Rumpus Exclusive: “The Last Civilized House” by Lee Martin
He found the tracks in the snow one evening shortly after New Year’s, when he went out to the burn barrel with the trash. The temperature was fifteen, according to the old Prairie Farms thermometer tacked to the doorframe, and the wind was out of the north. It blew in over the empty field that stretched back to the railroad trestle and stung his eyes. He hunched his shoulders, drawing the upturned collar of his barn coat toward his ears. He looked down at the ground—they’d had snow cover since mid-December—and that’s when he saw the tracks, where none had been that morning when he’d come out to fill the bird feeders.
The tracks came around the corner of the house and ran in a straight line to the back steps. Ancil knew they weren’t his, which he could distinguish by the Cat’s Paw heel prints. This set had been made by someone wearing Red Wing boots. Ancil figured it was a man for the tracks were long and wide, the wavy soles of the boots and the Red Wing logo pressed deep into the snow.
“What in the world?” Ancil said to himself.
He lived with his wife, Lucy, on the edge of town, just before the pavement turned to gravel and ran out into the country. Theirs was the last civilized house, he always told people when giving them directions. The last house before the wilderness. The last chance for comfort before crossing the border into lands unknown. The last chance to save yourself, he said with a wink and a laugh. Now he wanted to know who in the world had been snooping around in broad daylight, and, more to the point, why?
The prints came up onto the back stoop. Had the man stood there and tried to look in through the glass in the door, the glass that Lucy kept covered with curtains? Whoever he was, he’d hopped down from the stoop on the side where the double kitchen windows ran along the back wall—the prints were deeper there—and walked around the house, stopping at every window, from bedroom to living room to dining room. To think that someone had looked into the house that afternoon while he and Lucy had been doing their trading in town struck a nerve. It kept gnawing at Ancil as he tracked the prints out to the sidewalk and then into the street, where they disappeared, as if the man had stepped into a car and driven away.
Ancil stood at the side of the street and looked back at his house—such an ordinary house, a wood-frame house with aluminum awnings over the windows and the front stoop—and he tried to imagine that he was this man, up to no good. What would he see if he were to peep through the windows?
The next thing he knew he was standing at the front window looking in. Nothing he saw seemed remarkable to him at all. The fireplace of red brick, generations of family Bibles stacked on the mantle along with the Christmas garland Lucy had yet to take down. The wedding ring quilt on its rack in the corner. The big round braided rug on the hardwood floor, the two reclining chairs where Ancil and Lucy sat most nights watching some nonsense on TV. Lucy’s knitting spilling out of her sewing basket on the floor by her chair. The doily on the back of his, dingy from where his hair oil had stained it. Just the marks and signs of all their years together. Nothing much of value that anyone would want to steal. Nothing much of interest.
One dining room wall had a painting of apples in a basket—red and yellow apples that looked so real Ancil could taste them each time he looked at that picture. The dining table, an old oak drop-leaf, had newspapers scattered over it and the mail that he’d carried in from the box just minutes ago: a circular from McKim’s IGA, the water bill, and a late Christmas card from Lucy’s pen pal in Oklahoma, a woman Ancil knew only through the photo she sent each year at the holidays, a picture of her and her husband. He was in a wheelchair, a skinny man with a pencil moustache. She wore what was obviously a wig—black, lustrous hair down over her shoulders—and she had gaps between her big teeth. Now that was a couple some stranger might take an interest in, but Ancil and Lucy? He didn’t think so. They were dry as dust, unremarkable in every way. They’d lived in that house over fifty years, Ancil pulling on his overalls every morning and grabbing his lunch bucket and heading to work on a section gang for the B & O Railroad, Lucy asking him to zip her up, please. He’d always liked that, the way she turned her back to him, her bra strap showing, and he took the zipper tab and ran it up from her waist and then closed the hook and eye at the top where the knobs of her vertebrae raised up beneath her skin.
“Thanks, sweets,” she always said, and then blew him a kiss on her way out the door, heading uptown to have coffee with her girlfriends before working behind the counter at Piper’s Sundries.
Fifty-five years together, fifty-two of them in this house. Retired now, still in reasonably good health, no scrapes with the law, property taxes always paid on time, lawn tended in the summertime, walks and driveway kept clear in the winter. Good neighbors. Now, as he continued to follow those tracks in the snow—Red Wing, Red Wing, Red Wing—Ancil felt at loose ends. Someone had Lucy and him in his sights.
Lucy was in the kitchen getting supper started, so he didn’t linger there, only long enough to see her at the sink, peeling potatoes, her back humped up, no longer the straight-backed girl who’d asked him to zip her dress. She was his “old girl,” he always said. He was her “old man.” They’d had years and years together, so many of them that they’d nearly forgotten the boy and girl they’d once been. But on occasion, he might surprise her with a kiss, and she’d say, “Old man, don’t start something you can’t finish.”
