IT was after midnight when the plane came smoking down the runway at last, the vast cyclone roar of the C-130 a fair approximation of Melissa's inner state. A cheer went up from the families strung along the fence, the kids in their pajamas and scruffy cartoon slippers, the frazzled moms trying to keep it all together in the heat, hair, makeup, manic kids; they'd parboiled for hours in the parking lot while word kept coming from the off-limits terminal, Delay, Delay, Delay, until Melissa thought she'd chew through the chain-link fence. It had been eight months since she'd seen her husband, and every hard-fought minute for this young wife had been the home-front equivalent of trench warfare. They'd even cheated and tacked on an extra ten weeks, a high honor the captain said when the rest of the team exfilled in March, you should be so proud. Proud, sure, she would have been proud to nail Clinton's draft-dodging ass to the wall, but what could you do? SF WIFE read the T-shirts at the Green Beret Museum, THE TOUGHEST JOB IN THE ARMY, and she supposed she was proud, or would be, once she had him back. Even among the elite Dirk had proved himself special, his surprisingly quick fluency in French and Creole earning him extra duty in the Haitian Vacation, that tar baby of a mission known to the rest of the world as Operation Uphold Democracy.
Chogee boy, she'd written in her last letter, I'm going to screw you into a coma when you get back. Melissa was twenty-four, a near-newlywed of fifteen months, and his leaving had been like an amputation—for weeks afterward she'd had missing-limb sensations, her skin fizzing and prickling where her husband should have been. As every man who'd undressed her mentally or otherwise would agree, celibacy was wasted on a body like hers: she had high, pillowy breasts, the compact butt of a boy, and abs you could bounce golf balls off of, a smallish package topped with a pretty heart face and reams of wavy sorrel brown hair. That she was also smart, sensible, and socially well-adjusted didn't save her from serial panic attacks, the fear that sex was an engine that dragged the rest of you along. A month ago she'd been having drinks with friends and found her mettle being probed by an older, handsome man with a shoebox jaw and rapturous muscles straining at his shirt. This was James, ex-paratrooper, ex-special operations, now on private contract with the DOD; his mere proximity, their casual bumping of arms and legs, tripped an all-over sensual buzz in her, a Pavlovian hormone flush that felt like drowning. After that there was lunch, and friendly phone calls at work, then a Happy Hour that ended with her bottom pressed against his cherry red Corvette while his tongue did a soft, sweet crush inside her mouth.
The whoop of his car alarm had wrenched her out of it. She'd driven home in tears, cursing Dirk for being gone and wondering how they'd done it, all those loyal, suffering women down through the ages who'd waited out crusades and world wars, not to mention whaling voyages, jungle and polar expeditions, pointless treks to wherever just because it was there. James kept calling; Melissa resorted to cold showers and masturbation until the captain called from Bragg to say Dirk was headed home, today, now, ETA 2200 hours. She wasn't sure she believed it until he walked off the plane, his sleeves in a jungle roll, beret blocked and raked to the side, head carried with the bearing of a twelve-point buck. Like someone had died, that's how strong the moment was, all that tragic magnitude suddenly floored in reverse—she had to lean into the fence while the earth stabilized, a sob dredging the soft lower tissues of her throat. Then she lifted her head and started cheering.
They lived in a trailer off base, a modest single-wide down a sandy dirt road amid the pine and sweet-gum forest outside Fayetteville, or Fayette-Nam as it was known when Melissa was growing up, forty miles down the Interstate. Thanks to the mighty spending power of its military bases, Fayetteville boasted more clip joints and titty bars than any city its size in the U.S., and Melissa's first business as a married woman had been to move beyond the city's trashy outer tentacles. Aren’t you scared out there, all by yourself? people asked her, other women usually—her mother and sisters down in Lumberton, post-menopausal aunts, friends from high school who'd settled for hometown boys. Plenty of worse things to be scared of, she'd answer, leaving unsaid her sense of marriage as a nearer threat than any snakes or feral dogs the woods might throw out. The threat of waking one day to find a very familiar stranger next to you in bed—she felt it sometimes in his lockjawed moods, his slides toward the brute, monosyllabic style that might drive her away in twenty years. Stranger still, and maybe funny, were the shooting sounds he made in his sleep, pow-pow, pah-pow-pow-pow, like a kid popping off an imaginary gun. Who was he shooting in that subterranean field of dreams? But he laughed when she razzed him about it in the morning, and that was the Dirk she trusted, the sweet-natured goof who could sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in note-perfect burps and had a thing for tonguing the backs of her ears. You had to be a little crazy for the Green Berets, hardcore warriors who could kill with their hands thirty-seven different ways.
"Ahhhh." He grinned as he stepped inside the trailer, checking eight months of combat duty at the door. Melissa went up on her toes to smack his cheek.
"How about a shot?"
She'd already set out their supplies on the coffee table, the salt and limes, shot glasses, a bottle of tequila. The jet fuel of passion.
"Well," he laughed, blushing like a prom date, "what I've really been craving is a beer. But let me hit the head first..."
They went in opposite directions, he to the bathroom and she to the kitchen. The trailer funneled sound so efficiently that they could talk to each other from opposite ends.
"Everything looks great!" he called from the bathroom.
"It ought to." She opened the beers and quartered a lime while a platter of nachos spat in the microwave. "I've had nothing to do but clean house for eight months."
"Hot water!" he shouted down the hall. "Clean towels! Oh dear sweet Jesus, Dial soap! It's like I've been gone about six years."
"Tell me about it," Melissa said through clenched teeth. She stuck a lime wedge in the top of each beer. "We've got some catching up to do."
Back in the den, sitting thigh to thigh on the sofa, she let him eat a few nachos and take a couple of hits of beer before she swung herself over and straddled his lap, her skirt riding artfully high on her hips.
"So how does it feel to be home?" she asked, her face six inches from his.
"It feels pretty good."
