Denis’s brothers have gained weight, fifteen maybe twenty pounds since last he’s seen them. This is due to both of them being failures, being poor, he thinks. Poor people eat at McDonald’s, eat potted meat, eat bacon and sausage and drink whole milk for breakfast. And when he hugged them earlier, both smelled of cigarette smoke. Poor people smoke. Don’t go to the gym. He tensed his flat stomach when their soft bellies pressed against him, turned his head away from their cigarette breath. But how could he be thinking about this, with his wife crying beside him, and his ten-year-old daughter being lowered slowly in her coffin, cradled in chains, by some mechanized contraption he doesn’t want to know the name for? Fucking insane.
They decided to bury Jane back home, where they had grown up and met and been engaged. Elena still drives here to visit her mother every weekend, occasionally stopping by to see Denis’s mother as well. It’s only an hour away, Denis. No biggie, alright? She picked that one up from Jane. Can I go to the dance, Daddy? Can I stay over at Lucy’s? It’s no biggie, Daddy, really. He doesn’t even want to think the goddamned words. But he never makes a fuss, not one to speak of anyway, about Elena’s trips. And when she says that someone has to keep in touch with their families, he lets that go by, doesn’t take her bait for an argument, though he doesn’t understand why she wants to go back. When he left Hickory, North Carolina, it was for good. But the last few months, since the incident (or, The Incident as he’s begun thinking of it spitefully, because no one wants to talk about what happened), Elena has been going every couple of days, leaving him alone in the house with his thoughts and with Jane’s ghostly room.
The expensive coffin thuds when it touches earth. Elena cries more loudly when she hears it thud. There’s a grinding of gears as the contraption somehow retracts the straps and chains. Someone invented that thing, Denis thinks, and is to this day earning dividends on its continued use. Denis wishes he’d bought the more expensive coffin now. He’d spent over four thousand, but he should have spent more. At the time, it seemed ridiculous to worry about what he buried Jane in. Now, he feels like he skimped, like he told his dead daughter she wasn’t worth an extra grand or two. He closes his eyes and tries to stop thinking.
The preacher talks about God and circles of life and a bunch of other shit Denis can’t listen to. He looks into the barren, calligraphic trees, and wants to find some comfort or meaning in their bare branches. Calligraphic. He’d read that description of trees in a book he’d liked, but he can’t remember which book right now, just that he’d liked it. He looks at his shiny shoes and thinks how stupid shiny shoes are. The grass beneath his feet. The curve of his wife’s waist, the black leggings she’s wearing, a freckle on her neck. Sex enters his mind. He thinks how Jane grew inside Elena. They haven’t had sex since Jane disappeared. He wants to have sex. Stop thinking, just stop. Please, let me stop. Eyes closed, he lets his head fall back. He is surprised to feel tears on his neck.
Jimmy, his oldest brother, goes into a coughing fit, phlegm cracking in his chest. Denis watches him look around for a place to spit. Hard to find a place to spit at a funeral, isn’t it, asshole? Denis closes his eyes again. It’s not like I don’t deserve all of this.
Watching it unfold on TV might have been the worst part. These fuckers are getting better ratings because of all this, he thought. Elena giving an interview, breaking down on local news. Photos of Jane. Jane in a swimming pool, its blue water glistening chlorine-clean behind her. Jane from the school yearbook. A casual photo of her on the grass reading a book. Denis squeezed his hands down on the armchair, trying to keep himself from smashing the television every time some new anchorman called it an ongoing tragedy, a mystery unsolved, a horror for everyone in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The police had assumed it was a kidnapping. There had been several in the area over the past year, a fat policeman, Officer Jenkins, told Denis and Elena. You might’ve seen something about them on the TV, he’d said, and Denis did remember something about a girl, age eleven or twelve, just about Jane’s age, who had been found stabbed to death in a dumpster over in Davidson, down the road a bit. What a bastard, Denis thought. That is the last thing you want to tell us. He looked at his wife, but he could see that she didn’t remember anything about other kidnappings, so he just nodded at the fat policeman and didn’t say anything.
“Or she might be off horsing around with some friends. That happens too, you know,” Officer Jenkins said to Elena. “That might be all it is.”
