K.L. Cook | from:English

Filament

Image: Oren Ben Moreh

 When she was seventeen, Loretta discovered that she was pregnant with Blue Simpson’s child, a shame really.  Not because Tildon turned out to be a bad son.  (In fact, he would do quite well, thirty-two years later, buying and operating a chain of successful southern fried chicken franchises.)  It’s just that Loretta’s future seemed genuinely promising before this turn of events.  She’d graduated high school as the valedictorian when she was sixteen.  Granted, this was in Honey Grove, Texas, so there were not that many students, certainly not that many bright ones, but she had nonetheless impressed her teachers enough to skip a couple of grades, and then went off to college in Denton on a full scholarship to study journalism.  In Denton, she met Blue, a strawberry-headed pipe fitter and apprentice welder from Bug Tussle who liked to two-step.  At the beginning of her sophomore year, he took her dancing every night for three straight weeks.  By the end of that time, Tildon was conceived.  Blue and Loretta hastily married during a freakish October snowstorm, and she gave up her academic pursuits and, until after Blue’s death, her dream of becoming a reporter.

Tildon arrived the following spring, followed by two miscarriages that left her depressed and wishing she could return to the promising trajectory of her old life.  But then Melinda was born, and Tanya soon after.  They’d moved to Charnelle in the Texas Panhandle, where they lived in a too-small, too-hot cinderblock house near the drive-in.  On summer weekend nights, she and the kids and Blue would climb up to the flat, pebbly roof, set up folding chairs and a blanket and watch the double feature for free.  Those nights—as the Panhandle dusk turned a velvety blue, as the kids fell asleep in their sleeping bags, as she and Blue sipped beers and she nestled in the crook of his arm with a blanket wrapped around them, and, on one occasion, they actually made love, quietly, thrillingly, during the final fifteen minutes of Double Indemnity—those nights were, Loretta would reflect much later, the best times of the marriage. 

Blue worked at Charnelle Steel, and Loretta stayed home in the cramped house and cared for the children.  She gradually realized, too late, that she had no special knack for mothering.  It wasn’t that she felt a particular animosity toward her children, but rather against motherhood itself.  At first she was ashamed of this epiphany, but after a few years, she no longer tried to deny it.  She didn’t confess it to others, certainly not to Blue or the children.  People tended to harbor a grudge against mothers who seemed to dislike their own, even though, from what she could tell, it was a common enough occurrence.  To acknowledge her feelings, to herself at least, eased her conscience a little and rekindled the sense of disciplined observation and fidelity to truth, no matter how unpleasant, that had made her want to pursue a life in journalism.  The effort to be kind and compassionate also demanded from her a rigorous testing of her spirit that was, she felt, not unlike prayer, even though she didn’t consider herself a religious woman.

 

***

 

Loretta believed she would have adapted just fine to this situation if matters had not taken a turn for the worse in the eighth year of her marriage when a miniscule filament of hot steel wedged itself in Blue’s left eye.  The accident ironically had not taken place at work, so Charnelle Steel claimed no responsibility.  Nearly blind in that eye, Blue returned, after surgery and a month and a half of recuperation, to work, but his disposition soured with the disfigurement, the now-endless medical bills, and the bad luck of getting an injury that, if he’d been more fortunate, could have resulted in a handsome settlement and perhaps a semi-comfortable life of early retirement.

