she could see the asparagus fronds coated in opaque frost, impossibly fragile. Beyond the garden beds lay the narrow gravel drive with its deep puddled ruts. Cash was always about to have it leveled and re-graveled. Now, as she strained to hear what he heard, she thought she did catch some sound, a crisping and scuffling, as of someone walking among fallen leaves.

She sat up. “Do you see anything?”

Cash shook his head.

“Well, it can’t really be somebody. The dog would bark.” As if in reply, her brindled dog Fisher, on his bed in the corner, whimpered in his sleep. His paws twitched.

Cash said, “That dog would bark if he felt like it.”

He had not approved the acquisition of the dog. It had been Caroline who, never thinking to consult anyone, had gone impulsively to the shelter one day, chosen this large and unhelpful animal, and brought him home.

“Well,” she had said, “I need the company. The house is too empty.”

“Why didn’t you start a book club, then?” said Cash.

But Caroline had wanted something more constant and more devoted than a book club. Anyway, the company of women tired her. And she had never had a dog. She had felt that if she were ever going to have a dog, before it was too late, she had better act swiftly. Now the consequence of her swift action twitched his paws again and yelped, blowing out his lips. Cash grunted.

“Why don’t you come back to bed?” said Caroline.

“I’m wide awake now. I think I’ll go read in the den.”

Caroline lay down again, but now she too was wide awake. She heard Cash switch on a lamp and settle himself into his leather recliner with a sigh not unlike the dog’s. He coughed twice. His cough was a bark.

“Are you all right?” she called.

“It’s just this tickle in my chest like I have sometimes.” He coughed again.

The house was so quiet she could hear him turn a page in his book. She closed her eyes, but now that she wasn’t trying, she kept hearing, too, that scuffle in the leaves she’d left unraked, back in the Fall. A raccoon? A possum? The wind kicking up?

“Cash Mallory,” she called.

“Yes ma’am?”

“I hear it.”

“Told you.”

“You don’t think it’s somebody, do you?”

“You said the dog would bark.”

“Well, but.” Again she sat up. This time she flung back the covers, gasping a little. The room was cold. Groping around, she found her thick woolly cardigan and thrust her arms into it, buttoning it over her nightgown. Feeling with her feet, she located her slippers. Then, as Cash had done, she went to the window and peered around the edge of the drawn curtains.

At first she saw only darkness. Then, as her eyes adjusted, the house next door appeared, a sloping blackness on the sky. She stared at the driveway until she could make out the sheen of puddles in the ruts, the stiff stalks of kale gone to bolt. Rustle rustle went the leaves. But she saw nothing more.

As she turned from the window, the dog jerked awake. Snorting, he raised his head. His tail whacked the wall. When she left the room, he rose and followed her, click click click. She went into the den and found Cash in his chair. He looked up impatiently from his book. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I hear it now,” she told him. “And it’s kind of giving me the weeby-jeebies.”

“I looked for a long time, and I didn’t see a thing. Must just be the wind.”

“I know. It’s just, you know, I can’t help thinking. What if—”

Cash looked at her hard, with what she privately called his prosecution rests expression, though he was a corporate lawyer who wrote contracts and never went to court. It was silly what she thought sometimes, silly and childish. Still, she thought it.

“Don’t,” Cash said now. “Don’t even start.”

Caroline stiffened. “Start what?”

“Whatever in your mind you’re fixing to start.” His gaze returned to his book. “Better just not even think about it.”

For something to do, then, Caroline went to the kitchen, the dog at her heels. Her hands were shaking, and she had to take hold of the counter and breathe deeply, in on a count of four, out on a count of eight, before she could begin making coffee. So what that it wasn’t yet five in the morning? They were up now. She wanted the business of coffee brewing, the warm smell, the wincing pleasure of the first black mouthful. She wanted to focus her whole mind on the measuring-out.

