Ever since Howie Jeffries could remember, people had been asking him if anything was wrong. It was his face, mostly. The last face on earth. First, as a small boy, he assumed that something must be wrong and this frightened him. Later, realizing that maybe he himself was wrong, Howie would say that he guessed he was just a having a bad day. Weeks, months, then years of bad days. Finally, he gave up and when called to account for his woeful demeanor, merely shrugged. “Cheer up,” people told him, “it’ll never happen.”
Howie’s face was always happening. Even now, at fifty. There, he thought, staring into the bathroom mirror. Still happening.
He washed his hands.
The last face on earth was how his ex-wife had once described the gaunt, arboreal lonesomeness of his features. “I love it to bits,” she assured him. Probably he was supposed to be alone.
Howie dried his hands.
This was still his family’s house in the same way a story still belongs to its characters even if most of them are dead by the end. Howie Jeffries’s wife and his daughter were not dead, they just lived elsewhere and with other people. Sometimes, when falling asleep, he still heard the clattering, indigestive sounds the kitchen made when his wife cooked. Or, getting dressed, he’d recall how his wife rolled his socks into tight, tiny animals. Open the sock drawer and there they were, waiting Howie once had a drawer devoted entirely to socks. He’d remember the window of their wall calendar, how they’d present themselves before it, peer into it together, his wife writing in her red and green and black markers, commanding Howie to watch—participate—as she explained the future. Generally speaking, the future was Howie’s fault.
She left him for a man who knew how to talk about her feelings and who, moreover, was named Timmy, not Tim or Timothy—and not Howie. Timmy. Timmy had introduced notions like potential. Timmy wasn’t content to sit and grow old and potentially die of freaking boredom night after night, now was he? Timmy was knowledgeable about things that happened in other languages. He was a painter of houses, landscapes. He was eight years younger than Howie and his wife.
The divorce was a swift, anesthetized procedure. Three lawyers, his and hers. His wife had a new signature to go along with her new dress, her bright, naked fingers. Signing here and here and, right, good, and just there too, please. OK. Howie writing his name slowly, meticulously, as if there might yet be a reprieve, an on second thought, going so far as to include his neglected middle name for those three extra marital seconds. Victor. His great-grandfather’s name, his uncle’s too, stalling there between the Howard and the Jeffries. VICTOR.
Howie had been thirty, his daughter nearly five. Twenty years later and none of them had died, not of freaking boredom or otherwise. They were all OK now.
Howie and his daughter were friends on the internet computer. He loved Harriet but was unsure as to whether he knew her, and he wondered if this made a difference. But good for her, he often thought, unable to attach any weight to the locution as he slid down through Harri’s Facebook life in New York City. Good for you. Sounding, he knew, not unlike his own father and the bloodless there-you-go’s the old man reserved for the people who had disappointed him most.
Because, really, why impose? Why say anything at all?
Howie brushed his teeth. Four in the morning and he’d forgotten the toothpaste again. He smiled as if someone were standing behind him, a woman in the mirror, a wife who appreciated this small, endearing hiccup in his hygienic routine. Howie, you goof-ball. Her arms around his waist.
Some years ago at the GE company picnic, Howie had been drinking beer with his co-workers and their spouses, one of whom had been holding a little boy. Ever attuned to such things, Howie had tried to minimize his face. The boy stared. Nothing wrong, Howie wanted to explain. It’s just me. This is what I look like. Then someone had said something funny and Howie, trying not to laugh, couldn’t help smiling, and perhaps the squeeze he put on his throat and chest and lower face, the effort not to crack up, as they say, had overdistorted his grimace into something ghastly. The kid, a toddler, had recoiled as if slapped. The boy pointed, screeched. Everyone pretended to get a kick out of this, even Howie. Later, the boy’s mother pulled Howie aside. “Kids,” she said. “Howie, sweetie, I’m so embarrassed. I guess your smile just rattled him.” Like this was an obvious thing, something long accepted, past the point of discussion. Howie Jeffries had a rattling smile.
Still, small children generally liked him, dogs and elderly women, too. Folks with disabilities. His daughter said once that he had a distinguished face. Try and remember that. But just the fact that Harri had told him this out of the blue, as if in conclusion to some long-running internal debate—yeah, distinguished, actually—well, why even say it?
He was not, he knew, an unhappy man. What had he ever done with these hands that he should be ashamed of? Things needed doing, you do them. You treat folks like you expect to be treated back. Howie had never found a good or bad reason to believe in God and believed only that things were getting too noisy and that most people were insane.
