Greg Pierce

Later That Night

When Andy and Bridget got home, their babysitter was on all fours in front of a bowl of macaroni. Some of it was on the rug; it appeared to be sauceless. They watched as she bulldozed the noodles with her flat hand, scooped them up, flung them back down at the bowl, and said “damn it” when most of them didn’t make it in. Andy thought she was having an aneurysm. He thought of doctor friends.
     “Leanne?” Bridget said. The babysitter raised her head slowly and swung it in their direction, the way a cow might in response to a slammed door. Her hair drooped across her mouth, and when she exhaled, it sprang upwards toward her nose. The skin around her eyes was pink. Andy saw the bottle of Maker’s Mark—his bottle—nearly empty, pressed up against the side of the couch, and things became clearer.
     She planted one hand on a couch cushion and tried to hoist herself up. It didn’t work. She tilted toward her employers and then grabbed the couch arm to steady herself. Her eyes widened. She fell back onto the cushion. She sat there, looking straight ahead at the lifeless television, not bothering to move the strand of hair that ran down the center of her face like a crack in the earth.
     “Oh God,” Bridget said. She raced up the stairs. Andy listened to her hurl herself down the hallway toward their daughters’ bedrooms. The hinges needed oil. He looked at the frowns and smiles scattered across his rug like one of his daughter’s art projects.
     “I, um . . .” the babysitter said.
     “They’re okay! They’re both okay—they’re sleeping!” Bridget bellowed down the stairs. No they’re not, Andy thought.
     He got a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. Then he dumped it out and got a mug and filled that up. He brought the mug—Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Play On!—over to the babysitter, who reached for it and missed by a few inches. Andy guided her fingers to its handle. She took a sip. Makeup had gathered in the crevice by her right nostril. She tucked her stray hair behind her ear; when she’d come over at six on the dot, she’d talked so animatedly she’d constantly had to re-tuck her hair. She’s in college, Andy’d thought, she means what she says.
     Bridget came clomping down the stairs like a hungry ogre from one of Courtney’s books. She hovered over the couch. Leanne nibbled her lower lip. Bridget put her hands on her hips in one swift motion that seemed a little theatrical and said, “You have no idea what could’ve happened.” Then she waited, as though a response were required. Andy thought it was an odd thing to say, as though there were a single right answer. Fire. Death. Leanne looked down at her lap and murmured something that sounded like “sorry.” Bridget snatched the mug from her hand and slammed it down on the counter, causing a droplet to spring up and plop back in. “Get out,” she said. She stomped back upstairs in a hollow, even rhythm that conjured up war drums.
     Andy took the mug off the counter and handed it back to the babysitter, who drank the rest.
     “I’ll drive you,” he said.
     “But my car’s—” she pointed to the back patio. It was obvious to both of them she couldn’t drive like this. She brought the mug to her lips again and shook it, tilting it higher as though there were a stubborn milkshake clump at the bottom. Upstairs, a door closed. Andy hoped his wife wouldn’t come back down. She could say things in the heat of it—he’d had to put out fires. He’d long since accepted that role: I now pronounce you fire extinguisher and wife. He should go up and tell her he’d drive Leanne home. But he didn’t want to. He’d leave a note. But then he’d come home to Why didn’t you tell me you were going? The snow on the back patio had a rounded, muffinlike edge, which usually made him feel cozy. He’d shovel it tomorrow after pancakes. He went upstairs.
     He found Bridget sitting in the hallway outside Courtney’s bedroom, her cell phone open in her lap. She was squinting, as though an explanation of the entire evening were written on the wallpaper in a tiny font. Her left hand picked at a carpet fiber, released it, picked at it again. If this were a painting, Andy thought, it’d be called Wife Seething.
     “Dee said she was the best,” Bridget said. “She’s been with them three years—she said she’d been a godsend to Christopher—that we’d have nothing to worry about. These are quotes, Andy.”
     He nodded. “I’m gonna drive her home.”
     “She can take a taxi!”
     “That’ll take forever to get here. I’ll just drive her home.”
     She ignored him. She picked up her phone and pressed keys seemingly at random. She always lifted her thumb higher than necessary and then brought it down hard, making lone, truculent clicks. She’d be an awful pianist, Andy thought. She could never Play On! He didn’t want to stick around to hear her rip into Dee. He’d heard that; it had made him wonder what he was doing here. He nodded in a way Bridget could interpret however she wanted. He went downstairs.
