When she turned the corner of the store, holding two gallons of paint in one hand and box of rainbow chalk in the other, I realized I’d dreamt about her the night before. In my dream, I was still married to her, and we were in a cornfield that was suspended hundreds of feet in the sky. It was warm. We were sweaty and smiling as we harvested cherry tomatoes from cornstalks. Terri, I said, and woke up.
Here in front of me, she looked bright and fit and tan, the pale office skin and dry hair gone, a thin flannel shirt and her blonde hair loosely up, a smear of dirt along her jaw. Terri, I said, and she smiled, though her eyes flicked down to the badge, to the fat leather belt of my uniform. I was the same, she was new.
We’re trying a farm stand, she said, holding up the paint, a thin, hard muscle in her arm as she did. That’s good, I said. I was flushed, my head light from being close to her again.
You’re like a different person. I barely got it out before my throat tightened. I wanted to compliment her on getting the farm going, committing to a real life change. But I just stood there in my stiff blue uniform, pressed and thick and wearing me. It had never felt so conspicuous, so clownish.
I’m proud of you, take me with you, I love you, you’re gorgeous, you left me.
She stood calmly, even and square, offering the patience for me left from our old love, and my dream came back, and we were in the sky again, the warm air, picking tomatoes in the clouds.
The gravelly scratch of my radio cut in:
Millsy, you near Garden St? Head that way, we need your translation. Over.
And my little trance fell away. We were in the bright, narrow hall of the hardware store, stacked boxes of screws and washers, tarps and drop cloths, marking paint and dryer vents. I touched her elbow as a goodbye, turned, and pinched the mic on my shoulder, ducking down the next aisle before speaking into it.
I drove around back of the body shop and parked the cruiser alongside a knotted collection of shitboxes in various states of repair and Barry Tuck’s bright orange Ford Super Duty. On the truck’s door, painted in blocky black lettering: Tuck Landscaping. I passed the wide, dented garage doors of the shop and headed for the office, which you had to go through to get to Barry’s apartment. It was Saturday in the evening, and the place was empty.
The stairs leading up were narrow, old plywood treads painted a dark brown, chipping and dusty. My mind was replaying Cheryl’s blubbering 911 call that they patched to me because, for some reason, the town had always considered Barry and I friends.
Cheryl, sweetheart, it’s Mills.
I could picture the running mascara and bleached hair. She wailed my name snottily, saying it more like Bills than Mills.
Easy Cheryl, eeeeasy sweetheart, it’s gonna be fine. Breathe, honey. But she just kept saying heesga over and over, and I told her to try to say it another way.
Warry, she said. Barry.
I drew my gun and pointed it at the floor, but then re-holstered it. Barry was 5’6″ and keg-shaped; he’d never posed an actual physical threat to anyone, despite his loud voice and shit-talking. Still, my breathing had taken on a quick little rhythm. I inhaled deeply to interrupt it.
Barry, I called from the top step. I knocked on the door, forced myself to call louder and knocked twice more. No answer. I’m coming in, Barry, put your pants on. I opened the door.
The inside of Barry’s place looked more like a storage unit than an apartment. He was never a man to take rejection well, and when Cheryl had sent him packing, he crammed everything he could into Jimmy Young’s attic, which created a pretty significant logistical challenge: moving from a two-bedroom ranch to a 475 square foot pitched-ceiling loft. The result was an apartment that looked like the basement of the Museum of Bad Taste: green suede love seats stacked up, tin signs advertising beer and motor oil leaned against walls, a velvet painting of a stalking leopard, a six-foot tall cherry-red gumball machine, colorful dots of crap amongst the rows and stacks of cardboard boxes that filled almost every square inch aside from the bed, which lay empty and unmade. He’d been living there temporarily for two years.
I was able to determine that Cheryl had called Barry eight times between last night and this evening with no answer.
Then she had added something else and I asked her to repeat it, but only because I needed a second to process what she’d said. Andy had been right to patch the call in to me, I was good at translating that sloppy language. I’d spent a decent amount of time with Barry and Cheryl when they were still married, but all of it had been on duty, breaking up fights between the two of them. I’d head over after one of them finally stopped bluffing about calling the cops and break up their latest shit storm that wasn’t actually about what either of them thought it was about. Once, Barry was armed with a rolling pin, Cheryl wielding a barstool like a lion tamer, and they screamed at me that they were fighting about the toaster setting.
