“When Duty Calls”
[Originally published in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder (Wildside Press, 2012); nominated for the 2012 Agatha Award for Best Short Story and the 2013 Derringer Award in the Long Story category. ©Art Taylor 2012.]
Keri is just setting out the silverware when the Colonel calls across from the living room with a new question. He’s watching the Military Channel and finishing up the cocktail she made for him—a thimble of Virginia Gentleman, a generous portion of soda, another light splash of whiskey on top to make it smell like a stronger drink. The Colonel’s house has an open floor plan from the kitchen through the dining room to where he sits, and as she’s finished up dinner, she’s listened to him arguing lightly with the program’s depiction of Heartbreak Ridge, reminiscing about his own stint in Korea, rambling in his own way. “Last rally of the Shermans,” he mused aloud, and something about “optics” and “maneuverability” and then—a different tone than Keri’s heard in the four months she’s known him—“Is the perimeter secure, Sergeant?”
“The perimeter?” Keri asks, cautiously. She’s grown used to these sudden shifts in subject—learned quickly just to roll along with the conversation, even in the first days after she and Pete moved in. But she still stumbles sometimes to catch up and find the right response.
The Colonel turns in his chair—turning on her, Keri thinks, expecting his regular confusion or the occasional rebuke—but he doesn’t look her way. He’s listening, it seems, his jaw fixed, his chin jutting more than usual. The tendons in his frail arms tighten, his tie tugs at the skin around his neck, his whole body perches alert, if unsteadily so. Medals and photos crowd the wall behind him. Round stickers dot many of them and almost everything else in the living room: lamps, books, bookcases, the chair itself. Red, white, and blue.
“Incoming,” he says.
“No one’s out there, Colonel,” she tries to reassure him. Not anymore, at least, since that pair of surveyors out in the woods had packed up their bags a half-hour before, one of them waving at her through the window before cranking up, heading out. They’d stayed late. She was glad to see them go.
“Vibrations,” the Colonel whispers. “A good soldier can sense these things. Life and death.” Just his mind wandering, she knows, just another bout of dementia, but for a moment the seriousness of his tone, the weight of his words, stop her. Despite herself, she looks toward the door. Has he actually heard something? The surveyors had forgotten something, returned unannounced. Or maybe Pete had canceled his Tuesday night classes in town to come home early. But no. There’s no knock at the door, and no sound of a key turning in it. No muddy shoes being brushed against the mat. No sound of tires on the gravel drive. Just the TV program rolling on. Strategies, skirmishes, victories, defeat.
“Did Pete call?” she asks.
“Negative,” the Colonel says casually, just the hint of disdain, and then he relaxes, settles back into his chair. “Radio silence has been maintained.”
There’s something melancholy in his answer, or maybe it’s Keri’s imagination this time. She wonders if he even notices how seldom the phone rings—for either of them. Calls come so rarely that she once raised the receiver to her ear just to make sure there was a dial tone there. More than once, actually.
“Lasagna’s ready,” she tells him, and the Colonel brightens up.
“Officer’s Club,” he says eagerly. Date night, she knows.
Other nights, mealtime is just “chow,” but on Tuesdays Pete always stays on campus late, and the Colonel seems to love those nights best. She’s not sure how she goes from being his staff sergeant to being his . . . wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? She’s not sure about that either: which role she plays. He doesn’t seem to know who she is at all, has never even spoken her name. But sometimes when Pete is out of the way, the Colonel reaches over and presses his gnarled fingers over her hand, pats, squeezes, breaking Keri’s heart a little each time.
“It’s a good deal,” Pete said after the interview with the Colonel’s daughter, after she’d offered them the job. Do a little housecleaning, make a couple of meals a day for the old man, and in exchange: free rent, a grocery stipend, a monthly bonus. A six-month stint. “The whole semester,” Pete went on. “Not just a good deal, but a great one, especially with teaching assistant stipends these days.” He didn’t need to add that Keri was unemployed herself, had been for a while.
