We were Mary and Joseph in the Christmas play in 1983. We were eight years old. That followed us around, until he left for a new school at the end of 6th grade. I didn’t usually speak to boys at school. It wasn’t a deliberate decision on my part, just custom. But he used to call me “Mary”. When he passed me in a corridor he used to say “Howdy Mary” and it was quiet, muttered, and in a cowboy drawl, for some reason. I would echo, “Howdy Joseph”, in that same accent.
That was as far as it went. He left school unexpectedly. His parents split up and he went to live with his Mom and grandparents in Wisconsin and he never came back.
I don’t know how I recognized him. I scrutinized people now and maybe that was what it came down to. His child, white-blonde hair had turned dark. It might have been something in his face or the way he held himself.
He was in Safeway, pushing a cart, tossing things into it and barely glancing at the items, as if he only needed his peripheral vision to perceive the color, the shape. But he stopped at the cereal. He was holding a box in two hands and reading the back closely.
He looked up startled.
“Leigh. Leigh Harper. We went to St Catherine Elementary together.” I smiled. “I was Mary?”
He stared. “Fuck. Mary. Hi.”
I held my hand out to him. He took it but leaned in and kissed my cheek. He stepped back and folded his arms high across his chest.
“Do I still resemble 6th grade Jack Sheppard?”
“I don’t know how I picked it. You don’t. Look like a child, I mean.”
He smiled and his eyes cut across me in three sweeps from head to foot, including my left hand to check for a ring. He might have thought I didn’t notice, or he didn’t care if I did.
“So what are you doing here in Ohio? In Greenville?” I said.
He shrugged. “I’ve been living here for two years.”
I was flummoxed. “Really?”
“Not in town. On a property. About ten miles away.” He couldn’t seem to stop smiling at me. “I can’t believe it. Leigh Harper. What are you doing here?”
“I moved back. A while ago,” I said, not mentioning when, or why.
“Something about this place, isn’t there?”
“You can say that again.”
His hand fell on my arm. “Are you okay? What did I say?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leigh. You’re crying.”
“Oh.” I swiped at my eyes. “It’s nothing. I was just thinking about being Mary.”
He was perplexed. “The mother of Christ?”
“No, an eight year old girl.”
He glanced at his cart.
“I’ll let you go,” I said.
“No, don’t. Did you want to get a coffee?”
We bought our groceries. There was only one checkout operator so I went first and he followed. To an observer, we could have been buying our groceries together. We very much weren’t. Jack leaned against the belt and watched my things go through. My single portions of frozen food, small tins of tuna and the solitary pieces of fruit probably told him everything he needed to know. No Family Sized boxes here. And there was a packet of tampons that I had tried to hide behind the milk. They were left until last by the operator and she waved them through almost with a flourish.
I stood at the plate glass window, between the exit and the gumball machine, waiting for him to finish. It was awkward. We had nothing to say to each other. I thought about rushing over to tell him I had forgotten an appointment, but that would have been humiliatingly obvious. So I waited. Jack opened a large bottle of orange juice that had just been scanned and drank from it, and if I didn’t know it before, I knew then that he was also alone.
I shut my eyes. The sunlight coming through the glass was hot on my back and grew more intense. When I opened my eyes again he was coming towards me, carrying his shopping bags, showing the ropes of blue veins running down his arms.
“How very domestic of us,” he said, and shifted the bags into one hand. His other hand landed on my shoulder as we left the store. It burned through my blouse.
There was only one coffee shop, so we went there. We slid into a booth seat, opposite each other, our shopping bags on the floor beneath us.
He folded his arms on the table.
“So, Mary. What’s been happening since 6th grade?”
“How to account for 27 years?”
And it felt sad, saying that number.
“Well, let’s start with the last ten minutes. Why were you crying in Safeway?”
“Who wouldn’t cry in Safeway?”
He smiled. “You’re right. The fluorescent light. Guns N’ Roses playing November Rain. It’s enough to upset anyone.”
He seemed to wait for a response when I had no intention of giving one.
“And don’t say you’re still getting over the death of our son, because we both knew that was coming from day one,” he said.
