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Vinnie Wilhelm

The Crying of the Gulls

Ogilvie had never set foot inside the Mint Club before. In fact he’d only been in Sheridan, Wyoming, for three days, but already he felt strongly that he’d come to the right place. Travel, like whiskey, fires the imagination. Rolling into Sheridan with a backseat full of empty bottles, Ogilvie had pulled off the freeway on a hunch. He’d been driving west the way some people leap screaming from bridges and high windows. His last stop on the way out had been in Spearfish, on the South Dakota border, where he’d gotten soused in a doublewide bar called the Sod House. In a room full of strangers Ogilvie had raised his voice to say things he could no longer recall, things that would have been provocative and unpleasant. He remembered the big Indian hitting him, once. He woke up behind the wheel of his Oldsmobile somewhere on the edge of town with a swollen cheek and dry blood clotted in the fine hairs of his nose. The clean dawn light on sagebrush prairie, long shadows from lonesome trees, the ferric taste of blood in his mouth – all of this had stirred Ogilvie deeply. Boundaries seemed to be giving way; this was the frontier, where anything could happen. Inside the Mint Club three nights later, a woman at the bar turned as he pushed through the swinging doors. She appeared to recognize him at once – though of course he was a total stranger – and nothing could have surprised Ogilvie less. "It’s you," she said. "I never thought I’d see you again."

Ogilvie smiled. The neon beer signs cast a dusky glow upon the room. "Take a good look," he said. "I’m back."

Only three days in Sheridan but so far Ogilvie liked it. He’d rented a studio apartment that afternoon and spent the evening out front of his building, relaxing in a lawn chair with a Solo cup of Evan Williams. Teenagers in domestic trucks cruised back and forth on Big Horn Avenue. They whistled and cat called to each other, boys taunting girls, boys taunting boys. Later there would be awkward sex and fistfights, beery love and violence, reconciliations, broken promises. It was Friday night. On the rise just north of downtown the clan of municipal buffalo threw buffalo-shaped silhouettes against the darkening sky in their hilltop enclosure. Families strolled up the hill to greet them, buffalo-loving children leading the way, excited. The animals would be musky, dusty, wise-eyed, rolling in their own chips. The late-setting August sun had cracked like the yolk of an egg over easy, bleeding its colors hither and yon. All around the town the land was lying open and immense. Ogilvie had headed west to find the west and now he knew he’d found it. Here it was.

Back in the Mint Club, the woman he did not know returned his smile. "You’ve got a lot of nerve," she said.

"And that’s not all. What are you drinking?"

"Same as always."

"Make it two then." He signaled the bartender, pointing at the woman’s empty glass and holding up two fingers.

She bit her lip. "A lot of nerve," she said again, pronouncing the last word in two parts: nuh-erve. She repeated it this way several times, drumming a tune with her palms on the scarred oak bar. Then she picked up her glass and held it against her ear. "I think I hear the ocean."

She was tall – taller than Ogilvie – and rawboned thin in a tank top that was stained down the front, possibly bloodied. Her pale face was made of sharp angles and the eyes bulged out too much but she was pretty. Some women wear hard living like a carnation in their hair. Their drinks arrived.

"Bottoms up," said Ogilvie.

"The best way." She leaned in close, breathing heat in his ear. "Jesus, I’m lit," she whispered. "You can’t imagine how fucking lit I am."

"I can imagine." He took a sip from his glass. Tequila.

"Imagine," she said. "Of all the nights for you to show up."

"You always said I had great timing."

"Did I?" She laughed – head back, mouth open. No one laughs like that in the winter, Ogilvie thought. She extended a finger and placed it on the tip of his nose. "I’m thinking of a number between one and a hundred."

Ogilvie considered her bug-like eyes. They looked ready to fall out of her head any minute now. He could picture them rolling off down the bar, dropping to the sawdusted floor, exploding. Her finger, tapping out a secret rhythm on the end of his nose, seemed to be imparting knowledge. "Seventy-three," he said.

She mouthed the word Bingo.

They emptied their glasses. Ogilvie signaled the bartender again.

The woman leaned back on her stool. She stared up at the ceiling, waggling her head slowly back and forth. "So where you been then, cowboy?" She laughed again. "Thin ben, bow coy."

Ogilvie narrowed his own eyes. Once, in Chicago, a female bus driver had mistaken him for a man named Terrence. No way, Terrence, she shouted down from her seat behind the big wheel. You’re not getting on my bus. This was many years ago. "Chicago," Ogilvie said.

"Well, good for you. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and all that. Things have gotten worse around here though – a lot worse." She leaned forward and looked at him significantly. "You wouldn’t believe it."

"Try me."

"Oh, don’t worry," she said. "I’ll try you."

She raised her eyebrows and her drink. Ogilvie touched his glass to hers.

"Here’s to good things going bad," she said.

They tossed off the tequila and she threw her glass against the wall. It shattered almost musically, like wind chimes in a hurricane. Everyone in the Mint Club turned to look.