But even coffee was an ambush. John’s roommate had made coffee, that girl, his law-school classmate. It was a kind enough thing to do. Here were John’s parents, Cash and Caroline, summoned halfway across the country because the police had found his car parked beside the Mississippi River bridge on a dark icy morning like this one. What could the roommate do about any of that? Nothing except make coffee.

In spitting snow they had gone to his apartment, to see about his belongings: his duvet, his books, his ascetical clothing. In his bedroom, Caroline had picked things up, put them down. They might have been anyone’s; she couldn’t even tell that they smelled like him. What had he smelled like? Already she had forgotten.

Understandably, the roommate had felt intruded upon. “He always kept to himself,” she told them, in a spirit of some defensiveness, as she handed them coffee in mugs that were none too clean. It was the thing people said about serial killers, not ordinary young men. Furthermore, she had used, without hesitation, the past tense, the tense for speaking of the indisputably dead. No, the roommate hadn’t endeared herself. But then she hadn’t wanted to. She had wanted them to go away.

“There’s all this food,” the girl had added, as Caroline and Cash prepared to take their leave. “It’s his, not mine. There’s like a year’s supply of Ra-Men. What should I do with it?”

Caroline had stared at her.

“Eat it,” Cash had said. The police didn’t need to see a cabinet full of boxes. Ra-Men wasn’t evidence. It wasn’t even a clue. And that girl had looked as if she could use it.

“I doubt she could cook much else,” Cash had said later. “She didn’t seem like the type.”

That girl, Caroline thought now, sweeping spilled coffee grounds into her hand and casting them into the sink. The apartment had stunk of garbage not taken out, and of a cat’s litter box. The good scent of fresh coffee had not been able to hide the other, more revelatory smells. The girl herself of course had been well-turned-out enough, considering that they had descended on her without warning, bearing their load of panic and despair. She had said, if not the right things, the things a twenty-two-year-old girl in law school might reasonably be expected to say. To her, clearly, loss meant your rank in the class, not making the law review. Secondarily, it might mean breaking up with a boyfriend. There her personal comprehension petered out. But, Caroline, supposed, she had tried.

Caroline had met girls like this before. During Cash’s long career in the law, she had met them over and over. She had been chatted up by them at firm Christmas parties: junior associates in floppy bow ties and blazers, then later in sheath dresses. These days they even wore trousers. The costume changed, but the persona stayed the same. She smiled at Caroline as she stood clutching her wine glass by its stem.

“You don’t live in Charlotte?” the persona asked her. “You live out—where, now?”

Patiently, almost apologetically, Caroline would name her town.

The persona would regard her with polite disbelief. “But what is there to do out there?”

“Oh, well,” Caroline would demur. “Not much, really. But it’s a nice place to live. It’s a good place to bring up children.”

The persona would smile a bright, intelligent lipstick smile. She had seen the family photos in Mr. Mallory’s office, the evolution of Caroline, Amelia, and John over many years. “And you didn’t work, at all?”

“Well, no, not really.” Caroline would study the toes of her pumps, which pinched her. To these affairs she was always fated to wear her least comfortable shoes. “The house and the children felt like a full-time job. I don’t know how I would have had time for anything else.”

“But,” the persona might say, “did you do without?”

Without what, Caroline always wondered. What had she done without, that she would have missed in the slightest? It was true that they’d chosen a house in a small town, where the cost of living was cheaper. They could never have afforded a house that size in the city—not starting out, anyway. We bought it because we could, she had sometimes told people. But we stayed because we liked it.

“No,” she would say in bewilderment, “we never did without anything we really needed.”

