|Excerpts > Fall 2005|
William Black Midnight Thoughts on the Law of Probability
So this began just exactly as you’d expect: the pitch dark of three a.m., an unexpected noise, a knock like that of wood against wood. The noise woke us both, but it was C who said, “Did you hear that?” And then another noise, a kind of rustling though metallic, tinny, and C recognized it: the blinds. She sat up in bed, said in a panicky stage whisper, “I think I left the window unlocked.”
This, an old habit made new: she’d been smoking on the roof again, crawling through our second floor window, late at night, to sit and smoke and look at the darkened fields and the far off mountain ridges and smoke, thinking whatever one thinks when one has decided to leave, is waiting through the long last two weeks before leaving. It’s a habit I’d once put an end to. For a while I hadn’t minded it, but soon I found it awful, the smell of smoke on her clothes, in her hair, the way it came through the window and into the carriage house, which I loved, which made me feel lucky, and it was bad for her – it would kill her one day, I told her that, of course I told her that. And sooner or later – I knew her after all, I knew these things about her – she would leave the window unlocked and then it was just a matter of chance. She had left it unlocked already, I was sure of it, since she’d started again, this crawling onto the roof at night to smoke. She’d want to go out there first thing in the morning sometimes, and I’d see her reach to undo the lock and then a look would cross her face, like she was surprised to find the window unlocked already, but she didn’t say anything, and if I said something, she’d say back, “Things like that don’t happen in the country. Nothing like that happens out here. Who’s going to shimmy up a chestnut tree and crawl in through a second story window?” Shimmy – she actually said shimmy. So once I told her how my father had been awakened in the middle of the night by a flashlight shining in his eyes and a voice saying, “Don’t worry, Dr. Reynolds, it’s just me, Chief of Police Joe English” – he was the only cop in these parts, so of course he was the chief. And standing there, holding the flashlight’s beam on my father’s face, and my father covering his eyes with his arm, Chief of Police Joe English explained, “Your burglar alarm is going off, so I came up and let myself in through the back door and had a look around, but I didn’t see anyone,” and my father said, “You idiot. I don’t have a burglar alarm.” And okay, so that’s a funny story, and it was a cop who’d come in through the open door and not a robber, but that was just a matter of chance, and there was a time when I could convince her of the danger of things with a gentle, funny story.
But not then, not in those long last weeks after she had signed a lease of her own and was waiting for the first of the month, and it was during those last weeks that we experienced the correction, the inevitable turn of chance – Probability demands that sooner or later you come up snake eyes – and it was a burglar breaking in and not the chief of police. And when it happened, when we both knew for certain that it was happening, she said in that stage whisper, “I think I left the window unlocked.” But I didn’t say anything about it. I lay there thinking of what to do. I thought about the things the burglar might take and I hoped he’d just take what he wanted and leave and then I could get out of bed and feel safe about cataloging what was missing and calling the cops. And I wondered what kind of task that might be, depending on what the burglar took, to recognize something by its absence, especially when half the place was packed up in boxes, all of C’s stuff was packed up in boxes, and would a robber find it convenient to just take a box of stuff already packed to go? And then, if he did take a box, or if C thought he’d taken a box, it would be that much harder to establish what was missing. C hadn’t written each box’s contents on the outside of the box, so we would have to open up and go through each of the boxes he hadn’t taken before we knew what was still there and could deduce what wasn’t. I had so far avoided the packing, I wanted no part of it, packing up her stuff so she could leave. And that’s what I was thinking when I heard him. He stumbled into a box, tripped over it, and staggered without falling. I got out of bed, and C whispered, “What are you doing, don’t go in there,” and I said, “We have to do something. I’m going to do something. Stay here.”
I pulled on a pair of pants and went to the door and paused, my hand on the knob. My plan was to be quieter than the burglar. I wanted the element of surprise on my side. This was my house, I knew my way through these rooms, I knew where the boxes were (unless C had moved them without my knowing), and maybe I could turn that to my advantage. Maybe I could sneak up on him and then – I don’t know. Flip on a light, shout at him, take him in a chokehold, and in his nervousness and shock I’d have the upper hand. I could pin him to the floor, tie him to a kitchen chair, have C call 9-1-1 while I stood guard.
