At the psychologist’s upstate home Jesse was greeted by a dead fox lying on a hill near a shed. He panned the five-plus acres of land, past the fox, up the sloping land ahead and down another hill to the left, beyond the garage. There was a pond on top of the hill and a fenced-in area of bushes. The small house, set close to the road, had wasps’ nests under the gutter on one side of the door and outside the garage, where a riding mower waited for him. From a bird’s nest, resting on the porch light, three baby-bird heads stuck up with no mother in sight.
Inside the house he spat out the first sip of water, never having tasted anything but Brooklyn water before. Then he went outside again to walk around.
Along the steep hill near the pond, he imagined toppling head-over-mower when he tried cutting the psychologist’s grass. His friends Tommy and Cal and the others were back in his neighborhood. There were no concrete sidewalks or coffee shops here—except in town, a twenty-minute drive away in his father’s old LaSabre. And Julie was two hundred miles away too, probably looking at herself in their landlord’s stolen mirror.
A beagle ran toward him from the house across the street, veering around the pond, then running in a wide circle around the blueberry bushes. The dog sprinted the property again, circled back, jumped into the pond, and splashed out again, running and shaking the water off. A man crossed the street from the same house. Jesse didn’t move until the man passed the pond.
He was thick, with a tangled red beard and large silver glasses. He wore suspenders over a short sleeve shirt. Freckles ran all the way up his beefy arms. When he reached Jesse he held out a wood block.
“Is that your dog?” Jesse asked, watching the beagle sniff the grass.
“Take a look at this. What do you think it is?”
On the block was a vertical brown streak of paint, with a blue splotch behind it, and at the base was a long green line. The rest of the block hadn’t been touched.
“I don’t know.”
“Guess.” His eyes were still on his handiwork, so Jesse stared at it for a while.
“It’s my mailbox.” He pointed at the brown line and the green line and the blue line, to indicate the mailbox, the grass, and the sky. Jesse looked across the street at the actual mailbox, grass, and sky, while the beagle circled the property again.
“I should have seen that,” he said. “I’m Jesse. I’ll be here for a couple of months… to cut the grass and watch the house.”
The man shook Jesse’s hand. After seeming to go through several options in his mind, he said, “Kevin.”
They walked back toward the house while the beagle ran in a circle around them, tore down another grassy hill, and came back again, his tongue out as he ran.
Near the house Jesse asked Kevin what could have happened to the fox. They moved closer. Kevin pointed to a hole near the dead body.
“Groundhogs,” he said. “He stuck his nose into the wrong hole.”
“Groundhogs can’t kill a fox. Can they?” Jesse said.
Kevin laughed for a while, wheezing, and Jesse’s smile stayed frozen on his face before Kevin went on. “You know, it’s too bad I have to go back to work at the gas station tonight. I don’t want to go. I was robbed last night. It was the third time this month. They—they asked me for money, and I gave it to them, my own money too. I had to.”
“Did they have guns? Did you call the cops?”
“They didn’t have guns, I don’t think. But now my boss—he says I owe the money that they took. And the police didn’t catch them yet.”
Jesse stared at the dead fox.
“But—but at least they didn’t have guns,” he said. “They just asked me.”
“That’s nice of them.”
“The town’s okay, though. You’ll—you’ll like it here. The doctor, she just stays in the house all the time, and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but now you’re here, so maybe we can hang out sometimes.”
Jesse offered a slight nod.
Kevin went on, “We can hang out, sure, and the people on this road are nice. I’m right there across the street where the mailbox is. And then there’s Kerri and her father there next to me, where the horse is.”
Jesse craned his neck to look through the trees. “I don’t see a horse.”
“She’s—she’s so funny, though. Kerri, she’s funny. Nice girl. Very nice girl.”
Jesse smirked a little and looked away.
“You don’t think so?” Kevin asked.
“I don’t even know her.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Kevin laughed, and Jesse moved down the hill, away from the fox and toward the house. Kevin followed him until they stood on the gravel driveway.