Most mornings he left for work by five and didn’t return until six-thirty or seven, later if he happened to stop off at the Armory for drinks and to shoot a little pool, at which he was deceptively skilled, despite his bad eye.  When he arrived home on these nights to the house that never seemed to stay clean or uncluttered, the dust growing like moss on the furniture, he often felt the walls squeezing him, a claustrophobic bitterness puddling like acid in his stomach.  His wife had grown too thin, with a hostile little smirk nestled in the corners of her mouth, though she wasn’t even thirty yet.  She’d always been smart, and perhaps that was the real problem.  He’d wooed her away from college.  He knew she held against him the life he’d provided for them.  But that had been as much her fault as his, if fault was to be found.  It seemed unjust the way her lips drew tight like a purse string, the way she seemed to hold him responsible for her regrets, without ever acknowledging that he was the one with the goddamn bad eye, who had to work seventy, sometimes eighty hours a week, relegated to the shitty welding jobs rather than the custom work he’d been trained and paid well to do, and still could do if just given half a chance.  Entering the house, he often felt as if he’d been lit on fire, as if his whole body was a breeding ground for army ants, a feeling exacerbated by the holes in his shirt and little blisters and pockmarks beneath the holes where the torches had burned and re-burned his forearms and neck and wrists. 

Loretta understood how his predicament might embitter him, but it didn’t seem right that he’d sometimes take it out on her and the children, shouting for them to shut up, shut up, just for holy chrissakes shut the fuck up, and after the injury, occasionally and then more routinely striking Loretta, once even with his brown leather belt, the buckle of which left a puncture in her hip that had become infected and never completely healed.  A blistered scab chafed under the elastic waistband of her slip. 

After these incidents, he would leave, setting out for the Armory or, in lonelier moods, on long drives to the nearby lakes or to the Waskalanti Creek where he’d get out, take off his shoes and socks, cuff his jeans and wade into the cold running water, the smooth pebbles caressing his feet.  He’d wait for the train to roll across the wooden bridge at five minutes past midnight.  Pressing his hands against the posts when the train passed, he would feel the trestle shake and the surprising heat shimmy to the bottom of the foundation.  Standing in the cold water and touching those warm vibrating wooden posts soothed him. 

After he returned, calmer, contrite even, he’d sometimes take his guitar from the closet, wake the children and sing to them, ballads he’d learned before he was married, when he dreamed of traveling with a band from dancehall to dancehall all the way to Nashville.  Tildon, Melinda, and Tanya warily appreciated this part of the evening and came to recognize it as a prelude to quieter months before their father’s dangerous sap would rise again. 

Later in bed with Loretta, he’d stroke her stomach as he kissed the places where he’d bruised her, and then he’d make love to her with a tenderness that she relished, even if she didn’t like the road by which they’d arrived at this place, nor did she want any more children, and had taken to cleansing herself afterward, once Blue’d fallen asleep, with a foul-smelling potion that she purchased from Maria Fernandez, the midwife who lived in what was back then called Mexican Town on the east side of Charnelle. 

The next morning she would stir into a cup of hot tea a yellow powder, also provided by Maria Fernandez, that tasted like formaldehyde smelled.  Then she’d spend the rest of the day in the bathroom vomiting and sometimes spotting, even if it wasn’t her time of the month.  It seemed to her a heavy price to pay for an hour of tenderness, but she did not want to imagine another child in this house.

 

***

 

On March 22nd of the twelfth year of their marriage, Blue came home late with more burn holes in his shirt than normal.  He’d been to the Armory where he’d drunk six shots of tequila and lost twenty-eight dollars on a double-or-nothing rack of Nine Ball.  When he arrived, at nearly midnight, he struck Loretta twice across the face, and then drove to the Waskalanti Creek and stood under the trestle in the ice cold water, waiting, but the train never came.  He’d missed it.  After a while, he felt soothed just the same by the hooting of the owls, out now for spring, and the purr of the tequila in his body, which rendered him, as it often did, feeling more alert than sleepy, though he knew even in his drunkenness that he might not remember a damn thing the next day.  He drove home and woke the children, who patiently listened to him strum a song he’d written himself years ago called “Long Train Rolling” followed by a particularly soulful rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and then he kissed them and carried Tanya to bed, nearly toppling over the nightstand in the children’s room.

“I love you,” he said and lingered by the door.