“That’s better,” he said.
“A laugh. A smile. Your laugh and smile.”
I didn’t know why he was flirting with me. Maybe it was his default.
He sat back in his chair, sat right back, so that he slouched. He could have been a teenager again. We both could have been – the waitress came to our table and he ordered a shake and I did the same.
“You bought ice cream at the store, didn’t you? It might melt?” I said.
“It’ll have so many chemicals in it, Leigh. It’ll keep.” He smiled. “Anyway, you don’t get out of it that easily.”
“You. The last 27 years.”
“You start,” I said.
He straightened and glanced out the window beside us and back at me. He pulled a face. He laughed. “It’s been really ordinary, Leigh. I stuffed up at the beginning. Married too young. Got divorced, thank Christ.” He shrugged. “Then I went to college and got myself a good job in advertising. A really good job. And after 13 years, I left it. I walked out.”
He laughed. “I know, right? I couldn’t do it anymore. I forgot who I was.”
“And then you bought a farm.”
“Yeah. Then I bought a farm.” He smiled. “And now, if nothing else, I know I’m not a farmer. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
“I guess there’s the internet.”
“Yeah. Google. How do you build a fence? How do you keep the foxes out and the chickens in?”
“So why did you move back to this place? Didn’t you move to Wisconsin?”
He watched me. “You have a good memory. Yes, I did. But my heart was right here, 100 miles from Columbus and 100 miles from Cincinnati. In the middle of nowhere.”
“The part of me that I remembered best. Jack as a child. Jack plays Joseph in the school play. That Jack.”
“He was lovely.”
“You think so?”
“I thought you were the bee’s knees.”
He laughed. “I know.”
“It was obvious?”
“I’ve made you blush. Yes. It was. Very cute.”
The waitress brought us our shakes and we were both quiet for a while.
“I live in a backyard cottage behind my parent’s house,” I said. “I moved back a year ago after my marriage ended.”
He opened his mouth and closed it again.
“I got caught up in an armed robbery,” I said. “It was at a bank in Cleveland where I was the assistant manager.”
I almost said it: They put the shotgun in my mouth. They killed the teller right in front of me. His name was David.
“I’ve been medically retired. That’s what they call it.”
“I’m sorry, Leigh.”
I held him as he died in my arms, clutching his chest and crying for his Mom. He looked a bit like you.
“So that’s why I was crying in Safeway. I cry.”
I saw his intake of breath and imagined his ice cream melting at our feet, everything melting away. He could have picked up his bags and just walked out, but he sat there, watching me.
Maybe every man under 40 looked a bit like David – the archetypal man on the battlefield, dying, young.
“Anyway,” I said and slurped my shake.
“Yeah. Anyway,” he said and I heard the irony.
He reached across the table and took a piece of my hair in his hand.
“We should have stayed Mary and Joseph, you and me,” he said.
I wanted to ask him, where were you when I was being pushed down onto my knees? The chief detective told me I was lucky, being a woman and all. It could have been much worse. And I couldn’t believe that he thought he needed to tell me that. As if I hadn’t stared at evil and felt such immense gratitude for the mercy it showed, ultimately. He pulled the gun out of my mouth, laughed at me pissing myself, and left me alone. Then he killed David in front of me, just for the fucking fun of it. And I wanted to ask that detective, where were you?
In the Christmas play, Jesus was six month old Isabelle Weiss, our neighbour. Her parents still live in the same house, beside my parents and beside me too now. Isabelle has three children, Mom told me, and she wouldn’t have wanted me to hear it, but I did – her very personal sadness. It ended with me, all of it. All of that love sunk into a 39 year old daughter living with her parents in their backyard cottage and her life, retrospective, lost.
My parents were in the backyard when I came down the side path of the house – the only way to access the cottage. Mom was pruning and Dad was painting the porch balustrade. They did this on the few occasions I went out, both of them in the yard, not wanting me to sidestep them inside the house. They smiled at me in an overly casual way, their eyes falling on the shopping bag I was carrying and seeing the day’s triumph there.
