Drinking was not my husband’s ruin, as some have claimed, and nothing he ate that day made him any sicker than he already was, nor did the shot the doctor finally gave him do any more harm than he had already done himself, though some have claimed differently. My husband’s ruin began before any of this, and certainly before the day he danced a waltz across the worn countertop in his store.
Jane Hardaway, whose married name fit her so well somehow, was the first to come by that November morning to tell me he was drinking. She’d married two weeks after I had, but it was my husband she’d always wanted, I think. She must have thought it was her duty to come tell me about Phil. At least that’s probably the reason she gave herself for walking up my front steps looking, as usual, like she was dressed for church. “Louise,” she said when I opened the door, “I’ve been to the store and Mr. Anderson”—she was too proper to call him by his first name—”is not in good shape.” That was always the phrase she used on those occasions. She shook her head, like she felt sorry for me. Then she added the part about the waltz. She was that particular, as if it were important that I know it was a waltz and not some other less formal dance. I wanted to slap her, but maybe she was trying to say that even drunk he still had, unlike most men, some sense of dignity. I just nodded and said thank you and closed the door quickly, which was rude, but I knew she’d think I was overcome with worry and would excuse me. The truth is I was not overcome, and I would not play the martyr for her.
I’d been about to go up there to get some coal oil for the lamps, and I had just buttoned my son’s coat. But I didn’t want to see my husband the worse for liquor again. And I didn’t want Conrad to see his father acting strangely. So I stayed home. If he passed out, I knew George, his black help, could run things well enough and see to him. He’d had to do it many times over the last few years.
Not that Phil drank every day. He would often go months without it, and would be exactly the man I had married, his dark eyes unclouded by drink and as piercing as ever, every step measured, every touch of his hand steady and strong with love. Then he would hardly talk for days, and barely be able to sleep at night, and when he did sleep he would turn violently. In the mornings when he sat across the table from me he would disappear into some thought or memory, which I usually guessed was of his dead brother, who he’d told me once he kept seeing lying on the ground in his dreams, a bloodstained cloth covering his face, the crowd standing around him in a circle. I’d know then what was coming, that someone would knock on my door later in the day and tell me he was at the store and not in good shape. Or maybe I’d walk in and see him for myself. Before he’d leave the house on those mornings, I’d want to shake him and say, “Not this time, damnit. Don’t you do it.” But he would have been beyond reach.
A second knock came at half past noon, just after I’d eaten and fed Conrad. It was so light I barely heard the sound. George had sent his little boy, and he stood back near the top step, fidgeting like any ten-year-old might. “Daddy say Mr. Phil sick. Not like usual. Says you need to come see.”
“What’s wrong, Joseph?”
“He on the floor, holding his stomach, moaning. That all I know.”
The way he kept looking down told me he was scared, and that frightened me, though I didn’t want to admit it.
I told Joseph that he could go home, that I’d be on in a few minutes. I put Conrad in his coat again, then got my own. We started up the muddy road toward the store, Conrad’s small hand in mine, but I thought about what he would see once we got there.
“How would you like to go stay with Joseph and his mother for a while?” I said. I knew that Margaret wouldn’t mind keeping him.
I found my husband sprawled on the floor near the woodstove, his head resting on a sack of feed. Sweat covered his face in small drops, and they ran into his hair and soaked it at the edges. He looked pale, like the whiskey had robbed him of his blood. I didn’t see a bottle. George had probably taken it from him by then, hidden it on a shelf somewhere. No one else was in the store, for which I was grateful.
“How much, George?” I stood over Phil. Part of me wanted just to walk away.
“Not as much as you might think.”
“Don’t tell me a lie.”
“No, ma’am. I wouldn’t do that. He drank some, all right, but not enough to do this here.”
“Enough to make him dance, though.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said quietly.
