“I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women.”

anton chekhov once observed it is not the writer’s job to solve problems and draw conclusions:

In my opinion it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

—Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888

. . . a century later andre dubus illustrated chekhov’s credo this way:

“Leslie in California”

WHEN THE ALARM rings the room is black and grey; I smell Kevin’s breath and my eye hurts and won’t open. He gets out of bed, and still I smell beer in the cold air. He is naked and dressing fast. I get up shivering in my nightgown and put on my robe and go by flashlight to the kitchen, where there is some light from the sky. Birds are singing, or whatever it is they do. I light the gas lantern and set it near the stove, and remember New England mornings with the lights on and a warm kitchen and catching the school bus. I won’t have to look at my eye till the sun comes up in the bathroom. Dad was happy about us going to California; he talked about sourdough bread and fresh fruit and vegetables all year. I put water on the stove and get bacon and eggs and milk from the ice chest. A can of beer is floating, tilting, in the ice and water; the rest are bent in the paper bag for garbage. I could count them, know how many it takes. I put on the bacon and smoke a cigarette, and when I hear him coming I stand at the stove so my back is to the door.

‘Today’s the day,’ he says.

They are going out for sharks. They will be gone five days, maybe more, and if he comes back with money we can have electricity again. For the first three months out here he could not get on a boat, then yesterday he found one that was short a man, so last night he celebrated.

‘Hey, hon.’

I turn the bacon. He comes to me and hugs me from behind, rubbing my hips through the robe, his breath sour beer with mint.

‘Let me see your eye.’

I turn around and look up at him, and he steps back. His blond beard is damp, his eyes are bloodshot, and his mouth opens as he looks.

‘Oh, hon.’

He reaches to touch it, but I jerk my face away and turn back to the skillet.

‘I’ll never do that again,’ he says.

The bacon is curling brown. Through the window above the stove I can see the hills now, dark humps against the sky. Dad liked the Pacific, but we are miles inland and animals are out there with the birds; one morning last week a rattlesnake was on the driveway. Yesterday some men went hunting a bobcat in the hills. They say it killed a horse, and they are afraid it will kill somebody’s child, but they didn’t find it. How can a bobcat kill a horse? My little sister took riding lessons in New England; I watched her compete, and I was afraid, she was so small on that big animal jumping. Dad told me I tried to pet some bobcats when I was three and we lived at CampPendleton. He was the deer camp duty officer one Sunday, and Mom and I brought him lunch. Two bobcats were at the edge of the camp; they wanted the deer hides by the scales, and I went to them saying here, kitty, here, kitty. They just watched me, and Dad called me back.

‘It wasn’t you,’ Kevin says. ‘You know it wasn’t you.’

‘Who was it?’

My first words of the day, and my voice sounds like dry crying. I clear my throat and grip the robe closer around it.

‘I was drunk,’ he says. ‘You know. You know how rough it’s been.’

He harpoons fish. We came across country in an old Ford he worked on till it ran like it was young again. We took turns driving and sleeping and only had to spend motel money twice. That was in October, after we got married on a fishing boat, on a clear blue Sunday on the Atlantic. We had twenty-five friends and the two families and open-faced sandwiches and deviled eggs, and beer and wine. On the way out to sea we got married, then we fished for cod and drank, and in late afternoon we went to Dad’s for a fish fry with a fiddle band. Dad has a new wife, and Mom was up from Florida with her boy friend. Out here Kevin couldn’t get on a boat, and I couldn’t even waitress. He did some under-the-table work: carpenter, mechanic, body work, a few days here, a few there. Now it’s February, a short month.

‘Hon,’ he says behind me.

‘It’s three times.’

‘Here. Let me do something for that eye.’

I hear him going to the ice chest, the ice moving in there to his big hands. I lay the bacon on the paper towel and open the door to pour out some of the grease; I look at the steps before I go out. The grease sizzles and pops on the wet grass, and there’s light at the tops of the hills.

‘Here,’ he says, and I shut the door. I’m holding the skillet with a pot holder, and I see he’s wearing his knife, and I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers, wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women. I think of this without fear, like I’m reading in the paper about somebody else dead in her kitchen. He touches my eye with ice wrapped in a dish towel.

‘I have to do the eggs.’

I break them into the skillet and he stands behind me, holding the ice on my eye. His arm is over mine, and I bump it as I work the spatula.

‘Not now,’ I say.

I lower my face from the ice; for awhile he stands behind me, and I watch the eggs and listen to the grease and his breathing and the birds, then he goes to the chest and I hear the towel and ice drop in.

‘After, okay?’ he says. ‘Maybe the swelling will go down. Jesus, Les. I wish I wasn’t going.’

‘The coffee’s dripped.’

