Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2015    poetry    all issues


Cover Peter Rawlings

Heather Erin Herbert

Valerie Cumming
Sixteen Days

Audrey Kalman
Before There Was a Benjamin

Carli Lowe
What We Had in Common

Julie Zuckerman
Tough Day for LBJ

Martin Conte
Suddenly a Bright Cloud Overshadowed Them

Abby Sinnott
The Tsarina of Caviar

Slater Welte
A Late Summer Comedy

Veronica Thorson

Brad McElroy
The Deep End

Kim Magowan

Steve Lauder
Smoke Break

Writer's Site

Martin Conte

Suddenly a Bright Cloud Overshadowed Them

After the burial, my sister June has a flight to catch.

“I need to be on set in five days, and there’s so much to do even before that,” says June, pulling her wavy brown hair into a sturdy bun and taking her heels off on the way to security.

I nod. I know what she’s really saying. Of course, June knows I know, but she says it anyway.

“Could you handle the house? There’s a real estate agent I went and saw yesterday.” The week she buries our father, she’s already selling his home. “We have to move as fast as possible. Just a few days here, Mick, I’ll make it up to you, give you an extra percent on the sale or something.”

Because I live only one hundred miles from home, and not three thousand, like June, the answer is yes. Because I may be between jobs and subsisting on food stamps and teaching watercolor lessons in assisted-living common rooms, the answer is yes.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ll put everything in place.” She looks back at me, as if unsure of whether I can be trusted, unsure if she should be getting on that plane and flying away. But this isn’t the first time, and she didn’t seem to care so much last time, even though I was suffocating in the vacuum of our mother’s death.

At her terminal, I’m not sure if I should hug June. She’s so much older, I really never knew her all that well, except for her towering rage through her high school years. Especially now, when this whole stage-play of grief is supposed to form some common bond between us.

“OK,” I say.

“Yep,” she responds, then yanks me in from the side for an awkward hug.

“Hey, we can maybe do something for Christmas, right?” June says. “You can come to California, it’ll be nice, away from the cold.”

“Right,” I respond, I think good-naturedly, “like I want to be on the beach on Christmas day.” I vaguely remember a card June sent me one Christmas, a watercolor of an RV pulled up on the beach, decked in Christmas lights and with a small palm frond bending under the weight of some baubles. This reminds me of something you would paint, she wrote. It didn’t exactly seem my style, but I remember it magnetized to the fridge of my apartment for months afterward.

“Well, we’ll talk about it,” she replies. We won’t.

Then, she’s disappearing through security, high heels hooked with one finger while she feverishly texts someone, a producer maybe. And I’m still here. I walk to the temporary parking lot, and choke Dad’s truck to life in its way: turning it once, then waiting five minutes before trying it again. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it works. On the ride back, the sky burns out like a Van Gogh daydream. Dad was probably happy to die in the fall, in these sorts of colors. Although, to be honest, the same could be said for every season. Dad just liked the look of the world, wherever and whenever he was.

It’s one of the first frosty nights, when the cold can’t be avoided by simply pulling on a sweater. So I go about trying to start a fire in the woodstove in the living room. I was never very good at this, as a kid. Once I get the kindling burning, I check the mudroom for wood. There’s about half a cord stacked inside, and through the window, I can see the other cord-and-a-half neatly arranged on the raised bed by the barn, covered with a blue tarp. What a waste. Dad split enough fuel for a winter he’d never see. No doubt June will figure a way to tack it on to the cost of the house. She’s a bloodhound for money; I half-wish I had her sense.

After the fire’s lit, I settle on the couch with a blanket and pillow. The room is empty, and the fire’s furnace-roar dulls to the occasional crack and whisper, so I read aloud from a book of Dylan Thomas poems I find on the coffee table. Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark on the horizon walking like the trees the wordy shapes of women. Outside, it is too dark to tell if the trees are advancing like women. Shishkin’s slender birch trees from that big painting in the Tretyakov Gallery drift sensuously across my vision. I fall asleep on the couch, though upstairs there are now three empty bedrooms.

