With effort, he led himself down the walkway. He understood the consequences of things like restraining orders. He filled out such forms all the time.The police station was in walking distance, and a few hours later, he returned to the house with his partner as a buffer. The partner, a woman, had listened at her desk patiently, running a red rubber band through her fingers, the kind a checker might wrap around an egg carton, over and over, listening, snapping, as Jim was not one to tell stories, to make things up, though he did seem to live in his own world, something about his height and thinness, and the pure gray ness in his eyes, and his long face, and his interest in walking and thinking and not driving and the contents of the bag lunches he brought from home that always had an egg salad sandwich on black bread, an apple, and a raw head of broccoli, every day; sometimes, on Fridays, a bar of chocolate. He seemed like a character more than a real person. At end-of-the-year parties and celebrations, there was always a Jim joke, usually good-natured in tone, because it was the easiest thing in the world to make fun of a man biting into a clump of broccoli at his desk and raining down all those little dots of green, or for his lack of interest in his police car, or his sincere plea to return to riding on horses, or his revulsion about guns. But she loved him, as a friend, and had visited him almost every day after Jenny had died, sitting with him on his worn gold-cushioned sofa, holding his hand, looking out of the living-room window of his new apartment together for an hour, an apartment she had found, rented, signed the lease for, and faintly furnished from nearby garage sales since he had been unable to do much of anything and had been sleeping on a cot in a cell at the station jail, made homeless by the fire. How could she possibly say no?
At 5:30 she packed up her backpack and exited at his side, both still in uniform. “It’s near the old house,” Jim said. He shook his head. “Maybe it’ll be gone,” Shady said, popping in a piece of gum, and Jim said he suspected it would be, his voice rattling as he said it. They were used to one another and walked in silence, quick paced, though as they grew closer Jim began muttering to himself, trying to retrace his steps, seeming suddenly like a sad, old, forgetful man, say ing, “I can’t find it, I can’t find it,” even before they approached the knot of blocks, and it took a few circlings, down one street, past the other, but finally they turned a corner and halfway down the block there it was. Birch trees, prickly hedge, dark blue door. “Very much like yours,” Shady murmured, impressed, and Jim’s face was flushing now at the sight of it, and he beckoned her up, her first, “Please,” and so she had been the one to knock with a firm politeness until the door opened again. “Can I help you?” This time it was Shady who stuttered in surprise, as she had known Jenny too, had been friends in the way that one is friends with the spouse of a work colleague, had tried Jenny’s endless variety of new winter soups brought by Jim in metal thermoses, had eaten more squash and leeks out of politeness than she had ever desired, all those seven years ago, but Shady was very good at recovering and even better at talking, at calming the woman, who blanched at the repeat visit, at the sight of the two uniforms, and Shady lowered her voice to explain, in brief, the situation. She said she knew it was unorthodox but it would be such a helpful thing if only her friend Jim could understand, could hear a little more, as she—this woman—looked so much like his late wife, Jenny, “so much! My goodness. He’s not making it up. I knew her too.”
The woman narrowed her eyes and kept the door at half but did not close it. “Please—would it be possible for us to ask you a few questions?” Shady asked, and the woman said, slowly, maybe. “And this is not for any crime?” “You’ve done no crime at all,” said Shady. “On the contrary,” said Jim softly, “you are undoing a crime just by standing there.” “It would be a great service,” Shady said. “Would it be possible to tell us your name?” The woman let out a breath. She smoothed her hair. Her name was Jenna, she explained. Not Jenny. “With an ‘a.’” “Married?” She had had a husband, yes, but that husband had not been him. “I’ve never seen this man before this morning. My husband’s name was Ronald.” Ronald. “My wife died in a fire,” Jim said, reaching a hand forward, “seven years ago last week,” and Jenna looked away, toward what seemed to be the kitchen, or at least had been the kitchen at Jim’s house, and said her husband had died in a car crash, “seven years and a few months ago,” and she did not understand who he was or why on earth he recognized her. “Please put down your hand,” she said. “You are not in any way familiar to me.” “I’m Jim,” he offered hopefully. “My wife looked just like you,” and Jenna, with a growing sternness in her voice, said that she had no sisters. Or female cousins. “Or,” she laughed curtly, “clones.” “Of course,” said Shady soothingly, nodding, stepping in front of Jim, waving him back. Shady, later, on the walk home, told Jim she had glimpsed a pile of leeks in a colander on the kitchen sink while they were talking and it had given her a chill. “Who eats leeks?” she had asked as they walked, and Jim had said a lot of Mexican recipes used leeks, French ones too. “Most supermarkets carry leeks,” he said, hands in his pockets, his voice climbing down to the lower tones, ones Shady hadn’t heard since that first year of hideous grief. “I mean, it’s all unthinkable,” he said, clearing his throat. “I just am less surprised at the leek aspect.”