Phil opened his eyes and looked up at me, then quickly closed them, as if he could make me disappear, like I was no longer important enough to worry about, like his wife and child could not possibly weigh as heavy in his mind as his own grief. He didn’t apologize or make any excuses, didn’t even speak one sorry word. I wanted to kick him for making our lives come to this. It would have been so easy, his lying on the floor like that. I wanted his pain to balance mine on whatever scales there are to measure such hurt, and a hard kick would have been some kind of start. If he had tried to apologize, or beg forgiveness, I probably would have kicked him. But he’d never begged for anything in his life. When he asked me to marry him, it hadn’t even been a question, but I answered him like I thought I’d never answer any man.
I took a breath, then got down on my knees and felt his forehead. “Go get me a wet cloth,” I said to George. “He’s got a fever. A bad one.”
After he handed me a damp rag, I wiped Phil’s forehead, folded the rag, and pressed it against his temple. For a moment I felt as if I were leaning over my child sick in his bed. I took Phil’s hand in mine and squeezed hard.
He suddenly doubled up in a spasm of pain like his stomach burned inside. Then he stretched back out and tried to pretend he wasn’t in pain. He finally mumbled something.
“What?” I said.
“It’s never hurt this bad before.”
“What’s never hurt this bad before? What’s wrong?”
He wouldn’t answer.
I put my hand on his chest and his heart beat too fast against my palm. Then George said something that didn’t make sense.
“It was bananas that done it.”
“What?” I said.
“He was eating bananas. Whiskey and bananas ain’t good for you. They don’t mix. I told him so.”
“That’s just some tale you’ve heard. It’s foolish, and I don’t want to hear any foolish talk right now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “What you want me to do?”
“Go get Dr. Hannah.”
“I would have already done that, but him and his wife, they gone up to Birmingham this morning on the train.”
As soon as he spoke, I knew very well what an ordeal I was in for. Dr. Hannah owned the only automobile around here. I would have to take my husband across the river to Demarville, and I’d have to take him stretched out in the back of the wagon he used to hall freight from the depot. There was no other way.
“I’ll get blankets. You hitch the wagon and bring it around to the front,” I said.
Phil lay perfectly still, with his long arms crossed over his chest, and for the moment he looked so peaceful that I shook down inside. Then I remembered our wedding when he’d held me in those arms and danced me so gracefully across the floor.
After some little time and struggle, George and I got him into the wagon. I closed the store and told George to go on home if he wanted, and to tell Conrad that his daddy and I had gone into Demarville, that we’d be back late in the evening. He stood there looking puzzled for a minute. I knew he expected me to have him drive us into town, but this was something I had to do myself.
By the time we passed the house, I had the mules going at a pretty good pace, but the mud and the ruts and the holes in the road kept slowing us down. And when I’d hit a hole too hard, Phil would start to call out from his pain or his drunkenness still, then catch himself to keep me from hearing. Every time he groaned, I thought, Just hush, damnit. You’re the reason we’re on this road.
But whatever the whiskey had done to him, poisoned him, eaten his stomach, it wasn’t just the whiskey that had done it. I kept telling myself that, knowing it was true but at the same time having a hard time caring one way or another as I jerked those reins and fought through the mud.
Our journey that sunless, fall day had actually begun four years earlier, I realized, and it had started with Henry, Phil’s older brother, who everyone called Dock, and with the shotgun blast I heard come from town.
If I hadn’t had Conrad to take care of, I would have gone up there right away and would have carried my pistol with me. But after a while, Phil came home, and even though I was so relieved to hear his slow, careful steps in the house that told me he was alive, I found myself waiting for whatever the bad news would be before I saw it in his uneasy features.
He walked across the living room to where I sat and looked down at me as if he’d forgotten how to speak.
Then he found his voice. “Your father killed Dock,” he said. And after a pause, he said in a tighter voice, but just as strong, the way I expected, “I handed him the gun and told him to use it.”
As plain and simple as his words were, I could not take them all in at first, could not understand what part he’d had to play in his brother’s death.
“Dock was outside the store,” he said. “He kept calling Mr. Wilkie out. I knew that Dock might just shoot him the second he stepped through the door. Your father must have known it, too.” He stopped a moment and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his fingertips. “I’ve already gone and told Daddy what happened, and that I gave Mr. Wilkie the gun. He just nodded his head. He knows Dock was mean, that he never learned how to handle these matters the way we were taught.”
