By spring she was pregnant and it was showing. She looked different then, as though she might be sliding out of her skin at any moment. There was a slowness to her movements, and she started to smile when I drove by her house on the way to the hardware store. Her name was Ruth, and her hair was not the prettiest brown. She had large, white teeth.
Pamela and I had lived on Mackinac Lane for nearly seven years. She hadn't wanted to raise kids in town. She was queer about it, as though Severe were a large city with police sirens tearing up the night and arsonists stealing into backyards. She said our children needed space, they needed to play in the woods. They should come home covered in dirt and burrs, and they should have a dog and a swing set in back and a treehouse. At night she would give them a bath and look for ticks on their lithe bodies. She loved the smell of baby shampoo. We'd bought twelve acres of woods in the back of our home, but after those seven years we still had no children to fill the air with screams and come home with bruises, and dirt, and pine needles stuck to their clothes.
We got married the year after we both graduated from high school. She'd been the kinky one, the one who had slept with several members of the baseball team by the time she set her eyes on me. What they saw the first time she even recognized I was alive I never asked her, and she was wise enough not to tell. But soon after we started going steady, she began to teach me what she had been taught. I had never been with another woman. Not in that way, not so completely. Pamela proved to be a stern teacher.
My dad had lost everything he’d worked for all his life, save for the hardware store. He’d had big plans for Severe, had invested all his money to connect the town with the larger world. But Severe had held its course, the one it had always taken. Pete Sr. died of a stroke the year after the wedding, and for some years we lived in a small house on Teague Street. Pamela wanted to move away -- to Ann Arbor, or to Wisconsin, where her cousin was a teacher. She said, “Pete, I’ve slept with half the boys here; do you really want to sell them lawn mowers and nails and attend their weddings?” But we stayed because we had a life in Severe, and other places didn't know, and had no memory of, our families and who we were.
Pamela and I made love for hours most every night. We did it in every room of the new house on Mackinac Lane, checking them off one by one. On a summer night, she made me chase her into the woods and tie her to a tree. She arrived unannounced at the store and took my hand and led me to the backroom and opened her winter coat to show me she was wearing nothing but her boots. “Make sure it’s a boy,” she said, or she’d cup my balls, squeeze them and scream, “Twins.” We would have three children, each of their names starting with 'P.' We made a list: Peggy, Peter, Patsy, Preston, Patrick, Patricia, Paige, Priscilla, Phoebe. We loved each other. We really did. Once she had decided on me, she never looked at anyone else. But I was gone most of the day.
Ruth worked in her yard during our short spring in Severe. Ed's old brown truck had disappeared from the front yard, and so had his gutted Camaros. The man had died without a will, and apparently without any living relatives. Karen Brand, the realtor, only shrugged when I asked her who would receive the money from the sale. She’d told me more than once that the property was a bargain, and once our neighbors moved in, Pamela chided me for not making up my mind sooner. But the truth was, I couldn’t do it. In my mind, it was still Ed’s house. I had liked him. The way you might admire a raccoon or a bear. You didn’t invite them into your home, but there was something endearing about them. Nothing I could articulate or talk about with my customers at the store, but real nonetheless. I believe he buried guns and ammunition in the field behind his house.
Times when Ruth’s husband stayed home, his black Impala was parked where once the truck with the giant flames had stood. There was no sense in stopping in front of the house for a chat on those days, but I slowed to crawl to just get a glimpse of Ruth kneeling in a flowerbed or drinking iced tea on the front steps.
Ruth had long fingers. When she was alone, and I stopped on my way to work, she would grab the window frame of my truck and peer in; her lips parted as though a silly question was forming in her mind. Those lips were sharply cut and full. She held on to that window frame and talked about how humid the days were, how slow she was these days, how cumbersome and painful her movements had become. “I look like a giant pear,” she said. “I just don’t want anyone to look at me.” She said, “I can’t see my feet anymore.” More than once she furrowed her brow and asked me how I had burned my arms, what the scars meant. Each time she approached the open window, I offered her a ride into town and she declined most days. For the first time I could make out the shape below her dress below her dress. Ruth’s elbows were sharp, her knees protruding. Maybe I had wanted children even more than Pamela.
I had committed the mistake of a man who is too sure of himself and his place in the world. Maybe I lacked the imagination to anticipate the horrors of living past ‘Just Got Married.’ Our house on Mackinac Lane had five bedrooms, and when we painted the place, I mixed a light-green color and ordered a crib and big yellow stars to attach above it. It didn't matter to me, boy or girl. After I finished decorating, Pamela and I made love in that room, too, against the wall, the paint smell still overpowering, and she called me Daddy.
Having the large house to ourselves made Pamela restless; the quiet ate at her like moths eat a winter coat. There’s plenty left, but it’s not quite what you wanted or what you’d choose to wear. She was still beautiful, though, she was. And yet, every morning I didn't see the black Impala parked in front of Glasgow's house, I stopped and talked to Ruth. I left the house earlier and earlier so I could talk to Ruth for an extra ten or fifteen minutes. On my way back I stopped again, to drop off some flowers she could plant, a small tree perhaps, or I gifted her a watering can that was only lightly dinged. I tried to sound as though I didn't enjoy getting out of the truck and leaning against the hood, talking. Sometimes I lingered, complimented her garden, told her a joke I heard at the store. But I never touched her. Not once.
