The day Leslie went over to the pound to pick out a dog, Anne and Rita and I sat out on the porch and waited for her to come back. Leslie had wanted Anne to go with her, to help pick out the new dog, since it would be both of theirs, unlike Jasper, who had belonged to Leslie. Leslie had even picked a weekend when she knew Rita and I would be up to visit, so that we could all go look over the dogs with her. In the end, though, we all sat on the porch and watched while Leslie made her way down the sidewalk and around the bend in the road, after she had come home from work one Friday evening to go pick out the new dog.
It was long past sunset and Leslie hadn't come back yet when Anne began to tell the story of how Stewart Johnson had probably killed Leslie's dog, how Jasper had been found over in the woods across the way, mauled by raccoons. When Anne and Leslie took him over to the vet for an autopsy, the vet was surprised, because he had given Jasper his shots and pronounced him healthy a couple of weeks before. Jasper was eleven, which is old for a dog but not that old, and only a rabid raccoon would attack a living dog anyway. What had most surprised the vet was that one of Jasper's ribs had been broken, the last one, with a notch taken out of it along the crosswise break, which didn't look like the work of a raccoon. As he had before, when other people brought in animals dead before their time, the vet wouldn't say for certain that Jasper had been shot, or who the shooter might be, but Leslie became convinced that Stuart Johnson had shot her dog, and when Leslie asked the vet, he didn't deny the possibility. Stewart Johnson was known around town for killing cats and dogs that had owners. Though no one could prove it.
Once, ten years before Leslie's dog had disappeared, Stewart Johnson killed a golden retriever he found digging in his garden. The dog was going after one of the rabbits that had warrens through various parts of his garden, and had Stewart Johnson been a different sort of man, he might have been grateful to the dog for going after one of the pests. But the dog was digging his way down the warren after the rabbit and uprooting a number of plants, so Johnson said that he yelled at the dog a couple of times and then took out his rifle and shot him.
Both Johnson and the owner of the dog filed property damage suits, because it was the only action the dog's owner could take, there not being any signs of animal abuse, neglect, or cruelty. Just the one clean shot. The dog's owner would rather have had Johnson tried for murder, but there was no provision in the law for that. Both property damage suits pretty much made things a draw. There was still some positive feelings toward Johnson then, because it was known that he and his family lived partially on the meat that they hunted and on the vegetables that they grew. The golden retriever was considered an unfortunate incident and people were more careful to keep their animals tied up.
Then a couple of years went by and Johnson's children grew up and his wife left him, and the town seemed to have a higher rate of run off or missing or dead animals, and more mauled carcasses were found in parts of the woods than seemed appropriate, and feelings for him weren't so friendly any more. There was some blood and hair found in the back of the pickup that Johnson said was deer but tested out canine, and Johnson said that sometimes dogs will get loose and jump into the back of his truck and lick at the deer blood, and the matter was put to a rest. But then Johnson would sit on his porch and make a gun shape with his fingers, and shoot and recoil as people walked by his house with their dogs. It would have helped maybe if people could have considered him a crazy old man, but back at the time of the original dog killing he was only thirty-two years old.
on the night when Leslie went to the pound we all waited on the porch quietly
for her to come back, and about two hours later she came around the bend in the
road and up the sidewalk, not followed by a dog on a leash but holding a cardboard
carrier that looked like a container for take out food. Leslie presented Anne
with a tiny, sleeping orange kitten. Leslie had walked all of the dogs there before
getting the kitten, we found out later. The kitten took to Anne immediately, and
they called her Amelia.
