~This story originally appeared in The Portland Review (2005).
John Holland isn’t sleeping well. Alone in the big white Victorian on Brooks Street, he lies awake in his wide bed, listening to the late crickets, the heat kicking on and off, the old house settling. Often, he’ll get up before sunrise and walk his dog, Zeus, up and down the tree-lined streets of the University neighborhood. In dawn’s quiet blue chill, he’ll pause as kitchen lights pop on, and catch glimpses of neighbors going about their morning routines, cooking eggs in skillets or drinking coffee by the TV.
He’s been asked to stay home from work. There’s a situation with a student at Our Lady of Victory, the girls’ school where he’s taught for over a decade. The student, a sixteen-year-old, is claiming Holland behaved inappropriately during a tutoring session in his office. And while everyone—Lyle McKnight, the principal, Howard Frackas, the Superintendent—says they’re behind Holland, one-hundred percent, they have told him he should keep his distance from the school. McKnight suggested a mile.
It’s Friday, early. Holland is in the kitchen washing his hands and listening to the ch-ch-ch of the McNulty’s sprinklers next door, when the phone rings. He cuts off the water and reaches for a towel. It’ll be McKnight, he’s almost sure—probably wanting to go over the “facts” for what must be the fiftieth time. McKnight or maybe Holland’s wife, Carol. He pauses by the French doors: another gray day outside with storm clouds looming low in the East, over the Rattlesnake. He has nothing new to tell McKnight, and no idea where to even begin with Carol, so he lets the phone ring.
On an eggplant-colored rag rug by the stove, Zeus lies curled in a loose C. Holland squats and runs his palm over the dog’s warm belly, avoiding looking at his head. Zeus is sick—there’s a tumor the size of a gumball over his eye, and though you can’t see them, “trouble spots” on his skull and spine. This is according to Dr. Woo, the vet, who Holland knows through his weekend softball league. After games, some of the players stick around drinking beer, and one Sunday, Woo noticed Zeus’s eye didn’t look right and asked Holland to bring him in for a visit. That was two months ago. Now the tumor protrudes noticeably from the dog’s head, and his whole face, which used to cheer Holland beyond reason, has become misshapen, and frankly, scary.
For the past two weeks, ever since Carol left them, Zeus has been uncharacteristically sullen. Carol’s been staying with her sister’s family on the other side of the valley, “until things go back to normal,” she says, though Holland isn’t at all sure what that means. He can’t remember when things were normal for them, except a vague recollection of the first year or so they were married. Carol used to come home from class and Holland would be in the kitchen, cooking. He remembers how she used to walk up behind him and slip her hands in his pants pockets, lean herself up against his back. But that was a long time ago. Now, Carol spends most of her evenings out of the house, or working on her dissertation in the study with the door closed. They hadn’t made love in months. Still, he can’t blame Zeus for pouting. He misses Carol too—her warm body beside him in bed, the lemon-and-almond smell of her skin cream, and in particular her laugh. But she wasn’t laughing much before she left.
At the counter, he spreads red jam on toast and looks out the window, at Carol’s vegetable garden. She’s probably waking up about now, he can’t help thinking, her thick red hair messy and tangled around her face, which flushes deep pink when she sleeps. Carol sleeps more deeply than any woman Holland has ever known. Sometimes it’s as if she’s not even breathing. Those times, he gets scared and tries to wake her, but even his hand on her shoulder does nothing. Looking down again at Zeus, he feels a churning in his gut. He hasn’t told Carol about the cancer. He just couldn’t bring himself to, at first—Zeus is Carol’s, she found him, raised him from a puppy—and then the business with the school, and now she’s been gone. He leans on the door and looks at the garden. She works like hell at that garden. Even now, with the weather unusually wet for autumn in Montana, he can make out eight, pin-straight rows in the dirt. When—if—she comes back, she’ll lay blue plastic over the whole thing, readying it for the winter.
Just then, two kids burst from the house next door, into the yard. They’re dressed in costumes—he’d forgotten, Halloween is coming. The boy is Superman, the girl some kind of cat. He wishes he could remember their names. It used to be the McNultys, who, he’s heard, have had some hard times, moved to the North Side and are renting. This new family that’s moved in—a young, fit-looking couple with twins—seem perfectly nice, but they’re from New York City, which, as far as Holland’s concerned, may as well be another country. The McNultys had all three of their girls at Victory. They were good kids. He’d taught each one.