"All right, Virginia," said the bartender. He was coming at them slowly, wiping his hands on a rag. "I think you’ve had about enough." Then, to Ogilvie: "She’s been here since two o’clock."

They walked to Ogilvie’s car laughing. He couldn’t remember what they were laughing about. "Just like old times," Virginia said.

"I don’t remember where you live," said Ogilvie. He jabbed at the keyhole on his door and missed, then missed again.

They got in the Oldsmobile and she told him the way. Then she got quiet for a long time. They were traveling a road that was new to Ogilvie. It led them out of town to the west; the streetlights trailed off. Fortunately, the road ran arrow straight. The night was moonless but Ogilvie could feel miles of empty space pressing in on them from either side of the blacktop. It just goes on forever, he thought.

"I don’t know who you are," Virginia said after a while. Her voice was calm. Gone was its charming, boozy lilt.

"I guess not."

"I’ve never seen you before in my life."

Ogilvie did not respond.

"I thought you were somebody else," she said, almost offhandedly.

"My name is Sam Ogilvie."

Virginia said nothing. She was looking out the window and Ogilvie wasn’t sure she’d heard him. He could see the ghost of her face, lit pale green by the dashboard instruments, traveling across the framed black void.

"Not much out there," he said.

"Oh," said Virginia, "there’s plenty." She spread her hand flat against the glass. "My father believes this land is haunted."

Ogilvie turned his eyes form the road altogether for a moment, trusting the car’s alignment. "Haunted by who?"

"By the Talking People."

He nodded. The Talking People. "Who are the Talking People?"

"Not everyone hears them. Daddy doesn’t hear them."

"Do you hear them?"

"My mother heard them."

Ogilvie faced forward again. The road flowed out of the night and fell beneath the tires with a high-pitched hum. "And what did they say? To your mother?"

"All kinds of things."

"Like what?"

"They told her to go outside," Virginia said. "They told her to walk out and be with them in the field behind our house."

"That’s not so bad."

"This was in the winter – February, forty below. She was home by herself and walked out with no coat on and sat down in the snow. Daddy found her when he came home."

Ogilvie tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He could see the white of his knuckles in the weak dashboard glow. "She was dead?"

Virginia didn’t answer. She turned on the radio. Static. The antenna was broken. She turned it off.

"But who are they?" Ogilvie asked.

Virginia laughed. "Who are you, Sam Ogilvie?"

Ogilvie felt himself smile. "Who are you, Virginia what’s-your-name?"

"I’m the girl in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Bad trouble. Money trouble. Trunny mubble." She had a fine, stony, bitter laugh. It went with her face. She put a hand on Ogilvie’s knee. "Trad bunny mubble."

Ogilvie covered her hand with his own. "That’s no real trouble at all."

She turned up her palm, tangling their fingers. "You must be rich, Sam Ogilvie."

"I have $162 in a Ziploc bag in my toilet tank."

She lived in a wooden farmhouse, two stories with a broad porch across the front. There was a light on inside and no other lights could be seen in any direction. They were alone in a vast black sea. Ogilvie watched her walk ahead of him across the dead summer grass in the dim yard. Her long body seemed to sway in the breeze murmuring down from someplace further west. He paused on the porch steps to listen. The wind brushed over him, worrying the edges of his hair. Its sound whispered softly in his ears.

Virginia had opened the front door. She leaned against the frame. The hall light made a silhouette of her form. "Are you coming?" she asked.

In the morning Ogilvie awoke to the repeating beep of a truck in reverse. Virginia was no longer in the bed but the smell of maple syrup wafted up from the kitchen. He stood naked and went to the window. The window looked out from the back of the house. There were maybe forty yards of open grass and then a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Beyond the fence a strip mine was in operation. A canyon had been dug into the earth and a dump truck was climbing toward its rim on a graded road, loaded with some type of rock. Ogilvie put his pants on.

"Virginia," he called as he came down the stairs. At the bottom he turned left, following the smell through the dining room. "Virginia."

The kitchen was bright with morning sun. A small man stood at the stove, pouring circles of pancake batter from a pitcher into a cast-iron skillet. He was elderly, maybe in his seventies, but handled the pitcher with confidence – perhaps even with flair. He wore twill pants held up by suspenders that crisscrossed at the back of a red flannel shirt. The clothes fit him loosely; he had probably been larger once. His face as he turned to look at Ogilvie was somehow the face of a larger man; it had the presence of size, staring at Ogilvie through narrowed eyes across the kitchen. "Virginia is not here," the man said.

"Oh," said Ogilvie.

There was a small breakfast table by the window and at this table sat a woman in a wheelchair. The woman’s head was tilted at a slight angle. Her claw-like hands held the chair’s armrests in a palsied grip.

"I’m Lawrence Clover," the man said, "Virginia’s father. My daughter has gone to work but instructed us to offer you a breakfast." He smiled but his smile was not warm. "Sam."

