When Gable Massey heard the ambulance scream up to the Randall’s speckled brick house one hot, late afternoon, he didn’t know his cross-the-street neighbor had died for a few minutes. Gable glanced down the street to see who else stood on their porches. Sirens were rare in his neighborhood, and they always brought the people out, eager to witness a commotion that might result in a new house going on the market. Gable wondered if the neighbors had been watching his house in the year since Hollis left, waiting for him to plant a for-sale-by-owner sign in the grass and move on.
The EMS people carted out Betty Randall, just back from the dead. She was a bony, bird-like woman who spent a great many of her waking hours roaming her yard, digging and pulling and piling, directing her husband on his riding mower, firing spurts of Roundup at weeds that crept through the cracks in their cement driveway. Gable had watched Betty in the hottest afternoons of the summer, hacking at dandelions with her hoe, the sun blaring off the hair that she re-dyed more or less the same shade of red every few months.
He grabbed his small digital video camera and crossed the street into the Randall’s yard. It was familiar territory. Two or three afternoons a week in the summers, he saw Mrs. Randall struggling stiff-legged up the gentle slope of her front yard, tugging a tarp loaded with branches or weeds, taking only a step or two before she bent at the waist to catch her runaway breath. She seemed to have an endless supply of yard trash. Whenever he saw her struggling, Gable dropped what he happened to be doing—stopped pushing the mower or washing the car or weeding the beds—and trotted across the street to pull the tarp to the curb for her, scared she might collapse if he didn’t help.
It had become a ritual between the two of them. Betty never really thanked him for dragging her things up the hill. Instead, she would comment on Gable’s yard. Something like, “Yours is looking good too, neighbor.” That is, until Hollis left. Since then, Betty would wag a finger at his face and wonder aloud why his wife moved out. It didn’t bother Gable that Betty brought up his ex-wife. He was proud that in the space of a year he had finally gotten to the point where Hollis was only an occasional memory and not a constant rapping on his brain.
Betty Randall would say, “How can a woman leave such a nice house and nice yard? Where is she now? An apartment? Who would leave this for an apartment? There are plenty of women who would love a house in this neighborhood.” She waved in the general direction of Gable’s property. He watched the loose skin sway hammock-like on the back of her arm. When he didn’t answer, she would close the conversation with, “Things happen, neighbor.”
The first time or two she mentioned Hollis’ leaving, Gable tried to explain what had happened. He looked Betty right in the eyes and told her about Hollis’ needs. He found himself using versions of the word need a great deal, more than he would have liked. She needed to find herself. She needed space. He left out the parts about the other man she needed. Gable didn’t want to complicate things for Betty. He kept it simple. As he talked, he watched Betty’s eyes and noticed a glaze wash over them. She didn’t really care. She’d come back with something like, “Did she take the Christmas decorations? You two had lovely Christmas decorations.” Gable had learned to pull the tarp to the curb and leave Betty’s questions unanswered.
The day Betty Randall died, Gable met one of the EMS workers in the driveway, a tiny woman who, from a distance, looked as though she couldn’t lift a sack of sugar. Up close, he could see she was solid and strong. “I’m the neighbor from across the street,” he said. “This looks bad.”
“I can’t talk now,” she answered quickly and continued to walk without glancing at him. Then, as if she hadn’t listened to herself, she gave him all the details he needed. “Older white female was shocked, electrocuted basically and blown across the room. Twenty feet or so by my count. Her hip is shattered, I think. She was basically dead for a few minutes. Deader than a doornail.”
Gable filmed her, but the EMS worker didn’t know it. His digital camera was so tiny, he could cradle it in his palm, hit the play button with his thumb, and aim it from his thigh at the EMS person. She couldn’t possibly see the small red dot at that angle. Gable liked to film people who might not talk if they knew a camera was trained on them. Sometimes interesting people clammed up in front of a camera. Gable wasn’t trying to blackmail people. He wanted folks to be themselves.
