At some point in her late sixties, no one remembered exactly when, Doris Moat began to water her driveway. You would see her on any given day around midmorning, a small, silver-haired woman standing in a sweater and slacks and house slippers, absently lolling a garden hose back and forth with a small motion of her wrist, her other arm folded across the top of her stomach. She would stand there for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, then carefully lay the hose down, walk over to the spigot by the stoop that led to her small side porch, and shut off the water. Then she would pull the hose into a small curling pile by the bottom of the brick steps. Some days she might water the driveway for twenty or even twenty-five minutes; probably she never watered it for as long as half an hour. Of course, the water simply ran down the driveway and into the swale along her side of Parker’s Ridge Road, then disappeared down the drain in front of Margaret and Mallory Sewell’s house next door.
The neighborhood was tightly knit, which is not quite the same thing as nosy. There were more good and decent folks living there than anyone might reasonably hope or expect. People called the neighborhood “the hill,” as in, “Oh, the Wilsons, they live up on the hill.” Big, lovely, old brick houses sat high on big, treelined lots, with a few smaller clapboard and stucco houses here and there. The houses were large, but the neighborhood was not, and Doris’s behavior did not go unnoticed.
She had been a widow for some years, her husband, Paul, having died suddenly of a heart attack while he was extracting a particularly recalcitrant molar. Doris had been a shy, lovely bride. Over the years, however, she had become increasingly withdrawn, to the point where Paul, who was utterly devoted to her, finally no longer needed to apologize when Doris did not attend a potluck supper, or a cookout, or the yearly Walk for a Cure with all the other ladies of the hill. People came to understand that Doris would not be coming. Since Paul’s death, she had essentially become a recluse. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, she might go a week or more without leaving her house. Occasionally illness confined her to bed. So, not every day, but most days, she would venture into the world only to collect the mail and to water her driveway.
“She’s doing it again,” Margaret Sewell said to her husband, Mallory, one day. She was standing at the wide windows of their breakfast room, which looked out across their driveway and a thin line of hedges to the side of their neighbor’s house. She spoke to her husband now, as so often, with a just-perceptible tone in her voice that suggested Mallory was partly responsible for whatever it was that she was commenting upon. Mallory looked over from his newspaper, pinched his lips together, raised his bushy eyebrows, and shrugged.
Prominent among a host of aggravations in Margaret Sewell’s life was her husband’s refusal to be aggrieved by the same things that aggrieved her. He was forever able to find an explanation or rationale for the most unsocial, peculiar, rude, or unseemly behavior. He even had a term for it: reasonable allowances. One should make reasonable allowances in life, to help everyone get along, Mallory would say. Mallory was quite aware that Margaret had, over the years, become increasingly convinced that reasonable allowances paved the road to hell.
“But why?” Margaret pushed on.
Mallory squinted. He shifted his tall, soft frame and then rubbed his right eye. He did not sigh, having finally absorbed in the course of their marriage that sighing was, in Margaret’s book, a deeply problematic thing for him to do.
“She likes the way it makes her driveway look,” Mallory said, or rather recited. “It soothes her nerves. She has ants.”
“Ants? It’s a terrible waste of water.”
“Terrible,” Mallory echoed quietly, as if in agreement—another problematic thing for him to do, one he had never quite shaken. Margaret blew a bit of air through her nose, not quite a snort but audible. She walked away from the window and through the downstairs of their house.
Mallory went back to his paper. He loved his wife. Here’s why: he was married to her. Somewhere over the years, love had become for him not a powerful, consuming emotion he harbored for a woman, but rather the complicated web of feelings he had for Margaret, liberally seasoned with varying parts tolerance, annoyance, and resignation. She was his wife. This must be love.
He did not pay a great deal of attention to her opinions on Doris Moat.
Mallory had liked Paul Moat, and he felt it a neighborly duty toward his deceased friend to keep an eye on Doris, to the minimal degree that he could. Mallory was a family lawyer by profession and was used to hearing about all manner of personal foibles. Doris’s oddity seemed pretty small potatoes to him. He talked to Doris sometimes, though he never stood so close as to be splashed. In their rare, brief conversations Doris generally offered a few words about the state of her health, odd pains that presaged some future catastrophe. Mallory never dared ask her why she was doing what she was doing.
One fall day, for instance, the morning of Halloween in fact, he had been lugging a pumpkin, uncarved, from the car to his front steps.
“Happy Halloween,” Mallory called to Doris, in a voice he sensed immediately was too cheery. He knew, if he took the time to reflect, that she kept her house utterly dark on Halloween evenings.
“Those terrible, terrible children,” Doris replied.
“Ah,” Mallory said.
