Ezra Hoffman shoots Tamara Jones and then himself on the bank of the Wallkill River when he is 34 and she is 21 and the pale November grass browns beneath their heads as the earth curls away from the sun, again, and he is right all along: they don’t matter.
They drive up the mountain at night and look down at the river – a rove of beige through the dark pit of the valley – and drink cans of warm beer and do lines off the silver face of an old CD. On the way home Ezra goes fast; the car screams down the mountain swallowing storms of piney air. The speedometer demonstrates unheralded records of speed. Tamara’s fingers jail her eyes, her legs flex, her arms and heart flex, her heart suspended in billowing fumes.
But they always make it home, and the fumes evaporate, and they smoke a bowl or a blunt or watch TV or put on some porn and get each other off. Tamara is easy to sleep. Ezra closes himself in a room and allegedly writes lyrics. Tamara never hears any music, never sees any lyrics. But he is precious about his art; this is an integral part of his identity, a conversation between him and something invisibly burning all around him. He says they are lyrics for songs that only he and the endless, guttering universe can hear. Tamara has every reason to believe this.
Tamara’s mom has scars on her chin and neck from a fire early in her life and at her daughter’s funeral, bent over the deep slit from which curdles an earthy silence, her face shocked with grief, the scars contort the skin around her mouth so that it appears she is smiling insanely. Ezra would have found this amusing.
When Tamara is a girl– six or seven– she develops a tickle in her arm, deep under the skin and muscle, as if inside the bone itself, and no matter what she does it will not go away. Her mom takes her to a doctor who examines the arm and determines nothing wrong with it. The doctor speaks to Tamara’s mom about Tamara as if Tamara is not in the room, or is an extension of Tamara’s mom, a body part giving her trouble, and when the doctor absolutely has to look at Tamara he does so incredulously, as if he isn’t convinced– or doesn’t want to be convinced– that she exists at all.
The tickle goes away on its own and never comes back.
Ezra has TAMARA tattooed in garish black ink on his pale ribs and Tamara has EZRA tattooed in dusty white ink on her brown thigh. EZRA is Tamara’s only tattoo. Ezra has dozens, including several other women’s names. The tattoos help the police identify the bodies, since in both cases the faces are obscured by the judgment of holes and damp earth and time. There is no trial, since the police believe the killer is already dead, but they perform autopsies and photograph the bodies as if in preparation for court. The coroner gently mattes Tamara’s hair away from her mangled face with a latexed hand and wonders how such a beautiful girl could have ended up in the company of a miserable scumbag like Ezra Hoffman.
Tamara and Ezra’s funerals are on the same day in different counties. Ezra has no family and so no one attends except the undertaker and the backhoe operator. It is cold and clear except for a scab of clouds on the western horizon through which the sun is a meek disc.
Tamara meets Ezra at a bonfire in North Forest. They flirt a little, exchange numbers. Tamara thinks Ezra is her age. She does not think about him for months, until she is back at school and he calls her out of nowhere. He is unaffected, unlike her classmates. He drives to campus, brings beer and blow. The first time they have sex Tamara faints. She remembers a light, blue and green, and retreating from the light, as if swimming down into water, entrenched in a wavering corridor of gray, and then she is blinking up at Ezra’s pale face, poised above her, his lips vaguely parted, his sallow teeth couched there in his red mouth. “What happened?” Her hands and feet feel far away.
“You just kind of went limp,” Ezra bends her braids aside. “Should I call someone?”
Tamara swallows, curls her arms around Ezra’s neck.
They lay side-by-side, Ezra tracing oblong shapes along the length of Tamara’s body while Tamara tries to calculate how many days– or weeks– it has been since she last took her Lexapro. Outside, snow explodes from the sky.
After Tamara’s funeral her mom hosts a luncheon at home where she serves cake on paper plates leftover from Halloween. Isaiah, Tamara’s younger brother, is embarrassed by his mom’s apparent correlation between the scariness of death and the spookiness of Halloween, but her composure is precarious, her attention stippled, and it is very possible she does not even realize the plates have mummies and ghosts on them. And so Isaiah says nothing, helps hand out cake to friends and family.
Ezra is removed from campus following complaints from students about a man loitering around the Prescott dorms. Tamara follows him and together they inhabit Ezra’s grandpa’s house over on Krippledragon Road, outside of town. Tamara continues to attend classes until February, at which point she starts to feel that Ezra is right, that college is a scam and that the faculty are nothing but turgid know-it-alls– an opinion which is evinced when in the middle of Tamara’s Philosophy class the professor all of a sudden stops his lecture and gawps into the awesome light of the projector and says “I know nothing,” and then drops his head and lurches from the auditorium as if he’s been shot. Someone in the back row applauds. There is laughter. Soon after the auditorium is empty.