But Denis could tell from the officer’s voice that he didn’t think that was all it was. They’d called all of Jane’s friends, and none of them had seen her since the previous morning, and she wasn’t answering the cell phone Elena made her carry when she was away from the house.
That night, exhausted from driving around the neighboring suburbs all day looking for Jane, and from dealing with the police, they cooked dinner as usual but ate standing in the kitchen. He cut onions and tomatoes, and they both drank wine by the glassful. Elena propped herself against the sink and forked small pieces of pasta into her mouth while Denis leaned over the tile-topped island in the middle of the kitchen and smeared sauce around his plate with a piece of toast. Afterwards, they set the dishes in the sink and ran hot water over them, didn’t bother to wash them.
“At least she’s wearing her good wool coat,” Elena said. It seemed like the first thing she’d said since Officer Jenkins had left hours ago. But that couldn’t be right. She must have said something else.
“She’s going to be okay,” Denis said, staring at the greasy-red water in the sink. “I don’t care what that fat fuck says.” Denis stood there expecting her to act offended, to say something about his cursing. “Officer Fatkins,” he said a few seconds later and barked a sharp burst of laughter.
“My god, Denis,” Elena said and walked into the living room and sank on the couch. She watched the news reports for a while.
Denis poured himself another large glass of wine and drank it, wondering why he’d wanted to offend her at a time like this. He’d read some article about couples lashing out at each other during times of stress. Almost as if one of the duties of love was to be each other’s punching bags. What a stupid way to be. He stared at the water in the sink—the yellowish, coagulating grease and the translucent red from the marinara. He wanted to clean the dishes but couldn’t bear to put his hands in the water.
Now Elena was watching a movie from their collection—The English Patient or The End of the Affair or Sophie’s Choice, some snooty smart shit like that; he couldn’t tell which and didn’t care to go into the living room to find out. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the kitchen, looking at the water and drinking his wine. He walked down the hallway and climbed the stairs to his office where he would shuffle papers or maybe get some work done, though he doubted it. Just going through the motions, Denis would tell his partners in the coming weeks when they asked how he was doing.
On his office desk there was a photo of the three of them. Jane was just an infant then. She had been born three months premature and there was some question as to whether they would lose her. Denis remembered standing outside her little plastic cage, tubes taped to her body, machines all around. Her skin was so red and thin, so not-human. Larval. He had hated himself for thinking of his baby girl as anything but perfect, especially with Elena laid up in a bed two floors above in the hospital, recovering from the caesarian section. What kind of father am I?
As Jane grew into a little girl, Denis remembered his early impressions and doted on her, atoning for a sin no one else knew he’d committed. He would think about her all day at the office, and on his way home he’d stop by the toy store and buy whatever thing she’d been prattling about the previous night at the dinner table. Sometimes he’d just walk into the store and ask a worker what was popular these days, what did they sell the most of, and he would buy that, whatever it was and whatever the price. Sometimes he’d lie in the dark before going to sleep and think how close they’d come to losing her and what a bastard he was.
“I’m going back out to look for her,” Elena said. He looked up from his desk and saw her backlit in the doorway of his office. “You want to come with me?”
He drove and she leaned out the window with a flashlight, yelling Jane’s name occasionally. We must look like lunatics, Denis thought, but they kept at it until five a.m.
Denis looks over the grave and past the preacher, who is still talking, something about the bright light of God’s love and the darkness of somethingsomething. Denis looks at Shari and Carl, who are standing toward the back, near the gate. He hasn’t seen Shari for two years or more. She made Carl come, Denis thinks, and he wants to thank her, knowing how hard it must be on them to be here. Shari looks up and their eyes meet briefly before she turns her head to focus on the preacher. Denis notices that Carl is staring at him and looks at the ground.
Denis first met Carl through one of his clients. Carl owned a software development and troubleshooting company that was merging with another company specializing in hardware installation and repair. “We’ll be a one-stop computer solution,” Carl said and grinned at how smart he thought that sounded. Denis almost suggested that he make that the company motto but then realized it probably already was. Carl needed the merger done smoothly and quickly. The task would be simple enough, a few stock-phrased contracts with some slight rewording. He’d need to check the outstanding invoices for each company and make sure there were no breeches in either’s Articles of Organization. But all in all, it was an easy job and so Denis agreed to take it, only padding the estimated billable hours by five, not his usual ten.