Raindrops appear on the deck. Despite the drizzle, the boy and girl climb on the trampoline and begin to jump, shouting some kind of song, or poem. Holland’s watch beeps seven. They’re expected at the vet in less than an hour. He puts his uneaten toast and egg on the floor for Zeus and goes upstairs to dress.
When he’s showered and shaved, pulled on clean khakis and a sweater, he sits on the bed and opens the drawer of the nightstand. In the drawer, there is a gun—an antique Remington .38 he bought himself at the local auction one Christmas. He takes it out and lays it on his thigh. The gun is heavy, pleasingly so, and loaded. Last year, on a backpacking trip with his cousin Mitch in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, he’d shot a grizzly bear, pretty much point blank, with this gun. He had come, accidentally, between the mama bear and her cubs, and she’d come after him, charging from brush like a train. Holland didn’t have to think much—men carried guns into the woods for one reason-- and he’d shot her once, then again, and a third time, all in the left shoulder and chest. The strange part, though, the part that sticks with him, was that the bear didn’t die. She just kind of looked at him, then walked away. She didn’t even seem to be limping.
He surveys the room: in the opposite corner is the wing-backed chair where Carol hangs her nightgowns. One hangs there now, sea-green and silky, almost transparent but not quite. It’s her nicest one, and it seems improbable that she’s left it hanging there by accident. On the far side of the bed, on her nightstand, a hardback book she left lies open, face-down, with a pair of red-framed glasses balanced on top of it. Holland aims the gun at the book and fires twice. His aim is poor: One bullet goes through the book’s front cover, the other into the wall behind the lamp. The glasses, oddly, stay put on the book’s spine. He replaces the gun in the drawer, stands, and calls downstairs for Zeus.
In an alley on the south end of town, by the Clark Fork River, Holland cuts his ignition, turns up his collar and steps into the rain, which comes down now in sheets. He’s parked by a place called Flipper’s, which, according to local lore, was once a brothel. He’s never been inside, but the place is known around town for cheap pitchers and rough clientele; even this early the morning, a neon sign above the door flashes “OPEN.” Two young men in drenched black suits and bolo ties—Mormons, Holland knows—hover nearby looking miserable. Opening the back door, Holland reaches in for Zeus, tugging gently, then with some force, on the leash. He speaks in a voice he hopes is soothing but knows is probably not. “It’s okay, boy,” he lies. “It’s all going to be okay.” The wet Mormons are watching. One shields his eyes from the rain.
Holland drags Zeus up the wet sidewalk, toward the vet’s, where he unclips the leash and uses his knee, now wet also, to force him inside. In the waiting room, he chooses a low, plastic chair from a row of low, plastic chairs beneath a triptych of crude abstract paintings. The room smells of animals and ammonia, which makes sense but is still unpleasant. Wiping water from his face and neck with a tissue, he checks the wall clock; on a regular Friday, he’d be about to go into mass. He removes his glasses and pushes his thumb and forefinger into his eyes until he sees spots. He isn’t Catholic, but he’s always enjoyed Friday mass—the booming organ, the hymns the girls sing with such sweet reluctance, and the streamers of colored light that pour through the stained-glass windows and pool up in crazy patterns on the chapel’s polished-floor.
The girl’s name is Janelle Mahoney. She is almost as tall as Holland, and pretty in an athletic way. She rows crew for the school team, and she’s been one of his favorite students since last fall, when she took his class as a junior. This is no secret, that he likes her. She’d asked if he could help her with an Advanced Placement American History class she was taking and of course he’d said yes, which now, in retrospect, was perhaps his mistake. But he hadn’t touched her, nor she him. He hadn’t said anything outrageous or inappropriate, or even unusual—he’s gone over all of this many times is his head. They were working on an essay she was writing on John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. She was interested in John Brown’s psychology. Was he a lunatic or a visionary? Self-serving or selfless? She had an outline, with important points highlighted in blue. It always made him happy, and a little sad, to see such energy in his students. She was smart, and curious. And she listened hard to what he said. And she was pretty. Her knees were bare. It was the height of autumn. Outside, in the late afternoon, leaves fell from the sugar maples in steady streams of red and gold.