At one time, they’d seen the world together and brought it back in pieces: the music box from Switzerland, the lace table runner from England, the cuckoo clock from Germany. Decorative plates from Washington, DC, New York City, Boston, Chicago, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, San Francisco, Hollywood, Miami Beach hung on the kitchen walls.
What was any of that to make them worth the attentions of a peeping Tom?
Ancil stood at the bedroom window and looked in. It gave him the oddest feeling to see the details of his and Lucy’s life together on display. Here were the most intimate things, the ones they never meant for anyone to see: the pint bottle of Crown Royal and the shot glass on his nightstand—just a nip before bed each night to help him sleep. The crumpled tissues on Lucy’s stand from where she’d awakened in the night, crying, because an inexplicable sadness came over her. “Well, old man,” she told him when he asked, “it’s just so hard to say why.”
Her collection of porcelain dolls on the shelves. She had a name for each, and sometimes she talked baby talk to them. That always embarrassed him a little, much the way he felt now as he stood there, looking at them the way the peeping Tom must have done.
What else had he seen?
Had he seen Ancil coming to bed in his pajamas, the shirt buttoned to the top button, a white handkerchief folded in the pocket? Had he seen Lucy in her sweatpants and thermal shirt, her heavy breasts loose beneath it? Had he seen their toothless mouths, their cheeks caved in, and the way they slept with their backs turned to each other, he on his side of the bed and she on hers? Had he wondered, as Ancil did now, how they’d ever managed all those years together? No children and now just the two of them to take care of each other, all the way out here on the edge of town in this unremarkable house, a house of last chances.
Only when Ancil thought this thought to himself, he confused a word and it came out “a house of lost chances,” and all the while he stood at the burn barrel, setting a match to a piece of newspaper in the trash and watching the flames lick up above the rim, he found himself overwhelmed with a great sadness that had something else smoldering at its edges, something he couldn’t quite name until he went back inside the house and Lucy asked him what had taken him so long with the trash, and he said he’d been checking the bird feeders.
“You just filled them this morning,” she said, and she said it in a voice that was impatient and severe. She stood at the stove, frying potatoes for their supper, and she banged the metal spatula twice on the edge of the pan. “Good God, old man,” she said.
He felt it again, that thing that was rimming his sadness, and he knew the name to give it. Rage. A smoldering rage drawn up from somewhere deep inside him, brought there by the man—whoever he was—who had looked through their windows.
That night in bed, Ancil couldn’t fall asleep. The Crown Royal hadn’t done the trick, and as he tried to decide whether to have another drink, he found himself listening to the noises of the house. With each click of the furnace coming on, each pop of a roof joist contracting in the cold, he imagined that the peeping Tom had returned and was standing outside the bedroom window.
Lucy lay beside him, sound asleep, and it only stoked his anger to know that he couldn’t tell her what had him on edge. Someone had come looking to see what he might find, and because he had, Ancil was feeling every regret and sadness of his life with Lucy with a sharpness that left him raw with guilt. He’d never be able to tell her any of that. What would be the use? Here they were, toward the end of their years. What would he gain by saying hurtful things to her now?
Still, she seemed to notice that something was bothering him. The next day, as they ran their errands uptown, she said, “Cat got your tongue?”
They’d just come out of the bank, where they’d deposited their social security checks and kept a little cash for spending money. The teller, a girl Ancil recognized but whose name he couldn’t recall, counted out the cash, and then said to Lucy, “Now he can take you out on a date.”
“Oh, we’re too old,” Lucy said. She tapped the bills on the counter to square them and then slipped them into her wallet. “That lovey-dovey stuff is for you young folks. We’re done with all of that.”
The way she said it so quickly, and in a flat voice with no hint of humor at all, shook Ancil. Again, it was as if a window had opened to their lives, and he felt ashamed to be on display, the young woman knowing the truth: he and Lucy, whoever they’d been in the past, were now nothing more than companions. He knew that should be enough—a blessing—but now that the peeping Tom had come and Ancil had taken a hard look at his years with Lucy, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t.
So when she asked him if the cat had his tongue, he said, “I can’t talk to you right now.” He heard the catch in his own voice, that hiccup of air that braced against tears. “I just can’t.”
“Old man?” Lucy said. “What’s wrong?”
The sun was out, but in the miserable cold, the dusting of new snow that had fallen overnight was packed and frozen on the sidewalk. Ancil knew if he tried to tell Lucy what was troubling him, he’d make a mess of things. He could tell her about the footprints in the snow and how he’d followed them and stood at the windows looking in and seen what the peeping Tom had seen and how that had left him feeling empty and sad and angry, but where would that lead them? Only to the truth, which was complicated and well beyond Ancil’s ability to express. Even if he could, how would he begin to tell Lucy that as much as he’d loved her all these years, he’d come to regret the life they’d stumbled through together?