After it was all done, Carl had insisted on taking him out for dinner and drinks. He was from Texas, he told Denis, and Texans show their gratitude right.
“And my wife, Shari, and I have been wanting to get out on the town a bit more, meet some people,” Carl said. “You know.”
Denis was about to decline the offer but thought there might be more business to be had with Carl. “Why don’t we go out on my boat?” Denis said. “There’s a great restaurant on the lake where we can dock and go in to eat or have the food delivered to the boat.”
“Excellent. Just fantastic.”
When Denis and Elena had moved into the house on Lake Norman, Elena began keeping these little pastel post-it notes around the house. She had ones with bunnies, rainbows, fluffy clouds. He used to pick on her about them. “Ah, wook at the wittle bunnwies,” he teased. He drew devil horns on a bunny or altered a leprechaun so that it was holding a huge, erect penis at the end of a rainbow. Elena rolled her eyes.
They’d gotten married the summer after graduation, before he matriculated at Carolina Law School and she began her MA in Spanish. Through those three years, they were careful that Elena didn’t get pregnant. The last thing they needed was a financial burden like that. Popping out babies is how people back home kept themselves stuck in Hicksville. They knew at least half a dozen girls who had dropped out of school when they got pregnant. Denis’s best friend in high school, Trace Reams, already had two kids from different mothers and was living with a third woman, the last Denis had heard.
But they wanted children. And so, after they’d moved in, Elena began trying to get pregnant. Denis still remembers the first time they had sex in the new house.
“Tell me to do it,” he said.
She looked him dead in the eyes and said, “Please come inside me. Make me pregnant.”
He replayed those words for months. The way she looked at him, the command in her voice, the love. She’d never spoken to him like that before.
The four of them went out on Denis’s boat. They planned to cruise around, eventually making their way to the Onshore Café, where they would eat what Denis assured Carl was the best surf-n-turf in the whole state of North Carolina. Elena and Shari called Denis and Carl “the boys.” Carl opened the cooler he brought with him, showing Denis an assortment of bottled beers, and winked in a way meant to be conspiratorial, but which looked idiotic to Denis, though he managed a smile at the beer for Carl.
Jane was at home with the babysitter, Laura, a seventeen-year-old girl from the neighborhood who had been offered a scholarship to Duke already but whose parents wanted her to learn responsibility by earning some of her own spending money. Elena told Shari how she wasn’t sure what she’d do when Laura went off to college.
Carl talked about investment opportunities. “You know, you could be making some real money—not that you don’t do fine—but I mean real money, if you bought in on some businesses.”
“Also a way to lose real money.” Denis looked ahead of them on the lake, holding the steering wheel with one hand and sipping a beer.
“Oh, sure, I’ve lost plenty,” Carl said, “but if you’re smart like I’ve been, you make a hundred times more than you lose.”
Denis had never considered owning businesses or property. He suddenly felt like a country bumpkin, happy to get his little share of the pie just because it was a slightly bigger piece than he had before. He was thinking about ways to make his money grow when he saw a boat zigzagging in the distance.
Denis and Carl watched as the boat approached, admiring its sleek shape and the clean rumble of the engine. Then Denis saw the boat was headed at them. He gripped the steering wheel, but he didn’t change course, unable to guess where the oncoming boat’s zigzags would take it. He hit his horn, gave three sharp bursts. The boat veered starboard at the last instant. As the boat passed, close enough to spray them with water from its wake, Denis saw that the three women on board were naked. The man steering the boat stood at the wheel, shirtless and tanned, muscular and tall like a basketball player.
“Well, now,” Carl said in an exaggerated Texan drawl, “would you look at that?”
Elena and Shari had been talking and drinking their wine coolers. They came to see what the commotion was about. The three girls waved, unashamed. Denis walked down to the cooler and grabbed a beer, acting as calm as he knew how. He twisted the top off and drank, looking over the bottle at the topless girls receding in the distance.
“Looks like they’re having fun,” Shari said.
“That sonuvabitch is the one going to be having some fun,” Carl said and laughed. “Must be that boat. Hey, Denis, you got to get yourself a bigger boat, and then we can really begin to have some parties out here on the lake.”