After a long pause, Melinda said, “I love you, too, Daddy,” though Tildon remained quiet, feigning sleep.  Tildon knew what his father wanted, but he could not bring himself to appease the man’s wish to be forgiven. 

Blue shut his bedroom door, shed his clothes into a puddle, and stretched out over his wife and began to kiss her.  She pushed him away.

“I’m sorry, honey, I’m so sorry,” he said and then wept for a good ten minutes.  “I’m a sorry bastard, I know.  Sorry sorry sorry.” 

She remained unmoved.  He pried her knees open, cooing into her ear.  She felt and then, surprising even herself, acted upon an impulse to claw his back and his face.  He cuffed her clumsily across the temple, but she didn’t make a sound.  He held her arms down, and they wrestled on the bed until Tildon knocked on the door, tentatively whispering, “Is everything all right?”

Tildon’s words provoked a momentary truce, both of them unsure what to do next.  Blue said, “Get on back to bed, son.” 

“Mom?” Tildon said, and Loretta heard, alongside her son’s fear, his desire to help her.  Please, he seemed to be telling her, please please tell me what I should do, and please don’t have me do a thing.  That voice broke her heart. 

“Mind your father,” she said as lightly as she could. 

They heard him retreat, and then, without resistance, she let Blue finish what he’d started, holding the headboard so that it wouldn’t thump against the wall and alarm the children any more than they were already alarmed.  It was over in a matter of minutes.  She pushed him off her.  He rolled over and fell asleep. 

She opened the door.  Tildon and Melinda sat huddled in their pajamas outside, their backs against the wall. 

“Everything’s okay,” she said.  “Go on to bed.”  They didn’t move at first, but then she said, “Hurry up, now.  It’s late.”  Her voiced pacified them, and they obeyed. 

She went to the bathroom, where she cleaned herself and doctored her face, and then returned quietly to the children’s room to make sure they were asleep.  The girls were both out, but Tildon was merely pretending.  She didn’t question him, though, just kissed all their foreheads.  She whispered in his ear, “Don’t you worry.”  And then she left the room, closing the door behind her. 

She started to go back to her bedroom, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.  She shuffled into the dark living room and lay on the sofa, where she just wanted to close her eyes for a few minutes and collect herself.  The house was silent except for the whisper of branches brushing against the window.  She rose and went to the kitchen, where she thought about administering Maria Fernandez’s remedies.  She knew that she would begin vomiting in an hour or so if she did, so she decided to wait.  After pulling her favorite cast iron skillet from the cabinet, she shifted it from hand to hand, feeling its familiar heaviness.  She drank a glass of water slowly, rinsed the glass, put it in the drainer, and then carried the skillet back to the bedroom.

She shut the door and pulled the cord on the lamp so that a yellow glow enveloped the bed, where her husband lay, his mouth agape, his naked body sprawled over the tangled sheets.  He looked like a dead man, limp and pale, splotched with blisters at his neck and wrists.  Holding the cool and slightly greasy handle, she raised the skillet and hit him across his face, the flat bottom covering his nose and right eye socket.  She heard bone crack and felt his blood spray her arm and the hollow of her throat. 

Immediately, she knew that she hadn’t hit him as hard as she had wanted to.  She had wanted to crush his skull, and she felt she would have been justified in doing so, but at the last second she’d held back just enough so that only his nose and perhaps his cheek appeared to break.  He did not move, though, and she was unsure whether or not she had, despite her failure of courage, killed him.

For a solid sixty seconds, she watched him, counting each second.  He still didn’t move.  She sat down on the chair next to the bed with the skillet in her lap.

Tentatively, she put her hand on his chest, searched for the thump-thump of his heartbeat.  She tipped his chin away from her and inspected the broken part of his face.  His nose and cheekbone were starting to swell and appear pulpy.  The dried blood from the earlier scratches created a black line running from his temple to his jaw, another one on his forehead.  Fresh blood from his nose trickled over his upper lip.  The sheets were flecked with blood.  She reached over to the dresser and pulled a clean handkerchief from the top drawer and dabbed gently at his face until the white cotton turned red. 