“Do you see down the block a little? Down there.” Kevin pointed. “That’s a regular horse farm, not like Kerri’s. I mean it’s not really a farm, they just have a lot of horses.”
“Pete lives there. He has the horses. He gave Kerri her horse. It was sick, so he gave it to her, and she took care of it, and now it’s okay. My father—I live with my father—my father said, ‘What kind of guy would give a girl a dying horse?’ But it wasn’t dying. She nursed it back to health.” Kevin thought for a while, and repeated, “She nursed it to health.” He laughed his wheezing laugh, while Jesse shifted from one foot to the other.
“Well, time for me to unpack and…”
“Oh sure. Anyway, you should meet the neighbors. All the way down the block they’re—well, they’re okay, I guess. Some of them are nice.”
“But—but if you want me to paint something for you, just let me know. I’ve been practicing.”
Jesse looked at Kevin, whose right eye looked straight at Jesse while his left eye wandered a little left and upwards.
“Maybe the dead fox.”
“Or the birds there,” Kevin pointed to the front door of the house, where the bird’s nest sat on top of the light post.
“You know, when I got here,” Jesse said, “I didn’t even see them at first. Walked in and out of the house three or four times before I spotted them.”
“So maybe the birds or the fox,” Jesse said. “Take your pick, then.”
“Good, I’ll paint the birds, because I don’t like to paint dead things. So the birds are perfect. I can paint the birds. I can’t paint foxes. I never tried, but I can’t do it, I can tell. Especially if it’s dead. That’s bad luck.”
Jesse watched with a little smile as Kevin wandered back across the street, his beagle stopping to sniff at bushes near the house before chasing after him.
Inside, Jesse unpacked in the upstairs bedroom and read the psychologist’s directions about cutting the grass and taking care of the well and not letting anyone pick her blueberries, except that Jesse could help himself if he wished. The directions told him how to get into the cellar, how to work the barbecue on the patio on the side of the house, and not to be alarmed by the coyotes at nighttime. They told him to see the next-door neighbors, Frank and Edna, if there was a problem or an emergency.
Jesse put the psychologist’s directions away, showered and dressed, and looked at himself in the mirror.
He was thirty. In the light coming from outside he looked thirty. He examined one gray hair on his right temple, and imagined all of his black hair turning gray within a year or two.
“You stole that mirror, you know,” he said to his image, as though talking to Julie. “That was the landlord’s mirror. Where’s your honor?”
The next morning the fox was gone. Jesse couldn’t stop asking himself how it could be gone, unless the groundhogs dragged him into their hole, or the coyotes tore it apart and buried the bones, or some country nut threw it into his truck as landkill instead of roadkill. Fox stew for breakfast, yum, he thought.
He cut the grass by circling the property from the outside inward. He didn’t cut anywhere near where the fox had been. On his ninth or tenth trip around the property he uncovered a group of tiny animals squirming in liquid, with some of the cut grass still over them. He stopped and examined them from the mower seat, shuddering over the possibility that they were baby rats or mice. When he circled again he stopped and looked closer and saw their little rabbit ears. On his next lap, though, they were gone.
When Kevin came by with his beagle at about the same time in the late afternoon, he held another wood block out to Jesse, who guessed it was the birds in the nest, or maybe a frog, but Kevin said it was the fox. “Where do you see a frog?” he said, taking the block from Jesse to look it over.
“I thought you didn’t like to paint dead things,” Jesse said.
“I don’t see a frog,” Kevin said, still looking at the block.
In the house, over well-water tea, Kevin mentioned that he’d been robbed again the night before by the same guys. Again they’d had no guns—only asked him for money and he handed it over, including his own money. The boss told him he’d be fired if it happened again.
“Quit,” Jesse said to him. “Don’t let anyone do that to you.”