"Thanks. But I should get to work myself," Ogilvie explained, though he hadn’t had a job in months. The feeling of work had left him entirely. He was a free agent.

Clover walked over and stood behind the wheelchair, resting his hands on the woman’s shoulders. "This is my wife, Corrine. She suffered a brain damage some years ago. Corrine doesn’t speak but she can see and hear you."

Ogilvie said, "Hello, Corrine."

Clover told him to sit down.

Ogilvie smiled. The truth was that he felt pretty good, at least by his own standards. He’d sweated out most of the alcohol in bed with Virginia and was barely hung over at all. He inhaled deeply, breathing in the smells of syrup and cooking batter. He was very hungry. "Well I suppose just for a minute. Hate to work on an empty stomach."

He took the chair to Corrine’s left, nodding to her as he sat. She looked to be past middle age but not as old as Clover, though it was hard to tell exactly. Her mouth hung open, the tongue performing lazy, aimless movements inside. She wore a floral print dress. Her body seemed bloated and emaciated at the same time. Her eyes wandered over to Ogilvie and then wandered away. She had a drop of syrup on her chin. Ogilvie turned and looked out the window. "That’s a hell of a mine."

Clover made a noise in his throat, something akin to a growl, and walked back to the stove. "There’s nothing they won’t do to wring money from this land." Wielding a metal spatula, he flipped the sizzling pancakes with a series of violent wrist-flicks.

"I suppose not."

Clover transferred the pancakes to a plate, brought them over and set them in front of Ogilvie, then sat down across the table. Narrowing his eyes again, he stared out the window toward the fence and the mine beyond. The deep lines on his face trapped shadows in a map-like latticework. He said, "They won’t stop till all of Wyoming’s one big hole in the ground."

The pancakes were delicious. Ogilvie realized that there had been no dinner the night before. There was no point in denying that dinner was a meal he missed from time to time, a meal that had a way of getting lost. The pancakes seemed temporarily to dispel the notion of evil in the world. "I’m sure it’ll never go that far," he mumbled through a syrup-soaked mouthful.

"The hell you say."

"What are they mining, anyway?"

"Kitty litter."

"Excuse me?"

Clover slammed right fist into left palm with startling force. A muscle twitched in his cheek. "The bastards are mining kitty litter."

Ogilvie glanced over at Corrine. Her lazy eyes had been on him but darted away when he looked – or so he thought. "I didn’t know they mined for that."

"A special kind of clay," Clover told him. "The geologists say there’s a fortune of it under my house." He turned from the window, sunlight sliding off the front of his face, and fixed his raptor stare on Ogilvie once more. "You wouldn’t believe what they’ve offered for this place."

Ogilvie leaned in. "But you’re not selling?"

"That’s right," Clover said. He raised a gnarled finger, a finger like a piece of scrap iron, and pointed it across the table. "I won’t sell for a truckload of their pagan gold."

Pagan gold – Ogilvie felt giddy. The Great West was like a natural preservative for these Old Testament types. Clover had probably wrestled bears for the pleasure of smelling death on their fur. His righteousness was forged in blood. There was a trace of the same frontier violence in Virginia’s reckless way with drink, and her cornered-badger style of "making love." Ogilvie knew that a network of deep scratches like whiplashes had been carved into his back the night before. She had branded him like a head of cattle; even now the bare scrapings of his skin would be there underneath her fingernails, wherever she was. "Fuck ‘em," he said to Clover.

Clover nodded in agreement, but slowly, with the indifference of shrewd appraisal. "Yes," he said. "Fuck ‘em. They who shall see the land rent for shitting cats." He stood, clearing Ogilvie’s pancakeless, syrup-smeared plate.

"Wonderful breakfast," Ogilvie said.

Clover did not answer. He went to the sink and stood there with his back to the table. Ogilvie looked out the window again. A dump truck approached the edge of the mine, throwing a haze of dust up behind it, then dipped its nose and disappeared down into the pit. A row of framed photographs lined the windowsill. Virginias of every age smiled out from under glass. She had a thin arm draped across her father’s broad shoulders in several of the pictures, and these confirmed that Clover had once been an imposing man with a face like the side of a mountain. Corrine did not appear in any of them. Even as a young girl, Ogilvie saw, Virginia’s grin had been dark and cunning. One small shot in particular caught his eye: teenage Virginia, dark hair chopped short and bobbed, driving a knife into the flesh of a rectangular birthday cake. The knife seemed much too big for the job; it was practically a machete, the kind of tool with which Crazy Horse might have smote a pack of wolves. Her face was gleeful, but it was the glee of death and power. Blocky frosting letters on the cake spelled out Happy Birthday Sharon.

He picked the frame up to look more closely and then, on an impulse, slipped it into his pocket. Clover was still at the sink with his back turned. Corrine, however, was staring at Ogilvie again, her head bobbing slightly as if in some attempt to protest. Ogilvie saw that her eyes protruded buggishly, not unlike Virginia’s. He winked at her and stood up from the table.

