Cool Air, fiction by James Owens

orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Kestrel

 

The dog barked again.

Ray lift­ed him­self out of bed for a glass of water too warm from the tap in the bath­room, like drink­ing blood or drink­ing the night air that heat and humid­i­ty had thick­ened to the con­sis­ten­cy of oil. He gri­maced at him­self in the mir­ror over the sink, look­ing just as sweat-grimed and tired as he felt, unshaven, rings like bruis­es around his eyes, then groped back to lie beside his wife on the sticky mat­tress. Sandy was breath­ing even­ly, but he knew she was only pre­tend­ing to be asleep. How could any­body sleep? The fan hummed and insist­ed air across their legs, but the arti­fi­cial breeze seemed only to empha­size the night’s dank­ness, push­ing heat around the small room where it was trapped, not much larg­er or bet­ter ven­ti­lat­ed than a jail cell. Ray closed his eyes and willed him­self to sink into the sta­t­ic drone that usu­al­ly pulled him down into dreams of child­hood.

Ani­ta Maelin’s dog barked next door, a thin, sharp sound like the edge of a chis­el tapped into Ray’s fore­head. He had heard lots of bark­ing dogs in the trail­er park since he and Sandy had moved in over a year ago, but Buzzer, their neighbor’s Pekingese, had the most hate­ful, grat­ing tone, a pierc­ing sound which began short­ly after sun­set and con­tin­ued in a slow, punc­tu­at­ed rhythm of yaps until the ear­ly hours of morn­ing. The bark­ing seemed to have got­ten worse in the past week, since the heat had moved in and set­tled on the rows of trail­ers like a vast hand cupped over them, soak­ing all day into the ground and the met­al box­es that radi­at­ed it back at night, so that there wasn't even dew on the yel­low­ing grass in the morn­ings. Ray imag­ined that he could under­stand the dumb beast's need to protest, since it was prob­a­bly suf­fer­ing like every­body else, and just want­ed to make sure no one missed hear­ing about its mis­ery. Or maybe his resis­tance to the inter­rup­tion of sleep had sim­ply weak­ened.

The dog barked. It seemed to wait until Ray was just start­ing to slip into a doze, then yap, that pained and painful, point­ed jolt of sound cut­ting through the dark­ness. Mrs. Maelin lived in the next trail­er over – the next mobile home, as Sandy’s moth­er always cor­rect­ed him, a nice­ty that Ray resist­ed, pre­fer­ring to meet the unvar­nished fact of their cir­cum­stances — but the damned dog might as well have been just out­side the bed­room door, with the win­dow open in the hope there might be a breath of air mov­ing through the screen.

Ray had dis­liked the ani­mal since the day he and Sandy had moved in. He had been lug­ging an arm­ful of dish­es from his brother's bor­rowed truck when the dog ran up sniff­ing at his ankles, so he had eased the box­es down and knelt on the grav­el dri­ve to scratch behind its ears. But the dog had snarled, show­ing him its yel­lowed teeth, and backed away from his hand, low to the ground, as if he had come at it with a stick. Then Mrs. Maelin – Ray had nev­er heard any­one call her Ani­ta, couldn’t imag­ine her as an Ani­ta – turned from eying their fur­ni­ture and picked her lit­tle dog up and cra­dled it against her well padded breasts with a few stiff, unmeant words of apol­o­gy, all the while eying Ray sus­pi­cious­ly as she car­ried her pet back inside.

The dog barked.

Sandy stiff­ened when Ray put his hand on her shoul­der. She didn’t move or inter­rupt her breath­ing, but Ray sensed her joints lock­ing, as if she were tens­ing to flee some threat, the mus­cles in her back tight­en­ing against him like pan­els of wood, wait­ing. Her shoul­der was damp and hot beneath his palm, and sex­u­al ener­gy moved there, too, desire, though he didn't need to be told, now that he was touch­ing her, that the desire moved in one direc­tion only, from him, noth­ing return­ing. He drew his hand away and lay on his back. He felt a moment of some­thing like anger or a lit­tle dust-dev­il twist of deep-down, tired and direc­tion-less despair. But he told him­self Sandy was prob­a­bly right, any­way, it was too hot for sex, even if it would be the first time in weeks. Ray wasn’t exact­ly sure just how many weeks it had been. He wasn’t going to start keep­ing a tal­ly.