In the morning, the house smells like woodsmoke, and my neck is cricked from laying up against the arm of the couch. The thought of Dad comes second after my neck, then the scramble to push him out. How long will I have to push him out until he stays out for good? A draining woosh of energy, and I am propelled off the couch and into the kitchen. I head for the fridge, open it, and remember June emptying everything into a trash bag. This is her one contribution. Because Dad was dead five days before he was found, and homebound probably a week before that, food spoiled and rotted in the kitchen. She went through without prejudice, knocking whole bunches of rotten grapes and sealed tins of mushroom soup into her yawning bag. The kitchen smelled a little better, though the scent of rot still drifted around the rest of the house, exuding from some other location. June spent the funeral weekend in a hotel by the river, while I stayed in the house, sitting awake all night reading about the rites of Shiva online, I don’t know why. Dad would hate such a blasphemy, an introduction of the occult into the careful Christian order of his home. The Jesuses—crucifixes, paintings, statues, busts, amulets, badges, blankets, books—all watched me with Dad’s silent eyes, waiting for me to slip up. The print by Ocampo, which sits in a small, cheap frame on the little prayer table in the hallway, is especially haunting. I remember passing it when I was young, and thinking the hidden face of Christ—the sunken cheeks, the hazel beard, the sad eyes—were really those of my father’s, a confusion that I only now resolve.

The real estate agent is expected in two days, a local woman who runs estate sales, and brings a municipal trash bin along for the ‘excess,’ as June called the contents of the house. I have the job of sorting through everything and determining what to save and what to leave behind.

“Do you want anything?” I asked June when she first suggested clearing out. She looked up from her tea, and glanced through the doorway into the dim living room, where stacks of Mahler CDs and theological books wrestled with the furniture. She shook her head. Most of her stuff she had already taken, when Mom died: a few well-preserved dolls, her own rambling book collection, and the thousands of DVDs she had stacked in the closet behind the TV.

I start in the kitchen. Most of the dishes are junk: chipped plates, some burnt wooden spoons, melted plastic tupperware containers with the stain of tomato sauce still smeared in the crevices. The salad spinner makes me stop. Who remembers the salad spinners in their life? And yet, there’s Dad, shouting from the sink to June upstairs that it’s time to eat, yanking the line of the spinner like the starter on a lawn mower. The spinner’s got a heavy duty crack running from the center of the bottom to about halfway up the side. I pour some water in it, and the crack leaks a slow, but steady, dribble. Discard.

I’m about to make my way into the dining room when I see a horse.

It’s outside, in the backyard, I can see it through the window above the kitchen sink. I pause, and consider grabbing my shoes sitting next to the couch, but there’s not enough time. Involuntarily, the muscles of my neck and shoulders tighten. My right hand twitches open and closed. My feet move towards the door, themselves somehow knowing that if the horse is not investigated immediately, there’s a chance it will leave, or perhaps never have been there at all. I cross the room to the porch door. Gently, so as not to frighten the animal, I pull the door open.

The horse is gone. I can hear something, but I don’t pursue it, writing it off as a ghost of my imagination. This is not the first time this week I’ve made this mistake. That first night, didn’t Dad come walking down the stairs, asking if I wanted a cup of tea, asking if I needed to be woken up in the morning? Didn’t Mom tell me to make sure I left the porch lights on for June when she came home? And now there’s a horse. I laugh at myself, standing in the doorway looking out into the dewy morning, but stop quickly. My laughter doesn’t sound right in this place, not anymore. Mom was who we laughed with; we laughed over dinner at the odd tales of her childhood in suburbia New York, while Dad gazed at our shiny little faces with an unpaintable expression.

In place of the horse, I see a man, in a baseball cap and holding a drink in one hand, riding a mower in neat squares across the back lawn. I watch long enough to confirm that he isn’t also a mirage, but actually the neighbor, the one who Dad once told me comes with his rum and coke and does yard work. Remembering my own work, I step inside. But I can’t get the image of the horse out of me, and listen close for the faint possibility of clopping hooves.