"Thanks so much for the food," he said loudly, patting his pancake-filled stomach with both hands. "I guess I’d better get on to work now."

August became September and Ogilvie did not see Virginia again. Sometimes he would wander down to the Mint Club, unsure if he was looking for her. In any case she was never there. But in general his situation seemed to be stabilizing, possibly even improving. He ran out of money and had to take work as a line cook at a diner by the interstate. He found, to his surprise, that he liked this job. The waitresses fascinated him. They were old, competent, tough, possessed for the most part of fabulous memories. They were waitresses in the way Ogilvie’s father had been Army: it was in their carriage, how they spoke and applied eye shadow, the cigarettes they smoked. Plainly they were members of a tribe; as such they expressed a certain human potential for belonging. Ogilvie took heart in this. They shouted to him in mentholated gravel voices. They shouted orders and Ogilvie produced the food. He drank less. He could feel his life slowing down and the feeling pleased him.

But it was true that he often mistook unknown women for Virginia on the street, through store windows, riding bicycles around town. There were repeated false alarms. Once, crossing the creek that ran under Big Horn Avenue, he caught sight of a lone figure floating away downstream aboard an inner tube. Long brown hair, not unlike Virginia’s, spilled over the tube’s rubber stern. The woman’s hands trailed in the water on either side of her at the end of lean, white arms. She did not turn around. Ogilvie stood watching at the bridge rail until the current ferried her around a bend. The next day he went to the Humane Society and adopted a cat.

The cat was orange and had sagging bunches of loose skin around its belly, which the woman at the Humane Society said was a result of being spayed. This meant that the cat had once been someone else’s pet. It was a used cat. Ogilvie liked the cat well enough but decided not to name her, just in case. Still, when he sat outside his building in the evenings – with a beer now, or sometimes even coffee – he would bring the cat out with him and watch her slink around in the tall weeds at the edge of the vacant lot next door. She was sleek, agile, out for mice and voles, the classic picture of a huntress, slack flesh notwithstanding. Watching her, Ogilvie experienced a feeling very much like pride. The cat would come to his windowsill when she wanted to be let back in at night and often they watched TV "together." She learned to do her business outside; Ogilvie did not keep a litter box.

But September wore on. The fall was coming and no one could stop it. In the mornings, at dusk, a change of season in the air: you felt it first at the edges of your body, in your fingertips and the end of your nose. The days remained warm. The prairie grasses turned a deeper yellow. The municipal family of buffalo welcomed a new calf and then the calf died suddenly, mysteriously. It happened on a Sunday and children lined the fence pointing at the corpse until it was taken away. Some of them came down the hill crying, shambling past Ogilvie’s building, wailing and attempting to talk all at once, as children do. Ogilvie stood at his open window looking out. The sorrowful noise seemed to reach him from across a great distance, but with urgency. It seemed to contain important news.

A few days later Ogilvie walked on the toe path beside the creek that crossed Big Horn Avenue. The water babbled as it ran across the stones. Ogilvie closed his eyes and listened. He sensed that there was an idea in the sound, though he could not make the idea out. But the shape of the thing was there and the experience of perceiving this shape was altogether new to Ogilvie; it struck him with the force of discovery.

That afternoon he watched a diced green pepper sizzle on his grille. He added tomato, added onion. He mixed them together with his spatula. The topography of vegetables, tri-colored, spelled out a word or made a symbol; somehow it signified a concept. The concept eluded him, but he knew it was real. He cracked three eggs into a bowl and saw a face in them. The face was not human. It wasn’t even a face, really, but more the notion of a face.

He beat the eggs together and it disappeared.

This development was troubling. A communication seemed to be taking place, or an attempted communication – but attempted by whom and to what purpose? The substance of the messages continued to inhabit the dim regions just beyond his grasp, but Ogilvie suspected the work of dark forces. Whether internal or external he couldn’t say. The messages would seem at times to be everywhere, and then might disappear for a day, for two days. When they returned he would greet their return with profoundly mixed feelings. This went on for several weeks before the mutilation of his cat.

A drowsy, elegant afternoon early in October: sun-drenched, Indian summer. Ogilvie had worked the lunch shift. When he returned home the cat was lying on the lawn in front of his building, her body stretched out as if to sunbathe. She was missing her left front leg. Seeing Ogilvie, she let out a plaintive whine. The sound was broken into parts, like voices on a cell phone with poor reception, as if some kind of fluid were pooling in the cat’s small lungs. Ogilvie dropped to a knee and examined the wound. It was jagged and sticky, the blood having already congealed. A crimson pool of it stained the grass, which meant that the cat had been there for a while, not ten feet from the sidewalk. Pedestrians had passed by and done nothing. They had seen his cat, less one leg and bleeding, and simply continued on their way. Ogilvie looked around. Even now, a woman on the sidewalk regarded him from underneath a straw sunhat. She was middle-aged, likely the mother of children.

"My cat has lost a leg," Ogilvie told her.

The woman turned her head and kept walking.