“Where’s Father right now?” I said.
“I’m not sure.” He looked away and stared out the window, as if whatever he saw through those panes might replace what he had just witnessed, and been a part of.
The truth was that Phil probably did know where my father was. He had more than likely gone to see Dock’s wife, who had just lost twins in childbirth. Father had been visiting a good bit the last year, more than I’d ever seen him since Mother died so long ago and he’d gone off and left me with relatives. Even though he was much older than Dock’s wife, there had been rumors. Whether they were true or not, Dock had obviously finally heard them and believed them. Or maybe he’d gotten the truth out of his wife the only way men like him know how.
Whatever had happened, my husband had made a choice that he only thought he could live with.
There was finally a trial. Dock’s reputation was well known, though, and my father was acquitted, Then a few months later, Phil’s father, Rafe, died. Unfortunately my husband’s troubles didn’t end there. Or maybe I should say our troubles, because whatever happened to him happened to me too, though I don’t think he understood that the way a husband should have. Perhaps no man can, no matter how long he’s been married.
The new trouble came so unexpectedly, like a child’s sickness sometimes does. He’d been down near the Tennahpush River on a Sunday afternoon, seeing his friend Wilbur Knott who he’d grown up with. Phil had been going down there more and more without me, and would come home late with the smell of liquor on him, but he would still be walking as steady as any woman could ask for.
He rode his horse into the yard at near dark. The long shadows thrown across the yard were about to disappear with the coming of evening, and I’d lighted a few lamps. When he walked into the house, he called my name out, which he didn’t usually do, and it made me uneasy. There was something unnatural about it, as if he were about to announce news that I couldn’t bear.
He found me coming out of the baby’s room. I’d just put Conrad down.
“Louise,” he said, “I killed a man a few hours ago.”
I didn’t say a word. I just took my husband in my arms and he let me hold him like he never had before. His whole weight fell against me and he buried his head against my neck and wrapped his arms around me so tight it almost took my breath. I held him like a mother holds a child, and loved him just as deeply. Then he pulled away suddenly and I saw what might be called a look of fear on his face, as if he’d shown me more than he’d ever meant to show anyone, even a wife. And for some reason it made me just as afraid, as if the man my husband had been was no longer there.
I led him by the hand and sat him down on the sofa in the living room. “Tell me what happened,” I said, which was all I knew to say.
“I was on my way back from the Knott’s,” he said. His voice was as quiet as I’d ever heard it outside of our bedroom. “I decided to stop and see a man named Hawks. He’d been living around here six months or so, and he’d owed me on a bill at the store for almost that long. He told a few people last week that he was about to move on. So I stopped and tied my horse and was headed toward his door when he came riding around from the back of the house on his roan gelding. I told him that I needed my money before he left and that I intended to get it. He cussed me, and I guess he didn’t see the pistol on my belt or maybe he was just a fool, or drunk, because he tried to run me over with his horse. He knocked me down, then came at me again with the horse reared.”
Phil squeezed my hand gently. His fingers and palm were hot.
“I shot him five times. Emptied my pistol. I hardly knew what I’d done until I heard the hammer clicking over and over against the empty shells. He was lying on the ground then, face up, with wide-open, blue eyes. I keep thinking about what a deep color they were.”
The way he stared down at the floor made him look for a moment like a boy confessing to a fight. I wished that was all it was. “You had to,” I said. “There wasn’t any choice.” I’d never had to speak so to my husband, and it felt strange in a way that I didn’t understand.
“That’s what I’ve been telling myself,” he said. “I know it’s the truth, but it feels so much like a lie somehow.”
I made him eat something and put him to bed afterward. He said very little the rest of the night, even when I asked him questions. It was as if he’d decided he’d said too much. Finally I let him alone. When I woke up in the morning, he’d been gone so long his side of the bed was cold. Later, during the weeks of waiting to see what would happen with the law, I tried to talk to him about what he’d done, to ease his mind the way any wife would want to, but he would look away, as if he were ashamed, not of what he’d had to do, but of the way he’d held onto me that night in the dim light of the hall.