He picks up an old copy of National Geographic and opens it in the middle, to a piece about Eskimos. The photographs are mostly of water—snow and ice, everything blue and silver. He begins to read. Eskimos, or Inuits, the article explains, take multiple wives, some as young as eleven. They sleep twelve to sixteen hours a night, and they don’t celebrate birthdays at all, they celebrate funerals. They see death as a triumph over the body, a reward for suffering through life. Holland likes this idea. He goes on reading: They tie their dead, it says, to hollowed-out-tree canoes full of food and liquor and supplies. Then they light the whole boat on fire, and push it off to sea. Turning the pages, he finds himself thinking about Carol; before, he’s always been the one to leave. Closing the magazine, a surge of loneliness wells up suddenly in his throat, and he has to cough to force it back down.
Finally, a gray-haired nurse is leaning over him, touching his shoulder. She says she’s been calling his name, that Dr. Woo will see them now. Holland rises and yanks on the leash. “Okay, boy,” he says. “It’s showtime.” Zeus won’t walk, though, or even really stand up. Holland tries to soothe him, but he won’t budge, and he finds himself dragging the dog roughly down the tiled corridor by the collar, sliding his hind legs along the shiny, tiled floor.
In the exam room, he helps the nurse lift Zeus onto a metal table, and Woo appears, just as they finish, with a syringe in one hand. Holland wonders if Woo has heard of his recent troubles—and if so, what he thinks. But Woo is jovial, holding the syringe in the air and studying the dog. “A little tranquilizer, bud?” he says, then sticks the needle deep into Zeus’s left shoulder, looking up at Holland as the dog’s breathing becomes slow and even. “You know, kids these days are taking this stuff for fun?”
Holland doesn’t answer. Being tranquilized does sound something like fun.
Once Zeus appears thoroughly sedated, Woo explains the procedure: they will shave, cut, scrape, etc., until the cancer is gone. “Then we’ll cross our fingers.”
“Did you know cancer smells bad?” Woo asks.
Woo shrugs. “People often find that fact interesting.”
Holland watches Zeus’s ribcage rise and fall. Woo lays a gloved hand over one of Zeus’s paws and says Holland can go: they’ll be an hour or two at least, depending on what they find.
Outside, the rain hasn’t stopped; it soaks the thighs of Holland’s trousers and slides down his cheeks like tears. “Goddammit,” he says aloud. He ducks into the dark doorway of Flipper’s and watches the rain fall on cars and the street. He watches it roll down dark windows and drip from fire escapes. Zeus will die from this; he knows it. Zeus will die and he will have to tell Carol, and Carol will blame him, and though she may not say it aloud, she’ll view the death as both a reflection and a confirmation of some core rot deep in Holland’s being. And in a way, he knows, she’ll be right. The rain has penetrated his jacket collar and is trickling down his back.
Shivering, he pushes against the metal door beneath the Flipper’s sign; it’s heavy, but unlocked, and when he steps inside and down a short flight of stairs, he finds himself in a dimly lit bar with a fake wood dance floor, metal stools, video games, and flashing Christmas lights strung up along one wall. Heavy red curtains obscure a row of high windows, looking out onto what he figures must be Front Street. He blinks in the near-dark and shakes his jacket off, glad at least to be out of the rain.
The bartender is a skinny kid who looks young enough to be Holland’s son. He nods curtly as Holland selects a stool, then again when he orders a double bourbon, neat. With the drink before him on the bar, Holland sets his jacket down and looks around. There are a few other patrons—mineworkers, he supposes, from how their clothes and faces are smeared with black—just off an overnight shift in one of the mines. They are playing some kind of card game, and there are two pitchers of pale beer in the center of the table. Holland’s father worked in a mine for forty years—one of the huge copper operations up by Phillipsburg, and when that closed down it was molybdenum, also outside Butte. He’s dead now. He’s been dead almost seven years. Holland thinks of his dad sometimes (less, admittedly, each year), but feels alarmingly little when he does—alarming, because when he was alive they really enjoyed each other’s company. Even when his dad was dying, they used to sit on the porch after sundown, smoking pot and counting cars, listening to reggae.
A man in a Raiders jacket raises his beer in Holland’s direction, and Holland realizes he’s been staring. He returns the gesture, then turns away.
By the time he’s finished the drink, a girl has replaced the bartender and is putting glasses on a shelf with her back to him. He clears his throat so she’ll turn around, and when she does, he sees that he knows her. She’s one of the McNulty girls—the eldest: Marly? Marie?
“Maureen?” he says.
