The dog, Spirit, came up from the cove looking like he’d been walking through tar. His eyes were still mirthful, though closing toward one of his late-afternoon naps. Nestor didn’t like the looks of it. Now he’d have to hose the dog off or face the contempt of Sandra.
“Ha, dog,” Nestor sighed as Spirit trotted up the soft rise that separated the house from the dark sheet of water. “You get me in all kinds of trouble.”
A friend had warned Nestor against getting a shared dog. Each person in a couple should have a dog of their own, the friend had advised, so they don’t quibble over who does what and, more importantly, who doesn’t do what.
It was the not doing that got Nestor on his wife’s dark side. They hadn’t had a dog in years, since the kids had been little, and since they got this shaggy Burmese Mountain male, they quarreled more than ever, sometimes bitterly: dish towels flying, reprimands bordering on insults. Nestor poured some whisky into his cup, opting against adding Diet Pepsi to it, and brought the Friends of the Chowanoke River tumbler to his lips. Spirit, breathing like a winded sprinter, turned his slitted burnt sienna eyes at Nestor. He ain’t got no idea what he’s done to me, the semi- retired newspaper editor thought.
The new owners of the paper were forcing him out by degrees, and he knew it. They’d offered a severance retirement the summer before, and he’d turned it down. Just before this past spring had turned to a new summer they told him he was semi- retired.
“What the hell does that mean?” Nestor had asked the slim, aloof publisher they’d brought down from Vermont to helm the county’s lone weekly.
“Nestor, it means you come in on Mondays and write your column, visit around with the staff, and we don’t see you the rest of the week,” the fella, name of Heath, had grinned, toeing the carpet between them to push off on his merry way. Nestor had put his hand gently on the new boss’s chest.
“Why don’t you just fire me, Heath,” Nestor had said, eyes watering behind his round-rimmed glasses due to a sudden heart-gripping anger.
“We can’t do that,” Heath had answered, bouncing his fingers on Nestor’s shoulder before walking off, already in the middle of a call on his ever-present cell.
Nestor thought Spirit’s eyes had more life and candor than young, back-stabbing Heath’s. Down inside, he knew it was time. That he had come to a crossroads. Fish or cut bait, Nestor, is what famously reliable Chuck down at the tackle shop said. He sank down into his canvas chair and looked across the river where it straightened between the cypress trees that cupped like hands on either side of the view. Only a hundred yards across. Not much more than a creek when it got further down.
“Let’s get the boat!” Nestor called, knowing Spirit would bounce from even the deepest sleep to rattle around inside the wood motorboat with his master. I’ll refer to myself as his master, thank you very much, Nestor had argued with Sandra. She, not yet too old to drape one of her silk scarves around her head, had lowered the bridge of her nose and cast her navy-blue eyes at her tipsy husband. Let’s not allow anyone else hear you say that, she scowled, or they’ll think you’re embracing the Coombs’ plantation days.
Seated on a centre plank, Nestor Coombs heaved the boat from the pier and started the motor, inhaling the mixed fumes of gasoline and churning black water. He brought a freshly filled flask of bourbon to his lips and gazed at the receding lawn of the house, a white A-frame with windows—so many windows—splashed across the back. A sadness cooled his shoulders as he thought of Sandra coming home soon, not so much wondering or even caring where he’d gone, as pleased to see him not around.
Nestor had met Celia Chappell two years ago. Newly widowed, she’d moved into a condo across the river and down half a mile, perched on the edge of a new golfing/retirement community. They’d been introduced by mutual drinking and golfing friends. They would meet casually, coincidentally at the driving range or the clubhouse bar off and on for a year before she touched his hand one Sunday afternoon. She’d pressed into him, warm and fragrant, and asked if autumn put him in a romantic mood.
“I’m at that age,” he tried to joke, “where I’ve just gotten over feelings of young romance and haven’t quite arrived at the sentimental variety.”
He’d just turned 52. Celia was not quite 50.
“Well,” she’d cooed, glancing around the bar as if to whisper him a great secret, “I’m smack dab in the middle of my best romancing.”
She’d brushed his sun-cracked lips with her painted fingers and sashayed off, leaving that to weigh on his mind. He sulked for an hour after getting home. Sandra had been upstairs in her watercolour-painting loft with a hoity-toity pal, choosing works for an upcoming exhibit at the county art gallery. She’d crossed the unlit den in a rush and was startled to see him sitting there in the dark, wiggling an empty wine bottle between a ring of fingers.
“Nestor! Is that all you can do anymore,” she gasped affectedly, lowering the end of her bony nose and pointing it fiercely toward his guilty lap. “It’s no wonder they’re pushing you out the door at the paper.”
She was in the bloom of her career selling drapes and sconces at her gal-pal’s boutique downtown. Sandra had been talking for months about buying in to the operation, A Hint of Wine and Roses. When they bickered about it, he reveled in telling her they should rename it A Hint of Snobs and Snobbery.
