“You telling me you don’t believe in a divine being?”
    “No. I’m just telling you that I’m tired of a prayer that goes on for five minutes.”
    “It’s not just another prayer, Dennis. It’s grace. It’s thanking the Lord for all his wonderful gifts.”
    “And just what gifts would those be?” Dennis Kittredge asked his wife.
    They were at the dining room table, the festive one with the red and white oilcloth spread over it, a small blue blown-glass butter dish the shape of a diamond, and a pair of salt and pepper shakers got up to look like stalks of sweet corn.
    His wife Mae was a small and fine-boned woman who was given to excessively high collars and excessively long skirts and excessively stern looks. In her youth she’d been high fine company, a tireless attender of county fairs and ice cream socials, and a somewhat daring lover. While they had never committed the ultimate sin in the time before their vows, they had many nights come very, very close: especially downriver near the dam where fireflies glowed like jewels against the ebony sky, and there was music to be heard in the silver water splashing down on the sharp rocks below.
    Then two years after their marriage Mae had become pregnant, but she’d lost the child in a bloody puddle in the middle of the night, on a white sleeping sheet she’d later burned.
    Ever since then she’d been lost to God. Her juices had seemed to dry up till she was an old and indifferent woman about sex, and even worse about festivities. Nights, after Kittredge was home from the farms where he worked for twenty-three cents an hour, she played the saw as her mother had taught her, and in the soft fitful glow of the kerosene lamp read him the Bible, the only part of which he cared anything for being the Book of Job. Oh, yes; Job was a man Kittredge could believe, all pain and rage and dashed expectations. The rest of the biblical prophets struck him as stupid and they bored him silly. But Job…
    “You ready now?” she said, as if he were a little boy she had only to wait out.
    He sighed, a scarecrow of a man with a long, angular face and furious black brows and dead cornflower blue eyes. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
    “Then proceed.”
    Why the hell did he stay here anymore? It was like living with your maiden aunt. But where else could he go?
    He said grace and he said it the way he knew she wanted him to. No mumbling, no sloppy posture. He sat up bolt straight and he spoke in clear, loud words, with his head bowed: “Bless us O Lord for these our gifts…”
    There was one sure way to irritate her; to keep your head up or spend your time eating up the food with your eyes.
    “God likes it better when you bow your head,” she’d told him once. So that was that. Ever since then he’d bowed his head. It just wasn’t worth the grief he’d have gotten otherwise.
    “You say it nice,” she said when he’d finished and was already helping himself to the boiled potatoes and tomatoes and chicken. “You’ve got such a strong, manly voice and the Lord appreciates that.”
    He glanced up at her for a dangerous moment. He almost asked: And just how do you know all these things the Lord wants so much? Does he come and visit you at night after I’m asleep? Or maybe he comes during the day while I’m working; comes in and helps himself to the teakettle and sits in the wooden rocker next to the window and tells you exactly what he wants me and you to do. It must be something like that, Mae, because there’s no other way you could possibly know so much about his likes and dislikes. No other possible way.
    But he couldn’t ever bring himself to do this because then he’d remember the horror he’d seen in her the night she’d miscarried on the bed in there, and the way her skinny white fingers had so reverently touched the bloody puddle, as if that itself were her child. Even after the doctor left she’d been unable to talk, and then he’d held her on his lap in the darkness in the rocker by the moonlit window. She’d surprised him by staying still, no tears and no words, just the rocker creaking until the crows and the roosters woke at dawn, and every once in a while he’d look at her face, at the worn-out girl of her and the birdy but pretty woman she’d become. And he’d realized then that he was holding a woman so sorrowful she was beyond any human solace, beyond it for the rest of their lives. Oh, in the spring they’d tried to have another child but it hadn’t worked, nor had the attempt a year later. It was sometime then that she’d become so religious and it was around then that he’d lost his job over at Rochester and it was after that that the bank robbery went so wrong and the little girl was killed.
    “Thank you,” he said.
    She looked up from cutting her chicken. “Thank you?”
    “For saying that about my voice.”
    “Oh.” She offered him one of her rare smiles, and he saw in the smile the girl she’d been, the girl he’d fallen in love with. “Well, you know it’s true. All my friends used to say they wished their men had voices like yours.”
    He stopped eating. “Maybe it’d do you good to see them.”