“Oh, I can’t do this today,” she said. She dropped the hose, water still running, and retreated to her house. Mallory stood there, the weight of the pumpkin straining his arms. Then he set the pumpkin down, stepped sideways through the line of shrubs dividing their properties, turned the water off, and curled the hose up by the steps.
Another early autumn day, about a year later, he had slipped home from the office to pick up some files from his study, and there was Doris, hose in hand.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, unconvinced, clutching herself a bit more tightly. “Listen. Listen, do you hear?”
Mallory frowned. Then, in a moment, he did hear. A child was crying, perhaps a street away. Crying and crying. But it wasn’t just a cry, but rather a call, a thin shriek, like a cat, or like the fighting of raccoons.
“Listen!” Doris said again.
“Die!” the child cried. “Diiie! Diie! Diiiiie!”
“That’s awful,” he said, with a nervous chuckle. He and Doris stood, as the child cried and the water cascaded in rippling sheets down the glossy black driveway to the street. Then, traveling across the back lawn came the muffled whump of a house door closing, and the crying was no more.
“Thank you,” Doris said, to Mallory, quite directly to Mallory, as if he were responsible for the child being brought inside. Mallory said nothing, but went into his house to get his files. When he came out to the car, Doris was gone, the water off, the hose put away.
He had crossed a barrier, somehow, that day, and he began to think of Doris a little more often. He learned through a simple conversation with Eddie, the mailman, who was more than happy to gossip, that Doris had a small but adequate network of support, comprising her housecleaner, who came twice a week, her lawn and handy man, who came once a week or so, and the mailman himself.
“We look after her,” Eddie said. “You know, just check if she needs anything, that she’s doing all right.”
“I try to keep an eye on her, too,” Mallory said. “She waters her driveway,” he added.
“I know,” Eddie said, with no emphasis whatsoever. “It’s her son we’re worried about.”
“Hank?” Mallory said after a moment. He had more or less forgotten that Hank existed. He would have to be in his forties by now. “What does he do?”
“He’s a little too interested in her money,” Eddie said.
Her money. Mallory felt certain that Paul had left Doris well provided for. The house alone was worth a small fortune now—all the larger houses on the hill were. Pretty much everyone on the hill was rich, Mallory believed. Margaret strongly disagreed. They, for example, were not anywhere near rich. Mallory had learned that this was an argument they could have in a playful sort of way, as long as he was careful when and where he let slip his opinion that they were rich. So, Hank wanted to get his hands on his mother’s money, did he? Mallory, who almost certainly would not recognize Hank if he saw him, developed a pronounced dislike for the boy.
So things might have remained were it not for the weather. The cool, dry fall became a cold, dry winter, which gave way to a hot, dry spring. By the fierce days of early summer, the dry conditions started to make the front page of the newspapers. By midsummer, the area was declared to be in a full-scale drought. In the small town of Burton, not fifteen miles up the road, they were trucking in water from the Midwest. Water restrictions, which had been encouraged for many months, became mandatory. Car washes shut down. Golf courses stopped watering their fairways. Doris Moat, midmorning after midmorning, watered her driveway.
“It’s criminal,” Margaret said one hot, dry Saturday morning. “I mean it is truly, literally criminal.”
“Yes,” Mallory said.
“I mean, it’s criminal.”
“I know,” Mallory said. “What do you want me to do? Call 911?”
“Someone should,” Margaret said.
Mallory eyed her carefully.
“For her own good,” Margaret continued. “Surely you don’t think this is normal behavior.”
Mallory surprised himself by saying, “Like spying on the neighbors.”
“Doris has a problem,” Margaret said evenly, “and you want to turn it into an opportunity to attack me.”
The calm in her voice was something alarming to Mallory. They had inched into new territory.
“I wouldn’t say attack,” Mallory said.
But the conversation was over.
Later in the day Margaret was her usual self. She was standing at the entry to their front room as Mallory passed down the hall.
“I can never decide what is wrong with this room,” she said, in a tone that made Mallory stop beside her. Certainly it was true. She had rearranged and redecorated the room on a number of occasions.
“Needs more orange,” Mallory offered, as a standing joke of theirs. He had no taste whatsoever, and was genuinely grateful for the beautiful and comfortable home that Margaret created.
Margaret smiled, as she was no longer obligated to do, and rested her hand on his arm.
“Leave it to me, champ,” she said.
Her hand lingered on his arm just a moment, and Mallory was glad for it. She was still beautiful to him, twenty-eight years after their marriage, tall and slender with sharp features. They made love on a pleasantly regular basis—if not so frequently as in their early life together, then much more often than he understood to be the case from the breezy complaints of many of their friends. She was an intelligent woman, eternally busy with clubs and friends and civic projects that Mallory could never keep straight. She took an interest in his work, which was seldom the least bit interesting. In general, it was her way to fuss over Mallory, with the underlying assumption being that he was hopeless without her but reasonably worth the effort of her care. With a couple of drinks in her in the early evening she could be positively affectionate. The hand on his arm suggested, in a language they both knew, that with a bourbon after dinner the evening might turn quite pleasant.