We had been sitting on Anne and Leslie's porch all afternoon, three years after Amelia had come to grace the sunny spot near the rocker, when a storm began to blow up the valley, between two of the ranges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that cordon off the Shenandoah Valley. Around the maps spread out over the table, with a pitcher of ice tea sweating in the center, Leslie pointed out the long streaks that seemed to float through the air far off, the slanted lines that seemed to fall before a rain, almost an optical illusion, looking like the graininess of a black and white movie. Then the thick smell of dust began to drift through the valley even before we saw the dark grey-black clouds gathering in the south, before the winds blew volcanically hot and then suddenly cool, and we could see the rain far off, like a charcoal mist floating below the clouds. Rita and I watched this as Leslie moved Anne's bike into the garage, and as the first crack of lightning touched down on one of the far mountains, Anne brought a fresh pitcher of ice tea out on the porch so we could watch the storm, and she went in to fix supper. Rita and I rocked on the porch swing and listened to the water run in the sink, smelled the sharp smells of dill and lemon, guessed that we were having fish, and then that the boiling water was for pasta.
Leslie sat down in the chair next to us and spread the maps out over her knees. Earlier that afternoon, Leslie had looked at the route Rita and I were going to take up north later that summer, around Washington and Baltimore and through New York State, to a campground near where Anne's parents used to live. Leslie had been hoping for a trip out west this year, but Anne didn't have the time off from work, and flying out there would mean so much money that there wouldn't be anything left to see the sights. Leslie and Rita were trying to decide if they wanted to make any side stops on the way to Anne's family's property in Vermont -- if Rita wanted to look around in her old neighborhood, or if Leslie wanted to stop at her Mother's house in New York, but Anne and Leslie's mother had never met. Leslie and Anne had been together for six years, but Anne and Leslie's mother had never met.
If Leslie wasupset about our plans I couldn't tell. Traveling for her was less like a vacation and more like a quest. For a long time Rita and I used to think of our travels with her the way that the conquistadors must have thought of their journeys -- the search for treasure, the search for a land that no European had ever seen, toward a land of silk and spices. Later I remembered the stories told to me by an old Irish priest, when I used to spend my afternoons in the church basement, learning Latin. He told us stories about the old Pagan Summer Country, lying a league to the west and a foot above a tall man's head, where all friends are eventually united, and all the questions in life are answered. When you leave the country to live again you forget. I thought sometimes that Leslie looked for a place just outside of our perception, where the veil between every answer and every question ever asked is lifted. In some way that place lied just below her fingers, a little to the right or the left on the map perhaps, but somewhere written down so that she can find it. Leslie studied the map of Pennsylvania.
"We ought to avoid toll highways." Leslie said.
Rita sat back and took a long draw on her tea. "I suppose."
I got up to help Anne make supper. The four of us had been going places together for so long that we could each relate to the other three like old married couples. Sitting at the kitchen table I cut vegetables to put in the steamer and saw that Leslie had pulled her chair around to face Rita, and leaned forward, listening. In our couples Anne and I were the talkers and in a few minutes there was silence on the porch, the two of them against a backdrop of impending rain. Anne watched them framed in the window. She crossed the kitchen and began to peel the kiwi and oranges to be scattered over vanilla ice cream for desert. Her voice was low next to me. "It's good that they found each other."
There was a simpatico to the two of them, something beyond their retired military status, or the love they both had for dog shows and fishing. They were two people mutually comfortable in their discomfort with living, two women not yet forty-five who could have been old men playing checkers. Leslie and Rita could have sat in a park or a diner for hours, moving silently across the board, so absorbed in each other as to have stopped noticing the other's actual presence. Anne looked over at the window again and began to take the peel from the orange in a concave, perfect spiral. Anne saved the kiwi for last, because the skin comes off only in pieces, and the fruit, pulpy, sat naked in her palm, and she tried not to squeeze too hard and get the gore on her hands. I kept on slicing broccoli.
By the time we set dinner on the table, the winds had gotten strong enough to blow trash up the streets, and the smell of dust was heavy, with the smell of water creeping up behind. Five minutes after dinner was on the table the rain began hitting the porch roof in big drops, and the wind shifted direction so that it began to suck the short curtains around the kitchen window against the screen. When we got to the salad I heard a crack, not like lightning and not as far away as before, and all of the lights cut off, and the refrigerator stopped humming, and the second hand on the clock didn't move: the vast mechanical silence swallowed our conversation. Anne took two hurricane lamps out of the cabinet over the refrigerator and lit them, turning the wicks down to fill the room with a soft yellow glow. Leslie stood out on the porch, looked both ways up and down the street. "The power is out as far as I can see."