At all those parties, she reflected now, she had been looking forward to Christmas. The parties, dull and necessary as they were, had been the prelude to something lovely, the wave that lifted her toward it. Always, as she stood drinking wine at the law-firm party, her mind had been ticking over her shopping list, organizing her menu. She never remembered the names of those young women who came to talk to her. She hardly knew what she said to them. It didn’t matter: there were children in her house. Later, there were grown children coming home. In imagination, wherever she happened to be, she dwelt on the gifts she had chosen for Amelia and John, the meals she planned to cook. Every year she brooded with care over the joy to come. And then, before the joy had time to take root in her, it was over. In January she would come to, in the dreary infancy of another year, and think, What happened to all that? Always, always, the beautiful moments had evaporated in shopping, cooking, worrying. She had meant to treasure her children. She had meant not to let them slip through her fingers. But they had gone from her.

That last year, Amelia had left the day after Christmas, with a wave of her hand and a crunch of gears. She had a paper to write, a party to go to, somebody she was maybe sort of seeing who wanted to see her, or something. Caroline never did get the story straight. But John had stayed on with them through New Year’s Day, long enough to help Caroline take down the tree and carry the decorations back to the attic. That was what she remembered: standing on a chair, handing ornaments down to him, while the dry needles shook loose and rustled to the floor. Had that been a beautiful moment? Well, she had often reproved herself, it’s a moment I had. I should have thought it was beautiful.

“I remember this,” John had kept saying as he put the fragile things into their tissue wrappings. This angel. This star. This paper Santa Claus I made in kindergarten. Of this last item he had said, “I can’t believe you still put that thing on your tree.”

“Well.” She had smiled. “You made it for me, remember? It’s a keepsake. I look at it and think of little old you.”

“That’s good.”

She had noticed nothing unusual in his voice. There had been no sign to read in his tousled hair as he bent over the boxes, no subtext to anything he had said or done: not that she’d been looking for it. Putting the boxes away, with their rustling tissue and their piney, cinnamony Christmas-candle smells, she had thought, See you all next year. She had felt only the usual pang, nothing more.

“See you soon,” she had said to him, standing in the cold beside his packed car. What else would she have said? Along the drive, she remembered, the hollies had bent, dark and glossy, beneath the weight of their berries, brilliant in the gray day, unexpected as the sight of your own blood, when you cut yourself. You knew what was inside you. You knew that a cut would bleed. Still, that sudden crimson welling-up could make your knees wobble. John had put his arms around her, squeezed her so hard she’d thought her ribs would crack. Then he had gotten into his car and driven away. She had stood waving in front of the house. Then she had gone back inside.

All that Christmas, Caroline had been worrying about Amelia, not John. Amelia, always bristling, sparking with energy and the promise of outrage, had seemed tuned up just then into a different key altogether. Maybe it was graduate school, Caroline had thought, or else it was this person she was maybe, possibly seeing. Something had altered her vision, anyway, like a filter on a camera, to render everything about her home in a gloomy one-note sepia.

On Christmas Day, after Caroline had set the table for dinner, Amelia had come along and re-set it, changing out the Spode Christmas Tree dishes for the everyday white ones, laying these on a black tablecloth she had produced from someplace. Had she bought it especially to bring home? Had she kept it hidden in her suitcase, to whip out at this moment? Or was it something she used every day, in that unseen life she led, and couldn’t bear to be without, even at home? Caroline certainly had never owned a black tablecloth.

“There,” Amelia had said, strewing handfuls of glitter down the table. “Don’t you like that better?”

Caroline had hesitated. Clearly there was a right answer here, and a wrong one. “It’s very striking,” she had said at last. She knew better than to mention what cleaning up glitter was like.

Amelia had lit the plain white tapers, and in their wavering light, the table had shimmered starkly, black ice in headlights. “I don’t think we should be sentimental about Christmas.”

“Well, no.”

Yet Caroline had wondered: if you couldn’t be sentimental about Christmas, what could you be sentimental about? And if you weren’t sentimental, how else were you supposed to feel? To her Christmas had seemed the one time of the year when you could reliably let your guard down, let your foolish feelings show. If Amelia wanted to take away even that, what would be left? Already she had searched out her own paper Santas and stars from the ornament box, and had burned them in the charcoal grill on the patio. Nothing left of those little inconsequential memories but ash.

