Leathers wound up and threw the tennis ball again as far as he could across the pasture. Each time he did this, the big half-collie Ralph would go bounding after it, come tearing back with the ball in his teeth. The game had grown tedious for Leathers, but at least it kept him from more agonizing about the money.
He faked a throw in one direction, then lobbed another long one near some pines and watched it sail, Ralph undeceived by the ploy. The trees on the high Blue Ridge were just beginning to leaf. The creek beside the cabin was roaring from the spring rains. There was a damp earthy smell from the woods. Trudy should be showing up any minute now for their hike. She’d of course tell him to take it straight back.
Eighteen-hundred-odd dollars—it was more than he’d ever seen. He could start to pay off his credit cards, buy some new tires for his pickup, maybe finally get his life under some kind of control. He’d played the lottery off and on for years and never won a cent. But then yesterday, as he was driving in town in pouring rain across a deserted section of a mall parking lot, on his way to get some lunch, there it was: a bulging black plastic pouch, lying beside a puddle on the asphalt. He’d stopped, snatched up the glistening, dripping bag. Pulled it inside his truck, unzipped it. It was stuffed with bills—and a bank-deposit slip, from the movie theater that happened to be only a few yards away. He’d rubbed some fog off the inside of the windshield and glanced over. No one was in the ticket window; it was dark inside the lobby. He’d felt an almost electric wave pass through his gut. Jogged over, rapped on the glass doors. Peered inside, then out through the rain.
Instead of going to lunch, he’d driven around. Of course, he should turn it in somewhere, to the bank or the police, or back to the theater when it opened. But—no excuse, something crazy was coming over him—he’d always half-hated the Cine-Seven. A few minutes later he’d driven back past the building—still dark inside. “Finders, keepers,” he’d heard himself mumble aloud and, stowing the money under some oily rags in his glove compartment, had gone on back to the job—a fancy kitchen-remodeling over on Park Lane.
Now Ralph was barking and running down the drive as Trudy’s blue Toyota came around the curve. Leathers hadn’t told anyone. He’d seen nothing in the morning paper about a missing bank deposit, hadn’t heard anything on the radio. Maybe some poor underpaid employee, yet another victim of late-capitalism—someone like himself, slave to Eagle Window and Cabinet—had foolishly dropped it, hurrying in the rain, and now was no doubt in deep trouble. But that was their problem. Wasn’t it?
Ralph’s tail was wagging wildly as Trudy patted him. She was wearing a bright lemon-colored skirt and sandals, hadn’t even changed to her outdoor clothes. Working Saturdays, out of sheer dedication to helping others, that was Trudy. She pulled a tote bag out of the back, and her hiking boots, and knelt and rubbed Ralph’s head, wincing and laughing as he nuzzled her.
“Am I late?” She looked up and smiled, waves of auburn hair lit even more fiery by the sun.
“I left you a message this morning, said come early if you could,” Leathers said. “I guess you didn’t get it.”
“You’re acting funny, Stan. Are you feeling all right?”
He shrugged. “Could be this pollen.”
Trudy was frowning at him. With those sharp eyes, she could probably see right through him. But she kissed him on the cheek as they headed toward the cabin. The shampoo or soap she’d used made her smell like some kind of flower. Ralph followed them inside the old log house, his toenails clicking on the wide plank floors.
When Trudy headed straight to the bedroom to change her clothes, Leathers almost started to block the way. He didn’t want her to go rummaging around. “Watch out for that saw and those paint cans in there,” he said. He never seemed to get around to finishing his own home improvements, repairs he was supposed to be making as part of the rent.
Trudy stepped over a pile of boards and angled the bedroom door half-shut. “I had to help one of my mothers study for her GED exam this morning,” she said.
“I didn’t know that was part of your job.”
“Everything’s part of my job.”
“Did you eat lunch? You want anything to eat or drink?” Leathers called nervously.
“Do you have a couple of apples we could take?”
He opened the rattling old refrigerator. Feeling manic last night, even after his tai-chi lesson, he’d gone out on a grocery-buying spree in town with the last few dollars in his checkbook. “Red or green?”
Ralph lay in a corner watching him pace around. Every time Leathers thought of his windfall, he felt a surge of well-being. Then would come the horrible jolt of guilt and fear. He stared out the window at the redbuds and dogwoods dotting the mountains.
“You were talking to yourself, Stan.”