The voice startles me out of the kitchen stool, where I had been sitting in a stupor for the better part of an hour, lost in a family vacation to Montreal when I was twelve and June had just graduated. Dad pulled us all up to this shrine on the top of a hill, wanted us to climb the steps on our knees, while June made fun of the vest I was wearing, a bright purple affair with about twelve zippered pockets.

“Gay,” she whispered into my ear, while we knelt in a pew in the chapel, and I glanced nervously back and forth between Dad’s stoic face and the bloody Christ on the crucifix.

The neighbor, empty glass in hand, is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, one thumb hooked in his jeans, leaning from one foot to the other. “Are you Michael?”

“Michael. Yes, yep, that’s me.” I stand. “Listen, thanks for the mowing. I remember Mom saying something about that years ago, but I didn’t know you kept on after she died.”

He nods, and clicks the glass against the doorjamb.

“Yes, well, your dad started doing it for a few months, but I knew he wouldn’t last too long what with his age, so I just started in one morning. Don’t worry about it. I’m Rich, by the way.”

There seems to be a line drawn between the inside of the house and the outside, two galaxies brushing up against each other at a black hole, unable to touch, an infinitely thin pane of glass between them. And I am in mine, and he in his.

“Nice to meet you. Anyway, thanks for that. It makes a big difference.”

“Well, I was sorry to hear about Ken. He was a good neighbor.” The man coughs, in the way men do when they speak together of such intimate things. I feel myself floundering.

“Were you the one who found him?”

The man’s face wrinkles. “No. No, sorry, it wasn’t me.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I guess I’m just curious? Or would like to, um, to—” I fizzle.

We both allow a moment of silence, for the man to contemplate the emptiness of his glass and for me to contemplate the redness of my face. Finally, he looks up, speaks suddenly.

“Sure. Listen, you going to sell?”

I nod, but can’t unwrap the dark muscles of the house that hold me in place enough to move any closer to the door.

“Well,” he says, “it’s just, I’ve got a brother-in-law, he’s made all sorts of money down in Virginia. Real estate and that. So, he’s looking for a summer getaway, you know.”

I see the house for a moment from this man’s eyes. The kitchen a wreck, dirt and woodsmoke inches thick on the walls, a buckling roof over a mudroom, and other than that, simple, square rooms with simple, rectangle windows. I shrug.

“Of course. I mean, I didn’t think people bought one hundred year old farmhouses for Summer homes.”

“Oh, sure. But, me being next door and all, I can do the labor on it cheap. Knock a few walls out, put some new sheetrock up. This place could really turn into something.”

Did it need to turn into something? Could it be something else? It had been my mother’s project, the house, for the decade she had gotten to enjoy it. Dad hung on for the ride, agreeing to renovations, running back and forth to the hardware store, while Mom chose paint colors, hung drywall, sanded and shaved stair railings to perfect cylinders, all with a calm fortitude, a confidence that, eventually, the job would be finished and the house would be better for it. Of course, it could never be what it had been, because now they’re both gone, and soon I’ll be gone, too, and the house will be someone else’s and something else.

“Did the house always look this junky?” June said to me, when we first had a moment alone, after the police and the hospital and the funeral director.

“Used to look worse, right? Stained ceilings, awful colors, holes in the old horsehair walls.”

June nodded, one hand whizzing over her phone while she gazed through me thoughtfully.

“Remember that first night?” I asked. She shook her head. “We didn’t have enough time to prep the bedrooms after the move, so you and I slept in sleeping bags on the floor outside Mom and Dad’s room.”

She crossed, then uncrossed her legs. Yawned. Stood.

“You’re more talkative than I remember, Mick” she said finally, smiling to herself.