At the door, Jim, standing slightly behind Shady, asked about the woman’s father—was it Edward? And a curious bothered look came over Jenna’s face as she stepped back, as she closed the door a little more, and she said, yes, her father might in fact be an Edward. “Not your Edward, though,” she said. “And your mother is Allegra?” and she snorted, relieved. “No, no, not at all.” He could feel himself melting at the door, like his spine was dissolving as he stared at her, listened to her voice, and Shady held onto his arm, telling the woman that if she wanted them to go they would go, they did not want to disturb her, not at all, they shouldn’t have come in uniform, the whole thing was uncomfortable, even bad, and Jim said to Shady, “Tell me, please, partner, is there a mole on her neck in the shape of a roof?” and Jenna, with anger in her forehead, cocked her head hard to show him the bare landscape of her neck and said, “Enough!” and he bowed his head. She opened the door a little wider and told Shady this was not helpful to her, this talk, none of it was OK, and she did not need reminders of the Ronalds and the not-Ronalds of the world, “which is everyone!” she said, starting to cry, her tears fast and spilling, and Jim and Shady said their apologies and goodbyes and murmurs of understanding even though they understood nothing, and walked away. “It is weird,” said Shady, down the walkway. “I can confirm the weirdness,” which meant Jim hugged her closely and kissed her thin, light, soft hair for a moment as despite the volumes of help she had given him so far he had never before felt such gratitude for her friendship as right then: her mind a tightrope to walk his away from chaos. They walked home mostly in silence except for the discussion of the leeks.
Soon after, as in that evening, Jim went to the local library to look up records and found a photo of the Ronald who had died in a car crash, married to a Jenna, and they had no children and had lived at the address he had found that day, three blocks away from where he had lived in a house that had looked almost identical and had burned down with his wife inside, a fire most likely set by her, an arsonist out to get her own self. He read the details of the crash, and how Ronald’s car had been cut in two by a semi driven by a person asleep who had been on the road for thirty hours in a row and whose wells of caffeine had finally run dry. Ronald had died instantly at the scene, and the truck driver had been fired and charged with manslaughter. In the library, at the long wooden table by the cluster of green-glassed lamps, Jim wept quietly.
The following day, on his lunch break, he wrote her a note, on a card with a vase of daisies on the cover. He had taken twenty minutes picking out the card at the stationery store down the road from work and had decided on daisies as they were friendly but would not, he hoped, be construed as romantically pushy.
I am the man who showed up at your door and upset you. I wanted to say I am sorry for invading your privacy, and I am sorry for coming in uniform on personal business, and I meant no offense. I am so sorry for your loss. I suffered a great loss myself, of my wife, who died in a fire she most likely set herself. This occurred in the same year and season as the death of your husband, and my wife, Jenny, did resemble you quite a bit. It was a very confusing moment, and I did not believe it could be possible about Ronald until I looked it up. I am very sorry. Please excuse my behavior.
PS: I am a police officer, in case you need anything to do with law enforcement.
The next morning, he returned to work and caught up on the filing he’d left unfinished after his afternoon walk got so derailed. He went to the nearby café to follow up on a robbery report. He picked up his car from the train station parking lot where he’d left it after he got tired of driving one afternoon. “I am losing my mind,” he’d said to Shady then, just a week before, and Shady had laughed.
After finishing the paperwork, he approached Shady’s desk and told her he had sent a short apology note to Jenna so he should be able to stay away from that house for a little bit. “Good,” Shady said, chewing on her pen. Her teeth had faint black marks on them. “You know you can’t go back, right?” Shady said, chewing. She wiped a hand over her mouth. “I do.” “Because she was crying at the end, right? You saw that?” “I did.”