Denis watched Elena rub the fabric of her shorts and twist her knee slightly inward, the ghost of a little-girl gesture, probably picked up from Jane. He was struck by how long he’d known Elena. He’d known her since he was a grade school boy and she was just a classmate who lived down the road, a partner for riding bikes or playing board games. I’ve probably seen her do that a thousand times. She’s been doing that since we were kids. It’s not Jane she got it from; Jane’s gotten it from her.
Elena said something quietly to Shari, but Denis missed it.
“What was that, honey?” Denis asked and grinned.
“Nothing,” she said. But the way she and Shari looked at each other, he knew she had said something he hadn’t been meant to hear. He looked to Shari for help, doofus grin still in place, but she just winked at him.
“Don’t you think it’d be fun to be that kind of girl, though?” Shari said to Elena, and nodded her head in the direction the nice boat had gone. “Carefree, crazy, doing what you want?”
Elena shook her head and laughed, scrunched her face up at the implausible thought of her being that kind of woman.
Denis met Elena when they were in the third grade, and as the family story goes (though Denis can’t remember if it’s true or not) when he came home from the first day of school and his mother asked how he liked the third grade, he responded that he loved it because he’d seen the prettiest girl ever. And Elena was a pretty girl, her skin slightly olive, reminiscent of her Greek grandfather.
When they began dating in high school, after years of flirting in school and summer Bible study, Denis walked down the halls with pride, and the other boys stared at him with open envy when he kissed Elena between classes or sat holding her hand at lunch. She had grown into a girl who more resembled models in magazines or movie actresses than the other girls in town.
But even more than her beauty, Denis loved her because she was the only other person he knew as dedicated to getting out of rural North Carolina. They’d sit in the Waffle House, holding hands under the table, sipping coffee and fantasizing about what all they would do. Even then he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He saw the law as the great equalizer. Anyone with a law degree can become rich no matter where he started, Denis thought. And he liked the high-mindedness of the law. And he liked the power of it. He’d read about the law bringing down Senators and Presidents, and he’d heard of farm boys who, after studying law, now owned mansions. The Great Equalizer. That was his secret name for the law, and though he knew it wasn’t perfect, he also knew it was his best shot at making something of himself which, aside from marrying Elena one day, was all that mattered to him.
And Elena, who was the star Spanish student at Hickory High, planned on majoring in Spanish and international business. This was the early nineties, and everyone was talking about Free Trade and the future of business in Central and South America.
“I can translate for your law firm,” she might say.
“And we’ll have a beach house and a mountain house,” he might respond.
“Will you take me to Japan? I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“We’ll see the whole world,” he’d say, “one hotel room at a time.” Elena would smack his arm, pretending to be offended, then turn her head and look at him through her fallen hair.
But now Denis is watching Elena cry as he puts his arm around her black-clad shoulder. He hates to see her in so much pain. This woman, my wife . . . He tries to imagine what life would be like without her but can’t. He looks around at the people gathered and realizes he doesn’t know many of them. But he knows Elena; he knows her because so much of their lives are the same and have been for decades. He pulls her closer to him, and she turns her face and rests it on his shoulder. “Denis,” she says and squeezes the fine fabric of his suit jacket.
It soon became a habit for the couples to go out together. They got together every weekend except when Jane had a sporting event or Elena insisted on driving to Hickory to visit with their families. It was a Saturday afternoon and Carl had invited Denis over for a few games of golf. Carl and Shari lived in a golfing community on the edge of town.
Denis made fun of the street names as he and Elena drove through the neighborhood. Three Wood Drive, Caddy Lane, Nine Iron Avenue, Green Street. Jane was in the backseat, making her dolls have a conversation about the weather. “It is a beautiful day,” said Barbie. “You are a beautiful day,” said Ken. Denis looked over his shoulder at Jane, then to Elena.
“Would you like to have a house over here some day?”
“But we just renovated the upstairs last year.”
“I don’t mean now. I mean someday.”
“I like our house just fine.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m a full partner now at the firm, and money isn’t any issue. You know that, right?”
“I know. But I like our house. These houses are bigger, but they don’t have the lake.”
At the graveyard, his mother is holding a tissue to her face, but he doesn’t see any tears. She is flabby and fat. Her clothes are cheap, from the Wal-Mart near her house. He only cares about his wife and daughter, and now his daughter is dead. She is completely, irrevocably dead. He can’t look at his mother any longer so he looks at Elena, at the perfect curve of her back, the real tears on her cheeks.