She was standing in the doorway in hiking shorts and a faded T-shirt, her hair pulled back under a red baseball cap.
Leathers held out a handful of apples.
The creek trail led past tall hemlocks. Ralph ran ahead through the woods, following the scent—real or imagined—of something. Sunlight flickered over ferns and moss.
Leathers, puffing a little, had to hustle as usual to keep up with Trudy. Every so often she’d stop to examine a wildflower that caught her eye, then take off again.
“Is your mother getting close to taking her test?” he asked, hurrying along beside her, trying to sound nonchalant.
“The one you were helping her study for.”
Trudy laughed at her mistake. “Oh, I thought you meant my mother. She’s getting there; it’s hard to tell when somebody’s ready. But you have to admire that desire to take responsibility for your life and make some changes.”
“You do,” Leathers said, suddenly hit by another bolt of anxiety. He pulled his bandanna out of his jeans pocket and wiped his neck. Tiny leaves on all the trees and bushes were unfurled toward the sky.
They walked a while without talking, climbing higher and higher, with views of the spring mountains all around them and hayfields below. Finally he couldn’t wait any longer. “I need to ask you something.”
Trudy adjusted her cap, kept walking. “What?”
“If a person were to find some money, out in the middle of nowhere”—he waved an arm at the hills—”say, a lot of money. . .you think it would be okay to keep it?”
She squinted as they walked into a shaft of sunlight. Her sinewy arms and legs were laced with freckles. “Why?”
Leathers felt his shirt sticking to his back. “Why what?”
“Why are you asking me this?”
“I found a bank deposit envelope in the Stagecoach Square parking lot.”
Trudy kept walking up to a level spot on the trail. The high bend overlooked the cabin, its tin roof just a rusty smudge at the edge of fields. She stopped abruptly. “So what did you do?”
Leathers could hear the steady muffled sound of the water through the woods. “It was from that big multiplex theater.”
Her lightly lipsticked lips were slightly parted. The sun cut through the trees.
“The place was closed. It was more than a thousand bucks. . . more than 1500. . . .” He watched a buzzard zoom by on an updraft and sail, wings spread, over the ridge. In the bright sun it cast a fat shadow on the hillside.
“So what did you do?”
“I kept it.”
“Jesus Christ, Stanley.”
“If I take it back now, don’t you think the police would have a few questions?”
“When you take it back, just tell the truth.”
“You don’t think they’d want to know where it’s been for two whole days?”
“I don’t think they’d care. Where is it now?”
“In my tool kit,” Leathers said. “Look, it’s profits from huge multinational corporations, Trudy. They can afford it, like taking a drop out of the ocean. It’s probably just the night’s popcorn money, nowhere near even one day’s receipts.”
Ralph ran across a ridgetop after something. Trudy rubbed some lichen off a boulder with the toe of a hiking boot.
“I can’t believe you did this.”
“Well, I did, and I’ve got it now, so I figure I might as well keep it.” He switched to a new tactic. “Why don’t you take part of it to give to somebody needy you work with.”
She turned to go.
Leathers felt weak-kneed as they headed back down the path. “God, I’d hoped you’d understand somehow. I need this money, and you know they don’t. They’ve basically just ripped it off the poor public.”
“You’re the one who’s ripped it off, Stanley. You could possibly get in serious trouble if you keep it, you know. It’s clear who it belongs to.” She threw up her hands. “What in the world were you thinking?”
She was talking as fast as she walked. “You must have been under some strain. I didn’t realize you were feeling so desperate.” When he stumbled once, she took his arm to steady him.
“There’s more to life than money, Stan.” Her voice sounded far away; he glimpsed a meadow of pink and blue flowers through trees. “More to life than money.”
As the words dimly sank in, he yanked his arm away. “Easy for you to say. You’ve got a good job. You’ve got a good car. You’re not in debt. Your roof doesn’t leak.”
“Come on, let’s keep moving.”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Think all you want, I’m going.”
“Look, Trudy. I’m 34-years-old, my life’s going nowhere. This’ll give me a boost. A fresh start. A chance to get. . .organized.”
“Organized?” Then her face softened. “Your life’s going somewhere, Stan. You’re a great woodworker. You could go into business for yourself.”
“Yeah, with what money?” Leathers said.
She ignored him. “You have musical ability, you have a college degree. You chose to live out here, for God’s sake. “Boots, not suits”—like Thoreau, remember? You can do whatever you want, if you put your mind to it. Just take the damn money back.”