It was that last part that convinced Keri and kept her from pointing out how much of the cooking and housecleaning quickly fell to her. Pete was at least pulling his weight elsewhere, wasn’t he? Teaching a freshman survey course in western drama? Pursuing his own PhD? She could hardly complain about doing the dishes when he had lessons to prep and essays to grade and all that reading to do: Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, Beckett, Miller. And then fitting in work on his doctoral dissertation around the edges. He was already the golden boy of the doctoral program, destined to be the star of some big English department. She shared those dreams, and she tried not to nag him about her own. That wasn’t the woman she wanted to be—about work or marriage, about children somewhere down the line.
“We’re both in school,” Pete had said more than once when she talked about the future. “Student loans won’t pay themselves.” And that dissertation wouldn’t write itself. And tenure-line jobs didn’t come knocking on your door. School first, life later. She’d grown accustomed to that.
But now, with the semester living at the Colonel’s, with the savings, he’d hinted more about next steps. “With the money we’re saving here, we can set aside a little bit,” he said, “for the future.”
Maybe it was for the best for her to shoulder the work at the house while he focused on his education. And maybe there were other good reasons that Pete’s duties around the house were more limited. After all, the Colonel didn’t seem entirely to approve of him. He didn’t like the meals that Pete tried to make (“too spicy” once, “too bland” another time), he didn’t like all the time he spent reading (“needs to get off his duff”), and he generally peppered Pete with complaints on a regular basis.
“A trip to the barber in your future anytime, son?” the Colonel asked one morning. “That hardly seems regulation length.”
Other mornings—more than once: “Those shoes need a good buffing, soldier.”
And on the nights when Pete did join them for dinner: “Where’s your tie, boy?”
The Colonel wears a tie each night for dinner, tied in an elaborate knot. “A Full Windsor,” he told Keri when she asked. “Most men employ the Half-Windsor or the Four-in-Hand, but that’s too casual for me.”
“A little old school, don’t you think?” Pete said, when Keri asked him to try it one evening, just a single meal, just to humor the old man. “And that wasn’t part of the deal, now, was it?”
“Recruits these days,” the Colonel sometimes says, just under his breath. “A sorry lot, all of them.”
When Keri stands up to clear the table, the Colonel stands quickly as well to help. Even when she dismisses him—“No worries, I can do it” (he’s dropped plates before)—he hesitates before heading back toward the TV. He’s waiting for her, she knows.
“Just let me get this cleaned up,” she says, “and I’ll be right in, okay?”
“Roger that,” he says. “Rendezvous . . .” He glances at his watch. “Twenty hundred hours?” “Roger,” Keri salutes, mock-serious. These days, she doesn’t have to count out the real time anymore. “I’ll meet you in the den.”
She stores the lasagna away in squares—leftovers for the week ahead—and sets aside a large slice for Pete, though she knows he’ll already have eaten dinner and probably gone out for drinks after class. Winding-down time after the intensity of the three-hour seminars, he’s explained.
The window above the kitchen sink has a wide view of the yard. The gravel driveway stretches off to the right between the trees, a hundred yards to the main road, a lonely stretch leading “off base.” Shadows play in the woods directly ahead, thick with oak and pine and beech, many of them now tied with red ribbons, marked for timber. Moonlight glistens on the lake off to the left, just barely in sight from this vantage, a rough shoreline that Keri and the Colonel have walked on more than one afternoon, counting Canada geese. A full moon tonight, Keri notes, as if that might explain the tension in the air.
Throughout dinner, the Colonel seemed restless, attentive. Now, as Keri scrubs at the casserole pan, she finds herself watchful too. Is there “incoming”? She thinks about the people that she’s seen in and around the property sometimes. Fishermen bring small skiffs close to shore or actually trudge down the driveway in their waders, tossing a small wave toward the house as they passed. Hunters often wander through the woods, unsure whose property they’ve crossed into at any point. More than once, teenagers have pulled a car up the drive—couples, groups, looking for a place to hook up, get high, get into trouble. Then, beginning last week, there came the onslaught of real estate agents and the surveyors, the men from the tree service, the crew taking soil samples, the beginning of the end. Today’s surveyors had lingered until almost dusk, and she’d had the feeling of being trapped somehow, or watched at least, like she and the Colonel were on display, sad curiosities. A couple of times, she caught the men just standing there, smoking cigarettes, staring toward the house. Leering, she thought, no better than construction workers, ogling passersby.