She rocked back and had a good look at him. His skin was a coppery reddish brown, and he was leaner, his few soft edges burned away. She'd met him three years ago in the law office where she worked; Dirk had brought in a buddy who'd snagged a DUI, and while the friend met with counsel behind closed doors Dirk sat in reception and chatted up Melissa. He talked in the slow, careful manner of a man chewing cactus—it turned out he was from Valdosta, even farther south—a buff body with soulful, syrup-brown eyes and little knots of muscle at the hinges of his jaw, but it was his smile that made her anxious in an intensely pleasurable way, the coyote guile of it, his cockiness like a knockout drug. Straddling him now, rubbing his cropped hair and searching his face, she decided he looked mostly the same—a little dazed, maybe, and definitely older, his eyes newly creased with crow's feet. Maybe Haiti aged you in dog years? He was only twenty-eight.
"You've lost weight," she said, kneading his chest and ribs. He felt as hard as an I beam. "We're gonna have to fatten you up."
''I'm looking forward to that."
She went to work on the buttons of his uniform blouse, flicking them loose with a picklock's sure touch. Her bottom settled deeper into his lap; she could feel the loaf rising to meet her there, his maximum expression straining at his pants—it took only that much pressure to make her groan. Her mind was going slack, starting to empty out, awareness liquefying to pure sensation.
Dirk gently took her wrists and pulled her away. "Lissa, stop. We got to talk, babe."
"Talking's for wimps," she murmured, her voice slurred as a drunk's. She came at him again.
"No, listen, I'm serious," he said, and this time he firmly slid her off of him. Her ears were hissing like a lit fuse, and she felt giddy, dizzy with passion and guilt. How did he know? He couldn't know. So how did he know—
"We can't do this tonight," he told her. One of his arms held her shoulders, sympathetic yet sterile, exuding a brotherly tenderness that scared the daylights out of her.
"Tomorrow's fine, we can do it all day tomorrow and frankly there's nothing I'd rather do. But tonight I can't." He paused. "I can't make love on Saturdays."
Her lungs collapsed—there was no air, nothing inside to form a response. She found a reserve at the very tip of her mouth. "What are you saying?"
"What I'm saying is—look, it's sort of complicated. But there's one thing I wanna make clear right now, I'm still your husband who loves you more than anything."
Now she was terrified; he'd never talked this way before. "Something happened down there," he told her, "something wonderful, in a way. And you don't have to be scared, I promise you that. Just be patient, this is going to take a while to explain. Just trust me and everything'll be okay."
"Dirk," she wailed, "what is going on?"
She didn't follow any of it at first, the bizarre story he unloaded on her about poison powders and a voodoo priest and his initiation into voodoo society, then some garbled business about a ceremony, and someone named Erzulie. A person, or maybe not quite a person—a spirit? Who Dirk had married somehow? Melissa thought she might throw up.
"You're telling me you got married?"
"Well, yeah. To a god. It's not all that uncommon down there." Melissa couldn't process the part about the god. "But you're married to me."
"And that hasn't changed at all." He squeezed her hand. "I know this is a lot to be laying on you, but trust me, it's okay. We're still married, I still love you, I'm still the same Dirk."
She looked at him: he was, in fact, the same, so much so that it broke her heart.
"If nothing's changed then why can't we have sex?"
"Well, that's only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Those are the nights I have to devote to her."
"Devote to her?"
"Be with her. Sleep with her."
"What do you mean, sleep with her. You mean , sleep with her?"
"In a way. It's kind of hard to explain."
She felt as if some part of her brain had been carved out, the lobe of reason, logic, reality-based thought. All the normal tools of argument deserted her, and so she sat mostly silent for the next two hours while Dirk described his journey into Haitian voodoo, which began as part of the mission, a standard hearts-and-minds tactic of the Special Forces—contact and co-opt the local power structure. In Haiti this meant befriending the village voodoo priest, who turned out to be one Moïse Dieuseul in the remote coastal town where the team was based. Dirk's near-coherent French made him the team's point man for local liaison, and from their very first meeting Moïse showed a special affinity for the young American.
"He called me his son," Dirk told her, "he said that God had brought us together. At first I thought he was just juicing me, right? The guy's a survivor, he figured to get on the winning side. But all this weird stuff kept happening between me and him, and after a while I'm like, okay, maybe I need to think about this."
What kind of weird stuff?
Dreams, coincidences, uncanny divinations. Then Moïse proved his ultimate good faith by alerting Dirk to a plot by the local Macoutes to poison the entire Special Forces team, and after that Dirk was staying for all-night sessions, going deeper and deeper into the voodoo. Which led to initiation, revelation, the mystic marriage; the stories were blurring into a hopeless puree when Melissa looked at the clock and saw that it was five a.m.
"Are we talking about a real woman here?"
"This is Erzulie, Lissa, a god, a lwa. The voodoo goddess of love."
"But you said there was a woman in a wedding dress."
"Well, yeah, she came down and possessed a woman from the temple, that's how it works in voodoo. She used this woman's body for the ceremony."
Melissa shivered, forged ahead. "So after. After you got, married. Was there, like, sex?"
"Well, no. Yes and no. It's really hard to explain." He paused. "It's more of a spiritual thing."
Melissa sputtered, rolled her eyes—was he giving her the world's lamest line? "Dirk, dammit, for eight months I've been climbing the walls like a good Army wife, and now you're telling me, you, you're telling me, uh ... " She found herself backing up. "Did you have sex with another woman down there? I mean a live human being, an actual person. Or anything else. Or whatever."
"Why no, baby, it's not like that." He cupped her face in his hands, turned her toward him; she searched his eyes and found them clear amber-colored wells, her own pocket-sized reflection peering back from the bottom.
"No way," he said softly, "you're the only one. You're the only woman on Earth for me."
Dawn broke, filling the windows with pale, milky light. Outside the birds began singing like hundreds of small bells, their notes scattered as indiscriminately as seed. Once the sun rose Dirk was released from his promise, and in the early morning they did make love, though it wasn't the dirty movie that Melissa had been scripting in her head for months. It was, instead, as gentle as a stream washing over them, with· Melissa quietly crying as Dirk poured himself out behind a sweet, knowing, mysterious smile.
