A short short about interpretive horticulture.
Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field. And how that was what made him cry. After everything. The cow standing there all alone, completely black.
Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.
I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year. Luke has switched to vaping. So I can’t bum one off him. Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.
Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking. Marianne got promoted. He couldn’t go out anymore. His sponsor relapsed, disappeared. He spent a lot of nights alone.
“So that’s why—it happened?” I can’t bring myself to say it.
The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else. I order another beer. Luke gets a club soda.
“That’s just it. I don’t know. It wasn’t me.”
The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.
“She was beautiful that day.”
Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat. We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in. Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale. He got thin since I left Hauberk. He grew his hair long, dyed it black.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers. “I don’t understand, either.”
But Luke says he remembers everything. He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office. Bulldog has a real name. Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.
“Marianne hated him. But she was so happy.”
“She always seemed happy.”
Luke takes out his vape pen. It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.
“You met her twice,” he says.
She started going out after work with guys from the office. To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes. He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home. Luke was never invited. What was he going to do? Sit there and drink 7-Up? He tells me nobody liked him. Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron. Marianne thought it was funny.
“She didn’t really think it was funny. She just said she did.”
“Is that why—”
Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol. “Stop. Can you please?”
I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything. I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad. So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward. But Luke doesn’t notice. He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.
I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no. And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable. And what’s she doing with him anyway?
I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm. That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years. Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night. Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.” And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.
He tells me how numb he feels. “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time. Like I’m someone I don’t know.”
“That’s how you seem to me, too. No offense.”
He vapes. He watches the waitress inside the cafe. I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.
Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life. “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk. One of the old Victorians. It used to be the girls’ school. He has a refrigerator that plays music. His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold. She’s a treasury. That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury. But he means all the gold.” And it could have been okay like that. But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg. So Bulldog threw Luke out.
“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”
“Marianne thought so.”
Luke looks at me. I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.
“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.
He’s not the kid I knew in high school. Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week. His mom died before he got to know her. Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up. But in the end no one will probably say anything. Marianne’s dead. I don’t know what it means.
“So I ran over the dog. It’s name was Scruffy. I ran over Scruffy.”
“Did you kill anything else?”
“No. Just the dog.”
I nod, like, that’s good. It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.
“It didn’t suffer.”
Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell. Luke came and it was good to see him. He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin. Who will go to Marianne’s funeral? Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare? Will I?
“Where are you going now?”
“Mexico, I think. Maybe nowhere. I stabbed her. With a bread knife.”
“Jesus Christ, man. I mean—”
“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress. It was white but it had huge red flowers on it. You couldn’t see anything. She didn’t suffer. I promise.”
“Alright,” I whisper. “I guess that’s good.”
Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level. “You believe me, don’t you? That she didn’t suffer?”
“I believe you.”
“We were having a picnic by this little stream. It was a good place. It was peaceful. You could hear the water on the rocks. Then I looked up at that black cow. And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”
My throat’s too tight to speak. I drink some beer. Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes. I understand.”