He had only just returned from his night shift at the General Electric Waste Water Treatment Plant in Schenectady, NY. He enjoyed the forty-five-minute commute. The road at night was where Howie made the most sense to himself. In fact, had he put more stock in self-determination or the pursuit of happiness, he surely would have been a long haul truck driver. Instead, he’d been with GE for exactly thirty years, something he knew only because his co-workers had recently started teasing him with the possibility of an anniversary party.
“Just when you least expect it,” Steve Dube had said. “Jeffries, you do know we’re going to party the shit out of you this time, right? Thirty years, champ. Shit is for real. This time we mean it.”
They didn’t, of course. The guys just really liked threatening Howie with large social events. Each year as his birthday approached, he’d be put on warning. Shit could be lurking behind any door. Threatening to celebrate Howie was their way of celebrating Howie. There were worse things, he supposed, than being misidentified as someone who might be killed by a surprise party.
For the most part, Howie had been working two weeks of day shifts followed by two weeks of night shifts for the entirety of his thirty years at the GE Waste Water Treatment Plant. His ex-wife had insisted that this was part of his problem, by which she meant her problem with him. The way he willfully curled his life around a different clock than everyone else. Shifty, she’d call him, an affectionate nickname that, eventually, grew teeth.
Teeth. Howie recoiled at the intimacy of his own blood. He’d gotten carried away with the flossing again.
Howie turned off the bathroom light but continued to stand at the sink. Tapping it like a pulpit. Darkness emboldened the sound of his breathing, his heart. Would you listen to that. Crickets and a far-off dog. Dogs? Owls.
The creek. Stop your tapping. Howie waited. Howie approached the bathroom window. He allowed his eyes time to adjust to the darkness outside. The treetops moved as if the air had slowed and thickened into water. Pines, mostly, but some elm. There was no moon. Then there was: hard, white and busting from a bank of silver clouds as if it had just rolled in specifically to aid Howie’s vision. He focused on his neighbor’s house, its weak glow. Beyond this, the dark.
And he saw her. She was moving along the edge of the woods like you might pace the edge of a pool you’re not quite ready to jump into. Then, just when Howie began to think that maybe she wouldn’t tonight, she did. She was gone, into the forest, leaving only the slightest splash of night behind her. That and Howie, his face against the bathroom window.
Howie Jeffries and his only neighbor, Emily Phane, lived way out on Route 29, a twisted old country road that followed the Kayaderosseras Creek. (Kayaderosseras was an Iroquois word, but it might as well have been a hieroglyph since, when written in cursive, the word eerily resembled the squiggle of the actual creek as represented on most maps of the county.) Howie’s and Emily’s houses were twins. Once identical, now fraternal. Both had been built in 1860 as dormitories for immigrant paper mill workers, some of whose names you could still find carved, umlauts and all, onto doors and the inside of cupboards. Howie’s place still had its original wood siding, but Emily’s was aluminum now, painted yellow, as if it were getting ready to go for a jog.
And he still expected to come home one day and find it gone. What else had managed to stick around on Route 29? Not a whole lot. The paper mills had fallen into ruin decades before Howie was born and most of the colonial farmhouses had disappeared, too, their rolling fields rented out for billboard space. Huge spotlighted headstones to fast food, Lutheranism, and debt management, apparently aimed at the truck drivers whose ceaseless attentions sometimes seemed like the only thing keeping Route 29 from slithering off into the hills. For miles and miles, Howie and Emily were it.
He had known Emily since she was a baby, and though they’d hardly ever spoken, the young woman was dear to him. He considered himself her friend. She was twenty-four, the same age as Howie’s daughter. Harriet and Emily had gone to different schools but were friendly, or at least Howie had once liked to think that they were. Harri had been a wary, angry teenager. Perhaps she was angry still, or perhaps it wasn’t anger anymore or never had been, what did Howie know? Their relationship was exactly what it was supposed to be. You take a certain solace in rejection, in their independence. Howie assumed that she loved him as he had truly loved his own father, a man he never managed to feel entirely whole around. Why force a thing?
Time he thought about hitting the hay. Leave the bathroom window, leave Emily Phane. But he couldn’t, knew he wouldn’t, and his waiting continued. He yawned.