It had started in dreams. Luscious, full-bodied dreams in which two beautiful women, one white and one black, were making love to him—Dirk put it down to the sexual deprivation of the field, combined with the Pentbouse-fueledfantasies of any all-American boy. Then the team was tasked to nation-build in Bainet, and Dirk started making the rounds of the surviving power elite, the neurotic mayor, the budding Hitler of a député, the effeminate Catholic priest, and finally M'sieur Dieuseul, the locally renowned voodoo man. Moïse received the young sergeant like this was Schwarzkopf himself, inviting him into the shade of his thatched-roof temple where they discussed la situation over coffee, the stew of international politics and underground intrigue that seemed more intractable with each passing day. This was grunt-level diplomacy, basic hearts and minds; Dirk was already starting to cut his French with earthy Creole slang, and while they talked he eyed the voodoo gods painted on the walls, the horned, fish-tailed, vaguely humanoid lwa like creatures out of Dr. Seuss on drugs, then the snakes twined around the temple's central pole like strands of neon-laced DNA. Voodoo had already become a running joke with the team, voodoo voodoo voodoo their simmering code for everything that was weird and wonderful in this brave new world. Then out of the blue Moïse smiled, gave Dirk's knee a friendly pat, and said:
"Maitress Erzluie likes you."
And he proceeded to describe the tag team that was so vividly running amuck through Dirk's dreams—the black beauty was Erzulie Dantor, the white, Erzulie Freda, twin incarnations of the goddess of love. A week later, doing recon in the hills, Dirk and the team stopped in a village where an old woman announced that she could see the Erzulies floating around Dirk. This woman—she was a few spoons short of a full set? A wired smurf of a granny with notched earlobes and crazy African stuff draped around her neck, amulets, stoppered bottles, burlap sachets, and her mouth spraying Creole in an aerosol stream, shouting how good this was for Dirk, two Erzulies! Meaning his head was well-balanced, his person much favored. The news burned through the market in a flash fire of laughs, blan sa-a se moun voodoo li ye! The white guy's a voodoo man!
"So what are they like?" Melissa asked. "These dreams."
"Sometimes they're pretty hot. We're talking wet dreams here."
"Hey, it is what it is, baby, balls-to-the-wall sex. The kind with all that burning truth in it, like you and me got."
"Yeah, right. Nice try."
\"Weren't we telling the truth last night?" Cocky as the day she met him, which wasn't to say he hadn't come back a changed man, a more thoughtful, thankful man with a newfound gift for patience, a slackening of the male impulse to domineer. From the first she'd always been the one who tried harder, who sacrificed her pride to his moods and whims and relieved herself with tearful rages in the bathroom, but eight months of living with the wretched of the Earth had returned to her a kinder, gentler Dirk who appreciated the good love he had at home. But those dreams worried her, the sense of forces, vectors of conscience and control that she couldn't see and didn't understand. So can they read your thoughts, she wondered. Can they get inside your head?
"Anyway," Dirk added, "she'll probably start showing up in your dreams too."
Melissa bristled. "I don't think so."
"Maybe not, but that's how it usually works. We're all connected now."
And James, was he connected too? He called her at work every few days, "just checking in," he'd say, "just watching out for my girl." "You're a special little lady," he told her. "I want us always to be friends."
"Sure, James, we can be friends."
"Now you tell me if he's not treating you right. I know how tough it can be when a trooper comes home, and if there's anything, well, I just want you to know I'm here for you."
"I appreciate that. But my husband's treating me just fine, thanks."
"If you ever need to talk, we could meet for lunch sometime, or maybe a drink if you want ... "
Wasn't going off to war supposed to screw them up? And yet she was the one brooding and holding it in, not faking, exactly, but struggling to maintain, putting a happy face on the pressure cooker inside. In their spare bedroom Dirk devised an altar out of an old mahogany cabinet, "so you can shut it when company comes," he explained, "I don't want you to be embarrassed." Inside he stuffed all manner of junk, a miniature yard sale tumbling over the shelves: trinkets, perfumes, a silver comb and brush set, candy, minibottles of champagne and liqueur, a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. He taped cheap-looking prints of the Virgin inside the cupboard doors, two different Virgins, one black with scars on her cheek, the other white with a jewel-encrusted sword through her heart. At sundown on Tuesdays and Saturdays he lit candles on the altar, sparked up some incense, and played voodoo drum cassettes on the boom box in there, the rambunctious afro beat burbling through the walls like the world's biggest migraine headache. They'd watch TV curled together on the couch, but when Leno or Letterman started to drag Dirk would kiss her on the cheek, sweetly tell her goodnight, and go padding down the hall to the spare bedroom.
So sign me up for Oprah, Melissa thought, the other woman in my life is a voodoo god. The sense of a third presence grew on her like guilt, like it was the haunting of every bad thing she'd ever done. Voodoo, living right here in her house: she was enough of a lapsed Baptist to know what they would say. Cast OFF that demon! Satan get THEE behind! Sur-REN-der is the key that unlocks Sal-VA-shun! Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt religious messages were available in all styles, from sugar-lipped warbling to hillbilly gibbering to the sonic stampede of call-and-response. The susceptible could easily find themselves bombarded by signals, and Melissa was, now, for the first time in her life, though actual religion still seemed strange to her. God was out there somewhere, she believed, and beyond that everything else was up for grabs, but as Dirk told his stories those first few weeks she began to understand a little of it, how a shock to the system might trigger a bizarre religious kick. Though really, was there any other kind? In your face was how he summed up Haiti for her, a place where everything happened altogether all at once, food, sweat, shit, grace, god, sex, and death, the raw and the cooked of life coming at you without any of the modern veneers.
"One day we set up a checkpoint out on the highway," he told her, "we were spot-checking all the SUVs for weapons. Then this big flatbed truck comes humping along, and there in the back, piled up in this huge mound are all these cow heads, hundreds and hundreds of bloody cow heads. So after it passes we're all laughing and yelling at each other like, Hey, did you see that? Can you believe that shit? Cause once it was gone you weren't sure you'd really seen it."