And here I was again, listening to her blob words at me.
I fink—heshaw—himsa, she said a little more slowly, a wet sob sucked up in the middle. I’d heard it right the first time.
I think he shot himself.
I called his name again, and again got no answer. I moved further into the apartment. The boxes, stacked six feet high, created nothing but blind spots and shadows. I was waiting for an arm slung out on the floor or the thick edge of pooled blood.
On the back side of the room by the windows was a flimsy folding table that had a hot plate, a breadbox, and a microwave, the door of which was swung open to reveal the red splatter of over-nuked pizza on the inside. Next to the table was the slop sink I had helped Jimmy install when he’d converted the space.
The sink was cruddy now, no longer new, full of caked dishes and Styrofoam takeout containers.
The only other room was the bathroom. The suicide room, some guys called it. I’d left the bathroom for last, but I should have gone there first and gotten it over with. The door was closed. I put my ear up to it. There was a humming, like an exhaust fan, only higher pitched.
I knew I should go in, but there was something about Barry being dead on the other side of that door that bothered me too much to go ahead. I had felt so badly for him for so many years, for as long as I’d known him. He never had the life he wanted, and now he’d ended it.
I’d always hated that people considered Barry and me friends.
I leaned my shoulder against the door, took hold of the knob, which was warm and slightly damp. I gutted myself up with a final, deep inhale-exhale and swung the door open:
There was fog on the mirror and condensation on the faucet, a bottle of Powers whiskey on the toilet tank, smoke in the air, water on the floor at the foot of the tub, silence, aside from the squealy humming, a leg hung over the edge of the tub—
And Barry Tuck, smoking a cigar, wearing neon-green plastic headphones and scrubbing his armpit with a loofah.
Jesus Christ! he yelled, ripping the headphones off, the squealy humming turning into some ’80s hairband rock guitar solo.
I slumped against the sink. Barry sat up in the soapy tub, waiting for an explanation with his arms stretched out and his palms up. I grabbed the whiskey, tried to pour a capful, but my hands were too shaky so I set it back down.
You finally making a move on me, Millsy? he asked with a smirk. Hop in here you sexy bastard!
You don’t answer your phone anymore?
In the tub?
Half the town probably thinks you’re dead by this point.
Barry smiled with a sort of inquisitive pride. When I told him we had received a suicide call, the smile dropped.
That psycho witch, he said.
Well, Barry, hold on. She called out of concern. You should’ve heard her crying. She was terrified.
Oh, she cries like that when she burns toast.
Well you’re right up there with toast, then, I said, but Barry didn’t laugh. Come on, I said.
Fuck you, Mills, you know how goddamn embarrassing this is? I’m a businessman in this town. I have a sterling-silver reputation.
He tossed his cigar into the water, it hissed and the end went gray. He added, Well, I had a sterling-silver reputation.
You’re not a heart surgeon, Barry. Get your pudgy ass outta there, time to make a phone call.
Holy shit, he said. Nice relaxing Saturday.
I pinched the little mic on my shoulder to call it in.
Andy, we’re good here. Barry is alive and well and clean as a whistle. Call Cheryl and let her know.
A few minutes later we were in Barry’s sort-of kitchen. Barry wore a navy blue robe and gray sweatpants, his beer gut pushing out of the opening. He stood in front of the breadbox and looked out the window at the wrecked cars and oil puddles in the unpaved lot. I leaned against the slop sink.
You need to give Cheryl a ring.
Fat fucking chance.
I looked around again at the boxes and thought about my house: I kept it neat, but compared to Barry’s place, my living room looked like they’d just filmed an ad for a vacuum cleaner. It made me thankful—it was good to know it was waiting for me across town. I tried to imagine what was in the boxes; all the things Barry and Cheryl had acquired—Barry’s remote control cars, the bocce set they had in the side yard, tank tops that said CAPE COD, a half-finished wedding album that had been the central prop in one fight I’d broken up. All of it jammed in there, pushed up against one another in the darkness.
Barry started speculating about the chatter that must be buzzing around town right now: apparently Barry Tuck jumped off the body shop roof and broke his neck. You hear Barry shot himself in the head? He really seemed to be taking to the idea of being dead, or at least being thought of as dead. He had received the Big Call from God Himself and now had a celebrity friend that no one in town could top, not even George Grier, whose wife’s second cousin had married Larry Bird.
The whole town’s going to be talking about this, huh, Barry said.