After anoth­er half-hour, he went back to sleep, but it was a shal­low, unsat­is­fy­ing rest, cracked at inter­vals by the light blows of sound that ruined his dreams long into the dawn.

***

The morn­ing light was like cig­a­rette ash tipped into their pouched eye­lids, light as grainy and unaspir­ing as that of worn black and white news­pa­per pho­tographs. Ray and Sandy ate break­fast almost with­out speak­ing to each oth­er, no words beyond the mechan­i­cal oper­a­tion of lay­ing out two bowls and pour­ing milk, crunch­ing corn flakes and drink­ing cof­fee that could not do enough to cut through the grog­gi­ness of the night's poor sleep.

It was still ear­ly, as famil­iar pieces of the world set­tled into place. Through the win­dow, Ray watched trees across the road becom­ing clear­er against the sky, the dark sil­hou­ettes draw­ing col­or from some­where as they went from black to green, and elec­tric lights in the win­dows of the sur­round­ing trail­ers grew faint. The street­light at the cor­ner where the dri­ve­way met the road into town sput­tered and went dark, para­dox­i­cal­ly mak­ing the faint nat­ur­al sky seem brighter. Bird song skirled in. Most days, Ray would have enjoyed lis­ten­ing to the birds, would maybe even have car­ried a cup of cof­fee out­side to stand under the trees where they had built nests in the spring, but this morn­ing he was tired and try­ing to cor­ral his irri­tabil­i­ty.

Ray and Sandy could hear Ani­ta Maelin talk­ing to Buzzer next door, a spoon rat­tling inside a can as she fixed break­fast for the dog and then poured water into its dish. They heard her voice soft and sooth­ing as she spoke to the dog. Lat­er in the morn­ing, they both knew, she would bring him out­side and walk through the trail­er park, let­ting him lift his leg against the wheels of cars, iden­ti­cal expres­sions of chal­lenge on the Pekinese and on the woman, both dar­ing any­one to object, both allowed to do as they pleased through some unspo­ken com­pact of indul­gence among the neigh­bors. Then in the after­noon she would let the dog out for anoth­er walk by him­self, while she sat in front of the after­noon soap operas. Even after spend­ing most of the day, no mat­ter the weath­er, shut up in Mrs. Maelin’s trail­er, the dog would take care of what­ev­er busi­ness he had out­side and scratch to be let back in as soon as pos­si­ble. Ani­ta Maelin and Buzzer were, as hap­pens with old peo­ple and dogs, per­fect match­es, pass­ing an atti­tude toward the world back and forth like fac­ing mir­rors. Ray had nev­er been sure if their appar­ent bel­liger­ence was real or a mask for some­thing soft­er that need­ed guard­ing, though his attempts at friend­li­ness had nev­er been any more wel­come than on the first day. Offers to shop for Mrs. Maelin and Buzzer had been rebuffed on the grounds that there was noth­ing they need­ed. When­ev­er Ray out got out the lawn­mow­er, he includ­ed, unasked, the strips of weedy grass around Mrs. Maelin's door, care­ful not to run over flow­ers, though she had nev­er acknowl­edged his efforts. In fact, she sel­dom spoke to any­one at all, except Buzzer, unless you want­ed to talk about her flow­ers, in which case she would not let go until you were exhaust­ed. On her small plot, she had ros­es and tulips and tiger lilies and many bright and col­or­ful things that Ray couldn't have named. She had cov­ered a small slope in back with red and pur­ple phlox, and though the slope was not tech­ni­cal­ly a part of her prop­er­ty, no one seemed to mind. Nei­ther Ray nor Sandy was inter­est­ed in flower gar­den­ing.