The grand jury finally convened. When they learned that Phil had gone to the sheriff right after it happened, and that the man had been in trouble before for almost beating a man to death down in Camden, they dismissed the case. If only Phil could have dismissed what happened as easily. And yet, if he had, I would have been ashamed of him, but I wouldn’t have had to suffer what came.
He never drank in front of me, but he’d come home drunk, and at first I don’t think I realized how drunk he was because he held it so well, and he played with Conrad the way he always had. Then he wouldn’t drink at all for months, but every time he went back to it he’d be worse. He’d slur his words just enough to sound like a stranger in my house, and though he never fell or stumbled, I’d sometimes see him misstep, like he’d received some injury I didn’t know about.
One afternoon close to a year after he’d had to shoot the man, I went to the store with Conrad and found three bills from wholesale houses lying on the counter, each marked past due. And a salesman sat near the front window tapping his fingers on the glass.
“Are you waiting on my husband?” I said. He didn’t seem to know how to answer and when I asked George where Phil was, he just pointed to the storeroom and wouldn’t look at me.
I left Conrad behind the counter and walked to the back and found my husband passed out on a stack of feed sacks. His mouth hung open. His arms lay at strange angles, and liquor stains darkened his white shirt. When I shook him awake he only mumbled at first and kept closing his eyes.
“Wake up,” I said. “You’re letting this store go to pieces. Yourself, too. I won’t have it. Do you hear?”
Then he said something and all I could make out was Dock’s name. He’d called him Henry, though.
“Your brother’s dead,” I said, and I spoke so harshly.
“I shot him.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“You killed another man, not your brother. It couldn’t be helped. You know that.”
“I see him . . . in my dreams.”
“Dock. The man I killed.”
“You didn’t kill Dock.”
“It’s Henry. He’s on the ground . . . with his blue eyes open. But I cover them up. Everybody’s watching me.”
“Dock didn’t have blue eyes. He had brown ones, like yours,” I said.
“Blue. Like mine.”
“You didn’t kill Dock, but you saved my father’s life. Then you saved your own. And why? To come to this?”
He didn’t answer. What would he have said? He only passed out again, and while he lay there, drunker than I’d ever seen anyone, I know that I saw what he’d never wanted me to see and heard what he’d never meant to speak. And surely none of it was anything I’d ever wanted or expected from the man I’d married and given myself to.
The sound of the wheels and the mules’ hooves in the mud were all I’d heard for the last two miles. Cold air stung my face, and the smell of woodsmoke drifted strong enough from some shack that it filled my lungs and burned my eyes until they watered. I kept us moving, but not too fast. The mud wouldn’t allow it, and I didn’t want to tire the mules.
I worried the river might be too high, that the ferry wouldn’t be running, and that the road might be washed out so bad some place that we wouldn’t even make it to the river.
Then Phil woke up, or maybe he hadn’t been asleep but only trying to make me think he was, keeping quiet no matter how much he hurt. He groaned and cursed now, though, and I knew it must have been bad for him to carry on so. He had to be getting worse, and it worried me. But I wouldn’t reply. I stayed as silent as he’d been for the last several miles, even when he called my name.
“Stop,” he finally hollered. “Stop the damn wagon.”
But I wouldn’t. I kept my eyes on the backsides of the mules and watched them pull. And still didn’t say a word.
“Turn around,” he said after another mile. “I’ll be all right. Just take me home.”
That’s when I stopped, and set the break. I climbed into the back and leaned over him. “You be quiet,” I said. “A doctor needs to look at you, and since Dr. Hannah’s gone, I’m taking you on to Demarville, no matter how much it hurts. There’s no choice. And besides, you gave up being able to tell me what to do a long time ago. You hear me? You chose your own hurt over me and your child. So no, we’re not turning around. We’re too far down this road you’ve put us on. There ain’t no going back.”
He closed his eyes then and turned his head, like he’d done back at the store.
“That’s right,” I said, “pretend I’m not talking. Pretend I’m not even here. At least your child can face me when I scold him.”