She’d ignored his go-to-hell look and he’d wandered off and pulled out the phone book, thumbing through dry pages until he found the entry for Celia P. Chappell. He’d been more breathless than her when they’d arranged their first rendez-vous. He’d been feeling since March or April that he might be falling in love with her. Love? Chuck, down at the tackle shop, told Nestor, who’d pitched the scenario as a what-if- this-happened-to-you-like-it-did-old-Robert-Mitchum-in-that-movie-long-ago, to fish or cut bait.
“The worst kinda regret a man can have,” Chuck had said, leaning out of a cooler he’d been filling with cut-rate beer, “is to stay in a marriage that’s gone and turned sour. If my pops was still alive, Nestor, you could ask him all about it. Before pops passed, God rest his soul, he opened his heart to me about him and my mother. Said they’d lived all their lives together, not being in love one single day since they’d been teenagers.”
Nestor saw a film of sorrow pass briefly across Chuck’s cracked, tanned face. Just like a memory would do. Nestor realized he didn’t want to have this memory. “How ‘bout leaving one of those six-packs out for me to take home,” Nestor had said, rubbing the toe of his boating shoe against the kickboard to Chuck’s skimpy bar counter. “I’m all out at the house.”
Shortly after the Fourth of July he’d been on the phone with Celia, full of sighs and nagging regrets, when she’d said she wouldn’t mind spending the rest of her life with him. Said she knew it would have to be his choice, that she wasn’t even asking him to make that decision. She just wanted to put it out there. In case.
“This way I won’t ever regret not telling you,” she said in a voice as faraway as a scrim of clouds on a wide horizon. He heard her voice catch as she entered an abrupt, billowy pause. He knew she was waiting, pensive, both hands cradling her wall-phone.
“Me, too,” he whispered, knowing he really meant he’d enjoy spending the rest of his life with someone other than Sandra, be it her or any other giver of intimacy. But Celia was right there, puffing near-frantic breaths into his ear, her heart pounding, her bright eyes flickering wild errant looks around her kitchen.
“But I don’t know if I can,” he whispered, his ears humming now.
“OK,” Celia had said.
That was two months ago. Summer had passed over the weekend and the air was filling each night with a more persistent chill. He tooled his boat along the edge of a channel that entered the tiny fabricated village where Celia lived. There were lights on in her condo. He figured she was in there making dinner or unwrapping something she’d walked over and gotten from the clubhouse.
“It’s getting late, Spirit,” Nestor said through wind-dried lips which he promptly wetted with a slosh of bourbon. “I’m gonna turn us back.”
They’d lived in the mountains when their kids had been growing up. Mason, the son and the oldest, and Andrea, a bright extroverted little redhead, cavorted in the craggy hills around their modest house. They’d had a peanut-shaped heated pool and Nestor had put up a makeshift cabana where he and Sandra shared whispering moments together in winter after the kids had gone to bed, drinking steaming toddies. Pressed closely together.
He was a young government-and-cops reporter for Asheville’s daily paper. Sandra taught art to mouth-breathing Catholic children, the kids’ constant respiratory problems caused, Nestor said, by smelling their parents’ money.
They stayed in the North Carolina mountains while Mason and Andrea grew up. He would sometimes take a job as an editor for one of his company’s errant weeklies, dragging the family along, pushing the children into new schools, Sandra scrambling into dank public-school art programs or shooing parochial students away from leaky radiator heaters, but always working right along with Nestor.
“We’re doing this the right way,” Nestor asked one summer in Morganton, “aren’t we, Sandra?”
They were in their mid-30s by then, getting tired, with Mason in high school and Andrea right behind, both high-performing students. Sandra was experimenting with an at-the-chin perm with gold highlights and some darker streaks.
“I should hope so,” she’d sighed, the distance between them just taking root, “because it’s way too late to start over and do it again.”
When Mason had said he was going to art school in Swannanoa, Sandra had stunned them all by bristling. She’d pulled her husband aside into the kitchen, where a rib eye beef roast was sizzling in a bed of button mushrooms, and seared her sea-blue eyes at him. The corners of her red mouth scratched at hard-to-find words, just for a second, and then she gripped his arm and launched her concern.
“Warren Wilson College is for homosexuals,” she said, hissing the esses, a vein in her throat pulsing. “If Mason decides he’s gay, that’s one thing. But to take it out in public, into academia, is another.”
Nestor just stared at her. It had been obvious for years that Mason was gay. None of them had ever talked about it, but Nestor just figured it was one of those things you didn’t have to talk about. If somebody wanted to talk about it, fine. If nobody wanted to talk about it, that was fine too. Everything had been fine up till now.