“Weird,” she said again. “They really did look alike.”
He did not fill in how he did think she was related to Jenny—not a clone, not a sister unknown, but a new Jenny, a metaphysical twin Jenny. He could not explain this to anyone, he knew. He held it in his mind, though, like a trophy, and at any spare moment he would bring out the thought, the golden shining thought, and burnish it with a soft cloth. To promote normalcy, he skipped his bag lunch and took Shady to a thank-you meal at her favorite all-you-can-eat Thai buffet, and heard about her ailing mother as they nearly emptied the curried chicken container between the two of them. He left on time, and went to bed early.
Each day, a mountain. Do not return. You wrote her a letter. You already reached out. You do not actually know her. She spells her name with an “a.” He pinned a calendar of serene lakes on the wall of his workstation, and circled a date at the very end of the month, and told himself he only had to survive until then. Then you can consider walking by again, he said. Be a lake, he told himself. Make your mind into a lake. He joined an online site that was supposed to help with healthy living where people pledged good habits, such as walking three times a week, or avoiding white flour, or writing in a journal so that one’s life did not pass by unremarked, but he already walked everywhere and ate only pumpernickel and never had done well with journals as he had nothing to say the minute he took a pen in his hand, so he signed up for the customized option and typed for himself just the one rule: Don’t Walk By. Each word capitalized, like a title. Every day he received an email that guided him back to the site where he was supposed to report on the day before. Did you Walk By? the site asked, and he clicked No. Did you Walk By? the site asked again, the following day, and he clicked No. But he felt no pride in the clicking, even though the site gave him a pixilated present for each successful day, so sometimes he’d open up to an animated puppy leaping up and down, or a purple-haired genie-woman saying, Nice job in a breathy voice. Click click click. It meant nothing. He knew he would fail. He could not possibly make it until the end of the month, or even the end of the week, or hour. “Just one walk by,” he told himself on Wednesday afternoon, and he could feel the rising in him, like he was twisting into a rope held by another hand across town at the house with a slow persistent tug on the entirety of his being, so in a panic, he grabbed the key ring on Shady’s desk that opened the three holding cells in the back area and during lunch break sat on the faded cot in his favorite one breathing himself to regular until he felt he could go home without the detour. That evening, back on the worn gold couch Shady had found at the local thrift shop for twenty four dollars, he looked up AA meetings nearby to see if there was any group he could join but everything was about substances, and nothing, he thought to himself, scrolling, clicking, for people who compulsively want to go visit and even hope to make love to their former wife reincarnated into a nearly identical but slightly different person who did not recognize him at all. “You have no access to her body,” he explained to himself in the mirror, when he kept imagining knocking on the door. “Her eyes do not know you,” he said. “Her hands will not touch you. You think you can just go there? That is how rapists think,” he admonished himself, which scared him effectively for a few days. “This is you, Jim,” to the mirror, “being a bad guy.” Over the weekend, he worked extra hours and located two men carrying guns illegally a few towns over and after locking them up in the holding cells at the station offered to get them a meal of their choice or any item they requested under fifteen dollars—a soda, a magazine, a toy? “While you wait for your loved ones,” he said, “please, just give me something to do,” and they laughed at him. “You look like a clay sculpture,” one said, assessing, “the kind in those animated movies?” and Jim nodded. “I am that,” he said. “They base those on me.”
On Friday of the second week, he received a reply from Jenna. The timing was good. Breakdown was imminent. He’d stopped clicking daily on the website and had ripped the calendar off the wall. “My mind is made of rapids!” he yelled at the April lake, a blue mirror nested in the middle of mountain jags. “Rapids! Raft me!” Shady had, more than once, walked him around the block using the low, firm tone of voice she had tucked away from her previous dog-training career. How he longed to just see if the house was still there, bringing a camera this time so he could memorize the visual differences or maybe bringing someone else from town who could further corroborate, maybe just having a picnic lunch outside, on the sidewalk, even across the street, maybe just looking into house prices next door, had the house up the street shown a For Sale sign? when the card arrived in the mail at the station. He immediately recognized the handwriting, and the size and color of the envelope, a neat little cream-colored rectangle, similar in style to a card set his Jenny had owned. It was midday, at work, and he sat at his desk and stared at the envelope for some time before opening it.