He’s not in the doorway anymore, the neighbor. Did I say goodbye to him? Did I finish the conversation, or did I just turn away, and lose track of him? I honestly can’t remember. It’s grief, maybe. It does strange things to you. That’s the excuse I’ll use this time. You can get away with anything when you’ve just shoveled dirt over your father’s coffin. Hey, your pop’s dead, what’s expected of you? If I actually felt the grief in the movie-hero way, maybe, I’d do something real crazy.

The second morning, I wake up to my phone buzzing next to my ear, flat on my stomach on the couch, one leg bristling with pins and needles where it hangs to the floor. I grab for the phone, drop it, then balance it on my ear.

“Mick, you there? How’s the house look?” It’s June. The house looks much as it did before, except the contents of the kitchen cabinets are now on the linoleum floor and there’s a pile of dead plants creeping in through the doorway of the mudroom, where I was tossing the indoor pots.

“It looks fine.”

“Just make sure it’s ready this afternoon, ok? They’re going to arrive around two, and I don’t want them to have to wait while you shovel a bunch of his shit into your car.”

Right. Because Dad’s lifetime collection of books and old maps and images of the Madonna and odd musical instruments and notebooks from when we were kids and he tried homeschooling us those few years, that’s the shit June’s talking about.

“I’ll deal with the actual selling and all,” she continues. “I just need you on point now. Can you do that for me?”

“I’m not a child, June.” I don’t usually speak back, but laying in the grave darkness of my dead father’s home instills me with an unexpected frankness. There’s a pause on the other side of the line.

“Don’t be this way, Mick. Not now.”

“Of course, June. Don’t worry. Don’t worry about anything.”

I think I say goodbye, but I’m not exactly sure. Suddenly, the phone’s on the floor, I’m up, half expecting my mother to walk out somewhere, give me a neatly written list of chores to get done. like she used to on Saturday mornings. But that was twenty years ago, and my mother’s been dead five years now.

Upstairs, my old bedroom is pretty much empty of furniture, leaving only traces of me saturated in the walls. Mom kept the rooms neat for when us kids came to visit, filled with all the childhood paraphernalia that kept me nostalgic, but when she died, Dad tossed most of the stuff we didn’t claim ourselves, and shoved the leftovers into the closet. June’s bedroom is pretty much the same, although a few of her high school photos still remain, taped into the alcove where a window used to be. And stars. Stars that glitter at night from the ceiling. I don’t like being in that room at all; I always feel like I’ll be in trouble with June. It’s her room.

The same for Mom and Dad’s room. Well, Dad’s room. Well, the master bedroom. This is where they found Dad, propped in a sitting position on the floor, back against the bed, from what the police report had told us. Apparently he spent most of the last week of his life in this room, judging by the chaos surrounding the bed, the books with pages ripped from them, the dresser drawers leaking underwear. There’s a pile of jeans and button-down shirts next to the mirror, and socks everywhere. The police report guesses Dad didn’t leave the house for close to seven days straight. “Because of the pain in his throat,” June supplied as a reason. But he still got dressed each morning.

“Why didn’t he let anyone help?” June had asked the air between us at the burial.

“Mom was the only one he let help,” I replied quietly, from behind her, unsure if she even wanted an answer. Mom was the only one Dad ever let in really at all. He always kept each of us at a distance, kept us from seeing inside the mysterious pains he carried. Waved June off when she suggested a nurse come visit the house. Burnt in the woodstove the pamphlets for the retirement home I embarrassedly offered him. I think I might have been the only one who got it, this seclusion, this hiding.

The ripped books are mostly religious texts. St. Augustine, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II. The Bible.

So now, deal with me as you please, and command my life breath to be taken from me, that I may go from the face of the earth into dust.

This is from the book of Tobit. Who’s Tobit? I flip through the shredded pages. There must be a bunch of unimportant prophets, right? Ones that no one really likes reading from. That no one cares for? But, of course, Dad knew them all, made a point of it to memorize just about every name in his pocket bible. This is perfect for him. I gather the torn pages into a neat pile, and carefully slide the books back on the shelf, next to the photo albums, untouched since my mother meticulously curated them. The ripped pages I will keep, and perhaps make something out of, a papier mache icon of my father, or a collage in memoriam.