     He found the babysitter standing now, propping herself up against a barstool, trying to feed her arm through her parka sleeve. He helped her.
     “Thanks,” she said, reeking of his liquor.
     “Do you want some more water?”
     He held her puffy elbow and guided her out to the garage. It embarrassed him, other people seeing this, piles of glue tubes and sandpaper, a roll of chicken wire, radio guts, lifelong hobbies he’d had for a weekend. He envied his neighbor Don who carved owls. Leanne walked cautiously, her steps reminding him of a trust exercise he’d done on the first day of Camp Chautauqua. He’d had to lead his blindfolded partner down a rooty maze. He smelled mango.
     “Step down,” he said.
     “Got it,” she said.
     He opened the passenger door of his Honda and made sure his hand stayed between her head and the frame. What cops do, he thought. He got in and turned up the heat. They’d gotten as far as the mailbox when she said, “Can you please pull over for a sec?” He did, wondering whether it was possible to pull over in your own driveway. She got out, waddled into the snow, and vomited. He looked away. Should she go to the hospital? Was this about to become a long evening? She stayed down a while, her elbows resting on her thighs. When she stood up, she looked back at the house. No, Andy thought, she didn’t see you throw up. Leanne brushed snow off her shins and got back in the car.
     “Sorry,” she said. “That was unsexy.”
     Andy smiled. Why had she said that? They were not on a date. He had just been on a date, it had gone badly and had ended even worse. He did his best to make a smooth turn onto Spear Street—Bridget always complained he was a jerky driver. You drive like you’re always seeing deer. He drove the speed limit toward Burlington.
     “There’s usually gum in the glove compartment if you want it,” he said.
     She opened it, and a stack of car literature fell out. He should’ve warned her the hinge was broken, it always did that. She leaned forward to pick it all up.
     “Don’t worry, I’ll get it later.”
     She found the gum. “Do you want one?” she said.
     She unwrapped two sticks, which took great focus, and gave him one. They chewed. The gum was stale and cold and broke up in your mouth like chipped paint would. He was going to apologize for his subpar gum, but when you feel as guilty as she must’ve, the last thing you need is apologizing to.
     “Should I . . .” he started. “Do you know how much you had? I mean, should we be going to the hospital?”
     “Oh God, no,” she said, sounding remarkably sober. “I puked because I was so nervous. Now I’m okay.”
     He was chonking. You chew gum like you’re making sure it’s dead. He stashed it in a crevice between his gums and his cheek. He turned down the heat—heat’s awful when you’re queasy. He thought about how they’d all been drinking at the same time. Leanne was polishing off his Maker’s Mark while he and Bridget were drinking Merlot and arguing about whether Courtney should take French or Spanish. The date had been his idea, an actual date complete with babysitter. They hadn’t done that in years. He’d suggested Catch, the new seafood place on Church Street. They both hated the name—she said it sounded like a sports bar. He’d guessed she’d get the pan-seared scallops and she did. He’d gotten the blackened salmon and wondered if she’d guessed he would. In the low light of their corner table, Bridget had looked gorgeous. She was all edges and angles—her chin, eyebrows, like an untidy stack of index cards. And she’d made him laugh. They’d had a homely, fumbling waiter, and after he’d left the table she’d said, “Not a catch.”
     “Mr. Wessler,” the babysitter said. Andy pictured his father, a tweed golf cap perched high on his head. “That was so stupid—what I did. I’m so sorry.”
     He was about to say, “Don’t worry about it,” but he stopped himself. She would worry about it. She should. He dislodged his gum and chewed freely.
     They drove past the church, the pointy one that was all roof. Andy’d heard it flooded years ago, and every time he drove past it he pictured water rising up over the pews, little wafers floating around—Episcopalian lily pads. She brought the back of her hand up close to her eyes and studied it, twisting it slightly as though it were a rare gem. Andy wondered if, drunk, it looked funny.
     “So you’re at UVM?” he said.
     “Yeah. Sophomore.”
     “What are you studying?”
     “Art history. You’re a banker, right?”