Ogilvie stared back down at the cat. He ran a finger very lightly over the place where her limb had been torn away. The glaze of blood, the grains of dirt sticking to it, the strands of muscle and tendon, the protruding length of bone – all of these came together and formed a design. The design was not without meaning, Ogilvie knew.

At the animal hospital, in the waiting room, one other man waited with him. The man held a black dachshund on his lap and the dachshund wore a patch over one eye. Tubular fluorescent ceiling lamps threw a harsh glare down on their silent threesome. The hair on Ogilvie’s arms seemed very dark in this light, the skin beneath it very pale. He found the effect unnatural and disturbing.

The cat might well die. Blood loss, trauma, the established shape of Ogilvie’s fate. The cat was probably dead already.

A newspaper lay scattered on the end table beside his chair. Ogilvie picked it up and began passing his eyes idly across the words. A headline just below the Page One fold announced that a local man had been accidentally killed in his garage two nights before. The victim’s name was Lawrence Clover.

Clover had been crushed by his own pickup truck. Precisely how this happened was unclear. He had apparently raised the truck up on jacks sometime in the evening with the intention of rotating its tires, but then went to bed without completing the task. The truck remained aloft. At around three a.m. he re-entered the garage for unknown reasons, crawled underneath the chassis, and presumably dislodged one of the jacks by accident. No one heard the truck fall; Clover was killed instantly. His daughter, Virginia, discovered the body several hours later.

Ogilvie read through the article twice. There was no mention of foul play. The county coroner had ruled Clover’s death an accident and that was that. The coroner was a professional, a trained expert in modes of mortality. His opinion carried the weight of law. This did not necessarily make it correct.

Ogilvie closed his eyes. Above his head the ceiling lamps crackled and buzzed. The sound seemed to vibrate at the precise frequency of his suspicions. Trunny mubble, pagan gold. The pirate-faced Dachshund put in with a single, sharp, assenting bark: Woof, Ogilvie, how right you are.

"Mr. Ogilvie?"

He opened his eyes. The nurse stood before him. At her side, a raven-haired doctor held the cat in his arms. The cat’s eyes were not open.

"She’s dead," Ogilvie said.

"No," said the doctor, "she’s sleeping. She’ll sleep for a while." He smiled broadly. It was a deeply competent expression, the smile of a man who winnowed pet souls.

Ogilvie stood and carefully accepted the cat, her body swaddled babe-like in a white towel. "Thank you," he said.

"It’s my job."

The doctor’s bearing seemed to reflect belief in science, confidence in the logic of natural order. Ogilvie glanced around the room and lowered his voice. "What do you think happened to her leg?"

The doctor shrugged. "Maybe a coyote?" He had magnificent teeth with which to smile. "Then again, maybe not."

Back at his apartment Ogilvie studied the photograph he’d stolen from Virginia’s house. Her adolescent face might well have been the face of a future murderess. She seemed to brandish the knife with preternatural poise. She seemed to project, this little Virginia, the self-assurance of a woman twice her age – a woman who knew full well the depth of her capacities. The light of the camera’s flash made a starburst where it reflected off the long blade, the leading edge of which was already tasting Sharon’s cake.

"What do you think?" he asked the cat, holding the picture up in front of her.

The cat was groggy, just surfacing from under the sedatives, lying splayed on the bed but short one tool for expressing this posture. Ogilvie watched her come to. She moved her head in strange arcs, snatching at slow-moving, invisible flies. Closing his eyes, he could hear the flies buzzing though he knew they did not exist. They buzzed like the lights at the animal hospital, at the same frequency of agreement.

He stood and went to the window. Sliding the glass open, he heard the voices of prairie bugs and the breeze, the droning whisper of cars on the interstate, the murmur of a television, the sharp clink of cup against saucer somewhere. In the dark line of trees on the buffalo hill, in the shapes of larger hills stenciled black against the deep blue sky to the west, even in the mottled moonlight making shadows in the alley on the other side of Big Horn Avenue, there was a presence. The presence conveyed invitation. It seemed to be calling Ogilvie out. He might find friends out there, the easy kinship of light and sound.

There was a soft, plosive thump at his back.

Ogilvie turned. The cat had gotten down off the bed – though he didn’t see how – and was trying to walk on her remaining legs. Awkwardly she gathered herself and stood, but when she dared a step her balance collapsed and she pitched forward onto her bandaged stump. Thump. The dull thud was like a gunshot in some underwater dream, aquamen firing muskets at fierce narwhals. The cat was growing confused, alarmed. She did not understand where her leg had gone. Neither did Ogilvie. She became increasingly frantic, almost trying to run in circles on the floor. On the floorboards her stump went thump, thump, thump thump, thump, thump went her stump. The un-rhythmic rhythm seemed to be in some kind of communication with the presence outside. Ogilvie watched the cat in horror, as she seemed to be watching herself, flopping around the room like an epileptic’s marionette. He picked up Virginia’s picture, searched it again for a clue. He faced the window – the strange geometries of shadow outside, the dark shapes and speaking noises. The wind turned and came through the screen. It touched his face, drying his eyeballs and the spit on his teeth.

