For a while they sat in the living room after dinner and watched television. Then she started to tell him the story. He told her to wait until he drew a bath. He wanted to sit in a warm bath while she told the story. He hopped off the couch and trotted down the hall into the bathroom and started the water. He poured in eucalyptus-smelling bubble bath and got undressed while the bathtub filled almost to the top, the foam piling up like clouds. He lit a stick of incense and blew a smoking ember. Then he climbed in the bathtub and relaxed. She came in with a footstool. She would paint her toenails while she told the story. She sat down on the footstool and put her feet up on the side of the bathtub. Hard yellow sponges spread the toes. He had his face half-submerged and he glanced over at her calloused soles. She opened the bottle of red polish and started in on the right little toe with careful strokes. His bathwater got cold and the bubbles reduced to a thin scum clinging to the cloudy water.
“Anyway, he works across the street from me and I am a loan officer,” she said. “I am about twenty-two and living by myself for the first time in that little apartment on Seventh. This is actually not long before we started going out. Maybe a week after I break it off with—John, that’s his name—you and I started going out. Now look at us. That’s funny how quick you meet people, isn’t it? But like I said, his name is John, John, and one day he asks me to go to lunch and then he comes over one day after work and, well …”
She gestured to him as if he should pardon her from frankness at this point in the story. He nodded and fidgeted with the lever with his toes, opening and closing the drain. Then he left it open.
“This goes on for almost a month,” she said. “Nearly every day he’s coming over. He’s rough about things. I’m not like that, you know. But I’m naïve. Lonely. Thing is, he never stays afterwards. Looking back, that is a signal, but I am so young. Lonely. And I start to fall in love with him. I don’t know. He is older. I trust him very much. It is like a father thing. Isn’t that stupid? Only a month and I am in love and I don’t know him. At least you and I dated for a while before I asked you. Didn’t jump into things. Right? I guess that’s just growing up.
“Anyway, one evening, he’s tying his shoes, getting ready to leave and I’m still naked and I’m tired of it because I’m selfish not suspicious and I confront him about it and get really mad. He is calm and finishes tying his shoes and looks up at me and tells me he’s married. Kids. His kids are half as old as I am. How about that? They are like thirteen or something. I throw him out right after he says it. Then I get ashamed, feel like a homewrecker. But I don’t know. How could I know? You know, though, two days later I call him at work and tell him to come over that afternoon and we pick up like nothing ever happens. We go on like this for two months. He starts complaining about his wife all the time. Calls her fat and stupid. Shows me pictures of her and wants me to say the same things. He demeans her. Mean stuff. And I’m not going to say it. Then one evening he’s going on about her and I just have enough and I tell him now it’s really over. I feel so bad for her and I come really close to sending her an anonymous letter but never do.”
The bathtub was nearly drained. He sat and listened and looked at the dripping faucet. She painted.
“But here’s where the story gets interesting,” she said. “About three days after I end it, and for good this time because you came along, I’m out one night eating at a Mexican restaurant with my boss and in walks John with his wife and kids. He glances at me then quickly away and says something off to the side to the waiter and this little waiter nods and leads them all to a booth way in the back by the bathrooms. Imagine that. He’d rather sit and eat and smell people’s shit than sit within sight of me. I’m there with my boss, so I’m not going to do anything. I’m not like that, anyway, you know?”
He shrugged. The bathtub gurgled empty but he stayed seated. She finished her last toe and screwed the brush back into the bottle of polish.
“Anyway, that’s it. That’s the story. I wanted you to know. You know he comes by about a week after you and I started dating and asks me to take him back? Starts undressing right there in the kitchen! But I tell him no way. I’m with someone. Actually, you had just left that night when he stops by.”
He stood up in the bathtub and grabbed a towel off the rack and wrapped it around his waist. She pointed at her toes. The red shining nails.
“Don’t they look pretty?” she said. “I do this all for you, you know.”