     He nodded. He was not a banker, he was Vice President of Commercial Lending and had worked hard for it and not liked it, mostly. He should be mad at her, she had endangered his children. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten mad. Cruelty made him mad. Deliberate harm. But this was not that. Seeing her wobbling on all fours trying to pick up noodles had made him feel sad. No one should find herself there.
     “I want you to know . . .” She thought about how to phrase it. “I made sure Courtney and Annie had their dinner and were cleaned up and tucked in before anything happened.”
     “Mm,” Andy said.
     “Not that that excuses anything—it doesn’t. It was so wrong—well . . . whatever.” She looked out the window.
     When she’d first come over, they’d chatted briefly about Catch while Bridget was upstairs convincing a teary Annie that this was not the collapse of a family. Leanne hadn’t tried Catch yet but she’d wanted to—he should let her know how it was. “Okay,” he’d said, knowing it was too pricey for a college student. He wondered if there’d be an opportunity during this drive to say, “By the way, Catch is pretty good—overpriced, but good. Get the salmon.” Probably not. The bottom inch of her hair was a darker brown than the rest. Had she just dyed that inch? Or had she dyed the whole thing months ago and it had grown out? Either shade would look fine. Was she an alcoholic? Is that why she drank that much?—it was none of his business. It was his business. It was his alcohol.
     “So, then, you just wanted a drink?” he said.
     She thought about that. He had overstepped—
     “We had an argument,” she said. “On the phone—me and my boyfriend. It bummed me out pretty badly.”
     “Is he at UVM too?”
     “Yeah, he’s a senior. He’s double-majoring in English and philosophy. He’s really smart. I don’t know how long we’re gonna last, though. Which sucks, because I love him.” She brought her hand up to her eyes and studied it. “My sister’s gonna kill me. I got pretty upset while he and I were talking and I thought I’d have a drink because that usually chills me out but . . . it turned into a really long, involved talk and I was drinking from the bottle—trashy, I know—and then we got off the phone and I was like totally bombed. I freaked out. I called my best friend Carrie and she told me to eat tons of carbs so I made pasta but I burned the shit out of my hand.”
     “Let me see,” Andy said. He put on the interior light and she held her hand where he could see it. A pink smear, like lips, crossed her thumb knuckle.
     “Oof. Did you ice it?”
     “I ran it under the faucet for a while.”
     Andy pulled over and put the hazard lights on. He wondered if Bridget was still ripping into Dee, if she’d used the phrase can’t even fathom yet. He got a handful of snow from the side of the road. He looked in the back seat for something to put it in but didn’t find anything. He opened the passenger door, and saw one of the Honda manuals in a plastic cover on the floor. “Sorry,” he said, reaching past her leg. He picked up the plastic by the corner so the manual slid out. He put the snow in the plastic and handed it to her.
     “Thanks,” she said. “That was so Cub Scout.”
     He gave her a two-finger salute. He got in, turned off the hazard lights, and pulled back onto the road. Why hadn’t she said Boy Scout? Did he look young?
     “Your wife seemed so freaked out—please tell her I’m sorry . . . no, never mind, I’ll write her a sorry note.”
     “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
     They turned left onto Williston Road and headed downtown.
     “Where do you live again, Leanne? You told me . . .”
     “King Street, you can take a left on South Champlain. And it’s Vicky, not Leanne.”
     “Oh . . . but I thought—” Andy hit the brakes, gently. It’s like the car is an extension of your brain-freeze.
     “Leanne’s my older sister. She’s Christopher’s babysitter—she’s the one his mom recommended to you. She got this blind date at the last minute and she told me if I covered for her, she’d pay me whatever you pay me so I’d make double—you shouldn’t pay me, by the way, obviously. She told me to say I was her, because if I didn’t you guys wouldn’t want me because I don’t have any babysitting experience. She’s gonna kill me.”
     Andy felt pinpricks at the back of his neck. If Courtney’d swallowed the wrong way—?
     “Where does she live?” he said.
     “With me. King Street.”
     They drove by Catch, which was dark now. Andy saw their corner table stripped of its white cloth with blue zigzag border which was supposed to be waves but looked more like mountains. He braked again. Because Paris is essentially off-limits unless you speak French. Okay, but why don’t we just let her hear both languages—rent foreign films—and then ask her which one she likes the sound of? Well, she likes the sound of bubble wrap—should we encourage her to take bubble wrapping?
