The marshals looked like ordinary men. They were not in good shape, they did not have wary eyes. Their man was not handcuffed to either of them, and when the steak was served they ate with appetite. Both men took the beer that was offered. After dinner they drank Scotch. They drove a blue car, not a black one; an Impala. They bit corn off the cob in a yard full of old trees: holly, sycamore, oak, pine. A hill sloped down to a creek, more than that, a small channel, wide and deep enough for pleasure boats to come back and forth and dock in the slips. Each yard had a slip, and at this house a Boston Whaler was tied up.
The hostess was young, about twenty-eight or twenty-nine, and pretty, with blond streaks in her hair and the top pulled back and pinned. She wore a Chinese jacket with silk frog closures. And when she bent down, one of the marshals, but not both, looked to the gap left between those closures for a glimpse of her lacy brassiere.
The other marshal was thinking of his boy. His son was slow in school and might have to go to summer classes. The marshal and his wife fought about this. At every chance, each hit the other surely and swiftly with the evidence that the boy’s poor progress could be traced back to the accused. The marshal believed his wife’s slow brain cells had diluted his own good stock and produced a son who couldn’t think his way out of the first grade.
The second man watched the pretty hostess with some pleasure. When their ward got up from the plastic latticework of his recliner and walked up the back steps to the porch, neither marshal blinked. The hostess refilled their glasses from a small bar set away from the heat of the grill. More Scotch. The evening was warm, and a velvet light settled on the lawn and the trees. At nightfall, they’d be leaving. Now the woman followed her husband up the steps and into the house. Their two children, William Junior and Ann Louise—Bo and Lou-Lou—stayed out on the lawn under the care of the next-door neighbors, the Maguires.
The marshal with the slow son looked at the two children lying a short distance away on grass as smooth as a carpet. The children had their cheeks to the blades of grass, and when they pressed their faces, small hectic weaves imprinted there. They were listening to the worms. They could hear the rumble of earth moving. The boy’s eyes were red with blood, more than bloodshot, almost filled where the whites should be. When his sister looked at him, confirming the loud worms, she looked beyond those terrible bruises and her brother laughed, then coughed. There are worse things than being stupid, the marshal thought. And he had the first kind thought for his wife in some time. He thought of her pregnant, visiting her folks on another Memorial Day when he’d been working, what else. He’d traveled down to the shore to be with them at the end of a long, tedious day with a felon who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. A foul-tongued sick fuck. The marshal’s mind was dead. He rode the local train down through about a hundred shore towns and arrived in Manasquan. His mother-in-law, stout as a bull, met him at the station in the green Chevrolet.
In the driveway, his father-in-law had the saw out. The stogie in his mouth was soaked. He bobbed his head toward the side yard. Behind the honeysuckle, the marshal’s wife sat on the low, thick branch of an oak tree, but still—he ran. What do you think you’re doing? She yawned, in no danger. He could see the shape of her belly, a white pear that erased completely, for the time being, all the things the felon had said, and he was so grateful to her he held out his hand for her swinging leg and kissed her heel and ankle and her toes all around the rubber V of her flip-flop.
Inside the house, Kay Clemens saw the cake would take a while to thaw. When she first got the word that Will was coming home for a visit, she bought a cake, then froze it, because they might be late and the cake would dry out. But they were right on time and now everyone would be drunk before she could serve it. It might be good if her husband was drunk, good and bad. Eight weeks since he’d been home. He didn’t even like cake. What was she thinking.
She wandered through the house, a long ranch style, with a layout of airy, sunny, low-ceilinged rooms, interweaving one into the next: dining, living, study, guest, master, and here he was, sitting head in his hands at the edge of his side of their bed, just as he used to sit most mornings waiting for black coffee in a mug. She was up at six anyway, on her third cup by the time he stirred. Now she wondered, What did he do? How did his day begin?
Will? she said. Dear heart. But her husband did not move. She sat beside him on the bed and smoothed down the silk jacket and tucked her hands beneath her thighs and waited. She stood up and listened in the doorway. She closed the door, flipped down the little hook lock. She sat beside her husband again and placed a hand against the curve of his neck. The smell of his clothing was so sharp, a desperate clean, and she thought about finding a shirt that was softer, a golf shirt maybe, from the drawerful he had, maybe something blue. She thought of his shirts but held still. She could smell the soap he used, which had no perfume, a kind of scent like shoe polish in a tin.
