It was late on a Thursday afternoon in April and Livie was at the top of Peachtree Lane when she saw the car, a Mini Cooper, at the bottom of the long shallow hill where the water tended to pond after a heavy rain. It was parked off the road, on the wrong side, and the driver’s side door was pushed open into the roadside scruff. She had only moments to wonder about the trouble before she caught sight of the injured dog and the woman on her
knees beside it. The woman looked up as Livie approached and her eyes, when they locked with Livie’s, were so filled with frightened entreaty that Livie’s heart jammed and what flooded her mind was a panicked impulse to floor the accelerator and flee the scene. Of course she didn’t. She parked her SUV and got out, cutting herself off from the vaguely shameful notion that there was a part of her that could have left the woman and her dog in the road as if they were nothing.
“Someone hit him and didn’t stop.” The woman began explaining before Livie could ask.
“Poor doggie. He’s yours?” Livie knelt beside the woman careful to keep clear of the blood oozing from underneath the dog’s hindquarters. A trickle flowed from its nose, but it was still breathing, dipping air in small labored doses.
The woman nodded, hands fluttering above the wounded animal like helpless birds. “He’s so big, I don’t think I can lift him.”
He was big, some sort of German Shepherd mix, Livie thought. “What’s his name?”
“Razzleberry. Razz for short.” The woman picked up a cell phone lying in the tarred grit beside her. “I called my husband, but he’s not answering. He works in Houston anyway. It would take him an hour to get up here.”
Livie glanced up the road, wishing Charlie would appear over the rise in his truck. He would know exactly how to move this dog without hurting him more. “We have to get him into town to the vet.”
“I know, but he won’t fit in my car.” The woman looked at the Mini Cooper.
“We’ll put him in mine.”
“Oh, no, I can’t ask you to do that. He’s bleeding.”
Livie stood up. “I don’t mind.” She opened the hatch, took out the blanket she ordinarily used as a liner underneath the plants she ferried to her landscape jobs and brought it back to where Razz lay. The woman was bent over him now, murmuring near his ear, things like, “My poochie boy,” and, “My silly willy boy,” and she sounded ridiculous and so tender that Livie’s throat closed. Her heart fluttered. Please, please let us get him into the car and into town without killing him. . . .
“We’ll make a sling?” The woman looked from the blanket to Livie to be sure they were thinking alike.
“If he’ll let us,” Livie said. “Sometimes they snap when they’re hurt.”
“He’s such a big baby, I don’t think he will. I’m Nancy McKesson, by the way.” The woman stood up, offering her hand.
“Olivia Saunders, Livie.” In Livie’s grasp, Nancy’s hand felt as unpampered as Livie’s own.
They knelt beside Razz again and gently shifted him onto the blanket. He offered no resistance other than to whimper.
“See, he’s just a c--cream puff.” Nancy’s voice broke. She set her teeth together and pushed her palms down her thighs. “What kind of person does this? Just hits an animal and drives away? How could you sleep nights?”
Livie shook her head; she didn’t want to think about it. “If anyone can fix him, Doc Forney can.”
“He’s the local vet? I’m--I’m not familiar. We only moved here two weeks ago from Colorado.”
“Ah. I thought you were new to the neighborhood. You bought the Bennett place.”
“We’re neighbors sort of. I have the ten acres on the other side of Charlie Wister.”
“Oh, his place is next door to mine, right?”
“Uh-huh. You ready?”
Together they lifted Razz’s weight between them, sidestepped to the car and managed to slide him inside. They waited to see his chest rise and fall and shared a look. It wasn’t exactly triumph that passed between them, but some paler shade of hope. Livie closed the hatch carefully. She found her keys and inserted them into the ignition. She was trembling; she couldn’t help it. But so was Nancy. From the effort and the anxiety, the sheer will to keep this dog alive.
Livie eased onto the road, wincing at every bump, fighting a renewed urge to floor the accelerator.
Nancy talked about the move from Colorado, describing it as difficult. The animals had all been spooked. “Charlie helped me corral one of the horses last week,” she said. She propped her elbow on the window ledge, rested her forehead in her hand. “I knew better than to leave the gate open. I knew Razz would run. It’s my fault he was hit.”
“Don’t blame yourself.” Livie offered the bit of advice automatically.
By the time Livie brought Nancy back to her car, the dip at the bottom of the hill was feathered in light-silvered shadows and the faint scent of new-mown grass floated in the air. Livie let down the windows. Nancy got out of the SUV and when she looked in at Livie, her eyes filled. “The only reason Razz has any chance is because you stopped,” she said in a voice that slipped and caught.