“Ancil?” Lucy said, her voice, this time, full of what he himself was feeling, a tremendous fear of what he might say next.
He couldn’t look at her. He watched two pickup trucks, their fenders gray with road salt, bump their way over the railroad crossing. Across the street, at Ferguson’s Market, Lucy’s next stop, a high school boy wearing a red sock hat and a black insulated coat under his white apron came out with a bag of Ice Melt and started scattering it on the walkway. He was singing that song about a tropical heat wave as he worked, just a boy in high spirits on a cold day. The wind was still out of the north, pushing snakes of loose snow in squiggly lines down Main Street.
Ancil knew he and Lucy would have to move soon. They couldn’t stay there outside the bank in the cold and the wind much longer. They’d have to cross the street and do their grocery shopping and make the drive home and eat some lunch and turn on the radio and listen to the local news on WAKO the way they always did, and when it was over, he’d snap off the radio and the silence would settle around them, and there they’d be.
Ancil knew he could stop that from happening. He could stop so much from happening if he’d only say what had been troubling him ever since yesterday, when he’d stood at the bedroom window and taken in what the peeping Tom had seen. I wish you’d kept the baby. If you’d done that, our lives would be different.
But because he was a cowardly man, and always had been, he didn’t say that. He looked down at his feet, amazed by what he saw. There, imprinted in the crust of snow covering the sidewalk, was a footprint and then another, a trail of prints headed south, each of them saying,
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said to Lucy. He even reached out and patted her on the arm. “You go on to Ferguson’s,” he said. “You wait for me there when you’re done. Go on. I just remembered something I forgot.”
He didn’t give her a chance to respond. He just started walking. He looked back once and saw that she was still standing there. He lifted his arm to wave at her, and she did the same. Her wave, hesitant and shy as if she were a child, nearly broke his heart and he almost went back—the thought of the two of them apart even for a short time overwhelmed him—but there were those tracks in the snow, and he had to know where they led and who might be waiting at the end of them.
What a puzzle he was to her sometimes, even after all these years. What a mystery all men were, really, with their silent hearts. That’s what she was thinking as she crossed the street and stepped up onto the sidewalk along Ferguson’s Market where the box boy, one of Hattie Mack’s towheaded grandsons, was just then finishing up with the Ice Melt.
“Here now, let me help you,” he said, offering Lucy his arm. “Wouldn’t want you to slip.”
“You’re just like your granddad,” she said. “You’re a gentleman just like him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy said, and she took his arm and let him usher her safely inside the store.
Lucy bowed her head and kept a watchful eye on her feet. She noticed the boy was wearing what appeared to be new boots.
“Were they a Christmas present?” she asked.
The boy looked down at his feet. He lifted the right one and turned it to the side. “My gramps got them for me.”
Lucy nodded. “They look like the ones he always wore.”
“You remember what boots he wore?” the boy said, amazed.
“Oh, I’m well acquainted with your granddad. You be sure to tell him Lucy says hello.”
Yes, she knew Burton Mack and could have told his grandson things about his grandfather that she wondered if even Hattie knew—like the fact that when he was a younger man he worked summers on the section gang with Ancil. Then when autumn came, he went back to college in Champaign, where he was studying agriculture. Ancil said he’d never heard of such a thing. All that money and time spent learning to be a farmer. Wasn’t that something a man knew from doing it?
When Burton finally came back with his diploma and settled into farming with his father, he brought a bride with him. Hattie was the one who insisted on calling him Burton—not Burtie like everyone else—and wearing white gloves and sun hats covered with plastic flowers and sending away to St. Louis for just the right living room set—it’s Danish modern, she said—and otherwise making a snooty show of herself. At least that’s how it appeared to Lucy.
Oh, there was so much she could tell Mrs. Hattie Mack if she took a mind to. She could tell her that she remembered when Burtie Mack was a boy who was just becoming a man. Broad shoulders and bulging arms, Vitalis hair tonic, Aqua Velva aftershave, a scent Lucy still recalled from time to time, like she did now as she grabbed a wire shopping cart inside Ferguson’s. Oh, yes, she could tell anyone who wanted to know that Burtie always wore Aqua Velva and bought Wilkinson Sword double-edged blades for his safety razor. He liked to eat braunschweiger sandwiches with thick slices of longhorn cheese, and he always put salt in his Schlitz beer. He kept a Camel cigarette behind his left ear, within easy reach when he wanted it, as he often did after their lovemaking. She’d snuggle in close to him, her head on his chest, the two of them in the backseat of his Chevy Impala pulled back into the woods down a Marathon oil lease road, and she’d listen to the steady beat of his heart and let herself believe that they could go on and on like that and Ancil would never know.