From the mountain the riverbank appears like a sliver of dirty fingernail. There is only beer tonight. Ezra knows Tamara’s mom will give her money if she just fucking asks, but for reasons that elude him she is resistant. Ezra shakes his head. “What’s the point of having a family if you don’t let them help you?”
Tamara picks the tab off the beer can, drops it on the floor of the car.
“Why are you ignoring me?”
Through the passenger window Tamara watches something rustle along the underbrush, its tapered eyes gathering meager light from the car’s low beams.
“Stupid little bitch,” Ezra trundles the car onto the road. The tires slew sideways. Tamara’s fingers crater the beer can, her toes curl inside her shoes.
Ezra goes fast.
Isaiah Jones visits his sister’s grave on her birthday every year, first with his mom and then, after she passes, with his wife and eventually with their children until their children are old enough to decide for themselves that the obligations of their lives outweigh the effort of visiting the grave of an aunt they’ve never met.
“We barely see her anymore,” Tamara’s friends say. “What’s so special about that guy?” “I don’t trust him. He’s a creeper.” “He’s like forty years old.” “And a drug addict.” “I heard he still lives with his grandpa.” “I guess he’s kind of hot though.” “He’s so dirty. Have you noticed his fingernails?” “Ew no I never got that close to him.” “They’re like long and have dirt under them.” “Oh no poor Tamara.” “I guess she’s into that dirty townie shit.” “I saw the hottest townie the other day. He had work boots.” “Oh yeah? Was he all sweaty and tan?” “Oh my god yeah.” “Did you talk to him?” “No he was working. What would I have said?” “Hey townie boy I like your boots.” “Eek oh my god could you imagine?” “What a nightmare.” “Seriously what a nightmare.” “Sometimes I think that boys don’t even listen when you talk to them. I could probably say anything and to him it would just sound like blah blah blah tits and ass wanna fuck?” “Seriously I know. Boys are retarded.” “So retarded.” “Especially townie boys.” “Especially townie boys.”
The mattress wilts in the middle and at night Tamara and Ezra slide into its valley and meld into a smear of limbs and skin and Tamara dreams in panes of color and gusts of sound and Ezra claims he dreams in words and yet no matter how tightly they immingle their dreams never touch; in one skull is bright vehemence and in another is breathless chattering allegedly though Tamara remembers hearing somewhere that people can’t actually dream in language though according to Ezra people will tell you the world is one way when it is actually another because they want exclusive access to the world the way it actually is. This is how they amass power.
Snow comes down in tangled sheets, warping the region into a bloated gray likeness. Through the generous window of his office the professor sees the brake lights of plow trucks creeping up suddenly uncertain roads, smoldering like distant, roaming fires. He can only assume the lights are part of a vicinal whole, and the whole– the truck–disparate from the road and the mountain and the universe. And who can say there even is a road and a mountain and a universe – all three concealed at this moment by a cold, darkening pall? “I know nothing,” he says, and his voice sounds far away, as if from elsewhere.
Ezra cries, upturns the sofa, excises drawers from dressers and desks. It is getting dark, and there is no longer any power in the house. Tamara helps him scrounge. She finds something in the carpet, but it disintegrates in her fingers. She finds baggies clouded with the contrails of Ezra’s saliva. She squats in a corner and tries to listen to all the sounds that aren’t Ezra’s roaring profanities: blips of water through the walls; the wet thrum of blood in her brain; a voice– or the creak of a beam in the ceiling. Perhaps, faraway, thunder moans; closer, bats chatter and crack. Somehow there is a rushingness all around and she is reminded of fainting, of the blue light, blue and green, and the sensation of descent, the gray canyon, and as she thinks back she remembers a sky, dark red, and something there in the sky, suspended and muted, as if behind a film of clouds, or else outside the perimeter of the atmosphere. Was there sound? She does not think so. Is there sound now? It is increasingly hard to say.
When she looks up there is a dark shape framed in the quavering red doorway. “Oz is coming over with an eight-ball,” it breathes.
“How are you paying him?” Tamara squints at the dark.
The shape narrows, expands. “I’ll think of something.”
When Tamara is little she lays on her mom’s breasts and traces her ramous scars, the hills and gulfs, with a probing finger. “My little cartographer,” her mom strokes her hair. Later she will map other faces, faces whose scars are underneath. But none of them matches the intricate topography of that first face. None even comes close.