Livie looked away. I almost didn’t. The words hung in her mind. Some nettlesome prick of conscience goaded her to say them, to admit she didn’t deserve admiration or gratitude, that she wasn’t so pure and noble, that sometimes, she didn’t much like herself.
She met Nancy’s gaze. “It was nothing,” she said, instead. Because the truth was too hard and confusing.
Charlie was in the rocking chair on her front porch, drinking a Coors beer when she drove up. It was a ritual they shared on summer evenings. He’d rattle up her driveway in his old beat-up Chevy truck, slam the door that sounded like a tin can and holler, “Livie, gal. You got a cold beer for a tired old man?”
He wasn’t that old, sixty-five. Livie had watched him work rings around men half his age. He was an architect by trade. Retired, he’d say, if she mentioned it, but they’d worked several projects together in the three years since she’d met him and she knew better. She was more likely to sit down on a job than he was.
She walked up on the porch, sat down in the swing, nodded at the beer in his hand. “You helped yourself.”
“Door was open,” he said. “How many times do I have to remind you not to go off and leave your door unlocked.”
She smiled. “It’s the country, Charlie, not downtown Houston.”
He drank his beer. “That used to make a damn, but it doesn’t anymore. You’re too trusting. Where’ve you been anyway? You’re late.”
“I need one of those, I think.” Livie nodded at his beer.
He went inside letting the screen door snap shut behind him and she pulled her feet up under her, jostling the swing on purpose just to hear it creak. The sun teetered now behind the ancient wind-bent pecan tree that kept watch like an old druid over the field across the road. A frog peeped, a descending melody of notes. Out on the highway, a semi ground through a sequence of gears. She heard a horse whinny and thought of Nancy.
She thought of Charlie who could be crotchety and severe, and more protective than the oldest of her old broody hens. He was the dad she’d never had. She thought of last Friday, the explanation she owed him for her behavior that still made her squirm. He was too private himself to ask, but the worry was present in his eyes every time he looked at her. She had to clear the air; she just didn’t know how.
When he came back and handed her the Coors, Livie thanked him and told him about Razz.
“Doc Forney’ll fix him if anyone can,” Charlie said when she was finished.
“That’s what I told Nancy. Poor lady was devastated, blaming herself.”
“Ought to go around checking bumpers, see if we can find who did it.”
“Some jerk,” Livie said. “Is that the mail?”
Charlie bent over the arm of the rocker, scooped up the pile and handed it to her.
Livie riffled through it, the usual assortment: junk flyers, a catalogue from Logee’s Nursery, a utility bill. There was a note from one of her clients. “You remember Charlotte Gibbs?” Livie waved the sheet of scented stationery, cream-colored with spidery handwriting rendered in ink the same shade as strong tea. “She wants me to come and speak to her garden club.”
“And you thought she didn’t like the job you did in her yard.”
“She didn’t. She just wants me there so she can humiliate me in front of all those old biddy friends of hers. Acid-tongued witch.” Livie slid Charlotte’s note underneath the pile of mail in her lap and there it was, a white number 10 envelope addressed to her.
In his hand.
At least she thought it was. It was dusk now, the light was vague, plus she hadn’t seen his handwriting in six years.
Livie put her feet down flat.
“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked. “You look like you swallowed a grasshopper.”
Livie picked up the envelope and held it closer to her face. “It’s from Cotton,” she said.
“The Cotton? The famous elusive sonofabitch Cotton O’Dell?”
“Well, are you going to open it?”
After Charlie left, she set the letter along with the rest of the mail on the marble-topped island in the kitchen and went out to the chicken coop murmuring apologies as she lifted the hens from their nests and gathered their eggs. She was in the potting shed rinsing them and the last of the carrots she’d pulled out of her garden when her cell phone rang.
She glanced at the caller ID, made a rueful face and flipped open the phone. “Oh, no,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” Kat hissed. “I’m here, in the foyer. Mother and her latest are waiting in the bar. Our dinner reservation is in ten minutes. Please tell me the valet is parking your car, that in one second I’m going to see you come through this door.”
“I’m at home,” Livie told her sister. She looked down the length of her dingy overalls. “I haven’t even changed from work. I completely forgot. I’m so sorry.”
“How could you?” Kat kept a rein on her distress, but it rang clear to Livie nonetheless. “I reminded you this morning. You can’t do this to me.”
“There was this dog,” Livie said and she went on to explain about Razz. “It just totally left my mind. Tim’s with you, isn’t he?”
“Tim is working late, which loosely translated means he’s pissed at me.”
“About?” Livie asked, but she knew. Between Kat and Tim, the hot marital issue was always money.
“Short version? A pair of tennis shoes I bought for Stella.”