Those were the days of autumn, glorious sunny days before the turn to winter, Indian summer days when Burtie would come home from Champaign at the end of the week to help his father with the corn harvest. Fridays were theirs. He’d pick her up in his Impala after lunch and they’d go driving in the country. She’d scoot over next to him on the bench seat like a schoolgirl, and he’d drape his arm over her shoulders. Her Burtie. Aren’t you afraid someone might see us? he asked her once, and she told him, Let ’em look.
He told her she was brazen and she said that suited her just fine. She could still recall her brassy red hair and how it lifted from her shoulders in the warm air that came through the Impala’s windows. Sometimes she didn’t wear any underthings, so when he slid his hand under her dress, up her bare leg, he’d find her moist and ready. She didn’t stop to consider why she needed this. She only knew that she did. On occasion, she felt how much it would hurt Ancil if he ever knew, but she convinced herself he’d never find out.
Then one afternoon, Burtie drove her back into town from the west, sticking to the gravel roads as he always did, past the cow pastures and the old Hadley School and the cornfields where the pickers were going up and down the rows. The air smelled of the corn dust, a smell Lucy would always associate with Burtie.
“Where’s this all going?” she asked him. “You and me?”
“Does it have to be going anywhere, Lucy? You’re a married woman.”
“That doesn’t always mean forever,” she said.
“You’d leave Ancil?”
Burtie slowed down and took a long look at her. “You say that,” he said, “but I doubt that you mean it.”
“Want to try me?”
“Seems to me I already have,” he said with a wink.
“You’re horrible.” She swatted him across his arm and slid over to the window. She folded her arms over her chest and turned away to watch the telephone poles go by. “You shouldn’t have said that,” she finally said. “You shouldn’t have made us ugly.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and she believed him. That was her trouble. She always believed him. “Lucy, I never meant… I mean, I wouldn’t want to ever hurt you… aw, hell, Lucy, sometimes I just get too full of myself. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m with a woman like you.”
They rode in silence, then, the rest of the way to her house. Burtie pulled the Impala into the driveway. They had an old collie dog then, named Dickie, and he came out from behind the garage when he heard the car and started to whine for her.
“There’s my Dickie boy,” she said. “There’s mama’s good boy.”
Then, before either she or Burtie could realize it, Ancil’s truck was pulling into the driveway behind them.
“Oh, good Christ,” said Burtie. “It’s Ancil.”
Lucy didn’t miss a beat. She got out of the car and was standing in the yard when Ancil stepped from his truck.
“Look who gave me a ride from uptown,” she said in a bright voice.
“Is that Burton?” Ancil said.
“Burtie Mack,” said Lucy. “Burtie, come on out here so Ancil can see you.”
Ancil shaded his eyes and squinted into the sunlight that Lucy felt warming the back of her neck and her legs. She heard the Impala’s door open and then swing shut, and then Burtie was standing beside her.
“Burt, what are you doing here?” Ancil said.
Too much silence went by with no answer from Burtie, so Lucy knew she had to say something.
“I told you,” she said. “He gave me a ride.” She looked at her wristwatch, a Timex Ancil had given her for her birthday. “My goodness, is it four o’clock already? No, it’s only three fifteen. What are you doing home early?”
“I’m sick,” Ancil said. “I’ve been sick all afternoon.”
“Mercy, what’s wrong?”
“Sick to my stomach.”
“Well, let’s get you inside.” Lucy took him by his arm. “Burtie, I appreciate the ride.”
“I’m sorry I don’t feel like a visit,” Ancil said. “Can you get around my truck?”
“I believe I can,” said Burtie.
“All right, then. I thank you for favoring my wife.”
And that was that, so Lucy thought. She helped Ancil into the house, and she heard Burtie’s Impala moving fast back out into the country. She got Ancil into bed and she made him some nutmeg tea to help settle his stomach. She brought it to him in the bedroom, and she sat on the side of the bed while he drank it.
“It was so hot today. Too hot for October. That sun beat down on me, and I wasn’t feeling worth a pinch anyway. What were you doing uptown?”
“I needed some flour from Ferguson’s.”
“Did you get it?”
She realized, then, that he’d seen her get out of the Impala with nothing in her hands.
“It was a funny thing. They were out.”
“Out,” said Ancil. “Flour? Whoever heard of a market being out of flour?”
“Something about a shipment that didn’t come in.” She was trying to think fast. “You done with your tea, baby?”
She took the cup and saucer from him and stood up. She turned toward the door, but he reached out and took her by her wrist.
“Look at me,” he said, and there was an edge to his voice that she didn’t like.
“You’re hurting my wrist,” she said.