“My god. But she’s okay now? What about her husband?” Gable asked. “Should I help with Fred?”
“A little woozy, shaken up. He’d already resuscitated her. Unbelievable. We’re worried about shock for the both of them. The other kind of shock, I mean.” She reached into the back of the ambulance and grabbed a short stack of blankets, then trotted toward the basement without saying another word.
As she left, Gable put the camera to his eye and filmed her quick exit around the corner of the house, giving the whole scene a nice, full ending. He hoped he had aimed right, hoped he got her saying “deader than a doornail” on camera. It struck him as a strange phrase at that particular moment, out of character for the compact EMS worker. That wasn’t the kind of thing an EMS person would say if she knew a camera was on, Gable thought.
He waited until the group emerged from the basement, his camera still running. Betty curled on her side on a stretcher, moaning slightly. Her eyes blinked open. Gable wasn’t surprised she’d come back from the dead. He couldn’t imagine anything having the gall to kill Betty Randall. The clothes that peeked out from beneath the sheet were brown with wet mud stains. He thought Betty caught a glimpse of him standing at the edge of her driveway, and, for a moment, he was scared she might ask him again why his wife left such a nice house and nice yard.
Fred Randall didn’t see Gable at first. His head was down; he was concentrating on the uneven pavement between the aluminum legs of his walker, an official EMS blanket draped over his shoulders. He looked like a portrait of a broken-down football player. Mr. Randall wasn’t in shock. He was drunk. Gable wondered why the EMS people didn’t spot the signs. He would have imagined being observant was part of their job description. Fred wavered on the asphalt, grabbing the rubber hand grips, steadying himself as if he were battling a breeze no one else could feel. His eyes were washed out and red, like they always were when he showed up at Gable’s door in the late afternoon.
When Fred saw Gable, he turned his head slightly, smiled, and winked. Gable glanced at his hip and made sure the red light was shining. He hoped he got that shot on tape too. He would have never expected a wink at a time like that. The little, wonderful surprises the world tossed out—those were the things keeping Gable from feeling completely abandoned. With his camera, he could be the quiet, unofficial collector of the unexpected. He wanted that job. Having the lens open was his way of avoiding being completely blindsided by anything. Like drunk neighbors who winked. Or wives who moved out of nice houses.
For the past seven or eight months, Gable had worked sporadically on a movie about love. He didn’t set out to make a film about such a complicated, often-dissected subject. After Hollis left, he bought the digital camera as a way to stop being so angry at her. He needed something else to occupy his time and his head. Gable found that if he wasn’t busy when he was at home, he ended up on his back on the couch in the sunroom, staring at the arrangement of water stains on the ceiling, envisioning the runaway bus Hollis might walk in front of or the embarrassing diseases she might catch from her new boyfriend. He suspected his anger wasn’t healthy.
He wanted to buy an 8mm camera, like the one his father brought home the summer Gable was seven or so. Gable always loved the fact that the 8mm camera had no audio; once the film was developed, the characters projected onto a white sheet in the family room jumped around and opened their mouths, but nothing came out. Gable remembered making up dialogue for his aunts and uncles and cousins who appeared on the sheet. These days, it was hard to find 8mm film, much less a place to process it. Ultimately, Gable opted for the digital video camera, complete with a small, wireless microphone setup.
When the camera arrived, he decided he would film whatever caught his eye and piece the images together into something that made sense. The more unexpected, the better. Or maybe he would be the neighborhood surrealist and film things only he could identify. Anything to keep him off that couch.
But when he sat at his computer and started downloading and cataloging the clips he shot—a stray cat cleaning itself in the street, closeups of mosquitoes landing on his arm and biting him, water gushing out of a downspout during a thunderstorm—he realized he was boring himself. That’s when Gable decided to make a movie about the one thing in the world that confused him most at the moment. He couldn’t decide if he still loved Hollis, couldn’t really remember what he meant when he used to tell her he loved her. Before she left, Hollis told Gable that she needed the passion every day. The passion. Not the basic off-the-shelf passion, but the passion. Now, a year down the road, Gable thought a lot about passion and love but wasn’t sure if he knew the difference between the two.
