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O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.)

HE had sent her three dozen American Beauty roses, and the apartment was saturated with their smell. Raymer sat on the couch with his legs crossed and a cup of coffee balanced on his knee and had the closest thing to a conversation he had had with Corrie since the day she left.

"This is so unlike you," she said. "All these flowers. How much did they cost?"

"They were day-old roses, half off. I told you it didn't matter."

"And climbing around in caves looking for hidden treasure. It's so unpredictable. Who would have thought it of you? Are you having some sort of a crisis?"

Raymer kept glancing around the apartment. He had neither seen Robbie nor heard mention of his name, but the place made him nervous anyway. It was fancier and more expensive-looking than he remembered, and he wondered how she could afford it. Everything looked like a sleek and dynamic symbol for a life he could not aspire to. The furniture was low and curvilinear, as if aerodynamically designed for life in the fast lane.

"He's almost certainly senile," she said. "What makes you think he's telling you the truth?"

"I know he's telling the truth. He's religious, and he laid his hand on the Bible, and ... Wait a minute -- quit that. It may be funny to you, but he took it seriously."

"'Religious' and 'bootlegger' just sort of seem contradictory terms to me."

"I'm not going to argue semantics. The point is, he's telling the truth. I even drove down below the state line and talked to some folks who used to know him. He was a bootlegger, and he was successful enough at it to have socked away twenty thousand dollars without missing it. That's ten thousand for me. Us, if I can talk you into it. We could just spend it, just piss it away. Buy things. Go on a cruise. I'm making money for us to live on, and I've got more work to do."

She gave him a sharp look of curiosity. "What's in it for you?"

"You. If you'll give me a chance, I'll win you back. By the time we spend ten thousand dollars, I can persuade you to give it another shot."

"We gave it a four-year shot. It wasn't working."

"I'll try harder."

"Oh, Buddy. If you tried any harder, you'd break something. Rupture all your little springs or something. It wasn't you. It was just a bad idea -- although you did make it worse. You're such an innocent about things. You get a picture of things in your head and your picture is all you see. You don't know me. You don't even know yourself. All you know is your little picture of how things ought to be, and that's the way you think they are."

"Well, whatever. Ten thousand dollars is still a lot of money."

She didn't argue with that. "Wouldn't it be fun to go down to the Bahamas? I'm on summer break. We could lie on the beach. All that white sand. We could just lie in the sun and drink those tall drinks they have with tropical fruit in them."

"Then you'll do it?"

"I'll think about it. Like you said, it's a lot of money." She paused, and was silent for a time. "There's just one thing," she said.

"Where's the fox at?"

"Robbie? He's playing a string of club dates in Nashville, trying to get a record deal. By the way, you shouldn't call him that -- it just shows how petty you are. I told him about it, and he wasn't amused."

"Piss on him. I never set out to be a comedian."

"Back to what I was saying. The way you tell it, you're doing all the work. Swinging around on those bluffs -- that's dangerous. You could get killed. I'm only twenty-three, and I could be a widow. I think you deserve the entire twenty thousand."

"Hellfire, Corrie, it's Mayfield's money, not mine."

"You said yourself he doesn't care about it. Besides, it would take twice as long to spend it. If you're really trying to, as you put it, win me back, this would give you twice as long to do it."

Raymer was put off balance by what she'd suggested, and he felt a little dizzy. He thought the smell of the roses might be getting to him. The room was filled with a sickening sweet reek that seemed to have soaked into the draperies and the carpet. It smelled like a wedding, a funeral. "You may be right," he said.

"Of course I'm right. You could take six months off from work. We could spend it remodeling the house. Maybe you're learning, Buddy. You did right to tell me this."

"I could tell you about it all night long," Raymer said. He'd heard that money was an aphrodisiac, but he suspected this was more likely to be true of actual as opposed to conjectural money, and Corrie's reply bore this out.

"I've got to think all this through," she said. "I've got to decide what I'm going to tell Robbie."

At the door she kissed him hard and opened her mouth under his and rounded her sharp breasts against his chest, but her mouth did not taste the same as it had that day by the wishing pool, and the odor of the roses had even saturated her hair. An enormous sadness settled over him.