He let her go then, and she tried to walk away as if nothing had happened, but she knew that something had.
Later that night, as they were falling asleep, he said to her, “Are you in the habit of going to town without your underpants on?”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“That white dress of yours. The sun behind you in the west this afternoon. A blind man could have seen.”
“You’re crazy,” she said.
And like that, little by little, over the course of the night and on into the morning and afternoon of the next day, it all came out about Burtie Mack and her.
“Do you love him?” Ancil asked. He was still sick to his stomach and he was in his pajamas and his hair was wild on his head, and she was sorry for the hurt she’d brought him.
“No, no, of course not,” she said, even though she knew it was a lie.
The trail of Red Wing prints went along Main Street in front of the bank and Piper’s Sundries and the hardware store before turning right and heading west past the Odd Fellows’ Lodge and Hazel and Abner’s Café, where the tables were starting to fill up with folks trying to get a jump on the lunch crowd. Soon the noon fire whistle would blow, and then store clerks and the workers from the grain elevator and City Hall would come filing in. The door opened as Ancil went by, and he heard the clatter of dishes and silverware and the chatter of voices. Someone said, “My God, that’s rich,” and Ancil tried to look through the plate-glass window, which was steaming over from the heat inside. The waitresses looked like they were moving underwater. Ancil put his head back down and kept following the tracks.
At the end of the block, they stopped, the last ones turned toward the door of Tubby’s Barber Shop. Ancil pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Right away, his eyeglasses fogged over, and he had to take them off. Without them, he couldn’t see who was sitting in the chairs along the back wall, nor could he see who was in Tubby’s chair.
“Ancil, I’ve got a few ahead of you,” Tubby said in his gravelly voice. “Hope you got time to wait.”
“I got time,” Ancil said. He took a red bandana from his hip pocket and went to work on his glasses.
Someone had been telling a story, and now he returned to it. “Like I said, it was a Sunday, and Poke Hobbs had just got out of church.” The voice sounded familiar, but Ancil couldn’t quite place it. “You know how hard Poke is to understand when he talks. Well, he went up to Emma Lawson—you know, Mitt Lawson’s widow?—and he says, ‘Miss, may I walk you home?’ Everyone knows that Emma’s a little hard of hearing, and what with the way Poke was mushing up his words, well, she didn’t have a chance of getting what he was saying. So she says, ‘What’s that, Poke?’ And he comes at her again. ‘I said, may I walk you home?’ Still no luck. ‘I didn’t quite catch that,’ Emma said, and Poke says to her—now get this, boys—he says to her, ‘Miss, you can kiss my goddamn ass.’” The barber shop exploded with laughter. Ancil heard the hoots and belly laughs and the sound of men clapping their hands and slapping their thighs. Then when it was about to die down, the storyteller—Ancil had figured out it was Pat Best, who helped Charlie Sivert out at the funeral home—said, his voice rising with excitement, “You can bet she heard that. Clear as a bell.” And the laugher broke out again.
That was the sort of town it was—Ancil had always known it to be so—a town where everyone’s flaws were fair game for the loafers and the busybodies, everybody looking for a chance to feel grateful that their own lives were in order compared to those of their neighbors. To hear that story told on Poke Hobbs, a lonely man mustering up his courage to ask for companionship despite his speech impediment—that story told as a joke—added to the anger that Ancil felt.
He slipped his eyeglasses back on and took a look around the shop. There was Pat Best in his sport coat and tie, his high forehead shiny under the lights, a grin on his face. There was Ellis Roderick from the Texaco station, bent over at the waist from laughing so hard, a cigarette dangling from his fingers, the marks from his comb visible in his oiled hair. And there in the corner, laughing the loudest of them all, was Burton Mack. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a green-and-black-checked flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled to show the long-sleeved thermal shirt he had on underneath. He wasn’t a boy anymore, but even Ancil had to admit he was still a handsome man—lean face, square jaw, broad shoulders, a man muscled with the work of farming. Burton Mack. He laughed so hard that he kicked a leg up in front of him, and when his boot lifted off the floor, for just an instant, Ancil saw the sole: Red Wing.
Three strides took him to where Burton Mack was sitting.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” Ancil said, and everyone in the barber shop, Burton Mack included, fell silent.
Then he said, “What’s that, Ancil? I didn’t quite catch that.”
And the whoops and hoots and guffaws started in again.
Ancil stood there, feeling the heat come into his cheeks. He stood there a long time, letting the men laugh themselves out, and when finally they had and the silence waited for him to fill it, he said to Burton Mack, “I want you to stay away from my house.”
For a good while, there was only the sound of the strop slapping as Tubby began to put an edge to a straight razor.
Then Burton Mack said, “Your house? What in the hell would I want at your house?”