Kevin smiled faintly, as though he knew Jesse. Maybe he knew that Julie had rented the back section of Jesse’s two-section apartment, that they’d shared the kitchen on his side, that she was seeing a married guy, and that the three of them had played pool a couple of times on 14th Street before Jesse stopped going because he couldn’t stand to be around that slimy Long Island cheater. Maybe Kevin even knew that months later, after he and Julie had become close friends, Jesse declared his feelings for her, telling her that they were more than the friendship kind of feelings—despite his mind roaring at him to shut the hell up.
Kevin smiled like maybe he knew all of that, and maybe even knew that she took the full-length mirror when she moved out, but only his right eye was directed at Jesse while his left eye drifted off to the corner of the room.
“I won’t bring my own money tonight, in case they come back,” Kevin said.
Outside, before Kevin left for work, Jesse told him about the baby rabbits in the cut grass. “What could have happened to them?”
“The mother,” he said. “She was watching you the whole time, and then she moved them while you were gone.”
“Did she move the dead fox too?” Jesse wondered, and Kevin laughed his wheezing laugh.
That night while in bed, Jesse heard coyotes yipping outside, and he locked the bedroom door in case they broke in or something. The next morning the baby birds were gone, the nest empty, so either the coyotes got to them or their mother took them away or they flew away. Or maybe a mirror wasn’t enough for Julie and she took the birds too. He missed Brooklyn, though. If he’d stayed in his neighborhood, instead of following his neighbor Mrs. Cullen’s suggestion to house-sit for her psychologist friend, he’d have been talking with Tommy and Cal in front of the deli or the OTB. They’d have cursed Julie and joked about tracking her down and getting the mirror back through clever means.
He looked in his half-empty suitcase where her new address and her security check were tucked inside an envelope.
Only send that damn check after she brings the mirror back , Tommy had advised him before Jesse left for upstate. Undamaged, he added.
Never mind that, Cal said. Keep her security no matter what she does.
Sure, it’s what you call a mental anguish clause. It’s in every lease.
The mirror only cost maybe fifty bucks, Jesse said.
But the mental anguish part, that’s another 450, Cal said, and Tommy had scoffed and added, Plus interest, are you kidding me?
Kevin came over while Jesse stood on the driveway fuming about the mirror. He wanted to play rummy again. Jesse shrugged and they went inside. Kevin showed Jesse another wood block painting, this time of the blueberry bushes, which at first looked to Jesse like The Brooklyn Bridge. “Look closer,” Kevin said.
“I still see the Brooklyn Bridge. But that’s just me. I’ll look again later.” He placed the wood block on the kitchen counter and took out the cards, but Kevin said he had his own pack. It was some kind of girly pack of cards and Jesse turned it face down and went back for his own deck.
“Why do you want to look at that crap?” he said to Kevin, who stared at Jesse. “They’re women, but it’s like—like they’re just things, like—” Jesse flicked stiff fingers outward from the bottom of his chin. “Like they’re nothing. What about real people? Like real life?” He sighed as he sat down, and his voice softened. “Like those baby birds. What the hell happened to them?”
“Yeah, I know, the mother, right. But maybe it was coyotes, or maybe there was some other reason.”
“No, no, the mother moved them,” he said, and Jesse sighed.
While Jesse dealt, Kevin was quiet, except for his wheezing breath.
“Did you get robbed again last night?” Jesse asked.
“No, but the same car passed through. I had customers there, so they kept going.”
“Quit that job, man,” Jesse said, while Kevin sorted his cards.
Kevin didn’t talk for the first few hands, so finally Jesse said, “Speaking of being robbed…” And then he told Jesse all about Julie, how they’d become friends and eaten dinner together every night and played cards, until she moved out and took the mirror with her.
“It wasn’t even my mirror,” Jesse said. “So I still have her security check, right in that drawer. She can wait for it now. She can stick it, as far as I’m concerned.”
Kevin picked up a card, kept it, and discarded another.
“Why would she do that, though?” Jesse said. “Why just take it like that? We were friends…” He stopped playing and looked out the window. Some kind of bird was rushing from branch to branch, like it didn’t know what it wanted.
