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   m i r a c l e -g r o

--- M I C H A E L   H Y D E

Peet Hillegass had been thinking all morning about too much of a good thing being poison, so he decided to try it. In the supply shed behind the church, he took one white industrial-sized bucket, filled it from the tap, and emptied an entire box of Miracle-Gro. The water turned a shocking shade of blue. He heaved the bucket out into the sun and toward the cemetery. By now, he knew exactly where all five hundred forty-seven of them were all buried and how long they'd been there. "Head Maintenance," Peet called himself. Thinking he'd never be the head of anything, he jumped when right after high school he found the Otterbein Church needed a hire for the janitor/groundskeeper position. The guy before had suffered a massive heart-attack and left the spot open, so, for the seven years since, Peet spent weekdays wandering the inside of the empty church, straightening hymnals, playing at the piano when no one else was around. He worked the cemetery as if it were his own, something he could memorize and that made complete sense.

With the concoction of Miracle-Gro, Peet walked along the headstones, the row closest to the highway, and stopped when he got to a rose-marble marker. BERTRAM CHASE, it read. A picture of a deer's head was etched beside the name. Peet set the bucket down and, hands on hips, imagined his former dentist lying under the ground. The afternoon Peet remembered most was when he and his father had strolled into Bertram's office -- Peet recalled being about ten -- and Bertram's breath smelled like medicine or whiskey and that's when Bertram said it to him: "You're gonna be a mush mouth for sure. I can read it in your teeth." Had it been a curse? Because every time he went to the dentist now -- that new one, Dr. Milkin -- he'd be lying back in the dentist chair that felt more like a medieval torture trap than anything, and he'd have to listen and feel the sound of that horrible drill as it rammed and rammed and rammed into teeth and gums, leaving him a mouth full of blood. No matter what he did -- he brushed twice each morning, twice each night -- his mouth was filled with rot. And there wasn't anyone else to blame other than Dr. Bertram Chase. If Bertram had just kept his mouth shut, Peet might've been looking in the mirror every morning at a set of perfect ivories, not a mouth filled with snaggled teeth and stains and a decay he could not exactly see but knew was there. Peet tipped the bucket so a portion of the Miracle-Gro splashed across the grass of Bertram's grave and waited while the water seeped into the ground. Then Peet smiled and spit and hurried back four rows, over seven plots to ELAINE MENSCH.

She lay under one of those white-marble-cross models that made it seem like she was a saint. He pictured her: hands clasped on her chest and decked out in a lavender knit -- she'd been one of those who always wore some purple. Normally, Peet would've just pissed on his old teacher's grave, doing figure-eights with his urine stream, imagining her turning up her nose up at the smell, but today he had the Miracle-Gro and dumped some of that over her plot. She'd made his fourth grade year a living hell, telling him once -- after sticking his face in the corner of the classroom -- that he wasn't going too much further in the world. Now look at me, Peet thought. Now who's saying what's what?

With the last of the Miracle-Gro he doused out BARB WORTH, who wasn't worth the ground she was buried in. She'd been good cause to break that love thy neighbor clause, always tattling to Peet's parents and anyone who'd listen all through his high school years -- and after even -- about what Peet was doing and with whom. The time she'd turned on her porch light and caught Peet and that girl "intercoursing" -- as she put it -- in the middle of her yard, well that was about the worst of it. Peet splashed the Miracle-Gro over her grave and imagined the hissing of acid as the fertilizer bled into the ground. He could barely wait for results.

Following the barbed-wire fence that framed the cemetery off from a pasture, he made his way back to the church. A cow forced her heavy head through the fence to chew at the greener cemetery grass, and when Peet came close she didn't move, but looked up at him, her visible eye upturned and revealing the soft cusp of pink muscle along its edge. "Get," Peet said. The cow didn't move until he was real close, and even then she rolled her thick tongue out to grab at more grass before retreating. She'd have taken the fence with her if the barbed wire hadn't let go of behind her head where it'd dug in. The fence posts shook and the barbed-wire snapped and rang like the whole thing might come undone.

He took the bucket back to the shed and was locking up when he heard voices coming around the side of the church. It was Monday after all, which meant nobody was supposed to be around. During the week he looked at the church like some vacation house a rich person might own: opened up every so often to let out the foul smell and cared for by invisible servants the rest of the year. But now, the voice of Reverend Willow Peet recognized right away; it was too much like the burble of a quail.