“He stood you up for tennis shoes?”
“Why not? You’re standing me up for a dog.” Kat paused. “They were Prada, okay? He’s mad because they were Prada. He doesn’t think his seven-year-old daughter should have designer tennis shoes.”
“How much, Kat?”
“Two hundred give or take.” Kat tried to sound nonchalant, but her voice wavered. She sighed. “I can’t talk about this right now. Mom and the new boyfriend are tapping their shoes and since I appear to be the sole attendee at this little soiree she arranged to show him off--”
“What’s he like?”
“Suave, debonair. A line four miles long.”
“So this one can actually put sentences together? How much younger this time?”
“Incredibly, he’s her age, I think.”
“You’re kidding. You don’t suppose this could be about more than the sex this time?”
“Umm, it’s doubtful. This one’s married. But don’t say you heard that from me.”
“Married,” Livie repeated. “That’s-- Mom hasn’t ever-- I mean what about his wife?” Livie felt herself wanting to protest that it was wrong. She touched the corner of her mouth, not liking herself, the impulse to judge.
“I think the wife’s a long-time invalid or something. I guess, you know, there’s not much to choose from when you’re over sixty. At least Mother goes out,” Kat added after a pause, “which is more than I can say for you, tootsie.”
You live like a nun. Livie waited for Kat to say it. She’d dubbed Livie’s place The Cloister right after Livie had moved in three years ago. Kat had even found an artist to letter the name on a chunk of old barn wood. As a joke, she’d said. Ha-ha. . . . Livie’d stuck the lettered plank behind the potting shed door. She didn’t find it terribly funny, probably because it wasn’t terribly accurate.
“I don’t guess there’s any way you could get here before dessert?” Kat asked.
“Honestly? I’m worn out. Charlie and I started the renovation on the Bonner dairy farm. I drove you by there, remember? Last week.”
“That old Victorian monstrosity?”
“Bones, Kat. The house has great bones. It’ll be gorgeous when Charlie’s finished. It’s my part, the grounds, I’m not so sure about. I’ve never done a landscaping job this huge. I’m sort of regretting I let Charlie pull me in on the job.”
“It’ll be gorgeous too, Livie. Every garden you’ve ever done is beautiful.”
“But this is a hundred acres and the client wants all of it cultivated. Meditation gardens, a labyrinth, three ponds.” Ponds, Livie thought, what a misnomer. It was how the client, Dexter French, referred to the bodies of water on the property that he intended to operate as a bed and breakfast, but at least one of them was the size of a small lake.
Livie carried the basket of eggs and carrots into the kitchen, set it down next to the stack of mail. Cotton’s letter sat on top. She picked it up, studying it.
I have a letter from Cotton. Livie almost said it aloud. She imagined Kat’s reaction, something between blatant sneering and total disgust. Kat would ask Livie what it said and she would have to say she had no idea, that she was scared to open it. She set the letter down.
“You worry too much,” Kat said.
“You would too, if you knew Dexter. He changes his mind faster than Mom changes her boyfriends.”
“Hah.” Livie got the laugh out of Kat she’d been looking for. “That’ll be the day,” Kat said.
“I’m sorry, truly.” Livie apologized again. “I hate that you’re stuck with them by yourself.”
“You owe me.”
“I know. Can I pay you in eggs? I have dozens.”
“My sister, the farmer’s wife, only in your case, it’s sans farmer.”
“Cute,” Livie said.
After dinner, she sat at her drafting table with the drawings for the Bonner project spread out in front of her and tried to work, but she couldn’t get into it, and very soon, she gave it up, switched off the lamp and went through the house, locking doors. She retrieved the unopened letter from the kitchen, stopped in the dining room to flick the overhead light three times, a signal to Charlie that she was on her way to bed. Safe and sound. He insisted.
His kitchen light flashed. He was satisfied.
She took her shower, donned an old castoff dress shirt of Charlie’s and climbed into bed.
Picked up the envelope.
Studying it, trying to decide if it really was Cotton’s handwriting, wishing she didn’t care. Saying to herself: I don’t need this.
It could just as well be junk mail, couldn’t it? Sometimes insurance agents hand addressed their fliers to snooker people into thinking it was something personal, the way Cotton had snookered her.
Nearly six years ago, on April 29th when he’d left her standing at the altar. Well, not exactly at the altar, but in a small antechamber at the chapel where they were to have been married. In her tiara and tulle, her beaded white peau de soie gown belling at her ankles. Her mother, sister and all six of her attendants watching her covertly as the appointed hour for the ceremony to commence came and went.