I climbed up into the seat again and got us moving. The road was good for a while, then came some washed out places, but we made it across them without getting stuck or breaking a wheel. I handled those mules as well as any man.
Phil would groan a good deal, especially in the rough places, and I’d worry about how much he hurt. Then he’d be quiet for a long stretch, and those times began to make me afraid. I’d call his name out, his given name, Philip, then hear him answer, just to make sure he hadn’t slipped away in his quiet, hadn’t abandoned me, left me to fend for myself. I knew what that was like, and didn’t want it again. My father had gone off when I was a child back in Texas, after my mother died. I went from one cousin or aunt to another till I was grown. They so often treated me like I was no more than Negro help, gave me the worst place to sleep in the house, the worst of the food, the hardest chores. My father didn’t see it. Didn’t stay around long enough. Then I came to Alabama with a family I knew and married the man I never hoped to find, who gave me his love and so much more, a home and a child, and held me tight in strong arms. Now I was afraid my husband was about to abandon me the way my father had. While I drove those mules and suffered the sting of the cold, I couldn’t help but feel that my husband’s dying would be just another way for a man to not live up to his obligations.
We were getting close to the river by this time. I held my breath, praying it wouldn’t be too high, that the ferry would still be running. It had rained a lot the last few weeks, and I kept trying to figure just how much. Then I saw the water at the end of the road, out of its banks, flooding the trees. And there wasn’t any ferry, at least it wasn’t on this side. When I got closer, though, I let go my breath. The river wasn’t the worst it had ever been, and out in the middle of it the ferry strained against the current, making its way back across.
It finally landed, and two men I didn’t know, one old and one young, and who wore dark hats, got off on horseback. The older man’s right coat sleeve hung empty. They nodded and stared into the back of the wagon for a time and looked at me again, then rode on past without speaking, as if they knew something they couldn’t say. I pulled onto the ferry, set the break, and paid the toll.
“Your husband sick?” the man said. He had a long beard, mostly gray. I’d never seen him, not that I could remember, but somehow he did look familiar. Maybe he’d had a brother who’d worked the ferry before, or some other kin.
“Got a bad fever. A pain in his stomach,” I said.
“The river’s up a little, but we’ll get him across.”
Once we were out in the middle, the current pulled us toward the railroad trestle that rose up high above the river. I’d never seen the pilings and brace pieces that close before, or at least it seemed I hadn’t. They looked like giant, black crosses that would be standing long after I was gone, no matter how many times the river flooded.
I looked back at my husband and thought about climbing down to him, but the quilts were still pulled tight around his neck and his color looked better, though it may have been the cold. He seemed to be asleep, and if he wasn’t, I could pretend he was just as well as he could.
We made the other side and that meant only one more mile to town. It wouldn’t take long now.
“You coming back this way?” the man said. “Before evening?”
“Plan to.” I wasn’t going to spend the night away from my child, no matter what. He wouldn’t be without a mother.
Once we got off the river the wind didn’t cut so deep and the road the rest of the way wasn’t in too bad a shape. Phil stayed quiet and I called out his name only one more time, and he answered strong and clear enough.
We made town and people along the street stared into the back of the wagon just like the two men at the ferry had. But I didn’t want to see pity or whatever it was that their faces showed, so I kept looking straight ahead as if I had blinders on and not the mules. We crossed the railroad tracks and pulled up past the back of the hotel and stopped at the back door of Dr. Hamblin’s office. He and Phil’s father had been good friends.
As soon as I walked in the chill started to warm inside me, and I realized just how cold it had gotten, though I knew it wasn’t freezing and wouldn’t be until sometime late in the night.
Dr. Hamblin came out of an examining room. He stood very tall in the narrow hallway and looked down at me as if he were puzzled about something. His gray eyes were large and clear, and his white coat was clean, except for a dark bloodstain the size of a half dollar near one of the pockets. “Are you all right?” he said. The way he looked at me made me realize that he thought I was ill. Who’s to say I wasn’t?
“It’s Phil,” I said. “He’s bad sick.”
The doctor and another man, somebody who’d been sitting up front in the waiting room, brought him in and laid him down on an examining table.