She doesn’t know which is worse—the isolation she’d been feeling out here or these sudden intrusions, and the knowledge of what it means. Stuck somewhere between the two and spurred on by the Colonel’s own brewing vigilance tonight, her imagination leaps ahead again, playing tricks on her. Is that the red tip of a cigarette butt? No, just one of the ribbons flapping in the moonlight. Did that shadow move? No, just a branch swaying in the breeze.
“Full moon,” she says aloud, and then remembers her horoscope from earlier that day: Surprises abound. Follow where the evening takes you. All will become clear. Pete still makes fun of her for reading them each morning.
Behind her, the Colonel turns up the TV—hinting for her to join him. The announcer is talking about the Trojan War, the horse that made history, the importance of surprise. Keri shivers a little.
“Coming,” she calls to him.
The pan still isn’t clean. And she hasn’t even started on the knife, crusted with cheese. She leaves both to soak until later—even till tomorrow perhaps.
“He’s dotty,” Margaret, the former caretaker, had said, the second time they’d met—the passing on of the keys. She was an older woman: fifties, stout, frizzy-haired. “You’ll find out soon enough. And you’ve got your work cut out for you with him. With all of them.”
The first time they’d met was when Keri and Pete had been interviewed for the job. Margaret had brooded along the edges of the conversation as Claire, the youngest of the Colonel’s children, put a different spin on the situation: “The world has passed my father by,” she said. “We’ve striven to preserve his old glories, revere his achievements.” She swept an arm about the room. Medals and honors dominated one wall. Photographs with politicians and military leaders lined another, many of them long dead Keri had since learned. Several framed boxes held guns, relics of a recent past, like museum pieces but brimming with menace. “Unfortunately, everything that my father trained for, everything that he lived for—none of it has much purpose here.”
Claire explained that it was just short-term. Margaret had been called to help her own father; plans were already afoot to sell the property, but might take some time; and they were finally looking into “more professional care” for the Colonel—a step they’d dreaded and delayed for too long. Claire herself had tended to him for several years after her mother died. “But I couldn’t manage any longer,” she explained. “Physically, yes, but emotionally . . . Well, watching someone you love so dearly deteriorate, become a shadow, sometimes you just feel yourself breaking down as well.” Keri and Pete were a stopgap. She was sure they understood.
The Colonel was napping while they talked. Margaret had shot a couple of looks at Keri throughout the conversation: envy, disbelief, warning glares? Keri hadn’t been sure. (Margaret told her later, on the sly, that Claire was a drinker. Claire, in turn, confided that Margaret was a thief—little things, but hardly negligible.)
It was after the Colonel went down for his nap another afternoon, only a week ago now, that Claire and her siblings—Beatrice and Dwight— had made their inventory. This was the first time that Keri had met the other two, since both lived just out of state, and Margaret’s comment about having her work cut out for her with “all of them” echoed throughout the day.
With Pete on campus again—early office hours, eternal office hours—Keri had played host alone. Claire asked her to make a salad for lunch, “something simple, no trouble,” and Keri had, laying it out on the table, not planning to join them until the Colonel insisted, asking his son to move down a seat, make room for the ladies.
Dwight had smirked at that. “Aye aye, sir,” he said, taking his salad with him as he slid down.
The Colonel had seemed to recognize them only dimly, but he nodded politely when Beatrice spoke about her children’s latest report cards and Dwight talked about the business finally turning a profit again last quarter—“despite what the president’s doing,” he insisted, which prompted Beatrice to complain bitterly about the state of political discourse in the country today. More smirks from Dwight at that, and cold looks from Claire.