But this next thing, this strange, unfortunate thing that happened next, when I opened the door and stepped into the dark room – it was shocking and disorienting, and though it took only a split-second, it was my plan’s undoing. It was the reason I lost the element of surprise and the burglar gained the upper hand. I turned the knob as quietly as I could, eased open the door, but before I was into the living room – literally as I was passing from one room to the next – this strange, disorienting thought came to me: It’s spring.
Late spring, actually, after the rainiest part of the season had passed and the fields had begun to dry out and they no longer smelled so heavily, so soddenly, of earth. And it had been at exactly this phase of the season three years earlier that C and I moved into the carriage house.
So here there was a burglar in the house and I was stepping into the dark to confront the burglar, and I’m thinking, ridiculously, It’s spring, and remembering the spring of three years earlier, just because of the cool, loamy fragrance coming in through the open window – such a small, insignificant thing, considering, but it was enough to conjure a distracting memory. Or not the whole memory but the edge of it, the sense of it, and this feeling was edged with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because we’d just moved into the carriage house together. C loved the carriage house then, it made her feel lucky, too. We felt lucky a lot that spring, and crawling onto the roof to smoke, to take one last look at the fields and sky before bed, had meant something different to her. And the memory in question, the memory I caught the feeling of as I stepped from the bedroom to the living room in pursuit of a burglar, was of driving a wide moonlit road between newly turned cornfields. We were driving home from dinner at Scott and Amanda’s. We’d been in the carriage house only a week or ten days and felt lucky about it but had so far spent all of our free time unpacking, so Scott and Amanda, to give us a break from unpacking on a beautiful, moonlit late-spring night, invited us to their house for dinner. The dinner was lovely. Every time a bottle of wine emptied out, Amanda was quick to open another. C and I left in high spirits, tired at the end of a lovely evening, at the end of a long week, but happy and feeling lucky, and as I drove the wide moonlit roads, we were quiet in each other’s company. I soaked up the good feeling and drove looking out at the sky that seemed huge that night, endless, and C was asleep beside me, or almost asleep. Her head was rolled to one side and reclined against the headrest, and though her eyes were open, they looked heavy and about to shut, and believing that she was falling asleep as we drove home after such a lovely evening with good friends who were, to boot, very good people – well, it made me happy. But she wasn’t asleep. As I was thinking all this she lay her hand on my hand. My hand was on the knob of the gearshift, and she lay her hand on top of it, and just as she did we reached a four corners out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but the huge night sky and the dark, flat, newly turned fields, and then in the middle of the intersection was a kid on a bike. The kid on the bike had come through the intersection, cutting straight across our path, and was dead in the middle of the crossroads before I saw it – or him or her, I suppose. I was driving fast, the road was open, and we had no stop sign, no reason to slow, so when I saw the kid on the bike I jammed the brakes and swerved and came to a screeching halt thirty or maybe forty feet across the intersection – luckily, we hadn’t hit the kid on the bike – and the car was turned at an angle and pointed toward the cornfields.
C had lurched forward when I hit the brake, and then slammed back against the seat as the car stopped, and now she sat catching her breath, her hand to her chest, and said, “What was that, what happened?”
I was short of breath, too, and worried about the kid on the bike, and I explained to C, rushed and breathless and worried to panic, what had happened, and then I got out of the car and ran back to the intersection and looked for the kid on the bike. But there was no kid on a bike. There was nothing in either direction. I thought maybe the kid had gotten scared by our near miss and gone off the road into a ditch, so I looked, but the ditches were empty. Nothing. I went back to the car and C said, “I didn’t see a kid on a bike.” “You were sleeping,” I said. She said, “No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t asleep at all.” “You didn’t see a kid on a bike?” I asked. “You didn’t see anything?” “I didn’t see anything.” “Maybe it wasn’t a kid on a bike,” I said, “maybe it was a deer or something.” “Maybe,” C said, “but I didn’t see anything at all.” I went back to the intersection and looked both ways and saw nothing. I walked a little ways in one direction and then turned and walked a little ways in the opposite direction, but there was no kid scared into the ditches.