Ray guessed the old woman could be in her eight­ies. They had heard, just after mov­ing into the park, that she had lost her hus­band to can­cer only a cou­ple of years ear­li­er.

Lucky dog,” Ray said, as they lis­tened to the morn­ing rit­u­al going on just a few feet from their win­dow but out of sight some­where inside Mrs. Maelin’s kitchen, where nei­ther Ray nor Sandy had ever been. “Wish I could get that kind of atten­tion.”

Ray had meant it as a joke — a joke about the absurd degree of affec­tion their neigh­bor devot­ed to the unat­trac­tive Buzzer, not a com­ment on their own mar­riage — but it didn’t sound like a joke to him when he heard the words com­ing from his mouth. He looked quick­ly at his wife. He didn’t want to be bit­ter toward Sandy, and he didn't desire an argu­ment. The fatigue and grit­ti­ness of the morn­ing were not her fault, and it wasn’t real­ly even her fault that he was feel­ing lone­ly and rest­less only a year and a half into their mar­riage. But he was weary of being for­ev­er care­ful with the things he said, as if all the respon­si­bil­i­ty fell to him to avoid any­thing that would draw atten­tion to the empti­ness grow­ing between them. Sandy didn’t seem to take his words bad­ly, any­way.

Some­body ought to give that damned stu­pid dog some real atten­tion,” she said, a sur­pris­ing blaze of anger in her voice. “Some­body ought to shut it the hell up for good.”

Ray nod­ded, more to him­self than to Sandy, and went back to his cere­al with­out speak­ing. It seemed to him that the tone that came into her voice when she was talk­ing that way was a new thing, some­thing he could not remem­ber hear­ing dur­ing their first months togeth­er, nev­er before the mis­car­riage. He wasn't at all sure where that tone might go if he respond­ed to it, wel­comed it, encour­aged it. He thought it might lead to a con­fronta­tion with Mrs. Maelin, and Ray didn't want that. Even though Sandy was cer­tain­ly right about the unfair­ness of hav­ing to live next to the dog's bark­ing, and even though Mrs. Maelin had nev­er giv­en them any rea­son to like her, Buzzer was still quite pos­si­bly the only bright spot in her life.

He had to be clocked in at the fac­to­ry by 7:00, so he brushed a kiss onto Sandy’s cheek and left her sit­ting at the table, wait­ing the few extra min­utes until she would have to leave, too. Dri­ving into town, Ray began to feel bet­ter. Just out­side the trail­er park, he sur­prised a pair of deer graz­ing in a field beside the road, and they bound­ed across the high­way, just miss­ing his car. The sun was high­er now and burn­ing off a light fog that had col­lect­ed around the bot­toms of the hills. It was the first fog Ray had seen in a while. Maybe the heat was going to break.

***

It had been a tri­fling bound­ary dis­pute a few weeks ear­li­er, or at least a dis­pute that Ray would have called tri­fling.

Come here. I want to show you some­thing,” Sandy said, ges­tur­ing from the open door. Ray was sit­ting in front of the TV, soak­ing in a Sat­ur­day morning's peace as if sub­merged to his chest in a warm bath. Her lips were twist­ed up on one side, sar­don­ic.

What is it?”

Just come. You'll see,” she said. She led him around to the side of their trail­er that faced Mrs. Maelin's.

Just look at this shit,” Sandy kicked at the ground. “This is what hap­pens when you give peo­ple an inch, Ray.”

Some­one had dug up a brown row of earth all along the base of the cin­derblock under­pin­ning and had set out a dozen or so plants, five-inch green stems branch­ing into lacy leaves, seem­ing to trem­ble in their del­i­ca­cy as the spring air held them. The line of palm-sized, round inden­ta­tions in the soft dirt par­al­lel­ing the row of plants must have been left by the knees of who­ev­er plant­ed them, Ray real­ized, like small cups set into the ground for receiv­ing offer­ings.