The kitty litter mine had not stopped work for Lawrence Clover’s funeral. A high white sun sharpened the din of motors and shouts and pneumatic drills drifting across the broad valley as the Clover house gathered black-clad mourners in. The industrial racket seemed somehow to be orchestrating this process of assemblage; the funeral-goers floated languidly from their cars, some clutching flowers at their sides. Ogilvie leaned on the open door of his Oldsmobile. He wore his only suit – a light, non-funereal blue two-piece – and the bolo tie he’d purchased that very morning at the Junior League thrift store on Burkitt Street. He was no longer sure about the tie. A fine spray of dust like ocean mist hovered over the gaping mine pit and above that, a hawk circling stiff-winged against the pale sky like a string less kite.

Folding chairs had been arranged in the parlor. Most were occupied by the time Ogilvie entered. He took a seat in the back row. At the head of the room, in front of the fireplace, the coffin stretched out lengthways. It seemed to draw the crowd’s silence as a black hole draws light. The front half of the lid had been propped open and Clover’s eyes stared up at the ceiling through lids pulled shut by the undertaker. Through a door beside the fireplace Virginia emerged to take her place behind the coffin-side podium. She scanned the audience with her ruthless, protuberant eyes, before settling, Ogilvie thought, on him. He straightened up in his chair. Scarcely a month ago they had held each other naked, Virginia thrashing viciously against him, drawing blood with bared nails.

"My father," she began, "was not a perfect man."

Of course she was radiant. The black dress set off her pale skin. Her height commanded the room. Audaciously, she wore heels. Ogilvie sweated freely. Clover lay still, eulogized like Caesar by his killer, dispatched after a lifetime of rugged western manliness by his own daughter for kitty litter blood money. Maybe. Virginia’s composure was captivating. She seemed flawless in her eloquence, though Ogilvie had almost immediately lost track of what she was saying. His desire for her was pressing but complex; he needed something from her but wasn’t quite sure what. He alone might know her secret. Corrine might know too, but she did not appear to be in the audience. He looked all around; she wasn’t there. It occurred to him that she must also have been done away with somehow, likely shipped off to some ghastly state-run sanitarium where the orderlies were all sex offenders and the sheets were never changed.

At the reception, in the long dining room, somber guests lined up to express their regrets to Virginia. Ogilvie hung back at the refreshment table, anxiously stuffing his face with assorted French pastry. Fortunately, there was also a makeshift bar. He stood with bourbon and éclair, staring at the lunchmeat tray. The variously colored meats, fanned out in a broad arc, seemed to comprise a sign of warning. The meats sought to dissuade him but Ogilvie would not be swayed. Virginia presently worked her way through the receiving line; the crowd drifted away and left her alone in the center of the room. Ogilvie sauntered boldly over, craning to peck her proffered cheek.

"Sam," she said, "it’s so good of you to come."

"Yes, long time no see."

"Sorry I haven’t called. Things have been difficult."

"That’s OK, I never gave you my number."

"Well maybe you’ll give it to me now."

"I don’t have a phone."

She smiled. "How odd."

Ogilvie smiled back. "In any event, I’m terribly sorry." He threw her a sly wink. "For your loss, I mean."

"Thanks. Did you just wink at me?"

"Of course not." He glanced around the room. "So, how long will you wait to sell this place?"

"I don’t know," Virginia said. "I hadn’t really planned on selling at all. Doubt it’s worth anything with that mine next door." She gestured vaguely out the window.

Ogilvie followed the gesture with his eyes. The sun had started sinking, brushing the rising mine dust with shades of gold. He leaned in close and whispered, "That’s not what your father told me."

Virginia laughed gently. "Did he try to sell you that old line?" She put her hand on Ogilvie’s shoulder. "I’m afraid my dad entertained a few delusions late in life. He wasn’t quite all there. There’s no kitty litter under this house, if that’s what he told you – if there were, he would’ve sold the place himself a long time ago. I know he wanted to after my mom died."

Ogilvie nodded. "Ah yes, your mother."

Virginia cocked her head to the side.

"Your dearly departed mother."

She took her hand off his shoulder and sniffed the air. "Have you been drinking, Sam?"

"Yes. But tell me something: why set a truck up on jacks and then just walk away from it, go to bed, leave it like that?"

"Maybe he got tired. Maybe the phone rang. Obviously we’re not going to talk about this."

"You weren’t here?"

"I was in my room."

"And why, even if he had left it that way, would an old man go crawling around underneath a jacked-up truck at three o’clock in the morning?" He lifted his eyebrows and inclined his head toward her a few more inches.

Virginia studied him briefly and retrieved her smile. "I think he was looking for the cat. The cat usually sleeps in the house, but she was in the garage when I found him. Really, Sam, I can’t tell you how charming this is."

"I see. The cat."

She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "What are you getting at, Sherlock?"