Before the fire, before anything had gotten bad with Jenny, and with them, when he was doing well at his job, and she was starting at the restaurant, and seemed less lost than when they’d met, she had come home with a newly bought series of cards. It was a twelve set of ink-and-watercolor illustrations of vegetables from the same stationery store he’d gone to for the daisy card. “Look!” she had said, hanging up her coat, walking over to him. “Aren’t they pretty?” The artist had rendered carefully drawn carrots and bell peppers and cabbages, with ink outlines and watercolor splashes inside, and Jenny had shown him every picture and then delightedly put them away on a shelf, but something about the purchase had bothered Jim, more than a person might usually be bothered by cards.
“Why those?” he had asked, as casually as he could.
“What do you mean?” she said. “Aren’t they so nice?” She was at the counter, beginning to chop up the three-dimensional versions of the same things she’d just shown him in pictures: a cabbage, three tomatoes, an eggplant.
“But you like other things.”
“Of course I do!” she’d said brightly. But he had felt, seeing those cards, such an acute and overwhelming wave of claustrophobia of identity. It was like she’d landed on a theme and everything she did had to relate to that same theme. When they’d met, she had been so aimless, so tremblingly drifty, eyelashes often stuck together with tears, taking the bus to the end of the line and then calling him, lost, crying, getting out of bed in the middle of the night to wander the neighborhood in her nightgown, but the job at the restaurant, found for her by Jim, encouraged by Jim, had fixed it—but not necessarily fixed as in bettered, fixed as in made rigid. Her work, her conversations, her reading, her refrigerator magnets, her dreams, her jokes, everything had become focused on food. She likes dogs, he remembered thinking that day, long ago. Why couldn’t she get dog cards. She likes the history of Lewis and Clark and the West. She likes abstract expressionism. In fact, he had been so bothered by this choice of cards that when she was at work that evening, he’d actually gone to her desk and found the little boxed packet and thrown it away in a trash bin in town. And he never did things like that, would not read a lover’s diary if it was placed in front of him, open, highlighted, but something in the cards felt that bad to him. The way poisoned salmon from salmon farms had been fed salmon to eat—no wonder they turned poisonous, he’d thought.
She’d come home late, when he was already asleep, but in the morning, she woke up in an unusually chipper mood, donning a knit cap as she made her coffee, singing a little, and she told him that she’d had such a good time the evening before, and someone had loved her food so much they’d sent her a note into the kitchen, thanking her with a poem in rhyme for the deliciousness of the meal, and she wanted to write a thank-you card back, and she was pink cheeked and cheerful and grabbing a pen, but before he even figured out the dilemma about to happen he was annoyed because was she really going to write a thank you for a thank you? When would it stop? Couldn’t someone just take the compliment and end the line? It was Saturday morning, and he sat in the soft chair with the newspaper, running his thumb along the feathery page divisions, trying not to pay attention as she rummaged around in her desk. Who am I? he’d thought to himself, his thumb on the newspaper fringes, to throw away my wife’s thank you cards in secrecy? Everything else is fine, he told himself. He himself was generally fine. She seemed to be doing fine. But he had wrapped up the thank-you cards in two layers of plastic bags and had hid them in his glove compartment and driven them down the hill and thrown them away in the least conspicuous trash can in the center of town, the one on the far side of the post office, just to be sure she would never find out. Wasn’t that an odd thing to do? Why did he do that?
After twenty minutes of searching, while he reread and reread the same newspaper article about flu season and how people were trying to prepare by taking new vitamin supplements, Jenny stumbled out of the office nook and asked Jim if he had a thank-you card she could use. “I can’t seem to find those new thank-you cards,” she said, pulling in her forehead, “have you seen them?”
“Your cards?” he said. “No.” He smiled up at her, folded the newspaper down. “You could buy new cards?” he said. “Maybe of dogs?”
“I suppose,” and she pulled the knit cap back on, and headed out and drove the car away. He sat in the empty house, listening to the creaks of it, and the absence of a pet, no four-legged click-clack of nails on wood, because for some reason, neither could make the move to get one, same with children, something stalled when thinking of more alive things in the household, even plants seeming like too much bother, and then before he knew it, the sound of her parking again, the settling of the engine. “Good!” she said, entering, hanging her coat back on the coat rack.
