Across the quiet park, the Eilers’ flawless Victorian rests on a modest rise, taller than his home. Peeking between the tree limbs, through the sheer curtains shielding the windows in the second floor bedroom, Dan observes silhouettes. He hunches forward, supporting his forearms on his knees and dangling a fresh beer bottle between his thighs; condensation drips from the sweating brown glass to the dusty hardwood floor. Scuffing his sock on the insignificant puddle, he mops it up, the icy liquid on the bottom of his foot inciting a tremor up his leg. Despite the fact that the shadows are indistinct shapes, Dan experiences a voyeuristic thrill imagining Iris Eilers undressing behind the drapes. He tips back his head and draws a long swallow from the beer, gulping the now tasteless liquid. Dan drinks for effect, but what effect does he intend? Why should Dan not speak his mind with impunity? Why should he not disregard the consequences of his words? Why not simply be truthful? Perhaps, Dan reflects, as pedestrian as it might seem, Marcie’s death accentuated his ability to deliberate clearly, to focus more single-mindedly than when she was alive. His impatience certainly intensified; he craves austere talk and consequential actions. But Dan also realizes that he needs to strip this evening’s behavior of its bitterness and hostility; truth need not injure.
Angling his gaze to the left, Dan follows the headlight beams of a car turning the corner, illuminating Peggy’s house; the porch and the windows now stand dark, although it is only a little past eleven o’clock on a Friday night. No doubt Gary Snell is drunk. Everything Gary ever says, Dan feels, surfaces as an expression of “Look at me! Look at me!” He leans back and cradles his head in the sofa cushions, bringing the bottle to his lips and staring again across Iske Park to the lighted bedroom windows, wondering if Grayson lives as self-indulgently as Gary seems to live, and if Iris spends as much time attending to her husband’s impulses as Peggy seems to do. Dan suspects that he is the sort of person who needs people less than they need him; an assessment with which Marcie many times agreed. Life for Dan, she had complained, was something to be accomplished alone.
When considering what should be included in Marcie’s obituary, Dan balked at narrowing the topics; it was like trying to skip from the crest of one ocean wave to another: accentuating the unadorned highlights of her life and not delving deeper into any one of them was intolerable. He found it an agonizing task and was displeased with the final product. In her final days of illness, Marcie ceaselessly complained about everything…her pain, the temperature in the room, her pain, the stiffness of the bed sheets, and her pain…until it drove him mad. Dan resented her for it, although he declared to several mourners at the funeral that he would give anything for just one more day of being able to hear her complain.
Dan recognizes the rumbling in the floor before he hears the train on the tracks. The windows clatter again in their wooden frames and the cadence of the train cars, clapping in precise regularity, establishes a rhythm which he accompanies with an arpeggio of tapping fingertips on the sofa arm. Living near the train tracks for so many years, he usually ignores or fails to register the clamor of the trains. But within the imperfect silence of his empty house, the trains roar with distorted significance. The bright lights in the Eilers’ bedroom go out, but a faint light flickers in irregular intervals, and he assumes they were watching television, most probably in bed.
“Enjoy yourselves,” Dan mutters, raising his beer bottle in a mocking toast to his neighbors, as the hypnotizing reverberation of the train dissipates.
“Enjoy what?” Someone behind him asks. Terrified, Dan leaps off the sofa, spilling beer as the bottle slips from his hand, his neck twisting in surprise at the sound of the voice. Peggy leans in the doorway to the kitchen, grinning in the diffused light from the street.
“Jesus, Peggy,” Dan breathes. “You scared the shit out of me!”
Peggy turns back into the kitchen and emerges with a dish towel, which she tosses. Dan catches it and kneels to the floor, righting his half empty beer bottle and soaking up the spilled brew.
“My heart’s pounding like a jackhammer,” he says, striding past Peggy into the kitchen with the wet towel. “How did you get in?”
“Everyone knows your side door is always unlocked, Dan,” she says, walking toward his front windows. “Who were you talking to?”
In the kitchen, Dan rinses the dish towel in cold tap water, diluting the concentrated odor of beer. “You’re the last person I thought I’d see tonight,” he calls to her, wringing out the cloth and draping it over the front edge of the farmers sink. He peers into the living room, where Peggy stares out the window at the park. “Do you want a beer?”
Peggy nods her head without looking at him. “Yeah, why not.”
Dan carries two bottles from the refrigerator to the living room window, twisting the cap from one and handing it to Peggy. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here, Peggy.”
She glares at him, tips her beer bottle, drinks a protracted, unhurried swallow, and then gazes out the window again. “I’m not sure why I’m here.”