Did you —” he began.

No.”

Well,” he laughed, “there's no harm.”

But Sandy moved down the row, yank­ing the plants from the dirt — Ray didn't know what they were — and fling­ing them away at ran­dom. Ray heard a soft gasp and turned to find Mrs. Maelin watch­ing, her mouth a tight, dis­mayed cir­cle.

I thought, I thought they would make the wall look nice,” she said.

Sandy stepped very close to Mrs. Maelin, lean­ing for­ward, as if con­cen­trat­ing all of her weight into the words, slow­ly: “Not your fuck­ing prop­er­ty.”

Mrs. Maelin's gray face col­lapsed, like a wrin­kled paper bag snatched and clutched into a fist from inside.

Ray did not want to see that again.

***

Ray spent the morn­ing sort­ing lengths of planed oak as they came down the belt from the saws and stack­ing the dif­fer­ent lengths on carts to be wheeled over to the mold­ers, where they would be shaped into chair rounds or table legs or pieces of bed frames. It was repet­i­tive, tir­ing work, but sooth­ing in its way, requir­ing lit­tle con­cen­tra­tion and exact­ing just enough phys­i­cal effort to work the kinks out of his limb and his mood. He was glad, on this day, that the drone and rat­tle of machines made casu­al con­ver­sa­tion impos­si­ble while the fac­to­ry was work­ing.

He decid­ed, again, that he wasn’t angry with Sandy. They both had been stiffly cir­cling each oth­er for a while now, and it only seemed to be get­ting worse, as small argu­ments flared into big argu­ments with no warn­ing or appar­ent rea­son. He felt as if he were try­ing to repair some small and pre­cious machine, an intri­cate clock, that kept falling apart in his hands. Maybe, if he had the mon­ey, Ray could take her away for a long week­end, and that would help, even if they were only gain­ing some dis­tance from the rou­tine sights and peo­ple of every­day life, the kind of thing they had talked of doing before they got mar­ried, as if it had been a cer­tain­ty that they could over­come any obsta­cle. He would have liked to take her up into the moun­tains some­where, imag­in­ing one of the gat­ed resorts he had dri­ven past a few times in the fall on the way to hunt along the West Vir­ginia bor­der, some place in the sharp­er, fresh­er air of great alti­tude, and rent a cab­in beside a lake. Maybe they could swim naked in the cold water and lie in front of a fire­place all night, like lovers in a movie. He would like to give Sandy that. But he didn’t have the mon­ey, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that she might laugh at his fool­ish­ness or dis­miss the idea with blank indif­fer­ence was worse than not hav­ing the mon­ey.

Things had been hard for Sandy since the mis­car­riage, and Ray was sick with guilt when­ev­er he sensed that he had been short with her. It was easy at any time for him to con­jure back the agony he had felt when he had gone to the hos­pi­tal that day, breath­less and scared, called away from work in the mid­dle of his shift, to find her pale and drained on the hos­pi­tal bed, the col­or flat­tened out of her face as if by a hard slap. They had lost their baby in the fourth month of her preg­nan­cy, and it some­times seemed to Ray that she was angry with him because she thought he had got­ten over the loss more quick­ly than she had, though the baby’s death had stunned him, too, leav­ing him as hurt and hol­low-feel­ing as if he had tak­en a ham­mer blow between the eyes.

She had gone into weeks of mop­ing grief, lying late in bed, even though she could not sleep, drink­ing in the after­noon, then return­ing to work only when mon­ey got too tight for her to take any more time off. One thing she would nev­er get over, she had told him, was that it had all seemed so rou­tine, an every­day hap­pen­ing. It seemed to her that every­one at the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tor and nurs­es and fam­i­ly com­ing to vis­it, her moth­er includ­ed, were act­ing as if she had lost a tooth, not a baby. She felt that the baby’s death should be marked with some­thing peo­ple would remem­ber, at least a funer­al, but there wasn’t any­thing to bury. The doc­tor hadn’t even shown them what he had tak­en from her. Ray secret­ly believed they should be grate­ful for that, and he didn’t want to have a funer­al with an emp­ty box.

