Ron and Emma Borman left the party at 2:30 in the morning. Emma took the keys because she had less to drink. She wasn’t worried about police, but she had concerns about falling asleep at the wheel. It would be forty minutes along unlit roads. She hadn’t been up this late in years.
She drove, not looking at Ron. “Why did you keep talking about the neighbors?”
“Why did Bill keep talking about taxidermy?” Ron lit a cigarette and cracked his window. “Eighteen minutes about a squirrel he mounted when he was in college?”
Emma hated when he smoked in the car. “I thought we were going to try and forget about the neighbors tonight.”
The sky was crowded with stars. The road cloaked by pines. Pavement scrolled beneath the headlight beams, reminding Emma of a conveyor belt. When she thought of a conveyor belt, she thought of her life. She thought of their son Craig. Years ago, he lay passed out in the back seat on the way home from parties like this one. At least his friends had been good enough to call. She or Ron had carried him, heavy and limp, up the stairs to his bedroom. Now Craig was a homeowner in Grand Rapids, working full-time at the auto parts store. He had a serious girlfriend his own age, so he was stitching his life back together.
Ron pushed his cigarette out the window. He reached across the seat and patted his wife’s thigh.
Emma felt a rush of something, an emotion hard to name. Her eyes filled. She flipped through the AM radio. Only one station came in, a talk show about investments. She didn’t listen because that sort of news had been depressing lately. She scrolled with the “Search” button, the scanner stopping every two seconds on nothing but static.
The Bormans were returning from Bill and Sherry’s. Sherry had thrown a surprise party for Bill’s retirement. Most of the employees had turned out, a couple dozen of them, along with spouses and significant others. Ron and Emma brought a bottle of wine from their cellar and a set of golf clubs decorated with a red ribbon the size of a basketball.
The party had gotten out of hand. The living room filled with people dancing to songs like “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Kokomo.” After a while, a guy from Accounting jumped onto the coffee table. The crowd cheered until the accountant’s leg broke through the glass. He stripped to his boxer shorts to examine himself, and everyone did shots and made jokes about his knobby knees. Remarkably, he was unscathed. Bill’s wife Sherry, though, cut her finger deeply while helping clean up. Standing in the corner with his whiskey, Bill had laughed and called his wife clumsy. Ron stood by, grinning and shaking his head. Emma helped pick broken glass out of the carpet.
When Ron and Emma arrived home, Emma shut off the engine. She yawned. Ron woke with a start. He looked around wide-eyed, as if terrified of where he had found himself.
Emma stepped out of the car. The night was cool and pleasant. At the house next door, a heavy bass thrummed. She could feel it in her stomach, pulsing. Many voices could be heard, talking and laughing.
“Every goddamn night,” Ron said. He closed the car door. He didn’t slam it, which Emma considered a good sign.
Emma’s heels clicked up the walkway. She drew a deep breath of the peonies and lilacs, a sweetness in the air that nearly broke her heart. The security light switched on. A swarm of gnats danced around her face, and she waved them away. When she got to the front door, she noticed that Ron wasn’t behind her.
She went back to the car. No Ron. She walked to the other side of the driveway, nearer to the voices and music. She called his name softly. She removed her heels and took two steps onto the neighbor’s lawn. The grass was damp from the sprinkler and cooled Emma’s feet. The neighbor’s house was obscured by trees, every window darkened by heavy drapes.
Ron appeared suddenly at her side. “Let’s go,” he said. He hooked Emma’s arm and ushered her toward their house.
A voice rose behind them. “Hey. Not so fast.”
Ron ignored the voice and kept walking. Emma turned to see a man. He held a bottle of beer. His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a slim hairless torso. He resembled a teenager, except his face was hard. She estimated him to be the same age, late 20s, as her son Greg. The man stopped behind the Bormans’ car, leaving a distance between himself and Ron. “You pissed on our house, man.”
“Excuse me?” Ron said.
“I saw you.”
Emma wasn’t exactly sure who lived in the house next door. People came and went all the time. They were Native American, or American Indian; she could never remember the proper term. It had been difficult for the past eight months not to develop bad feelings toward these people as a group, although she felt sure, deep down, that she wasn’t a racist. But they played loud music every night, and cars visited their house at all hours. A rusty pickup was permanently parked in the driveway. On the rare occasion that the lawn got mowed, it was done by a preteen boy who didn’t acknowledge Emma and Ron as they passed on their evening walk.
Now Ron said to the man, “You live over there?”
The man flicked the ember from his cigarette. “Please apologize.”
“Are you my neighbor?”
“Apologize and everything’s cool.”
“To who? You?” Ron stepped forward, but Emma held his arm. “He won’t even say if he lives there.” Ron yanked free. “You’re on my property. Leave now or I’m calling the police.”
Ron was 6’3”, 250 pounds. The neighbor was scarcely more than a boy. Emma stepped in front of her husband. “Let’s go inside,” she said.
The man examined his boots as if he was reading them. “I’m waiting for an apology,” he said.
Ron pushed Emma aside. The man wasn’t ready when Ron hit him in the face. The beer bottle clinked on the pavement. Ron leaned over the man and punched him again and again. Each thud sounded heavier and wetter than the last. Emma dragged her husband off.
The man’s face was a mass of blood. Emma sat beside him on the driveway while Ron went into the garage. The security light turned off, and the world went black until overhead a blanket of stars quietly came to life.