It was not to be. A phone call from their daughter, Anne, just checking in from Oregon, was followed by a call from one of Mallory’s clients. This call, which could and should have taken five minutes but took fifty, left Mallory in an irritable mood. He came out of his study a little after eight o’clock to find Pauline from up the street starting her second glass of wine with Margaret. They were in the breakfast room discussing the drought, and Doris Moat.
A wiser man might have given the evening up as a loss, but Mallory, feeling a bit randy or anyway inclined to feel that way, stood in the doorway, wishing Pauline home, and then to the devil, as the two women pounded and pounded on the theme of Doris Moat’s irresponsibility, or insanity, or instability at the least, and on the responsibility of neighbors, really, to do something, and the shocking waste of water. Criminal, Margaret insisted again, and Pauline quite agreed.
Mallory simply stood and watched.
“My husband defends her,” Margaret said.
“Mallory, that’s too much even for you,” Pauline chided with a light laugh.
“She’s not entirely well,” Mallory suggested uneasily.
“That’s exactly what we’re saying,” Pauline said.
“Anyway, I can’t see how her running the hose a few minutes . . .”
“It’s against the law,” Margaret said sharply.
“No one wants to send her to jail,” Pauline corrected.
“What do you want?” Mallory asked, looking at Pauline and not at Margaret.
“We just think someone should do something,” Pauline said meekly, finally realizing that the argument between Mallory and Margaret, for whatever reason, was running deeper than she first knew.
“Reasonable allowances,” Margaret said dryly.
Mallory was deep into the Sunday paper the next morning when he glanced out the window, for perhaps the tenth time, and finally saw Doris, hose in hand. A twitch went through his leg, as if he would stand. Stand and do what? He held the newspaper open before him, lowered just enough for him to spy. What was the expression on her face? She was not sad, he would say; nor happy, either. She was not resigned. She was tired. She was watching the water flow from the hose and splash on the ground in front of her, and she looked tired. Mallory shook his paper and tried to read a line or two of the story, but there was scarcely any point. He set the paper down and looked at his watch: 9:18. When did she start, three minutes ago? Make it 9:15, then.
Mallory watched Doris. She seemed to perk up, after a while. She stepped from one side of the driveway to the other, and gave the hose a flourish with her wrist, the same motion as throwing a Frisbee, and the water arced higher above the driveway, catching the sun. She leaned her head to one side, seeming to consider something, bobbed the hose up and down. She smiled, then scratched her cheek with her free hand, and bobbed the hose up and down again. Now, for just a moment, she looked quite happy. Then suddenly, as if she had seen a snake, Doris threw down the hose and scuttled backward. Mallory stood up, banging the table with his leg. He heard a car door slam shut down near the street as he headed out of the breakfast room toward the front door of his house. As he stepped outside, Mallory saw, at the bottom of Doris’s driveway, a police car, the emergency lights quietly spinning in the hazy morning air. A young, lean policeman was walking up the wet driveway toward Doris, who was heaping her hose into a disordered pile.
“Ma’am, if you could wait just a moment,” the policeman said, not unkindly. Doris threw down the end of the hose, and it slapped off the pavement and shot a last splash of water onto her slippers and pants.
“Oh!” she said, and stamped her feet, and looked up in such fear and confusion that Mallory felt a wince of pain in his chest of a kind he hadn’t felt since Anne went through one of her late schoolgirl heartaches and cried against his shoulder. Mallory found that he was trotting, an awkward stumbling run along the hard slant of his front lawn, toward Doris.
“Officer,” Mallory called.
The policeman, who was walking slowly on a hot summer morning, stopped.
Well. Mallory collected himself and found that in fact he had nothing to say. He did not have the heart to suggest that Doris was old, or infirm, or mentally unstable, with her standing just a few feet away.
“Couldn’t . . .” Mallory began, to no effect, and the officer started walking up the slick driveway toward Doris again.
“Officer,” Mallory tried once more, and this time the policeman said, “Sir, if you could go back to your house . . .”
Three different sets of neighbors had already collected down in the street: not a bad turnout for a Sunday morning, but then a police car with its lights spinning was a rare sight indeed on the hill. Mallory, not knowing what else to do, trudged down the slope of his lawn to join them.
Bob and Nancy were out for their morning walk with Tucker, their big goofy Labrador, who immediately stuck his nose in Mallory’s crotch.
“Okay,” Mallory said, and danced a bit sideways and bounced into Claire, or Carla—Caroline?—the nurse or lab technician or something who was renting the Hoagland’s garage apartment. She was in a remarkably small jogging outfit. “Sorry,” he said, and she laughed.