When I got back to the car C was a little impatient – she was tired, she said, and added, shaking her head, that she had no idea what I’d thought I’d seen. “Maybe it was a deer,” I said. “Maybe it was a deer and it sprinted away.” I put the car in gear and drove off. “You’re shaking,” C said. And it was true that I was shaking. She put her hand on mine again and with her other hand she caressed my arm, smoothing my sleeve, trying to quiet the shaking, and soon the shaking stopped. When we got home I was feeling mostly calm again, though I could still feel the adrenaline in me, and as I shut off the car I noticed C sitting back in her seat, taking in the moonlight and stars as they shone through the leafing branches of the chestnut tree. And so I stayed in my seat, too, and took it in, too, and noticed the smell of fresh spring grass. C leaned forward, took off her sandals, and opened her door. Her smile was mischievous, and I remember that I let her get out and close the door and walk off into the shadows of the chestnut tree, barefoot, her skirt gathered in one hand, and then disappear around the side of the carriage house before I set after her.
Of course in the split-second it took to pass from the bedroom to the living room and smell the spring air coming in through the window and conjure the edge of that memory, I didn’t take the time to put all the parts of the memory together, but the sense of it was there, whole and complete. All the anticipation, just as I’ve just described it, but laced with dread, because what I realized that night was that for all the hope and expectation I had felt – we had felt – there was already something corrupt about it, the whole construction we were living on was slowly rotting and would sooner or later come crashing down, it was just a matter of time. That corrupt and rotten thing might have seemed a ghost, as much a phantom as the kid on the bike, but it was there, I could feel it. As soon as I saw the kid on the bike, I knew.
So when I stepped into the living room it seemed somehow darker than the bedroom – not because it was but because for that split-second I’d been transported to a night three years earlier – so I had to stop again and blink and wait for my eyes to adjust, and of course that meant the foiling of my plan. The burglar heard the doorknob turn and then the door open and he suffered a jolt of fear and adrenaline – I know this because he told me – and he turned to see me, or the silhouette of me, step into the living room and then pause to let my eyes adjust. And he took that moment to stop what he was doing – he never did mention what he’d been doing – and duck into the shadow beside the bookcase. From there, he watched me pause and decide what to do next. And I had to decide. Because while passing from one side of the bedroom door to the other, I thought, It’s spring, I was shocked and disoriented and I didn’t pay close enough attention to what I was doing and so didn’t know from which direction the sounds had come. I stepped into the dark living room not knowing where the burglar was, so whatever I did next was a risk, was figuratively as well as literally a step into the dark. As my eyes adjusted I weighed the possibilities and decided to walk as slowly, as quietly, as I could toward the kitchen. The best bet was that the robber was to that side of the carriage house – there was more to steal at that end – and not knowing, of course, that the robber had heard me and slipped into the shadows, I still thought I might have the element of surprise on my side. I crept the length of the living room, stopping here and there to take a mental inventory. At one point I noticed a jade candlestick was missing from the coffee table and stopped to scan the end table for it, and then the bookshelves, until I realized C had probably packed it. This would be a complicated project, one I was already dreading: unless we unpacked all her boxes, how would we know what the burglar had taken? This is what I was thinking when I reached the threshold of the kitchen and the robber sneaked up behind me, took me in a chokehold, and put what turned out to be the blunt end of my chrome and gold-plated Century II fountain pen to my temple. The chrome and gold-plated fountain pen was heavy and cold and felt convincingly, as the burglar had hoped it would, like the barrel of a gun, and he said exactly what you’d expect him to say: “Don’t move, don’t make a sound. You do what I tell you to do.” And what he told me to do was raise my hands above my head and move slowly into the kitchen.