As long as it can beat out the current Big News.
Mrs. Jergins drove her Plymouth Caravelle through the front window of Supreme Donuts.
He asked me what Cheryl had said when she called.
I don’t know why she even gives a shit.
Don’t fish for compliments, I said before reminding him that all this had resulted in my having to see him in the bathtub. You were married eight years. Of course she’d call.
Nine. Can you believe that?
No, I said, and must have laughed a little too authentically, because Barry made a big show of glaring at me, and added, Ok tough guy.
The phrase threw me back—any time Barry was challenged, it was Ok tough guy. We were twenty or twenty-one, it was fall, he had just bought his first pumpkin truck, and I was working for him doing fall cleanups as I did a few times. He was standing in the bed of the truck, walking on the leaves to pack them down, and I told him my old hockey coach could get me on police if I could get through the academy. He stopped stomping, but for only a half step. Ok tough guy, go fight crime in a town with zero crime.
And that’s what I did. We settled into our identities in town from then on: landscaper and cop, worn jeans for him, pressed blues for me. That identity didn’t seem to work out too well for him, but mine was fine, although police work had never been a calling. A few years slid past and I kept being a cop more than anything, even though whenever I put on the uniform I felt like I was watching my own hands dressing someone else.
Terri had seen a genuine light in my eyes when I talked about other dreams. I wanted my own business. I had little storms of excitement planning each one, sketching logos on cocktail napkins at our bar: maybe masonry, learn furniture making at that school in Boston, take out loans and flip houses.
And then the idea that lit up Terri’s eyes as well: starting a small farm together. We’d get excited after a couple beers, ride the high and pocket the notes I’d scribbled of her narration, and then a couple more beers as we moved on to usual stuff: who was sleeping with who, who had moved into the city, Bruins in the winter, Sox in the summer. I’d find the note crumpled in my pocket the next day, a dream from myself to myself, and all I could ever think about in those sober moments were the risks.
Barry and I heard the crash outside. We looked out the window and there was Cheryl, getting out of her little green Honda, which she had plowed into the front left fender of Barry’s truck.
Fuck me, Barry yelled and ran for the door, and I ran out with him.
Outside, the former Mr. and Mrs. Barry Tuck slid into the old routine with remarkable skill and flair. They danced around each other, Barry hugging his truck and Cheryl kicking gravel on his feet like a manager arguing an umpire. As Barry flailed and protested, it was clear there wasn’t any anger behind it. He looked relieved. And he never took his eyes off Cheryl.
But when Cheryl started yelling at Barry, Where is it, where is it—and refused to acknowledge me when I asked what she was talking about—the charm of the scene wore off, and I stepped between them. I pinned Cheryl’s arms to her sides, told her to be quiet a moment, and then she could yell if she still wanted to.
She glared at me. Yes, officer sir, of course, Officer Mills.
Barry, I said, Are you going to hurt yourself?
For fuck sake.
Answer the question, Barry. So Cheryl can hear. Are you?
Cheryl, are you going to take care of the damage to Barry’s truck?
No, the big dumb asshole can’t pick up his goddamn phone. You pick up Liz Garkowski’s calls?
At this I began to usher Cheryl to her car.
This again! Mills, did Terri ever insist you did some shit you didn’t do?
Mills didn’t do shit, Cheryl said. Terri wanted Jeff Zoppo, you big ape.
Thank you, Cheryl, I said, lovely. Keep it moving.
Cheryl had it half right. It wasn’t Jeff Zoppo. But Terri had fallen away from me. I hadn’t done anything. I just went grayer to her, and grayer.
They made out at the bar once, Barry said, and everyone blew it up into this big fucking thing. Zoppo’s in Arizona for Christ sake.
I almost had Cheryl to the car when she stopped, pushed back hard against me.
You know what, Barry, forget Liz Garkowski. Look at this fucking place. Cheryl stepped back and made a big sweep of her arm that first drew our eyes to the oil puddles and the crumpled cars, then the caged shop windows and greasy vinyl siding, and finally, the small, closed window of Barry’s kitchen, tucked in the eaves. Is this what you think of yourself?
Barry yelled that it was, and then turned away from us, his back hunched. He didn’t need to consider the question.
Cheryl, sad, resigned, watched him, exhaustion in her eyes.
I can’t take it anymore, Mills. Wake the fuck up, you know?
I know, Cheryl, I said. I know.
And I heard Terri saying, You have to take a chance, hon.