"It's been a bad summer for storms." Anne set two pillar candles on the counter, in case any of us needed to leave the room. "We've already had to dip into the city snow removal budget to fund the power crew's overtime." She left a small chunk of butter on one of the bread plates and put the rest in the refrigerator, pulling out the fruit for the ice cream so she wouldn't have to let the cold out more than once. "If the transformer has been hit that's the third time this year." Anne left the fruit on the counter with the grace and efficiency and instinct of a woman dancing, making a square with her feet between the table, refrigerator, cabinet, and counter. She took her place at the table again.
"It will be bad if we have to replace another transformer." Leslie pushed the vegetables around on her plate. She gave up and reached for the salad, hoping to find something somehow less vegetable-like in it. In one of the natural lulls in the conversation that followed, with Anne eating and Leslie searching around in the salad bowl for something she liked and Rita reaching for more sugar for her tea, we heard, between the ground shaking bouts of thunder, another sharp sound far off, not the sharp crack of lightning but a sound that did not roll like thunder, and Leslie put down the salad bowl and the tongs and sat still to listen.
"It's probably thunder." Rita said.
"No" Leslie said. "It isn't thunder. It counts wrong. Listen again."
We waited, sitting around the table without clinking glasses or silverware, knowing that even the sound of chewing would be too loud, and waited. We heard the sound twice more, then thunder rolled up the valley and obscured anything else. Leslie began tapping the seconds between the thunder with the edge of her knife on her water glass, and then the crack came again, followed a few seconds later by the thunder. Leslie pushed her chair back, "I'm going to find Amelia." she stalked out of the kitchen, letting the screen door bounce against the wooden frame, get pulled back out into the wind. A gust of rain blew in, soaking the wood as Leslie left, and both of the flames in the hurricane lamps shuddered but didn't go out. We could hear Leslie calling the cat from the porch.
"Jasper is still a problem for her." Rita said slowly.
"I think it's just that Stewart Johnson isn't dead yet. Leslie wasn't one of the people who had any sympathy for him after the incident with that first golden retriever anyway. She was willing to shoot Johnson right then, with his own gun, herself."
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I think that he probably kills house pets for sport. I can't convict him though. Not just based on what we know." Anne picked up her fork and began digging at the fish on her plate. "He's guilty though. Even if he never has lain a hand on any pet in the county. He lets us think he does. He keeps us up nights with it, with him on than damn porch, making a gun with his fingers." Anne swirled the water around in her glass, squeezed the juice from a wedge of lemon into it, then dropped the whole piece into the glass. "I can't convict him, but I wouldn't mourn him any if one night he turned up with a hole blown through his head." Anne had been angry when they found Jasper -- when two kids hiking brought his tags back down the mountain and took her and Leslie up there to get the body. It was Anne who thought to take plastic bags and borrow a wagon, who insisted that Leslie not carry him. It was Anne who hovered with a calm, ordered pattern at the edge of everything Leslie did that weekend -- took his body to the vet, to the crematorium after the autopsy. She called Rita and me, called Alyssa and Miriam who kept him when the four of us went away. It was Anne who finally told us that story about the vet, after they hadn't caught a single rabid raccoon in the valley that year, after Stewart Johnson had been seen hauling a canvas bag into the woods weeks later by two kids too scared to follow. Too small for a dog they thought. Maybe a cat. Maybe. It was Anne who said the maybe. Leslie said yes, when she told us anything at all.
Leslie came back in without Amelia, and she stood in the screen door just out of the rain listening to the far off sound of what was probably gunshots, her hands beginning to shake even as she sat back down at the table, rummaging again at the vegetables on her plate. Leslie stabbed at a spear of broccoli, then put her fork down crosswise on the top of her plate. "I'm going to see if Stewart Johnson is home." She stood up, ducked into the hall bathroom for a moment and then plunged her hand into the fish tank that sat on the bookcase on the far wall of the kitchen, pulling out a wet handful of gravel and plunging it into the pocket of her jeans.