I pull the covers back, and find a few urine stains. They blotch the white sheets like some old projected map of the Americas. This was where he lay, I think suddenly. This is evidence, DNA assurance that my father existed in those last days, and that this was, indeed, where he had been. I gather the sheets and blankets, and toss them into the hallway. The smell doesn’t wither. It’ll take some time, I guess, and rub my hands against my slacks, the same ones I wore to Dad’s funeral. I work at the window; it opens with a few hard shoves, and a blast of fresh air swoops in, temporary relief. I place my face close to the mosquito screen, and breathe fully. Straightening up, the fresh air battles with the rotting inside. The smell doesn’t even seem to come from the bed, but from the closet. Mom’s closet, where Dad left all her clothes and shoes and private binders and papers untouched for the five years since her death. I remember hiding here, the afternoon of her wake, not wanting to face the performance of brave stoicness we were all supposed to give for the neighbors. I climbed in until her dresses were hanging around my shoulders, and closed myself in, for who knows how long. It was Dad who finally pulled the door open.

“Dad,” I whispered, clutching my knees to my chest, lungs struggling, as if they were trembling. He regarded me for a moment, then stepped back, looking away through the window.

“Come on down, Michael. Don’t be childish. There are people waiting.”

Now, I pull open the door.

The cat is inside. The cat is dead. It lies on its side, legs stretched out, one paw almost comically stuck by an exposed claw reaching into one of Mom’s shoes. What’s the cat’s name? I don’t even remember. I remember it being alive the last time I visited, about six months ago. Of course it was.

What do you do with a dead cat? A cat this dead, so dead that fur seems to be blowing off of its body and into the dark corners of the closet. I think about calling Animal Control, think about calling the sculpture professor obsessed with roadkill, think about calling June. June, it’s Mick. I’ve been having weird dreams lately. A horse. I dunno, it’s just strange, isn’t it? Maybe it’s something in the water. Of course it could be. Maybe it’s why Dad went, huh? A horse, yeah, a horse. And there’s a dead cat, too. I don’t make this phone call.

Instead, I take one of Mom’s dresses (I guess it doesn’t matter if it gets dirty or not), and wrap the cat in it. Then, using two of the wide, thin photo albums, I pincer and shove the cat onto one, like a bread paddle, and carry the carcass into the hallway, where I leave it on the pile of soiled sheets. Maybe I’ll bury it later, maybe not. When we put Dad in the ground, it was our second funeral, and we were under no delusions. Didn’t invite anyone, not even a priest.

“Are you sure this is how we should do it?” I asked June beforehand.

“No need to make it more difficult than it already is,” she replied. “When’s the last time you went to church, anyway?”

“Yeah, but it’s Dad, and—”

“He held us hostage with that God shit,” June snapped, cheeks burning and arms rising to her chest defensively. We left it at that. Without the priest, without the crying and the sympathetic stares and the flowers tossed into the pit, like at Mom’s, I realized it was just a box in the ground. The cat doesn’t inspire a change of heart in me.

At last, the smell in Dad’s room recedes, ever so slightly. I sit on the bed, beneath the two pieces I painted for my parents in college: for my mother, a portrait, her laughing, head back, swaying in the folds of her garden, dazzled by sun; for Dad, a landscape, after Turner’s welsh mountain.

Suddenly, I hear a voice, speaking from outside. I pull my body off the empty bed, and spy out the window. There’s a woman standing in the backyard, close to the porch, next to the nonchalant mass of a horse. So, it wasn’t a dream. I look down on woman and horse, glowing like health in the surprisingly warm sun of the afternoon. She’s probably in her thirties, and has a pretty, freckled face. The horse is a silty white, like the underside of a wave.

“Hello!” I call down, surprising myself with the strength of my own voice. She looks up, guarding her eyes with a bent hand.