“Sandra, I can’t believe—”
She stopped him, raising a slotted spoon, greasy from turning the mushrooms around the roast. She took a stance like he’d seen boxers take before championship fights when the announcer is standing between them calling out their names to a rabid crowd.
“I won’t have it, Nestor,” she snarled, her eyes seeming to purple for a second. “I’ll leave it up to you to put this to rest. To-night!”
He realized lately that this was the moment he had begun to pull away from her, when their lives seemed to climb into separate cars and push out in opposite directions, neither one looking back in the rear-view. They’d been off in these directions for a decade. They were weary of each other now. They’d accepted the distance, but it still pained them when they had to get up close in intimate situations like holiday dinners or social gatherings.
Mason hadn’t spoken to them much over the years. He ended up going to Wake Forest, then into a career that had completely appalled his mother: Mason ran an agency in Manhattan that handled the bookings for professional drag queens. “He’s wasted his life,” Sandra spat whenever she’d had a couple drinks, “and his law degree.”
Nestor wouldn’t engage with her about Mason. They’d talk for hours about Andrea, who taught high school theatre in Durham, had got married, and produced a pair of sons. They would go on and on about how happy Andrea and her family were. Sandra delighted herself with turning her grandsons’ pictures into poster-sized watercolors. They were all over the walls.
Nestor was looking at one when Sandra came in from her arts council meeting. She was in her third year as president. She tossed her leather-bound notebook case on the chair next to him, followed his hollow gaze to the painting of a boy’s wind-tossed head, smiling, cocked slightly up in awe at what was supposed to be a flock of seabirds. At that moment Nestor was imagining it was more likely a wake of brooding vultures.
“Spirit looks absolutely awful,” she said, rolling up the sleeves of a button-up smock. “Has he been in the cove again?”
Nestor watched her gather the cuffs above one elbow, then the other. He didn’t like it that her favourite colour now was gray. He found it fitting, but still a bother. He pulled the last can from the six-pack he’d gotten from Chuck’s and popped it open. She blew out her cheeks and rolled her eyes.
The last time he’d called Mason, around Easter maybe, he’d found it not at all strange that the son hadn’t asked about his mother. They’d talked for a good 20 minutes and Sandra hadn’t come up once. Not that they were avoiding her on purpose.
He’d mentioned Celia, whom he referred to as a golf buddy. He had lots of golf buddies. He’d told Mason that this buddy was his favourite. That they’d started playing together all the time and were considering entering a summer seniors tournament, mixed-play. They never did. He was wishing now that they had. They’d have gotten their picture taken together, win or lose, and it would be hanging on the bulletin board in the clubhouse, behind the glass cover. They might even have had their arms slung around each other, sunburned a little, a little drunk, grinning like the best of friends.
“I’ve got another woman,” Nestor heard himself say, feeling like he was listening to his own voice play back on the cheap mini-tapes he used for interviews. “I’ve found somebody, Sandra.”
She was in the middle of pulling barrettes from her hair. She kept it short and pinned to her head in warm weather. She had a look on her face like he’d seen only once or twice, the most memorable being when her sister had told her, at their father’s wedding, that he’d had a mistress for most of his life.
“What did you say?” she asked, like her breath was hard to come by.
He told her again. He didn’t tell her everything, just what he thought she needed to know. Sandra sat down, carefully, pushing the notebook to the floor. They were two feet apart. Both were looking at the floorboards as if inspecting them for hard-to-see words they’d written there to use in difficult moments.
The phone rang but neither of them moved, probably didn’t hear it. The only sound in the room was their breathing, and a large clock ticking on the wall behind them. It had gone from dusk to night since she’d entered the room. They were fading into their chairs like a pair of trees that sit in front of the woods, blurring together in a falling darkness, forming a horizon of shadow.
Sandra raised her head, staring forward, as if she were in a car driving down an empty highway, knowing there was no one else to look out for, but alert just the same. She sniffed, but no tears came. Then she rubbed her palms up and down her cheeks.
“I thought so,” she whispered. “I thought you’d do this someday, Nestor.”
He didn’t answer because he felt too sorry for her. He lifted the can to his mouth and drained it, wondering if he could get Chuck to open the shop long enough for him to dart over and grab another six-pack. It didn’t seem like too much to ask, not under the circumstances.
Chuck was always open and honest about other people’s troubles. He always gave cheery opinions on the darkest of topics. Like the rough spots in life. Take that for example, Nestor was thinking. Chuck had said just the week before, when some young fella had come in and was talking about how he’d lost his job that day and was now going out to do some fishing and drinking, but mostly drinking.
Chuck had told him to prepare for the roughest at first. That when you take a boat out to fish, the first waves you hit are the hardest of the day. They’ll rattle you to your marrow. Make your bones chime like they’re knocking ‘round in a hurricane wind, is what Chuck had said. But once you get over that initial crack of the swells, you get used to the roughness of the trip.