The Colonel had watched all of them with interest but no reaction. Claire tried at each turn of the conversation to nudge her father to recall Beatrice’s children or the nature of Dwight’s business or just the name of that current president, but she had finally given up, simply watching the Colonel with a mixture of curiosity and distress. Keri had watched each of them and didn’t know exactly how she felt.
After lunch was done and the Colonel had retired to his room for some light R&R, the three of them began to divvy up the belongings, prepping to make an easy sweep of it between the day they moved the old man out and the scheduled demolition of the house, quick work for the condo development ahead. Claire had brought small circular stickers to help with the division. Each of them would simply mark the items they wanted to take. “Pop will appreciate the patriotic touch,” Dwight said, holding up a package of red stickers and leaving blue and white for his sisters. Unmarked items would be slated for donation to the Salvation Army. “And a military nod again,” Dwight said, already beginning to stake down his claims.
When the three of them ended up squabbling about an autographed photo of Eisenhower standing with the Colonel and his late wife, Keri felt like she saw the three of them most clearly. Beatrice, the eldest, argued that the photo was hers because she was actually in the picture, cradled in their mother’s arms. Dwight, now the baby of the bunch, pointed out that he’d been named after the president, “which ought to give me dibs.” Meanwhile Claire—caretaker-turned-peacemaker—tried as best she could to keep the simmer from becoming a boil.
“So doesn’t that give you claim to all of this, Bea?” Dwight demanded. “You saw it first, you were there first? It’s all yours?” And then trying to recruit Claire to the cause: “Isn’t that how it’s always been?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Beatrice said. “I’m saying I’m in the damn picture. It’s a picture of me.”
“Let’s leave it for father, for his room at the nursing home,” Claire said. “He always loved it so.”
“He wouldn’t even know it’s there,” Dwight said.
“Let’s leave it unmarked then,” Claire went on. “No one will take it. We can donate it somewhere. A tribute that—”
“Stick it up in some museum?” Dwight said. “Hell no. That sucker’s worth something.”
“Is that what you’re planning?” Beatrice flashed with rage. “Selling it somewhere.”
“Please keep your voices down,” Claire said, and Keri could sense something stretched thin in her own voice. “He’ll hear us.”
“If he does wake up,” Dwight told Keri, “just keep him in the room for a while.”
“How should I do that?” Keri asked, startled by the sound of her own voice.
“Tell him,” Dwight began. “Tell him the base is on lockdown.” He seemed to be thinking. He grinned broadly, something cruel behind it. “There’s a sniper. Delta Force is handling it. Tell him, ‘Orders from the general.’”
“General.” Beatrice snorted. “Is that how you picture yourself in all this?”
Bickering spun out of selfishness, anger where there should have been empathy, lies built high on the Colonel’s dementia—Keri hated it all.
But later, she reflected that she wasn’t much better, at least in one regard.
When the real estate agents, surveyors, and repairmen had made their rounds, Keri had dutifully pretended to the Colonel that they were visiting dignitaries, military attaches, envoys from D.C. And when the Colonel woke from his nap and asked what all the dots were for—on the lamps, on the furniture, everywhere—Keri told him “inventory” and then “supply room,” trying to think of the right term, build another lie he might believe.
“Midnight requisitions,” the Colonel said vaguely, with a sigh of contempt, and something about a “five-fingered discount,” and then, grinning himself, just like Dwight had, “Oh, well, Sergeant, we’ll just have to requisition it all back,” like he knew the game.
“Lear,” Pete said when Keri told him all about it. “The grasping, the selfishness. Siblings showing their true colors. Claire sounds like the best of them: ‘You have brought me up and loved me, and I return you those duties back as are right and fit, obey you, love you, and most honor you.’” Pete performed the last part with a stagy British lilt.
“It didn’t feel like honor,” Keri said. “Or love either.”
“That’s what Lear thought too.” Pete raised his eyebrow. “And you know how that turned out. So who got the photo?”
“Beatrice,” Keri said. “She traded Dwight the dining room table for it, but he said it didn’t matter, he’d get it back someday. Told her that since she was older, she’d go first. ‘I’ll keep these handy,’ he said, and he waved his extra stickers in the air.”