Ogilvie winked again. "Nothing special."

"Brilliant. Tell me something: was it a crew of goons from the mining company, or did I kill him myself?"

"Maybe you should tell me."

"Maybe you should go."

"Don’t worry," Ogilvie whispered, "I’m not going to turn you in. That’s not what this is about."

"What a relief. That’s a nice suit, by the way – those string ties just melt me. You look like an extra on Dallas." She pointed to the door. "Please leave."

Ogilvie mopped his brow. He could sense the room’s attention shifting toward them, people putting down coffee cups and brioches to listen. "But I haven’t passed along my condolences to you mother."

"My mother," Virginia hissed, "is quite fucking dead. I don’t care what my dad told you – he was a senile old bastard. He lost it. I don’t know why the hell he crawled under that trucking fuck, I mean fucking truck." Like her late father, she had a muscle in her cheek that became active when she was upset.

Ogilvie lowered his eyes. He tried briefly to sort through these claims. "But I met her," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"I met her – Corrine. We met."

"Is this a joke, Sam? Is this some kind of sick fucking joke? I’m sorry I never called you. My mother is dead. Get out of here."

Everyone was staring now, though for some reason nobody approached to intervene. "She was in a wheelchair, at the breakfast table –" Ogilvie mimed the arm motions of a wheelchair athlete.

"You’re crazy," Virginia said. "Please go."

Ogilvie looked down at his finely polished shoes. But he had met Corrine. Certainly he seemed to have met Corrine. A silence developed. Finally he put his lips very close to Virginia’s ear and she did not move away. "I hear them," he breathed.

"Hear who?" she breathed back.

"The Talking People."

Now she moved away. "Jesus," she whispered.

"I know."

"Sam, there are no Talking People. That’s just an old Indian story, frontier voodoo."

"But what about your mother?"

"God, I was so drunk – I don’t even know why I told it to you."

"No." Ogilvie shook his head. "I hear them, I see them. They’re Talking to me."

"Listen to yourself, Sam. There are no Talking People. You need help."

"What about your mother?"

"My mother wasn’t a happy person. My father didn’t treat her well." She spoke evenly but her big eyes seemed wild, as they had the night she and Ogilvie met. "They’re in your head, Sam. You have to get help."

Ogilvie bit his lip. He could feel the color burning in his cheeks, its heat like a noise in his brain. The assembled faces continued to stare, disapproving – the stern women, the men not unlike Clover himself with their rough-hewn features and horseback posture. Ogilvie began to mumble a muddled apology to his shiny feet. Then he stopped and looked back up at Virginia. "I should probably go," he said.

"Yes," she agreed, "you probably should."

Outside, the mine had fallen silent. No trucks rumbled; the miners had gone home. Ogilvie fingered the dual strings of his new used tie. He could see her point – about the tie, about his being insane. Certainly he’d considered these possibilities himself. A bank of tufted clouds drifted down from the north. They were very high, as clouds in Wyoming always seemed to be, and gazing down the parched grass valley Ogilvie could see the twisted shapes of their long shadows lying scattered on the land. He sat down on the hood of his car and studied the physical relationships: cloud, sun, shadow, earth. The evening crickets were beginning to chirp. They had plenty to say, but that didn’t mean you had to listen. Somewhere in the sky he could hear the drone of an airplane passing high over the empty, lonesome country, over the territory of cattle drives and massacred Indians, over the bones of nameless cowboys returning into dust.

Three years passed. Ogilvie drifted west with his crippled cat: Tacoma, Sacramento, Los Angeles. There were ups and downs, but for the most part he managed to live quietly. Taking limited exercise, the cat became obese; Ogilvie, however, began jogging. He watched less television and read more books. He learned to play guitar. Sometimes he would strum a little tune for the cat and sing to her: James Taylor, Cat Stevens. Then in L.A. he met a woman named Meg. Ogilvie was driving a school bus at the time; Meg’s teenage son was among his daily passengers. Meg had gotten pregnant in the pool house at a party in Topanga Canyon when she was nineteen. This was during her long and prolific drug phase. The father was a B-list TV star. Like Ogilvie, Meg regarded herself as someone with a deep capacity for trouble. Like Ogilvie, she was trying to embrace a more peaceful existence. They played cribbage together, cooked good meals, attended her son’s roller hockey games.

"We’ve earned the right to be boring," Meg liked to say.

The wedding was at the Bel Air Hotel on a fine day in March. Meg’s family was in the industry; they owned a graphics company that specialized in movie posters – a niche market, quite lucrative. The band wore white tuxedos. Richard Dreyfus gave an amusing toast. Meg’s father took Ogilvie aside at the reception and offered to bring him into the company as a vice-president, a position for which he had absolutely no qualifications. Luckily, none were necessary. It was mostly a people job. Ogilvie played golf and talked on the phone a great deal. He surprised himself by proving to be a nimble schmoozer – so nimble in fact that he was sent to France the following spring to represent the company at Cannes.