Henderson, a rural, sixty-year-old man, looked confused and started to ask us questions when we gave him the two photos. We told him it was only another part of the assignment and he nodded and looked down at the photos in his hands. Then he wondered how long this would go on before he’d get paid. We told him very soon. We would make all of this worth his while. We left him alone in a separate room with the photos and told him to make sure he took as much time as he needed with them. We urged him to absorb all the details. One of the photos was of a red sucker in the street with ants crawling all over it. The other was a panoramic jungle scene, but the main detail was a set of hippopotamus eyes and nostrils showing just above the calm surface of a river. We went back and forth as a group about what river was in the photo, but finally settled on the Magdalena River in Colombia, and not an African river, because one of us claimed to recognize several species of foliage indigenous to South America and another of us knew the Escobar story. We waited in another room while Henderson sat with the photos. He was a very rigorous, conscientious man, and he didn’t emerge from the room for another forty minutes. When we told him he was done for the day and that he could go home, he asked again about the money.
We called Henderson back in a week later and asked him to sit and tell us what he remembered. He seemed anxious and started right into the story, but we told him to wait until we got the reel-to-reel going. We placed a condenser microphone in front of his chair and instructed him to speak into it. We got everything going and gave him the nod to begin. Henderson leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs and put his hand to his chin. The entire time he watched them, he stood on an overturned metal garbage can of their neighbors’. He’d turned over the can carefully so he wouldn’t make any noise. He turned over the can because he feared he would have otherwise collapsed through the lid. He’d studied the sturdiness of the lid under flashlight before deciding what to do. One of us began to reprimand Henderson for using a flashlight, considering the delicacy of the assignment, but we stopped them. It was worth the risk to Henderson to use the flashlight because if he would have fallen through the lid and had to run away, all of this would have been aborted. He really needed the money. We told him to go on with the story and promised him there would still have been compensation even if he had fallen into the garbage can and fled; but only as long as he was able to get away cleanly. He knew this part of the arrangement. If he’d have gotten away cleanly, we would have given him another address for another night. He seemed to take comfort in this and he began to thank us for our charity and, for some reason, tried to reassure us that he trusted us. We told him to move on with what he remembered and he wasn’t sure if he’d already told us about how he’d set himself up and we nodded.
The air was warm for that part of night and the sky was clear enough and the neighborhood dark enough that Henderson could see the stars. He thought he could make out several “constellations” and we asked him not to use that word. He could see Orion. We told him it was likely something else and he accepted this. The window of their living room was shut, so he could not hear anything. But he could see them clearly, as if they were on a stage: the man sits on the sofa reading the newspaper and the woman sits in the armchair nearby going through the channels with the remote. Two lamps and the light from the television brighten the room. Henderson perched down on the garbage can like a “vulture.” We asked him not to use that word. Henderson perched down on the garbage can like a “black vulture” and we asked him about his association with that particular species and he went on about how he’d grown up on a farm and how black vultures used to invade in early Spring and kill his father’s newborn calves and he’d catch them feasting on a carcass and run back for his father and that his father would come running with a shotgun and kill the black vultures. We wanted him to get back to the other story and he was sorry for “wandering” and we asked him not to use that word. We asked him to use the word “touring” instead. The woman in the armchair is unfocused, unlike the man on the sofa, who is “studying” the newspaper. We consulted on that term and decided to let it stand. Further, we agreed we would no longer try to police Henderson’s vocabulary. The couple sits like this for a while until the man starts “getting squirrelly” in the sofa as if something has bitten him and he slaps at his back over his shoulders with a bouquet of newspaper. The man stands up and swats around the back of his waist with the newspaper and “gives a dance.” Henderson laughed at this. We looked at each other, then back at Henderson. The woman looks at the man and says something. We asked Henderson if he could tell what it was.