“Charming,” Pete said. “Sorry I missed it.” Keri had hoped for a little more empathy, but Pete was already moving on: “You know, I think I’ll add Lear to the syllabus. Sub it in instead of Othello— that’s done too much in high school anyway, don’t you think? And Lear—”
“But what should we do?” Keri insisted. “What’s our role in all this?”
She doesn’t entirely remember his answer— several possibilities, comparing them to the Earl of Kent or the Fool. Did Keri have a touch of Cordelia herself? Little of substance, nothing practical, no solace. Instead, it’s more of Margaret’s words that have persisted: “Not a word of thanks, unless you demand it. Not a single token of appreciation, unless you take it yourself. I’m telling you: You’ve already been bought and paid for.”
The Colonel dresses and undresses himself, handles all of his own bathroom duties, but Keri follows-up with him each morning and each night. This evening, as usual, he’s had trouble with his nightclothes—his “old man jammies,” Pete calls them. One side of his top hangs low, unfastened, while the skipped button bunches out on the other side, the fabric opening to reveal the aged flesh of his belly, a thin tangle of gray hairs. “He does it on purpose,” Pete has joked, “just so you can fluff him up.” She tries not to think about that as she straightens the buttoning, a complicated dance of discretion and helpfulness.
The Colonel always apologizes to one version or another of who he thinks she is. “Aging is an indignity, Sergeant,” he’s said before. And other times: “In all our many years together, my darling, did you ever believe it would come to this?” These seem his only flashes of awareness about time and his place in it, but even those moments are dim with confusion.
“I’ve not been a good husband, dear,” he tells her tonight. “A good father, either, to—” He stops, he catches himself. Some small reality intrudes. “Thank you for looking after me,” he says. He strokes her cheek.
She puts him to bed, she tucks him in, she turns out his light. Nearly always, he’s staring at the ceiling when she leaves him. Tonight, he watches the window.
“The guards,” he says. “The duty roster.”
“Yes, yes,” she tells him, and she closes the door.
Back in her own room, she tries to go to bed, but finds herself restless, irritable, waiting once more for Pete, angry a little at him this time—and even more of each emotion tonight because of whatever’s gotten into the Colonel. She lies in the darkness for a while, staring at the shadows playing outside her own window, at that full moon raging, and then she turns on the light once more to read. She wants to keep up with what Pete’s doing, give them more to talk about, so she’d been following his syllabus. The class has already reached Lear, and she takes down the bulky Riverside Shakespeare from the nightstand, reminds herself again to get a more readable copy, then picks up mid-scene where she’d fallen asleep the night before:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,—often the surfeit of our own behavior,—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!
It’s near the end of the monologue that she hears the click of the front door—opening, closing. Pete at last, sooner than she expected. Sometimes he calls, usually she sees the sweep of his headlights against the window. He’s surprising her this time.
She’s left a note for him: “A plate of lasagna in the fridge. Microwave two minutes. XO. Me.” But she hopes he won’t see it, that he’ll just come back to her, ease this troubled evening. She listens for his footsteps coming down the hallway, but instead, she hears him trip over something, and she knows then he’s been drinking after class, too many drinks again, and suddenly it seems like he’ll just complicate the night further instead of improving it.
She starts to go out to him, confront him, but no, she’ll wait. She picks up the book again:
Edgar— [Enter Edgar.] and pat! he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o' Bedlam. O, these eclipses do portend these divisions! Fa, sol, la, mi.
She’s stopped by the sound of the front door, opening and closing once more.
He’s gone out again? Keri lays the book down, steps to the window to see what he’s doing. But his car’s not out there at all, the yard looks empty. And then the sound of the front door opening again, and soon after, the sound of glass breaking, but muffled as if from a great distance.
Incoming, she thinks, and now her senses tingle, her whole body as alert as the Colonel’s had seemed earlier. She picks up the bedside phone. She’ll call 911. She’ll call Pete, already hurrying him homeward with her mind. But there’s no dial tone, just a dull ominous emptiness on the receiver.