“He likes you,” she said, grinning as Tucker snuffled greedily. “A lot.”
Hans and Venetia, who had been heading to church, were sitting in their car with the window rolled down.
“Is she all right?” Hans asked, and Venetia echoed: “Is Doris all right?”
“Restrictions,” Mallory mumbled.
“Tucker, that’s enough!” Bob said and gave Tucker’s leash a good pull.
“Busted on a watering rap,” the girl beside Mallory said, as he brushed the front of his trousers.
“Oh, hell, I’m a lawyer,” Mallory said, or decided, and strode up the hill.
The police officer was just handing Doris a ticket.
“You see, officer, I’m her lawyer,” Mallory said loudly.
The officer looked up.
“Mallory Sewell, of Hendricks, Sewell, and Dewire.”
“Okay,” the officer said flatly. “Well, Mr. Sewell, we’ve been instructed not to issue warnings. You can appeal the ticket, but there’s really nothing I can do.”
“Yes,” Mallory said, positioning himself next to Doris.
“Good morning, ma’am,” the officer said in parting. “No more watering, now.”
Doris stood with the ticket in her hand, looking as if it were her death warrant. Mallory took the ticket from her.
“I’ll take care of this, Doris,” he said softly.
“Will you?” she said.
“Sure. You can go on in, if you like.”
Doris teetered over to her side porch, struggled a moment with the door, and then disappeared into her house. Mallory sighed, stuck the ticket in his back pocket, and walked over and curled the hose into a somewhat neater coil. As he stood up he saw that Bob and Nancy and Hans and Venetia had left, but the police officer was still parked in his squad car, apparently writing. And the girl was still there in her running shorts and skimpy top.
Mallory, for no reason that he could think of, walked back down the slope of his lawn to the street. Perhaps seeing him coming, the policeman pulled away. The girl nodded toward Mallory. She was looking at his pants.
“Are you going to pay the ticket?”
“Oh,” Mallory said, and patted his rear pocket. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“That’s so nice of you,” the girl said. She was, he supposed, a good bit older than his daughter. Maybe even ten years older. Mallory leaned his arm on his mailbox.
“The thing is,” Mallory said, “she’s just going to do it again.”
“I don’t think she can help herself.”
“She’s such a sweet old lady,” the girl said.
“You know her?”
“Not really. Sometimes I stop and talk to her when I’m out running and she’s, you know, watering.”
“Well, just a couple of times. She’s sweet,” she said again.
Mallory nodded. He was suddenly feeling rather foolish.
“Well,” he said, and took his arm off the mailbox.
“Is there anything we can do?” the girl asked.
“Uh,” Mallory grunted. “I don’t . . .”
“Like, steal her hose or something.”
“Hmm. It may come to that.”
Mallory walked back up to his house, frankly winded from all this climbing of hills. The water on Doris’s driveway was all but gone, evaporated in the morning heat, just a few bright patches, like silvery islands on a jet-black map. He stood a moment and watched as the girl jogged away. He half thought she might turn and wave to him. He stepped into his house and Margaret was waiting, just inside the door. In the past twenty minutes he had all but forgotten her. Anger surged in his chest.
“Enjoy your chat with Carla?” she asked archly.
“Did you . . . did you call the police on our neighbor? Did you call the police on our elderly, unwell neighbor?”
Margaret took a step backward. Mallory felt an urge to strike her, something he had never done, nor an impulse he had ever felt, in their long marriage.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Margaret snapped. “Who do you think you’re married to?”
The absurdity of the situation washed over Mallory like an anesthetic. He was still furious, but too tired, too stymied to argue. He shook his head, a man lost in his own home, pulled the ticket from his pocket, set it on the hall table, and walked back toward the breakfast room to sit down. Margaret was two steps behind him, ticket in hand.
“What is this?” she demanded.
“I’m going to pay the fine,” Mallory said quietly.
“Are you crazy? It’s two hundred and fifty dollars!”
“Well, that’s a lot,” Mallory agreed.
Perhaps sensing an advantage, Margaret pushed on: “She can afford it. You’re always saying how rich everyone is.”
“I can afford it, too,” Mallory said.
“We, you mean,” Margaret said. “Or is it suddenly your money?”
Mallory, desperately wishing the argument over, almost acquiesced. He almost said, automatically, “We can afford it,” but he stopped himself. Margaret seemed to be waiting for him to. Finally she turned with a scowl to walk from the room.
“Margaret,” Mallory said.
She turned back to him.
“Leave the ticket.”
She threw it at him. It sailed surprisingly well, bipping him in the side of the head before falling to the floor as Margaret stormed away.