He thought this over for a second—she often said positive-sounding things like that. Too often; it was hard to tell where the truth lay. She undermined her own credibility by being always on the bright side. She was looking at him so earnestly. She truly meant well, she really helped people and cared about them. He leaned forward and kissed her. She kissed him back, then pulled away. “Now.”
But then he thought of his overdue bills, the pitiful condition of his pickup. “I don’t know, Trudy.” He heard his voice waver.
Her eyes narrowed again just a fraction. She started to say something, touched his hand. Then suddenly took off down the trail, grabbing onto her hat, picking up speed into a steady stride. Ralph came galloping down through the woods after her.
“Hey, come back!” Leathers gave up trying to run after them. She could outrun him, he’d quickly learned whenever they’d gone jogging. And the path had pitfalls, with roots and rocks and slippery mud. He called, “Trudy, be careful!” But she was gone.
Most people find the sound of running water relaxing, but sometimes the noise of the creek got on Leathers’s nerves if he paid too much attention to it. It was doing that now, as he sat thinking, with a thick Mexican blanket wrapped around him, out on the cabin steps in the moonlight.
That Trudy hadn’t taken the money from his tool box didn’t really surprise him. Like she only wanted to get as far away from him as fast as she could. Who could blame her? She’d gathered up her stuff, sped off in such a hurry she’d left a skid mark on the grass.
He tried her phone again for the dozenth time, left still another message. “Trudy, please pick up if you’re there. I need to know if you got back.”
He kicked an empty paint can across the floor, sent Ralph scurrying. The dark mountainsides loomed around them, the creek sounds filled the night.
He swigged from the bottle of upscale wine he’d bought to go with their steaks. Then sat at the rickety kitchen table, rubbed Ralph’s neck. It was such a small amount really, to be causing all this problem, and really wouldn’t solve his other problems. And yet. . . .
His head was starting to ache. Why had he done it? Why had he done it?
Talking to himself again.
The lights of the oncoming cars hurt his eyes on the ten-mile trip to the city. The dog seemed nervous too, kept putting his head in and out of the passenger-side window, smelling the night. Wearing a clean shirt, a purple Hawaiian-style he’d been saving for the evening with Trudy, Leathers drove straight to her house. Passed the garishly lit Cine-Seven, flaunting it’s over-priced junk.
The porch light was off on her little brick bungalow, her car wasn’t there. He rang the doorbell several times anyway. Then he and Ralph waited together in the truck.
Had she come back, gone out again? With somebody else? Never come back? For a second he thought he could hear the damned eternal creek running, even here.
He reached under the seat, pulled out the chunky envelope. Ran his thumb over the edge of the bills. The money made him feel calmer, secure. Then he quickly shoved it back; across the street a portly silhouette had appeared on a porch, the nosy retired neighbor who’d always tracked Leathers’s comings and goings here. Smoking a pipe, acting like he was looking at the trees and stars. He’d once asked Leathers not to park the rusty old pickup in front of his walk. Now, sure enough, he was sauntering over to the truck to be obnoxious again. Leathers glared belligerently.
“Might not be coming in tonight,” the neighbor offered, arms folded, pipe in hand, glasses glimmering opaquely in the shadows.
“How do you know?” Leathers said. The tobacco aroma was thick and sweet.
“Left this morning with a good-sized bag.”
“She was going. . . .” Leathers started to explain.
The man puffed his pipe, peered closely into the truck.
Past the theater again. Half-full moon emerging from clouds. A vague thought had begun to grow: that was who really needed it—a family with young kids, struggling to make ends meet, like the ones she worked with across town. He sped down the broad avenue.
At a stoplight he froze: a police car had pulled up in the lane beside him. Ralph sniffed the night air, Leathers stared straight ahead. When the light changed he drove off as slowly as he could. Too slowly?
The cruiser turned at the next corner. Leathers’s hands ached when he finally loosened his grip on the steering wheel, blocks away.
He drove on through the night until he recognized a familiar street name, one she often mentioned, and headed down it. Block after block of strings of rundown rowhouses. They had little stoops that came out to the sidewalk, little patches of dirt for yards, not even big enough for a tree or bush. Suddenly he was lucky to be able to live where he did, even if the wind did blow through cracks and mice came in. The neighborhood was deserted except for a few dim figures standing on steps in the chilly night, a pair of kids walking somewhere, out too late, a knot of men working on a car engine and drinking beer. Ralph curled up in the seat, dozing. Leathers drove hunched over the wheel.