Denis turned in his mother’s driveway and took in the smallness of her house. This had been his childhood home, where everything was huge in memory—counters head-high, ceilings unreachable. The steps on the front porch were steep to his little-boy legs. Now they were three small steps he would take in one jaunty hop. The front door seemed barely wide enough for Elena to get through.
Martha—his mother’s decades-long friend, practically a member of the family—was drinking instant coffee at the kitchen table when his mother ushered them inside. The way Martha looked at Denis, then inspected Elena, he knew she had been invited over just to see how he’d grown up, how the wayward son had returned. This would be a tedious visit. After the usual back and forth of introductions, false compliments, and a few saccharine memories, all of which Denis could barely stand to listen to, his mother looked to Elena and said, “Oh, did you bring them pictures of the house?”
Denis looked at Elena. He’d heard nothing about pictures. He didn’t know that his wife and his mother had spoken since the move. He tried to catch Elena’s eye, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Yes, they’re right here in my bag,” she said. She reached into her turquoise leather handbag and produced a small package from the one-hour photo place in the mall. Denis’s mother and Martha began ogling over the photos of the house and of Lake Norman.
“They live on the water,” she said to Martha. “Got a boat and everything.”
Denis didn’t like to hear his mother speak with such pride about him. She didn’t even know who he was anymore. How could she be proud of him?
Elena was pregnant with Jane at the time, but they hadn’t told anyone yet. They’d just found out themselves the previous week. Denis dreaded having to hear his mother coo and giggle with delight at having a grandchild. He left the three of them to look over the photos. Outside, standing on the porch, he looked out over the expanse of trees and mountains to the east. I’m from here; such a strange thought.
His brothers were down in the barn working on his mother’s pick-up truck. He figured he’d go down and say hello. It seemed the brotherly thing to do, and walking down the sparsely graveled road to the barn made him feel like a boy again. He kicked a plastic pop-bottle lid in front of him on his way, losing it in the grass just as he got to the barn.
“Well, look who we have here,” Jimmy said, and Denis thought how stupid his brother sounded, like a caricature of himself from a comedy skit making fun of rednecks.
“Yes, indeed-y,” said Tom. “Yes, sir, indeed. Why, it’s our little brother.” Tom hung his grease-blackened rag on the side-view mirror.
“Cut the shit, guys. I’m back to visit Mom, and I want this to be nice. I don’t need your tweedle-dumb and tweedle-fucking-dumber act, okay?”
All his life, Denis had done nothing but cower in front of his brothers. As a child they picked on him, and in high school, they’d come home drunk and toss his books around or ask Elena whether she wanted to take a ride down by the creek with a couple of real men.
“Now give me a hug and tell me you’re happy to see me, or I’ll just walk back up to the house and be gone.” He looked at each of them in turn, waiting for their decision.
“You sure you’re not worried about dirtying that nice shirt of yours,” Jimmy asked.
“Yeah, and look at them shoes,” Tom added. “Hey, those’re the kind shit don’t stick to, right?”
They both laughed.
Denis turned and walked back toward the house.
“Aw, wittle Denis is mad,” Jimmy said.
“What?” Tom said. “Can’t take a joke?” But Denis didn’t respond, just kept walking.
Back in the house, Denis told Elena to get her things. “We’re leaving,” he said. She looked at him blankly. “Get up,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Martha put her hand to her mouth. Elena looked at Denis’s mother bewildered, apologizing, as she grabbed her purse and followed Denis outside.
“What’s going on?”
“Just get in the fucking car, Elena,” he said. “Please.”
His mother was standing on the porch mouth working for something to say, until finally, “You forgot your pictures.”
“Keep them,” Denis said, holding back none of the acid in his voice.
It was at a birthday party for one of Elena’s sorority sisters, Denis doesn’t remember which, that they had met Emiliano. This was their junior year at UNC. Emiliano was from Spain, studying abroad here in America for a year, and as a native speaker of Spanish was often invited to Spanish Department parties. They were introduced and Emiliano spoke Spanish with Elena. Denis stood there, smiling dumbly, waiting for them to revert to English. Elena laughed at something Emiliano said, and Denis smiled bigger and looked at her, and then at Emiliano.