One hundred and twenty guests had been waiting to see her walk down the aisle on her brother-in-law Tim’s arm. A classical chamber ensemble had been running through the music Livie had chosen as a prelude to the actual wedding march. She would never hear Debussy’s Clair de Lune without it elevating her heart rate.
Her gown now lay underneath Mrs. Rodriguez’s koi pond, the first one Livie ever installed. She’d cut up the silk petticoat and pieced a darling baby quilt appliquéd with a plethora of blue velvet zoo animals for her nephew Zachary, Kat’s youngest, when he’d been born three years ago. He still dragged it around. Livie’d given her tiara to Stella at the same time so she wouldn’t feel deprived. Whether or not the glittery crown was a suitable accessory for a favorite pink tutu depended on how regal Stella was feeling in the moment.
Other monogrammed pieces of Livie’s trousseau were scattered in gardens around the countryside. Sixteen embossed linen napkins kept the ground soggy underneath Mrs. Teasdale’s clump of bog orchids and the heavy table cloth that matched them supported a bed of granite chips at the base of the fountain in front of Mitchell and Vaughn’s Funeral Home in town. The fountain was comprised of a group of cavorting nude water nymphs, which Livie thought was an odd choice for a funeral home, but then Hamp Mitchell was a little odd anyway.
Several bed sheets, Egyptian cotton, king-size, 300 thread count, also monogrammed, underlay Livie’s own koi pond. She’d donated her wedding china and silver privately to the local battered woman’s shelter. It had suited her to recycle the gifts that her guests hadn’t allowed her to return.
She would have buried her heart if she could have.
Livie pushed her thumb hard under the flap, opening a ragged seam. She took out the single sheet of paper and unfolded it. Besides the opening address, Dear Livie, there were two words, I’m sorry.
For a moment the world stopped. Her breath caught; her hand rose to her throat and she examined the shadowy corners of her bedroom as if she might see Cotton there.
As if he might step into the light.
The sun was up, a bright yellow disc crayoned into a bold stripe of blue sky and Livie was standing at the kitchen sink eating a bowl of cereal when she heard Charlie’s truck rattle into the driveway, then the scrape of his boot heels on the back porch.
“Livie, gal, you decent?” He always checked even though he knew from countless other mornings that she was.
“I am,” Livie answered.
“It’s nice out this morning. Good and dry.” Charlie found a mug, poured his coffee. “At least the weather’s cooperating.”
“Dexter’s already called and left a message.”
“He say what he wanted?”
“No, and I haven’t called him back. It’ll be some alteration, widen this, don’t plant that.” Livie dropped her spoon into her cereal bowl. She encountered Charlie’s glance, that hovering question. Scooted her eyes past him. But no, she couldn’t let it go on. “Look,” she blurted the word, “I know you aren’t happy about leaving me at Bo Jangles the other night.”
Charlie shot her a glance from under his brow. “You got home okay, that’s the important thing. I guess Joe brought you.”
She looked at the toes of her sneakers. Joe. His last name eluded her if he’d even told her what it was. What she did remember, vividly, mortifyingly, was waking up on Saturday morning with a huge headache to find herself naked in Joe’s bed. She’d left while he was in the shower, called a cab from the doughnut shop in a nearby strip center, then prayed all the way home Charlie wouldn’t catch her, that she wouldn’t be forced to explain. She was awfully afraid she would have lied, then she’d have hated herself even more.
“I just haven’t ever known you to drink so much,” he said.
“I don’t usually.” I don’t know what got into me. Livie could have said that, too . . . except she did know. It happened sometimes, but not in a long while. She set her spoon on the other side of her bowl.
Charlie leaned against the counter, drinking his coffee. Waiting.
Livie felt it. She cleared her throat. “You know Dexter wants to open by Labor Day, but if we have to continually pull out everything and redo it, we’ll be lucky to make it by Christmas.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Charlie said.
A dog barked in the distance and Livie thought of Razz. She hoped so much that he’d lived, that he’d made it through the night. She glanced at Charlie. “I appreciate that you were concerned about me.”
“You’re not mad?”
“No, you were just being considerate.”
Charlie looked relieved.
She put her bowl down in the sink, turned on the tap. “I opened the letter,” she said over the sound of the water.
“Was it from Cotton?”
“Uh-huh. It’s there on the island. You can look at it, if you want to.”
Livie turned off the tap and watched her motley crew of hens through the window, a collection of Barred Rocks, Silver Polish, White Leghorns, and her favorite Araucanas, peck at the feed she’d scattered for them earlier. The wind was out of the east, full of itself, blowing spring across the pasture where the honeysuckle bloomed wild along the fence. The air through the open window was so deliciously scented, it made her knees weak, made her think of Cotton and one long ago afternoon. . . .