     He took a left on South Champlain. Vicki chewed her gum forcefully, killing it. “The white one,” she said, pointing. He pulled up in front of the battered white Victorian with folding chairs on the porch. The house’s edges were pressed-in, saggy; it looked like it was melting.
     “She’s home,” Vicki said, glancing up at the top floor where a light was flickering, probably from a TV. Vicki made no effort to get out. She tucked some hair behind her ear and looked at Andy.
     She had a plain, clear face—maybe a little pudgy, or maybe he was just used to Bridget’s juts. He remembered dropping off Bridget at a house much like this one after maybe their third date, not wanting the night to end. Bridget had mentioned a tape she’d just gotten, Midnight Oil, and he’d wondered whether to say, “I’d love to hear that tape, if you’re not too tired.” He wondered what it would’ve been like to take Leanne—Vicki—out to Catch. The dim light would’ve barely caught her two-toned hair. The waiter would’ve guessed at their relationship; he’d have been wrong. She’d have had the lobster roll. They’d have talked about movies, banking (briefly), art history. Oh!—he’d have told her the story about Professor Mentz who taught 8 a.m. art history and put a cymbal next to the slide projector so that after every tenth slide he could crash it and wake everyone up. She’d have laughed at that one. He’d have wondered if she actually thought it was funny. He’d have felt his age.
     “Will you come in with me?” she said.
     Sure you can, I really like the song “Beds Are Burning”— do you know it? It’s the one on the radio. Come in.
     “I have to tell Leanne what happened and maybe if you’re there it’d be—because you’re so chill and I feel like with you there, it wouldn’t turn into a bigger deal than it is, you know? Will you? You can say no.”
Her exposed ear was slight and lovely, belonging to something from the forest.      “Okay,” he said. What would he tell Bridget? I had to pull over three times, she was so sick. I had to wait.
     Vicki got out. She poured the melted snow out of the plastic cover and put everything back in the glove compartment. She walked soberly up the steps to the porch. The folding chairs all faced each other, as though a conversation had been fled from. Andy followed. Vicki put her hand on the door handle and kept it there a second, eyeing her burn. They went in.
     The kitchen was dark except for what the blinds sliced up and tossed across the fridge. Vicki didn’t switch anything on. She went over to the freezer and pulled the door open. Harsh light spilled out over everything, letting Andy see the crusty plates and open magazines, the red flannel shirt with its arms fed through the chair back as though it were sinking. Vicki took out an ice cube tray. It was empty. She took out a yellow tube of prepackaged cookie dough and held it to her wound, wincing as it made contact. She sat down in a rocking chair and rocked, barely. Andy sat on the couch.
     “Do you want anything?” Vicki said in a thin voice. “The light doesn’t work. I was supposed to get bulbs.”
     “No, thanks,” he said.
     They sat.
     They heard her sister. At first Andy thought the cry was a startled one, as though she’d seen a critter. But a second cry followed, and then a third, and then a man’s, not so much a cry but a string of effortful “uhs.” And then quiet. Andy thought a door upstairs would open and the bathrobed sister would come clomping down, but no—the sounds started up again, faster this time, sounding like something you keep at, rather than enjoy. He should leave. He shouldn’t have come in. Did this happen often?—Vicki listening to her sister? He couldn’t imagine listening to his own sister. Vicki was watching him now, his face. Or maybe she was just looking in his direction—there wasn’t enough light to tell—had she closed her eyes? No, she was watching him. She was watching him listen to her sister. His mouth went dry. He touched his tongue to one molar and then the other, trying to drum up saliva. It didn’t work. He wondered if this is what Vicki sounded like with her boyfriend. Dull percussion. Repetitive pain like an endless set of sit-ups.
     Vicki stood up and gestured with the cookie dough tube. “This is foul. I’m gonna walk down to the waterfront. Wanna come?”
     He shouldn’t. He should get back. She was so sick I had to take her to the hospital. She didn’t end up getting her stomach pumped but there was a lot of paperwork and questions—
     Her eyes.
     “Sure,” he said.