"There you are, Peet," Reverend Willow said. He was pear-shaped and had a sprig of hair sticking up like a pull-tab at the back of his head. Beside him was a woman about the reverend's size, except her shoulders were broader; she was wearing bib-overalls. "Peet, I'd like you to meet . . . ." The Reverend paused and looked at the large woman beside him. "Claris? Is that is?"

"Claris," the woman said. She downstroked her finger on the first syllable. "Like in 'Claris a bell,' my mama always used to say."

"Yes, that's right. Peet, Claris Holler. She's a young lady from that program I told you about."

Claris had her hair pulled up in a bun that sat too far forward on her head. She looked about thirty-five and her ears stuck out and she had the biggest grin Peet had ever hoped to see. Really she didn't look too different from the yellow smiley-face earrings she had dangling from her ears. Much else wasn't worth noticing, good or bad, except the smile. And Peet remembered her. She was in fact a small celebrity in the area. She'd robbed houses and stolen cars and who knows what else before she'd been finally arrested.

"This was my first choice, I want you to know," Claris said. She was holding her hand out. Peet just looked at it. She smiled even more and let her hand fall to her side. "I'm ready and eager to work."

"I think you two will get along," Reverend Willow said. "Peet's always done a good job by himself, but with us building on to the church in a few months, a second body's going to be more than welcome."

"I'm real easy to get along with," Claris said. "Just mold me. You show me the ropes and I'll be one damn good worker."

"I'll show you the ropes," Peet said, then he looked to Reverend Willow. "But we were expecting a man."

"Women need acclimating back into society, too," Claris said. "I was only away for five years and already I feel like I'm living in another time. You know, it's like I'm Cinderella except I get plopped down in the middle of the Civil War? Or like I went to sleep one night, and the next morning I wake up and the whole world's changed, people have flying cars. Something like that."

"I haven't seen any flying cars," said Peet. "Not much changes around here if you don't let it."

"I don't mean real flying cars."

"Well the other day, I thought I saw one fly right over the church."

"You did?" Claris looked at him in disbelief. "Oh, I get it." She laughed and turned to Reverend Willow, slapping her hands together. "The joke's on me. Anyways though, I'm not from Sinking Springs originally. I was born over in Lemoine, but now some friends of mine got me set up here in a little co-op kind of arrangement right over a shoe hospital. My little saying is that if I ever need a heel healed, I don't got far to walk."

"Well, I'll let you two get to work," Pastor Willow said. He nodded and shuffled quickly around the side of the church. What kind of business could be so pressing with God on a Monday?

"So where do we start?" Claris asked. She'd reached into her pocket, pulling out a handful of hard candies. "Want one?"

"First, we start with rule number one."

"These are a little bit sour, but I like them that way."

"Let me start again. Rule number one: I work best by myself, so I can't deal with talking all the time."

"Oh, you mark my word, Peter Hillegass, I'm gonna fit into your world. We'll be working and talking, talking and working. I'll just get in right with you like we're a well-oiled machine. You just watch me."

"Peet Hillegass."


"Peet. My name's Peet."

That afternoon they cleaned the sanctuary. Peet would've sent Claris off by herself right away, but Reverend Willow told him to stay with her for at least the first day. She'd been in prison, after all. Peet didn't know what Claris would be wanting to steal around the church -- maybe the offertory plate or a hymnal so she could start her own religion -- but as Pastor Willow had said, "Doing time doesn't erase the act. It only clouds it with a begging for forgiveness."

Claris took her finger around the ledges at the front of the church. "Look at all this dust," she said. "You'll be glad I'm here."

Peet turned on the vacuum cleaner and ran it down the red carpeted aisles. She kept talking -- he could tell from her moving mouth -- but he didn't hear a word.

Claris picked up the golden rod the altar boys used to light the Sunday candles. She held it out in front of her, looking at it like it was magic, and then she started marching back and forth across the front of the church. Peet stopped the vacuum cleaner. The silence was too sudden.

"I always wanted to be one of those candle-lighters," Claris said. She'd extended the wick from the one end and walked from candle to candle, pretending. The way she wielded the thing, though, made it look like she was rearing up for a fight. Her motions were so hard she reminded Peet of a Kung Fu fighter.

Claris put the candle rod down and approached the pulpit. "Welcome, everyone. Welcome to God's door. I am the way and the light." Then she burst into laughter. She looked up at the ceiling, then at the large portrait of Jesus hung over the altar. "Sorry, God. I was just joking. You know me, Claris."

For a moment, Peet thought, "Is this happening?" He started wrapping up the cord to the vacuum cleaner.