Radio silence, she thinks, and then she remembers the Colonel’s other words: Life and death. And then she just thinks about the Colonel himself.
His door is still closed, she sees when she leaves her own room. There’s relief in that, though she recognizes the irony: the old warrior protected by the defenseless woman. But he would only add confusion on top of whatever danger is out there. And the truth is she’s not entirely defenseless. She’s carrying the biggest object in the bedroom—that complete Shakespeare—though she’s unsure whether it might best work as a weapon or as armor. She shudders to think it might come to that.
As she eases down the hallway, she wonders who’s out there. One of the leering surveyors, after all? That’s why they’d stayed so late today. They were casing the house, returning now to rob it. Or one of those college kids who sometimes drove down the wrong road —a prank this time, a dare, a different kind of trouble. She remembers too how Claire called Margaret a thief, remembers Margaret’s own words that you got no token of thanks unless you took it.
The living room is dark, just as she’d left it, with only the moonlight streaming in from various windows, casting shadows around the room.
Then one of the shadows near the dining room table moves, a silhouette stumbling toward the living room. The dim form lifts a pair of pictures from the wall, returns toward the table, lays the pictures flat. Its arm raises high into the air, some object in its grasp, and smashes down sharply. A crunching sound.
Dwight, she realizes, unsure where the knowledge came from. And then she looks again at the empty spaces dotting the wall, the pictures that the intruder is destroying. The Eisenhower is among the missing photos. Dwight would get it, one way or another. There truly was something evil behind that smirk of his, beneath those callous comments.
Suddenly, the book in her hand doesn’t seem protection enough.
The guns on the wall, she thinks. Are any of them loaded? How easily could she break the case? Would she know how to use one? But Dwight would stop her. He stands in the way, still fidgeting with things on the table. He could get to those guns first. In fact, she understands now, he’s already taken one of them from its box, hasn’t he? One of the gun cases stands empty, its glass front shattered. That’s the sound Keri had heard. That’s what Dwight is holding over his head, what he brings down once more against the table.
The knife. The one she left soaking in the lasagna pan. She can get to that. It’s a clear line into the kitchen. It’s not a gun, but it’s better than Shakespeare. At least she won’t be entirely unarmed.
As soon as she’s thought it, she’s done it. A quick sprint, and she’s at the sink. Hand in soapy water, fingers slipping around the handle. But Dwight has come up behind her, grabbed her arm, pushed her against the counter. Keri can’t get a grip on the knife.
Hot breath brushes against her neck, carrying with it the stench of alcohol. “You should’ve stayed in bed,” the voice huffs, a snarl there, an undertone of amusement. But it’s a woman’s voice. Not Dwight, not at all. “It’s just a break-in,” the woman slurs quietly. “Vandalism. You were asleep. You didn’t hear, you didn’t know.” Keri tries to shuffle around, to gain an edge, but the woman holds fast, surprisingly strong. “All those years, year upon year. And they think they have any right here? They never cared about him, not once. They don’t deserve any of this.” She coos, she soothes: “Just let it happen. You know it’s right.” And then a dark whisper: “I’ll compensate you.”
Keri shoves her elbow back into doughy flesh, hears the sharp intake of breath. Freed for a moment, she reaches toward the sink. But there’s not enough time. Before Keri can grab the knife, she feels fingers around her throat. “This isn’t between you and me,” the woman says, a snarl now, and maybe it wasn’t their fight, but it is now. The woman’s grip is relentless, squeezing, pressing. “They can’t know it was me. They can’t ever know.”
Keri pushes off the counter then, shoving as hard as she can, and the two of them sprawl backward across the room. But the woman hangs on, and then she’s on top of Keri, slamming her head against the floor. Keri’s pulse throbs grimly, there’s a roar in her skull, a pounding, and then an explosion as if her head has burst.
Just as quickly the grip relaxes. The other woman falls away, a thud on the floor beside her.