After Emiliano had moved on to another cluster of people, Denis asked, “So, what were you and Rico Suave talking about there?”
“Just how great the party is and stuff. Can’t you understand anything going on?”
Denis was back-rowing it in his Spanish class at the time, barely pulling a B, and that was with hours of help from Elena. It drove him crazy, not being able to learn it. He had hoped that he could be fluent so Elena and he could speak Spanish together. There was something romantic about that idea to him. But, despite perfect grades in every other subject, his brain just couldn’t make sense of a foreign language.
A week later he saw Emiliano and Elena walking together out of a coffee shop on Franklin Street, where all the UNC students hung out. He didn’t confront them, but that night, he asked Elena about it.
“He’s helping me with my Spanish,” she said.
“Well, just keep it at that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it means.”
One night, a month later, they were in her dorm room. Denis began playfully undoing her pants. She froze, pushed him away, and turned on the light. Her roommate’s pot-leaf poster looked so ridiculous on the opposite wall, and all Denis wanted to do was have sex.
“What’s wrong,” he said, trying to sound concerned.
“Why not?” he asked.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
It was Emiliano, as he had known it would eventually be Emiliano, that man from so far away, a place nothing like Hickory or even Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She loved him more than ever, she insisted. “This is a good thing,” she said. “It made me see how much you matter to me.”
“You sucking some other guy’s dick is a good thing for me?”
She hugged herself to him, but he kept his arms pressed to his sides. He knew he wouldn’t break things off with her, but he didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to be asked to forgive her. He just wanted the whole thing over with so he could pretend it never happened.
Standing beside her now in the cemetery—all these people around, the bare trees behind the preacher—Denis wonders what ever happened to Emiliano. It seems funny that he ever entered their lives. It’s like a story about someone else. Denis can’t put himself back in his college self. He wishes he wasn’t thinking of some long-forgotten Spaniard who had fucked his wife, but the fact no longer held any hurt for him.
He and Shari were driving down Tyvola Road. It was the third time they’d met, though he had hoped there would only be the first. Now the prospect of a prolonged affair was before him, and he wanted to have the strength to end it. Shari put her hand on his thigh. The weight of it sitting there was nice. He could feel the fabric of his suit pants slick against his leg. Carl was out of town, so they hadn’t bothered with a hotel. Something about how Denis felt fucking another man’s wife in their bed made him angry. How could Shari do that to Carl? He remembered a friend from college’s saying: the best sex is the sex you shouldn’t be having. It had been maybe the best sex of his life. He smiled at the memory of it, and Shari began massaging his leg, working her way up. When he felt himself getting hard, he slapped her hand away.
“We have to stop,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“Come on, you have to know that.”
“Okay, okay. I fucking well know it, already.”
He drove on for several minutes before she put her hand back on his leg. He looked at her, and she looked at him, smiled a little apologetic smile, tilting her head downward and to the left, letting her eyes close slowly. Making sure I appreciate the gesture. But he didn’t move her hand away, and he didn’t stop her as she unzipped his pants. He was worried about the other cars on the road and worried briefly that he might crash. That would be a total disaster. There was a large parking lot to his right, with a huge blinking neon sign. He pushed Shari’s hand away and pulled into the parking lot. When he had parked, he zipped his pants up over his uncomfortable erection and looked at her.
“I’m serious,” he said.
“I know you are,” she said. “But things were so nice today, weren’t they?”
As they got out of the car, he looked at the neon sign. Pink’s Skate Rink. What a stupid thing to name a place. Inside they sat in the farthest corner and drank diet sodas. Shari told him about how the golf course in her neighborhood was being re-done by some famous landscape architect. She made a joke about shrubbery shaped as giraffes and dolphins.
(Now, Denis looks at her, here at his daughter’s funeral, and is sorry that he didn’t laugh at her joke. He’s sorry he never called her again, but he hadn’t had any choice. He misses her sense of humor. He turns toward Elena, making sure she hasn’t noticed him staring at Shari.)
When Officer Jenkins called, the slow way he said Mr. Seldin and breathed out, pushing a wind of static through the phone, let Denis know it was bad. Denis waited to hear about how Jane had been repeatedly raped and buried in a garbage bag. Or chopped to bits by some multi-state serial killer. Or…
“Some kids found her,” Officer Jenkins said. “They had snuck into a drainage ditch to smoke a joint and drink beers.” He told Denis that the kids had smelled her before they saw her. Then he apologized. “I’m sorry, Mr. Seldin, I didn’t—”
“No, I want to know everything.”
