I watched from our usual perch. Lacie could balance on the bedrail, one foot in front of the other, like a gymnast. I had one foot on the rail, my left knee propped on the bed. The window was up and the blinds already angled, the way Lacie liked them. So we could see out but Ned couldn’t see in. The repeated blast of Ned’s horn was a welcome diversion. Two weeks ago his horn had announced the arrival of a nineteen-foot Regal bowrider. A week before that he’d lured us to our windows to find a rusted-out Ford tractor. Vintage 1955, he’d announced. He’d gotten the backhoe for free. The damn thing didn’t even run. He’d unloaded it into his front yard, and there it still sat, an antique and impotent watch dog. This time Ned’s pickup idled at the curb, attached to an RV trailer. White and the same brown that edged his tractor, it was decorated with pine trees and a shimmering lake. Emblazoned on its side was its name: Nolookinback. I couldn’t help but wonder what Lacie would have said to these yard decorations. How she would have tried to explain them, explain him. Unearth the cause of his general awfulness. Something’s lurking under his surface, she’d say. And so she’d watch, usually with a glass of Malbec in her hand. My complaints were always the same: He mowed his grass once a month, put his trash cans at the end of the driveway two days early every week, set off firecrackers all summer and didn’t stop until the first weekend in October. That’s when he’d drag his odd assortment of Halloween decorations out of the garage. String heads from the maple in his front yard. Blow up an inflatable haunted house and dangle stuffed pandas in nooses from the gutters. Maybe he wouldn’t have room this year because of the tractor. Or maybe he’d just decorate the tractor, prop a zombie scarecrow in the seat. Lacie toasted my harangues. She complained about the dryer that once sat for a week on Ned’s front stoop, but she only said it so I wouldn’t feel alone with my bitterness. Then she’d remind me that behind the curtain of hanged pandas was a battery-operated cauldron, a hit with the neighborhood kids. And that surely something awful had scarred Ned when he was a kid himself. His father must have taken his teddy bear away from him too early, maybe even cut the bear open and removed the stuffing. What else would make someone hang fluffy endangered animals by their necks? But Lacie was trained to think this way. Had to see past the angry exteriors of her students—the ones who skipped class for the quiet and safety of the counseling office—and dig until she found the repressed emotions, the trauma that explained it all. Dave, our neighbor across the street, was washing his Honda Civic. Dunking his rag faster now, windmilling his arms over the windshield. Pretending he hadn’t heard Ned’s insistent horn. “She’s gorgeous, ain’t she?” Ned called over to him. He took a rag from his back pocket and buffed the decals. Dave turned off the hose. “What’s that?” he called. “I said, isn’t she gorgeous?” Ned patted the trailer as if it were a horse, like he half expected the hunk of metal to start moving of its own accord. He got back in his truck. I watched him try to back the trailer into the driveway and drive into the garden instead. The tires flattened the hydrangea that was in full and glorious bloom. Crushed the lavender. Then pulverized Ginger’s Cadenza roses, their heavy, red heads shaking in unsurprised disdain all the way down. Ned pulled forward and then reversed several more times until the trailer was backed right up to the garage, next to the boat. If Lacie had been in front of me on the bed rail, I would have given her shoulders a playful shove, said “Ha!” in my haughtiest tone. There would be no way for Lacie to spin this. No way for her to salvage Ned after he’d uprooted Ginger’s life work. We’d watched Ginger mother her garden—a patch of blues and purples and pinks in the midst of dandelions and ground ivy—for years. Stems and petals were crushed now, making waste of her careful pruning and fertilizing. And Lacie adored Ginger. Lacie liked aberrations, and Ned’s marriage to Ginger was her favorite. How had he snagged her, she’d wonder as we watched them. This petite wife with a trowel in one hand and a paisley bandana tied around her head tighter than a tourniquet. Poor Ginger, she’d say, her hands inadvertently clutching at the generous fabric of her nightgown. Either she’s broken too, or there’s something good in Ned that we just don’t see. Dave spoke up, his voice reaching me over the sound of his hose. “Good thing Ginger’s not here.” He nodded at what was left of the garden. “Fuckin’ bitch,” Ned said. “I wish she could see those roses. Serves her right.” Dave turned back to his car with a shake of his head. Ned went back to buffing, so I returned to the clothes spread across the massive, antique bed. Lacie had found it at the back of a barn full of junk claiming to be an antique store. She’d seen past the wooden crates, the lopsided bookshelves, the dough troughs that slept across its slats. She’d