Claris was eyeing up the piano. "I don't see how you ever get anything done," she said. "Working here's gonna be so much fun." She ran her fingers up and down the keyboard. Then, beginning with the highest, she played each key individually, all eighty-eight, until she had gone from high to low. She changed directions next, beginning low and singing along this time. Peet couldn't remember a more horrible sound filling the inside of a church.

When he got home, there was a letter from his mother and father. They took turns writing to him; one week his mother wrote the letter, the next was his father's chance. They only lived twenty minutes away, but they thought it brought them somehow closer. When Peet was going through his "angry years" -- as his mother called him -- his parents had left notes and letters all over the house, each one of them filled with words like loving and dedicated and proud. In the letter that just arrived, however, his mother was asking him to come for dinner on Sunday. His sister, Dorris, was going to be visiting from Pittsburgh. Peet crumbled up the letter and stuck it in his pocket. He'd always considered the scope of his world to be very small, which never troubled him really, except when his parents or visiting Dorris and her capgun-shooting bastard child, Charles Windsor, threatened to make it even smaller.

On Peet's doorstep, someone had left a Dixie-cup filled with walnut meat. He knew it had to be Mrs. Aver because when he looked up, one of the yellow curtains in the middle of her trailer fell back into place. The old women of Peet's trailer park were always doing things like this, leaving anything from sandtarts to casseroles to knitted gloves on his stoop. Sometimes they'd deliver the goodies themselves, but Peet would keep the old women on the other side of the screendoor. The only person Peet even considered letting in was an easy school girl named Mary Alice -- he watched her sometimes from a window -- but she never came knocking. Peet ate one of the walnuts. It was bitter, almost tasteless; he remembered why he didn't like nuts and dumped them into the aluminum garbage can.

Inside his trailer, Peet looked around at empty Jiffy-Pop bags, the videotapes and magazines he'd left scattered across the floor. Things never seemed to find their proper place.

Something smelled. Fetch-It, Peet's beagle, had done it again.

Peet saw the stinking mess in the middle of the kitchen. "Occasionally the muscle -- the sphincter -- tires out and can't hold back anymore," the veterinarian had said. "Everything comes out. The dog doesn't have a choice." Peet remembered Fetch-It looking up at him from the long metal table in the vet's office, the dog's eyes saying she was already defeated. Peet tried not to be angry, but he couldn't imagine not having any control over something like shit.

Fetch-It was under the bed, where she usually lay shamed after she'd done the inevitable. Peet threw dirty socks at her, and then cleaned up the mess -- the whole trailer reeked of it -- so he cranked open the windows, even the little one over the toilet that was crusted shut with mildew.

He started to sweat and took a beer from the refrigerator, popping in one of the videotapes, a porno remake of King Arthur. He sat down on the cushioned sofa, propped himself up as usual between pillows. Two slow sips of beer and the video began. Even though the acting was bad, the voices excited him. He could pause them in a middle of a word, fast forward and rewind, all by pressing a small button.

"I hope you can save our kingdom," Guinevere, dressed in a leather boustier, said.

"I think there's something else that needs saving." Sir Lancelot kneeled before her, his eyes the level of a huge padlock hanging between her legs.

"What could that be?" Guinevere shook her hips. The padlock bounced, two times.

"If thou highness wouldst permit me to showest?"

Fetch-It wandered into the living room, wagging her tail. She stopped in front of Peet and farted. "Get," he said, but Fetch-It didn't. She lay down at Peet's feet.

Guinevere was naked now, stretched out across the Round Table. Sir Lancelot stood behind her. The movie set had been made to look like the inside of a castle: block walls, stained glass windows, wrought-iron chandelier. Peet noticed a light switch. "Look at that," he said.

Outside the trailer came the irksome sound of a car idling, loud, like the muffler was about to let go. Then he heard steps coming down the walk. He zipped himself up and lowered the volume on the TV. The actors were mutes now, opening their mouths but unable to speak.

Bing-bong, bing-bong, bing-bong the doorbell sounded. He inched back a curtain. Standing on the cinderblock porch was Claris. She was holding an Easter basket.

"Peter Hillegass? Are you home?" She'd raised her hands like a bullhorn to her mouth. He let the curtain fall and slid down against the wall, pulling in close like she might look in a window and see him.

Fetch-It started to bark. She didn't get up, just sat where she'd been sitting, and barked.