Standing in the kitchen window watching her, Caroline had wanted to weep, and had steeled herself against the feeling. People talked of the terrible twos, but Caroline would have given her very soul to be back there again, watching a child throw herself to the floor screaming because she’d been handed the wrong color cup. What nobody talked about were the terrible twenties.

All through the holiday, Caroline had observed Amelia minutely at every opportunity. There was Amelia’s hair, cut short as a boy’s in a way that seemed to flaunt her angular face, a boast presenting itself to you every time she turned around. There were Amelia’s skinny legs in leggings—well, I would feel naked in pants like that, Caroline thought, but I guess she can carry them off. There was Amelia on her laptop, emailing someone continually and secretively, with a look on her face that said, Oh, my God, I have to tell you what my mother is doing now. There was Amelia, who did study psychology, after all, taking every word anybody uttered and turning it around: What I hear you saying is. What Amelia heard Caroline saying was, somehow, never what Caroline had meant to say.

Only afterward, when it was too late, had Caroline preoccupied herself with John. She had examined all her memories of him for signs of trouble. He had looked thin, but surely that was just a function of studying hard. He had seemed quiet, but when had John not been quiet? He hadn’t called anyone to go for a beer, but John had never been a bon vivant. Anyway, the holidays always passed so quickly. You never had as much time as you expected, or needed, to do all the things that you wanted. And then it was over. You could never call it back again. All you could do, in the wake of what you’d lost, was resolve to notice, better, what was already gone.

“Yes, I have gone to grief counseling, thank you very much,” she had been able to tell Amelia on the phone. So there. Because she had been to grief counseling, she understood that when you felt whatever it was, the terrible feeling, rising like a tide around you, you could save yourself by noticing something real. You trained your mind on your hand, for example, or the couch, or a flower, any material thing in the world outside you. Mindfulness: that was the word the grief counselor had taught her. Caroline, however, looking at her hand, asked herself, is that there? What if I am a dream? What if I’m nothing but somebody’s thought?

In the dark kitchen, the coffeemaker hawked, spat, and beeped three times. Pouring out into two mugs, Caroline savored the crisp hot splash. Outside, the wind had risen. The overgrown holly scratched at the window, making her jump. Again she heard the sound that had awakened Cash: the scuffling in the leaves, as of footsteps.

Dog at her heels, she carried Cash’s coffee into the den. “I heard it again.”

“Heard what?” He accepted the coffee without thanks.

“That noise.”

“What? Oh, that noise.”

She waited while he slurped at his coffee. He loved the first sip, too. He was the one who had taught her to love it. When they married, she hadn’t been a coffee drinker at all. Now she couldn’t imagine the day without it.

He set his mug down. “It’s just the wind. And the leaves. It’s what we get for not raking up all those leaves last Fall.” He coughed again wetly. “Boy, I tell you. This tickle in my chest. It just will not go away. Aggravating?”

“You could go to the doctor,” she said.

“For a little tickle in my chest? Come on. It’s just the cold. And the weather coming in, like the news said.”

Just the cold. That’s what you told me last Fall, when you had the same cough and couldn’t rake the leaves, she thought but did not say. At Christmas, calling home, Amelia had been worried. Amelia was married now, to Michael, whoever he was exactly, wherever she had found him. All Caroline knew was that they didn’t come home for the holidays. “We both have to work, mother,” Amelia had told her. “We get Christmas Day, and that’s all. It’s not worth it.” Caroline might have bridled at not worth it, but before she could work up her indignation, the conversation had shifted.

“I don’t like that cough daddy has,” Amelia had said. “Make him see a doctor, mother.”

“Well, darling.” You try making Cash Mallory see a doctor, Caroline had thought, but she was too careful to say it aloud.