He looked up. He had not progressed beyond the flu article. He stretched his feet out on the footstool.
“Lucky me,” she said. She reached into her bag. And before she brought it out, he knew, and when he saw that same yellow gourd on the cover, the same splash of watercolor inside the frame of ink, he could not even begin to explain the surge of rage and terror that stormed inside him.
“They had quite a few left,” she said, smiling, patting down her hair.
And she was off down the hall to her desk. It had stilled Jim, in his chair. He could not have said why, but he had trouble moving. He put the newspaper down. He closed his eyes. It’s just a card set, he told himself. It is nothing of any import. It is her pleasant choice. I am overreacting, he said, holding onto the word like it was the breathing tube of a snorkel, his one small tunnel to air from beneath volumes of water. Overreacting, ov-er-re-act-ing. But later, after the fire, after the surprise of her death, after all that time sitting and breathing himself through panic and pain in the police holding cell, of tracking his own clouds of made-up stories about them together, if he could trace anything in retrospect, had any clues of unrest in the marriage, in the core of Jenny, some sense that they were folding in on themselves, he would track it to that moment: to him and his two plastic bags, hiding something inexplicable from them both; to her, returning home with the same set. “Lucky me,” she’d said, and he felt the cave close around them together.
The envelope in his hand may have been the same, but inside it was a new card. The new Jenny, Jenna, wrote him back on plain folded stationery, on small, thick white paper, with a gold line running the edges. No food. No vegetable drawings. Her handwriting, slanted and slightly curly, was basically the same. Maybe a longer loop on the y and the g, but he wasn’t sure. He smelled the paper, and he looked at its front and back, and for a second, he felt so proud, so glad. Good, he thought. She will survive, this one, he thought. She is stronger. He traced the gold line with his fingertip. The new Jenna was healthier than his Jenny, he thought, and he meant it to be hopeful, but just as he thought it, he pricked his finger on a corner. The paper edge cut so cleanly it pierced the skin.
Thank you for your note. I appreciated it. I also am sorry for your loss.
He waved to Shady as he left the building into the open day, the streets quiet, the air warm. He did not have a plan for his walk, but he needed the motion to nail down a thought, a thought he could not access unless his legs were moving. He crossed the street, passed a young couple holding hands, an older man with a sack lunch sitting on a bench. He was a little hungry but it was helpful, the hunger, a kind of thin reed of drive to keep him going. What was it about the card? What was it about the message? He dodged a set of sprinklers watering grass by the sidewalk and crossed the street again, turned. It had happened before, hadn’t it? Was that it? With Lance? Jim passed the diner, the post office, turning at the stop sign. His stride was brisk. Heart rate picking up. His old high-school friend Lance, of the warmest blue eyes. Lance’s longtime girlfriend, Heddie, had been such a wreck: addicted to pills, listless about sex, hating her body, crying all the time. Sleeping until noon every weekend, even when she’d gone to bed early. Insulting people and refusing to apologize. And Lance had been so good to Heddie, had held her through every crying jag, every spell of rage, but they'd finally broken up when Heddie had run away for a month and not told anyone where she was. Jim crossed the street again. Turned again. He had known Lance for so long. He was a good guy, such a well-meaning guy, and he, Lance, had been all set to forgive her, and Heddie came back with her hair a nest and called him an asshole, and he was ready to forgive that too, and she hit the wall with her fist, broke a light switch, yelled, Go away! and he said, No, he wouldn’t, not ever, until finally she ran out the door screaming. Lance was cut up about it, distraught, so worried that if he wasn’t out looking for her he was abandoning her, his Heddie. But she was nowhere to be found.
Jim looped the little park. Some jaywalkers on the street. A couple of wrongly parked cars.