Of course I had no choice but to move slowly, and actually I followed his lead, let him guide me one step at a time, but I also tried to move very quietly because I was thinking about C in the bedroom, that she must have been afraid – for me and also for herself, alone under the covers and not knowing what was going on out here. And I wondered if the burglar suspected there was someone else in the house. It would be best, I thought, if he didn’t think there was someone else at home, and I also thought it was best that C didn’t know what was going on, and so I did as the burglar instructed, and only when we got into the kitchen did I say, quietly and very calmly, “What do you want? You can have anything, just tell me what you want.”
“I want money,” he said, and it occurred to me that he was young, that his voice sounded young and boyish and uncertain and that he’d dressed it up a bit to play the part of the burglar. That he had me in a chokehold probably helped his confidence and probably made him a little nervous, too, because if I was right about what I’d heard in his voice, he wasn’t yet a pro at burglaring and had probably imagined himself in this situation, knew there was a chance he’d find himself in a situation like this, but hadn’t actually experienced it. And if he was nervous, that could work either way: either I could take advantage of it and finesse my way into the upper hand, or out of nervousness – the combination of a jolt of panic and inexperience – he’d pull the trigger of what I still thought was a pistol.
“There’s no money,” I said, “Don’t fuck with me,” he said, and I said, “Really, I wouldn’t fuck with you, not in a moment like this. We don’t keep money in the house,” and I felt him pause, I sensed the turning of wheels, and I got a little panicky myself, because I didn’t know whether he was considering the truth of my assertion that there was no money in the house or that I’d said we and that meant there was someone else he needed to be concerned about. To fill the pause, in hopes of distracting him from his thinking, I said, “Really, no money,” and I tried to gauge whether what I heard in his voice was true. The forearm against my throat seemed slight, I thought, and I tried to determine if the flesh of it seemed hairless or soft or in some way juvenile, but of course I couldn’t, so I tried to glance down and see the arm, but I must have moved my head too suddenly for his tastes because he jerked his arm up and into my throat, tightening his hold on me. He said – much more anxiously this time – “Everyone’s got money around,” and then I was sure I was right, that his voice sounded young, because in that sentence it didn’t sound dressed up but genuinely distressed and a little bit disappointed. And it was then that I suspected that what he held to my head was not a gun.
I said, “But I do have stuff that’s worth some money.” And I took the risk of venturing, “Look, I know that’s not a gun, it’s prob- ably my Century II fountain pen. That’s worth some money – you can have it, and I can get you some other things that you can sell for money.” And I realized my mistake, that if he knew that I knew it wasn’t a gun, he’d lost his upper hand and so might be more desperate to assert himself. So I said, very calmly still, “Listen, the fact of the matter is, you very clearly have the upper hand – it’s dark and you’re the robber, right? All I want to do is get out of this in one piece, so I’ll do whatever it takes, I’ll give you whatever you want. I know what you want is money, but like I said, there’s no money in the house, so we’ll have to work something out. Just let me out of this chokehold and I’ll show you what’s valuable, I’ll show you so you don’t have to look for yourself.”