“That’s not my job,” Amelia would have said, and Caroline would have heard her boundaries clanging into place. Amelia put great stock in boundaries these days. There was much you couldn’t say to her, nothing you could expect from her.

“How is Michael?” Caroline had asked perfunctorily.

“He’s fine.”

“Well,” said Caroline, “that’s good.” After that the conversation had petered out, and Caroline had hung up feeling like an empty house, all its windows dark. That had been Christmas this year, a phone call, come and gone with a click and a silence.

The dog shoved his nose against her hand and moaned, deep in his chest. When Caroline glanced down, there he was, gazing up at her with ardent eyes.

“It’s not breakfast yet,” Caroline said. “Can’t you tell time?”

He moaned again, with greater urgency. No, he couldn’t tell time. The people were up, that was all. The coffee ritual triggered his own morning routine. Sighing, Caroline went to the back door to let him out.

In the doorway, he hesitated, sniffing the air.

“I know it’s cold,” said Caroline. “But it’s too late to change your mind. Just go.”

With reluctance, still sniffing, he ventured onto the back porch. After another moment’s hesitation, he descended the steps, turned into the back-door flower bed, and, hugging the side of the house, peed copiously onto a camellia. Then, with haste and bustle, he trotted back up the steps and into the kitchen, taking up his position over his food bowl.

Caroline crossed her arms. “It’s five in the morning, you loopy dog. You really want to eat now?”

He bulged his eyes at her and wagged his tail. Dutifully Caroline fetched his scoop of food.

As she crossed the hall again to the den, she paused to listen. Outside, the leaves shuffled. The metal gate to the side yard groaned.

Cash Mallory.”


“Don’t you hear it?”

“I hear it. It’s some front coming in.”

“Is somebody out there? Or not?”

“You let the dog out, didn’t you? Did he act like there was anybody out there?”

“Well, no. But. He’s acting kind of, you know. What if it’s not a person, Cash? What if it’s—I don’t know…” She looked to him for help. Please understand what I’m talking about. Please help me say it.

Resting his book on his knee, Cash regarded her as from the opposite edge of some vast chasm. Even across that distance, she could read his mind. He didn’t understand, and wasn’t about to help her say it. She made no sense. How could she?

“Look, Caroline,” he said at last. “I thought I heard something, but I didn’t. What I mean is, I heard the wind. For a minute it sounded like somebody walking, but it wasn’t.”

“You thought it was. It got you out of bed.”

“I was wrong.”

“Cash,” she began, but he held up his hand to silence her.

“Listen to me. I’m sorry I got you up. I’m sorry I got you all worked up. But I’m here to tell you the truth. Whatever you’re thinking: don’t. It’s just not possible.”

She folded her arms on her chest. “What’s not possible? And how do you know?”

“I just know. You need to for goodness sake let go.”

“You sound like Amelia. And can’t either one of you make me.” Caroline turned on her heel and went back into the bedroom, followed by the dog. He couldn’t make her, either. All he could do was not let her out of his sight.

Now he circled and collapsed onto his bed with a grunt. Caroline stood at the window with her coffee. Out there, on the driveway: that was where they had first heard it, whatever it was. Cash had said it was footsteps. He had thought so. But she was the crazy one who couldn’t let go. Even if it was nothing, only the wind, still it was out there. She felt it. It watched them, maybe, when they weren’t paying attention. Even if it was nothing, the thought made her shiver.

Above the trees and roofs the sky was starting to flush rose and gold, the colors brilliant with the clarity of winter. If a storm had been brewing, it had blown itself out in the dark. Likely, she thought, the weatherman had been wrong. If he told you it was going to snow, you made your dutiful trip to the grocery store for milk, bread, and toilet paper, but you also prepared yourself for nothing to happen. There was something cheerful in the frenetic rush to be ready for a storm, a letdown when it didn’t happen, and life went on just the same, unvaried by emergency. In a way, it was a relief. In another way, you were sorry.