He pours two cups, takes his to the table, and sits with a cigarette. I know his mouth and throat are dry, and probably he has a headache. I turn the eggs and count to four, then put them on a plate with bacon. I haven’t had a hangover since I was sixteen. He likes carbohydrates when he’s hung over; I walk past him, putting the plate on the table, seeing his leg and arm and shoulder, but not his face, and get a can of pork and beans from the cupboard. From there I look at the back of his head. He has a bald spot the size of a quarter. Then I go to the stove and heat the beans on a high flame, watching them, drinking coffee and smoking.

‘We’ll get something,’ he says between bites. ‘They’re out there.’

Once, before I met him, he was in the water with a swordfish. He had harpooned it and they were bringing it alongside, it was thrashing around in the water, and he tripped on some line and fell in with it.

‘We’ll get the lights back on,’ he says. ‘Go out on the town, buy you something nice. A sweater, a blouse, okay? But I wish I wasn’t going today.’

‘I wish you didn’t hit me last night.’ The juice in the beans is bubbling. ‘And the two before that.’

‘I’ll tell you one thing, hon. I’ll never get that drunk again. It’s not even me anymore. I get drunk like that, and somebody crazy takes over.’

I go to his plate and scoop all the beans on his egg yellow. The coffee makes me pee, and I leave the flashlight and walk through the living room that smells of beer and ashtrays and is grey now, so I can see a beer can on the arm of a chair. I sit in the bathroom where it is darkest, and the seat is cold. I hear a car coming up the road, shifting down and turning into the driveway, then the horn. I wash my hands without looking in the mirror; in the gas light of the kitchen, and the first light from the sky, he’s standing with his bag and harpoon.

‘Oh, hon,’ he says, and holds me tight. I put my arms around him, but just touching his back. ‘Say it’s okay.’

I nod, my forehead touching his chest, coming up, touching, coming up.

‘That’s my girl.’

He kisses me and puts his tongue in, then he’s out the door, and I stand on the top step and watch him to the car. He waves and grins and gets in. I hold my hand up at the car as they back into the road, then are gone downhill past the house. The sun is showing red over the hills, and there’s purple at their tops, and only a little green. They are always dry, but at night everything is wet.

I go through the living room and think about cleaning it, and open the front door and look out through the screen. The house has a shadow now, on the grass and dew. There are other houses up here, but I can’t see any of them. The road goes winding up into quarter. Then I go to the stove and heat the beans on a high flame, watching them, drinking coffee and smoking.

‘We’ll get something,’ he says between bites. ‘They’re out there.’

Once, before I met him, he was in the water with a swordfish. He had harpooned it and they were bringing it alongside, it was thrashing around in the water, and he tripped on some line and fell in with it.

‘We’ll get the lights back on,’ he says. ‘Go out on the town, buy you something nice. A sweater, a blouse, okay? But I wish I wasn’t going today.’

‘I wish you didn’t hit me last night.’ The juice in the beans is bubbling. ‘And the two before that.’

‘I’ll tell you one thing, hon. I’ll never get that drunk again. It’s not even me anymore. I get drunk like that, and somebody crazy takes over.’

I go to his plate and scoop all the beans on his egg yellow. The coffee makes me pee, and I leave the flashlight and walk through the living room that smells of beer and ashtrays and is grey now, so I can see a beer can on the arm of a chair. I sit in the bathroom where it is darkest, and the seat is cold. I hear a car coming up the road, shifting down and turning into the driveway, then the horn. I wash my hands without looking in the mirror; in the gas light of the kitchen, and the first light from the sky, he’s standing with his bag and harpoon.

‘Oh, hon,’ he says, and holds me tight. I put my arms around him, but just touching his back. ‘Say it’s okay.’

I nod, my forehead touching his chest, coming up, touching, coming up.

‘That’s my girl.’

He kisses me and puts his tongue in, then he’s out the door, and I stand on the top step and watch him to the car. He waves and grins and gets in. I hold my hand up at the car as they back into the road, then are gone downhill past the house. The sun is showing red over the hills, and there’s purple at their tops, and only a little green. They are always dry, but at night everything is wet.

I go through the living room and think about cleaning it, and open the front door and look out through the screen. The house has a shadow now, on the grass and dew. There are other houses up here, but I can’t see any of them. The road goes winding up into the hills where the men hunted yesterday. I think of dressing and filling the canteen and walking, maybe all morning, I could make a sandwich and bring it in my jacket, and an orange. I open the screen and look up the road as far as I can see, before it curves around a hill in the sun. Blue is spreading across the sky. Soon the road will warm, and I think of rattlesnakes sleeping on it, and I shut the screen and look around the lawn where nothing moves.

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