He said, “If I let go of you, you’ll see my face.” I said, “You’re not wearing a mask or something?” and he said, “No,” so I said, “Okay, first things first. We’ll find you something to cover your face with. How about a scarf?” I’d remembered that C had left a silk scarf on the kitchen table. “There’s one on the table here,” I said. And then a strange thing happened, as strange as thinking, It’s spring, if not stranger, because, generally speaking, I don’t believe this kind of thing is possible. I’ll explain: I imagined – or maybe I just let myself finally believe – that he was in fact quite young, a boy, really, and of course I thought the obvious thing – drugs, he wanted money for drugs – but mostly I thought that he was young and in some kind of need or he wouldn’t be doing this, he wouldn’t be risking himself like this and breaking into someone’s house, and because I thought him young and vulnerable I felt kindly toward him, paternal. I had the kind, warm-hearted feeling that I could help him. It felt almost like I could make something up to him, that I’d wronged him once and now that he’d broken into my house I had the chance to set things right again (where such feelings come from, I have no idea). And here’s the part that I keep thinking about but which I frankly just don’t believe is possible: he must have somehow sensed that my thoughts had turned kindly because he took a moment to think about what I’d said, that we’d get him something to cover his face with and then once that was done I’d get him something valuable to take with him. I keep returning to this hypothesis because what he did almost as soon as I had this feeling was think for a minute about my proposal and then agree to it. And what I don’t believe, generally speaking, is that he could in any way have sensed what I was thinking or feeling. That kind of transmission of thought or feeling between two people just isn’t possible, even when the two people in question are supposed to be in love. But the fact remains that he thought about my offer to let him cover his face, indeed to get a scarf with which he could cover it, and he agreed. He trusted me. And there was no reason for him to trust me. I don’t have to explain all the ways that this was a terribly risky thing for him to do, but he did it, and together, with this young burglar leading me backwards, keeping me in the chokehold, we took small shuffling steps until we reached the table. “Go ahead and put it on,” I said, “I won’t look, I won’t turn around until it’s on,” and he said, “Take two steps that way, three steps, and don’t turn around until I tell you or I’ll punch you in the face,” and when he told me it was okay to turn around he was wearing C’s scarf like a train robber’s bandana around his mouth and nose. It was dark, of course, so I couldn’t actually see the design on the scarf, but I knew what it looked like – it was silk and royal blue with a delicate pink and purple pattern. The pattern was abstract but from a distance it looked like flowers, or in any event it had a floral feel to it. So I turned around to see the boy-burglar wearing C’s silk scarf, and because it was true that he was young and a little boyish – slender though not slight, built a lot like C herself, in fact – and had a soft halo of curly hair, I started to laugh. This was the burglar! This was the man who’d broken into the carriage house and scared the daylights out of us! I thought about C still in bed and that she must still be frightened – and growing impatient for news about what was happening out here – and that, the picture of her wide awake and scared beneath the covers, was funny and sad, both. Funny because here stood the man she was afraid of – with his slender build like her own and his little halo of curly hair and her own abstract flower-printed silk scarf over his nose and mouth. And sad because I didn’t want her to be afraid, and because I didn’t want her to be afraid, and because I was worried she was in fact getting impatient and might do something about it, like leave the bed and come into the living room where she’d disrupt what was still a fairly delicate negotiation, I was ready to move along and get this poor young burglar something to take with him. But first I laughed at the sight of him, softly but genuinely, and he laughed too, just a little, he checked himself in a hurry to try to keep the moment from slipping away from him, but for a moment he laughed – I could see it in his eyes, I heard it, too, though it was soft and stopped abruptly. I definitely heard it. And then it was time to get down to business.
“All right,” I said. “We’ll get you something to take with you.” I ran through a short list of possibilities, but frankly there wasn’t much, especially since C had packed so much already. And we didn’t own many of the things burglars tend to make away with, a television, for instance. But it didn’t take long to decide. The answer was rather obvious, in fact. In a secretary in the living room was a complete set of Wallace Grand Colonial silver flatware. The real thing, elegantly presented in a cherry wood box. If the burglar sold it a piece at a time – which, with a couple of exceptions, is how C and I had bought it – he stood to make $15, maybe $17 a piece, and if he sold it complete with the cherry wood box, he could bring in a quick grand or so, easy. And what was especially nice was that he could tuck the whole score under his arm and go – no television to go lugging around, if you see what I mean.
I said, “I got it,” and I explained to him what I would give him and how much money he stood to make and how easy it would be to make off with. He nodded – indicating, That will do – and I said, “Now you’ll have to trust me, you’ll have to follow me.” He held up a fist to remind me what would happen if I sought to deceive him, but when I held out my hand to say, Shall we? he nodded. He followed closely but so quietly that once I looked over my shoulder to make sure he was there. When we got to the living room it was suddenly much darker – so maybe it’s true that the living room was in fact darker at night – and though my eyes needed a moment to adjust, I kept moving, partly out of fear of stopping now and giving this burglar, young and slender though he was, a chance to reconsider, and partly because I felt confident that I knew how to navigate this room, that I knew where the boxes were and could, by rote, wind a path between them. But the burglar’s eyes needed a moment, too, and instead of asking me to stop and give his eyes a chance to adjust, he fit his hand through the crook of my arm and held me, gently, the way C sometimes did on a date, and like that he kept up, blinder than I was, trusting me.