    “Your old friends. Susan and Irma and Jane Marie.”
    She shrugged. “Oh, I see them every once in a while but I embarrass them.” She shook her head. “They think I’m too religious. A fanatic.” She looked straight at him and broke his heart with her madness. “They don’t seem to know that the Lord is walking right alongside them and judging everything they do. Why, if we hadn’t sinned before we were married, we’d probably have us three fine young children today.”
    This was another point in the conversation when he had to stop himself from speaking. Maybe it was the only way she could understand not being able to bear a child-through something she’d done wrong. But to him it was just sad foolishness, a judgment on them both, and just one more way in which he felt separated from her.
    She patted his bony hand with her bony hand. It felt funny, like the cold touch of a stranger. “You’re a good man, Dennis. The Lord’s going to reward you on Judgment Day. You wait and see if he don’t.”
    She had just settled into eating again, when they heard the neighbor dog yip and saw a shadow fall on the grass outside the kitchen window. Somebody was knocking on the back door.
    “You finish eating,” Kittredge said. “I’ll get it.”
    He did not like who he saw framed in the door.
    “Who is it?” Mae asked.
    He decided to lie. Mae was harsh on the few friends he could claim. He’d convinced her he’d long ago given up the likes of Carlyle. “Kid from the smithy. I’ll step outside. Want a smoke anyway.”
    She nodded to his plate. “You ain’t finished yet, Dennis. You know how I worry about you.”
    And that was the terrible hell of it. She did love him and did worry about him just as he loved her and worried about her. But it was passionless. They might as well have been sister and brother.


    He went outside into the fading day, into the fading heat of the fading day, and the first thing he did, right there on the stoop where his pa and grandpa had stood generations before him, was slap Carlyle right across the mouth.
    “You know better than this,” Kittredge said.
    More humiliated than hurt, Carlyle touched the spot where the slap still burned and looked at Kittredge out of his poorshanty hurt and his poorshanty pain and said, “Onliest reason I did it was ’cause Griff told me to.”
    “Griff told you to come here?”
    “That’s exactly what he told me.”
    “I don’t believe it.”
    “You go ask him.”
    “You know what my missus still thinks of the likes of you.”
    “Well, maybe I don’t think a whole hell of a lot more of her, truth be told. You ever think of that? She gets flies on her shit the same way I do.”
    Kittredge looked back at the door, through the glass to where Mae had her head down eating. She never gained weight; there was a rawness to her skinniness. He looked back at Carlyle. “You don’t use language like that in this house.” Carlyle smirked. That was how Kittredge always thought of Carlyle-that poorshanty smirk over a dirty joke or a jibe that hurt somebody’s feelings. “You know better than to push it with me, Carlyle. Least you should.”
    “Griff wants to see us. Tonight.”
    “West end of the Second Avenue bridge. Nine o’clock.”
    “You heard what I asked. Why?”
    Carlyle shook his head. The smirk reappeared. He liked to smirk when he told you something that was going to scare you. He said, “That little girl’s father came to town this afternoon.”
    “You’re crazy, Carlyle. How could he track us down?”
    “I don’t know how he done it; but he done it. He’s here and he’s got a Winchester and he means to kill us.” Carlyle ran a trembling hand over his sweaty head. “He was waitin’ for me when I left Griff’s.”
    “He tell you he means to kill us?”
    “Pretty much.”
    “Pretty much doesn’t mean that’s what he’s got in mind.”
    Carlyle shrugged. “You wasn’t there. You didn’t see his eyes, Kittredge.”
    “Your food’s getting cold, dear,” Mae called from the table.
    Carlyle smirked. “Must be nice havin’ a little lady call you ‘dear’ like that all the time.”
    “I’m not going to believe any of this till it’s proven to me,” Kittredge said.
    “You better be there tonight or Griff’s gonna be mad.”
    “I didn’t know that Griff had become my boss.”
    “You better,” Carlyle said, sounding like a little kid. “You better.” Then he turned and started away, into a path made golden by the fading rays of sunlight. When he was nothing more than a silhouette of flame, he turned back to Kittredge and said, “You shoulda seen his eyes, Kittredge. You shoulda seen ’em.”
    Then he was gone.
Jack Dwyer #07 - What the Dead Men Say
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