This close to her, in the glow from the streetlamps, Dan distinguishes speckles of color in Peggy’s eyes; her brown irises contain ruby traces that glinted when she blinks. How ironic that Marcie assumed he had for years examined Peggy so carefully, and yet only now does he notice the intricacy of her eye color, or the minuscule, etched lines at the corners of her mouth. He wonders if knowing more about her character will increase her beauty.
“Why were you such a bastard tonight?” Peggy asks, cradling the beer bottle in the valley of her sweater, between her breasts.
Dan removes the cap from his own beer and flips it onto the coffee table, where it skids across the smudged glass and clatters to the floor. “No excuse,” he admits. “And I don’t want to fight with you, Peggy.”
“You seemed to want to fight with everyone else tonight.” Peggy walks to the sofa and lowers herself, stretching out her legs and crossing her ankles.
“I suppose I deserve that,” he says, sitting across from her on the adjoining wing of the sectional. “I’m sorry about earlier. It seemed easy to be a total shit tonight.”
Peggy tucks her hair behind her ears. “It upset me when you asked if I was happy.” Peggy grunts, and then guzzles more beer. “I wasn’t sure if you’d taken a lucky shot in the dark or had noticed something…especially after you mentioned Marcie being jealous.” She fingers the hem of her sweater, rolling the fabric into a taut tube, emphasizing the rise of her breasts, before releasing it.
“It’d be the first piece of luck I’ve had in a while,” Dan says.
“Who were you talking to earlier?” Peggy asks again.
He chuckles. “I was watching the lights in Grayson’s house. They turned off the overhead and were watching TV.”
Peggy leans forward and squints out the window to the Eilers’ home, where faint light still flickers behind the sheer curtains. She laughs. “Was Marcie jealous of Iris as well?”
Dan sips noisily from his beer. Peggy wrinkles her forehead, emphasizing three distinct, yet graceful lines. Her teeth glow in the delicate radiance through the windows.
“Where’s Gary?” Dan asks.
“Passed out in the family room,” Peggy states evenly.
Peggy ignores the barb. “So…was Marcie right?”
Dan studies Peggy’s face; she maintains a close-lipped smile. Six months ago he would have laughed off Peggy’s question, but he raised the subject and elects not to censor what he told her. “I’ve always thought you were attractive, Peggy.” He pauses to reflect on what he will say next. “Not just outwardly. You’ve got a natural kindness. You’re funny and sexy.”
Peggy stares at Dan and he watches her features harden.
“I’m sorry,” Dan begins instinctively, and then stops himself. “You know what? I’m not sorry, Peggy. I’m not sorry I told you.”
Peggy extends her hand and waves it back and forth. “I don’t know how to react to you when you say those things.”
Dan brushes his thigh with the back of his hand. “I didn’t say it to get a reaction.”
“I’m really drunk, Dan.” Peggy says.
“So we wouldn’t be responsible for anything that happened here…anything we did,” Peggy whispers as she crosses the short distance between them and positions herself before him. Her arms hang slack at her sides, her thumbs in line with the seams of her jeans. “Welcome to the law of unintended consequences.”
Dan watches as Peggy unzips her jeans and skims them down her slender thighs; they bunch at her feet and she kicks them aside. He sees her black panties as she kneel before him.
“No, Peggy.” He reaches out and grips her shoulders, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this.”
Peggy slumps to the floor, sitting cross-legged in front of him.
“What? You don’t want me now, Dan?” she snarls, as angry as Dan seemed earlier on her porch. She leans forward and bunches his shirt in her grasp. “I’m not interesting or attractive enough for you?”
Dan unfolds her fingers from their grip and eases her back against the coffee table. “Not as a consolation prize. Not when you’re drunk and trying to punish Gary.” The mind admits what the body denies; his fear of the danger of rejecting Peggy surrenders to the fear of allowing her to continue. Serendipity can be ill-timed and unproductive.
“So you’re just another bullshit artist with a dick, is that it?”
“You pegged me. A total bullshit artist.”
“A fucking tease, too,” Peggy slurs.
“The worst kind.”
“I’m not happy, Dan.” She sniffles.
“It doesn’t show so much…when you’re sober.” He stands and retrieves Peggy’s jeans. “Let’s get you dressed.”
Dan offers Peggy an arm, pleased when she takes it, pulling her to her feet, steadying her while she puts on her jeans. After she zips them, she slouches against Dan, resting her head on his shoulder while she weeps soundlessly. “Sometimes it’s all too much,” she whispers.
“Preaching to the choir.” Dan sighs.
Peggy encircles his neck with her arms and murmurs into his neck, “I miss intimacy the most.”
“Me, too,” Dan says, surprised by the genuineness of his reply.