It was that time of year when the Japanese bittersweet strangled the elms that drowned Lorraine’s yard. During the summer months, she’d dock my rent fifty-percent in exchange for some landscaping. This despite the fact she had a proper landscaper come in every other week. Lorraine was generous like that. With May’s arrival, my mission was to cut away at the bittersweet. On my knees I whacked the climbing vines that dug into the elm’s bark. With gloves I yanked large webs of its tendrils. It was tedious work, but not particularly difficult, and I ran my fingers along the sheath spotted with red fruits that burst at my prodding thumb.
Do you want a Long Island?
I tipped my head back, watched Lorraine pressing her weight against the porch that wrapped the second floor. Her hands shook and she wore a loose dashiki that licked pale legs from which hammy veins pumped. I told her I was on the clock.
Sure, she said, but whose clock?
We sat back on wicker rockers, the scent of my afternoon labor drifting between us. Lorraine dragged her fingers through a tangled mop of gray hair. Cheeks splattered with sun spots. She wore dentures that she often forgot to pry back in after a meal, or in the mornings—whole days could pass with her mumbling only nonsense. She cleared her throat. I knew what was coming; it always went this way. Lorraine would tell me some story of the days in which she was married to a famous American novelist. He’d got her pregnant then sauntered off to Europe. She miscarried and never heard from him again.
You know, I was still on bedrest when he won the Nobel.
I know, Lorraine.
She closed her eyes and fell to a deep sleep.
It was nearing dusk when Rocco flew down the slope of knotted brush that hugged Lorraine’s property. I had returned to working on the yard and the bark and the bittersweet. What gives, Rocco? I said. The skin of Rocco’s face was rough. The thick dermis of men mottled by the acne of youth. He shaved his head, a small cut on his eyebrow that left it partly hairless. If one saw him on the street, one would make assumptions alright. But he was a good man, and mostly harmless.
I have a mission for us, he said.
Just about done here anyway, I said, and I peeled off the gloves, leaving a mound of my materials for tomorrow’s round of work. I never liked our missions, but I always said yes. If he was in a bind, I was there. If I was in a bind, he was there. I would never shake off our shared history.
Do you know Leon? he asked.
Only by name. Personal trainer?
He stole something from me. I’m going to get it back.
We slinked out of Lorraine’s and he asked after my mother, who was basically his mother too—when Rocco’s parents went to prison, he arrived at our doorstep with a backpack and little else. My mother asked no questions, led him into the room in which we’d grow up together. Bunk beds until we parted at eighteen. Rocco for some free-love colony on the West coast, me for a stint at the state college. We both returned within the year. Now I took odd jobs while renting out Lorraine’s basement for a few hundred bucks, and Rocco sometimes worked at the recycling center. He wrote poems in his free time, though. I didn’t; I didn’t do anything at all.
Has she told you about Judd? I said. Someone a block over has a crush on her. Comes every day with some baked pastry. Casseroles. Jams.
I admire a man who jams, Rocco said.
We continued down the web of winding roads until Jancie began walking in step with us. Rocco told her we were on a mission, and she could not join. We mean business today, he said.
Jancie was a thin thing—her frame was frail, all bones and blue veins. Strawberry blonde hair that was greasy at the scalp. She wore the clothes of a young boy. Jeans that didn’t fit well, loose t-shirts that reached her thighs. But there was beauty to her, beauty she tried her best to erase. You always mean business, she said.
We’re serious people here, he said.
And you always cave, she said. So let’s cut the bullshit.
Rocco’s cheeks clouded with color, and he fell into studying the ground in silence. I asked Jancie how she was doing. She turned her face, let it linger over mine. There was no bruise, not this time. I assumed things were better at home. Jancie said as much—Hasn’t laid a hand on me all month, she said. He’s been cutting back on his drinking, too.
I didn’t tell her I didn’t think that was the case. That I’d seen Mel stumbling home most nights this week. Perhaps he was too drunk to toss Jancie around, and this was why she was unmarked, her face not hidden but soaking in the setting sun. That’s good, I said. People change all the time. I think things are looking up.