He would make a love movie. He would ask people he knew to sit on the plaid couch in his living room—the one Hollis left behind—and talk about, well, about whatever they wanted to. But Gable would eventually steer them to the topic of love. The effects of love. The damage of love. Proof of love. Something about love.
What Gable discovered quickly: no one wanted to talk about love. The neighbors, some teachers from his school, even a distant relative in town all turned him down. Most of them said they were afraid of speaking into a camera. The few neighbors who agreed to sit in front of the camera were content to tell sentimental stories or to say things like “love is commitment,” phrases Gable had heard a hundred times in movies or read in books. Or they talked about a first love in the seventh grade or how much they loved their father or mother or a pet Santa brought them one Christmas. Although he didn’t let them see it, Gable was disappointed. He wanted surprises. Only a few even made eye contact with the camera as they laughed and tap danced around Gable’s requests to dig deeper into the subject of love.
He tried to make light of it. “C’mon,” he said, “forget about the camera. How did you know you were in love the first time? Has your idea of love stayed the same over the years? How important is the whole sex thing? Could you fall in love with someone new, right now? Is it too late for love? What do you think?”
After a number of uninteresting, basically unusable interviews, Gable met someone more than willing to talk about her version of love, met her during a barbeque at the neighborhood pool. Candles floated on the surface of the water that night. A string of paper lanterns wove through the chain link fence between the parking lot and the pool deck. Gable spent most of his time near the makeshift tiki bar, huddled with a half dozen other people.
Laurie was new to the neighborhood, divorced for a couple of years. She had two small children, a boy and a girl, and when she discovered that Gable taught, she asked question after question about the quality of the schools and the availability of carpools for Wednesdays and Fridays. Laurie wondered about the average test scores in the nearest elementary school. Gable told her he was a writing instructor at the local college, and he didn’t have any children himself and didn’t know about test scores. “Truth be told,” he said, “I don’t have a wife either.” A clever remark, he thought.
The fact that Gable lacked answers didn’t disappoint Laurie. She never stopped smiling. He stared at the surface of the water, imagining what would happen when the candles burned down to their little rafts. He wondered if he would be able to hear the sizzle. Laurie appeared comfortable with the long pauses in their conversations, using the time to sip on her beer. Gable noticed that his friends had all drifted away, leaving the two of them beside the tiki bar. He thought he detected something else going on aside from the information gathering. Gable couldn’t remember the last time he tried to read the signs. He started to ask if she knew about the fate of the candles. He decided against it. When she drained her plastic cup, she didn’t move to refill it. Breaking the silence, Gable told her about his movie project and his difficulty finding the right kind of subjects to face the camera. Laurie didn’t blink. She immediately offered to sit on his couch and talk about love, or, as she said, “the recent lack thereof.”
After the barbeque had been taken away and one of the party committee members retrieved the floating candles with the lifeguard’s shepherd’s crook, Laurie and Gable walked around the corner to his house. He wondered if anyone watched him take a woman home. He liked his neighborhood at night. It felt protected by the dark. The smell of grass mown that afternoon lingered in the still-heavy air. Teenagers parked their cars at the curb instead of sharing the driveway with their parents. A cat ran across the street as Gable and Laurie got too close to its hiding place in the storm drain. The Randalls were already asleep. Gable figured they were too old to stay up late, but in other houses, windows bloomed with light. Laurie talked the entire walk to his house, punching Gable’s shoulder when she thought she’d said something funny.
At his house, Gable warned her about the lights he used with the camera. “They tend to intimidate people sometimes,” he said.
“Not a problem here,” she called from the kitchen. Laurie made herself a drink from the vodka in Gable’s freezer. She found it without asking, as if she’d known there would be a bottle waiting for her.