“Have a nice time?” Mom said.
As if I had been to a party rather than the store.
“You were gone a while,” Dad said.
Mom looked at him. “Not that we were keeping tabs or anything.”
I felt sorry for them – falling over themselves. I didn’t tell them about Jack. It would have just made me sadder seeing them grasping for signs, that I was okay, that I wasn’t going to top myself.
“I’ll come by later and color your hair? After your call with Dr Zimmermann at 3?” Mom called after me as I walked to the cottage.
She was reminding me that my roots needed doing, that I had an appointment with my therapist in half an hour, and that she would be there for me after the therapy session if I wanted to talk. I wouldn’t.
My hair went white after the robbery, just white. I knew of a woman who was in a horrific train crash and that happened to her. It happened to me. Mom colored my hair to make it the red it once was. She said that I should go blonde; it’s easier with the roots. Then she apologized, because she must have seen my face and realized that I needed to stay red. I needed one thing to stay the same.
I could have gone to the hairdresser, but I liked that Mom did it for me, her hands in my hair as she painted it, bit by bit. At the end, she would sit me on a chair in the kitchenette to dry my hair and pull the comb down the crown of my head, drawing a part, just as she used to do when I was a child.
Twice a week I had therapy, on Skype. I had to supply the tissues. There was no therapist in this town and, in any case, I was referred early on to a trauma specialist – what a thing to specialize in. Dr Zimmerman’s rooms were in Columbus. My compensation money paid for the sessions. There was a lot of that money, for a likely lifetime in which I would be unemployable.
I switched on the computer and stared at it for a while before Dr Zimmerman’s face loomed, lit with blue glare. I sat back in my chair. I seemed to do that a lot during our calls.
“Leigh. Come nearer to the camera,” she said. “You’ve fallen out of view.”
I sat up straighter and pulled my chair closer to the screen. If I was in the same room as her I would probably stay quiet, but a Skype call seemed to require dialogue, for fear of the connection failing.
Are you still there, Leigh?
I’m still here.
“So. How have you been since we spoke on Tuesday?” she said.
“It’s the same problem. I cannot get the taste of the gun out of my mouth.”
She watched me impassively.
“I brush my teeth and scrape my tongue all the time and nothing gets rid of it.”
She nodded. “Tell me what it tastes like.”
Where were you?
Jack rang me the next day and invited me out for a drink that evening.
“I don’t really go out much,” I said.
“So you’re free.”
“I wouldn’t be comfortable in a bar.”
“Oh. Of course,” he said, his voice fading.
“No. It’s not of course. It’s completely reasonable that you would think I could sit in a bar. But I can’t.”
“I could come to your place?” he said.
“God. No. Parents.” I paused. “I’ll come to yours?”
There was a beat before he said, “Sure. Just a drink, now, Leigh.”
And I laughed.
Jack walked towards the car as I pulled up. There was a Golden Retriever at his heels. When I got out, Jack took my elbow and kissed my cheek.
“You look pretty,” he said.
I was overdressed. I knew it even as I put on the dress and pumps, makeup, and earrings. Those preparations sent me back to a time before I married, when there was a transformation that finished with pumps and lipstick. And tonight I didn’t know whether these things were to entice or fortify, or both. He was wearing jeans and t-shirt, like a normal person.
The dog leapt onto the front of my dress. It startled and moved me at the same time. Jack pulled him away and my heart was too full to ask him not to.
I handed Jack the bottle of wine I brought. It was from Mom and Dad’s stash; the liquor store was well beyond contemplation. And Dad saw it – me in the dining room, crouched in front of the wine rack in the sideboard, wearing a dress with my hair up.
Dad came over and pulled from the rack a bottle of his treasured favourite, Zinfandel, and gave it to me.
“That’s a nice drop. Take that one,” he said.
I tried to give it back. “I can’t take this.”
I smiled. “Thanks Dad.”
I knew he wanted to ask me where I was going, but he didn’t. After the robbery and after my marriage ended a couple of months later, Dad built the backyard cottage within a week and had it fitted, painted, carpeted. He wanted me to come home. And I did. I wanted to come home.
