The sky above the highway was blue, and the wind was scudding among a few bright clouds. Davis and Laura were returning from a funeral where the first rifle report had made her gasp.
Laura had wanted to go to the luncheon afterward, but Davis said they should go straight home. "I have to cut the lawn. Tomorrow's supposed to rain," he said.
"I feel like I should say something to his mother, his other friends," said Laura.
"Come on," he said. "We'll never see these people again."
This was true. Laura had only known Jimmy for a little while. He was a salesman in the office below hers. She met him because their afternoon cigarette breaks overlapped. They complained about paperwork and what you couldn't expense. Then, on Monday, someone from the other office saw her smoking alone and came out to tell her that Jimmy had died in his car.
So they left directly from the cemetery. Laura flipped through the stations trying to find a decent song. Before she could settle on something, they entered the West Rock Tunnel, and the radio disappeared. They said nothing in the tunnel. They never did. Davis was superstitious and believed the mountain would fall on them. Laura didn't think so, of course, but she knew he would not answer if she spoke in the dark and hum of the tunnel. When they burst into sunlight on the other side, the radio was full of harpsichord.
"Skywriters!" said Laura, leaning forward and pointing above Davis's shoulder.
High in the air, five black specks were leaving a dot-matrix message. At first, the letters were crisp and perfectly spaced, but they quickly blurred, as though the writing were in a painting by Renoir. They were spelling out something about the Mohegan Sun casino, but by the time the last "n" had been completed, the beginning of the phrase had turned to ordinary cloud.
"Not the best day for it," said Davis. "They should all fly home."
"It's supposed to go away," said Laura, watching the letters emerge and blur and keep on coming. "It's for the people headed east. They'd eventually piece it together."
Davis could see this was probably true. The line of writing stretched less and less legibly into the west, as if someone had half-heartedly erased a blackboard.
Laura didn't like harpsichords, though she couldn't say why, and all the stations in range had gone to commercials, so she turned the radio off. She craned her neck to see what the skywriters were doing, now behind her. Something about "Sunday" was all she could make out, and then the highway curved north and the skywriters were gone for good.
"You know, a boy wrote something in the sky for me once," she said.
Davis affected nonchalance. "Billy?" he asked.
Billy was the love of Laura's life long before she'd known Davis. He was her high school sweetheart, and he'd never left the town they grew up in. At least Laura assumed he was still there. The summer before she left South Jersey for Vanderbilt, Billy had arranged a picnic in one of the fallow meadows of his father's soybean farm. They ate triangular sandwiches and drank a bottle of red wine that Billy had gotten from his older cousin. He kept checking his watch and scanning the sky. Suddenly he stopped kissing her and told her to look up — and as if by magic a heart was drawn on the horizon in front of them.
"That's for you," Billy said. He explained he didn't have enough money for words. Then he leaned back, dug a camera out of the basket, and snapped her picture with the heart beside her in the air, like a companion.
"It sounds like he wanted to marry you or something," said Davis.
"I think he did," said Laura. She said this looking from her lap to her own window.
The conversation suddenly felt dangerous for both of them. "How do you know?"
"He was just sweet," she said, trying to see the house on the hill she always wondered about when they drove this part of the highway. "But he never actually asked. I think he felt like he wasn't good enough."
"He wasn't," said Davis, trying to lighten the mood. He glanced over at Laura, but she was still at the window, watching the sun hit the glass of the fancy house. He looked back at the road and adjusted his hands on the wheel. "Why do you say that?"
"He never went to college. He just wanted to grow soybeans and settle down." She reached out and flipped the radio back on. "He knew I had other plans."
Davis let this sink in, imagining the pathetic hick Billy must have been and wondering how he could have such a hold on his wife, even now. She had studied architecture. She knew about wine. She read The New Yorker. She had an aversion to dirt and digging.
"Do you still have the picture?"
She told him she didn't, but this was a lie.