She got it, sort of, how fluid and free your mind might become when life took on the quality of hallucination. How that might blow your coping strategies all to hell? Dirk meditated daily in the middle of the den, which Melissa took for a joke at first—Green Berets, snake-eaters, did not meditate, nor did anyone else she knew except people from Chapel Hill. "Keeping it real" was how he explained himself; meanwhile Melissa took wary note of her dreams and watched her life fill up with nagging signs and portents. FORBIDDEN FRUIT CREATES JAMS, read the message of the week on Calvary Baptist's streetside sign, which Melissa passed each day going to and from work. A few miles farther on, First Methodist inquired: ETERNITY—SMOKING OR NON-SMOKING? Pondering Satan, carrying on her nominally normal life, she didn't feel so much fear as a kind of fraught spaciness, maybe fear spread thin. Then one Tuesday evening she and Dirk were cuddled on the couch, watching a M*A*S*H rerun while voodoo-trance music submarined through the walls. It began as a joke, a tease, Melissa's hand crabwalking up her husband's thigh, sneaking higher and higher until it reached his lap. Dirk smiled without turning from the TV and gently set her hand aside.
Thirty seconds later she was at it again.
"What?" she cooed, all floozy innocence. "You know I can't mess around tonight."
''I'm not doing anything," she blandly protested, but she giggled and found him hard when she squeezed again.
"Melissa!" The alarm in his voice hooked something fierce in her. He was helpless, she could fuck him anytime she wanted.
"Melissa, give me a break."
''I'm not doing anything!"
"Yes you are. And I'm asking you to stop it, please."
She jumped him with a vengeance then, scooching up on her knees and grabbing his belt, hanging on as he backpedaled down the couch. They were laughing as she pinned him against the cushions, both of them gasping in strained little bursts.
"Gimme somma that!" She'd freed enough of his belt to wank it around like a lasso.
"Melissa, stop. We can't do this."
"Give it up!" she shouted.
"Come on Melissa, stop." His voice was soupy underneath, losing tensile strength; what man didn't dream of being ravished this way? She had his pants open and was starting her dive when he shuddered and grabbed her hands, pulled her up short.
"Melissa," he said steadily, without cruelty, "enough."
"You aren't sleeping in there tonight." Her voice surprised her, the harpy venom in it—could she take it back?
"But I have to sleep in there."
"Bullshit!" When she pushed she could feel the strength in his hands, how he could snap her wrists like cheesesticks if he chose.
"I made a promise— "
"Uh, hello? I seem to recall you making a few promises to me."
"I did. And I'm not forgetting that."
"Well it sure looks like it to me."
There followed the worst argument of their married lives—the worst, anyway, for Melissa, who couldn't provoke a decent angry word from him. It was like trying to punch out a roomful of shadows, her frustration climaxing with a placid kiss from Dirk and the announcement that he was going to bed.
"You aren't sleeping in there with her!" she rowled at his back. "You aren't!" she cried as he turned the corner. "Dammit, Dirk!" —one final shout before futility overtook her, the realization of how dumb, how utterly clueless you were to think you might control anything about your life. She went to the kitchen and banged pots and pans for a while, then took herself to bed in a wicked funk. After cutting off the lights she masturbated, scraping herself into a shallow, passionless clench which as an act of revenge was a total failure. Then she lay there dry-eyed and completely still, wondering if she could live with this.
Five years ago, at the end of her job interview, Mr. Bryan sat her down in his corner office and gave Melissa what she described forever after as "the talk." "This is a pretty lousy business," said her future boss, a short, cheerfully caustic man with Gucci pouches underneath his eyes and a Little Richard cloud of jet black hair. "We get rapists, murderers, drug dealers, child-molesters, just about every bad deal you can think of walks through that door, and it's our job, it is our sworn constitutional duty, to work like hell to get these scumbags off. So. Think you can handle that?"
Melissa was not quite nineteen. She was living away from home for the first time and would have dug ditches not to go back. "Yes sir," she said, "I think I can handle it."
Fayetteville might not be the big city, but it offered all the excitement a small-town girl could reasonably want. In her first several years on the job she was flashed at her desk, had a knife pulled on her, watched a gang fight erupt in the reception area, and called social services on a hooker client who slapped her toddler three times in as many minutes. As an education she couldn't have asked for more, and the strenuous sleeping around she did those first few years, that was part of the education, maybe the main part. At the time she'd felt the truest way to live was by tunneling down to the wildness at your core, though she regularly shocked herself with what she found there. Did other women feel this way? she wondered. She suspected that she had unspeakable things inside her, a black hole of lust that might suck her past the point of no return, and she took her share of hits, pushing the limits of that—plenty of men were more than happy to exploit her sexual nature. Luckily Dirk had come along just as she'd found herself at the cusp of a premature cynicism.
"So whadda we got?" Mr. Bryan asked this morning, puffy-eyed, tie dangling loose around his neck.
"You've got your sanity hearing at ten, the guy who shot his ex's dog," she called through the door to his office. "Then you're due in Judge Hershoff’s at eleven-thirty, that's your motion to suppress James Fenner's kilo. Okay, phone calls." She switched to a different pad. "You know Miss Blinn, our stripper? She called and said a hose in her car broke, she'll bring the cash over as soon as she can but it's not going to be today. Artis McClellan's mother called, she said his ankle monitor's giving him infections again. Then Roland Nash, he told me to tell you that D'Shawn Weems is a lying sack of you-know-what, and if he tells the cops what he's been telling you then he's going to beat D'Shawn up and stick his head down a commode."
A sigh like dust drifted through her boss's door.
For the next two hours Melissa answered the phone, typed letters and motions, juggled the walk-ins, and tracked down shifty witnesses. If she didn't singlehandedly run the criminal justice system she kept her end of it from clogging up altogether, this in spite of feeling slightly homicidal this morning. Her emotions were skidding around on a sheet of ice, a big jackknifed trailerful of ire and angst careening through the traffic of a normal day. Dirk had still been asleep when she'd left for work, so their argument was technically still in play; time out! she said to herself when James called, feeling something like relief. They made small talk for a while. He called her "angel." His voice was smooth and sweet as hot buttered rum.