After Laurie settled on the couch and Gable pinned the microphone to her collar, he studied her through the viewfinder. He hit the zoom function and went to an extreme closeup of her face. She was very angular, very sharp-featured. Her cheekbones were constantly tense, as if she were clenching her back teeth, her face browned by hours at the pool. A tiny mole floated under one eye. He hadn’t noticed it at the party. Gable made sure the focus was set for automatic, backed off the closeup, checked the viewfinder, then put his headphones on. Laurie set her drink heavily on the table beside the couch and began to peel her shirt off, still staring directly at the camera when her head reappeared from beneath the cloth. She was wearing a sports bra and pulled that off as well. The sound of rustling clothes crackled in Gable’s headphones. She found her glass without looking away from the camera and killed the last of the vodka.
Gable didn’t know what to do. He tried to find the power button on the camera to shut everything down but accidentally hit the manual adjustment, and the focus went soft. He panicked. He couldn’t decide whether to continue looking through the viewfinder or peer around the camera. He suddenly didn’t feel safe behind the tripod. But he wanted a closer look. It had been months since he’d seen a woman’s body. There had been others since Hollis, most of them based on hasty decisions that involved an odd sort of revenge or too much beer or a combination of both. Lately, however, there had been nothing, no one. He hadn’t worked up the energy. Now, a woman sat on his couch without her shirt, willing to talk about love.
“How’s it look, Mr. Spielberg?” Laurie asked, fishing for an ice cube with her fingers.
“Well, I mean, good, of course,” Gable stammered, sliding his head from around the camera, “but I’m not sure this is what I was talking about when I told you about the movie. I don’t want you to think I…” Gable didn’t know how to finish his sentence.
“Oh relax,” she said, tugging on the zipper of her jeans. “You want to know about love? Here’s what I’ve learned about love: keep your mouth shut and be flexible at all times. End of story.” She popped an ice cube in her mouth and crushed it with her back teeth.
Gable didn’t understand what she meant. He waited for her to go on, but she was busy with her pants. Maybe she did know about love. Maybe she could show him about the passion. She could define or redefine things for him. He stared through the viewfinder again and panned down slightly. Laurie stood and pulled off her pants, and he noticed how muscular her calves were. And her arms were not bunched like a weightlifter’s but were naturally tight and toned. She had red toenails. Laurie was comfortable under the lights, without clothes. Gable noticed the horizontal scar low on her belly. He zoomed in a little. Laurie caught him pointing the camera in that direction, and she traced the scar tissue with her finger. “Hail, Caesar,” she said.
Gable thought about Hollis, how she always controlled the atmosphere when they made love. Lights had to be off, doors had to be closed, blinds had to be lowered. He wasn’t allowed to wear his wristwatch during sex. It felt like sex during a lockdown. Gable remembered this as he reached for the switch on the light nearest the camera. It dimmed quickly. Laurie walked toward him, jiggling the ice in her empty glass. Gable took off his headphones. “I thought we were doing an interview,” she said and turned the light back on. Gable happened to glance directly at the bulb when it refired, and it blinded him for a second. When his sight cleared, Laurie was back on the couch. “So let’s talk,” she said. And that was all she did for the next hour—stare into Gable’s camera and talk about the things she loved.
The next weekend, when she saw him standing near the concession stand at the pool, Laurie walked over and shoved Gable on the shoulder like he was a teammate of some kind. She smiled and said, “How’s the movie coming, Mr. Spielberg? Don’t forget to invite me to the premiere.”
She spun and walked away before Gable could answer. He watched her calves. He wanted to tell her he had shelved the movie idea that night, shelved it the moment she left with her clothes on, carrying what remained of Gable’s vodka. He didn’t give up because of anything Laurie said as she lay back on the couch, her skin glistening a little from the heat of the lights. It wasn’t her fault he halted his amateur production. He just realized he might not be all that interested in what he discovered. He didn’t want to make a movie that bored anyone, especially him.