Cannes, of course, was a disaster during the festival. Ogilvie had never seen so many attractive people snorting cocaine naked until sunrise on yachts. Men rode jet skis heroically in the moonlight; on deck, beautiful women gave head in the shadows. There was a lot of talk. Everybody wanted to be taken seriously. On the schooner of an Italian paper magnate, in the bathroom line, a Swiss model told Ogilvie that she had seen Brando’s cock in a sauna on Majorca, that it was huge, that she was considering Buddhism.

Each night Ogilvie returned to his room at some terrible hour and called Meg in California so they could laugh at what he’d seen, and possibly have phone sex. Each morning he rose before lunch and went for a brisk walk by himself along the esplanade: the sleek boats bobbing gently on the harbor swell, pastel water, condoms and champagne glasses washing up on the beach. He’d never felt better in his life. That year’s Palme d’Or went to an independent French film, The Crying of the Gulls, and many were hailing its director, Orenbuch, as a man of genius. Ogilvie was sitting at the Majestic Barrière bar on the last night of the festival with a Parisian critic named Rondeaux when Orenbuch entered to a standing ovation. He waved grandly to the crowd – a tallish, pleasant-looking Frenchman with a ring of dark curls around his otherwise bald head. His tuxedo was rumpled; he seemed to have kind eyes. The woman on his arm was equally tall. In fact, it was Virginia Clover.

"Merci!" Orenbuch shouted. "Thank you all!"

Ogilvie nearly laughed out loud. She looked marvelous, far better than before. Her thin face had filled out just enough, its color gone to honey from the sun. The flush of her cheeks seemed instantly, transparently, to convey the benefits of healthful living – of fresh fruit, languorous sex and expensive wine, possibly all at once. Ogilvie nudged Rondeaux. "Who is that woman?"

"That?" Rondeaux sneered. "That is Orenbuch’s wife – an American."

"She’s beautiful, don’t you think?"

"Bah, they are all beautiful." He spat on the bar. "Where will beauty get you? She has something else, this one." He cupped his hand around Ogilvie’s ear and murmured, "She is rich."

"Rich?"

"Yes, rich, rich. Where do you think Orenbuch gets money for his sham of a movie? She pays for it all, she bankrolled. Yes, she bankrolled him."

"But where does her money come from?"

"His farce of a film. Melodramatic nonsense, violins and nudity. That dolphin dying in slow motion – I threw up in my mouth."

"Do you know where?"

Rondeaux threw his hands in the air. "Where? Where? She is American. She sits on the toilet and dollars fall from her ass, no? Where does your money come from, eh Ogilvie?"

"Me?" Ogilvie grinned. "I married it."

Rondeaux grinned back. "Ah, then you are smart." He reached into his breast pocket and produced a crumpled pack of Turkish cigarettes. "Very smart, for an American."

Virginia had not seen him. He did not seek her attention. Her bearing was regal. Orenbuch seemed to have stepped back: Virginia, front and center, blowing kisses to the crowd. She wore their applause like a garland of roses. "Bravo," Ogilvie whispered. He joined in the clapping until it died away.

"Yes," Rondeaux said, "it is a good reason – as good as any, at least. Me, I married for love. Do you have a match?"

Ogilvie did not have a match.

Rondeaux smiled around the unlit cigarette. He was a small man but dirty in a way small men usually aren’t: yellow teeth, greasy hair, a wispy mustache. His jacket was frayed at the sleeve. "A poor girl, both of us were poor, from a small town outside Lyon. We came to Paris with nothing but we were young, we didn’t know any better. We were very happy. Fucking all night – she was exquisite, we barely slept. You can imagine. Across the hall from our apartment was a man with no legs. I do not know how he lost them. An auto wreck, maybe, or a tiger bit them off. Of course you do not ask these things. He went around the city in a wheelchair but in his home he would not use the chair. It was a filthy building and all the first floor apartments had pipes across the ceiling, dozens of them in every direction. So our friend, he hangs rope all through these pipes – like a spider web, see? Ropes from every part of the ceiling. And he swings around his house like a monkey on these ropes. Much easier than the chair, he says. You should see his arms from doing this – like a Russian gymnast. A very charming man, my wife and I both liked him very much. He knew card tricks, sleight of hand. A good storyteller. At first he comes over for dinner once a week, then maybe twice. Soon he is traveling with us on holiday to Normandy. But I liked him very much, you see. We both did." Rondeaux looked up from his glass. His mustache was uneven, Ogilvie noticed, a little longer on the right side than the left. Orenbuch and Virginia had been shown to a table in the corner overlooking the harbor. The two of them were laughing about something now, their heads very close together. Rondeaux laughed too. "Well, you can see where this story is going. It is all a mystery, eh Ogilvie? Let us have another drink, on your wife."


Vinnie Wilhelm lives nomadically in America as a semi-professional housesitter/freeloader.  His fiction has appeared in the Southern Review, Glimmertrain Stories, the Sonora Review, and on Esquire.com.

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