Phil was full awake now. “I’m all right, damnit,” he said. “I told you, Louise, it doesn’t hurt anymore. You should have taken me home.” But he was doubled up in pain again, probably because they’d had to move him around so much.
“Hush,” I said. “You sound just foolish.”
“Tell me what’s wrong,” the doctor said. He looked at me, not my husband, and so I answered and told him all that I knew to tell. Everything. Phil wouldn’t look at either of us, only at the near wall. I hated that I had to answer for him, and until then could never have imagined a time when he would let someone else answer for him.
The doctor unbuttoned Phil’s clothes and put his hands on his stomach, pushing down here and there, and Phil would groan or wince while the doctor checked him. He listened to his heartbeat and looked in his eyes, pulling the lids back. Finally he went over to a table and took up a syringe and drew some kind of drug or medicine into it. He measured it careful, then turned Phil onto his side and gave him the shot in his hip. “This will give him some relief,” he said before I could ask what the shot was for. “And we need to let him rest. First, though, I’d like to talk with him a few minutes, if that’s all right.” He stood waiting, politely, with his hands in his coat pockets, almost touching the bloodstain on the right side with the tips of his fingers.
I was being dismissed, I knew, but a part of me was grateful to turn my husband over to him.
I went outside and took the mules to the livery stable behind the hotel for water and feed. Then I went through the back door of the hotel to the lobby and stood where it was warm and looked out the window. Buggies and wagons and a few automobiles went past, fighting the mud. Everyone wore their winter faces.
People always spoke well of Dr. Hamblin, and none so well as Phil’s father. I wanted to believe he might help, and although I knew what he was probably saying to my husband could only be the words I’d already said, I hoped that because they came from another man he might listen. And as I watched people go past along the muddy street in their heavy coats, I even began to imagine what our life could be again, as foolish as that may have been. I dreamed of a good year in the store, where we made enough to take the train to Selma for a few days, or maybe even to Meridian. We’d stay in a nice hotel and I could shop for a new dress, something you maybe couldn’t find in Demarville. I imagined not having to worry about the shape my husband would be in when I took our son to the store, imagined him taking Conrad hunting for the first time, teaching him the things a man needs to teach a son. But mostly I imagined him walking into the house in the evenings with his measured step, coming to me and touching my shoulder with a strong, steady hand and pulling me into his arms, and me thinking, Here is a husband, a father. A man who I no longer have to doubt.
Finally I went back to the doctor’s office and asked to see Dr. Hamblin, not my husband. After a wait, the doctor took me into his private office. I saw that he’d changed to a clean coat and wondered if that was his way of hiding from his patients what his work was really all about. No one wants to be reminded they have blood that can spill or be poisoned by sickness.
“He’s resting easier now,” the doctor said. “And he’s slept some. Keep him away from liquor if you can, but if he’s bound to drink, he will. I talked to him about it. Don’t know if he listened.”
“What made him hurt?”
He paused a moment, as if he were trying to come up with an answer that would satisfy. “Lesions of the stomach,” he said. “But they’ll heal. If he’ll let them.”
That was all he said, and although I thought what he gave me must have been sound medical opinion, his words did not satisfy. They did not explain why he’d been doubled up and hurting and burning with fever. There were no medical terms he could have used to explain what was really wrong with my husband. I knew better what was wrong with him than anyone in a white coat could ever have said. And it wasn’t anything a shot would make well, or a wife’s stubborn will.
I went back into the examining room. My husband lay on his side, but he did not look rested. His eyes were narrowed and his breathing seemed shallow, like a child’s after a fit of whooping cough. “What did the doctor have to say to you?”
He turned toward the near wall, groaning a little as he did, but not as bad as before.
“What he said is between the two of us. Never you mind it. Just take me on home now.”
“Can you travel?”
“I got here, didn’t I? I can get back.”
“Good,” I said. “I sure intend to go. I’ve got a child at home who needs taking care of.”
He looked away from me again, then took a breath as if he were about to speak difficult words. Nothing more than exhaled air came out, though, what his lungs couldn’t hold.