“Oh hi! I didn’t know anyone was here! Sorry about this. The neighbor called and told me Bridgette was out again, so I came as fast as I could. Such a pain!”

“Just a second, I’ll come down.”


I nearly step right on the wrapped cat on the landing, but wiggle around it and thunder down the stairwell. I pause long enough to pull a different pair of pants from my duffel bag, and yank off the wretchedly wrinkled slacks. I wade through my own chaos in the kitchen, and step out through the open door, into the light.

The woman waits for me by the stairs, one leg cocked on the bottom step. The sunlight is warm, and the hair on my arms prick appreciatively where it soaks in. I remember this sensation, from growing up, stepping out on a warm afternoon and drinking the sun, an almost ticklish, oddly orgasmic experience. I smile at the woman, and she smiles back.

“You’re Mick, then.”

“Yes, mam.”

“Well,” she speaks with the drawl of the place, an accent that digs into each simple word, like the drop of a fly-fishing weight into the water. “My name’s Ellie, and this is Bridgette, the troublemaker of my crew.”

The horse is there, really there. She’s chewing on the riot of weeds falling out over the stone wall of my mother’s herb garden. She looks up when I step onto the porch, but only shakes her head to dislodge a few flies, and continues eating. Her cherry-dark eyes shoot a shudder through my arms, and I lick my dry lips. The sun glances off her muscled back, and white breath rolls from her wide nostrils. Her jaw moves circularly, gnashing the weeds into pulp before swallowing.

“You’re real,” I murmur to Bridgette, letting her wet nose explore the back of my hand and wrist.

“What’s that?” Ellie asks.

Salvador Dali was notorious for including images in the background of his paintings whose purpose was not immediately evident. There, in “The Birth Of Man,” sits the cracking egg of the earth, and the man clawing from it. But there, too, the tiny image of two men in pointed caps, discussing some important matters in the distance. As if to remind the viewer that more occurs than that which we care to pay attention to. That we cannot encapsulate all that is happening on our own meager terms. This, perhaps, is what Bridgette is trying to tell me when she snorts, turns, and sets off across my father’s long back yard towards the woods at a gallop. As Ellie and I stand in stark relief in the foreground, Bridgette asserts herself as background, begging for the eye to see first what the mind ignores.

Ellie is quicker to recover from surprise than I am.

“Shit, Bridgette, don’t!” she cries, and takes off after her, hair streaming out behind,

sturdy boots pounding the earth. I follow, stretching my legs to overtake her. At this point, Bridgette is already at the edge of the woods and, like some last mist disappearing under the sun’s heat, she disintegrates into the foliage. Ellie doesn’t slow.

“I have a hunch we’ll be able to find her in there, the ground’s still soft. Bridgette! Bridgette, would you slow down, please?”

I don’t have enough breath to reply. We both slow, by some unknown premonition, before the edge of the trees, then dash in.

In the woods, everything is familiar and nothing is known. The trees are all wood and bark and leaf, exactly as I expect them to be. But as the sun-bathed lawn disappears from view behind us, I immediately become disoriented, lost. I haven’t explored these woods since I was a kid. Dad would bring me out here occasionally, and in reverent silence we walked a labyrinth of half-trails, half-remembered wild. He’d pause often, to listen to some bird, to feel the ridged bark of an elder tree. I’d watch him apprehensively, trying to hear angels the way he seemed able to.

Ellie keeps her eyes down, following the deep gouges of Bridgette’s hooves. Small branches snap against her outstretched palms, and the bending boughs of the fir trees leave snaking scratch marks along her legs. I fall in behind her, and almost forget what it is we came in for. Am I chasing this woman? Am I following her? What are we looking for?