Because Howie couldn’t go to sleep until he saw her safely back inside her own house or at least out of the forest. There: she was on her knees, Howie saw her. Right there. She was a shape near the fuzziest edge of woods, not so far from where she’d entered a good few minutes back. Emily was digging. He’d been watching her do this and activities very much like this for a month or so now. Far as he could tell, she was uprooting a shrub. He’d seen her do it with saplings, pussy willows, adolescent trees, wild flowers, and, once, with what looked like wheat, an armful of wheat, but was probably only a heap of mown lawn or twigs or corn
Was she looking at him? Couldn’t be. He wished she’d just go inside now and be normal. We both need our sleep.
He lost her again. Refocus. There. She had circled around the dark side of the shrub and was lifting it, holding it before her like some fresh kill or offering. Finally, she began to walk toward her house, shrubbery cradled in her arms. The closer she got to her house the clearer Howie could see her face, a bubble approaching the surface of a pond: round, paler than usual.
Emily stopped; she’d heard him. She heard. Howie knew that she had, though he hadn’t made a noise.
He was the only fellow about, the only man for miles, so of course she could hear him. Though that didn’t make one lick of sense. Yet there it was. Emily standing in her backyard, in the middle of her moon-crisped lawn, staring straight up at Howie, a man she shouldn’t under any circumstances have been able to see.
Howie got into bed. He placed his Fishing the Adirondacks book on his lap, more an anchor to his worries than something he had any intention of rereading. It was a good, heavy friend.
Emily Phane was in trouble.
What more proof did he need exactly? What was Howie waiting for?
She hadn’t been the same since her grandfather died. But this was more than that now, wasn’t it?
Howie had assumed that after the funeral she would return to college in Boston, but months became a year, then almost another year and, far as Howie could tell, she barely left the house for groceries now. First there had been visitors, a few, probably old friends from Queens Falls High, but they’d long since stopped coming, and Howie had begun to see less and less of Emily herself, especially during the day. Besides her grandfather, she’d had no family that he knew of. Was she eating the underbrush? Was she addicted to illegal drugs? No, no, no—well, maybe? It just didn’t seem like something Emily would do, and even if she was doing illegal drugs, from where exactly would she be procuring the stuff? You don’t forage for crack cocaine among the pines at night. No. On TV, Howie knew, you purchased illegal drugs from black children in the ghetto.
Howie looked at photographs of fish. Land Locked Atlantic Salmon. Trout. Perch. Smallmouth Bass. Largemouth Bass. Northern Pike . . .
Could blacks be sending Emily drugs by mail? Howie shut the book. They were a community, the two of them. Emily and Howie alone on Route 29. This was something that had to be taken seriously. You took care of your own.
But how? He couldn’t go lumbering across the lawn, Howie to the rescue. Not in the dark. Not with that face. Then there was the fact that he’d hardly said boo to her in the nearly twenty-five years she’d lived next door. Twenty-five years. There’s that, Howie, isn’t there? You going to ruin that, you really want to tear your safe and ordered community apart by finally stepping out from behind how you seem—and how exactly do you think you do seem to this young woman? Who are you to her?
Howie got out of bed and went back to the bathroom. He drank a glass of water. He had long ago adjusted his life in order to protect himself and others from how he seemed. Sure, most people were insane. But Emily? There was no longer any question: he would find out what was wrong. He would help. If not him, then who?
Howie looked at himself in the mirror and rattled. Distinguished, huh? But it wasn’t just his face. He examined it: you’re fifty years old and you gonna blame all your problems on that?
Howie returned to bed.
Cheer up, he thought. It might never happen. He stared at the crystal chandelier his ex-wife had inherited from her grandmother’s dining room and, in her grief, insisted on hanging in their bedroom above the bed. Then insisted, also in her grief, on leaving behind because, Gran always liked you. It was like having the old woman’s skeleton knocking about up there. Gran hadn’t liked anyone. The flame-shaped bulbs had extinguished themselves some fifteen years earlier, but OK. Howie let it alone. It represented a kind of stability to him now. Everyone needs something in his life that he can safely despise. He clicked off the bedside lamp. Everyone knew. The book on his lap knew. His father had madeno bones about knowing. His fishing buddies and the guys at work and their happy families and even this room, his ex-wife’s room, which would never warm to him: they all knew and it was OK. Howie Jeffries was a man distorted by timidity. Howie was only shy.
He clicked the lamp back on.
It would be dawn soon. Listen. Now is when the birds are at their most murderous.
But you take care of your own. You got to. What are you if you can’t take care of your own? Howie opened his book and turned the pages, kept turning, turning, and not for the first time wished himself beneath the surface with all the wise, thoughtless fish.
From THE HOUSEHOLD SPIRIT. Used with permission of Pantheon. Copyright © 2015 by Tod Wodicka.