But the afternoon Betty Randall died and was brought back to life by her husband, Gable decided to get the love movie going again. This time, he would change the direction a bit. He would concentrate solely on Betty and Fred. He would get them to talk in detail about the experience in the basement. Gable was sure what he’d been searching for with his little movie was a symbolic act that validated the damn emotion, that made love real. Screw sappy stories and keeping your mouth shut and passion and flexibility and whatnot, Gable thought. Finding your wife dead and blowing air into her lungs. Bringing her back from the dead. Now that was pure love.
Gable imagined Hollis would have never needed a new apartment and new passions if he had only saved her life at some point. Perhaps the excuses she’d given him—about the need for space and time and the passion—would have been meaningless if he had, at some point, filled her empty lungs or jarred loose a piece of sirloin lodged in her windpipe. But Hollis never came close to dying, never came close to giving him the chance to perform a miracle. The only thing Hollis ever needed saving from was, apparently, Gable.
He knew Fred would wander across the street once Betty was settled in the hospital. Before Betty’s accident, he showed up at Gable’s door two or three afternoons a week a little after five o’clock, offering up his own brand of chit chat until Gable asked if he wanted a beer.
“Let me get one for us,” was Fred’s normal response. “I know where you keep ‘em. You’re not making me drink alone, are you?” Because Fred used a walker everywhere he went, Gable felt guilty that his neighbor retrieved the beers. But Fred was happy taking care of himself, content that he earned his free beer dragging the walker across Gable’s house.
Fred loved to hold court, to talk about the most nothing of things. He never needed a prompt to begin a story. He wouldn’t be intimidated speaking to a live camera. Fred once told Gable that he had thankfully reached the age where he could say whatever popped into his head and not give a shit about who heard him. Gable couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of filming Fred before.
One Thursday, Fred hobbled into Gable’s kitchen and gave an update on his wife’s progress. She was recovering from a completely shattered hip that had been replaced, as well as several broken ribs. In the midst of his story, Fred cut his eyes in the general direction of the refrigerator, and Gable told him to go ahead. Fred shoved two cans of Bud in the front pockets of his oversize khaki pants and headed back into the den with his walker.
Gable noticed how much thinner Fred looked, like he’d been worrying too much and eating too little. When Fred finished the long and meandering details about his wife’s hospitalization, Gable told him he had a couple of steaks he could throw on the grill. Fred said he’d rather have another beer. He rose from the chair and bumped his way back into the kitchen.
After several more rounds, Gable worried he might be growing low on Bud. He had a twelve pack in the garage, but it was hot. “Here’s what they figure,” Fred said. “Betty must’ve walked into the basement without seeing she was standing in an inch or so of water. Basement leaks like a sumbitch. Sump pump went out years ago. Never got it fixed. You know those bedroom shoes Betty wears all the time? Maybe not. Anyway, the water soaked through the bottom of them, they think. Well, she goes ‘cross the floor and throws that light switch at the far end of the room, the one without a switch plate near the stairwell, so she can see what she’s doing and what it was is what they call an arc.”
With his free hand, the one that wasn’t holding a beer can, Fred waved at the air. He reminded Gable of an orchestra conductor. “The electricity jumped out of the light switch into her thumb and scorched it all to hell and back. The worst of it was, the shock blew Betty across the room to the doorway. That’s where she landed and died for a few minutes ‘til I showed up.”
Fred stopped for a sip. He was so nonchalant that his wife was, for all intents and purposes, gone at one point. Gable started to ask Fred how he felt when he found Betty, but he caught himself. He wanted the answer on camera, not floating around in the air. Right then, he pitched his idea to Fred. He told him he was filming people talking about their relationships. He spoke slowly because he was trying to decide what to leave out. He didn’t use the word love. He didn’t tell Fred about Laurie and the camera. He told Fred everything he thought necessary to get him to sit down on the couch and relate the Betty story. “I’m just letting people talk about somebody important to them and what keeps them together,” Gable said.