"What say you and me grab some lunch today?"
"It's just lunch, babe, come on. I want to take you someplace special."
Melissa sighed. Mainly it made her sad, what he was offering. "I don't think I can."
"Don't think you can!" he cried, still cheerful, still glib, but she could feel his anger rising. "You have to eat, don't you?"
"Yes, but James ... " She lowered her voice. "I just don't think I should see you anymore."
"We need to talk. That's why I'm asking you out, we need to talk about that night. Outside the bar, when we—"
"I know what we did. "
"These aren't casual feelings I have for you. I think we had something special going on."
"Oh James. What we had was a makeout session in a parking lot."
"You know it was more than that. You know where it was heading, if the car alarm hadn't gone off we'd of—"
"But it did. That's life. And my husband's back and I'm in a different place now."
He sucked in a breath. "All right. All right. But I heard about you, I know some people you used to party with. They told me what a little wild-ass you were—"
Her eyes burned. Dammit dammit dammit ...
"—you may be acting the good little wife now but I know what a whore you are, you cocksucking little cunt—"
She slammed down the phone and kicked back from her desk. She would not, repeat, NOT cry, but with this macho bastard stalking her and two sex-crazed goddesses swarming her husband, maybe she was allowed—or maybe she was just getting what she deserved, an evil she'd brought on Dirk and her both. Some dark, avid thing spilling out of herself. Lay DOWN that sin! the radio had howled this morning. WARNING, the sign at Calvary Baptist read today, EXPOSURE TO THE SON MAY PREVENT BURNING. Twenty thousand American soldiers had invaded Haiti, and this creature, this succubus, had singled out Dirk as the chosen one. Melissa knew there was someone she could call for help, someone she'd been aware of all along, but this was family, which usually made everything worse. She managed to stall for most of the rest of the morning, then finally plunked the phone book down on her desk. Dialing the number she considered the pause-giving fact that PSYCHICS was right next to PSYCHOLOGISTS in the Yellow Pages.
"Hello?" Her cousin Rhee picked up on the first ring. Melissa launched into an explanation of who she was, Margaret Poole's youngest daughter and thus Rhee's second cousin once removed—
"I know who you are," Rhee interrupted, laughing—she couldn't have been less fazed if they talked twice a day.
Melissa asked if they might meet. To discuss a small, uh, personal matter—
"How about for lunch?" Rhee suggested.
"You mean today?"
"Sure, why not?"
Melissa resisted the thought that Rhee had been expecting her call. They made plans, then Melissa asked how she would know Rhee at the restaurant. She hadn't seen her older cousin in years, and had a fuzzy recollection at best.
"Oh," Rhee laughed, "don't worry about that. I'm pretty sure you'll recognize me."
Her hair was, how to put this? If not orange, then orange-like, sort of a bonfire color. Melissa's cousin turned out to be a short, sturdy woman in her early fifties, with a doughy though pleasant face, smooth, rosy cheeks, and Wedgewood-blue eyes that were happy, direct, and shrewd. They met at the India Palace restaurant near Bragg—Rhee's suggestion. Melissa had never had Indian food but the duskiness of the place seemed suitably exotic. The twangy sitar music on the sound system reminded her of cats in heat.
"Oh honey," Rhee exclaimed, clamping Melissa in an eye-popping hug, "I am so glad to see you. And just look at you! My God what a gorgeous woman you've grown into!" Hearing her cousin's weirdly familiar mile-a-minute voice Melissa at once felt the undertow of family relations. She dearly loved her family, but after a couple of hours in Lumberton she always felt herself smothering under the ties that bind, all that tightly wound energy compacting on itself like a rubber band ball.
As she followed Rhee through the buffet line Melissa considered her cousin's history, how she'd led a life of exemplary conformity until a falling kitchen light fixture knocked her cold. After that she began acting odd, the oddness consisting, so far as Melissa had gathered, of exercising, backtalking her husband, and learning to play the drums, as well as casually mentioning to family members that she could now channel signals from the other side. Eventually she left her husband and moved to Fayetteville, where to the horror of her kin she set up shop as a psychic. One of the more successful, by all accounts: word drifted back that she was much in demand among private detectives and desperate families, and that her services were not unknown to various law enforcement agencies.
Out of nervousness Melissa loaded her plate, while Rhee took only flat bread and rice. In line they talked about their hometown kin; Melissa felt herself reverting to the mumbly torpor that family always seemed to inspire, but after they'd settled themselves in a booth and unrolled their flatware, Rhee said:
"So you got out. Congratulations."
Melissa sat up; it was like a needle in the spine.
"And you did it while you're young," Rhee went on cheerfully, "see how smart you are? Whereas it took me forty years and a whack on the head to realize Lumberton was going to be the death of me. Genius is wisdom plus youth, you know who said that? Me neither but I'm sure no genius, I blew half my life doing what everybody expected me to. We have to live our own lives and that's what you're doing, I'm justso proud of you! Now tell me about yourself."
Melissa gave the expanded resume version—home, marriage, work—while Rhee ate her rice and bread in dainty garden-club bites, a style imprint from her previous life. Melissa heard herself describing Dirk as "a wonderful guy"; children were covered by alluding to the thinking-about-it stage. She was conscious of Rhee listening with a level of attention that was gratifying, and at the same time unnerving. She seemed to absorb everything, but behind that sunny, dumpling-textured face you had no idea what the woman was thinking.
"It sounds like you've done just wonderfully for yourself," Rhee observed when Melissa ran out of things to say.
''I've been lucky."
"Yes, lucky." Rhee's smile was wry, and a little distant, as if an old boyfriend's name had come up. "And I trust you're happy, Melissa. Because that's what I want for you."