We passed the door to the bedroom, where C was, still not knowing what was happening out here, and reached the secretary. I turned to him, held my finger to my lips, and then lifted the lid. I motioned to him to hold the lid open while I reached inside, and then there I was, holding the cherry wood box out to him and suddenly scared to death – far more scared than I’d been so far with this burglar – that before the burglar had a chance to take the box and make away C would decide to come see what was happening. Not because she would be in danger. It’s true that this was still a delicate negotiation and if she were to suddenly get out of bed and come into the living room things could change, they might even turn dangerous for both of us, but that wasn’t the main reason I hoped she wouldn’t decide right then to come find out what was happening. The main reason was that I felt awfully like I was betraying her, like if she were to come in and find me handing the box of Wallace Grand Colonial flatware to the burglar, I’d be faced with a guilt and shame as profound as if she’d caught me in an infidelity.
You see, we’d bought this silverware together, a piece at a time, as I’ve said, poking through every antique store in a fifty or sixty mile radius. C bought the first pieces – a single complete place setting. She’s found the pieces in an antique store and liked them and bought them for my birthday. When I’d opened the cardboard box and pushed away the tissue paper to reveal a place setting of antique silver I thought it was nice but wasn’t sure what to make of it. C explained that if we could find another set, one set for each of us – well, she thought it matched the feeling of the carriage house perfectly. We hadn’t moved in then, we’d signed the lease but it would be almost two months before renovations were complete, and I wasn’t sure she was right. But once we had moved in I thought twice about it, and then I really got into the spirit of this silverware. We found a second place setting but I didn’t want to stop there, we didn’t stop until we’d found all fifty-one pieces and the box designed especially to keep them in, but when C was packing up to leave she wanted to divide the silverware and take half with her – that made sense, she said. She loved the stuff but it wasn’t right to ask for all of it because we’d bought it together; she’d bought the first place setting for my birthday, but to ask for half seemed appropriate.
I disagreed. It was a complete set and should be kept a complete set. We both knew exactly how hard it was to find all the pieces, not to mention the box – besides, you can’t halve a fifty-one piece set – and finally C acquiesced. I must not have felt right about keeping the complete set for myself, either, and that, I’m sure, was another reason it seemed the perfect thing to give the burglar. But that didn’t keep me from the guilt and shame of infidelity. And those feelings were heightened and coupled with terrible nervousness because there was in fact a very good chance that C would grow unbearably impatient and come into the living room before the burglar had time to get away. She had always been adventurous, compared to myself, in any event. What with her crawling out onto the roof to smoke (I would never have thought of that) and the way that night, when we’d driven home from Scott and Amanda’s and almost hit, or almost did not hit, a kid on a bike, she’d smiled that mischievous smile and took off her sandals and gathered her skirt in one hand and set off around the side of the carriage house, daring me to follow and knowing – was fully confident – that though I’d be nervous about it, though it would feel a little beyond the limits of my own adventurousness, I would in fact follow her.
And I did follow her, of course I did, though I knew exactly what she had in mind. So I gave her the head start, like I said, and then followed her around the carriage house to the wide sloping yard, and there she stood. Her back was to me, she was waiting, I knew, and she was looking out at the same view she had from the roof when she went out there to smoke – the fields that sloped away, the low, distant mountain ridges, the starlit sky that was huge that night. And as I approached she leaned into me, let me slip my arms around her waist, and titled her head, exposing her neck so I could kiss it, which I did.