He remembered taking a taxi home with Julie one night, after they played pool alone on 14th Street. Julie had rested her head against the taxi’s back seat and sighed. I always have a nice peaceful time with you, she said.
“Did you meet the neighbors yet?” Kevin said. “Kerri, she’s really nice. And Pete, he’s got the horse farm. And he gave her his sick horse.”
“Those guys will come back tonight, I think,” said Kevin.
Jesse thought for a while, watching Kevin sort his cards. “I’ll come by and hang out at the gas station with you tonight,” he said, and he set down three fives. “We’ll play marathon rummy.”
“Last night I closed up early. I wasn’t supposed to. I’m going to get fired soon.”
“Quit. But tonight I’ll hang out with you, all right?”
Kevin nodded, looking at his cards. “Later, I’ll paint the baby birds,” he promised, but Jesse thought to himself that Kevin would probably only paint the nest, not the birds in it, or the mother urging the birds to fly away, or the coyotes finding a way to knock down the nest and eat them. He would only paint some kind of round brown object, outlining the things themselves and not whatever happened to them or why things ever happened.
Jesse got up to boil more water.
“Maybe after that I’ll try to paint the gutters on my house,” Kevin went on. “I want to paint exactly what things look like.”
“No such thing,” Jesse said from the stove. “Everything moves too fast.”
Jesse wondered what Kevin’s painting of Julie in the cab would have looked like, with her head resting back, or Julie at the pizza place, laughing when Jesse told her he wanted to live to be one hundred, or Julie—startled, then laughing—when Jesse snatched cards from her hand to take a look at them, or Julie placing the note on the kitchen counter while Jesse slept in his bedroom, or Julie sneaking down the stairs with the mirror, or Julie on the phone a week later, asking Jesse for her security check, her miserable voice debating with him whether she stole the mirror or not. How could anyone paint any of it and get it right? Jesse wondered.
“Everything looks different to everybody,” he told Kevin, who was busy sorting his cards and didn’t answer, while the pot on the stove began a rolling boil.
Near midnight Jesse went to Kevin’s gas station and sat with him inside. They played cards with Jesse’s regular deck, and Jesse eyed every car that pulled in, but Kevin shook his head no each time and went out to the pumps.
After two o’clock, heart racing a little, Jesse strode to the pay phone attached to the building and poured in quarters and dialed the number Julie had left.
While a long ring tone repeated for the tenth and eleventh times, a car eased into the station and headed toward Kevin, who stood frozen at a pump. Jesse turned to face the car while he told the repeating ring tone that he wasn’t going to mail her security check for any goddamn reason, that even if he did he would keep half of it because of the mental anguish clause. “That’s right, mental anguish,” he said into the phone while the ring tone repeated in his ear.
The car circled around Kevin and hurried out of the station, but Jesse went on talking to the ring tone anyway. “You thief. I didn’t do anything wrong.” And he stared at his reflection in the gas station’s office window before slamming the phone back on the hook.
Later, near five or so, after more card games with Kevin inside the office and no further sign of the thieves, Jesse wandered down the empty Main Street and pulled the envelope from his pocket. In front of a mailbox, he looked up at an old brick apartment building, which looked like his building in Brooklyn.
“I did nothing wrong,” he told the building. “I back my friends.”
Then he thought of Tommy, who had stood with Jesse in front of his building the morning Jesse left for upstate. You opened your big mouth and got your head handed to you. It wasn’t your move, man.
“Shut up, Tommy,” he said, and he opened the mailbox and flicked the envelope inside.
Lou Gaglia is the author of Sure Things & Last Chances (2016) and Poor Advice and Other Stories (2015), which won the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for short story fiction and the 2016 New York Book Festival Award for fiction. His stories have appeared in Eclectica, Serving House Journal, Hawai’i Review, The Oklahoma Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time Wu Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com
David e. Bell
is a wordsmith, photographer, engineer, and sailor. His home port is Nyack, New York, on the great Hudson River, just below Hook Mountain.