“Maybe you’d better get down to the coroner’s office, Mr. Seldin,” he said. “We can’t even be sure yet it’s definitely her.”
“You sounded pretty sure a minute ago,” Denis said.
“You want the number down at the coroner’s? I can give it to you.”
“Yeah, I’d like the number, if that’s not too much to ask.”
Denis grabbed one of Elena’s post-it note pads and wrote down the number. The post-it note was one with pastel hearts in the upper corners and a flowery landscape along the bottom. He stared at the post-it note and his handwriting. The numbers looked like hieroglyphics with those sky-hearts floating above them, alien and absurd. Denis put his hand on the counter and eased himself slowly to the floor and sat on the cold linoleum of the kitchen, clutching the post-it note.
He tried to figure out what he would tell Elena. Officer Jenkins had said she’d drowned, likely fell in and hit her head or went into shock from the cold water. At least Jane wasn’t raped. And don’t people go into shock when they drown in such cold water? Don’t even feel any pain at all? He’d heard that somewhere. At least there was that. He promised himself he wouldn’t Google drowning or death by drowning or pain + drowning.
He and Elena went to see the body. It was water-bloated, making her seem larger than she was in life, her features softened and sloppy. There wasn’t much to do. They signed the paperwork. The State would pay for an autopsy to eliminate the possibility of foul play, though preliminary results indicated none. The body would be transported to a funeral home of their choice, they were told, which sent Elena into a helpless fit of tears.
He dreamed about Jane’s body floating in their bathtub several nights in a row after seeing her.
And so the story had died on TV. Mystery solved. Not a murder or kidnapping, nothing exciting, just another dead girl. Next story. Next. Denis turned on the TV for days expecting to see more about his daughter’s disappearance, but it was never mentioned again. Every political rally, every car wreck, every family-dog-saves-kid-from-drowning story was an insult to Jane’s memory. Next. It got to where he couldn’t watch TV at all. If Jane’s death wasn’t news, nothing was.
Elena holds her face in one hand and leans against Denis, holding onto his shoulder for support. Elena’s mother and his brothers stand behind them. Elena’s father is talking to the preacher, but Denis can’t hear what they’re saying. The grass is being stamped down, Denis notices. That can’t be good for the grass, having so many people trample all over it. Cousins, friends, Jane’s teachers and friends and basketball coach, Denis’s brothers, mostly people Denis doesn’t care about, walk past them. I’m so sorry, they say to Denis. I’m so sorry, they say to Elena. I’m sorry, everyone is saying. He just wants to be at home, lying in bed silent with Elena, saying nothing but holding her, the only person in the world.
It had been an April evening, and he wondered what Elena and Jane were doing. He decided on the drive home that he’d take them out to dinner somewhere nice. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he would say when he came in the door. “Let’s celebrate.”
But when he got home, Elena was sitting in her spot on the couch in the living room, but the TV wasn’t on. The lights were all off and she was sitting there doing nothing. She knows, Denis thought. Shari had finally confessed. He had known it was coming but had pretended it wasn’t going to happen.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Hey, what’s that about?” Denis asked and clicked on a lamp. Elena looked at the lamp as if she’d never noticed they had a lamp in that particular corner.
“Where’s Jane?” he asked though he could hear her playing upstairs.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” Elena said.
“Honey, I’m sorry.”
“And Jane deserves a family.”
“I’m so sorry,” Denis said.
“Don’t apologize. Just don’t,” she said, and he thought she might cry, but then her voice changed. “Everyone makes mistakes, Denis,” she said calmly, almost wisely, as if she could look at the human error he’d made and even pity it. “I know how easy it can be.” She looked at him and smiled a sad little smile. “So, now we’re even.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“But you have to stop seeing her,” she said. “You don’t even get to call her to explain why. And I never—I mean never—want to talk about this again. Do you understand?”
Denis sat down beside her and took both of her hands in his.
“Yes,” he said, “I do.”
As he looked into Elena’s face and wanted to kiss her moist cheeks and eyelids, he heard Jane upstairs, jumping up and down on her bed, screeching each time she went up in the air.