Karen was twenty-six. She had been engaged twice, married once. Her husband had run away with another woman after only six months. It still made her angry when she thought about it, which was not often.
The second man she had loved more, the most. He was the one she had been engaged to, but had not married. His name was Henry. He had drowned in the Mississippi the day before they were to be married. They never even found the body. He had a marker in the cemetery, but it was a sham. All her life, Karen had heard those stories about fiancés dying the day before the wedding: and then it had happened to her.
Henry and some of his friends, including his best friend, Sydney Bean, had been sitting up on the old railroad trestle, the old highway that ran so far and across that river, above the wide muddiness. Louisiana, and trees, on one side; Mississippi, and trees, and some farms, on the other side —the place from which they had come. There had been a full moon and no wind, and they had been sitting above the water, maybe a hundred feet above it, laughing, and drinking Psychos from the Daiquiri World over in Delta, Louisiana. The Psychos contained rum and Coca-Cola and various fruit juices and blue food coloring. They came in styrofoam cups the size of small trash cans, so large they had to be held with both hands. They had had too many of them: two, maybe three apiece.
Henry had stood up, beaten his chest like Tarzan, shouted, and then dived in. It had taken him forever, just to hit the water; the light from the moon was good, and they had been able to watch him, all the way down.
Sometimes Sydney Bean still came by to visit Karen. Sydney was gentle and sad, her own age, and he worked somewhere on a farm, out past Utica, back to the east, where he broke and sometimes trained horses.
Once a month —at the end of each month —Sydney would stay over on Karen’s farm, and they would go into her big empty closet, and he would let her hit him: striking him with her fists, kicking him, kneeing him, slapping his face until his ears rang and his nose bled; slapping and swinging at him until she was crying and her hair was wild and in her eyes, and the palms of her hands hurt too much to hit him any more.
It built up, the ache and the anger in Karen; and then, hitting Sydney, it went away for a while. He was a good friend. But the trouble was that it always came back.
Sometimes Sydney would try to help her in other ways. He would tell her that some day she was going to have to realize that Henry would not be coming back. Not ever: not in any form, but to remember what she had had, to keep that from going away.
He would stand there, in the closet, and let her strike him. But the rules were strict: she had to keep her mouth closed. He would not let her call him names while she was hitting him.
Though she wanted to.
After it was over, and she was crying, more drained than she had felt since the last time, sobbing, her feelings laid bare, he would help her up. He would take her into the bedroom and towel her forehead with a cool washcloth. She would be crying in a child’s gulping sobs, and he would brush her hair, hold her hands, even hold her against him, and pat her back while she moaned.
Farm sounds would come from the field, and when she looked out the window, she might see her neighbor, old Dr. Lynly, the vet, driving along in his ancient blue truck, moving along the bayou, down along the trees, with his dog. Buster, running alongside, barking; herding the cows together for vaccinations.
“I can still feel the hurt,” Karen would tell Sydney sometimes, when Sydney came over, not to be beaten up, but to cook supper for her, or to just sit on the back porch with her, and to watch the fields.
Sydney would nod whenever Karen said that she still hurt, and he would study his hands.
“I could have grabbed him,” he’d say, and then look up and out at the field some more. “I keep thinking that one of these years, I’m going to get a second chance.” Sydney would shake his head again. “I think I could have grabbed him,” he’d say.
“Or you could have dived in after him,” Karen would say, hopefully, wistfully. “Maybe you could have dived in after him.”
Her voice would trail off, and her face would be flat and weary.
On these occasions, Sydney Bean wanted the beatings to come once a week, or even daily. But they hurt, too, almost as much as the loss of his friend, and he said nothing. He still felt as if he owed Henry something. He didn’t know what.
Sometimes, when he was down on his knees, and Karen was kicking him or elbowing him, he felt close to it —and he almost felt angry at Karen —but he could never catch the shape of it, only the feeling.
He wanted to know what was owed, so he could go on.
On his own farm, there were cattle, down in the fields, and they would get lost, separated from one another, and would low all through the night. It was a sound like soft thunder in the night, before the rain comes, and he liked it.
He raised the cattle, and trained horses too: he saddle-broke the young ones that had never been ridden before, the one- and two-year-olds, the stallions, the wild mares. That pounding, and the evil, four-footed stamp-and-spin they went into when they could not shake him; when they began to do that, he knew he had them beaten. He charged $250 a horse, and sometimes it took him a month.
Old Dr. Lynly needed a helper, but couldn’t pay much, and Sydney, who had done some business with the vet, helped Karen get the job. She needed something to do besides sitting around on her back porch, waiting for the end of each month.
Dr. Lynly was older than Karen had thought he would be, when she met him up close. He had that look to him that told her it might be the last year of his life. It wasn’t so much any illness or feebleness or disability. It was just a finished look:
He and Buster — an Airedale, six years old — lived within the city limits of Vicksburg, down below the battlefield, hidden in one of the ravines —his house was up on blocks, the yard flooded with almost every rain — and in his yard, in various corrals and pens, were chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, ponies, horses, cows, and an ostrich. It was illegal to keep them as pets, and the city newspaper editor was after him to get rid of them, but Dr. Lynly claimed they were all being treated by his tiny clinic.
“You’re keeping these animals too long. Doc,” the editor told him. Dr. Lynly would pretend to be senile, and would pretend to think the editor was asking for a prescription, and would begin quoting various and random chemical names.
Buster minded Dr. Lynly exquisitely. The Airedale brought the paper, the slippers, he left the room on command, and he brought the chicken’s eggs, daily, into the kitchen, making several trips for his and Dr. Lynly’s breakfast. Dr. Lynly would have six eggs, fried for himself, and Buster would get a dozen or so, broken into his bowl raw. Any extras went into the refrigerator for Dr. Lynly to take on his rounds, though he no longer had many; only the very oldest people, who remembered him, and the very poorest, who knew he worked for free.