Going back, he was five miles across the county line when a small red fox darted up out of the weedy ditch and streaked into his headlights. He cut the wheel hard to miss it, but a rear wheel passed over the fox, and he felt a lurch in the pit of his stomach. "Goddamn it," he said. He put the truck in reverse and backed up until he could see the fox. It wasn't moving. He got out. The fox's eyes were open, but they were blind and dull; its sharp little teeth were bared, and blood was running out of its mouth. Its eyes had been as bright as emeralds in the headlights, and they had gleamed as if they emitted light instead of reflecting it. "I don't believe this," Raymer said. "This is just too Goddamned much."

He rose and took a drop cloth from the bed of the truck and wrapped the fox in it. He stowed it in the back of the pickup and drove on toward home.

RAYMER was shaking his head. "Why don't you just admit it?" he asked. "You wanted to go fishing. You wanted to get away from the project and picnic on the river. So you fed me all this bullshit, and here you are, with your little basket and your little fishing pole."

Mayfield regarded him placidly. "It don't matter what you think," he said. "The money's not there because you think it is. It's there because I put it in a jar and poured paraffin over it and packed it up the side of that bluff. If you think it's not there, that don't change nothin'. It'd be there even if you didn't exist."

"Because you packed it up the side of that bluff."

"Right."

Raymer sat in the stern of the boat looking at his hands. He had slipped twenty scary feet down the face of a bluff before he could stop himself, and the nylon line had left a deep rope burn across each palm, as if he'd grabbed a red-hot welding rod with both hands.

Truth to tell, though, exploring the caves was interesting. He had not found any dead Confederates, but he had been in a cave in whose winding depths Indians had left flint chippings, pottery shards, all that remained of themselves.

As always, Mayfield seemed to know what he was thinking. "Why won't you admit it yourself? You know you're gettin' a kick out of it. I bet you ain't thought of your wife all mornin'."

Raymer shook his head again. He grinned. "You're just too many for me," he said.

THURSDAY he was rained out in midafternoon, and he drove to the bank and checked the balance in his account. It was a lot higher than he had expected. He was amazed at how little he had spent. Like the old man, he seemed to be accumulating it in paper sacks, fruit jars. It was growing all the time.

He asked to withdraw $500 in ones and fives. The teller gave him a peculiar look as she began to count out the money.

"It's for a ransom note," Raymer said, and for a moment she stopped counting. She was careful to keep any look at all from her face. Then she resumed, laying one bill atop another.

He drank the rest of the day away in a bar near the bypass. The place was named Octoberfest and had a mock-Germanic decor, and the waitresses were tricked out in what looked like milkmaids' costumes. He drank dark lager and kept waiting for the ghost of Hitler to sidle in and take the stool across from him. A dull malaise had seized him. A sense of doom. A suspicion that someone close to him had died but he had not yet received the telegram, that the Reaper was walking up and down the block looking for his house number.

"You've sure got a good tan," the barmaid told him. "It looks great with that blond hair. What are you, a lifeguard or something?"

"Something," Raymer said. "I'm a necrozoologist."

"A what? Necrowhat?"

"A necrozoologist. I analyze roadkill on the highways. On the life's highway. I look for patterns, migratory habits. Compile statistics. So many foxes, so many skunks. Possums. Try to determine where the animal was bound for when it was struck."

"There's no such thing as that."

"Sure there is. We're funded by the government. We get grants."

She laid a palm on his forearm. "I think you're drunk," she said. "But you're cute anyway. Stop by and see me one day when you're sober."

When he went to use the pay phone, he was surprised to see that dark had fallen. He could see the interstate from there, and the headlights of cars streaking past looked straight and intent, like falling stars rifling down the night.

The phone rang for a long time before she answered.

"Where were you?"

"I was asleep on the couch. Where are you? Why are you calling?"

"I've got it," he said.

"Jesus, Buddy. You found it? All of it?"

"All of it."

"You sound funny. Why do you sound like that? Are you drunk?"

"I might have had a few celibatory -- celebratory -- beers."

"If you were going to celebrate, you could have waited for me."

"I'm waiting for you now," he said, and hung up the phone.