Peet could hear Claris reasoning out the situation. "His truck's here." Then she walked away for a bit, then came back to the door. "Maybe he's asleep or something." She rang the doorbell again. She moved around the porch, looking at things, opening the hood of the gas-grill and closing it with a clunk; he heard her sliding the welcome mat. "I guess I'll just leave it."

Something was going on. It was quiet and he was too afraid to look, but when her car engine started, kicking several times before it finally caught, he stood up and watched Claris go. "Woman Driver," a yellow placard said, hanging in her car's rear window.

Inside the Easter basket was a leather wallet that looked used, a baseball signed by the Baltimore Orioles, sugar cookies in a green Christmas tin, five red apples, and a small scribbled note on the back of a bank receipt that said: from Claris. He sat on the sofa, turning over the contents as if they were shells, checking to see what might be hiding underneath each one. Fetch-It nosed around the basket, sniffing and huffing.

On the TV screen, Sir Lancelot was parleying with the Lady of the Lake. He might've been asking about the Holy Grail. Or, just as easily, he could've been asking for something else. Peet put the basket to the side of the sofa and turned the volume up.

He got to the church early the next few days to water the graves with Miracle-Gro. By Thursday, the grass over BERTRAM and ELAINE and BARB had started to brown at the tips and was working its death slowly toward the roots. Anyone viewing the three plots, charred and brown while the rest of the cemetery flourished in green, would've taken the marked plots as a sign from some higher power.

Claris never said anything about the basket. And he didn't bring it up. He tried to keep her working alone, sending her into the bell-tower if he were in the basement of the church. He ate his lunch on the run, wolfing down whatever sandwich he'd made and the Hostess cherry pie with a can of Mountain Dew. "I don't eat lunch, usually," Peet told Claris when she asked, so after that, if he wanted her, he could usually find her sitting in her car, staring at her sandwich like she was waiting for it to speak.

When Peet happened to walk past Reverend Willow's office one day, Claris was in there, eating. Reverend Willow probably wanted her to join the congregation. Peet stopped by the door and listened.

"Before, I never understood how a person could give as much, like you preachers and such, always giving and smiling --"

"-- well, we all have our moments of selfishness --"

"-- but it's like I got this feeling and I'm wearing it like clothes, but on the inside."

"I know what you mean."

Claris talked with her mouth full. Peet could imagine her shooting out food at the reverend. She liked egg salad, lots of yellow egg salad, that somehow got smeared over her lips and cheeks while she ate. "There's a lot of bad ones out there," Claris continued, "preachers included, but I think we all need to just come up against the evil."

"The evil?"

"Yep, the big E-V-I-L evil. I used to be bad, and now I'm making myself be good. Say, where's you wife do her grocery shopping?"

"At the SuperFresh."

"See, maybe there's something to that?"

"I'm not sure I know where you're going, Claris."

"Well, you see, your wife shops at the SuperFresh. I shop at the Giant. Now what does that say about us?"

"I couldn't guess."

"Well, neither could I. But I'm sure it says something. Everything says something."

"I guess so."

"Yes, everything sure does."

Peet covered his ears and walked away shaking his head. He walked into the broom closet and, with the light off, stayed there until his lunch hour was over.

Later that same day he saw the hose snaking its way into the cemetery. "Stop," he yelled, threading through the headstones, following the path of the hose. Claris was standing over ELAINE, pressing her thumb against the lip of the hose so the water splayed out like petals from the center of a flower. Peet looked at the ground, the dry grass glistening with water. He imagined ELAINE beginning to stir, nourished and rejuvenated, her dead hands regaining life and struggling against the red clay and black earth that buried her. She wanted back into the world, would be stronger than before despite Peet's effort to keep her memory down, dismissed and tucked away.

"What the hell are you doing?" He grabbed the hose from Claris.

"There's some plots out here that are dead, Peter. I just thought I'd go ahead and water them."

"Did you ask me?"

"Three plots were all dead. I thought maybe some animal had done its business on them or something."

"I said, 'Did you ask me?'"

Claris looked down at her feet, around at the surrounding plots as if the answer was to be found there. "Well, no, I didn't, Peter --"

"Did I tell you to water these plots?"

"No, but --"

"I'm in charge here, right?"


"Then you don't do anything without asking --"

"Ah, come on, Peter. I was just helping."

"You help too much."