“Have a good time,” Dad said, very quietly.
He squeezed my shoulder, the knuckle of bone there. And smiling unsteadily, as if he was between about three different emotions, he left the room. After I moved back home, he sold his semi-trailer. He didn’t go on the road anymore. Sometimes his watchfulness made me think of an old guard dog, patrolling the perimeter.
Now, Jack studied the bottle of wine. “Wow. I should have bought a nicer pie.”
Jack’s house was a little, brown, clapboard in the midst of fields. There were no neighbouring houses. The smallness and isolation of the house emphasised the size of the land. It was vast.
He must have seen me calculating. “300 acres. I don’t know what to do with it.” He laughed. “I just wanted space.”
“Well. You’ve got space.”
We walked to the house. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and again I thought of the teenage Jack and what I had missed.
“I should have warned you that it’s pretty humble,” he said.
I didn’t tell him that I needed it to be humble. He opened the screen door for me. The dog stayed outside.
We walked down the hallway, past a bedroom where the bed was covered in what appeared to be a blue picnic blanket. I wanted to walk in there with him, lie down next to him, put my head on his chest and hear his heart booming, feel it thump against my cheek.
We kept going.
The place had a just tidied feel. I could smell cleaning fluid. In the kitchen, dishes were draining on a dishcloth beside the sink. Something was cooking in the oven.
“You didn’t have to do the dishes for me,” I said.
He laughed. “I did, actually.”
“And you didn’t have to cook.”
“I didn’t. It’s only a pot pie from the bakery.”
Jack poured the wine and just smelt it. That’s when I saw the advertising executive.
“Jesus Christ.” That was all he said.
“Dad gave it to me. I think he was so happy to see me going out, he couldn’t help but part with it.”
Jack led us to the back porch where there was a rug covered couch. I would have preferred a hard backed kitchen chair. But who was I kidding? When I sat down, my dress rode up my legs and I didn’t try and pull it down. I liked that his gaze stayed on my thighs for a moment before moving to my face. He smiled, close-lipped, caught out.
“You are very, very pretty,” he said.
I took a big drink.
“So now you’d rather be uncomfortable in a bar?” he said.
I shook my head. “No, I’d rather be having dinner with my parents trying to not listen to them eat.”
“It’s strange that I haven’t seen you in town before,” he said and the last word was being spoken when he blinked slowly. “Or maybe it’s not strange.”
“Yes. It’s not strange.”
He was silent for a while, for such a time that I wasn’t sure if he would speak again. And I knew the answer to my question before I asked it.
“So you Googled me?” I said.
He nodded. “Sorry.”
“For what? For Googling me? Or for what you read?”
He sighed and his hand went to his face. “Oh, Leigh. The whole fucking lot of it.”
I felt bad for him, and I felt bad for me, because there was no way to get away from this. It was all there on the internet – the newspaper articles about the incident, the trial, the appeals, the two young men placed on death row for their crimes, the interview with David’s parents on 60 Minutes and, to my shame, me. It was all there. And now it was here, too.
“Your online presence, Leigh,” he said and shook his head.
I began to smile. “It’s not good?”
“It’s not good at all.”
He took my hand from my lap and pressed his mouth to my fingers. And it felt all encompassing, as if he had taken a tiny part of me and the rest followed. I drew my hand down and brought my mouth up to his. I opened my eyes when I kissed him because I wanted him in my head and nothing else.
He shifted to lean against the back of the couch, bringing me with him, his hands on my face, my shoulder, my waist. I felt a very low kick in my gut and I almost cried because it was like an old, old friend had reappeared. I figured she had died. But here she was. Here he was.
And for a heady while, life was lived second by second, without memory, inside his mouth. I thought it might go on. It didn’t. I could feel Isabelle in my arms, and then David. My brain would not leave me alone.
I almost wanted to ask him to fuck me up, because I could handle my heart being broken by a man who was careless. It would give me another focus.
Melissa Goode is an Australian writer living in the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, Fiction Desk, Crannóg, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company Jungleboys. She is currently writing her first novel.