You’ve always been such an optimist, she said.
Got that from you, I said.
I don’t think that’s true. It won’t last. You understand that, no? I nodded half-heartedly, kicking at the loosened gravel beneath my feet.
What’s this business anyway? Jancie asked.
A property dispute, I said.
There is no dispute, Rocco said. It is my property.
You own land now then? Jancie said.
This was a joke. We laughed.
Never thought you’d be the first of us, Jancie said.
We sidled ourselves outside the window. The sun had set by now, the sky a deep purple, the leaves glowing silver under the fresh moonglow. I don’t think he’s in there, Rocco said quietly.
I don’t see a car in the driveway, Jancie said. What is it he stole?
Something of value. Something deeply personal.
Rocco said this then dashed towards the kitchen door. It opened soundlessly, and he crawled on all fours into the home. Jancie and I followed. A loose collection of papers were strewn across the coffee table Rocco crept towards. He stood, began to stack between his fingers sheets that crinkled. He quickened his pace, snatching handfuls to his belly. But it was the blast we heard next. A warning shot to the ceiling. Leon was standing at the entryway into the living room. His face was damp with sweat and red from drink. He pressed his boots to the ground and aimed the shotgun straight at Rocco, who pushed the pages to his chest and bolted. There was another blast, and all three of us fell out of the house, tumbling down the yard and into the woods.
Is anyone hurt? I said.
Jancie said no. Rocco said no.
We ran until we reached Lorraine’s, where the porch light bathed us in its yellow tint. Beads of blood sprouted across Rocco’s face. I think you’ve been shot, I said. On the face.
I’m fine, Rocco said.
I think the shrapnel’s in there, Jancie said, taking a good long look at the swash of wounds on his cheek and temple. Part of his ear seemed pocked too. A small rupture through which the stars shone.
What are those pages? I said once we were inside. Rocco had kept them clawed to his chest, the blood bleeding through the paper.
Your manuscript? Like a book?
Of poems, yes.
And what was Leon doing with them?
He swiped them from me at the gym. I don’t know why. I think he’s secretly really into poetry.
Or he’s into you, Jancie said.
You watch yourself now, Rocco said.
I can take care of myself perfectly fine, Jancie said.
Rocco snorted, an unkind sound. Lorraine hobbled down and into the basement apartment, where Rocco was now stretched flat on the couch. Jancie daubed at his face with alcohol, tweezers flitting between her fingers. What happened here? Lorraine said.
He’s been shot, Jancie said.
I can see that, Lorraine said. She stepped beside Jancie, scanning Rocco’s wounds. You know, she said, I was a nurse during the war.
Which war? Jancie said.
What kind of question is that, Lorraine said, and she scooped the utensils from Jancie’s hands, and she tended to Rocco herself.
I ran the end of the shears up the side of an elm. The vines slit against its touch. When I’d done enough cutting, I dug my gloves into the knots, and I pulled down the bittersweet. It was afternoon when Lorraine plodded across the porch and asked me if I wanted a Moscow mule. This was what it was like—a different cocktail every day until one day we were running back the classics.
On the porch, Lorraine took a long pull. You know, she said, that wasn’t the first time I cared for a man blasted by a shotgun.
Yes, I said. You were a nurse during the war.
I mean, people used to get shot all the time around these parts. You step foot into someone’s property, they have every right to shoot. Bar fights, too. Someone always walked away wounded.
Well, you used to get away with it. Or, if you did time, it was very little. The cops knew who we were. They knew what our disputes were like. It’s not that way no more. Do you know any of the cops by name? I sure don’t.
I told her I didn’t either.
Do you like living here? Lorraine now asked. I appreciate all your help with the bittersweet, and when you shovel out the snow during the winter, but I can’t tell if it bothers you.
I told her I loved it here. I said, I don’t mind the errands. Am I putting you off?
Not at all. You can live here however long you like. I just worry about you sometimes. What are you doing with your life?