     She went into the bathroom and—leaving the door open—took a swig of mouthwash and swooshed it around. Then she went straight to the front door and held it for Andy. He went out, and she let the door slam behind them. Her body changed suddenly, on her way down the steps—her shoulders. There was pep. She’d turned back into the girl who’d come over at six on the dot. She spit the mouthwash into the snow. She set off down the sidewalk, swinging her arms, the cookie dough tube looking like the weight Bridget and Dee passed back and forth on their Sunday morning power-walks.
     “That must be weird sometimes,” Andy said. “Living with your sister.”
     A woman carrying plastic bags watched them from across the street. Andy nodded to her. She kept walking.
     “How long have you and your wife been together?” Vicki said loudly.
     “Fourteen years,” he said, finding it incomprehensible.
     “Whoa. Doesn’t it get boring?—never mind, too personal.”
     “No, it doesn’t—not boring. I don’t know how she’d answer that. Our kids are terrific—”
     “—Your kids are amazing. Courtney acted out the entire Emperor’s Nightingale for me, and I was like whoa, somebody has to film this now.”
     He laughed. “She loves that one. She wrote the script herself.”
     Vicki was really booking it now. Andy had never been a fast walker. He thought it was just how he was assembled, where his legs met his hips. You walk like you’re riding a horse.
     Soon Lake Champlain was there before them looking cold, looking like it had nothing to offer. The ice was apparently too thin to skate on this year, though its black sheen told Andy it was uncrackable. There were a few lights over on the Plattsburgh side—bars, restaurants. Teenage boys way down the boardwalk pelted snow at each other and laughed in their new, Neanderthal voices. Vicki made a beeline for one of the swinging benches.
     “Let’s sit,” she called over her shoulder. “But we can’t swing, it’ll make me puke.”
     They sat. The breeze off the lake picked at Andy’s cheeks but he’d always been fine with cold. Cold felt good on his mind. It had been too stuffy in Catch—his brain had malfunctioned, he’d been free-associating, doing whatever he could to stave off the silence. He’d mentioned how strange it was that Courtney was approaching the age where she’d have to make decisions that might affect her whole adult life, which instrument to play, whether to take French or Spanish. It had been downhill from there. Toward the end, Bridget had found several veiled ways of saying that French was the language of art, while Spanish was the language of labor. They’d gotten snippy. They’d reminded Andy of couples he didn’t like having dinner with. It had concluded with her, of course: If you think I’m turning this into a class thing, you’re wrong. Plenty of French is spoken in Africa. He’d asked for the check before she could order mousse.
     He pivoted his foot and the bench started swinging a little.
     “Easy,” Vicki said.
     “Oh, sorry.” He dragged his foot, stopping it, remembering the clackety swing sets of his youth, chains that made his hands smell like tin and urine. He cleared his throat. On the Plattsburgh side, a light was blinking steadily. Had someone been kidnapped?
     “This isn’t cold anymore,” she said, pushing her thumb into the dough tube. “Let’s eat it.” She tried to rip into it and then gave up and handed it to Andy. He opened it and gave it back.
     “Take some,” she said.
     How? He wasn’t going to bite into it. Could he use some of the wrapper as a spoon? There’d been something in the news last year—someone had gotten sick from eating this raw. Giardia?—no, that was from beaver poop. Botulism? He got up and spit his gum into the trash can next to them. What had she done with hers? He sat back down and pinched off a couple cookies’ worth of dough and put it in his mouth. God, it tasted good. He handed her the tube and she gnawed off a hunk as though it were a chicken wing.
     “Mm,” she said. “I could eat this whole thing myself.”
     “Tell me your boyfriend’s name again?”