He pulled into a dingy filling station, had to try calling again. Parked by a dark phone stall. The stench of urine was sharp. He rubbed his arms to keep warm. Her machine cut off on him, it was so full of messages now.
Big red swirls of graffiti on the side wall of the gas station. He saw the lone attendant glance up from the poorly lit desk inside. Ralph pawed at the truck window. Across the lot some buildings were boarded up. Far away a blue neon sign flashing. On the damp night air he smelled meat frying somewhere. Then as he walked to the truck he noticed a laundromat on the near corner was still open. Someone was inside now moving about. Pausing in the doorway to stretch, yawn, gaze out.
A wisp in pink plastic flipflops, she shuffled to a dryer with an armload of wet clothes. Probably barely in her twenties but somehow seeming older. Long dark hair falling straight down her back, plain pale-blue dress. A small tattoo of a rose and coiled snake above her ankle. Glanced up at Leathers, ran eyes over his shirt, then back to her work.
“Excuse me,” he said.
She fed coins in, stared wearily at him. She had thin dark eyebrows, little beads of perspiration around her lip. It was jungley humid in the room, machines whirling and knocking. More laundry was spread over a table. He saw now that two other women, older, one black, one white, were sitting in plastic chairs along a wall. A toddler was crawling on the grimy floor under the table. Nearby an infant slept in a stroller, nestled with a blue stuffed rabbit.
“Do you know a nurse named Trudy Price, works in the well-baby clinic up by the bridge?” Leathers looked at each of them.
They looked uneasily at each other. One of the seated women shook her head, picked up a magazine; the other walked off to check on a thumping washer. The young woman, now folding clothes, eyed him again. Her face brightened a little. “I know Trudy.” She had a foreign accent of some kind. She was rapidly piling tiny colorful shirts and pants. “She very nice.”
“She’s a good friend of mine,” Leathers said. He’d started to say she was his fiancé, but that wasn’t totally true, certainly not now.
The thin woman smiled. “Ahh!” She had a tooth missing on one side.
“Have you seen her tonight?”
She shook head doubtfully.
“Hey, listen.” Leathers tried to sound calm. “This incredible thing: I found a bunch of money yesterday.” He cleared his throat. “I want to give some of it to somebody who needs it.”
The woman’s smile faded. She looked at him, then at the others, shaking her head. “I can’t take nobody’s money.”
The heat and noise of the washers and dryers were almost overpowering. There was a rank smell of fish that seemed to come from an overflowing trash can in the corner. “Somebody dropped it in the middle of a parking lot,” Leathers said. “Hundreds of dollars.”
“But it must belong to someone. Have you asked around?”
“There’s nowhere to ask,” he said.
She shook her head again. “I truly do not want it, myself.”
“Probably drug money,” the seated woman, a heavyset blonde, said, one eye on her scooting child.
“You better go do something with it, keep it or tell the police,” the third woman said, and beat on a dryer with her fist. “Don’t be bringing it around here, you might bring trouble.”
Leathers felt exhausted but also strangely wide awake, as if on some kind of drug himself. The noise of the machines seemed to have become the noise of the creek. “You haven’t seen her anywhere tonight?” He turned from one to another.
The small dark woman came across the room to him. She placed her palm on his forehead. Her touch felt damp and cool. “You going to be all right, mister. Just take it easy.” She was smiling reassuringly up at him, showing the gap in her teeth. “Hey, that your poor dog barking out here? I think he worry that you forget him.”
As he backed toward the doorway, he felt something press against his ribs. He slowly turned, saw he’d bumped into the stroller. The sleeping baby arched a miniature eyebrow but didn’t stir.
He drove aimlessly, Ralph patiently alert. Back past the Pit of Hell: parking lot packed, lights still blazing, money-making machine merrily still churning away. He thought of just dropping the bag in the same spot, let somebody else have a chance if they wanted.
Then Leathers saw it, beckoning. Familiar, unsettling logo that you saw on signs all over town now after the latest big merger: curvy fat outline that was somehow supposed to suggest a pig. It was a small, out-of-the-way branch, with its dark drive-through porch. He braked sharply, pulled to the curb under leafy trees.