“Hold,” she says, stopping in front of me suddenly, so that I almost barrel into her and have to grasp her shoulders to stop myself. We stop, and the subtle sounds of the forest whoosh in on us, suddenly. The stretching of the tree limbs, the rustle of unknown civilizations beneath the leaf cover. And then, what Ellie stopped for, the unmistakable assertion of a horse clearing her nostrils. We stalk forward, and there, head down, lapping at a puddle as if it had been her destination all along, stands Bridgette.

Ellie waves at me to pause, and goes forward alone, cooing softly to the horse. Bridgette steps forward like an innocent daughter, laying her long chin into the palm of Ellie’s hand, which travels slowly up it, tickling the throat, then up the massive stretch of neck to Bridgette’s moppy mane. She wraps her fingers into the hair, all the while keeping herself nose to nose with the horse, and slips from her back pocket a tightly coiled lead and halter. Bridgette almost bows in deference as Ellie slips the cords around her snout, then shakes once, and returns to the pleasure of her puddle.

“Well,” Ellie laughs, turning to me. “You must remind her of Kenny.” She beckons me towards her, and I approach slowly, afraid Bridgette will try to dash off again.

“Why do you think that?” I ask.

Ellie gestures to the ground. The puddle Bridgette is slurping from, I notice now, is the

rut of a four-wheeler track. “Bridgette and I would take your father out along this trail, when he was able. Get him a good ways into the woods, away from the house.”

It hurts, suddenly, that little stretch of skin in my abdomen beneath which lay, not the heart, but perhaps some older, more primitive organ that deals more directly with the loss of flesh and blood. Something that has little to do with the emotional centers of the brain, but rather the nerves realizing they’ve lost a bit of themselves somewhere, and can’t locate it. I remember the same place aching all through my mother’s last few months. And now, I notice again. Maybe it’s just a cramp from the running. But the pain feels too familiar.

“My father went riding?”

“Yep,” she responds, wiping a drip of sweat from the bridge of her nose. She nods her head to the summit of Bridgette’s back. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift back to the house.”

My eyes must’ve gone wide, because Ellie laughs.

“It’s no problem,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder and drawing me up alongside the horse’s flank. “Here, just grab the mane here, and throw your right leg over. I’ll shove you the rest of the way.”

I don’t have enough time to protest before Ellie’s knotting a fistful of Bridgette’s mane around my fingers, and I’m suddenly flying into the air, her flexed palms propelling me over Bridgette’s back. For a moment, I think I’m going to go clear over to the other side. For a moment, I don’t think I’ve left the ground at all. For a moment, I think I might cry, or vomit. But suddenly, I’m sitting on Bridgette’s back, shifting to find some flatness, some part of her that isn’t moving in such a terrifyingly alive way beneath me. Ellie swings up behind, wrapping her arms forward around my ribs and squeezing slightly to brace herself. There is a slight shift of Ellie’s left hand, a tug on the lead, and suddenly Bridgette is turning in the track, and we’re moving.

“You used to do this with my father?” I ask.

“Yep,” she says. It sounds like she may want to say more, but she sighs instead, and the three of us rock slowly down the path in silence.

I wonder what my father might’ve thought, with this young woman’s arms clutching him in a way more intimate than my parents had ever been. Was it disconcerting for him? Or comforting? Did it remind him of my mother, or satisfy a desire my mother might not have ever been able to? Was it a sexual thrill, this woman and, yes, the aliveness of the animal beneath him? I shudder, involuntarily, when I remember the only other time I encountered my father’s desires: it was my senior year in high school, and we had just bought a brand new power mac G5 computer. The world wide web was still a strange entity to my parents, and I turned on the screen once to find a photo gallery of nude women. Even then, Dad’s stiff nature shown through. He had entered the plain words “beautiful women” into a search engine. I found myself confronted suddenly with the terrible, unuttered but obvious connections between my father’s libido and my own existence.

It is a good thing my back is turned to Ellie. I let the tears drown my vision of the path before us. Perhaps by the shaking in my shoulders, Ellie senses my flailing attempt at sorrow.