Mallory retreated to his den. He sat at his desk: a picture of Anne, a picture of Margaret. What was he to do? He had long years of professional practice at thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios, and then staking out a claim to some better ground. How exactly would things proceed? He did not suppose that Doris would stop. Of course, no judge in the state would put her in jail for repeated infractions of the new watering statute. But she could and indeed probably would be declared mentally impaired. That would open the door for Hank to try to get his hands on her money. With a feeling almost of resignation, Mallory opened a desk drawer and pulled out a fresh legal pad. He stood and retrieved two heavy volumes of state case law and carried them back to his desk, and slid his mouse an inch or two to bring his computer to life, to log onto his firm’s library service. Over a couple of hours he researched questions of mental incompetence, involuntary commitment, power of attorney, and other such issues, filling half the legal pad with notes and citations.
Margaret was standing at the door.
“I didn’t see you there,” Mallory said.
“Would you like some lunch?” she asked. It seemed an honest question, even a kind one.
Mallory looked down at his notes. He wasn’t certain just how angry he was.
“No, not now,” he said.
“Mallory, are you serious?” she asked.
He could not place the expression on her face. She was not distraught, certainly, nor perhaps even worried. Mallory simply could not tell.
“About what? Lunch?”
Margaret stepped back and banged the door shut. He listened to her brisk stride up the stairs and returned promptly to his research. If he believed that discretion suggested he go apologize, he felt not the slightest urge to do so.
He worked late into the afternoon, until hunger overtook him. He walked out of his den into a quiet, dim house. Margaret, he supposed, was still upstairs. He thought he would go grab a sandwich and a Coke somewhere.
Mallory did not drive straight home after his quick meal at a nearby deli; indeed, it might be more accurate to say that he found himself driving rather aimlessly around town. It was near eight o’clock before he pulled his car into his driveway.
Even then he thought he might take a short walk before he went inside to Margaret.
At the bottom of the driveway, he went right, down the swale and then up the hill past the Hoagland’s house. Without, he hoped, staring, he looked over at their large brick garage with the apartment up top. There was a small Honda Civic parked out front. Carla, then. Carla was home. The notion that he would walk over and climb the brick steps and knock on her door to talk to her was . . . what had Pauline said? Too much even for you, Mallory. It was strange enough that he wanted to.
He walked up to where Parker’s Ridge ran into Morgan Road, then he turned around and started back. He was sweating heavily, and almost numb from the heat. And there she was, Carla, walking toward him.
“Hey!” she called. “I saw you out walking.”
“Hi,” Mallory said, and his heart went ba-boom.
“I’ve been worrying about Doris,” Carla said, falling into step beside Mallory on his way back home. “I want to, like, park a lawn chair at the bottom of her driveway, just stop her before she can start.”
“Yes,” said Mallory, king of the monosyllables.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t know that we can stop her.”
“You know, I was kind of serious, earlier,” Carla said. “What if we stole her hose?”
Mallory stopped. The evening was just beginning to dim. He wiped some sweat from his forehead. Carla smiled at him. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, lifted up from her neck by a rubber band. To him she looked to be, at that moment, roughly twelve years old.
“I’m not sure what stealing her hose would accomplish, exactly,” Mallory said.
“It might slow her down,” Carla said, clearly enamored of the idea. “She doesn’t drive. She has her housekeeper do her shopping. Maybe it would be a day or two before she could get another hose. Maybe it would, like, break the cycle.”
The idea, at the moment, did not sound all that crazy. But two objections occurred to him, neither of which he was willing to admit. He didn’t want Margaret to see him steal the hose. And he was afraid that Doris, coming out in the morning and seeing the hose gone, might suffer something akin to a broken heart.
“Well,” Mallory said.
“C’mon,” Carla chided. “I’ll be your lookout.”
“Should we have a secret signal?” Mallory asked. “Code words?” He was paling on the idea quickly.
“Sure!” Carla agreed. “What should we use?”
“Just yell, Run,” Mallory suggested.
They were within sight of the front of his house, stately and tall in the gathering dusk.
“You know, if we’re going to do this,” Mallory began.
“I would just as soon my wife did not see me. Stealing the hose.”
“Fine,” Carla said, a bit sharply.
Mallory turned and started walking back the way they had come.
“Where are you going?”
“If we go up Morgan Road, we can come right up behind the house. That way we, I mean, I don’t have to walk all the way up the driveway in the clear. God, for all I know Doris has a gun in the house.”
They walked fifty yards or so in silence. Tree frogs were chirping like mad, filling the night. To Mallory, the singing of the frogs made the heat even worse, the air positively confining, as if a million tiny beings were shrieking at him. All the same, at that moment he did not wish to be anywhere else.
“I think my wife is the one who called 911,” he said.
“No way,” Carla said.
“She thinks Doris is unhinged. I suppose in a way she might be right. Still.”
“No, that’s terrible. I’m really sorry.”