~

When he woke forty minutes later, she was holding a cloth full of ice against his nose and cheek.  Groggily, still in shock, he asked, “What happened?”

 “The dresser tipped over onto the bed.  We’re lucky it didn’t kill us both.” 

She could tell he didn’t believe her.  In all this time of waiting, she hadn’t given one thought to what she would say when he woke.  She was surprised by the words that came out of her mouth.  It seemed outlandish even to her, but she decided, out of curiosity, to leave it at that, to offer nothing else in order to see how he’d respond.  She was even more surprised that he didn’t challenge her story, just lay there, limp and swelling.  He pulled the sheet up over his exposed body. 

When he said nothing, she felt some crucial element of power in her marriage shift. 

At five-thirty, he went to work with his nose bandaged, the cuts on his face beginning to harden, his good eye as threaded with broken blood vessels as his bad one had been several years before.   

 

***

 

When Tildon and the girls woke, shortly after their father left, they studied their mother’s face, but she understood that they didn’t really want her to tell them anything.  The inner life of a marriage must be kept hidden from children.  She knew that much.  Loretta made them oatmeal and toast, fixed their lunches, and hurried them off to the bus stop, and then she bathed quickly.  She remembered that she hadn’t taken Maria Fernandez’s powder.  Maybe it wouldn’t make her vomit this time.  Maybe she had built up immunity, like a person who is bitten several times by snakes becomes snake-proof.  But when she went to the pantry and opened the tin can on the top shelf where she kept the powder hidden, she found it empty.  She would deal with that later.  Right now, she needed to remain as clear-headed as possible.  She put on her nicest wool skirt and dark purple sweater and walked down to the courthouse. 

“I want a divorce,” she told the clerk, Gail Weathers, a man who’d lost all four fingers of his left hand in the war. 

“Why?” he asked.

“I don’t love my husband anymore.”

“That ain’t a good enough reason for the state of Texas.”

She pointed to her bruised face, and when he still seemed unconvinced, she discreetly rolled back the waistband of her skirt and slip to reveal the belt buckle puncture, a halo of swollen pink flesh surrounding the still-infected hole.  This got Weathers’ attention, mainly because of the audacity of the revelation rather than the impressiveness of the wound.  But he didn’t show his surprise, just continued chewing on an already-gnawed toothpick. 

“Guess you should talk to Hef Givens,” he said. 

She walked over to the office of Hef Givens, one of only two lawyers in town. 

“A divorce’ll cost you more than it’s worth,” he said.  “And you can be sure Blue won’t take it well.” 

Hef Givens and Blue Simpson sometimes hunted deer together.  He was not excited about being enlisted as the attorney in a divorce proceeding against his friend. 

“Here,” Loretta said, handing Hef Givens twenty-five dollars for his retainer, money she had been hoarding the past year by shaving a couple of dollars off the grocery bill each month.  “That’s all I have right now.”

These were not, despite post-war prosperity, exactly fat times in Charnelle, but Hef Givens was doing well enough.  He did not need to take on this case.  But his own father had been a thief who sometimes savagely beat his mother and him, and then deservedly spent seven years in jail for armed robbery—a time of poverty for Hef and his mother, yet also a period of relative safety and occasional happiness, especially after they moved to Charnelle to live with his grandparents. 

Hef looked at Loretta, an intelligent but sullen woman, and saw in her bruises and resolve a refracted portrait of his own mother’s life.  “Okay, then,” he said, without touching the money.  “Here’s the first order of business.”

She returned home, as Hef Givens instructed her to do, and packed Blue’s personal belongings into two boxes, which she placed on the porch, along with a suitcase filled with his clothes.  She took the children to Carol Lippincott’s house.  Then she called the sheriff and requested that a deputy be sent to escort Blue away when he arrived home. 

