“I saw the article in the paper,” said Mrs. LaPointe.
In the previous Sunday Sentinel there had been a human-interest piece about local soldiers on active duty, and Douglas Pickering was its star. He’d dropped out of law school to enlist in the Marines the day after 9/11, served a tour in Afghanistan, then re-upped for another in Iraq, where he’d been awarded a Purple Heart for taking car bomb shrapnel in the thigh. In the article, he talked about the good we were doing over there, the hospitals, the schools. He told a story about a little blind girl. He asked readers to remember that long-term benefits outweighed short-term complications. This was, the article said, his first leave in 27 months, and he was scheduled to ship out again next week.
Blackmon was two years older than Douglas. They’d been cordial enough when they were boys—riding bikes around the neighborhood, catching tadpoles in the run-off stream—to wear a path through the woods between their houses. Their friend-ship began to wane when Douglas joined Blackmon in high school. Blackmon was the better student, while Douglas was the better athlete, better with girls, the kind of young man who lived easily in his skin. Even at that age he seemed bathed in the light of self-assurance and aplomb, and other kids wanted to be illuminated by his presence. Mrs. LaPointe had encouraged the friendship, but Blackmon resisted. She chalked it up to the age difference, the mysterious politics of teen-age boys. Douglas continued knocking on the door for a few more years, but the older they got the more Blackmon found reasons for keeping to himself, and he didn’t bother rising from his chair, now, as both Douglas and Herman Pickering reached over to shake his hand.
“I’m so glad to see you safe, Douglas,” said Mrs. LaPointe.
“Thank you,” he said, “but we should be asking after you. We heard about your trouble this morning. I hope it didn’t worry you too much.”
“I wasn’t worried,” she said. “I was in shock. It was as if—it was like—” She pressed her lips together. “And now I can’t stop feeling sad. The thought of that poor deer.”
She braced for an inappropriate remark from Blackmon, but he held his tongue. Literally. Mrs. LaPointe could see the tip of it clipped between his teeth. His eyes were bugged at Douglas Pickering.
“I’m sure she didn’t suffer,” Douglas said.
There were a great many things Mrs. LaPointe missed about her husband—the way he smelled after a shave, his habit of kneading his cheekbones when something was on his mind, the pale hair on the lobes of his ears—but she missed nothing more than the fact that, for the whole of their marriage, he’d let her fall asleep before him. They never discussed the arrangement but he made it seem like the height of matrimonial courtesy. No matter how tired he was, how trying his day at the office, he’d prop himself in bed with the lamp on, paying bills or looking over some work he’d brought home, until she was able to relax her grip upon the world.
For almost a year after he died, Mrs. LaPointe found that she had all but lost the ability to sleep, like some talent she’d possessed in youth—jumping rope, roller-skating backwards—but that her body had forgotten. In bed, an endless, jittery current coursed through her, twitching her muscles and firing random synapses in her brain. She was reduced to tricking herself to sleep by stretching out on the couch in the middle of the day with the TV tuned to the war and drifting off for an hour or two while her mind was looking elsewhere.
It was Blackmon who kept her threaded to her life. His marriage began to unravel not long after his father’s death. He would appear at his mother’s house needing stains removed, money, the taste of Sadie Petty’s pot roast. He was insistent. He was hurting. He was weak. Mrs. LaPointe was willing to concede that his ex-wife, Tara, wasn’t all bad as a mother but she bullied Blackmon about everything, including the demise of his own marriage. As for her grandson, Luke, named for his mother’s father, Mrs. LaPointe didn’t know what to think. Even when the marriage was still viable, Tara’s parents saw more of Luke than Mrs. LaPointe, despite the fact that they were seven hours away in Memphis and she was right here in town. And when Tara decided it was over, that was that. No counseling, no mediation. The same day he signed the papers, Blackmon moved back into his old room.
Mrs. LaPointe understood that she couldn’t go on forever without sleep. She was becoming exactly the kind of eccentric old widow she would have found pathetic. So she had, both for her son’s sake and her own, learned to will herself unconscious at night, not so hard once she marshaled her resolve.
On this night, however, the night after she found the murdered deer, insomnia descended on her once again. At just past 1:00 a.m., hazy and perturbed from three hours of chasing sleep, she heard Blackmon banging home from a meeting of his fiction club—or whatever they called themselves—heard him fumbling the front door locked and creaking up the stairs, then the boozy rasping of his snore. Mrs. LaPointe suspected that these gatherings were less a literary discussion than an excuse to drink too much and stay out late. She had encouraged Blackmon to host his meetings here, but he’d laughed out loud at her suggestion. “What a wonderful idea, Mother,” he had said. “Perhaps you’ll bake shortbread cookies.” The only person in the world Blackmon was capable of standing up to was his mother, and his sarcasm, she knew, was mostly show. Her son was burdened with excess sensibility, a trait she believed he’d inherited from her. In Mrs. LaPointe, this trait manifested as good taste, but it rendered her son vulnerable to bitterness and depression.
At 2:00, she flicked on the lamp beside her bed and padded down the hall to Blackmon’s room. She stood in the doorway watching him sleep. The bedspread was printed with Major League Baseball logos. Above the headboard was a poster of a pitcher at the finale of his motion, the blurry pearl of the ball still clinging to his fingers. Similar posters adorned the other walls: a batter in suspension after a hit, eyes focused on something far away and rising; an outfielder poised midair, glove arm extended, toes pointed like a ballerina. On the nightstand—a digital clock shaped like a catcher’s mitt. Blackmon had decorated the room this way when he was in the seventh grade, a better-than-average third baseman, batting .525 for the Bonny Oak Park Orioles. Two years later, he tried out for junior varsity but he couldn’t hit a curve. At the time, it had enraged Mrs. LaPointe that they allowed 15-year-old boys to throw breaking balls at all. When he failed to make the team, Blackmon abandoned baseball completely, pretending he’d grown out of a phase. Despite her imprecations, he’d refused to redecorate, as if determined to pay some boyish penance for his shortcoming. And though she suffered for him, for the memory of the boy that he had been, she couldn’t bring herself to change a thing when he moved away. Even now, seven months after his return, the room remained a monument to his failure.
She knew from experience that if she kept pursuing sleep she’d only fall behind, so she went downstairs for a glass of milk. The house appeared spotless from Sadie Petty’s ministrations, but to occupy herself, Mrs. LaPointe located a feather duster in the pantry. While tidying the built-ins in the library, she noticed a film of dust on the tops of all the books, missed for who knows how long. She took the books down one by one and swiped them clean. Back on the shelves, they struck her as cluttery-looking, jumbled, all those different colored jackets, so she removed the books a second time and re-shelved them, spines to the wall.