“If I had to guess, I’d say she was telling him he should have listened when she told him to get ant traps,” Henderson said. “They get bad this time of year. My daddy used to—”
We suggested that perhaps he was touring again and asked him to continue. The woman puts the remote down on the table between the armchair and the sofa and she gets up and walks over to a desk and picks up the telephone receiver and shakes it at the man, who’s beating himself silly with that newspaper. This guy’s acting crazy, like he “ain’t have no sense.” Like he snapped wild of a sudden because all those ants are under his shirt eating him and he “throwed” the kindling of newspaper away and “starts to pull the shirt out” and this woman is shaking the telephone, yelling and she looks madder than a hornet and the man’s jumping around, “shedding his britches and everything.” Henderson could hear the woman say “disconnected” hear and there, but that was pretty much all he could make out. We wondered if he could extrapolate and Henderson was hesitant, but believed that what was happening was that the man had been fired from his job or something that would have harmed their financial standing, or maybe the woman had lost her job, or maybe both of them lost their jobs or were just lazy on bills, but for whatever reason, the telephone was disconnected and instead of “putting it up,” they kept it on the desk for “looks” and there’s this guy going through the classifieds, either for a job for himself, for his wife, or for both of them, or just out of curiosity to see what people are buying and selling, or because they wasn’t anything else around to read and he’s a reader and his wife’s a television watcher and once the ants started in on him, she gets the idea to throw this telephone thing in his face, yelling about how they could maybe call someone to get rid of the goddamned things, but the telephone is disconnected and, for whatever reason, whether it be anger with him, herself, or both of them that she seems so determined to talk about the “cancel” of the telephone service. At this point, we conferred and agreed to once more challenge Henderson on his vocabulary. The context seemed to warrant a different term. Then maybe the service had only been “on suspension.” We shook our heads but urged Henderson to go on. One of us leaned in and whispered that the experiment had been proven and that we should stop Henderson now and point out the effect of the photos on his memory of the reconnaissance. But we decided to let him go on.
This man’s down to his under-britches by now and I can see them ants all over him. The man was down to his underwear and Henderson could see ants on his body. Moving around like he was a damned ant farm. We asked Henderson why he’d come back to the farm imagery. He crossed his legs the other way and didn’t know. I ain’t answered because them mind games don’t interest me. Enough of them in the Army. They was jungle where we went, too, and we knowed what it’s like to get ate up by ants when you’re just resting. What do these people know about ants? I wonder what these eggheads would think if I went and told about how that college boy came to our unit, never seen combat, and he’s already a first lieutenant and come only his fourth day he gets killed. I wonder what they’d think of me if I told them how that mortar landed right near my boots earlier that same day out on the stomp but it was a dud and how quick it could end when you’re in that kind of thing, or, hell, any kind of thing. I’m old enough to know that much as truth. They ain’t. They spend their time with this foolishness. Having me watch folks. Showing me pictures. I seen jungle. They probably only seen pictures of it. I seen jungle rivers. What do they know about jungle rivers? They ain’t never crossed one and come out the other side with leeches on their balls. We took to calling them “girlfriends.” Ask each other: how many hickeys you get? For the man with the most bites, we say he’s the one who got him some pussy. Rest of us only got tit. And that man’d laugh about it even though his balls are bloody and hurt and he got a sock to them. That’s how used to things we got. I’d like to tell these people. I’d like to tell them about that college boy lieutenant. How we’s up on a ridgeline looking at this steep hillside over across the valley, looking for movement because we got told them shits was over there and we was the closest unit and got recon. And this little lieutenant takes out binoculars and starts looking around. We all told him to put them up. The sun was strong and we told him they’d see the shine off them glasses and that’d be the end of us. But he goes on about how he knows about recon from his officer schooling and he knows what he’s doing and all of us just need to fall in line and finally we just say the hell with him and back up on a bank and sit and smoke and wait. He’s under this big tree, looking around with them binoculars and we heared this pop from that hillside yonder and this whistle coming but you ain’t never got time when the whistle comes and we ain’t able to say nothing and I’ll be goddamned if that thing didn’t hit right at that lieutenant’s feet and blow him apart. They was only pieces of him hanging from the branches. End of the college boy. Hell, we could’ve put what we picked out of that tree in a goddamned sandwich sack instead of wasting a body bag.
Justin D. Anderson is completing an MFA and teaching writing at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he lives with his wife and son. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Whitefish Review, South Dakota Review, Necessary Fiction, Controlled Burn, flyway, and elsewhere and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.