 

***

 

The sheriff’s office had already received a call from Hef Givens, and no one there relished this assignment.  They didn’t appreciate domestic situations, since those were often the only dangerous ones in Charnelle.  Not many people were injured with criminal intent in the county unless, experience had taught Sheriff Britwork, they were on the receiving end of a love gone sour.   In 1949, there was very little by way of criminal activity at all in Charnelle, so Sheriff Britwork and his four officers spent most of their time at the Ding Dong Daddy Diner, drinking coffee and munching onion rings, or hanging out at the high school football and basketball games to prevent adolescent brawls, or cruising through Mexican Town to make sure the residents knew that someone was keeping a suspicious eye on them.  There were also no divorces recorded in Charnelle during the previous six years, even if a majority of marriages, by Britwork’s estimation, were not happy ones.  Sometimes a couple would separate temporarily, or a man would run off with a mistress for a while, or a wife would run off with her husband’s best friend, only to return a few days or weeks later.  These incidents seldom resulted in divorce.  Acrimony, certainly, and a malignant resentment.  Sometimes shots were fired or knives wielded or suicides threatened.  But seldom divorce. 

The sheriff sent Fortney Nevers, the pudgy twenty-year-old deputy, out to the Simpson home to oversee the proceedings.  This wasn’t a kind assignment on the part of the sheriff, but Britwork had a root canal performed that very morning—the fourth of what would eventually be six surgeries—and he was not in a generous mood.  He didn’t want to be the one dealing with a marital dispute, especially between Blue and Loretta Simpson.  He had known them since they first moved to Charnelle.  The sheriff and his wife had even played pinochle with the Simpsons a time or two before both couples were besieged by children.  Britwork would now and again shoot a game of pool with Blue at the Armory, but since Blue’s accident a few years ago, the two families seldom saw each other, and that was just fine with the sheriff.  Blue Simpson carried his misfortune and self-pity around like a virus, and the sheriff didn’t want to catch it. 

Besides, it would serve Fortney Nevers right.  The young deputy annoyed the sheriff.  The boy’s fatness was particularly galling to Britwork, a man with the metabolism of a greyhound, who harbored an unreasonable prejudice against the portly. 

“Nevers ain’t old enough,” Britwork once told his other officers, within earshot of the deputy, “to have earned the right to be fat.” 

The sheriff had been forced to hire the twenty-year-old because Fortney’s uncle was the Honorable Cleavis Nevers, the county judge.  Given the irritable mood the root canal had fostered in Britwork, he half-hoped that Blue Simpson might beat the shit out of the young deputy—not badly enough to inflict serious injury, of course, but enough to persuade the pudgy kid to give up on police work.

Months later, at Fortney Nevers’ trial, the sheriff would change his tune.  He would testify that the deputy was a model policeman, and that he was confident Fortney could handle the assignment when he sent him to the Simpsons’ house that day.  The sheriff would tell the court that he was sure the boy had warned Blue Simpson not to take another step, and that he had fired the shot only to scare the man.  The jury would acquit Fortney Nevers, in large part because of their fondness for Hef Givens, who had agreed to represent the young officer, and out of deference to Judge Nevers, who reluctantly recused himself from the case but sat on the front row, directly behind his nephew, and stared solemnly at the jury members, as if issuing his own verdict.  Sheriff Britwork would emerge as the incompetent one, the person in fact most culpable for the tragedy, a courtroom performance that would result in the loss of his job in the next election.  

 

***

 

Fortney arrived at the Simpson home shortly before five-thirty.  Two boxes and a suitcase were sitting ominously on the front porch, and Fortney wished he’d urinated before he left the station because he didn’t want to be stuck inside the Simpson bathroom with his penis in his hand when Mr. Simpson showed up to what would most likely be an unpleasant situation.  Fortney worried about wetting his pants while he was supposed to be officially presiding over a civil separation.  He’d inherited a weak bladder from his father’s side of the family, complicated by a serious kidney infection when he was a boy, and consequently he had to piss eight to ten times a day and often twice during the night.  When he was nervous, he sometimes lost continence, which was not advantageous for a young man, especially a deputy—a predicament that forced him to order double-padded underwear from Montgomery Ward.  This solution minimized but did not entirely eliminate his worry and shame.