Her concern seemed sincere, and Mallory felt oddly touched. He felt, even, that the situation was turning to a certain advantage for him, something he found himself compelled to rectify.
“You know, I couldn’t remember your name, earlier. It’s Carla, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t know yours, either, actually.”
“Ah. Mallory Sewell.”
Carla nodded her head in brisk, comic formality as she stopped to shake hands. Her hand was small, firm, and wonderfully cool to the touch.
“You, you work at the hospital?” Mallory asked as they walked on.
“Yeah, in the cardiac rehab unit. I’m a physical therapist.”
Mallory nodded. “Helping old guys like me after a heart attack.”
Carla broke out in what could only be described as a wicked grin. “Old guys like you,” she agreed.
Mallory felt his head wobble on his neck like a bobblehead doll’s. He had been married a long, long time, but he was not, in fact, dead. Lord, though, but it had been ages since he had walked at night with a pretty young woman, since any woman had smiled at him like that. They made the turn at Morgan Road and started up the hill toward the main intersection out of the neighborhood. There was a line of trees to their right, thick but hardly impassable. Mallory stopped.
“Okay,” he said. “So, really, call out or something if you see someone coming.”
Carla squinted to peer through the trees toward the back of the two large houses.
“Okay,” she said doubtfully.
Mallory picked his way through the small, rough patch of woods and found himself standing behind Doris Moat’s house, perhaps a hundred feet from his own back door. The two houses loomed dark in the glowing summer night. The lights were on upstairs in his own house: Margaret would be in her room, reading or on the phone. Doris’s house was utterly dark, as it seemed always to be at night.
“Is everything okay?” he heard Carla call in a sort of thrown stage whisper.
Mallory put his hand out, palm down, a gesture saying yes, yes, pipe down. He shook his head, amazed at his own stupidity. He walked down the gentle slope of Doris’s backyard to the spot just off the back of the house where the hose was attached at the spigot. The hose came unthreaded easily enough, though only after a dreadfully loud series of quick squeaks. Mallory scooped up the hose, an unwieldy bundle, and trotted just exactly like a thief in the night around to the far side of his own house and fed the hose carefully into the window well of one of his basement windows. The hose was flaked with bits of moist dirt. He brushed his hands, rubbed at his face (a mistake: he could sense the smear of dirt), and brushed the front of his shirt. He could, now, just step inside the back door of his house, clean up downstairs, and go up to Margaret. That would mean, of course, leaving Carla on Morgan Road in the dark. She would be fine, he was sure. People weren’t mugged on the hill. Still, it would not do. So, he slipped back into the little strip of woods in the deepening dark, catching his foot in some ivy and banging his shin against the small slender stump of a tree before emerging into the comparative light and glow of the road, and Carla.
“Did you get it?” she asked, grinning.
“Where’dja put it?”
“Around the side of my house. In a window well.”
“Good work!” she said, altogether happier about their escapade than he was, just then. Indeed, now that the deed was done, Mallory felt quite deflated. It was pointless, a juvenile prank, stealing Doris’s hose, an escapade that served only to point out the immense difference between Carla’s age and his own. And what if someone should find the hose curled up in his basement window well? Carla was ebullient, though, and chattered on about their brave derringdo.
When they reached her driveway, Carla, beaming, said, “My boyfriend will think we’re crazy.”
“Yes, he will,” Mallory agreed, having no notion whatsoever of what her boyfriend would or would not think.
“Thanks for the adventure,” Carla said at last, and placed her hands on his shoulders and tiptoed up to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. Obediently, he leaned forward.
“My pleasure,” he lied, and shuffled off back home.
In the morning, Mallory lingered over his breakfast. He lingered and lingered, looking out the window toward Doris’s house. There was an uneasy truce going with Margaret. Indeed, it had taken him some few moments upon awakening to remember exactly where the state of relations had been left the day before. By the time Mallory slipped into bed, Margaret either was asleep or was pretending to be convincingly enough for him not to speak to her. Very early in their life together there had been a few stellar arguments: no broken crockery or dreadful obscenities, but yelling and tears and slammed doors. These fights had always been followed by some stellar, fierce lovemaking, which had sufficed to make everything all right in the end. He and Margaret had had sex as recently as ten days before, but Mallory could not at present imagine the series of statements, deeds, maneuvers, touches, that would lead back to the marital bed. Odd, terrible even, the places love can lead you.
There she was. Mallory stood to have a better look at her. Doris stepped down to the little depression where her hose had been for years on end and saw nothing there. She just stood, her face an absolute blank. Mallory’s face burned. Doris clutched the porch railing for support, turned, and went back inside her house.
Mallory blinked. Was Carla right, after all? Had they broken the cycle? Was it possible that he had done a good, rather than a foolish, thing? It hardly seemed likely.