Peet could almost feel the dead grass turning under his feet, Claris's water weakening the slow poison of his Miracle-Gro. He dragged the hose back toward the church. Part of it had looped around Claris's foot, tripped Peet up, and when he turned, Claris looked caught in the middle of some emotion, her mouth gaped, open and ready, like she'd been knifed suddenly and gutted. Small licks of hair strayed from the bun on top her head, and at that moment, Peet thought he'd never hated anyone more in the world. The intensity was hot in his chest, like a lump of coal burning inside to out, releasing fire and red energy and light. Claris stood in the middle of the cemetery, the hood of her bright pink windbreaker flimsy and flapping at the breeze. If she was expecting an apology, she wasn't going to get it.

Normally he would've just gone through the drive-thru, but for some reason the Hardees workers seemed to handle you faster if you went inside. "How can I help you?" the girl with the crooked name-tag asked. She had a small birthmark, a burn or scar maybe, on her neck. Peet pictured her standing over the deep-frier, the grease popping and fussing and burning her skin.

He told her what he wanted -- it took her a while to locate the buttons on the register -- and then, when the total came up to be $32.85, she said she must've done something wrong. "This is my first day," she said.

"I bet it is."

While she was figuring that out, Peet gathered little ketchup packets and mustard, some sugar, too, he knew he was out of sugar. The whole restaurant was a mess, used straws and napkins all over the floor. He budged his head around the corner into the dining area. It was mostly geriatrics like the ones who lived in the trailer park. They lifted hamburgers and french fries slowly to their mouths, as if they had all the time in the world. So much for fast food.

He was turning, didn't think anything really of the pink vinyl mass sitting in the corner by herself until she looked up and started waving. He would've run if he hadn't been so shocked.

"Hey, Peter," Claris shouted. "Sit here." He hadn't talked to her since earlier that day in the cemetery, thoughts of BARB, BERTRAM, and ELAINE conquering the prospects of thinking anything else. Clearly Claris was an extension of their will, but in the living world. In the corner booth, waving arms, flapping like a big pink bird, Claris shouted again. Obviously any hurt she might've felt had worn off.

"I'm taking mine home," he said. "See ya."

He went back to the register and finally the girl had figured out something. She handed over a bag of food.

"Yeah, this place isn't too good for atmosphere." Peet turned to see that Claris had picked up her tray and was standing behind him. "I'll just come along with you." She rewrapped the food on her tray and lifted a stray onion ringlet, slurping it between her lips. "I knew you had to eat sometime, Peter. No way you could stay so strong not eating anything."

"Well, I gotta go."

"I'll just follow you back to your place."

"I think I'm going to have company."


He pushed his way out the glass door, skipped almost across the parking lot to his truck. Claris was still inside the Hardees. She glanced down at her watch, then at the floor as if she'd dropped something.

Peet let the truck roll. The tires turned underneath him, out of the parking lot, past the church and miles of barbed-wire fences. Three boys were hanging in the sagging wild-cherry trees by the trailer park entrance. The kids pelted the truck with the small, ripe fruit when he passed under them.

Mrs. Aver waved from her porch. It looked like she'd wrapped a twig through her short ratted hair, but when Peet got out of the truck, he could see it was some brown ribbon.

"Have you been visited by any good spirits lately?" she asked.

He just wanted to get inside. "Good spirits?"

"Fairies. You know, good souls leaving things for you to find?"

"No," he said. "I think you've been skipping pills again."

Fetch-It didn't greet him at the door. Peet expected a mess to be someplace if the beagle was hiding, but he looked and looked and couldn't find the dog or anything she might've left behind.

He spread his food out in the middle of the floor: two cheeseburgers, fries, Dr. Pepper. He'd just turned on the TV when there was a short buzz of a motor outside, then the too familiar sound of shoes stomping down the walk. Claris's face appeared in the window of the screendoor. His first reaction was to play dead, maybe she didn't see him, but she didn't stop at the door. She pulled the door open. She came inside, carrying her fast food held firmly in her hand, as if the bag were a briefcase and she the double agent delivering topic secret information.

"You made me feel bad today, Peter Hillegass. I think we should both apologize to one another."

Peet looked at all the video tapes lying across the floor. Claris picked one up. It was as if she'd touched his most personal, private thing. He wanted to grab it out of her hand and conceal it with a pillow.

"You must like videos," she said. She sat down on the sofa, springs loosened inside, and there was a low yelp as Fetch-It came crawling from under the sofa-skirt. She looked hurt, the way her back leg dragged, but when she stopped and saw Claris, Fetch-It turned the other direction.

"Oh, you've got a pet," Claris said. She grabbed Fetch-It by the collar and pulled the dog back into her thick arms. "Nice puppy."