ACHEST freezer stood on the back porch of the farmhouse they had bought to renovate. Raymer raised the lid and took out the frozen fox, still wrapped in its canvas shroud. He folded away the canvas, but part of it was seized in the bloody ice, and he refolded it. He slid the bundle into a clean five-gallon paint bucket. A vinegar jar would have been nice, but he guessed they didn't make them that big anymore. The money was in a sack, and he dumped it into the bucket, shaking the bag out, the ones and fives drifting like dry leaves in a listless wind. He glanced at his watch and then picked up the loose bills from the floor and packed them around the fox. He stretched a piece of plastic taut across the top of the bucket and sealed it with duct tape. He replaced the plastic lid and hammered it home with a fist. Then he went into the kitchen and filled up the coffee maker.

When headlights washed the walls of the house, he was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee. By the time he had crossed to the front room and turned on the porch light, Corrie was standing at the front door with an overnight bag in her hand.

She came in looking around the room, the high, unfinished ceiling. "Looks like you quit on it," she said.

"I guess I sort of drifted into the doldrums after you left," he said. "Is that bag all you brought?"

"I figured we could buy some new stuff in the morning. Where is it? I want to see it."

He'd expected that. He pried off the lid and showed her. He'd been working on the wiring in the living room, and the light was poor here. She was looking intently, but all it looked like was a bucket full of money.

"Can we dump it out and count it? I thought it was in some kind of glass jar."

"The jar was broken. I think a rock slid on it. If he hadn't had the whole mess airtight in plastic, it would probably have been worthless. I've already counted it, and we're not going to roll around in it or do anything crazy. I still don't feel right about this, and we're leaving for Key West early in the morning, before I change my mind. I can see that old man's face every time I close my eyes."

"Whatever you say, Buddy. Five gallons of money sure has made you decisive and take-charge. It looks good on you."

Later he lay on his back in bed and watched her disrobe. "You don't have to do this," he said. "We don't have to rush things."

"I want to rush things," she said, reaching behind to unclasp her brassiere.

Raymer's mind was in turmoil. There was just too much to understand. He wondered if he would ever drive confidently down what Corrie had called the life's highway, piloting a sleek car five miles over the limit instead of standing by the road with his collar turned up and his thumb in the air. There were too many variables -- the rates of change and exchange were out of balance. The removal of Corrie's clothing was to her a casual act, all out of proportion to the torrent of feelings it caused in him. Her apartment was less than forty miles away, but it was no-man's-land, off limits. She had laid stones in the pathway which had driven him to a despair that not even the sweet length of her body laid against his would counterbalance.

An hour or so after he should have been asleep, he heard her call him. "Buddy?" When he didn't answer, she rose, slowly so that the bed would not creak. She crossed the floor to the bathroom. He could hear the furtive sounds of her dressing, the whisper of fabric on fabric. Then nothing, and though his eyes were still closed, he knew that she was standing in the bathroom door watching him. He lay breathing in, breathing out. He heard her take up the bucket and turn with it, and the bucket banged the doorjamb. "Goddamn," she breathed. Then he heard the soft sounds of bare feet and nothing further, not even the opening and closing of the front door, before her car cranked.

It was hot and stale in the room. It smelled like attar of roses, like climate-controlled money from the depths of a cave, like a rotting fox in the high white noon.

He got up and raised a window. Night rushed in like balm to his sweating skin. She hadn't even closed the front door. The yard lay empty and still and so awash with moonlight that it appeared almost theatrical, like the setting arranged for a dream that was over, or one on which the curtain had not yet risen.

When he crawled back into bed, he lay in the damp spot where they had made love, but he felt nothing. No pleasure, no pain. It was just a wet spot on a bed, and he moved over and thought about getting up and changing the sheets. But he didn't. He was weary and, despite all the coffee, still a little drunk. He tried to think of Corrie's lips against his throat, but all his mind would hold on to was the hiss in her voice when the bucket banged the door. Then even that slid away, and on the edge of sleep a boat was rocking on sun-dappled water, an old man was changing the fly on his line, and Raymer was feeling the sun hot on his back and wondering, Would you really lay your hand on the Bible and swear a lie? The old man's face was inscrutable, as always, but somehow Raymer didn't think he would, and when he slipped into sleep, it was dreamless and untroubled.

The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.


William Gay is a writer whose work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Oxford American, and The Missouri Review. His first novel, The Long Home, will be published next month.

Illustrations by Steve Carver.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Closure and Roadkill - 99.10 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 4; page 83-92.