"Well," Melissa gave a weak laugh, "mostly?" Rhee sat there pleasantly, patiently, like a sales clerk waiting for money; after several moments Melissa realized that her cousin wasn't going to break the silence, so there was nothing left to do but spill it.
"You know," the older woman remarked after Melissa had told her about Erzulie and Dirk, "it never ceases to amaze me."
"And yet it happens all the time, this strange and wonderful way of the world which brings a thing and its polar opposite together. Think about it, Melissa—your husband, a white man, a southern white man and a warrior from the most powerful nation on Earth, gets connected with a black woman spirit from Haiti. The goddess of love, opposite of war. And this isn't just any old fling, they get married. Now what could be heavier than that?" Rhee's eyes fired a startling salvo of tears; as if overwhelmed or suddenly drowsy she slumped into the booth's high back, her features flattening into a moonlike mask that Melissa found oddly compelling. After a moment Rhee surfaced with a shake of the head.
"Okay. So how do you feel about this?"
"Well, I think it's starting to make me crazy."
Rhee nodded as if this was the sanest response imaginable.
"How's Dirk been treating you since he got back?"
Melissa gazed across the restaurant, suddenly miserable. "It's never been better," she said, clearing a sob from her throat.
"But you're resisting."
"I guess I am."
"Why are you resisting?"
There was a precision to Rhee's voice, a tone of vigorous self-respect, that obliged Melissa to focus her thoughts. To decide what was real in her life, perhaps. "Well, there was a guy. While Dirk was gone." She told her cousin about James.
"So do you care for this man?"
"Not anymore. Not ever, really."
"But you were attracted to him. Sexually."
"Well, yeah. I guess I was."
"Do you think that's strange?"
"I think it's wrong."
"Did you think you were going to go your whole married life without wanting to sleep with someone else?"
"I don't know. I guess I never really thought about it."
Rhee studied her. "Have you told Dirk?"
"No, no, God no, never." Melissa paused. "Do you think I should?"
Rhee shrugged. "Dirk's not having an earthly affair, you know that. Not in the sense he's stepping out with another woman."
"And it doesn't sound like he's trying to hide anything."
"God no. He wants me to know everything. It's just ... " She concentrated. "It scares me," she went on, wondering if fear was what it took to make something real. "I don't know what I'm dealing with, what he's brought into the house—whether he's messing around with something evil, satanic. Does that make any sense?"
Rhee's face took on a neutral thoughtfulness, every feature except her smile, which revealed nothing. "Well, based on what you've told me, this Erzulie sounds like a lot of different things. Kind of a slut, a sexpot who's also a saint, sort of a gorgeous Virgin mother—Lord, no wonder he's got a thing for her. But is she evil?" Rhee seemed to double back on herself. "I might need a couple of days to think about this. In the meantime" —she'd caught Melissa's panicked look— "I want you to take it slow. Be nice to Dirk, let him be nice to you. I bet he's dealing with a lot, coming home from a place like that. Try to see it his way as much as you can."
"All right. But what about James?"
"What about him?"
"What if he keeps coming at me?"
"Oh Melissa, that's easy. Just call the cops."
Was there a homegrown voodoo right under her nose, a french-fried North Carolina version she'd been missing all this time? It seemed possible as she made her daily commute, staring out from her car past the orderly fields toward the brooding wall of trees in the distance, that deckle-edged veil of luminous green standing in for the less penetrable jungles of the mind. There was voodoo in Haiti, why not here? With a little prodding Dirk described the ceremonies for her, which sounded chaotic but happy, like swimming in a heavy surf. Melissa tried to picture her very Caucasian spouse dancing in the midst of a couple of hundred Haitians.
"Didn't you feel funny, the only white guy in the middle of all that?"
"It felt good," he said. "I felt like I was home." So where was the evil in all this? Evil was the mini-killing field he and his buddies discovered behind the Haitian army barracks, the twenty corpses they dug up with their trenching tools. Evil was La Normandie, the Macoute social club in Port-au-Prince with its snapshots of murder victims taped to the wall. Evil was the hovering presence of death everywhere, the cemeteries with their scores of tiny children's graves. At night, lying in bed after love, Melissa held Dirk's hand and listened to the stories until he drifted off to target practice. Pow-pow-pah-pow. His leave had ended a week ago and he was putting in eight-to-five at Bragg, ramping up for the next big thing. Colombia, Bosnia, the Middle East, or maybe Haiti Part II—the rumors mutated every couple of days. And when he left, what then—she dreaded that. At work she kept getting hangup calls, while on Saturday and again on Tuesday she accepted Dirk's goodnight kiss and sent him off to sleep with his goddess. How did normal people live? She tried to remember. Meanwhile she waited for Rhee's call as if waiting for the results of a medical test, which took more out of her than she realized; when Rhee phoned on Wednesday, Melissa felt the independence she'd nurtured all these years collapse in a sorry heap. Thank God for family.
''I'm getting some funny vibes on this," Rhee told her. "And I was thinking it might help if I could spend a little time out at your place? I'd really like to have a look at that altar he's fixed up." They made arrangements for the following day: Rhee would meet Melissa at the office and they'd drive out to the trailer together, grabbing a bite to eat while they were there.
Just your basic lunch date, that was the tone of it. They hung up, and Melissa decided that she didn't feel crazy. It seemed, rather, that reality itself had gone mad, and she was riding her own little scrap of sanity through the cosmic whirlwind.
Thursday was hot and sluggish, the sky hazed over with a scum of cloud the color of congealed bacon grease. The air had a dense, malarial weight—there'd been a rare outbreak near Myrtle Beach, more evidence of global warming—and driving out to the trailer Melissa cranked the air conditioning so high that her spit curls jumped and spun like small tornadoes. They got on the subject of Rhee's boyfriend, a retired Delta Force sergeant who raised competition roses. "He sounds neat," Melissa said, tobacco rows flashing past like shuffled cards. "You guys serious?"
"We're seriously happy," Rhee said, "with the way things are. We've got each other and got our space and that's just fine. Neither one of us is interested in shacking up."
"I hear those Delta Force guys are pretty tough."