Davis changed out of his suit, grabbed a beer, and went straight to the shed. He had a riding mower and a small lawn. Laura thought he looked foolish as he backed up slowly and K-turned all over the tiny yard. It would be quicker with a push mower, but Davis was the kind of person who had to have things that his neighbors did not. It was a John Deere, the classic green. He looked like someone playing farmer.
Laura watched him now and then from the windows of their home as she wandered from room to room, wine in hand, putting away the laundry and sweeping up the dust. Eventually, she saw him back over and turn to mulch the azalea he had planted for her last weekend. "Son of a bitch," she said as his head whipped around to the kitchen window to see if she had seen. But she was in the bedroom at the time, and his eye didn't wander that far.
Laura refilled her wineglass and went down to the basement. The basement held everything they needed and could not throw away. To Davis, it seemed like an impossible maze of bins and labeled boxes, but Laura had a knack for finding things down there. Davis had long ago ceded it to her. He preferred a beer in the gasoline smell of the shed, among the bags of lime and rat killer, the half-dozen cans of old paint that likely had hardened beyond use.
Laura picked up a bin that held a mismatched pewter tea service she was saving in case they ever had a daughter. She put it on the floor by the furnace with a clank. Then she moved a bin labeled "Sweaters for Davis" on top of that. And then she pulled out the leather valise she used to carry in college. Her father had bought it for her so she could keep her life in order. "A good businesswoman knows where everything is," he had said. And for four years, the accordion dividers kept her courses in order. She never threw anything out until her grades showed up in the mail. Once, she had the paper that proved her grade in European Street Facades should in fact have been an A-, not a C. The professor apologized when she showed him the paper he had graded but forgotten to record.
Nowadays, Laura used the valise for keepsakes: old love letters from Davis, part of her prom corsage, a poem from one of the many silly boys she'd known before meeting Davis near the end of their senior year. A bandana, ticket stubs, a cork from the wine when she'd first slept over at a boy's apartment. It resembled what hides in the cushions of a couch in a very messy house. But Laura knew what each one was and what each one meant.
The photo of the heart was there as well. She picked it up and stared into it stonily, as if she were at a funeral among strangers. In the picture, she was young and smiling, and a portion of Billy's hand was in the frame from when he'd waved her into place. She felt what was happening and told herself to stop.
Davis found her in the bed, the blinds drawn, her back to him, the wineglass empty on the bedside table. He got a shower, and after he dressed, Laura was in the same position, the blinds a little bit darker. Now that he had gotten what he wanted, he began to wish they had gone to the luncheon. Why did he always deny his wife? He suspected that Laura was only pretending to sleep, that she was angry, but he didn't see what he could say to make her look at him with anything other than contempt.
He walked down the hall into the kitchen and poked around for something to eat, eventually heating up some leftover chicken and asparagus. He watched the plate turn inside the microwave and saw the fat clarify, drip, and collect. He wolfed the food down and listened for movement from the bedroom: the turning of a page, the pushing and pulling of drawers, the creak of the bed as she got out of it. There wasn't anything, and the crack of the opened door was black with the night that was then arriving. So Davis poured himself a tumbler of bourbon, added a splash of cold water from the tap, and stepped onto the back porch.
It was dark enough for the first stars now. The wind that had blurred the skywriting still blew stiffly from the south. The tropical storm that had been promised for tomorrow seemed destined to arrive on schedule. High above him, jets en route from someplace to another paced slowly across the sky. Their contrails fell apart and expanded in the moonlight rising over the trees. He could see the earlier contrails up there too. They looked like ordinary clouds now, but there was a vague straightness that gave them away, like someone had taken a broom to many trails of footsteps in the sand.
Davis heard something in the house. He downed his drink and went inside. The bedroom door was shut now, all the way. It was a crucial moment. The right gesture could stop this argument, or whatever it was. They could curl up together on the couch for a movie. But Davis could not say what that gesture should be. If someone put a gun to his head, he would have to guess, and the guess would be wild, as Laura knew. The closing of the door had said as much. So Davis said nothing. He sat at the table as if a mountain of rock floated over him, awaiting the small vibration of his voice to call it down, to trap him there in that tunnel of dying air.