 

***

 

Blue was already in a surly mood when he left for home.  His eye itched and watered.  His nostrils had swollen shut during the day, forcing him to breathe through his mouth, and now his throat was raw.  He’d gobbled down aspirin every two hours to diminish the pain of his swollen nose and cheek and the scratches on his face and back, but it didn’t seem to help much.  To make matters worse, he’d had to field the same questions a dozen times from his co-workers about how his face had become mangled. 

He repeated what Loretta had told him—that the dresser had fallen on him while sleeping.  It had knocked him out and broken his nose, maybe busted his cheek.  His co-workers’ arched eyebrows and smirks reinforced the suspicion he’d already had that such an accident was unlikely at best and preposterous at worst.  Moreover, he didn’t have a good excuse for the scratches on his face, not to mention the unseen ones on his back and shoulders, and couldn’t come up with any better story.  He didn’t tell them he’d gone a little nuts himself last night, drunk too much tequila, lost too much shooting pool, and did what he always regretted doing when he drank more than three shots and lost more than twenty dollars.  Nor did he tell them that he didn’t really remember much after that, except that he woke in the morning with his face swollen and aching, his nose broken, his eyes black. 

“That dresser must’ve had some pretty sharp fingernails,” Zeeke Tate said.  The other men snickered in such a way that Blue understood he’d been and would continue to be the butt of jokes for days, maybe weeks, to come.  It didn’t help that, at four o’clock that afternoon, lightheaded and then dizzy, hyperventilating, he’d collapsed on the floor of the shop and had been forced to breathe into a paper bag that Bean Peterson, the foreman, put over his mouth. 

How could the day be any more miserable?  But then he arrived home to find a police cruiser parked on the curb, two boxes and a suitcase on the front porch, the door locked. 

Blue rapped on the door, but no one answered.  He didn’t have his key.  They never locked the house, except when they went for Christmas every other year to Bug Tussle and Honey Grove.  He knocked again and heard footsteps on the other side, but no one answered. 

“Open the damn door,” he said.  

“Take your things and leave,” Loretta answered.

He pressed his cheek, the one that was not bruised, against the door, and could hear his wife breathing on the other side, her face just inches of wood from his. 

“Open it!”

“No.”

“I don’t mind breaking this fucking door down.”  He said this flatly, without malice, which was a kind of victory, though he regretted the profanity.  He didn’t usually swear at his wife unless he’d drunk too much tequila, and he’d sworn off tequila soon after he’d become lightheaded today and found himself on the floor with a paper sack over his face.

The deadbolt was thrown.  He waited a few seconds and then opened the door to find Loretta standing on the other side of the room, near the fireplace. 

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Stay there,” she said.  There wasn’t any alarm in her voice.  In fact, he wondered if this might be an elaborate joke. 

His sinuses throbbed, and he felt again the wooziness he’d experienced just moments before he’d passed out earlier in the day.  He touched his nose.  It felt tender and swollen—and he imagined that it was already turning a darker shade of purple.  Both his good and bad eye began to itch and water, but he knew enough not to scratch that itch.  It would only make things worse.  He blinked a few times to clear his vision.  A chubby boy in a uniform suddenly emerged from the bathroom. 

“Who are you?” Blue asked.

“Deputy Nevers?” the boy said, his voice going up at the end so that his answer sounded like a question. 

“You related to Judge Nevers?”

“I’m his nephew,” Fortney said, almost embarrassed. 

“Get out,” Loretta said.  “This officer will follow you to the Charnelle Inn or wherever you want to go.  But you must leave.  Now.”