Ralph had begun whining again, so he sat stroking his back for a while, debating. Then hurried along the dark sidewalk, almost tiptoeing. Pressed along the wall under the eaves of the building, clutching the fat envelope to him. Half-expecting an alarm to go off any time, lights to start flashing.
Pulled back the heavy handle of the night-deposit slot. Swallowed. Pushed.
At first it seemed to have gotten stuck. Leathers banged on the slot, heard a faint thump. Then the clang of the little door, released.
The theater dark now, the vast parking lot empty again, except for around the fast-food restaurant still open at one end. He was utterly drained, his long ordeal over. Relieved. Depressed. An opportunity of a lifetime lost to him now. And Trudy. . .wherever she was.
Her street was dark, most porch lights off. Her little house was in darkness too. Except. . .now there was a light on in the back; the kitchen or her bedroom. And there, in front—her little blue hatchback.
He coasted to a stop down the block, careful to stay far from the meddlesome neighbor’s. Ralph padded beside him up the sidewalk. There was a fresh spring smell everywhere, invigorating.
Two quick rings on her bell, then two more. Then, “a shave and a haircut.” Trudy’s pale oval face peering alarmed out the front window. The door opened a crack. “What are you doing here, Stanley?”
“I took it back.”
Ralph gave a loud bark. Trudy quickly opened the door and motioned them both inside. In the little living room Ralph whimpered and pushed his snout at her thighs. She was barefooted, in her red cotton robe, her hair hanging loose. The dog ran in circles around her, pawing, until she devoted full attention to rubbing his head. “Stanley, it’s late.” Her face looked sleepy in the half-light.
“I took the money back, Trudy.”
She stopping petting the dog and looked up at Leathers. “You did? What did they say?”
“I dropped it in the bank. SavaBank branch.”
“Promise?” She stood, eyes watchful. “When?”
“Just a few minutes ago. I wouldn’t lie to you,” Leathers said.
She had moved across the dark room. Ralph was stretched, paws out, under a chair. “Do you want some herb tea? I’m not asking you to stay, so it’ll have to be a quick cup.”
“No, thanks,” Leathers said. “Where have you been tonight? I’ve been worried crazy.”
“After I left you I drove up to Harrisonburg to see Mom. I hadn’t seen her for a while.” She went into the shadowy kitchen, opened the refrigerator. “I think I’ll just have some milk.”
“It was a moment of stupidity, Trudy. I don’t know what got into me.” He heard her pour the milk, followed her into the tiny kitchen.
“We fixed a little supper and watched TV.” She sipped, set the glass on the table.
Leathers suddenly had an inkling, couldn’t be sure: maybe Trudy, despite all her rushing around, was a bit of a lonely person too. He reached for her hand. She squeezed it, then picked up her milk again.
“It took me a while, but I’m starting to feel I did the right thing,” Leathers said. He was pressed up against the stove.
“You know you did the right thing.” She downed the last of her glass, white throat bobbing. “I’m sorry to be so out of it, but you guys are going to have to go soon. I’m really beat.” She patted him on the back. “Stan, you did great.”
“Let’s get some sleep then,” he said, “and you can come out tomorrow and finish that hike. I’ve still got steaks we can eat.”
Trudy walked back into the living room, straightened her shoulders a bit. “I had a chance to think tonight as I drove up the valley. This doesn’t have anything to do with that money. I’ve been thinking for some time, thinking maybe we should take a break seeing each other for a while.”
Leathers’s throat felt suddenly dry.
“I think we both need some time to sort out where we’re heading. I swear it’s not that stupid money, Sat-. . .” She clapped her hand to her mouth. “I almost called you Satan.” She furrowed her brows. “We both have some big decisions to make. We need some space to get clear.”
An indistinct ache seemed to envelope him. “I am clear,” he said.
“I don’t think so. I don’t want either of us to be hurt, Stan.”
“Neither do I. Come on tomorrow. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”
She gave a little sigh, a wistful smile. Ralph sat on his haunches, quietly watching.
“Let’s at least have dinner. I can bring the steaks in.”
“We can have dinner some time. But not tomorrow. Not for a while.”
Leathers looked at her, standing there by the front door barefooted in her robe, waist cinched tight, her hair in sleepy disarray. “Dinner would to have to be on you for a while anyway,” he said. He was afraid she was probably trying to ditch him for good and he felt an unaccustomed surge of determination to make some changes in his life, get organized. That was going to have to be pretty much up to him, he suddenly saw. Like Trudy said.