Anne still sat at the table, wondering if she should try to placate Leslie or not. "We should wait until the lightning stops."
Leslie shook her head no."He could be home by then." She opened the screen door and started across the porch, leaving Anne to scramble into her sandals and her big straw hat as a shelter against the rain. Rita and I followed Leslie across the porch and Anne trailed after us, pausing to pull the screen door shut and throw the lock. Once outside we were all drenched in seconds. We started down the sidewalk, pushing water from our shoes at each step, and Rita and I dropped back, letting Leslie and Anne lead.
Stewart Johnson's house was several blocks down Leslie and Anne's house, at the end of a winding cul de sac. Because of the storm and because the sun had begun to set below the ridge of the mountains, it darkened early, and we couldn't see much with no light coming from any of the houses. Leslie stood at the corner of the white wooden fence that lined his property and surveyed his house.
I had expected a lawn overgrown with weeds, broken cars, a house with the paint peeling and holes in the screens. From what I could make out in the dark I thought the lawn seemed to be trim and tended, the front of the house lined with shrubs that showed lush green in the brief flashes of lightning, the house painted white with light blue trim, the paint neat, the sidewalk leading up to it even and uncracked. A pickup truck, a dark color somewhere between cherry and maroon, maybe a dark blue, stood in the driveway. There were long, narrow shadows against the back window, with cross shadows extending the width. It took me a moment to realize by the shape of it that this was a gun rack. "He's home, I guess." I whispered, feeling a little queasy suddenly.
"No." Leslie said, "He takes his other truck when he's going hunting. It's got bigger tires and 4 wheel drive. He takes it when he goes up the mountain under the cover of a rainstorm."
The four of us stood there uncertain what to do next. Listening to the gunshots far off and knowing that Johnson wasn't home to make himself innocent didn't seem to convince Anne that he was guilty. The storm stayed right over us, and in the frequent flashes of lightning I could see raindrops run underneath Leslie's soaked tee shirt; there was no slack, no give to her shoulders. A great and exhausting mute powerlessness showed up keenly in the set of her jaw, ran like rainwater through her hair, into the bite of her fingernails into the wood of the fence. I thought that maybe we could follow the gunshots and find Stewart himself, but in the dark, with the shots echoing off of the hills, I didn't think we would have a chance. Even as I thought that, Leslie must have known too, because she slipped into the yard, went over to the truck and began to unscrew the valve caps on the tires, taking a small handful of the fish gravel out of her jeans pocket and packing a few pieces of it into the stem so that the air would slowly leak out of the tires. She worked from the back two tires quickly around to the front, so that she was squatting partly out of view of the sidewalk and in the shadow of the truck.
I kept telling myself that what Leslie was doing was a small, petty thing compared to the torture Stewart Johnson had put his neighbors through, even if he wasn't guilty, which seemed less and less likely. I wondered about us though, the three of us who stood there and watched Leslie deface his property, doing inconvenience but no real damage, the smaller acts of subversion that prevent the real acts of rebellion. I thought of the story of the dog and the idea of property damage and I repeated it over and over in my head, and I prayed Holy Mary Mother bless us...and crossed myself, praying for wisdom and guidance and not to get caught, and I wondered if there was a greater justice in this act of Leslie's or was this a cheap imitation. Anne must have sensed my nervousness, because she ushered Rita and I into the yard and into the shadow of the house, and perversely this seemed like a good idea at the time, so Anne and Rita and I threaded our way along the bushes and Anne leaned over to us and said, "We're leaving over the back fence. Go stay there." Rita and I paused at the edge of the house, ready to run at the first sign of trouble, and I looked at the back yard. I could make out places where the dirt was darker than the surrounding earth, a large garden neatly tilled, with tomato stakes at the end of each row, probably with the name of each plant on it.