Her husband didn’t say anything. She withdrew her cheek and hands, and started with the frog closures on her jacket. Her husband released his head from his palms and, still looking down, watched the top of her instep sliding slightly in the black embroidered sandal. He watched her fingers push at the knots, then watched as she dropped the jacket back off her shoulders to the bed. She sat still, not doing anything, wearing the kind of brassiere she often wore, a full-coverage affair that clasped at the waist level in the back. Her belly rounded out just beneath the stiff ruff. She unzipped her black silk toreador trousers. Lifted her bottom off the bed just long enough to shimmy them off her hips. Dropped the trousers down to her sandaled feet. Started to lift her feet, then left them there, swaddled in black. She looked at the puddle of fabric. He looked at her ribbed, cinched waist. He looked to the cups, a bull’s-eye effect in stitching, and her shoulders, rounded slightly, not interrupted by bone.
Outside the door, there was a commotion coming toward them, like a beehive cracked open and the bees gaining volume and density, they could hear footsteps coming through the house. Hey, hey, came the voices, and Gert Maguire was knocking lightly on the door. Kay, she said. She kept the syllable tight, deliberately unemphatic. Kay heard Gert’s footsteps move away from the door. And quickly, quickly, back into her clothes, God, now, not everything buttoned. A frantic back look to her husband, and she was pressing hard at the hook on the door. Gert stood in the front foyer beyond the small corridor that led to the master suite. Red Maguire was on the phone with the pediatrician, who’d meet them at the hospital; the ambulance was already on the way, and the men who drove it, men Kay Clemens routinely brought gifts to, New York strip steaks by the dozen.
Past Gert, and followed by Gert, out through the living, dining, pantry, kitchen, porch to the yard to her son, Bo, held steady in the arms of a United States marshal. Down two steps, her frog clasps not quite done but who was watching now, and she knelt by her son and slowly took him from the man, brought her baby into her arms, her boy whose eyes were not quite closed. He was not conscious, How long, she said, how long? It would be the first thing anyone needed to know. The ambulance made its rude, loud way, backing up the gravel drive, backing onto the grass, and the emergency team, her friends, were beside her, oxygen first, then a stretcher. Kay kissed her daughter, Lou-Lou, who did not cry, and glanced at Gert to arrange all things in that glance: her daughter’s homework, sleep, school the next day. And then she stepped into the back of the ambulance in time to see the heart monitor register a beat strong enough, strong enough at least for her son to make it in time, once again, to the hospital. They would go local then, the next day, move him to New York.
Will Clemens stood at the top of the brick step. He looked at the wracked gravel, the tire marks on the lawn, and his mouth twisted, he pressed the heel of a hand to his eye.
Lou-Lou moved toward her father. One marshal put his hands in his pockets, took them out, then slipped past Will on the steps to make a phone call in the kitchen. When he came back, he said to the marshal with the interest in Kay’s brassiere: Let’s take a look at the water. The two walked down the gentle slope past the sycamore trees to watch the pleasure boats return at sundown to their slips.
When the marshals climbed back up the hill after a protracted observation of a thirty-five-foot trimaran, Will and Lou-Lou were seated on the screened porch. The Maguires tidied up. They dismantled the grill, collapsed the bar, wrapped the leftovers, loaded the dishwasher. The marshals both needed to use the facilities, and Gert directed them to the children’s bath through the den. One looked over the bookshelves while waiting for his partner: all leather-bound sets, no mysteries, no magazines, no newspapers. A big television, cabinet console. Three golf trophies, the type a club gives for no real reason. The marshals traded places. In the yellow bathroom, almost by rote, the second man slid open the mirrored medicine cabinet: a battalion of clear plastic, all made out to the boy in care of the mother, more than he’d ever seen in a home, this was extraordinary. He didn’t touch any but bent closer to read the dates, dosages, then drew the mirror closed. The house was so quiet. The street too. A cul-de-sac without a lot of traffic. It was getting dark.
The marshals made their way back to the porch. So, we’ll give it a minute. They sat down at the glass-top table, both folding their hands as if in casual prayer. Will swatted at something buzzing around his head. In the twilight, the Maguires were walking through the pine trees, across the yards, already pretty far gone. Lou-Lou, between them, knocked into Gert’s hip. Gert reached around, pulled her closer. Will didn’t watch. The insect had his full attention. No one spoke. Ten, fifteen minutes passed this way.
The phone rang. Will sat still. The marshal stood, looked at Will, then crossed to the door and into the house. He picked up on the seventh ring. Yes, sir. Got it. Okay. Okay. Yes, sir. Goodbye.
He stood in the door frame, All right, we’re going to the hospital, and he nodded several times. Will said, Oh God, and tried not to cry, and said, Two seconds, and went back through the kitchen, dining room, living room, den to the children’s bath, opened the same mirrored cabinet and emptied one vial from an uppermost shelf into the stiff paraffin-scented pocket of his shirt.
They closed the doors, snapped out the lights. Will sat in the backseat of the blue car without restraint. He thought he could still smell the charcoal fire in the air as they pulled out of the drive. The marshal on the passenger side fumbled with the spinning top, reached out to attach it to the roof. This took a moment or two. At the end of the road, the driver released the siren. They ran every light.