“Are you going in to the office this morning?” Margaret asked, slipping just a pinch of scorn into the question. Mallory jumped.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said.
Any number of replies clacked together in Mallory’s head, but he was determined not to be drawn out.
“I might just have another cup of coffee,” he said.
“I’ll get it for you,” Margaret said.
“Oh,” Mallory said.
He was still standing by the window when Margaret appeared next to him with a steaming cup.
“Thanks,” he said quietly.
“Two hundred and fifty dollars,” she said, and walked out again.
He sipped at his coffee. If you were my husband, the lady told Winston Churchill, I would poison your coffee. If you were my wife, Churchill replied, I would drink it. Mallory shook his head.
“No,” he said, the cup twitching in his hand, spilling hot coffee down his thumb in the process. “Damn,” he said, rubbing his thumb on his pants.
Doris Moat was very carefully, rather unsteadily, stepping down from her porch carrying a good-sized jelly-roll pan laden with perhaps half an inch of water. Mallory pressed the back of his thumb to his lips and watched her with a sorrow that bordered on anguish. Doris, her hands trembling, gave the pan a quick flip, and a glittering sheet of water turned and splashed onto the driveway and started snaking downhill. At once she frowned, watching the progress of the water. Though clearly a poor substitute for the hose, the jelly-roll pan would have to do, she seemed to decide. She went back into her house with the jelly-roll pan and the clear intent, Mallory knew, to reload.
Mallory almost ran to the back door of the house, passing a startled Margaret on the way, and emerged around the side in time to see Doris descending the brick steps of her porch with another tray of water.
“Doris,” Mallory called, and Doris Moat, jolted, missed her step and fell as if she were poleaxed, headfirst onto her driveway.
It is a fact of human physiognomy that head wounds bleed prodigiously. It is a fact of human psychology that a small amount of blood, spread out on the pavement, looks like a deluge. Mallory, who did not have a head for such things, ran to Doris and cradled her in his arms, certain that she was dead or soon to be, horrified at the wealth of blood, her life’s riches, pouring from her burst scalp and mixing awfully with the pool of water from the jelly-roll pan.
“Margaret!” he screamed.
Margaret appeared, took in the scene in one preemptory glance, said, “You stupid man,” and went back inside their house. Mallory knew that he should call 911, having no conviction that Margaret would, but he couldn’t possibly leave Doris lying there, to die alone in a puddle of blood and water. Doris, stunned by her fall, neither spoke nor moaned. She was the lightest of burdens in his arms. Mallory was afraid to shift her, afraid of hurting her, afraid even to speak her name. He could not be certain she was breathing until she took in a short, sharp breath that made his heart leap in his chest. Then he heard the sound of sirens.
They sent a fire engine, of all things, enormous and deafening, and in a moment the driveway was full of strapping young men in big flapping gear trundling up and down the hill with first-aid bags, a long wooden backboard, and big foam blocks for either side of Doris’s head. Early in the commotion Mallory told someone that she had fallen, which was obvious enough anyway, and then he backed a few steps away, useless and helpless. Another siren, and then an ambulance appeared. Two more young men, in medic uniforms, and a young woman, Anne’s age or younger, stepped briskly over to Doris. The young woman kneeled and brushed the hair from Doris’s eyes, and Mallory took a breath.
After a considerable amount of bustling about, the medics had Doris all packed up and ready to go.
“Is anyone with her?” the young lady medic called out.
“I’m her lawyer,” Mallory volunteered.
The ambulance personnel carried Doris down the hill on their stretcher at a quick little trot.
“Is she okay?” Mallory asked the driver, after they had climbed into the front of the ambulance.
“Oh, I think so,” the driver said. “She might have a concussion, but I expect she’ll be fine. Here we go.”
When they pulled onto Morgan Road the driver switched on the siren, unbearably loud there inside the front of the truck. Mallory balled his hands into fists.
After a worry-stricken hour in the emergency room waiting area, Mallory was allowed to see Doris. The nurse told him as she led him back that as a precaution Doris would need to stay the night: she could go home the next day, or the day following, depending on how she fared. He was immensely relieved to see that she was conscious, if only barely. She had a small oxygen tube leading to her nose, an IV in one arm, and a great bulbous cream-colored bandage wrapped slantwise around her head. Her face was just lightly smeared with clear dried blood, as though someone had tried to clean her up but hadn’t quite gotten everything. Mallory sat down in the small chair beside her.
“Doris?” he said.
“Thank you,” Doris mumbled, and patted at his arm with her tiny claw hand, mostly missing him and batting her bed rail instead. He placed her hand in his open palm.
“I’m sorry you fell, Doris,” Mallory said.
Doris lay there with her eyes closed. Mallory hated to ask, but at some point he had to.
“Do you have a lawyer, Doris?”