"Sure," Rhee answered in an oflhand voice. She watched the low sandy hills roll past, the scrubby brakes of saw brier and slash pine. "Men are funny, though. I never met one yet who didn't need to be mothered at least a little bit. And I think people underestimate that side of sex, the maternal side of what goes on in bed. There's a wild thing and there's a needing thing, but nobody ever talks about that needing thing. Makes us all feel too vulnerable, I guess."
"Sex is a swamp," Melissa said by way of agreement. She turned off the paved road onto the mashed-granola track that led to the trailer, the woods closing around them like a green fog. Poplar and pine shafted through the porous undercanopy, the arching sprays of dogwood and pin oak; Melissa believed there was something watchful about deep woods, a biding if not quite sentient presence, like a block of vacant houses. Through the tunnel of trees they could make out the clearing ahead, the light flooding the open space with a jewel-box glow. "How nice," Rhee exclaimed as they pulled into the clearing. The trailer was a long aluminum carton with flimsy black shutters, but Melissa had softened the package as best she could, with azaleas and flower beds planted along its length like piles of oversized throw pillows. Inside she showed her cousin to the spare bedroom, tensing as she opened the door. Today the altar seemed even gaudier than usual, as resistant to reason as a blaring jukebox. Rhee approached it with her hands clasped in front of her. Melissa lingered by the door, wondering what she was supposed to do.
"I guess you want to be alone?"
"Doesn't matter!" Rhee answered briskly.
But Melissa felt an urgent need to be useful. She left, quietly shutting the door behind her, and went to the kitchen to fix lunch, where she reflected on the therapeutic value of staying busy. Which might explain, it occurred to her as she spooned out chicken salad, why the women in her family were such dazzling cooks? A few minutes later she was setting the table and heard a thump down the hall, a muffled fumbling as if a sack of potatoes had hit the floor.
In the den the fake-antique clock gave three iron ticks.
"Rhee, are you all right?"
Melissa walked down the hall and tapped at the door. "Rhee, is everything okay?" Melissa cracked open the door to find her cousin spreadeagled on the shag pile, eyes closed, mouth wide to the sky, a blissed-out stoner look on her face. Melissa was to her in a second, kneeling to check her pulse and set a palm to her forehead—her pulse was even, her breathing deep and steady as the tides. Whatever was happening, Melissa decided, was a psychic, as opposed to a medical, episode, and so she sat and eased Rhee's head onto her lap, wiping the slug track of drool from her cousin's chin. There followed a prolonged series of non-moments, an enforced though not unpleasant lull like waiting in traffic for a train to pass—Melissa sat there stroking her cousin's hair and listening to the birds outside the window, the cicadas buzzing like tiny chain saws. A luxurious sense of calm stole over her, a suspension of anxieties both large and small; suddenly the strangeness of things didn't matter so much. After a while she lost all feeling of the floor, as if she were floating, enwombed in her own sphere of weightlessness, and then she realized that she was thinking of Dirk, her rambling and not-very-focused thoughts suffused with an aura of tenderness. She did love her husband, she felt sure of that; a revelation seemed to be building from this basic point, but Rhee's eyes were fluttering open, startled at first, then locking onto Melissa from upside-down.
"Ahhh," she said, smiling through a long sigh. "Melissa."
"No, it's okay, I'm fine. I saw her, Lissa, she's beautiful, she's a beautiful black sister." Rhee was grunting, hoisting herself into a sitting position like a mechanic crawling out from under a car. "I saw the white one too but she was farther back, it was the sister front and center today. Whoa," she ran a hand through her hair, "that was strong."
"Are you all right?"
"Sure, just got to get my head back. I'd love some water by the way, and a couple of Motrin if you got it." She was rolling to her knees, determined to stand; Melissa helped her out to the kitchen, where she accepted a chair at the table. "One gorgeous sister," she was saying, "deep, deep black skin, and beautiful braided hair right down to her butt. A killer body, oh my goodness she was something."
"Uh-huh," Melissa said, moving from sink to cabinet.
"Techy," Rhee went on, "sort of a diva, a real queen-bee type. And old, she's been around from the beginning. One of the ancients."
"Right." Melissa was glad for this small task to do. "So did she, ah, talk?"
Rhee thought for a moment. "Actually, no! Not that I remember. We just stared at each other for a while. Sometimes it's like that."
"But sometimes they do. Speak, I mean." Melissa placed the Motrin and water on the table and sat.
"Not really speak." Rhee's eyes widened as a pill went down. "It's more like sending. Direct thoughts going back and forth."
"Oh." Melissa watched the second pill disappear. She gathered her nerve; there was really no smooth way to say this. "Is she evil, do you think?"
"Oh heavens, Melissa, how should I know? She's a power that's come into your life, a force, a source, a cause, whatever you want to call it. Nature and then some, that's how I look at it." Rhee blew out her lips with a rubberysound. "Beyond that you've got to work it out on your own. I can help you up to a point, but whether it's good or bad, that's pretty much up to you. You're the only person who can figure that out."
For some reason Melissa was more or less expecting this, a variation on the once-familiar grow up theme; apparently adulthood required you to be your own best psychic as well. They ate lunch, though Rhee was logy and barely picked at her food; on the drive back into town she fell asleep. Melissa nudged her awake as they pulled into the law firm's parking lot.
"Are you okay to drive?"
''I'm fine," Rhee said. She seemed a little out of it. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, yes, no problem!"
"Well." Melissa watched her cousin hunt around for her purse.
"Thank you. I don't know how to thank you enough."
"Oh Lissa, what little I did I was happy to do. We're family! And you and I are buddies too, sort of the wild hairs of the clan. But believe me, they all show up at my door sooner or later."
Melissa giggled; she felt relief, along with a burning need to know. "Who?"
"Life is so much more interesting than people think!" Rhee found her purse and heaved at the door. "You'd be amazed. Take care, Lissa."