revarnished it and covered it with an overpriced comforter. I unleashed her smell every time I shifted in my sleep, with each piece of clothing I fingered. It was mostly work clothes I was going through, typical school attire, more Mrs. Granger than Lacie: shapeless dresses, silk blouses, linen pants, wool skirts, slips. But her jeans were there, too, and her nightgowns. Her peach one with the little-girl frill across the bottom. I set the peach nightgown aside, then scooped up the rest of the clothes and stuffed them into a waiting garbage bag. “You should come check it out,” Ned called. I climbed back onto the bedrail and watched through the blinds. “Diana’s cooking,” Dave said. “She’ll probably call me in any minute.” He turned off the hose and grabbed a towel. “See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Ned continued. “Ginger can’t make me do nothin’ now. Good riddance to her. She never would have let me get a boat. Flat out refused to get a trailer. Look at me now.” He strutted back and forth in front of Nolookinback. Stepped into the garden and scooped up a handful of broken stems and drooping buds. Held the bouquet over his head in triumph. Over what I couldn’t be sure. Then he was inside the trailer, and I could see his silhouette through the miniature window. He was just standing there, arms crossed, defiant even in isolation. He brought the flowers to his nose and then tossed them on what must have been the kitchen counter. Lacie’s shoes were next. They were everywhere. Under the bed, in boxes on closet shelves, and in those shoe caddies that hung from the backs of doors. I lifted one from her closet door, surprised by its clumsy weight, and lay it across the bed. Rain shoes. Heels. Sandals. Loafers. Hiking boots. All the seasons we’d spent together tucked away into little pockets. Shoes for every occasion. Rhode Island sand flew out with the leather flip flops, the ones Lacie had almost lost to the ocean. The ones she’d splashed into the icy water to save. There were the black heels she wore on our first date. We’d gone dancing, stood eye-to-eye as she moved her feet in patterns of threes and fours without looking down. I pulled out her hiking boots next. I’d wedged them into two bottom pockets, ripping the seams. They had been mine at one time—from before we’d met—but then she’d joined the Sierra club and hadn’t wanted to splurge for new boots. She’d stuffed the toes with socks and said they were fine. “I think I’m gonna get some pizza.” Ned was back on his driveway. Maybe he was talking to Dave who was drying his car now. Maybe he was talking to himself. “And some garlic wings and beer? I gotta christen this baby.” Dave scooped up his towel and bucket and then disappeared into his garage. “I feel bad,” Lacie would have said. “Poor Ned.” I would, of course, have reminded her of Ginger. Of how their fights only ended when Ned broke something. A week after we’d moved in, Ned threw a flowerpot through their kitchen window because Ginger had burned the pork chops he’d been looking forward to all day. African violets smacked into our vinyl siding like a perverse housewarming gift. Lacie wore the hiking boots each time she mowed the side yard, afraid a leftover shard of glass would work its way through her sneaker. Hell, she wore those damn boots everywhere, said they turned everyday outings into adventures. Their next big fight had been more entertaining. We’d brought our dinner into the bedroom and sipped our wine to a symphony of curses slung with passion and precision. Ned had discovered What to Expect When You’re Expecting on Ginger’s bookshelf. Accused her of poking holes in all his condoms. We watched, transfixed, as he tipped a bookshelf out their bedroom window, paperbacks falling in slow motion, pages splayed, landing with all the grace of a dead bird. The bookshelf had taken out Ginger’s Rainbow’s End rose. Lacie snuck into their garden after that, her flashlight beam all I could see from our bedroom window. She had to save the books, she said. Was sure Ginger would want them. They turned out to be romance novels, the kind you find in grocery store checkout lines. So tragic, Lacie had said. Ginger cared for those flowers with the ferocity of a maternal instinct, but she’d never been able to make romance bloom. Not with Ned. Not with a man who was the equivalent of predictable, cheap romance. At least not until he confronted his past. Lacie never had a chance to return those books, though. They were on our bookshelf now. Then last month Ned had taken a hammer to Ginger’s cell phone—did it out on the driveway so the whole neighborhood could see—and broke their marriage once and for all. Lacie didn’t see this finale, but I did. And then later I watched when, under the cover of very early morning, in the hazy glow of the streetlights, Ginger staggered to her car, a suitcase at the end of each arm. She’d reversed into the street and sped away. I hadn’t seen her since. She never came back to collect her things. Ned had probably already broken everything she cared