Peet looked at Claris sitting so easily on his sofa, as if she'd made the place hers by just being in it. He went to the kitchen to get a six pack. If he was gonna get through this, he was going to get through it drunk. He started moving some of the video cassettes into a pile, pushed others under the sofa when he thought she wasn't looking.

"You're not too orderly are you?" Claris said. "That's usually how it is though with people like us."

"People like us?"

"Yeah. We take care of other people's stuff and treat our own like shit." Claris loosened her grip on Fetch-It's collar and the beagle bolted back the hallway. "Fast dog."

She bit into her burger and chewed. He couldn't help thinking she looked like the cow that was always eating at the cemetery grass from the other side of the barbed wire fence.

"You should've seen me back before I decided to be nice," Claris said. She stood up, put her hands on her hips and then pantomimed drawing two six-shooters. "Pow, pow." Then she put her hand to her mouth and looked at the ceiling. "There's a spider over there in the corner." She grabbed a napkin and hopped onto a chair on the other side of the living room. "I'll get the little sucker."

"So you were a real bad girl?"

"The baddest. Sometimes I took people's cars. Just for little drives. I never did any damage to the cars I'll let you know, though I admit I did take some hi-fi equipment now and then. That stuff I never could give back, even if I wanted to, because it was out of my hands about as soon as it was in them. You might've liked me better then." She smashed the spider and the napkin into a tight ball.

"So now you're all reformed?"

"Things don't ever go completely away. How about one of them videos?"

"I don't think you'd like them. Sort of boring."

"I've seen all sorts of films and liked them all. Sometimes I think the idiot-box and the movie theater were invented with me in mind."

"No, let's not --"

"No problem. I got it." She grabbed a cassette from the floor and slid it into the VCR. She flounced back onto the sofa. The cushions sagged beneath her. Across the TV screen, a man and a woman -- their legs and arms pretzeled around each other's body -- rocked across the floor of a yellow room. "Holy Jesus," Claris said, taking a bite of her hamburger. "I've never seen it done that way." She kicked off her shoes and settled back into the sofa.

It was getting dark outside. Already crickets were starting to whir, the fat inch-long crickets that pulled themselves from the damp earth beneath the trailer. Claris kept staring at the TV, taking small bites at her sandwich. "Don't tell anybody," she said, "but I even killed a man once. I'm not proud for doing it. I never told another soul, but I thought you should know." Peet listened to the words come simply and effortlessly from her lips, as if she were telling him she liked chocolate or preferred red to green. I killed a man once. "I buried him by a railroad bridge, chopped him all to pieces. It was self-defense, of course. He's better off anyway."

Claris slid off her socks and started inspecting the space between two of her toes. Peet looked at her, her pale eyes in what light still came through the window. Her eyelids quivered as she talked. Her nose wrinkled suddenly. "What's that smell?"

He was thinking of finding that railroad bridge. He could see it so clearly: her in the cast of the moon, her flesh the color of dead flesh. Would she be crying as she pushed the shovel into the soil? No. She would be so incensed, focused, her bun undone, possibly the smiley-face earrings dangling from her ears. She would be surrounded by the low humming that belonged to nothing but the night. And then: a distinct sound, something separate, a crack. She would turn to look at the line of trees on each side of her. She would look down through the bridge, at the black water, and then up, at the sterling sky where there would be the moon but no stars. What was that sound? Something fast approaching? He saw her rolling the body into the grave. It would be wrapped in a shower curtain or stuffed into potato sacks tied with curlicues of binder-twine. And she'd fill the hole, shovelful by shovelful. She'd be talking to herself, thinking of the flowers and grasses that would grow from this one bad thing. Yes, that was it. Too much of a bad thing. If too much of a good thing were poison, could too much of a bad thing be anything else than undeniably good? Peet pictured himself there at the railroad bridge -- present time -- taking the shovel, digging and digging through the wild peonies and blue chicory that had flourished, concealing the crime. He'd dig until the shovel faltered and struck bone and then he'd wipe away the dirt and the worms and the roots that'd claimed the flesh and the blood. He'd balance the dead man's skull in one hand, looking into hollowed sockets. In that black emptiness, he'd find himself. BERTRAM, BARB, ELAINE, too. And he wouldn't have to think of them ever again.

"What is that smell?" Claris said. Peet knew what it was -- the smell of something letting go, putrid and disgusting, invading the trailer. But he couldn't figure out how to tell her, because looking at her and how she filled his couch with all of her body, he knew he'd never be strong enough not to love her. She was his for life.

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