Isaiah wants to name his daughter Tamara but his wife is put off. There is too much baggage, too many negative attachments. Isaiah, despite himself, is frustrated. She can’t even let him have this? He accuses her of disrespect. She does not retaliate. He brings something up and she apologizes for it, again. He gropes around for something, a valve to increase the pressure in the home, but there is nothing. Everything is too soft. He gets in the car, drives off fast. The sky is clear and the windshield wipers drag over dry glass. Isaiah does not register; the swiping movement is acculturated to his ricocheting thoughts. He winds the car upward. For a moment he sees the larger context, the reason that had eluded him. Frantically he claws the anger back. The anger feels secure, curls neatly in his lap. This is her fault, ultimately. She let this happen. The road buckles up the mountain. He hits a turn too quickly; the tires clip the edge of the road and churn along a wet ditch where countless tires have churned before. It is enough. He slows, pulls off the road and looks briefly down into the valley. A ribbon of gray snakes through the nadir. He misses her, his wife. She is waiting for him. He drives home carefully and says he will never leave again. She says she will always be there when he comes back.
Ezra’s grandpa seems to think Tamara is a nurse. He makes her help him go to the bathroom. The one time Ezra interferes– offers to help instead– the grandpa barks: “Bullshit! I want the girl to do it!” Ezra shrugs, leaves the room. The grandpa has gray, ferric hands. When he dies, Ezra buries him in the backyard. Tamara helps lower him into the ground, her rain boots sliding in the mud, the cold spring wind rummaging inside her clothes. Ezra spends the entire night sorting through the grandpa’s things. Tamara listens from the bedroom. In the morning she finds him asleep on the sofa, old coins and war medals and several firearms and odd misshapen trinkets strewn around the table. She takes a trash bag to the grandpa’s room and gathers up the soiled clothes. It is a Tuesday. She has nowhere to be.
In July a bouquet of flowers appears on Ezra’s grave. By the end of the week it is brown and parched. The groundskeeper ignores it. He’s never seen any visitors in this part of the cemetery, though occasionally flowers or wreathes will appear. He’s found that if he ignores them long enough they eventually go away. He has a worsening pain in his groin. He keeps whiskey in the shed.
Ezra practices firing the grandpa’s guns in the backyard. Tamara flinches from the thunder of each shot as she shaves her legs in the upstairs bathroom. She nicks her shin. The drain in the shower is clogged and blood pools in tendrils around her ankles. Oz will be over again any minute. She needs to gather herself. She prefers the Ezra who gets what he wants to the one who doesn’t. But it is hard. Oz is cruel. The next morning, curled on the sofa, Tamara takes icepacks from Ezra, places them strategically. “I won’t do this anymore,” she says.
Ezra chews his lips, his eyes fish around the room. “I’ll talk to Oz about being a little nicer.”
Through the drawn blinds cut slats of pale light. The carpet has begun to peel away from the edge of the room. Tamara feels a hollow pressure blooming in her throat and jaw. For whatever reason she thinks about her mother’s face. It has been weeks since they’ve spoken. She doesn’t even know Tamara is no longer going to class. “No,” she says. “I won’t do it anymore. Not at all.”
Ezra shrugs. “If you won’t ask your mom for money then you don’t have a choice. This is just how it’s gonna be.”
Tamara adjusts an icepack beneath her thigh. Her tongue is swollen. She is afraid the words necessary to change Ezra’s mind are too complicated for her swollen tongue. She is afraid they will come out missing their most important syllables. So she says nothing.
Ezra’s teeth appear. “Atta girl,” he says.
Tamara’s second grade teacher is concerned about a drawing she does in class. The school calls her mom and asks if things are alright at home. They ask if Tamara is showing any signs of stress, given her dad’s recent passing.
“We’re handling everything as best we can,” says her mom, the phone cradled in the nook of her shoulder, stirring a pot of mac-and-cheese as a toddler-aged Isaiah paws at her legs.
“It’s imperative right now that Tamara knows she is loved, that you show her how much she is loved,” says the school through the phone.
“Don’t tell me how to love my daughter.” Tamara’s mom puts the phone down. From upstairs something thuds to the floor.
The boy that finds them cannot comprehend the unshakeable oaths their deaths demand. He rocks their shoulders. He flits from one to the other. It is not until the next morning that he mentions to his parents he found bodies by the river. They think he is pretending. He mentions it again that night and they call the police. Many years later, addressing a congregation of alcoholics from the low folding stage of a community center gymnasium, the boy will clock his discovery of the bodies of Ezra Hoffman and Tamara Jones as a seminal trauma and recurring trope throughout the devastating years of his alcoholism.
“Neither of us will ever find another person who can appreciate what we appreciate. Other people don’t have their eyes open. You know nothing matters. But when we’re together there’s something, something there. It’s like there’s a fire trapped in a sealed house, starving for oxygen. And when we touch– like this– it’s like opening a window, and all the fire rushes toward the air and explodes out into the night. That’s power, that coming together. You and I have that. I’ve never had it with anyone else, and I know you haven’t either. And we’ll never find it again. We’re soul mates, Tamara. We’re the embodiment of love. I love you completely. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Max Halper lives and teaches English in upstate New York.