The lights come on soon after, blinding, and Keri hears the Colonel’s voice—a single word, frail and nearly indistinct, pleading, concerned. She rises up from the floor then, and gets her first look at the body sprawled beside her—Claire’s body, bleeding heavily from where a bullet has ripped through her torso—and at the damage the woman had done.
Spray paint covers the kitchen cabinets, what looks like teen graffiti, like those young joyriders had not just driven down the road but finally come in. The lampshades have been slashed methodically, and more pictures have been pulled down from the wall. Broken glass is everywhere, shards dotting the carpet. The frame on the Eisenhower is shattered, the picture itself torn. The corner of another photo peeks out from beneath a towel on the kitchen table, one of the antique pistols dropped on top of it.
At the edge of the hallway stands the Colonel, a handgun at his side, this one not an antique. He’s wearing his full uniform, every button clasped perfectly, the medals gleaming in the sudden light, his posture perfect.
He speaks softly again—a second word now, perplexed and incredulous where that first word had been pleading—and then, with his own glance around the room, he finds his voice again: “Damn those guards,” he booms. “The perimeter’s been breached.”
“Blanche DuBois,” Pete says later, when it’s just the two of them alone in the house, lying side by side in the darkness.
The body has been removed, and Beatrice and Dwight have been called. They’ll drive in the next morning. They’ll handle things now. The police took the Colonel away for questioning, for evaluation, and Keri began straightening up, picking up glass, rubbing at the paint on the cabinets, until Pete took her in his arms and held her tight and told her it was time for bed, time to let go, at least for the night.
But she couldn’t do that, of course. For a while, staring at the ceiling, Keri has listened to the silence of the house, believed that she could hear the old man’s absence somewhere in it. Pete has seemed far away in his own thoughts, reflecting on the loss in his own way, Keri thinks, until those sudden words of his.
“What?” she asks. She doesn’t turn to look at him.
“Blanche DuBois,” he says. “Tennessee Williams. Streetcar Named Desire. ‘I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.’” Pete tries out a Southern drawl, not as good as his British voice, though it strikes her now that none of his accents is very good. “I’d thought of the Colonel like Lear, you know, but tonight, watching him with the police when they took him away, the way he stood up straight, the way he walked . . . Pure Blanche DuBois. Living in his own world, his delusions, the long gone past.”
“He was brave,” Keri says. There’s light on the ceiling, from the moonlight shining down through the window and reflecting somehow off the bedspread. “Gallant.”
“Gallant,” Pete echoes. “But that’s the tragedy of it, isn’t it? The way that we take the Stella role—all of us, the reader, the audience—trying to keep the illusions aloft, maybe even believing in them a little.”
In the blankness of the ceiling, Keri imagines Pete in the front of the class, pacing and gesturing, holding forth, the tweed jacket, patches on the sleeve. There’s pride in those patches and a strut in his step, and she’s sure she heard a snicker when he repeated the word gallant, as if he was marking up her term paper and dissatisfied somehow with the logic of her argument.
“When you say tragedy,” she asks, “are you talking about the Colonel or about Blanche?”
He shrugs beside her, a laying-down shrug, shoulders shuffling against the pillow.
“Either,” he says. “Both. Killing your daughter, not knowing it. That has all the elements of something classical, doesn’t it?”
Later, many years later, lying in another bed with another man, and with her children with that husband nestled safely in their own beds just down the hallway, Keri will think back once more on this night and wonder yet again if this was the exact moment when things ended between them or if it was just one in a progression of such moments that took too long to accumulate. She’ll wonder again why she stayed so long with him after this night, why she didn’t just get up then and walk out into the darkness, up that gravel drive—off base once and for all. Illusions, she’ll think. And tragedy. And she’ll think of the hundred things she might have told Pete, the hundred times she might have told him. Then she’ll remind herself: But maybe it was enough.
“He said her name,” she tells Pete. “The Colonel. After he turned on the lights and saw her there, before he wandered out into the yard, he said ‘Claire’ because he saw her, what she’d done, and what he’d done too. But first, just before that . . . He was looking for me, I know he was. Looking out for me. Before he said her name, he said mine. He called out for me. For the first time, he said Keri.”