Barry had composed himself. Thanks for coming, Cheryl, I’m blown away by your concern.
Easy, Barry, I said.
Barry, you fat shit, go take a drive by Mills’ house and see how a man lives who has some respect for himself.
At this, I stuffed Cheryl into her car as if she was going in the back of a cruiser. She let out a little grunt and looked up at me, surprised by the force.
She was about to ramp it up again but I cut her off.
Cheryl, shut up and go home. I slammed the door.
Barry came around me, jamming himself between me and Cheryl. He poked me in the chest.
Don’t you dare talk to her like that.
Back upstairs, I set some water to boil, but Barry didn’t have any coffee or tea so I shut it off. I wanted to make sure he was calm.
Can you believe she actually called it in?
She was worried, I said. And I thought about Terri, how there was no way she would sob to the police about suicide if I didn’t answer her calls. But Terri didn’t call at all.
She thought I friggin killed myself, he said. Think about that. I’m behind on the oil bill, but Jesus, you know? What did she think, I was going to shoot myself?
I lied and said no. I didn’t want to get into it. Then I remembered Cheryl owned a gun. Barry bought it for her protection after she kicked him out. I taught her to shoot it at the police range. Cheryl had been screaming at Barry, where is it, where is it.
I didn’t want to stay, and it was getting dark outside. Barry was quiet, looking out the window, and then at his phone on the nightstand, then back out the window.
I said, Barry, you ok?
I looked at the breadbox on the table behind Barry. He’d stood in front of it the whole time I was there, and he was a guy that never stood when there was a seat available.
Alright, then I’m going. I moved toward him. I’m just going to grab a piece of bread, something. I haven’t eaten.
There’s none in there, he said, turning, and I saw his hands grip the edge of the table and there was a sort of defiant fear in his eyes.
I’m just going to check, I said, looking at him squarely, and he knew I knew. After a moment he said fuck it, then pushed off the table and threw himself on the bed. He flipped the TV on, loud canned laughter that he turned down.
I lifted the little garage door of the breadbox, pulled the plastic-bagged white bread out with a crinkle, and saw the leather-brown handle of Cheryl’s gun. I slid it in my belt at my back. I undid the twisty around the neck of the bag and removed a piece of bread, put the piece in my mouth, then re-twisted the bag, replaced it in the breadbox, and lowered the door.
Barry had switched to a cooking show, the sizzle of onions or peppers hitting the pan.
You know, I always felt badly for you, he said. In that monkey suit, the dopey hat, busting minivans for running yellow lights, chasing stoned high school kids out of the woods.
And then Barry let loose, about me taking every odd job in town, fixing screen doors and putting in slops sinks. You know why guys pick up extra shifts? For the money, you dumb shit, but you’re not paying tuition, you’re not buying any rings, you don’t even go on vacation. Why don’t you go cut your lawn for the fifth time this week? You’re the town handyman because you’re a fucking joke.
And I let him go on, and I thought of the exhaustion on Cheryl’s face. Wake the fuck up, you know? I think Barry knew that this time, this blowout—with the gun involved—was too much for Cheryl. He’d actually lost her. No more calls.
You think you’re so fucking tidy in that little house of yours. Cutting stripes in your lawn and the cutesy brick walk, fresh coat of asphalt sealer on the driveway every spring. Nice and neat for you and nobody.
And you keep this place a dump for you and nobody.
I’d bit and Barry started nodding. He scooted up in the bed. You know what makes us different, Millsy?
Shock me, Barry.
A fucking vacuum cleaner.
I wanted to toss the gun on the pillow next to him. We can rake our own leaves. But he was right. A clean house isn’t self-respect. It’s self-politeness. It’s civility. The biggest risks were a crack in the asphalt or dust on the dresser.
I have to ask you again, are you going to hurt yourself?
Barry scooted back and turned his attention to the show. He said it quietly: The moment has passed.
I believed him. I had the gun. And even though I didn’t know how serious the whole thing had been, I felt I’d been around death in some way, to some extent, and some dark vapor of it was still tucked away in between those boxes.
The worry lines on Barry’s forehead seemed deeper, and his gray eyes darkened now as the outside light dimmed, getting low enough to justify switching on one of his three or four lamps, which I did. I closed the door on my way out.