I got the wagon and pulled up to the back of the office. A stout nurse, much older than me, helped me put him in the back and cover him. The two of us handled him easily enough at first. He could walk and pull himself up, but then his arms buckled like an old man’s. Still, we managed. I was too determined not to.
The wind blew harder, and there were less people in the streets. I knew the road home was passable, but I dreaded the cold and the mud and the dark that would come sooner than I wished. And I did not look forward to nursing my husband. He would be in bed for days, at least. I would have to feed him and bathe him as best I could and try to keep visitors away, and I’d have to explain to Conrad why his father was ill. Explain it over and over probably. And what would I say to satisfy him? No child is ever satisfied.
He traveled quietly now. He was weak but not hurting so much, and I did not call out his name as I had before. I simply did not feel like speaking. My mind was too full for words to find their way out.
The wind began to come in gusts, and the bare treetops bent so far that I imagined them breaking off with loud cracks like bones. If a tree came down across the road, I didn’t know what I would do.
This time I didn’t have to wait on the ferry. It was on my side of the river, and it seemed to be waiting on me, on us. “I’ve been looking for you, and your husband,” the old man said, as if to bear out the fact that he had been waiting. He stroked his beard, and I gave him the toll for passage. He still looked familiar to me. I didn’t say very much to him, and Phil was quiet.
The road was worse than I remembered on the other side, but I kept the mules moving. I’d started to think about Conrad again and how worried he might be getting. I knew what it was to be left with someone and wonder when a parent would be back for you, or if they’d be back.
Then Phil’s voice startled me, not just because it came suddenly, but because of how unsteady it sounded, and he began to speak as if we’d been in the middle of talking. I wondered for a moment if he was out of his head.
“He wanted to know, he said. What my father would think . . . of me.”
“What?” I stopped the wagon and turned back to him and leaned over the seat, the reins tight in my hand. “Dr. Hamblin. And he told me not to forget my child and my wife. That’s what he said. Not to forget you. I wanted you to know.”
I should have spoken, should have understood better what he maybe tried to say, but I didn’t speak and I didn’t want to understand this man who was my husband and who had never before uttered any words that might be called an apology.
I drove the mules hard after that. I knew they’d been fed and rested, and I knew the November dark would overtake us. There would be no moon and no stars. I’d have to drive blind and trust the mules and the sound of the wheels on the muddy road. And I thought about all the washed out places and the ruts that could break a wheel.
The air grew colder and the mules’ breath made clouds in the air that traveled over their heads and toward me. Then their breath became harder to see, but the road was still there and just clear enough, and I knew the backwater from the river stood deep on either side of the road, but I couldn’t see it. I only thought of home now and of seeing my child and being warm and getting my husband inside, with George’s help. Then the treeline on either side of the road became harder to see until it mostly seemed like a dark wall closing around me.
We finally hit one of the washed out places and pulled through it. With each bounce I’d imagined us stranded all night.
I called out to Phil then without even realizing I was about to. I just heard my voice calling his name, and he did not answer. I called again in a little while, and he still didn’t answer. But I imagined him speaking, imagined him answering me in a voice as clear as my own but so much stronger. Then maybe I somehow went out of my head because I felt his hand firm on my shoulder and could see him in my mind climbing up into the seat with me and taking the reins over, feeling his solid weight next to me.
I called his name again and didn’t realize how loud I’d called it until I heard my voice on the night air. It must have traveled across some bottom I couldn’t see out in the woods because it came back to me, softly, though. But without an answer, and I knew then that he would never answer.
I shook within the dead silence, but not from crying or from the cold. I wanted to stop the wagon and get out and slap the backsides of both mules as hard as I could, as hard as any man, and send them and the wagon and the husband that I knew I’d lost so long before now into the dark and the woods and the backwater.
But I couldn’t, no matter what I had suffered because of him— because I’d suffered for him, too, as wives always do, and that had bound us in a way that nothing could break, not the slap of a mule’s backside or the dark of night or the backwater from a flooded river. I slowed the wagon then and carried my husband’s body as gently as he’d once held me and danced with me in my wedding dress.