Sandy was qui­et when she came home, which she had nev­er been before. She seemed to be con­cen­trat­ing on some­thing far inside her, where Ray could not look, where, maybe, he was shy about try­ing to look, would rather not see.

It ought to be a big thing,” she said once. “Some­body died, but they all want to act like I just had my appen­dix cut out, or some­thing. It’s awful, see­ing the way peo­ple are at a time like that. I was so alone, lying there and not one damned per­son with any idea how it felt.” Ray didn’t ask if she was includ­ing him among the peo­ple. He want­ed to remind her how he had come to her, his wife lying small and bro­ken on the hos­pi­tal bed, as if he had found her aban­doned at the cen­ter of a vast, white plain, and she had pulled free and tuned away to curl around the coal-black stone of her own grief when he took her hand– but he said noth­ing of that.

Now, despite his guilt, hat­ing him­self for thoughts he couldn’t say out loud, Ray felt that she was tak­ing too long to get over the mis­car­riage. That even if there was no such thing as get­ting over it com­plete­ly, she was tak­ing too long to be real­ly func­tion­al again. That –- and he couldn’t help sham­ing him­self for the betray­al the thought rep­re­sent­ed –- she might now be pro­long­ing her mourn­ing because she got some­thing out of the sym­pa­thy peo­ple showed her, the mar­gin of com­pas­sion­ate space they allowed around her behav­ior, even while she com­plained that no one under­stood or cared.

At noon, Ray ate lunch, sit­ting on the edge of the load­ing dock that opened into the lum­ber yard. It was cool­er there than inside the build­ing, when­ev­er a breeze shift­ed in the right direc­tion, sooth­ing the sweat from his fore­head and inside his col­lar. Out­side, sun­light pound­ed straight down to bake the same dust that had been bak­ing there since the last rain. It seemed very dim under the shed that cov­ered the dock, and star­ing out into the sun­light left daz­zling spots danc­ing before his eyes when­ev­er he looked back into the shade. As he ate, Ray’s head was still ring­ing with the noise of the saws, qui­et now while the oper­a­tors had their half-hour break. When the breeze was not com­ing though the big doors of the load­ing dock, Ray could feel heat from the machin­ery inside the fac­to­ry push­ing out against his back.

Elmer Hor­ton ate his sand­wich­es and drank from a ther­mos at the oth­er cor­ner of the dock, scrawny and gray with beard and age, who had been work­ing at the same fac­to­ry since before Ray was born, but whom Ray had known sin­gle-hand­ed­ly to pick up a twelve-foot length of eight-quar­ter oak and flip it unto the plan­er he oper­at­ed, as if han­dling card­board. Appar­ent­ly he had not been in the mood for the noise and bravu­ra talk of the break room, either, qui­et­ly chew­ing as he watched clouds pass. Now Elmer stood and knocked crumbs from the front of his shirt and arched in a long stretch, fin­gers laced togeth­er behind his back, so that Ray could hear his joints pop, even across the yards that sep­a­rat­ed them.

Well, it's about that time, I guess,” Elmer said, mean­ing time for the whis­tle that would call them back to their work sta­tions. He nod­ded at the sky. “Rain soon.”

Hope so,” Ray said. He glanced at the clouds, fluffy and bright, no obvi­ous promise of any weath­er in them except more of the same.

How's that wife of yours?” Elmer asked.

Fine,” Ray said. He had a sud­den impulse to tell the old­er man every­thing. “Bet­ter.”