She heard the scuffle of shoes. It was Ron. He extended a hand. “Let’s go.”
When Emma didn’t move, he lifted her. She felt weightless and insignificant. He carried her through the front door, the same way he used to carry Greg, and laid her on the living room couch. He didn’t turn on a light.
Emma thought about a fly she’d killed yesterday, a fat slow one that left a smear on the counter. She wished that she had drunk so much at the party that she was unconscious. She said, “We have to call an ambulance.”
“Let me sit for a minute,” Ron said.
The bass from next door churned and rolled as though nothing had happened. When Emma’s eyes adjusted, she could read the hands of the antique clock on the mantel: 3:25.
Headlights moved across the curtains. Ron stood from the sofa and peered through a small opening.
Emma asked, “Who is it?”
“More partiers, a drug dealer, who knows.” Ron’s tone was the same as every night when he peered out their bedroom window. He had a temper, but in thirty years, Emma had never seen him hit anyone.
“I’m calling 9-1-1.” Emma unzipped her purse and located her phone. She couldn’t dial. Her hands were shaking.
“Give it to me,” Ron said, taking the phone.
She felt sick to her stomach. She remembered the retirement party—the shattered coffee table and the accountant in his boxers slamming a vodka shot. She had seen Bill’s wife Sherry doubled over in pain, her finger opened to the bone, blood dripping, spotting the carpet.
Ron told the 9-1-1 operator that there was a disturbance. He said he was afraid to go outside, since it sounded like a fight. “Please hurry,” he added.
In the kitchen, Emma heated water for tea. Ron sat at the table. His eyes were wet and red, and his hair was in disarray. She realized how rarely she had seen him with his hair uncombed.
“You should wash up,” Emma said.
He noticed the blood on his hand and went into the bathroom. His expression was like he still hadn’t fully awakened. She thought about the man; she heard again the clink of the bottle on the concrete and the sickening thump of Ron’s fist against his face. She wanted to be outside, to be with the man, to help him, but she was afraid. He could be rising to his feet, pulling a gun from his jeans, and charging their house; or worse, he could be dead, surrounded by angry friends.
She stood among the familiar sights of their kitchen: the stainless steel oven and fridge, the granite countertops, and the plaque above the stove commemorating her 25 years of teaching at Saint Michael’s. She and Ron weren’t yet 60, but she’d taken early retirement when their son Craig checked himself into rehab for the cocaine addiction that almost killed him.
That was one year ago. Craig now lived with a bank teller named Rita in Grand Rapids. He delivered automobile parts. He and Rita had recently bought a respectable house with a backyard for the dog, although, to be honest, Craig hadn’t done any of this on his own. Ron gave Craig the money for the 20% down payment. And Ron was friends with the guy who hired Craig at the auto parts store. Ron could never utter the word cocaine. He always said narcotics, that his boy had problems with narcotics.
The teapot started to shutter and scream. Emma removed it from the eye and wondered why she had retired. In the heat of the moment, it had seemed like the right thing to do. Craig had OD’d for the second time and was facing theft charges. Ron’s job at the woodburning stove company was secure. He’d gotten promoted to Regional Accounts Manager, and the mortgage was only five years from being paid off. She’d wanted to take care of her son, to help him through his trouble.
Ron came out of the bathroom. His face was pale. She stopped dunking her teabag.
“What are you going to tell them?”
“Nothing. Go put on your robe.”
She didn’t ask questions. She ran up to the bedroom and stepped out of her clothes.
In robe and slippers, she went back downstairs and outside. The air was chilly. The driveway was flooded by a spotlight. Two EMTs in white shirts knelt beside the man. His eyes were closed. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face.
Ron was talking to a police officer. “We heard voices,” he said, “all kinds of yelling.” He said they couldn’t see anything from their window because the garage security light hadn’t come on for some reason.
A dozen onlookers were gathered beside the driveway. A woman broke from the group despite protests from the police officers. She covered her mouth when she got close to the man on the pavement. She kept yelling, “He’s my brother,” as the officer moved her away into the shadows.
Emma woke at 8 a.m. Barely three hours of sleep. She couldn’t help it; she was an early riser, even though it was a Saturday, the weekend. Ron was snoring as usual, his expression peaceful. Emma lingered in bed until 9 a.m. when the phone rang. She got up without waking Ron and headed downstairs.
On the phone it was Craig, calling to wish his dad Happy Father’s Day a day early. He and Rita were heading to Lake Michigan the next day and wouldn’t have a chance to call.
Emma slumped heavily into a chair at the kitchen table. She told Craig that his dad was at Frank’s Nursery, buying grass seed.
Craig had happy news. He and Rita were engaged. “Next summer we’ll get married,” he said. She could hear the smile in his voice.
Emma inhaled a few breaths, her eyes flitting helplessly as if the appropriate emotion might be hanging, invisible, in the air in front of her, if she could only locate it. But it eluded her. She realized that she wasn’t crying with joy and likely wouldn’t anytime soon.
A big breakfast, she thought, would be nice to surprise Ronald with—pancakes, bacon, and cubed cantaloupe. He did have a long night, after all. They both did.
Emma returned her attention to the phone at her ear. She congratulated her son and managed to say they were very, very proud.
Darrin Doyle is the author of the novels “The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo” and “Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story.” His short fiction has appeared recently in Redivider, Toad, Blackbird, and elsewhere. He teaches at Central Michigan University.