Nothing happened the rest of the night, and I thought about these Friday and Saturday late shifts—I wasn’t helping out the young cops with kids or the old cops who’d lost the legs for it. I’d partially admitted this to myself for a while now. Just like the worn windows I’d replaced, the crumbly chimneys I’d repointed, the rotted decks I’d ripped off and reframed. I was filling time.
I decided to take the cruiser home for the night, not wanting to go back to the station. I pulled in about three in the morning and sat in the driveway and looked at my house, neat as a pin. No one could ever commit suicide in a house that neat.
I walked across the grass to the center of my front yard.
I could see the outline of the couch through the front window where Terri had sat me down and confessed that her eye had been wandering, and I was too good a man to cheat on. She apologized for kissing Jeff in the bar. She said she couldn’t get past her belief that I would never give myself a real shot at achieving anything that meant something to me. Instead, I’d remain a cop, stay in a house I’d never liked, and, most relevant to her, turn any conversation about what was important to me into a petty fight about something else. I loved her more than ever in that moment for knowing me so well. I reached out for her arm and she let me touch it before gently pulling it into her lap.
I asked her to stay the night, and found myself choking on the words, knowing she wouldn’t. I remembered thinking, she doesn’t want you anymore, and I didn’t want someone who didn’t, but just barely.
I felt hollow and desperate then, and thought of how silent it was in my house, the bare workbench in the basement, the empty beer cans re-boxed and awaiting recycling, the bagged bowling ball stuffed in the hall closet, the hockey gear somewhere in the attic, and the enormous fucking bed, the sheets pulled tight as they would go.
I took the Tucks’ gun from my waistband and looked at it in the moonlight. My gun had never felt real. I’d never considered reaching for it. But this gun had weight and menace. It looked hungry, alive in my palm. As if it really had killed Barry.
I wondered how close Barry had come. If the muzzle had touched his temple, or the whiskers of his throat. If he’d had it cocked. I wondered how he could have been listening to glam rock and scrubbing his armpits so energetically after. Maybe he’d just taken the gun to scare Cheryl, get her to call.
What is it that stops you from answering the phone and puts a gun in your hand? I wondered if I’d ever been close to being close, if it had ever been just beyond my periphery. Maybe that thing was waiting inside my house, hiding in vacuumed carpets, gripping the underside of scrubbed refrigerator shelves, lingering in the shadows of the few boxes of Terri’s items she’d left in the basement, the cardboard gone soft from the cement floor.
I looked into the night. Maybe God really had called for Barry. Some darkness seemed to stand next to me then and I gave a half check over my shoulder. Nothing but perfectly manicured grass. Maybe He was calling me now.
I pictured that movie scene, a disgraced Army general dressing up in his blues, polishing his medals, leaving a tidy enveloped note on a dustless desk before removing a gun from the top drawer.
I thought of the Big Talk again, remembering more of what Terri had said, about hunger and risk and hope. Challenges I hadn’t wanted to hear, ideas that had felt irrelevant to her having fallen out of love with me.
I pictured Terri in the hardware store again. Comfortable smile and strong arms. She’d become fully herself, alive, the same brightness to her eyes and skin as those times we had planned the farm. The same brightness I had felt in my own eyes. The same life as when she jumped on my back and kissed my neck when I showed her the plot of land I’d found.
I pictured the farm stand she was building, imagined pulling my cruiser onto the grass across the street. Terri, giving change to a woman and her daughter as a guy about my build bagged lettuce and carrots and an eggplant. The red farm stand doors, swung open, and a chalkboard hung on the inside, Terri’s neat handwriting on it, prices for zucchini and tomatoes, corn and garlic. Above that was the farm’s logo: planting lines converging at a horizon, Sunrise Farm arched in the sky, drawn in my hand.
In her chalk handwriting I read the last lines of the note I’d torn up and forgotten:
Wake up tomorrow. Wake up.
Listen to You.
Don’t leave it in your mind.
I love you,
I was scared to bring the gun in the house with me. I walked around to the backyard and lay down in the grass, looking up. I placed Cheryl’s gun at my side and drifted off, dreamt again of a farm, high in the clouds, this time harvesting pumpkins, and again, Terri was with me. I dreamt about the call I’d received that day—the boxes in Barry’s apartment, Barry and Cheryl screaming at each other. And as I slept, that call came to me over the radio again and again, blipping with static before I heard any voices—and it became a different sort of call after all the repetition throughout the night. And when I woke the next day, the sunlight waking me early, only my thin police uniform separating my body from the soil, it had become a call I could begin to answer.