“We used to come out here once or twice a week,” she says quietly, words almost rhythmically timed with Bridgette’s steady step. “Kenny and Bridgette took a liking to each other the first time they met, when she first cut loose about a year ago. Like I said, she’s a bit of a troublemaker, but when I finally found them, she was eating apples from his hand.”

She tells me stories, slowly and carefully, as we move. The trail ahead of us breaks and forks, and I suspect Ellie is leading me on a long route back home, but I don’t mind. She tells me mysteries about my father: that he kept a careful bird-watching journal; that for a short time he took up drinking, only to abandon it; that on occasion he cooked a large roast meal, the kind his Irish mother used to cook when he was a child, and invited Ellie, her husband, and the neighbor over for the evening. These things had never been told to me, and I don’t imagine to my sister either, on our rare visits. I realize guiltily that most of the time I spent with my father, I spoke only about myself, imagining that the only means of living left to him was vicariously, through my own life: my degree in Art History that he seemed so proud of, my aborted attempt at RISD’s grad program, my meager funds disappearing into loan payments and too-expensive cocktails in the city. Ellie tells me a joke that Dad told her three or four times, and I laugh through my tears.

“Most of all, your Dad loved these woods.” Ellie drops her voice to an astonishing echo of my father’s uneven murmur. “God and nature, it’s all I need. That, and a good Bach prelude playing in the background.” She shifts behind me, then rests her cheek gently against the back of my shoulder in an almost sisterly way. “He said he wanted to be buried out here, with these trees.”

I bow my head. “We buried him two days ago,” I say softly. Ellie’s arms seem to stiffen.

“I didn’t hear about it, or read an obit in the paper,” she says, voice close to my ear. My face burns up.

“No one was invited. We just . . . We just stuck him in the ground.”

She doesn’t reply.

The path finally emerges from the woods onto the edge of a dirt road I recognize vaguely as the one Mom taught me how to bicycle on. Bridgette quickens her pace in the newfound freedom, and soon, we reach tar, and then the peak of my roof comes into view. Ellie leads Bridgette toward the driveway, but pulls up at the end, turning Bridgette once in the road. An unfamiliar, painfully clean Honda sits in my driveway.

“Expecting company?” Ellie asks, and I shake my head.

As I slip from Ellie’s arms and awkwardly drop off Bridgette’s back, the driver’s side door opens, and a woman steps out. She wears a pressed gray skirt, and a pastel blue button down shirt. She’s smiling, and holding a heavy duty clipboard in front of her like a wrapped present.

“Mr. Catton? You’re Michael Catton, aren’t you?”

“Yes, mam.” I say. I hear Ellie drop to the driveway behind me. The woman nods primly.

“Yes, well, I’m Karen Tripp. I’m here to discuss the sale of your father’s home? Your sister told you about me?” Each sentence ends like a question. I squint my eyes in her direction, and the clipboard slowly rises to her breast like a shield. I shake my head.

Behind me, Bridgette clicks her hooves against the stones of the driveway. Ellie puts a hand on my shoulder, and squeezes firmly. The apple tree in the front yard catches the wind, and makes itself known. Somewhere from the backyard, by some trick of my mind, I hear my mother’s steady hammering as she fixes a clapboard, or drives frames into the wet earth of her vegetable garden. And, there it is, the murmur that always accompanied her, by her side, and by mine, though I used to never register it: my father, telling her about his day, or singing under his breath a tune I never bothered to learn. My eyes drop back to Ms. Tripp’s concerned face, ear turned in my direction, waiting for me to speak. Above us, the sun slips behind the cover of a cloud. But the light doesn’t dim or disappear. This is not a moment when the chill picks up and a gray threat of rain can be felt in the air. No, this is a gentle whisper of a cloud, an interlude, and in the moment before I speak, the sun appears above us again.

Martin Conte is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine. His poetry and fiction has been published in Words and Images, Glitterwolf, The Aurorean, and others. He lives in Portland, where he is currently at work on a Joycian poetry sequence about the city, mythology, and climate change.

Dotted Line