My hands are strong, big hands. Hands that can wrestle a bear. I work a full day at the mill. Work that kills my back and breaks my spirit. My wife, Lorain, says shifting logs has made my hands rough and ugly. She can’t stand to look at them. I don’t ask about touching her.
Before heading home, I drive to the bar just off the highway. I order whisky. A woman sits across from me. She drinks gin and eats constantly from the bowl of salty knick-knacks, and she can’t keep from looking at my hands. I raise my glass to my lips then bring it down again and all the while she stares, her eyes fixed on them. I know that there are women who read hands like cards. To tell your future. And I want none of it. I shoot down my whisky and go. A single whisky, that’s it. I haven’t drunk that little in a long while. First time any woman’s done that trick.
I drive home. Sure Lorain will be happy to see me early. The house is quiet, and dark. I switch on the kitchen light, take some lamb chops out the freezer and go upstairs. She lies asleep with the television on and the sound down. The television flickers, giving the room a ghostly light. I remove my jacket and sit beside her. The bed squeaks as I lean over to kiss her. She wakes up, jerks back, with her hands raised. It scares her somehow seeing me there. She looks confused. I smile and try brush her cheek with my hand, but she moves away, sitting up, and adjusts her gown to cover her breasts. She is wearing her old dressing gown, the same one she’s worn since before we were married. I stop smiling and let her be. It wasn’t a good idea to wake her like that, but why does she have to be so damn upset? I find the remote beside her pillow and switch off the television. She turns on the bedside lamp and runs her hands through her hair.
What are you doing home? she says.
I skipped out early, I say, bending to remove my boots.
Please not in the bedroom? she says. She gets up, flaring her arms, knocking the shade from the lamp.
Take it easy. I try to get her to sit back down. But she won’t.
Just look at you, she says, fastening her gown.
What’s the matter?
Oh hell, what’s the matter? she asks, striding over to a corner of the room.
You don’t listen to me. I’ve asked you not to come up in your muddy boots, she says, the palms of her hands pressing against her temples.
I stand up and move towards her. Come on, Lorain, take it easy.
She pushes past me and goes to the door.
Before I can say anything, she leaves the room.
I feel better now that she’s gone. Sure, she’s spoken to me about my boots, but I take care of the mud and that’s all it is. I hear noises coming from the kitchen. Angry noises. Cupboards being opened and shut. She is talking and talking, her voice rising. Yelling at me from downstairs. I catch everything she says, mostly because she keeps repeating it. I sit down at her dressing table and unlace my boots. Her anger goes on. I sit there listening, looking at myself in the mirror. The mirror is large and I can see almost the whole room reflected in it. I see things differently: the queen-sized bed, the wardrobe, the curtains of lace, and myself, sitting there, in that room, alone, in my work clothes, wearing my boots. I put my hands on the whitewashed dressing table and spread my fingers, there on the smooth white wood together with her hairbrush, lipstick, blush, and her open jewellery box: sparkling chains spilling out like worms. My hands close into fists.
She stops talking then and it’s quiet for a while. But it isn’t peaceful. It’s that silence that comes at night, the kind you can’t sleep in. Then she starts up again, only gentler now. She isn’t speaking to me.
Carol, she says. She is on the phone to an old friend of ours. I think about Carol and her husband Jack, my old fishing buddy. It’s been a while since we’ve seen them. Lorain is asking how everybody is back home. Listening to her voice now, she sounds different. She sounds how she used to. I look at the bed, at the two pillows set apart on either side, with the remote lying in the space between them. I listen to her talking to our friend, so far away, and she does sound so much like the girl I married, not so long ago.
I turn away from the mirror and lace up my boots. I get up, put my jacket on, close the bedroom door behind me and go downstairs. In the living room, on the sofa, Lorain tells Carol how things on our side are, how life outside the city is suiting us. Her voice sounds singsong, and light, like it will float away. But as I stand in the hall, looking at her, seeing her look back at me, I find myself hiding my hands behind my back. And I realise that she isn’t the same girl any more. Her face is long and heavy, her mouth turned down at the edges. But the worst of it is what I have to hide.
I drive back to the bar. The place is full now. Some people are having their dinners, but mostly people just sit there drinking. I find an empty seat at the end of the bar and ask for a whisky. The woman is still there, drinking gin, staring into her glass. The bowl of bar snacks is empty. She doesn’t seem drunk. She’s full of tricks. I hold my whisky out in front of me, up towards the light, turning the glass, and place my other hand on the bar. She looks towards me. I look back. She smiles. But then she flinches and her eyes shut as if she’s just remembered something painful. She looks up at the wall clock, pulls a few banknotes from her purse and leaves them under her glass.
By the time she gets to the door he is there. A guy wearing a leather jacket and cowboy boots. She steps back, steadies herself, holding her hair back from her eyes, and then walks out, past him, without saying a word. He follows her.
I finish my drink and go outside.
They stand by a black Datsun with its headlights on. He holds her purse and is yelling. She looks away, her arms folded. As I come towards them she looks at me. He looks, too. And that’s when he hits her, across the face with her purse. She falls in front of the car. He throws the purse down, and glares at me, first at my boots and then up at my hands. She sits up, huddling into herself, at the wheel of the car, hiding her face against her knees.
The guy takes a step towards me and before I know it my hands are around his neck. I squeeze. He gets hold of my wrists and tries to scream. He reminds me of a fish I caught once: his mouth gaping, his eyes small, black pearls. When he is down on his knees, I stop. I pick him up like a log into the air, and throw him down in front of the car, the headlights catching the dust. He stays there, gasping and clutching his throat, but he doesn’t get up.
I go slowly to her. She looks up at me, and then at him, belly down in the dirt. I touch the top of her head, and then step away. She picks herself up and comes over to me. She doesn’t say anything, and neither do I.
We go back inside. I sit down and she sits next to me. I order us some drinks and then I put both my hands on the bar. Her eyes are on them and I turn them over, let her get a good look. Someone goes over to the jukebox and puts on a record. We both know the song. It is a good song. She puts her hand on mine and holds it to her cheek.