Ellis Roderick ground out his cigarette in the smoking stand. Pat Best leaned back in his chair, his posture erect and his face solemn as if he’d suddenly found himself back at work at the funeral home.
Ancil felt certain that they both knew the story of Lucy and Burton Mack. It was no secret in town, particularly after that Saturday night when Ancil found him in the café and said to him loud enough that everyone could hear, “What kind of man tries to steal another man’s wife? A lowlife, I’d say. A no-account. Is that the kind of man you want to be?” When Burton wouldn’t answer him, wouldn’t even look at him, just kept his eyes on his glass of Coca-Cola as he stirred it with the drinking straw, Ancil said, “You’ll have to answer for what you’ve done. There’ll come a day when you’ll have to answer.” Then he turned and walked out of the café, leaving everyone there to tell the story. How many times had it been told over the years? He knew if he’d walked into Tubby’s at another time, he might have heard someone telling it to whoever was waiting for a haircut, the story of Burton and Lucy and the night Ancil confronted him, a story of love in ruins.
Now Ancil said, “I might be an old man, but I haven’t forgotten. You know I haven’t. You come around my house again, and I swear I’ll do to you what I should’ve done all that time ago.”
“That’s ancient history,” Burton Mack said.
“Not to me,” said Ancil. “Not by a long shot. I’ve lived with it every day of my life.”
Burton Mack stood up. He was only inches from Ancil. The two of them stood there, neither saying a word. Then Burton, in a soft voice, said, “You’re right, Ancil. You’re an old man. Time runs out. Life’s shorter than we’d want it. Trust me, you should let it go.”
Burton reached out and laid his hand on Ancil’s shoulder, and that’s what finally did it, broke through whatever restraint Ancil had been able to manage. That touch. That gentle voice. That holier-than-thou tone. It was more than he could stand.
He knocked Burton Mack’s hand off his shoulder. Then he pushed his forearm into Burton’s throat, driving him backward toward the wall, and he held him there, rage giving him the power he’d lacked on that long-ago Saturday night in the café when he’d still been sick to his stomach and weak with the thought of what Lucy had done. Now he was so gone-to-crazy his voice was a noise he didn’t recognize. Later, he’d try to remember exactly what he said—at least what he tried to say. Something about pain. Something about trying to make a life beyond the moment when all reason to live went away. Something about standing back and taking a long look at your life. Something about knowing exactly who you were.
The only thing he could remember for sure that he said was, “That baby. That poor baby.” But even that was said in a strangled voice, just a bunch of gobbledygook, something to be turned into a joke.
He let his arm drop to his side. He took a few uneasy steps backward and slumped down in a chair, his breath coming fast.
Burton Mack was coughing, sucking air down his windpipe.
Tubby stepped out from around his barber chair with his straight razor. “Everyone just calm down now,” he said. “Everyone just take it easy.”
“What’d you say, Ancil?” asked Burton when he could find his voice. “I couldn’t quite make it out.”
But all Ancil could do was shake his head as he got to his feet and headed toward the door.
He heard Burton say with a lisp. “I guess you can just kiss my goddamn ass.”
And so, in that long-ago day, there came a time when she had to tell Ancil that she was with child. She told him on a winter day when the snow was on the ground, as it was now, and the mercury in the thermometer had dropped below zero. A cold snap. Days and days of it. Days with anguish between them and no way for them to escape each other. Windows iced over on the inside. Ancil kept faucets dripping to save the pipes from freezing. The wind howled down the stovepipe while in the house their voices rose and fell, became silent, then started in again.
“Is it his?” Ancil said. “It is, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” she told him, and it was true. She didn’t. She and Ancil had been trying to have a baby for some time with no luck. The first time with Burtie, he had no condom, and she wanted him so badly she lied and said she was on the pill. After that, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth, and so they went on and on. “Ancil,” she said, “what am I to do?”
This was the moment that always came back to her each winter, the moment when she left everything up to him. She stood at the frozen foods case in Ferguson’s Market, about to reach for a carton of butter pecan ice cream—Ancil’s favorite—and she remembered how lost she’d been, the child taking hold inside her, and how much she needed Ancil to tell her the right thing.
“It’s your mistake,” he said. “I’ll be no part of it.”
Which she took to mean he wouldn’t allow her to stay if she kept the baby.
She realized then that she wanted to stay. Yes, it was exactly what she wanted. What had ever made her think that a boy like Burtie would have any interest in a life with her? If she went to him, what a shame she’d be, she and the child. Burtie had his college to finish. He had his whole life ahead of him, a life that, she was beginning to see now, would have no place in it for her.
So she did what she needed to do. She found a doctor in St. Louis who for the right price would perform a dilation and curettage and make the baby go away. She asked her sister, Eva, to drive her, Eva who had been dead now for years, Eva who said to her, “Oh, honey, this just breaks my heart.”