about anyway. “Go out there,” Lacie would have prodded. “Can’t you see he’s hurting? He’s just putting on a show.” I would have suggested that she join him in the trailer, squeeze onto the bench attached to the miniature table, and sip a beer to Ned’s complaints and bravado. “Find out what he’s going to do with that tractor,” I would have added. Though if Lacie were really here, she wouldn’t have had to ask him. She would have looked at me with fake exasperation. Adopted her counselor voice to point out that Ned was mourning his marriage. Filling the void by buying anything and everything Ginger had once resisted. As a way to justify the divorce to himself, as a way to imagine literally moving forward. Or she’d argue that the rusted out tractor was Ned, or at least how Ned saw himself. It was a way for him to dig for the truth about his life or a way to bury his past—if he could ever get that tractor started. Or to bury Ginger if it ever came to that. But if Lacie were still here, I wouldn’t have let her go. I would have poured her a glass of wine and watched her bare feet climb onto the rail. I’d ask her to narrate Ned’s romantic dinner for two: him and Nolookinback. I tossed the shoes into another bag. Lacie would never forgive me for ditching the flip flops, but I wasn’t sure I could handle the faded leather staring out at me from the closet. The picture of her they conjured: knee deep in the black water, the length of her skirt just out of the lapping waves’ reach, pressed to her stomach by white-knuckled hands. Her form so slight as if she could be carried away by the wind. I’d keep the boots she’d been found in, though. The ones that had belonged to both of us. I tried not to imagine her on that last hike—she and her students headed up to the Adirondacks, her idea to let the fresh air saturate their minds and oxygenate their brains—but the image was always there, broken up like I was seeing it through the slats of our blinds. How graceful she must have looked on the edge of the water, pointing at something moving under the surface, something she wanted them to see. I refused to hear the splash her body must have made when she slipped and fell forward, or the crack of her head against the rock that was waiting there, hidden and dark. I imagined that I’d told her not to go. To stay home with me. That there was enough to see right here, through our bedroom window. But Lacie was always on the other side of that window, even when she was balanced on the rail, my arms around her waist, anchoring her. Always fishing tattered romance novels out of gardens under the cover of night. I was the one who watched from a coveted sense of safety. Ned was still outside. Small and wiry, he perched like a vulture on the tractor, cursing at the motor that wouldn’t turn over. His head looked too small for his body, and the way he cocked it suggested he had picked up the scent of decay. Then his eyes found my window, stayed there for a moment before flicking away. Had he seen me? Smelled the rot that by now must have clung heavily to my clothes, shrouded my person as I hiked the stairs back to bed after my morning coffee, dug deeper into closets, overturned boxes of chaos. I sifted through the minutiae of our lives. A Tom Petty concert poster (we’d splurged for front row seats). An unused tea bag from the pagoda café behind Marble House in Newport. Handmade notes from a few of Lacie’s students. I couldn’t open those, didn’t want to read their tender sentiments. Lacie had already given them our time. I hated Ned in that moment. The power and speed of his boat that could have carried Lacie over the water. His tractor and backhoe that could shred Earth, exhume the weight of dirt under which Lacie rested. But I especially hated his RV and those aggressive letters cresting across its flank. The ease with which he’d reversed right over Ginger’s garden, reversed right into his future. I grabbed the hiking boots with one hand and the two trash bags with the other, took them downstairs to the foyer. The bags could wait until tomorrow. Goodwill was probably closed by now anyway. And Ned might not be outside much longer. I checked the fridge. It was almost empty. I’d finished most of the lasagnas and sandwiches thrust upon me at the wake. There was one dish left, though, something covered with foil, something that might be a casserole. I put it in a paper bag. Ginger’s romance novels still lived on my shelf, looking small and pallid beside the massive history books I preferred to read. I added those to the bag too. Lacie would want me to return them, wouldn’t want Ned to forget Ginger even if he did move on. I pulled the socks out of the toes of Lacie’s hiking boots. They pinched my feet, but it was safer to wear them. Stubborn shards of glass might still be lurking in the side yard.
Elizabeth DelConteteaches English in Syracuse, New York, and has twice attended the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and her poem Ode to Edna Pontellier recently appeared in Indolent Books’ What Rough Beast series.