Elmer spat off the end of the load­ing dock, his spit­tle rolling a lit­tle ball of black mud in the dust.

Shit. Life's just life, ain't it?” he said and went inside.

The gar­ment mill where Sandy worked across town took lunch break at the same time. Maybe she was sit­ting at a table in the lunch­room, eat­ing what­ev­er she had brought from home and talk­ing with oth­er women about the things women dis­cuss. He didn’t want to think that she might be eat­ing alone, or let­ting her lunch sit there uneat­en in front of her, star­ing out into space while she wait­ed for the sig­nal to get back to work. He had found her like that some­times, alone in a room.

Ray thought about tak­ing the rest of the after­noon off. He didn’t want to go home, though. He would have liked to dri­ve out to the edge of town and rent a motel room, but he didn’t imag­ine tak­ing any­one with him, not even Loret­ta Lewis, whom Ray often watched smooth­ly feed­ing wood into the mold­er near his own sta­tion, her grace­ful long hands and the motion of her hips, and who would prob­a­bly have gone with him, if he want­ed. But he would rather have been alone. He would turn the air con­di­tion­ing on high and maybe have a six-pack to him­self, lie on the bed watch­ing tele­vi­sion and think­ing of a way to make things bet­ter. It seemed he could do that –- dis­cov­er a way of mak­ing things bet­ter, a way to fit the del­i­cate, slip­ping parts of the mech­a­nism back in place –- if he could only get some good time to be qui­et, time out of the con­stant heat. He might be able to find some direc­tion for his thoughts that late­ly seemed to take him around and around with­out get­ting any­where. Ray had saved some mon­ey with­out telling Sandy, not much, not near­ly enough for a week­end in the cab­in he fan­ta­sized about, only a few bills tucked in the back of his wal­let, but he knew he could get the room, if he real­ly want­ed to.

But Ray also knew he would go back to work as soon as the whis­tle blew. And he did.

***

Ray hit Sandy once, and when he did, he sud­den­ly knew thy were near the end. He had nev­er expect­ed to hit her at all.

When he came home from work, the first thing he heard was Ani­ta Maelin sob­bing.

After the quit­ting-time whis­tle, Ray had gone by a junk shop down­town and bought a used air con­di­tion­er, the portable kind that sits in a win­dow and keeps at least one room cool. The pro­pri­etor, who wore over­alls with the knees ground to threads and pulled a dirty rag from his back pock­et to wipe grease off his right hand before shak­ing Ray’s, had assured him the air con­di­tion­er had been com­plete­ly over­hauled and would work. No guar­an­tee, of course. Ray didn’t both­er ask­ing. The pur­chase had tak­en all the mon­ey Ray had cached away, mon­ey which might have been bet­ter spent on a new paint job for his rust­ing car, but he guessed it would be worth the expense for even one night of deep, nour­ish­ing sleep.

Ray had parked the car and gone around to get the air con­di­tion­er from the trunk when he heard Mrs. Maelin through an open win­dow of her trail­er. At first, he thought she was laugh­ing, then he rec­og­nized the sound for what it was — the cry­ing of a lost child, low, throaty, clogged weep­ing which had gone on too long, now hitch­ing with fatigue. He thought maybe he should knock on her door, find out what the prob­lem was and whether he could help, but he wouldn’t have known what to say to her. She would be embar­rassed that any­one had heard, he sup­posed.

He lugged the air con­di­tion­er inside, its weight pulling at his tired shoul­ders.

Ray hadn't expect­ed Sandy to be home yet, had been expect­ing to sur­prise her with his pur­chase, but she must have left work ear­ly. She was sit­ting at the kitchen table, star­ing at an open can of beer in front of her. Ray could still hear Mrs. Maelin through the win­dow in the kitchen. Her voice, though not very loud, seemed to fill the room.

Set­ting the air con­di­tion­er down, he nod­ded at the win­dow.

What’s going on over there?”

Sandy shrugged.

