By Jason Brown
Jimmy, an old friend of her husband’s, showed up with a goat in the back of his truck and his arms crossed under his ridiculous mustache. The goat, he explained, had shown up at his job site near Robinhood Cove.
“I know where it lives–on this little island up the Sassanoa. A nice afternoon for a boat trip.” He held up his hand to take the temperature of the air. Warm for late March. A false spring.
She knew what he wanted. She’d been putting him off for more than a year, first because her husband had only just died, then because of Jimmy’s wife, a Canadian woman who worked at the library, and finally because, contrary to what Jimmy thought, he was not mysterious, dangerous, or adventurous. For some reason, though, the same type of behavior that had made her dislike him in high school–rusty cars full of beer cans, cheating on his girlfriends, growing ridiculous mustaches–now made her want to get in the truck with him.
Hurtling down 127 with the goat pressed against the rear window of the cab, Marian thought of the stories her husband, Franklin, had told her about working with Jimmy (walking away from half-finished jobs, shoddy work). Jimmy continued to talk about the goat, and for a moment she almost believed him. A man and his girlfriend, hiding from the feds on Stinson Island (drugs, Jimmy said) and using the goat for cover. She didn’t believe the people existed at all, but she didn’t care. Better than an afternoon at work where her boss, Mr. Ingersoll, the lawyer in Bath (in case you made the mistake of underestimating his importance, the degree from Harvard hung on the wall to the right of his desk) hummed all day as he chewed typing paper. When she couldn’t sleep at night, which was often, she heard his teeth grinding.
At the harbor, the goat eyed her warily from its left eye and blinked. Or winked. A tinkling sound alerted her to the goat’s leather collar. Natalie, a tag said.
“Are you sure this goat belongs to drug dealers?” she asked.
He tied the goat to the center console of the boat, and they sped upriver toward Montsweag Bay. She hadn’t been this way since before her husband drowned. Jimmy nosed the boat up to the beach of the small island, cut the engine, and tossed the anchor. Then he started to take off his shoes and pants.
“Don’t want to get my jeans wet.” He smiled.
She took off her shoes and pants, leaving on her shirt and underwear, and hopped into the shallows. The goat stomped.
“She must be afraid of the water,” Marian said.
“She had to swim ashore to get off this island.”
If she could go back, Marian would be a lawyer like Mr. Ingersoll. To point out the flaws in people’s thinking, a job she thought she would very much enjoy.
Jimmy lifted the goat onto the beach, and then all three of them stood with their feet in the surprisingly warm sand. Snow had fallen only three weeks ago. Jimmy had nice legs–just the same, really, after all these years–and he still had a narrow waist and knobby shoulders. Just as she had in high school, she felt the force of a boy’s attention wearing away at her. Easier to fall into the current of someone else’s desire than to worry about one’s own.
Jimmy kissed her lightly, then firmly, on the mouth. He pressed the small of her back, and she felt his thighs and everything else press up against her bare legs. She thought of boys practicing football in tank tops and standing around with them in the school parking lot as heat rose off the hoods of their trucks.
Come on,” he said, tugging her by the hand along a path to the middle of the island. The cabin leaned, the boards worn gray. Inside they found a single empty can in one corner, a broom in the other, and the stale smell of trapped air. She pulled her hand away from his and went over to the one window. Jimmy followed but stopped several feet behind her. She had no desire to turn around and see his pale arms and legs, covered in coarse, dark hair, and the mottled skin of his cheeks where he had suffered from acne as a teenager. She didn’t want to see his nakedness any more than she wanted to think of her own bulging legs and sagging belly. A smell, not of something dead, but of something alive, pinched her nose. Mildew and wet wood, the damp earth under the floorboards, or their uncovered bodies. She sat on the floor and leaned against the wall with her legs pulled up, and he sat opposite her, sulking.
Cold washed along the floor. Jimmy huffed to his feet and went outside. Marian stretched her shirt over her legs as she started to shiver. Soon she heard scratching in the bushes next to the cabin. The goat appeared in the doorway and stared at her with its small eyes. Marian would not be surprised to hear the goat speak. When the goat had nothing to say, though, she thought it might be a long time before she heard a human voice again. Then Jimmy arrived, chasing the goat into the bushes.
“We got a problem,” he said.
This did not surprise her. She had expected a problem. She didn’t feel eager to find out what kind of problem they had, but she followed him to the beach. The tide had come up. In the failing light, Jimmy turned as red as a boy caught stealing from the corner store.
“I threw out the anchor but I guess I didn’t tie it to the boat,” he said.
“Oh, well,” she said and laughed.
She scanned the shore upriver until she thought she saw the boat wedged into a marsh.
“But that must be a mile away,” he said.
“We’re not marooned.” She nodded at the shoreline closest to the island, a hundred yards away.
In the time it would take Jimmy to swim across and bushwhack his way to the boat, the cold would deepen. Not enough to kill her, just enough to bore into her and form a hard layer under her skin.
He removed his plaid shirt, folded it in half, and placed it on a rock; then he stepped out of his boxer shorts and rested them on top of his shirt. He crouched, wrapping his arms around his legs. His naked butt reminded her of a cod gasping from the end of a hook.
“I’ll be right back,” he said over his shoulder, and she nodded even though her lips would turn blue by the time he reached the boat.
In the current, he slowed, drifted right, and for a moment she thought he would go under, as her husband had, leaving no body, nothing to mourn. But Jimmy reached shore, pulled himself up the granite ledge, and stood. They faced each other across the channel. She couldn’t see his face–it was too dark–and she guessed he couldn’t see hers. He lifted his hand and waved, and she waved back. Then he turned away. He pushed through the bayberry and picked up speed until his pale arms whispered through the air like the wings of a heron.
Jason Brown is the author of Driving the Heart and Other Stories (W.W. Norton) and Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work (Grove Atlantic). Born in Hallowell, Brown’s stories have won awards and appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other magazines and anthologies, and have been performed on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He teaches writing at the University of Oregon.