“What’re you talking about?”  Though Blue assumed that whatever he’d done last night could not have been good, given the state of his own face and hers, he didn’t expect such immediate nor dire consequences for his actions.  He just wanted, for now, to lie down in his own bed and sleep for about twelve hours. 

“Blue.  Now.”

“Where’re the kids?” 

“Out,” she said.  Blue wasn’t sure if she was referring to the children or issuing him another order.  He breathed deeply through his mouth, having forgotten again, in the confusion of the moment, that this was the only way he could breathe.  Dizziness seemed ready to engulf him. 

“Come with me, Mr. Simpson,” Fortney said nervously.  “I’ll help you load your things.”

“Loretta,” Blue said.  He could hear a whine in his own voice, which surprised and embarrassed him. 

“Go, Blue,” she said, quieter now.  He detected a trace of pity, a tenderness that he thought he might leverage to his advantage. 

“Let’s just you and me have a glass of tea and talk about it.”   He sat down in the chair closest to the door. 

“No, Blue.  You have to go.”

“I don’t feel so good, you know.  It’s been a hard day, Loretta.  I need to rest.” 

“Sir,” Fortney said, “I’m afraid you have to leave.  I’ll help you.”

“You’ll be hearing from Hef Givens in the morning,” Loretta said.

“Hef Givens?”

“My lawyer.”

“Hef?  What do you mean Hef Givens is your lawyer?  Hef is my friend.” 

He remembered suddenly, vividly, the last time he and Hef had gone hunting, both of them squatting in the bushes, the predawn light shrouding them, their breaths misting in the November air, both of them waiting, waiting, waiting for the bucks to appear on the meadow by the lake.  He loved such moments, rare though they were, when he and another man, who also understood the dignity and beauty and suspense of such stillness, crouched together, watching and waiting patiently. 

“It’s over,” she said.

“Come along, sir,” the deputy said, his voice rising again in a way that reminded Blue of Tildon.  Where was Tildon?  Where were the girls?

Fortney put his hand on Blue’s arm, a place where Blue had blistered himself that very day when he dropped the torch as he fell to the concrete floor.  Blue knocked the boy’s hand aside and stood up.

“Mr. Simpson,” Fortney said, unsnapping the button on his holster.  Fortney saw Blue glance down at the front of his pants. A small dark circle growing wider and wider.  The man’s swollen lips seemed to curl with the dismissive contempt Fortney had already put up with his whole damn life.  Blue shoved him aside and took two long strides toward his wife.

Fortney would later swear under oath that he didn’t aim for the man’s back but for the fireplace, though after the trial he would sometimes remember or, in a feverish night sweat, dream it differently, would see his revolver pointed at a spot just below Blue Simpson’s left shoulder blade, would feel again his finger squeezing the slightly oily steel of the trigger. 

It was now dusk, and the lights were not yet on in the house.  Loretta was surprised when her husband moved toward her, suddenly blocking the window.  The shadowy outline of him reminded her of the young man—not even twenty, with a thin fuzz of reddish blond scruff on his chin and jaw—who had charmed her when she was at college in Denton. The night they’d met, Blue was standing on the edge of the dance floor.  He’d offered his hand.  She’d taken it, and he twirled her quickly through a double-time waltz, and she’d smiled, thanked him for the dance and started away, but then the next song began—a slow melancholy number, evocative, lovely—and he’d pulled her close, held her against him, and they’d moved in slow, swaying circles, and then he’d kissed her on the lips, a feather touch. 

As he closed in on her now, she saw, in that split-second, his face clearly.  His left eye disfigured.  She almost thought she could see the filament of steel lodged there—like a tiny jagged flower.  There it was, and then gone.  She heard the sound of the shot, which echoed in the small room and kept ringing in her ears days later.  Then she no longer saw Blue’s features, just his distinct silhouette falling toward her, eclipsing the fading sun.  

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