A few years later, Lance had run into Heddie at a bookstore outside Seattle. She was working at the front counter. She had grown out her hair and she combed it now. She had stopped taking pills and had joined a support group of former addicts, and she’d fallen in love with a fellow in the group. She had hugged Lance. She looked him in his kindest blue eyes and told him thank you. She held his hands. She apologized for her behavior. She said she was much happier now, it had been a very hard time in her life, and he had been very good to her, and the hard time had nothing to do with him, nothing at all, except, and she did not say this part, he had only fit in her life when all that other stuff was happening. Lance had told Jim the whole story years ago, sitting with beers on a cliffside, legs dangling, bewildered. They were watching the sun set over the highway and the Pacific Ocean, their feet tangled in ice plants. Jim had said very little at the time. But although no one had died in this scenario, and no one had showed up from the dead with a new but highly similar name and a house conjured from nothingness, the feeling wasn’t so different, was it, what Lance had described, through tears, as he sat next to Jim on a fallen log, the two of them staring out at the glittering water behind a sweep of fuchsia bougainvillea flowers. “She does better without me,” Lance said, picking at a beef-jerky wrapper. “Nah,” said young Jim, though he hadn’t known what to say. “She even looks like she likes sex now,” said Lance. “Just not my sex.” “Nah,” said Jim, starting to dig his thumb into an orange peel. But they both understood that something was true: that Heddie was better, that Lance had been part of the picture portrait of miserable Heddie, and happy Heddie could only exist without Lance. He had not caused unhappy Heddie, but he did not fit with happy Heddie, and her growth had rendered him obsolete. It was all Jim could think about, walking closer and closer now to the knot of blocks, making the turns, edging nearer, even as he found himself dipping into a florist shop and picking and paying without really noticing what he was doing. Even as he walked down the street, toward the birch trees, in view of the door. Knowing that Jenna could only buy the plain stationery with the gold-framed border now that she had no Jim in her life—that in some way he’d made sense to her only when she was about to implode even if he had not known how or why.
I never knew her, he thought to himself. Not really. Who did I love then? Who was it?
He stopped his walk on the sidewalk in front of the house, holding the bouquet. He would not step onto the lawn. He would not walk up to the door. How long did he plan on standing there? He had no idea. After a few minutes, a couple of people approached with their dogs—a little energetic white terrier and a large, older German Shepherd mix. The young man with the shepherd stopped and looked at Jim curiously.
“Everything OK over here?” the young man asked. “With Jenna?” He spoke with confidence under his long bangs and strong eyebrows. The dog kept close to his side, panting.
“Yes, I believe so,” said Jim.
“You’re a police officer?”
Jim had forgotten he was still in uniform. “I am. Yes. But there’s no police issue.”
“Glad to hear it.”
The other dogwalker’s terrier was tugging at the leash, and the young man waved his friend on.
“I’ll catch up,” he said. He looked Jim up and down. “You look like a painting or something. One of those old-fashioned paintings. Standing there with those flowers.”
“Would you possibly mind ringing the bell for me?” Jim asked. “To Jenna’s?”
“I don’t want to intrude.”
“You on a restraining order or something?”
“No,” Jim said. “Besides, those are three hundred feet. This is probably fifty feet. Sixty?”
The young man looked at him funny but he did go up and tap on the door and call Jenna, Jenna, with a voice of ease and protection, and when she opened, the dog wagged its tail and she hugged the young man as if they were old friends. His Jenny had also liked dogs. She scratched the shepherd’s head and followed the young man’s questioning gaze to Jim on the sidewalk.
“You know this guy?” in audible tones.
“Not really. Kind of.”
“Want me to stay?”
“No,” she said. “It’s OK. I think he’s harmless.”
The dogwalker shifted a little on his feet. “OK if I stay?” “Oh, sure,” she said. “Sure.”
Jim didn’t step closer. He raised a hand to wave.
“I’m sorry,” he called. “I am sorry to bother you. May I just say something quickly?”
The dogwalker stepped to the side so that Jenna could hear better. The dog sat between them, tail thumping.
“I guess?” Jenna said slowly. She was wearing a new deep lilac colored blouse, one that brought out the pink in her cheeks, and her eyes were alert with efficiency. She had been busy doing something before the knock.
“Thank you for the note,” Jim said. He kept his gaze solely on Jenna, even though the dogwalker and the dog’s wet, black eyes were glued on him. “I can see you are doing well. I am so glad. I am so grateful. It’s hard to explain how glad. If you would ever be interested in getting to know each other just as friends, I would be honored. But of course you don’t have to. That’s all I wanted to say.”