“That’s it?” Charlie sounded incredulous and Livie felt somehow gratified. “I’m sorry?”
She turned drying her hands.
Charlie looked at the front of the envelope. “It’s postmarked Seattle. You sure it’s from him?”
She said she wasn’t; she didn’t know why. She said, “I don’t have anything left to compare the handwriting with.” She was remembering Cotton’s love notes. When they were dating, he’d left them for her everywhere, tucked under a flower pot on the doorstep of her Houston apartment, or poked into the pocket of her winter coat. The last note from him had been the postcard Nix had brought her, the one that had read: Tell Livie it’s not her fault. Tell her to forget me. Tell her not to look for me. I’m not worth it.
That had come the first part of May, four days after Cotton disappeared. After they’d had search parties out slogging through the countryside hunting for him. After the police had issued an APB, after they’d posted fliers and appeared on television.
By the following July, when the shock had worn off and her grief had hardened into anger, Livie, who’d been staying with her mother at the time, made a huge fire in the fireplace at her mom’s condo and burnt the card along with everything else Cotton had ever written to her. Her mother had come home from her bi-monthly, day-spa appointment, freshly manicured, pedicured, coiffed, massaged and made up and, without a word, she’d set the air conditioner on sixty. She’d gathered Livie into her arms, unmindful of the heat and its effect on her careful appearance and the dinner date she had later. Unmindful of Livie’s tears soaking the pearl-buttoned front of her silk shirt.
“Well, it seems weird,” Charlie said now.
“I wonder how he found me.”
“Computer. Search engine. Your website, a business listing.”
“What if he shows up here?” Livie thought how she’d used to wish for that more than anything, that Cotton would appear, that he would finally explain. Now the possibility tied her stomach in knots. She’d believed she had forgiven him, too. But looking at his letter only made her feel afraid and confused and furious all over again. He’d made a mockery of her love, her faith in him. How could he presume now that some remote, two-word, unsigned apology would make up for that?
“Have you told Delia?” Charlie asked.
“I haven’t told anyone. Livie hugged herself, rubbing her upper arms.
Charlie came to the sink, dashed the dregs of his cup, ran water into it and set it in the drain. “You don’t owe her, Livie.”
“I know, but she’s his mother. She deserves peace of mind as much as anyone.”
“Maybe he wrote to her too. Maybe he’s home with her right now.”
“She would have called.”
“You think? From what you’ve told me, she doesn’t feel your sense of obligation.”
“She doesn’t let herself feel much of anything these days.”
Charlie clicked his tongue. “That gin is gonna kill her if she doesn’t quit it.”
Livie shifted her glance. She thought how hurt she would be if she were to learn Cotton was home and that Delia hadn’t bothered to pick up the phone. Hurt but not surprised. The surprise was why Livie bothered with Delia. Who was nothing to her, really.
Her almost mother-in-law.
Livie knew people, her family, Charlie, wondered about the connection, but she refused to explain it. She was pretty sure no one would believe her anyway. Sometimes even she had trouble believing that Delia had once trusted her, had once confided matters of such a private and painful nature to Livie that it was impossible not to feel an obligation. Never mind how onerous.
“So, do you want to ride into town with me, see the sheriff?” Charlie asked.
Livie looked at him. “Why would I do that?”
“You said Cotton’s buddy--Nix, isn’t it?--he told you Cotton took off because he’d done something. To me that sounds like it was illegal.”
“What would I say? Writing a letter isn’t exactly breaking the law, right?”
“No, but given the circumstances, who knows what he has in mind.”
“Evidently an apology.”
“It doesn’t bother you, the way he’s going about it? It’s not even signed, for god’s sake.”
It did bother her; it bothered her plenty and Charlie knew it. He’d likely talk to the sheriff whether Livie went along or not, unless she spoke up. But no, she thought. Let him talk to JB if he wanted to. Maybe that’s what needed to happen. On the remote chance that Cotton might show up, maybe the sheriff should talk to him.
“We could check on the dog, too.” Charlie made the offer figuring, rightly, that mentioning Razz would entice Livie.
“I’d like to see about Razz, but I’m supposed to meet Dexter at Cavanaugh’s to look at rock.” Livie brushed the fine hairs that had loosened from her chignon off her face.
“All right.” Charlie went to the screen door and paused. “But you’ll call if--?”
“Cotton’s not here, Charlie.”
“Just because the postmark says Seattle--”
“Well, even if he were here, he’s not a maniac, at least not last I heard.”
“It’s been six years, Livie. People change.” Charlie closed the screen door and stood looking in at her. “I’m just saying you can’t be too careful.”