Aren’t we all just getting by?
I had excitement in my life when I was your age. I was being courted by all kinds of artists. Sure, some of them were fuckheads, but the stories… I live for the stories.
Rocco was just shot. How is that not excitement?
That was his excitement, not yours. I’m not saying go out and get shot. But think about doing something.
I have my odd jobs.
I don’t mean work. I could care less about a career. Do you understand me?
Lorraine, I feel I’ve had enough excitement in my life already. I just want to take a step back, hide.
I see you too clearly and that scares you. You fear being perceived.
I’ve spent my whole life in these parts. I’ve been perceived enough. People know me.
I drained my glass. Jancie was now crossing through the wild grass. She looked up, covered the sun from her face. Lorraine said, Maybe go find yourself a girl, is all I’m saying. That could be exciting. Maybe, I said, and I joined Jancie in the basement. She wouldn’t meet my gaze, and I knew there was a bruise somewhere on her face that she was trying to ignore. It’s not too late, I said.
For him to change?
For you to run away.
Only cowards run away, she said.
I think it’s the bravest thing you can do, I said.
She raised her eyes, the skin beside her eyebrow a strange swirl of yellow and blue.
It was nighttime. Rocco, I said, I have a mission for us. My voice was low and uncertain. He turned his head to face me, the raw half glistening still from ointments. Is this about Jancie? he said. I see the way you look at her.
I said, She took care of you. Now we need to take care of her.
Okay, Rocco said. But murder isn’t the same thing as stealing something that was rightfully mine.
We’re not killing nobody. Just scaring him some.
What do you have in mind?
We cut a finger off. Tell Mel if he touches Jancie again we’ll come back for another one, then another, then another.
Rocco laughed. Since when are we the type of people who cut off fingers?
Look at us, I said. We’re plenty threatening.
Aren’t you afraid this will make things worse for Jancie?
Or it could make things better. Isn’t it worth the risk? Things can’t go so much worse for her.
He could kill her.
He could kill her anyway. Are you in or not?
I said yes already.
We had no plan.
We donned facemasks and trekked across town in the cover of night. I thumbed the switchblade deep in my pocket. The lamplights flickered, bugs clinking against glass. The pines that flanked the roads hummed with nocturnal life. Rocco and I were silent. There was so much I wanted to say, but the words came empty, formless.
When we reached Jancie’s, the windows glowed with light. We can’t do this with Jancie in there, Rocco said.
What if that’s too late? What if we’re too late?
You want Jancie to know it was you, Rocco said.
Is that so bad?
Are you ready to cut off a finger?
Yes, I said.
Rocco kicked the door down.
Our war wounds had yet to heal when my mother summoned us to her house. You know, she said, nobody has any idea where Jancie is now? You two really fucked this up. I mean, just look at you. You’re lucky he didn’t kill you.
She lit a cigarette and blew lazy bands out the window.
He’s the lucky one, I said.
She snorted, took a long pull. I don’t believe for a second this was your idea, she said, and she looked at Rocco. Was it yours? Rocco avoided my eyes. A moment passed before he nodded. You’re lucky he hasn’t pressed charges. Do you realize the whole town has come through asking about what you two have done? I mean, are you out of your mind?
At least Jancie is safe now.
Is that what you think? A girl alone out there, safe? At this, my mother flung open the kitchen door and pounded down the porch and into the woods. I watched the strips of smoke lift into the blue sky until all that was left were the pines. Not a bittersweet in sight.
You didn’t have to do that, I said.
What is one more secret between us, Rocco said.
You know you can tell me anything.
I’m talking about Leon. Fuck shame.
I think Jancie will be fine.
I can tell when you’re lying.
What if we never see her again?
At least she got out, I said.
Is that all we’re to do with our lives here? Rocco said. Get out. We tried that, and we came crawling back. What left is there to do?
I thought of the earth I had to tend. The bittersweet to clear. The snow that would come soon enough, and which I would shovel. Toss salt. I said, I have my work cut out for me. Don’t you?