Melissa arrived home that evening to find a message from Dirk on the answering machine—he would be late, a SOC briefing was going to keep him at the base. She changed clothes and went for a run, then started on supper while the sweat wicked off her skin, leaving a gummy residue like tree sap. The dusk was deep enough to see fireflies through the windows when she noticed the silence; usually she put on music and sang while she cooked, but tonight she'd forgotten, a lapse that brought on a fit of self-consciousness. She stopped what she was doing and listened, staring out the window at the trees. After a minute she began to feel afraid, the fear grounded in a near-religious conviction that James was out there in the woods, watching her. Abruptly she turned and stepped across the kitchen to the door; after locking it she stood there with her head bowed, listening, her hand on the deadbolt latch. After a moment she turned the latch again, unlocking it.
So if you really thought he was out there, would you do that? Are you really so brave? she asked herself. She moved down the hall peering into every room, and on her way back, with no real purpose in mind, she stepped into the spare bedroom. There was just enough light for her to make out the altar, the ratty flea-market jumble strewn over the shelves, the cheap comic-book colors of the Virgin prints. She approached the altar and clasped her hands as Rhee had done. The two Madonnas stared back through the muddy light with the vapid self-regard of fashion models.
Melissa stood there for a while, waiting. She became aware of her breathing, the loom of her heart inside her chest. Various aches and itches asserted themselves. Eventually it seemed necessary to speak.
"I," she said, and flinched—the word went off like a gun in the tiny room. I, what—acknowledge you? But that seemed corny, false. She took a breath and tried again. "Maybe I can live with you," she said, wondering if she'd finally lost it, "but I want you to know Dirk is mine. I found him first, I married him, he's already taken. And if you think I'm going to give him up ... "
She felt a tingle, a quilled prickling running up her spine—did that mean anything?
" ... well, you've got another thing coming."
A kind of spasm, a jolt of exasperation almost made her laugh. Was something happening? She felt punchy, loose in the head, and with that came a surge of sisterly affection for this thing, this Erzulie who'd turned the world inside-out. Melissa began to see the possible humor in this, and even the Madonnas seemed to take on a merry look, the joke expressed in a crinkling around their eyes, the shadows bundling at the corners of their lips. What, exactly, had she been fighting? She wanted to say some agency inside herself, and she stood there for a time absorbing it, feeling in a sure but as yet inexplicable way that she'd arrived at something. Clarity, perhaps. A sense of scales balancing out. She felt older, and saw how that might be a positive thing. She carried the feeling with her back to the kitchen, wondering as she flipped on the stereo if any of this meant that her life had changed.
Five minutes later Dirk was blowing through the door, leading with his pelvis as he kissed her hello. He got a beer from the refrigerator and popped the top.
"Well, babe," he said, "it's Kuwait."
"Hey, it's not so bad. They got about three million mines laying around from the war, we're gonna show their guys how to dig'em out."
Mines. Melissa resisted the urge to tear at her hair. "When do you go?"
"Not for six weeks." He pulled her close, snaking his hand under the waist of her shorts. "Think you can stand me that long?"
Later that night Melissa had occasion to reflect that sex smelled a lot like tossed salad, one with radishes, fennel, and fresh grated carrot, and maybe a tablespoon of scallions thrown in. The notion came to her as she lay naked in bed, making a tent out of the sheet with her folded knees. Beside her Dirk was nodding in and out while they drowsily reviewed the events of the day. Melissa mentioned that she'd had lunch with her cousin the psychic.
"Psychic," he said in a drifty voice. "I know this lady?"
"You've never met her."
"Hunh. She do voodoo?"
"Well, it's more like she's got her own thing going."
"Wanna meet her," he said, seeming to fade out.
"Sure, we'll have her over before you leave." Melissa shifted, raising peckish sparks from the sheets. "So what's it supposed to be like over there. In Kuwait."
"Hot," he muttered. "Sand. Lotsa camel jocks running around."
He chuckled, then murmured something she didn't understand. Maybe a minute went by. Melissa listened to a hoot-owl lowing outside. Acres of crickets jangled in perfect time like thousands of synchronized maracas.
"Though in a way I guess it's all voodoo, hunh."
She hesitated, taking the measure of how she felt; after a moment she decided it felt okay.
"In a way it all comes down to voodoo, I said." She didn't really get it, she told him, but she could handle it. If this was something he thought was important in his life, she would trust him, she would try to understand. Because she wanted them—
"Oh honey I love you so much," he blurted, his voice too drastic, almost weepy. For a second she thought he was mocking her, until he went on in that same urgent voice: "Cap'll take it, yeah, Cap's got it under control. No go no show what a bullshitter, intel says it's solid, bro. Roger that, lock and load. Ready to rock."
So he'd slept through her big concession speech. Pow, he hupped in her ear, pah-pow-pow, pow; target practice had commenced for the night, in semiautomatic mode. Melissa sighed and straightened her legs, the sheet collapsing about them like a giant flower. So in six weeks she would be alone again. The episode with James was a shadow on her mind, like some dark, ominous smudge in an X-ray; she dreaded Dirk's leaving, but something in her was rising to meet it as well, anxious to see if she would manage better this time. For a while she thought about her little drama at the altar, trying to fix in her mind the true experience of it, the tingling immanence that in retrospect had about as much zip as static cling. She didn't know what to think about any of this. Voodoo, desire, oversexed spirits, dreams channeling information like a video stream—if these were real, then the business of who we were transpired mostly in the air around us. You could drive yourself crazy with it, she supposed. Some did; and some found their peace in it? But at least there was this, she thought as she rolled toward Dirk, spooning herself into his concourse of knobs and hollows. This was real, whatever else life might bring—there were, finally, no words for this. Melissa kissed her husband's shoulder, closed her eyes, and waited for sleep.
© Ben Fountain
This electronic version of "The Good One Are Already Taken" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the author's collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, published by Ecco, 2006; and Harper Perinnial, 2007. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization
Ben Fountain’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Zoetrope-All Story, and he has been awarded an O. Henry Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes. His collection of short stories Brief Encounters With Che Guevara was awarded the 2007 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a distinguished first book of fiction. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.
Photo credit: Liliana Castillo