“I have you,” she said.
“I’ll need you to sign a power of attorney, a paper,” Mallory said. “Later. Perhaps tomorrow.”
She lifted her hand and tried again to pat his arm, with the same lack of success.
“Do you want me to call Hank?” Mallory asked.
Her eyes fluttered open.
“No,” she said. “No, no, no. Don’t bother Hank. Don’t bother him.”
“Fine, fine, I won’t,” Mallory said. “Don’t worry.”
The emergency room nurse came and touched him on the shoulder.
“I’ll come see you tomorrow,” Mallory said.
“Mallory,” Doris said, her little claw suddenly gripping his arm. He had not known that she remembered his name. He leaned forward and she fixed him with a stare, a rather drunken-looking stare, what with the cockeyed bandage that swathed her head.
“You’ll take care of everything, won’t you?”
Not a question so much as a statement, or a demand.
“Yes, Doris. Of course I will. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Lifting her hand away, Doris closed her eyes, content.
He took a taxi home. The firemen had done a remarkable job of cleaning up after themselves. The only evidence of the morning’s events was a crusty dry patch of blood by Doris’s back steps, and the jelly-roll pan left tilted upright in one of the sparse bushes at the corner of the house.
“I would have come to get you,” Margaret insisted, as Mallory slumped, utterly defeated, at the table again. How many hours had passed since he sat down to his breakfast? He did not feel the same man at all.
“I know,” he said.
It is a truth of all couples, certainly of all old married couples, that arguments are rarely won or lost on their merits. Arguments are won or lost through raw power, strength of will, the weight of history and the might of inertia, the willingness, in the better cases, of someone to laugh and let it go, perhaps reaching out for the pure medium of touch; the willingness, in the sadder cases, of someone to roll over, belly-up, and concede utter defeat. Mallory had lost to Margaret often enough in their life together, but never so utterly.
That evening he went to bed early, and did not sleep well until deep into the night. He woke late, the clock reading 9:10. It took Mallory a few moments to believe the time, and to realize that it was morning and not evening, and that he had best get up and get dressed for work. He thought of Doris immediately. He would go see her. He couldn’t think what else he would do with the day, whether he was supposed to appear in court or what appointments he might have scheduled. He dressed in one of his good suits, just in case.
Margaret was waiting for him in the breakfast room. She did not crow over her victory, but she did walk tall.
“I called the office for you,” she told Mallory. “I told them that you would be in late today.”
“Thank you,” he mumbled. He cleared his throat and tried again: “Thank you.”
Without preamble, Margaret offered: “Well, at least she’ll get the care she needs.”
And then, a moment later: “I’m not sure it matters what she said. Someone really has to call Hank.”
Mallory looked up from his coffee. “Do you have his number?” he asked.
“No. I have no idea even where he lives.”
Mallory nodded. He felt himself to be under the weight of some pressing obligation, but for the life of him he couldn’t think what it might be. He could not undo what he had done. Doris in the hospital.
He stood up.
“I told Doris I would look after things,” he said.
“I’m sure you did,” Margaret said.
Then came the first clear idea Mallory had had in what felt like days. He gave Margaret a flat smile and walked out the back door and around to the basement window. He glanced at the front of his expensive suit and shrugged. He knelt down and retrieved Doris’s hose and carried it back to her house. He knelt down again and threaded the hose back onto the spigot.
From the back door of his house, he could hear Margaret’s voice: “What are you doing?”
Mallory did not answer. He turned on the spigot. The hose twitched and sputtered to life. He gripped the end and turned the spigot on a bit higher to get a good stream of water going.
He was terribly nervous, at first. He felt utterly exposed, but he had agreed to take care of everything, and he had no doubt in his heart as to what Doris had meant. The water made an agreeable splash on the pavement and began to course down the hill in small spreading sheets. He had thought, from time to time, that the secret of why Doris watered the driveway might be that it was relaxing. He did not find it relaxing at all. Nerve-racking was more like it.
He heard the slam of his own back door.
Mallory gave the hose a little twitch, the way he had seen Doris do, and watched the water arc high and splash onto the macadam. He moved the hose from side to side.
He heard Margaret rev the engine of his Mercedes. His heart banged in his chest. She shot backward in the car and then careened down the hill, taking out the bottom of their line of hedges before tearing up toward Morgan Road, going Mallory knew not where. He took a sharp breath. That’s it, he thought, she’s gone, and for a moment the idea very nearly terrified him. But he took another breath, gave the hose another sweep of the wrist, and gradually something like calm settled over him. It was lovely, fascinating even, the way the water moved in those luxurious sheets down the black driveway. He tucked his free hand under his armpit, and then pulled it back out again to check his watch: 10:08. He would give it to 10:20, perhaps a few minutes over. That should suffice.