She nods quickly. “Maureen’s my sister. I’m Lilly. You’re Mr. Holland.” She does not seem surprised to see him.
“I didn’t know you worked here,” he manages.
“Part-time,” she says. Her dull yellow hair is cut bluntly across her forehead, and the rest is pulled back in a ponytail. She has silver bracelets stacked halfway up one bony arm, which she sticks into a tub of gray water as she speaks. “Just for the fall. In the winter, we’ll see.”
Holland nods. She looks so different: older? He does some math in his head—she must be twenty-one, maybe twenty-two, by now. He tries to recall the vague news he’s heard about her family—was it Carol who’d delivered it? She’s always saying he doesn’t listen to anything she says. He glances around the place. “You must make some good tips.”
“It’s money,” Lilly says, shrugging and drying her hands on her jeans, which are dark blue and sit low on her hips. She turns her back to him. She has a tattoo, he can see—a string of Asian characters across the small of her back. She takes the Maker’s bottle from the shelf and refills his glass. A gold-colored aluminum ashtray sits on the bar in front of him. He touches it with his finger.
“So what brings you here?” Lilly McNulty says. She’s poured herself a ginger ale and come around the bar, arranging herself crossed-legged on the stool beside him. She puts a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in front of her and leans on one elbow.
He shrugs. “Zeus is at the vet. It’s just up the street.” He wonders if she’s heard about what’s happened at school, too.
“Zeus!” she says. A smile crosses her face, and she looks suddenly more familiar to Holland. She looks pretty. Then she frowns. “I remember Zeus.”
“You and your sisters used to chase him around the yard. You were such terrors.” He smiles. “Once you locked him in the shed with your cat.”
“I know.” She smiles again, a sweet, shy smile. “I feel awful about that. We tortured that poor dog.” She pauses, fumbling with a ring on her finger. It’s shaped like a skull, with tiny red stones for eyes.
“It’s okay,” he says. “You were kids. And he probably liked the attention.” They are quiet. The Keno machines along the walls bleep and ring, their colored lights flash and beckon. Holland wants her to stay, but doesn’t know how to see that she does.
“So I’m in medical school now,” she says, leaning her chin on one hand.
“You don’t say.” He doesn’t believe her. She is smoking, for one thing, and she’s too thin. Her collarbones look as if they might come right through her skin. Medical students would take better care of themselves. Wouldn’t they? He tries to remember what she was like at Victory. The older sister, Maureen, he remembers, was a troublemaker, something to do with the chemistry lab. But Lilly—he can’t pull up much about Lilly. He wonders if she’s gotten into drugs.
“I want to be a pediatrician,” she says, sipping her drink. “But I have a long way to go.”
Again, Holland doesn’t know what to say. “Medical school’s a long endeavor. But certainly a worthwhile one,” he says. “Your family must be impressed—your parents. How are they?”
She looks at her glass. “My mother’s dying,” she said. There is no emotion apparent on her face or in her voice.
“Jesus. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know she was, well, sick. Carol never—”
“She is,” Lilly said. “Sick. She has this rare blood disorder, where her body begins rejecting its own organs.” She takes another swallow of her drink. “She’s had it forever, but it only became acute recently.”
“God,” he says, swallowing. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
Lilly nods. “She’s in Mexico right now, doing a quack treatment where they only feed you raw food, things like cactus juice. My sister went with her. They’re way into it.” Her cigarette is almost gone and she stubs it out.
“That’s good,” Holland says. “So you’re hopeful?”
She shrugs. “My family is. They all keep saying ‘she’ll beat this.’ I don’t know. I guess that’s a bad part of my education. I know a lot about the body, even after one year. And about diseases.” She pauses. “It makes it hard to be hopeful.”
“I don’t think that’s education,” he says. He has the urge to touch her hand, which is curled on her knee. “I think it’s just how some people are. Some people just know too much from the beginning. That it is hard to be hopeful.” He’d hoped to comfort her, but she looks as if she might get up to go. He grips his glass.
“Hey,” she says suddenly, brushing his elbow with hers. “Did you know there’s a swimming pool in the basement, here?” She drums her fingers on the bar and nods. “From when the place was a club. They say it’s spring-fed with warm water, and there’s an Italian-tile mosaic on the bottom.”
Holland, glad she’s changed the subject, nods too. “I’ve heard that. And something about a secret tunnel?”