That evening, when they came back, Ancil was sick with worry. Where had she been? Where had they driven in weather like this?
Eva helped her into bed. She closed the door and went out to face Ancil. Lucy heard their voices.
“Jesus, Eva,” Ancil said. “I was ready to call the State Patrol.”
His frantic worry soothed Lucy.
“Hush,” said Eva. “You’ve got what you wanted.”
Then she went on to tell him exactly where she and Lucy had been.
Lucy waited for Ancil to answer, but for a good while there was only the sound of wind rattling the windowpanes and the whoosh of the gas heating stove as it kicked on.
Finally, he said, “What I wanted? Oh, good Christ.” His words came out in a nearly breathless rush, as if all the air had left him. Lucy heard the springs of his chair as he sat down. Then he said, in a shaky voice, “Was he with her? Does he know?”
“It was the two of us. You know he’s back at school.”
“But does he know?”
“That’s something to ask Lucy,” Eva said.
And finally he did. He waited until the morning after Eva, who had stayed the night, had gone. The sun was out, and from the bed Lucy could see the long icicles outside the window beginning to drip.
Ancil came into the room and stood by her bed. He said to her, “So it’s done.”
She couldn’t look at him. Everything felt so strange. She knew she was in her own house, in the bed they shared, but all of the things around her—the baby-doll nightie tossed over the back of a chair, the bottles of perfume on the dresser, the combs for her hair, the bottles of lotion—seemed as if they belonged to someone else.
“It was for the best,” she said.
“Is that what you decided?”
She turned then and looked at him. He’d spent the night pacing through the house, and once, though Lucy hadn’t been sure, she thought she heard him sobbing. His clothes were wrinkled, his hair uncombed. His eyes were wide with fear or amazement or both.
“Wasn’t it what you decided, too?” she said.
They looked at each other for a long time before he bit his lip and looked away and his face seemed to fall in on itself, cheeks hollowing with a sudden breath, brow sinking, chin wobbling, before he said, “Does he know?”
“No,” she said. “This was our choice, yours and mine.”
He took a long, staggered breath. He lifted his chin, drew his shoulders back. Then he gave the slightest nod and said, “Is there something I can bring you?”
She took that as a sign, the first sign that there might be a chance for them. Winter would pass and spring would come, and they would have years and years.
“Some tea,” she said. “Some hot tea.”
He went out to fetch it, and they went about the business of trying to forget.
What work it had been to get through the days. That’s what Ancil recalled as he walked from Tubby’s Barber Shop to Ferguson’s Market. The grim effort of believing in the future at a time when so much seemed to be lost. He didn’t know whether Lucy ever told Burton Mack about the child. He didn’t know whether she ever talked to him again, and he couldn’t know whether she regretted the decision she made to stay. He only knew he now felt embarrassed over the scene he’d made at Tubby’s and ashamed to be a part of this story that he’d given new life to, this story of lives in disarray that would live longer than any of the people involved. The only person he could think to speak of it with was Lucy, who was just then stepping out of the Market, the box boy behind her, two bags of groceries in his arms.
“I can take those,” Ancil said, and he reached to grab the bags.
But the boy was insistent. “That’s all right, sir,” he said. Such a polite and earnest boy. “It’s what Mr. Ferguson pays me to do.”
What could Ancil do but give in, even though what he really wanted was to be alone with Lucy so he could tell her about the footprints in the snow and the fool thing he did in the barber shop.
“It’s the truck down there,” he said, and raised his arm to point.
“You drive that silver Explorer?” the boy said. They all started walking toward the truck. “Do you live at the end of Cedar Street in the white house, the last one as you go out of town?”
“That’s us,” said Lucy. “The last house on your left.”
“I was out there yesterday looking for you.” At the truck, the boy put his foot on the front bumper, so he could use his knee to boost the grocery bags up in his arms as he adjusted his grip. “I knocked and knocked, but no answer. I even went around looking in windows, hoping I might raise someone.”
Ancil looked down at the boy’s boot. Red Wing.
“What in the hell did you want?” Ancil said. His mistaken assumption about who’d left those footprints filled him with anger. “What was so urgent that you felt you should go around looking in our windows?”
“You just what?” To think he’d raised a ruckus in Tubby’s—had actually pressed his forearm into Burton Mack’s throat—with no cause other than the bitter history between them left Ancil with little patience for the boy. “Well, what was it?”
“Ancil,” Lucy said, “there’s no need for that tone.”
“It was your change from when you were in the store that day,” the boy said. “You walked out without it. Didn’t you find it in the envelope I put between your front door and the storm door? I didn’t want to leave it like that, but like I said, I couldn’t raise anyone.”
