Every morning, even in winter, she stole from her husband’s bed at 6 am. It took fifteen absurd minutes to slip one arm at a time from under the covers, to connect her right foot with the floor, to lift herself from the bed without rocking the mattress. Over lunch with girlfriends, she joked about her near ability to levitate: “I love him—of course, he’s my husband—but the way he expects the household to play dead whenever he sleeps—.” She smiled. “Well, you wouldn’t believe the gymnastics I go through to keep from waking him!”
Out of bed, she put on tennis shoes, a fleece, sweatpants, mittens—patiently, as in pianissimo, as in one sleeve, one leg, one finger at a time. She left without locking the door so not even the tumblers would sabotage her husband’s forty winks. Outside, squatting in the grass (because metal clanged when dropped on a kitchen floor—a lesson she learned the hard way), she tied a house key to her shoelaces in case she came home to find the door locked and herself locked out (which had happened before—once, when she returned from grocery shopping ten minutes late and, again, the time she and a friend went to the movies, a girls’ night out and, once alone, he’d decided he hated that idea and didn’t want a repeat).
In the haze of dawn, she headed to the neighborhood park, rounded the track once, twice, then trotted home. Less than three miles. Thirty minutes. A safe, loyal loop.
When her husband figured out what she was doing while he slept, he said nothing. And she, hopeful woman, she believed she could live the rest of her life with this man, even him, if he gave her thirty minutes each morning, a calm eye between the long hours of night when he fought her sleep (because she wasn’t paying attention to him when she was unconscious) and the punctilious days (an exacting itinerary) he harnessed her to.
Then, her husband started jogging as well, secretly leaving the house minutes after she did. As she crossed an intersection, she glimpsed him between blocks, on a parallel street, watching her but never nodding hello. He wore earbuds and a Walkman clipped to his shorts, held a water bottle in his left hand, and aimed his eyes right through her (so ominous, this public sighting of the stranger, the poltergeist, who haunted their house but never showed himself to others). Seeing him loose in the neighborhood, she felt light-headed; the streets whirled about, north and south cartwheeling in her mind.
At the park, she no longer took the second lap, didn’t savor the pulse of her feet on the caliche trail. Instead, she turned a quick corner back toward their house in case he was watching. And every morning, though she saw him shadowing her, he beat her home—her husband back in PJs and eating breakfast, all smiles and sure of her impulse to run no farther than four blocks and then U-turn back to him.
Women always tell Billy he needs a wife to tidy up his act. They’re angling for a shot at him, though they stare at the nub of his thumb—the one cinched off in a rodeo accident—when they say it. His right hand works as well as any of ours: It grips tools, steers a truck, reins a horse, fires a gun. But he combs his hair with that maimed paw, too, and without gloves, he shovels stalls, bandages wounds, cleans the genitalia of studs. With no hesitation, he pokes two fingers into a horse’s nostril to swipe it free of snot. Not one of us has ever seen him wash his hands.
Every evening, while we sit around the dummy calf and tack boxes, holding our makeshift happy hour, his Australian shepherd squats beside him, and her tongue canoodles his right palm. She chews his knuckles, the web between each finger, gnaws loose the tang of snot, perspiration, urine, shit. When she finishes his right hand, Billy withdraws it and offers his left.
We’ve stopped kidding him about spending good money on this latest dog—a purebred, who appears to have ADHD; the only time she sits still, isn’t jumping in the air, her body flopping like a noodle, is when she launders his hands. We’ve even stopped joking about her bizarre taste buds. Instead, we pretend to deliberate the summer wildfires closing in, the latest sparked just days ago and already threatening to tank through Norwood, but we’re actually pondering the pretty blonde looker, the bank secretary, who appears at Eagle Hill most afternoons, wearing heels and trim skirts but changing into cutoffs and halters in Billy’s trailer before she tacks up for her riding lesson. She brings with her the “dirty joke of the day,” which entertains Billy greatly, and the two of them start feeding the horses out in pasture, early, before any of us get off work at our day-jobs.
Every evening, we consider the meaning of devotion and watch the secretary watch Billy’s dog’s ablutions and keep quiet. She drinks her Pacifico, but it’s not the bitter hops or even the smoke in the air that make her nose scrunch up. She’s thinking about Billy’s left hand, where it might go, where it’s been. She’s thinking how all the other women—a forever line of them—never shy away from Billy’s right when it grips their left and he spins them around the dance floor at the White Horse. She stares at the pretty Australian shepherd, slurping on her target, and we all know: this woman is a blaze to reckon with.
We calculate the odds, consider the direction of wind. Place bets. Hazard if, when. Then clink our beer bottles together. It might not be Billy, but one of us is about to clean up. We can hear the heat buzz in the air.