“They say there’s a tunnel that goes under the river and comes up in all of the old mansions,” she says. “They’d bring girls in for parties.” She blows her bangs from her eyes.
“I’d pay money to see that,” he says, swallowing his double shot. Lilly’s finished her drink too. She kneels on her stool and leans over the bar for the bourbon bottle.
“I remember one day in your class,” she says thoughtfully, filling both their glasses. Her shirt has slid to one side, and he can see the sky-blue strap of her bra. “The Renaissance. It was March, snowing outside. You turned out the lights and opened the windows and played Wagner, really loud, on that old record player. The wind was coming in, and snowflakes, papers, stuff blowing all around. You didn’t even care. You said, Do you hear this, girls. Do you hear this?” She swivels back around and sits, poking at the ice in her drink with one finger.
He hasn’t thought about that day in ages: it was when Carol had thought she was pregnant, and then found out she wasn’t—some cruel trick the female body can play on you, where sperm fertilizes an egg, and the body sets about nurturing it, but it turns out there’s nothing inside this egg, no genetic material, none of the necessary proteins, just a lot of goo and swelling—a “ghost pregnancy,” the doctor had called it. It was strange, though, Carol had seemed so pregnant. She’d gained almost ten pounds before they found out she wasn’t, and she had sworn she could feel a tiny heartbeat inside her despite the doctors saying that was impossible. When they finally discovered the situation, well it was as if something had died; it was brutal. He remembers how the house felt cold, though the heat was turned up to eighty. He remembers Carol crying over something she was cooking on the stove. “I never had any kids,” he says suddenly. “We never did.”
“Come on.” Lilly is smiling. Her smile is radiant. “What are you? Like thirty-five? What are you talking about, never?”
But he shakes his head. He means never. Carol won’t even share a house with him these days, much less his bed. And the truth is he’s not even sure he wants her to. Something did die between them, though now he knows it probably only began with the ghost baby. “I’m forty-two,” he says. He looks up for her reaction, but she appears unfazed. “It’s okay. I didn’t think it would be, not to have any kids, but it is. I mean, my life is nothing like I’d have thought it would be. But it’s okay.”
She leans in a little, towards him. “You mean the stuff that’s going on with the school? With the Mahoney girl?”
“That,” he says, looking at his glass. Part of him feels ashamed and another part, defiant. “Well yes, there is that.”
“Huh,” she says, shrugging and lighting a cigarette. “It’ll work itself out. Things tend to work themselves out, one way or another.” She looks right at him as she says this, and continues looking at him once she’s stopped talking. Then she looks away, sitting up and straightening her shoulders.
It’s then that Holland reaches for her; before he lets himself decide not to, he puts his hand on her cheek. When she doesn’t pull away, he spreads his fingers over her face, and traces with his thumb the line of her jaw all the way to her ear, which is small and clean and full of small, silver hoops. He touches each one while she sits there, so still, like the stone carvings of girls in his textbooks, or on the walls of a church. He lets go, and she sits back and smiles and uncrosses her legs. She’s wearing big black boots with chains around the ankles. Her knee brushes his. She puts her hand on his arm. It’s been weeks since anyone’s touched him. The room is a pleasant blur of bourbon and smoke and blinking green lights. Though he knows he should not, he turns her face toward him, leans in, and kisses her mouth. Warmth fills his chest like strong medicine, like an elixir.
The miners are watching, he can feel their eyes on his back. So what? He runs his hands along her ribs, down one side of her abdomen, to the small hollow between her hip and belly. With two fingers he undoes the top button of her jeans. Her skin there is softer than he’d have thought skin could be. “Jesus,” he says, pressing his forehead into her neck. She says, “It’s okay.”
Then he opens his eyes. In the mirror behind the bar, he sees them: her ponytail, her delicate shoulder blades, her thin cotton shirt. And he sees himself—his big hands, his face like a wolf’s, and he feels something breaking up inside, tearing him down the middle. He stiffens and pushes away.
“What’s wrong?” she says.
“Nothing, I—” He knows he should say something, anything, but he can’t think of what.
She sits up. “I probably should get back to work.”
“I understand,” he says.
“You do? I don’t.” She’s looking down, buttoning up her pants. “I really am in medical school,” she says to the floor.
“Of course you are.” He feels a little sick. He takes his wallet from his pocket, fishes a fifty from it, and holds it out to her. “You should probably take this.”
She looks at the bill. “What for?”
He shrugs. “Books?