I looked over at Leslie and out of her back pocket she took a half used tube of toothpaste and began to spread it across the top of each of the windshield wiper blades, a thick white paste she put on in layers that the rain begins to wash off even before she got it out of the tube. In between the rumble of thunder and lightning we could no longer hear gunshots, and then nothing Leslie could do seemed adequate to standing out in the rain and the lightning and listening for that sound far off, and wondering if it was your pet he had gotten after all.
Leslie picked up one of the wiper blades then and tried to spread the toothpaste below it and let it drop too hard and the car alarm that none of us would ever have assumed that Stewart Johnson would go out and buy went off, making the horn scream and the headlights flash on and off.
Leslie stood there stunned for a minute and I felt my stomach lunge to the left and I got ready to run, waiting for Leslie or Anne to go first. It occurred to me for a moment that Johnson probably couldn't even have gotten that car alarm in town, that he would have had to go all the way to Manassas for it. Leslie still wasn't running, and in the light glow of the yellow running light on her side I saw the mud making wide stripes over her running shoes and the legs of her jeans, and I thought that it might be holding her in place but I knew that couldn't be true, and I was more angry than scared for a minute at the loud, insistent, continuous call for the police that Johnson had wired into his truck, how it had gone off at something so inconsequential that it would be fixed by tomorrow evening, and how it held Leslie stunned and angry and frightened in place.
While I thought these things Anne walked over and took one of the decorative rocks from the edging in front of the screened in porch, and stood in front of the truck's front windshield, her fingers twining around the rock like Leslie's fingers had twined around the wiper blade. The rock looked larger and heavier the longer she held it, and Anne looked at Leslie splattered with toothpaste and mud for a long second, and then she motioned with her head for Leslie to move and Leslie did, and Anne threw the rock overhand like a softball pitch, hurling it against the windshield. The glass shattered into a concave web, sending the truck rocking on its tires, and bounced back onto the hood, making a scar I could see even in the dim light, even at the edge of the house, and made Leslie step back, made her twine her fingers the way Anne twined her fingers when she cradled the rock, and the two of them regarded the truck even as the neighbors began to stand on their porches and try to adjust their eyes past the glow of the flashing headlights, to the two shapes near the truck. In this little town car alarms weren't common, it wasn't known that they can go off from a strong wind, the bouncing floor of a parking garage, a cat jumping on the hood. It seemed to me like Stewart Johnson had a lot more protection than he would ever need right here, hardwired into everything that he owned. I turned to look at what kind of fence we would have to climb to get off of Johnson's property -- a high chain link fence with the solid green inserts for privacy, but no barbed wire or broken bottles. Rita was already climbing the fence, straddling it and ready to throw her other leg over and jump down. I waited to see if Anne and Leslie were coming, or if someone was going to have to go back for them, when Anne caught Leslie's hand and they ran around the other side of the house -- not in front of the headlights -- and met us behind it.
Going back through the woods was a longer trip than I wanted to remember, vaulting the chain link fence part of the worst, and listening for someone running up behind us took the concentration we didn't focus on our feet. It was a longer trip than I had wanted it to be and a shorter one than I had expected, and as we broke through a side yard several doors down from Anne and Leslie's house, I realized that somewhere their streets must nearly back up on each other, that Anne and Leslie's house must be nearly flush against Johnson's cul de sac. We went in through the back door, and as Anne reached behind her to shut the screen Amelia came scuttling in over her feet, rain soaked and wreathed in pink Azalea blossoms from the bushes Anne had planted along the side of the house. She looked up at us with green eyes, and sniffed the mud on Anne's feet with interest, and then Leslie picked her up and began drying her with a kitchen towel.
Anne had us change into dry clothes and shoved our wet clothes into a garbage bag until the power was back up and the washer would work. By the time the police cars drifted up and down the neighborhood, dark and stealthy as sharks, we were all sitting on the porch again, still slightly out of breath, and reflecting to ourselves and the officer that it seemed too dark to see much at all, eating vanilla ice cream with slices of orange and kiwi on top, and watching the storm blow itself out.
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