What C wanted, of course, was a love making session under the stars. That was one of the things she found appealing about the carriage house when we first looked at it (what she said, to be exact, was, “I’ve always wanted to have sex on the grass like that, under the stars”). The landlord was showing us the place and explaining the renovations that would have to be done before we moved in, and when C looked out the window, the very one she would later crawl through to sit on the roof and smoke, she thought of the sloping lawn below, What a place for making love, or something to that effect. She told me so later, when she was packing up to leave and disappointed, angry, that only once did we ever make love on the lawn. The idea of making love on the lawn never much appealed to me – dew, bugs, itchy grass – but I must have caught the spirit of it that night, what with the lovely dinner and the huge sky and all the anticipation that had come with moving into the carriage house a week or ten days before, because next thing I knew I was letting her undress me, and then we were naked on the lawn, just as she’d wanted, and she swung her leg over me and climbed on top of me and took me inside of her, and I admit that for a while it was exciting – one reason I loved her, certainly, was that she was more adventurous than I. But soon – there was no way around it – reality returned to me. I couldn’t, as C had done, just leave it behind, and soon I was thinking about the kid on the bike. I felt compelled to get back in the car and go have another look and make sure there was no reason to worry. I knew C wouldn’t have seen it that way, she would have been frustrated if I’d abandoned this moment, this enacting of her fantasy. And knowing that, it occurred to me that she’d been unaffected by what had happened, or had almost happened, back at the crossroads. I wondered, almost angrily, how she could be so unaffected, and I had to make myself remember that she hadn’t seen the kid on the bike. But that was very strange, that I’d seen the kid on the bike and she hadn’t. What were the chances of that? I thought. And then it occurred to me that it was all a matter a chance, everything was, from the strange and frightening moment at that crossroads to the fact that we hadn’t had the same experience of it – at all – right down to the highly unlikely events of our meeting and falling in love and moving together into the carriage house. It could just as easily have gone any number of ways, an infinite number of ways. In fact right at that moment, while I was naked under the stars, lying on the cold, itchy grass and making love to C, with the air smelling damp and loamy and new, just exactly as, coincidentally, it would three years later when C was packed to leave and the carriage house no longer felt lucky to her and a burglar climbed up the chestnut tree to break into our place – right at that very moment I could have been someone else. I could have been a man who’d been driving too fast and too carelessly and struck a kid on a bike. C arched her back and I saw her breasts white in the moonlight and her hair spilling over her shoulders and her lips parting, soundlessly, with pleasure, and I thought, Right now I could be a man who’d just killed a young boy or girl on a bike. And if that had happened, it would be an irrevocable fact. I would always and forever be a man who’d killed a kid on a bike. C thrust her hands against my chest, then kneaded my chest. I knew she was coming close to her orgasm, though I could not have felt less sexy myself. Her lips were parted now, her breathing was heavier, but she wouldn’t make a sound until she was having her orgasm, and I was waiting for that sound because I could not get out of my head the fact that right then and there I could have been someone else, that any number of things – an infinite number of things – could have prevented my being this person in exactly this place in exactly this situation. And as I waited for C to make her sound, it occurred to me that none of these things had occurred to C, that a series of chance events had brought us to this moment but really we were very different people who would always want different things, even there and then while we were making love to each other, and that’s when I understood – that’s when it really came home to me – that whatever else happened in our lives, I would always be a man who could have been the man who’d killed a kid on a bike, and it would always be true that it might come to pass that I am a man who killed a kid on a bike. That is, at that moment it seemed possible that I had in fact struck the kid on the bike and this, here, now, making love with C on the lawn beside the carriage house, was a kind of grand and dreamlike denial. (This is not an absurd notion; people go to great mythmaking lengths to deny painful experiences, they do it all the time.) And then, finally, came the realization that for all our anticipation, for all the lovely and lucky things we’d felt about ourselves until that point, something in the foundation of things was corrupt, rotting: this fragile network of coincidences had revealed itself as such, and soon other utterly random coincidences would develop and the whole structure of what at that moment we were calling our lives would come crashing down. I could feel it.