“Books?” She shakes her head and makes a small, coarse sound. “No thanks, Mr. Holland. I have all the ‘books’ I need.”
“Hey,” he says. “Please.” But it’s clear he’s upset her. He reaches for her arm but she stands. “The new people in your house,” he says, “they’re nothing like you. They’re from New York.” He’s almost pleading. He catches her elbow. “I’m sorry about your mom,” he says quietly. “I really am.”
“Forget it,” she says, pulling away.
In the men’s room, he turns on the hot water and washes his hands and face. He works up a thick lather and scrubs and scrubs. He thinks about Janelle Mahoney. It isn’t true that nothing happened that day in his office—plenty happened. He’d been about to burst with all that was happening. He’d wanted her so badly—he would have ingested her if he could. And it wasn’t just Janelle; it was all of them—“inappropriate behavior” was a grave understatement. Janelle knew it, and he knew it, and Carol probably knew it too. They were right to send him away, he thinks, only they should have sent him farther. He doesn’t even bother to rinse all the soap from his hands. He leaves money on the bar, balls his jacket under his arm, and steps back into the rain.
The nurse at the vet says she’s been trying to reach him for over an hour, and does he really not have a mobile phone in this, the twenty-first century? The news, as Holland knew it would be, is bad.
“I’ll take him home,” he says. “Where do I pay?”
The nurse says they want to keep Zeus there, at the office. They want to give him an injection, one she says won’t hurt. “He’ll just drift off,” she says.
“I’m going to have to take him home,” Holland says again. His hand is in a fist in his pocket. “I’m going to have to insist.”
She shakes her head while he signs papers, and two attendants wheel Zeus out on a kind of butcher’s block, with padding on its floor and sides. He’s been sedated, and is sleeping heavily on one side. His head has been shaved and there is a bandage over his bad eye. He hardly even looks like a dog anymore. Holland picks him up and carries him in his arms, like a child, through the rain.
He takes the long way back, looping south around the mountain, by the school. The river flows deep and green through Blackfoot Canyon; red cliffs rise sharply on either side of the road, which is lost for the day in shadow. He rolls down his window. The air there, in the canyon, has its own peculiar chill. Leaving the highway, he weaves his way down the valley to the bottom of Victory’s gravel drive and passes through the gate. Classes are almost through for the day, he knows, and the girls will soon be scattering to their various sports, or music lessons, debate clubs. He drives by the soggy fields, the dripping, familiar buildings. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, and in a few spots, the late-afternoon sun is pressing through the clouds. He stops by the chapel and lets the car idle in front of the big wooden doors. In the changing light, the stone steps look like liquid. He studies the carved figures in the limestone frieze above the doors. There is a bird’s nest tucked high up in one of the corners, by St. Paul. A small bird, a sparrow perhaps, does an awkward, jumping dance, arranging itself in the nest. When it disappears from sight, he engages the emergency break, cuts the ignition, and gets out of the car.
“You’ve been drinking,” is the first thing McKnight says. He offers Holland coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
“A little,” Holland says. He takes the coffee. The cup bends and bows in his hand. He places it on a shelf by the door. “I need to say some things.”
“I’ve been calling,” McKnight says. “I thought we had an agreement.” He ushers Holland inside the office, into a seat, and glances into the hallway. He’s a large man, pushing three hundred pounds perhaps, and his pants gather awkwardly around the groin when he walks. He shuts the door and sits down at his desk.
Holland says, “We did. But I changed my mind.” He looks outside; the rain has almost stopped, and small clusters of girls wait on the stone steps for their rides. His palms are damp, and his heart thumps softly against the wall of his chest. “Lyle,” he says. “I’m through here.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” McKnight says, heaving himself forward and leaning over the desk. “You haven’t even been accused of anything, yet, John. Not officially.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters. We have a whole set of procedures for this kind of thing. They’re designed to achieve optimum fairness for all parties involved. We—”
“Cut it out Lyle, please. The point is I’m through.”
“But you’re one of the old favorites, a standby. The girls love you. The parents—
“Lyle. I’ll say this once more, slowly so you can—”
McKnight interrupts: “Let’s back up a minute, John. I know this has been hard. These things are ugly. And Carol – Nancy told me about Carol. But nothing’s written in stone.” His face is red. He stops to take a breath. “And you’re a good teacher, a solid teacher. Leaving here isn’t going to solve anything. In fact, leaving just makes you look, makes us all look—” He pauses.