     “I don’t think I told you before, it’s Sean. He’s double-majoring in—oh, I told you that. He does this thing with me—we’ll be talking about, you know, whatever’s going on with our friends or whatever and he’ll be like, ‘It’s like Fear and Trembling.’ And then he’ll just wait—he won’t tell me why it’s like Fear and Trembling. So then I either have to be like ‘Yeah’ and hope he doesn’t ask me why, or I’ll be like ‘Why?—I haven’t read that’ and then he’ll give me some really short answer that doesn’t make sense or he’ll say ‘Never mind’ like I’m too dumb to get it. And then tonight when we were talking, he did it—for the first time, he did it with art history. He’s never done that before, it’s always been with books and stuff from his majors. We were talking about my best friend Carrie who’s moving up to Montreal and I was telling him about the stuff we were loading into her U-Haul and he was like, ‘Oh, it’s like Duchamp.’ And then it was just like, silence. And I was like, ‘You mean his readymades, right?’ and he did this little laugh like how cute that I was trying. So I was like, ‘You know what, Sean? You have to explain yourself if you wanna make some really deep connection because otherwise it just feels like you’re testing me.’ And he got really quiet and then went into this whole long thing about how I’m just like ‘them’—about how his mind’s so full of deep connections, people get resentful about it and, like, the reason he can’t actually connect with anyone—that hurt—is because the amount of connections his brain is always making is . . . he said his mind’s like a circuit board with way too many wires on it and sometimes he just wants to unplug himself. So that’s when I had a drink, during that. And you know what bummed me out the most? Halfway through one of Sean’s speeches, I realized my father was just like that. He was always testing me and Leanne and making sure we knew he was smarter than us. And the whole point of my going to UVM was to get away from that. And now here I am, in this.”
     She wiped a tear off her cheek.
     “He sounds really insecure,” Andy said, holding out his hand for the dough tube.
     “He is! He’s super-insecure.” She handed it over. “The only reason he doesn’t explain himself is because he’s afraid if he says it out loud, the connection that’s so deep in his head won’t actually be that deep.” She swung the bench. She grabbed the dough tube back and took a big bite. Andy’s phone vibrated. I’m sorry, I didn’t feel it vibrate—we were in the emergency room, there was a lot of commotion. It stopped. He’d sat on the next bench down with Bridget last summer. They’d watched Courtney and Annie tool around on the rocks. He’d said to Bridget he wondered if swinging was so comforting because we all got swung in the womb. Of course. It’s the last time we knew we were safe. He’d dragged his foot while he thought about that. Annie had grinned and held up a clump of lake slime as though it were a prize fish.
     “I owe you a bottle of Maker’s Mark,” Vicki said.
     “We’re even. You made my kids dinner.”
     They swung. The blinking light in Plattsburgh went out.

     When he got home, Bridget was on the couch watching an old movie, a blanket pulled up to her chin. She hit pause. He could already hear it, And where the fuck have you been? But she didn’t say that. She just looked up at him with wide eyes, plenty of white in them. And she started to cry. “I’m sorry, Andy. I should’ve been sure. I should’ve sat down with her. I should never have trusted a stranger with our children.”
     “It’s not your fault.” He sat down beside her. “We both—”
     “—It is. I’m their mother. Something could’ve happened. I’m supposed to have a gut feeling about what’s right for my children and I didn’t. Where was my gut feeling?” She asked as though she wanted an answer. The back patio. Catch.
     “Don’t worry,” he said. “Nothing happened.”
     “It did, though. Something happened. I have this feeling that I lost my children tonight. And that they were given back to me, and that I don’t deserve them.” Her face contorted into something Andy had never seen before, and was afraid of.
     “Shh,” he said. He rested his hand on her back and she leaned forward. He rubbed soft circles into it. He wondered if he smelled like anything—cookie dough, gum. His circles got bigger. Backs don’t change much, thank God. He liked Bridget’s shoulder blades. They were like the heads of primitive tools, triangles with worn-down points. He scanned the rug for stray macaroni. None. Bridget must’ve gotten down on all fours to pick it up. She must’ve said something under her breath . . . godsend. The movie played, a woman on a ship, holding her saucerlike hat on with one hand, waving with the other. Bridget hit stop.
     “I know,” she said. She got up and went over to the fridge. She opened the freezer door and took out a tub of coffee ice cream. She got out spoons and bowls and carved out two deep caves. She brought the bowls over to the couch and handed Andy his, giving him a smile that seemed to come from someone else. She sat down next to him and took a deep breath. He set the bowl on his knee. He wouldn’t be able to touch this—it hurt his teeth and stomach just to look at. He held his spoon in his fist, the way he did when he was five, the way he did when he was alone. His knee was cold already.
     “You should’ve been their mother, Andy,” she said. “You know things.”
     “No,” he said softly, unconvincingly.