“Got yourself a little camera and trying to figure out the ways of the world, eh?” Fred said, breaking into a smile.
“I suppose,” Gable answered. Once he read an interview with a famous director who said that every movie he ever made was ultimately a movie about him. Gable hoped he wasn’t that transparent to Fred.
“Let me grab an extra beer. I’ll talk to your camera. I got plenty to say.” Fred aimed his walker toward the kitchen, and Gable almost sprinted to the spare room to set up the lights.
He used a standard three-point lighting scheme he’d learned years ago from a filmmaking handbook—a softbox for the face, a little fill in the background, maybe a touch of reflection off a white card under the chin. Gable didn’t want the camera to pick up the shadows beneath Fred’s eyes, dark pockets that had become more pronounced since Betty’s accident.
Fred watched Gable scurry around. “Who’s gonna see this beside you?” he asked Gable.
“No one, I guess. I don’t know. I never really thought about it.”
He sat Fred on a stool in front of a beige wall free of photos or shelves. He clipped a tiny wireless lavalier microphone to Fred’s collar and put an extra one on himself so the questions he asked would be nice and clear on the footage as well. He hit the button, and the camera powered up.
“I’m ready,” Fred said, staring at the lens. “You ready?”
“Okay, you already told me how Betty got hurt. The arc,” Gable said.
“Hurt? Son, she wasn’t hurt when I found her. She was dead. There’s a difference.” He took a long pull on the Bud. Gable watched through the viewfinder. It was the most real-looking thing he’d filmed since he bought the camera, the sight of Fred turning up a beer can after announcing his wife was dead.
Gable asked, “You and Betty have been married how long?”
“She was dead and in front of the door and I couldn’t push it open.”
“Okay, well,” Gable said, then thought, I’ll try something else. The audio levels sounded fine in his headphones. “When did you know you loved her?”
“I hollered at her to get out of the way, dammit,” Fred said. “I’d been cutting the grass. She ain’t ever happy until the grass looks like a goddamn golf course.”
“Okay, we can talk about the accident first.”
Fred stared directly into the lens, not blinking. He picked at the beer can with his thumbnail, as though it possessed a paper label. “Betty ain’t a large woman, you know, but down on the floor, blocking the door, all tucked into a ball, she was what you might call concentrated weight. Dead weight. I could see enough through the window, what with the sun and all being that low in the sky. Hand to God, I seen something I never seen before and hope I don’t see again. The woman’s thumb was smoking. Little puffs coming off it. Looking like the butt end of an old cigar. I was in the army, and I never saw a thing like that. So I leaned hard on the door and shoved her over enough to let myself inside. Betty wasn’t breathing. Her chest wasn’t going up and down under her shirt. She was all covered with mud. I knew she was dead. Nobody had to tell me—I just knew. That is something I don’t wish on any man, seeing his wife muddy and dead. But—and this is how you know I was still thinking clear—her thumb was putting off smoke, like I said, and the smoke smelled like shit. That’s how I knew she hadn’t been gone long, what with that smoke curling off the end of her black thumb. Whatever had happened to Betty happened only a little bit ago. I knew that from the smoking thumb.” Fred held his own out-of-focus thumb toward the camera lens.
“I figured I had to go with the mouth-to-mouth. And you know how I wear one of those surgery mask things when I cut the grass? Too much dust and grass in the air. My lungs close up and if I don’t get an inhaler quick enough, hell, I’ll be the one dead on the ground. Betty was turning whiter while I stood there looking at her, so I leaned down and pushed my mask up on my forehead. Then,” Fred paused. “Then, I started thinking about it.” He jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Maybe you ought to get the beer this time.”
Gable stopped the camera, checked the timer, and realized that he was about to fill the memory card. He wondered if Fred had an ending nearby. He thought he should probably give Fred something to eat, so he grabbed a bag of chips from the pantry, ripped open the top, and dumped them in a bowl. Gable moved fast between rooms.