McKnight sighs and shakes his head. “I’m on your side here. Just give me a few days. We should have made some progress—”
Holland stands up. “Take care of yourself, Lyle.”
“But you didn’t do anything,” he says weakly. “A cow is not a horse.” He shrugs. “My old man used to say that.”
“A cow is not a horse,” Holland says. “That’s exactly right.” And then he leaves.
Driving home, Holland breaks the law. He neglects to wear his seat belt, and he keeps the speedometer hovering around ninety. The afternoon sun is low and gold and he squints against the light bouncing off the slow autumn river.
Passing the put-in at Three Forks, he remembers fishing there as a boy, with his dad. Holland had always been a timid, and hence poor, fisherman, but there was one August afternoon on the Blackfoot, he wasn’t: as his father instructed, Holland waited for the silver flash, then cast slowly, carefully. Amazingly, the big rainbow bit, and Holland reeled it in. He can still recall the weight of it on his line, the sun like a gold skin on the water, the miracle of holding the big fish in his hands.
Pulling off the highway and onto Orange Street, then into his own empty driveway, he feels a stab of loneliness—not for Carol, or for his life as it might have been, or even for his ghost baby, but for the sort of summer afternoon that seems to have ceased existing years ago, and for his youth, which seems to have receded so far into the past that, closing the garage, he has to wonder if any of it ever happened at all. He lifts Zeus as gently as he can from the back of the car, and knocks the side door of his house open with his foot.
Inside, the answering machine light in the kitchen is blinking. He lays Zeus down on the sofa and goes upstairs for his gun. Outside, he piles up tree branches and plywood from the shed, some loose lumber and a couple of old tires. On top of that, he stacks two pillows and a blanket, and arranges them into a rough bed. He scoops Zeus up in his arms, carries him outside, and lays him gently on the pile. He looks up at the sky: where did the day go? Bats dart among the tree branches, swoop wildly through the yard. He says the 23rd Psalm because he knows it by heart, and he likes it. He likes the part that says, “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Then he holds the gun to Zeus’s head and pulls the trigger.
Zeus barely flinches. Almost immediately, blood appears in a neat circle and spreads out, evenly, through his white fur. His breathing is rough, and for a moment Holland stands still, unable to move. His arms feel like sacks of sand he’s been hauling around for no reason. He looks up again: the moon is fat and white over the McNulty’s garage. He checks the gun’s chamber and shoots the dog once more, again in the skull, and then a third time, behind the ear. Killing Zeus is not the worst thing he’s done. It’s not even close.
Zeus is no longer breathing. Holland covers him with the blanket and pours gasoline from a metal can onto the entire heap. Stepping back, he throws down a match. The flames billow magnificently—full of wild colors he’s rarely noticed before in fire, like purple and gold and green. The heat presses onto his face and chest, and he steps back and begins to dig. When he’s dug a ditch a foot deep all the way around the fire, he is soaked in sweat. He feels almost good. The October air has an edge to it. Soon there will be snow in the mountains. He sticks the shovel in the dirt, throws his gloves on the ground, and goes inside.
Later, when the fire has burnt itself out, Holland stands in the glare of the open refrigerator and drinks white wine from the bottle. When it’s gone, he takes a can of sardines from the cupboard, opens it, and sits down at the kitchen table to eat. The house is quiet: the only sounds are the refrigerator humming, the big ship’s clock ticking away in the den, and inside Holland’s own mouth, the loud crunch of a thousand tiny bones, breaking.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I’m never very good at knowing—much less talking about—where my stories come from. In the case of Holland Breaks the Law, the most I can say is that I fleshed out a couple of images that had been hanging out in my imagination for years. One was of a history teacher I had in high school, a wonderful teacher; one afternoon he played Wagner for us, on an ancient turntable, and as the music came up he just started weeping, right there, in front of fifteen astonished sixteen-year-old girls. The second was the death of my childhood dog, from cancer—an event I only knew about second-hand, from my mother, who described holding Katie on the table, and how confused she looked, and how guilty my mother felt, watching the doctor administer the shot. Somehow, these two deeply affecting moments found a home in the character of John Holland.
ABOUT EMILY JEANNE MILLER
Emily Jeanne Miller’s first novel, Brand New Human Being, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2012. She currently lives in Washington, DC, where she was born and raised. You can find her at www.emilyjeannemiller.com
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