Maybe some­body should go check on her,” he said. Though Ani­ta Maelin had repulsed any attempts at neigh­bor­li­ness they had ever made, Ray still hat­ed the idea that she was sit­ting alone and cry­ing with no one but Buzzer to lis­ten to the rea­sons for her sad­ness.

Sandy shook her head and said, “No. I don’t think so.”

He paused, an empti­ness behind his breast­bone. “Okay. Look what I’ve got,” he said.

Ray ges­tured toward the air con­di­tion­er, but Sandy’s reac­tion was not what he had hoped for. He had been expect­ing the prospect of a good night’s sleep to cheer her up, but she mere­ly shrugged again. He had a sink­ing feel­ing, a moment’s flar­ing, des­per­ate wish that he could guess what she need­ed. But then she seemed to recon­sid­er, vis­i­bly stop­ping to think and pulling her thoughts into the room with him, back from wher­ev­er they had been wan­der­ing alone. She pushed her­self up from the table the table and walked over to put her arms around him. She kissed him, and it was the first kiss that had seemed more than a pan­tomime for weeks. She smiled and he thought it was a real smile.

It’s good, hon­ey,” she said. “You go put it in the bed­room, and I’ll start din­ner.”

Ray car­ried the air con­di­tion­er into the bed­room and installed it in the win­dow, tight­en­ing the screws around the bot­tom and sides so it would stay put and not rat­tle in the win­dow frame, try­ing not to lis­ten to Mrs. Maelin. He turned the air con­di­tion­er on and was reward­ed with an elec­tric hum and a wave of air turn­ing cool across his face.

Maybe, Ray thought, this would be the night for renew­ing their love-mak­ing. He went to find Sandy, to bring her into the bed­room and show her his hand­i­work, maybe even lead her to the bed. She was sit­ting at the table once more, not fix­ing din­ner, doing noth­ing.

Ham­burg­er and rat poi­son,” she said, look­ing up at him, defi­ant­ly. “It worked. Wasn't sure if it would.” She took a deep pull on her beer then looked back at the table. There was no thought in what hap­pened next. Ray found him­self across the kitchen in two long steps and his hand swing­ing open-palmed toward Sandy's face. He tried to pull back at the last moment, but the slap was still loud in the room, and the red marks of his fin­gers raised as if they were cup­ping her cheek in mock affec­tion in the motion­less sec­onds that fol­lowed.

You bas­tard,” Sandy whis­pered, rais­ing her hand to the side of her face, but she said it with­out con­vic­tion or even real blame, as if she had been wait­ing to be pun­ished for what she had done. She had not cringed away from him. Ray thought she had raised her­self into the blow, met it as her due. He trem­bled inside his chest, hat­ing him­self for strik­ing her, and — for the moment at least–hating her.

That night Ray couldn’t sleep again, even though the air con­di­tion­er was work­ing, and it was as cool as autumn in the bed­room. He lay awake with the same thoughts as always going through his head, the same wor­ries, worse than before. Sandy didn’t seem even to need the air con­di­tion­er. She was sleep­ing sound­ly and dream­less­ly beside him, as far as he could tell, sunken deep into rest, released, as if she had giv­en her­self release from the coil that had tight­ened around her, her hand fold­ed under her cheek like a child's. Ray didn’t try to wake her. He was glad the hum from the win­dow was loud enough to drown out any sounds from next door.

jamesowensJames Owens’s most recent col­lec­tion of poems is Mor­talia (Future­Cy­cle Press, 2015). His poems and sto­ries have appeared in Blue Fifth Review, Poet­ry Ire­land, Kestrel, Appalachi­an Her­itage, and Ken­tucky Review, among oth­ers. Orig­i­nal­ly from South­west Vir­ginia, he worked on region­al news­pa­pers before earn­ing an MFA at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. He now lives in cen­tral Indi­ana and north­ern Ontario. His sto­ry, "Calf," appeared here in April.

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