She wore loose dresses that summer, and by the afternoon dark spots appeared in the front and back. She wore large, floppy hats, and she complained that she was always thirsty. She could drink Lake Superior empty, she said and laughed at her own silliness. To me, she grew more arresting every day. But she didn't always look pretty -- her face would be red, her limbs swollen. Her sweaty skin could barely contain her.
At the end of October, she was gone for two weeks and then for two weeks more. She reappeared with a baby carriage on Mackinac Lane, but most often she would carry her girl in a sling. Snow was covering the ground soon, and on days she ventured outside, Ruth wore a long down coat and moon boots. Her face was red from the cold and she waved hello every time I passed her. It would have been natural to invite her and her husband to dinner -- we lived only two-hundred yards apart, and we were close in age. But maybe we had missed the right time to become friends, or maybe Pamela just wasn’t interested. Despite asking about our neighbors, she never asked to meet them. She had ignored Ed when he was alive, and she ignored Ruth. So how could I take a first step? It wasn’t my place. And how could I prepare dinner for our neighbors and sit across from Ruth without giving my feelings for her away? I trembled at the thought of her stepping into our house and taking off her coat.
I dropped off rock salt in the time before Christmas. I gave her a stupid plastic tree with the lights installed. I told her one of the salesmen had dropped it off, free of charge. Did she ever look at me with suspicion? Did she tell her husband over dinner that their neighbor came by the house way more often than seemed neighborly? She smiled so much each time I stopped by, I didn’t have the heart to ignore her. I was acting ridiculously and without any shame.
In January, after the black Impala had been gone for several days, I waited in front of Ruth’s house until I saw her return from a walk, her girl strapped to her chest, with a woolen hat and a puffy one-piece suit. I'd waited for over thirty minutes, and my coffee mug was empty.
After I spotted her, I put the truck in gear and rolled down the window. "How are the two of you?" I asked. The girl babbled and made Ruth laugh happily. She wore a green hat, her full lips were cracked. "Let me give you a ride,” I suggested. “You should get out every now and then.”
A few minutes later she had changed into a long, woolen coat and leather boots. The girl sat in her lap; Ruth's hand were folded in front of her stomach. The vents worked on full, and the cabin was so warm that on our way into town she opened her coat. In the footwell she had a bag with a bottle and wipes and Pampers. This was Ruth's first full winter in Severe. She said, "I have cabin fever. There's only my little bug and myself."
I nodded. "All I remember are winters." This was no lie. Summers were hazy as daydreams you had as a teenager. There seemed to be world out there, but you couldn't quite grasp it yet. You hadn’t seen enough to put the tiny pieces your imagination grasped at together. You squinted, but the images escaped you every time. But our winters were solid, you could never mistake them for anything else. They forced you to quit dreaming and focus on the next step in front of you.
When I didn't stop outside the hardware store, she turned to me, lips open without forming words yet. I said, "I just need to swing by our warehouse and pick up some shovels." We drove through town and took a right on Longshore. All year round, the warehouse held the doors and windows we stocked but lacked space to display in the store. In the summer we shelved leftover rock salt and snow blowers, but at this time in January, only a few lawnmowers, sheds, and potting soil lined the walls.
I said, "Just a minute," and went inside and the blue tarp lay spread on the ground. My hands were shaky and I bit into a pointer and thumb to quieten them. My nails dug into my scars until they bled.
I remembered to smile at Ruth when I approached the truck again. I nearly ran towards her, before pulling the passenger door open. "Let me show you," I huffed. She wouldn't get out. She didn't make a sound and forced me to grab her arm and pull her from the seat. She never let go of the girl, even when I dragged her into the warehouse. I knew what she was thinking and I hated her for thinking something so stupid.
"Pete." She was crying now, her eyes already red and begging. “Pete. Don’t,” she stammered. It was Pamela who struck her with a shovel. After the second time, Ruth went down hard, but Pamela didn't stop. I scooped up the girl and lifted her into the air as though she were about to take flight. "My bug," I said.
Ruth's husband put up the house for sale in April, after he’d given up waiting for his wife’s return. Women left her husbands all the time. He blamed himself for being absent so often, and I only nodded when he told me. I’d spotted him in the yard and stopped. He asked me inside. I said I needed to get home, but then followed him up the porch steps, through the open door and into the kitchen. When he asked, I repeated what I had told the Sheriff the week after Ruth had disappeared — that I had dropped her off in town and that she’d carried an overnight bag and asked about the next Greyhound. Nobody had seen her after that. Not even a coat or hat was ever found. No card or letter arrived, and when his phone rang, it was never her voice at the other end of the line. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be found just yet,” I suggested. “Maybe she panicked.” I took the whiskey he offered, and we clinked glasses and he made an insufferable toast. “You shouldn’t say that about her,” I said. “She’ll contact you when the time is right, I’m sure.” He was gone several days later, and Karen installed the ‘For Sale’ sign again. I wasn’t interested this time either, even though it must have been a bargain.
Pamela didn't leave our house for a while. "She isn't well," I told people in town. "We think it might be morning sickness." I blushed each time I said this.