So just as earlier I’d caught the edge of the memory of the drive home through newly turned cornfields, I stood at the secretary, retrieving for the burglar the cherry wood box that held the antique silver flatware, and I caught the edge of what it had felt like later that same night when C and I made love on the wide sloping yard. As I handed over the silverware I asked the burglar – I was curious – how he knew I was coming into the living room and stole from me the element of surprise. I told him I’d had a plan to gain the upper hand, and he explained that he’d heard me and was startled and ducked into the shadows beside the bookcase. He said he was terribly frightened until he saw that I was taking a long time to walk to where he stood, as if I didn’t really believe there was a burglar in the house and was just making sure everything was still in its place. He said it was killing him to have to wait so long to jump me, and he added, “That’s a stupid plan. I don’t know how you thought it would work. How could I not hear you coming?”
After he left I thought about that – I think about it still – but I’m sure he’s wrong. It wasn’t the plan that was to blame, it was the shocking disruption of my concentration that came when I thought, It’s spring.
So I handed the box of flatware to the burglar. He must not have seen very well in the dark, because when he reached to take it his fingertips brushed my hand, gently, and they seemed to linger a bit, as if he were trying to feel his way, rather tenderly, through my fingers to the box. It was a shocking experience – a burglar’s tender touch – and for a second time that night I had the strange feeling that – well, if I were the type who believed in such things, I’d say at that moment something passed between us. His fingertips brushed my hands and I felt again that rush of tenderness mixed with guilt, as if I’d wronged him sometime in the past and was now making up for it, and I laughed again, quietly and just a little, in part because he looked so funny – I thought I would always remember that picture of him, the soft curly hair that looked like a halo, C’s slender, feminine build, and her printed silk scarf tied like a train robber’s bandana over his mouth and nose. But also, I laughed because that touch and the strange feeling that something bigger had transpired made me nervous. The laugh was, in part, a nervous laugh. To shake off the nervousness I urged him to hurry up and get on his way, and I suggested that he sell the set whole but drive a long ways before doing so. I told him that every antique dealer within fifty or sixty miles knew us and knew we’d been collecting those pieces and would be immediately suspicious. “Or then again,” I said, “you can claim that I gave it to you, that you’re my cousin or my nephew and I gave this to you as a wedding present or something.” Saying that, I told him, would make him look crass and ungrateful but not necessarily criminal. He could do that, if he wanted, if that seemed easiest, and then I told him my name, I actually told him my name, so he could put his story together however it suited him.
He nodded, thanking me, and tucked the box under his arm and turned and started for the window. He crawled through without looking back, just as I’d watched C do so many times. I heard him cross the roof, and then he must have reached the chestnut tree because I couldn’t hear him any more, he was gone, and I found myself standing there in the dark and trying to hear him, actually wanting to hear him out on the roof, because without him the carriage house seemed suddenly and awfully very dark and very quiet. It was just as it had been before he’d come and yet it felt different – in such a way that I could imagine, for the first time, what it might look like when C had left and taken her boxes with her. And I had the terrible feeling that even if something significant had passed between the young burglar and myself, that thing, that moment, was over now, gone, and it had left no evidence of itself behind, no way to prove that something significant had really happened, only the absence of two things: the burglar and the complete set of Wallace Grand Colonial flatware. I tried, standing there in the middle of the room, to bring back the feeling that something had transpired between us and at the same time to keep the terrible empty feeling at bay. It wasn’t working (of course I knew it wouldn’t), but I stayed there anyway, pretending that it might work, and besides, I did not want to go into the bedroom and have to explain to C what had happened – C who would herself be leaving in a couple of days. And how could I explain what had happened when it already seemed a dream, a mirage, something that, soon, even I would have a hard time believing? And so there I stood, in the middle of the living room, with the door to the bedroom on one side of me, and the open window and the tinny, rustling blinds on the other, and the cool, loamy fragrance of late spring everywhere throughout the carriage house, and for that moment it seemed – for better or for worse – the only place I could possibly be.