Though he didn’t expect to be alive much longer and though he knew it was irrational he set coffee cans behind the front door, which led to the stoop, and the back door, which led to a four-foot drop where a deck used to be, so that he would hear an intruder even though far more likely was that he be killed by a shotgun blast in the morning, while he was eating beans for breakfast, and for the bleak, breathless minute he would remain alive he might see everything in the world except the person who held the gun. He set a beer bottle on the edge of the window in the living room so it would tip if someone jarred the sash.
He picked up the tooth with a plastic bag over his hand and flicked it out the busted front door, past the porch.
He dreamed that night that he’d lost all his teeth, and he tried to mash his food into a pulp in order to feed himself, but no matter how he tried he couldn’t feel anything except the ache and shivering of a starving body. His gums were raw and they trickled blood that leaked into his spit and his tongue lashed out of his mouth like it was coated in the skin of old pennies. He woke in the dark and the room around him smelled of rank sweat, of fear, of the decomposition of bodies left too long out in the open without their proper respects having been paid.
Through a whiskey haze on the drive up, he had promised himself that he would save time to remember the beautiful things about his wife, that he would recall conversations as turning points in their young love, that though he might grow a beard he would otherwise keep his body clean so he would not be an embarrassment to her memory and, he told himself, so that he would not be repulsive when they met in the afterlife. He took his soap and a cloth through the trees to the river and stripped to his bare bones.
The river this late in the fall came over his limbs like a rumor of serious trouble. He took the cloth to his pinched skin and swabbed it gently back and forth and he watched his cobweb breath leave him in sheets like tracing paper. His knees cracked against each other and his toes curled around the river stones and he lathered soap on himself until he was more skeleton than man. He poured handfuls of water over the crown of his head and rubbed it into his face. When he was done he put his hands against his chest and fell backward.
He used his dirty shirt to dry himself off and sat in his jeans on a boulder at the edge of the water. He tried to guess the distance to the far side from here, the distance to the bend in the river’s course to the north, the distance to the farm and the dogs he’d given away.
When she came around the bend, the girl was barely even there, a firefly skimming across the water. Her yellow hair burned through the gray clouds behind her like a flare in a rainstorm, and as she came closer he saw that she was walking through the middle of the water as though it were the deepest part of July. The current wrapped her white dress around her hips and settled it in front of her. She walked with her hands open and her palms hovering over the surface of the water.
A dog’s barking echoed through the forest and she stopped where she was, still a hundred yards or more downstream from where the young man sat, and surveyed the hillside back and forth. The dog barked again and she turned backward to face the current and looked behind her for its whereabouts. The young man leaned back to cover his shape with river brush and birch saplings. He blinked and the girl was moving again.
She walked like a flag in a lazy wind, used her arms to steady herself but did it with the grace of a priest and no sign of panic in her muscles. Her dress clung to her body like she’d swam right in it. When she came close enough to talk to rather than shout at, he could see she had a pair of sneakers slung over her shoulder, tied to each other by the laces, and that her dress was patterned on its low collar with the image of sunflowers. He eased himself sideways behind the brush and waited for her to pass.
She was wet with river water. It slid down the tiny blonde hairs on her cheeks and dripped from the back of her hair. It darkened her shoes, pulled her veins to her skin, and collected in slow drops in the dimple of her lip. The young man was ten feet away from her. He looked on her like she was the last little bit of beauty the world had left for him to see. When she was right in front of him, she turned her head like a hungry bird and fixed herself right on his being. His body collapsed in on itself like paper in a fire.
She crossed a hand in front of her belly and wrapped the other one around it, an attempt at modesty that served in fact to admit him to the paler fields of her skin on the undersides of her arms and in the bend of her elbows. For several moments he thought she may be a ghost, a lost life searching the hills for the lover that killed her or the baby that had been swept away in the current. When she opened her mouth to speak his heart turned backward and beat toward his lungs.
“Have you seen a yellow dog?” she said.
He thought about what it would take to tell her he hadn’t. He thought about the mechanics of speech, the movement of the tongue and the vibration of the vocal chords, and when he tried to operate his voice nothing came of it.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Have you seen a big stinky old dog?”
“You ain’t dead, are you?”
Yes, he thought. “No, I’m not dead.”
“That’s a relief. His name’s Bluebeard. He doesn’t do this, most times.” Hands to her hips, eyes around the world.
“I haven’t seen him.”
She moved to face him. Her dress melted across her stomach and buckled upwards where it met the water. “You the guy been sleeping in the trailer up there?”