She stared at him.
He held forward the bundle of freesia.
“I mean, I’m glad I’m doing well too,” she said, “thank you. But no. This whole thing has been weird. And I don’t really want flowers from you either.” She winced.
“Right,” said Jim, pulling in his arm. “Of course.”
“I’m not comfortable with surprise visits,” she said. “I did not imagine we would ever see each other again.”
The dogwalker stood a little taller. The dog lay down, kicked out its legs. Jim pressed his nose into the flowers, breathing in the scent. His Jenny had never been so forthright.
“I understand,” he said. He stumbled over his words a little. “I’m sorry. I won’t come again.”
His eyes filled with tears, and for a second, across the lawn, her face relaxed and all fell, briefly, into familiarity. A breeze passed through the air, and she indicated the bouquet. “They’re lovely,” she called. “I mean, I still don’t want them, but freesia happen to be my favorite.”
He bowed his head. It took every bit of willpower inside not to say it aloud—how he had known to buy freesia, how they had been Jenny’s favorite too.
“Goodbye, Jim,” Jenna said, closing the door. “Thanks, Jay.”
The dogwalker and dog watched him walk all the way down to the corner, and when he turned, he could see them standing on her lawn, watching him still.
He left the bouquet of flowers leaning on a lamppost. They looked like an altar for a traffic fatality. For Ronald, he thought to himself, as he returned to the station. For Ronald, for Ronald, whoever you were.
Shady was on the phone and he nodded at her and she looked at him inquiringly, at the new thing on his face, whatever it was. He sat down at his desk and stayed there for a few minutes, feeling his body in his chair, looking at the bits of torn calendar in the trash, the scraps of blue lake pictures. When he was ready, he turned to his computer and logged onto the health site.
Did you Walk By? the little computerized box asked.
Yes, he clicked.
An abashed emoticon cat face came up. That’s OK, it said. Meow. Better luck tomorrow.
I would like to change the rule, he typed.
Sure, said the cat. Here are some of our most popular suggestions: Less sugar? More walks? Time with friends? Earlier bedtime? Custom rule, he typed.
He glanced at Shady again, still on the phone. She seemed to be listening to a big talker.
?, he typed.
That is not a complete rule, said the cat face. Add some words.
The cursor blinked.
Long ago, years ago, before he’d ever met Jenny, before he’d become a police officer and met Shady and moved to town, before he’d even considered himself an adult, he’d gone on a coffee date with a young woman he’d met over the summer at the pool. He had hardly remembered it till now, sitting at his computer, Shady laughing with whoever was on the other line, maybe her mother now, who, he remembered, had not been well, who sounded like she might be doing better, a few people walking by outside, visible through the front window.
He and the young woman had gone to a little café near the pool, and even though it was summer he had ordered a hot cocoa, and the waiter had served him such a beautiful one in a mug, with whipped cream and curled shavings of chocolate dotting the top, and a light sprinkling of cinnamon. He and the young woman had joked together about its fanciness, and she had sipped her coffee as they exchanged bits of information about their lives.
After a few minutes, the waiter came by and asked: How is the cocoa? and Jim had looked up and said, Thank you, it’s delicious! The waiter went to check on another table. The date had leaned forward. She had freckles, he remembered that. The sun had lit her hair into a halo. She gave him a friendly, curious look. “But you haven’t tried it,” she said.
“But it looks delicious, doesn’t it?” he said, laughing. “Isn’t that enough?”
She had left soon after. Her name was Jen, he recalled now. Of course it was. Was it a laugh inside of him? A cry? Shady hung up the phone. The cursor blinked. He had no rule yet. He had no idea what to ask of himself, but could it be true? That he’d been living the whole time at the edge of it and not inside?
“And?” Shady said. She was standing at the side of his desk. “You OK? Jim? Do I need to arrest you or anything?” and he shook his head. “I don’t think so, no. How’s your mother doing?” “A little better,” she said. “Thanks. She’s making all these terrible jokes, which is a good sign. You up for dinner?” and he nodded, stood. He held the door open, and together they walked into the fading light of the evening.
This story appears in our fall 2023 issue, Conjunctions:81, Numina: The Enchantment Issue.