Clearly now Caroline could see the gray gravel drive, the brick wall beyond it that divided their property from the neighbors’. The wind was stirring. She could hear it rattle the stalks of banana pepper and tomato that she hadn’t bothered to pull at the first frost, all the way last Fall. It was an empty sound. Out there, the drive was empty. The new day cresting over the empty treetops: empty. What she had hoped, or feared, or both, had melted away into the morning.

What if I’m left with this? she asked herself. What if this is it, for the rest of my life? But what did she mean by this? Was this simply a matter of waking every day to absence, and steeling herself to keep doing it? Turning her mind to things of this world, insisting to herself that they were real and she could trust them? Not believing a word of it?

What do you do out there, all those young women had asked at all those law-firm parties. And the answer, the real one, which Caroline had not vouchsafed to any living soul, was this: I love my children. It was real, an occupation and a satisfaction. It was not nothing. So she had thought at the time. She had taken pleasure, even pride, in the thought, in its very secretness, like a baby growing inside her, unknown to anyone but her. All those years, it had been her joy and hope. Now what did she have to cherish? A taciturn man, a dog. The noise of the wind outside.

Until Cash put his hands on her shoulders, she didn’t know that she was crying. She had thought she was out of tears forever, but apparently the supply was inexhaustible. Apparently, too, they came so naturally to her that she could taste them on her lips and not know what it was that she tasted.

“It’ll be all right,” Cash said. Through her cardigan and nightgown she felt his fingers tighten on her clavicle. “It’ll be all right.”

“If you say so.”

“It really did sound like footsteps. It’s not just you. I thought so, too.”

“That’s not what I’m crying about.”

“Well,” said Cash, “I didn’t think it was.” After a moment he turned her around and pressed her to him, rubbing his chin in her hair.

Her body resisted. Though he pulled her close, she held back, stiffening, maintaining a span of air between them. “You know it won’t be all right,” she said.

In the silence, she could feel him breathing into her hair. A warmth, then nothing. Then warmth again.

“That’s what we thought,” he told her. “In the beginning, that’s what we thought.”

“It’s what we know.”

“That we’ll never be happy again? But aren’t we still happy, just a little bit? Sometimes? In spite of ourselves?”

“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “How can we be?”

He sighed, a long, sad warmth. “I think we just have to be. I don’t know how. Maybe we just have to let it sneak up on us, and not worry about how to make it happen. Just be surprised by it.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I know you don’t.”

“I don’t have to like them. I don’t have to smile and say, Isn’t this wonderful? when it’s not.”

Caroline pushed Cash from her and ran her hands through her hair. The vehemence of her own voice, and of the hatred which welled up in her now in place of tears—hatred for Cash himself, hard and black and implacable, hatred because Cash was, here and now, incarnate—made her gasp.

Don’t you, whatever you do,” she said, “tell me how I’m supposed to think and feel. Do you hear me? Don’t.

Cash stepped back as if she had struck at him. “I won’t. I don’t.”

“Good.” She scrubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Don’t.”

“I love you, Caroline,” said Cash. His voice shook. “That’s something. Isn’t it?”

“Yes. It’s something.” Not enough, she did not say. Still, her anger fell from her. Suddenly she was exhausted. She leaned on Cash again and felt his warmth.

For a while they stood together, watching, for lack of something better, the drawn curtains through which the rising light was steadily filtered. Just outside the window, a cardinal called: chip chip chip chip chip, a pebble of sound striking the clear window of the air. In the cold, would anyone answer him? Did he mind that the spell he wove, of love, longing, and desire, would not so much be broken, there in the small of the year, as simply run down, peter out, give up its sweet red ghost?

Listening, too, Cash smiled. “Hear him, now. What is it about a bird in winter?”

“They’re here all year. They’ll eat up the holly berries.” Caroline wiped her eyes again. Not for the last time. Just maybe the last time for now. “Let me make you some breakfast,” she said to Cash.