Ancil had trouble finding his voice. He remembered now, laying the change on the counter while he reached for his keys. Lucy had gone ahead and was already on her way to the truck. He was in a hurry to catch up with her so he could be there to steady her in case she slipped on the ice. He knew now that he’d left the change—a five, two quarters, and a nickel—on the counter, and that had been the start of this sequence of events that had brought them to where they were now.
“Unlock the truck, Ancil,” Lucy said, and he did what she told him to do.
Lucy reached into her purse and took out a ten-dollar bill. “You take this,” she said to the boy. “Go on. Take it for your trouble. It was a good thing you did.”
He put his hand out in front of him and shook his head. “I can’t do that, ma’am. No, ma’am. It was no trouble at all.”
Lucy looked at him a good while before folding the ten and putting it back into her purse. She reached out, then, and touched him on the cheek, just the way, Ancil thought, that a grandmother would, and the boy let her, as if he sensed somehow that this was what she needed to do and who would he be if he stopped her?
When she finally spoke, her voice had a bit of a quaver in it. “You’re a good boy,” she said. “Mercy.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy said, and then he was gone, on his way back to the store.
Ancil and Lucy
On the drive home, Ancil said to Lucy, “Who was that boy? Who are his people?”
She looked out the window at the snow that had started to fall. “That boy?” she said. She thought Ancil knew, and for a moment, she wondered if he did and only wanted to make her say the name. “That boy is Hattie’s grandson.”
The truck bumped over the railroad tracks. Then Ancil said, “Hattie Mack?”
“Yes,” said Lucy, and then they rode along in silence, leaving Burton’s name unspoken.
Ancil had been about to tell her what he’d done in the barber shop, but then she told him who the boy was, and he couldn’t bring himself to go on. Sometimes, like now, the past was too much with them, and all Ancil knew to do was to be quiet, to hunker down, and wait.
The snow was slanting down hard from the west, already sticking to the street. He had to turn on the wipers to keep the windshield clear.
“Are your lights on?” Lucy asked.
Ancil reached forward and turned on his running lights. He said, “Lucy?”
He wanted to tell her about his anger, about the way it was always with him, and how it had boiled over in the barber shop. He wanted to tell her that he felt diminished by it all—what a scene he’d made—and that he saw the end of their life together getting closer and how he was glad that they’d managed to hold on. He wanted to say that he’d never stopped loving her, that the thing that had happened with Burton Mack and her had sliced him open, but little by little, day by day, he’d found a way to heal—until he saw those footprints in the snow and he started to wonder what someone looking in would make of the two of them.
Once upon a time, there was a man and a wife and a child that the wife decided she didn’t want. He wanted to tell Lucy that if he mourned at all, it was for the fact that he’d led her to believe that this was what he wanted, too. If only he’d said the right things all those years ago, but really, at the time, who knew what those things were. Ancil wondered if she ever knew that he sometimes imagined who that child would have been and how he or she might have changed them in ways both wise and wonderful—taken them outside themselves, perhaps, made them look toward the future rather than so much into the past.
But then Lucy said, “It’s slick out. Be careful.”
And all Ancil could think to say was, “I will.”
Lucy remembered how Burtie’s grandson had let her touch his face. How much love had he never had the chance to give, all because a long time ago, Burtie had seemed like the world to her. She wondered if Ancil knew that she sometimes thought back to those days and especially that moment when the doctor in St. Louis asked her one more time if she was sure, and she said yes, yes she was. Did Ancil know how often she wished she could go back and change her mind, to leave that doctor’s office and go to Burtie and tell him about the baby she was carrying and to ask him—please, Burtie, oh please—wasn’t there a way that they could manage a life together? What did anyone know about what they wanted and what they didn’t? What did anyone know about how to live a life?
At the last intersection before the straight shot out of town, a pickup truck with rusted fenders ran a stop sign.
“Watch out,” Lucy said.
But Ancil had already seen the truck and he was slowing down, tapping his brakes, trying to keep the Explorer from sliding in the snow. The pickup shot through the intersection just a fraction of a second before the Explorer would have been in its path.
“It’s all right,” Ancil said.
“My word,” said Lucy. “My heart is pounding.”
“It’s all right, old girl.” Ancil reached over and patted her arm. “Don’t worry. We’re fine.”
They drove on, the houses becoming fewer and farther apart as they went, the darkness coming on now—a quiet, cold night, the snow settling in over the houses and the fields. Ahead of him, Ancil could see the porch light that Lucy had thought to leave on, a faint glow in the distance. He drove toward that light, toward the house of last chances, where some bright thing between them—neither Ancil nor Lucy dared anymore to call it love—had almost gone out, but not now, not yet, not quite.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.
“The Last Civilized House” is excerpted from The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin and forthcoming from Dzanc Books on June 12, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Lee Martin. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Dzanc Books.