“Those aren’t salt and vinegar, are they? Salt and vinegar chips give me the gas sometimes, but I do love them,” Fred said when Gable returned. Without waiting for an answer, Fred tried to restart the story before Gable had the camera running. Gable held his hand up. “Calm down. Have some chips. They’re regular. I’m almost ready,” Gable said, settling into his chair and adjusting his headphones. He pointed at Fred. “Okay, you mentioned mouth-to-mouth.”
“I do like this couch, Gable. Kind of molds around your backside. It wasn’t the idea of the mouth-to-mouth that got to me, you see. Look back over fifty years. I probably had my mouth on every inch of that woman at some point in time, but we’re both staring down eighty. Listen to me. You’re kneeling there, your knees aching and you’re looking down at your wife and her thumb’s putting off smoke and there’s that damn smell. You begin to think for a minute. You can’t help but think. You think about how she ain’t never happy with the way the yard looks and how she tells you to drive faster to church even though you probably shouldn’t be driving at all and how she don’t even worry about her hair anymore, keeps coloring it red and letting it bunch up on top like some kind of circus clown. You think about how the two of you have lived together so long, you never thought there was any other way to live. So I waited a minute, didn’t do nothing. Then, you start thinking who’ll fix my supper and who’ll get out of bed to turn up the heat in the middle of the night and who’ll start my bath in the evenings?” Fred stuck a few chips in his mouth. The crunching sounded like thunder in Gable’s headphones.
“I leaned down and laid my head right on Betty’s chest. It was quiet under her shirt. Maybe, just maybe, I heard a little air moving around in there. I couldn’t tell. Might’ve imagined it. I was breathing pretty hard myself. Maybe Betty was dead and gone, maybe not. I sat there thinking, still deciding what to do. I thought about crying.”
Gable pushed in tighter on Fred’s face. “You cried?”
“I said I thought about it. I used to know how many presses on the chest I’m supposed to do after I blow a couple of breaths into her mouth. I read that in some magazine one time or another. I’m sitting there and I caught me a whiff of that thumb, which had thankfully stopped smoking, but the stink of it was enough to gag me. You ever smell burned skin?”
Before Gable had time to say he hadn’t, Fred continued. “I could hire somebody, I thought. Plenty of people looking for jobs taking care of people.”
“Betty?” Gable said.
“Oh, well, the lipstick on Betty’s mouth was all cracked and smeared. There wasn’t any color left in her face, only in her ears, so red they almost glowed. The burnt thumb smell climbed up in the back of my throat. I couldn’t wait any more, couldn’t think about it anymore. So, I put my hand over her mouth and her nose at the same time. Just to be sure. I still wasn’t positive about what I heard inside her chest, whether it was air or not. So I did what I did. I put as much of her face as I could under my palm and pressed down and looked the other way and waited for time to pass.”
Gable wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Come again?”
Fred appeared flustered for a second. His hand twirled in front of him before he started talking again. “Maybe I ought not to have told you that. At the time, it felt like the thing to do, so dammit that’s what I did. I waited for maybe half a minute. Waited with my hand over her mouth. Turns out, covering up her entire face probably brought her back. I covered up that lipstick and that nose of hers and all the sudden, Betty starts hacking and spitting behind my hand, trying to suck air into her mouth like it was candy. I jerk away and she opens her eyes, big and mostly white, like a baby looking up from a crib. And now, she can’t thank me enough for saving her life. How’s that for love, neighbor?” Fred turned the Bud can up again. “No harm, no foul, and sometimes you come out smelling like a goddamn rose, even if you tried to smother your own wife.”
Gable stared at Fred through the viewfinder, waiting for him to say he’d been kidding, that he’d really given his breath to Betty and reined her back from the dead. But Fred didn’t move. Gable noticed a quiet alarm coming from the camera, signaling the end of the memory. How long the warning had been sounding was anybody’s guess.
From the edge of his yard, Gable watched Fred head home, leaning heavily on the walker to keep his balance. He waved at him even though Fred wasn’t looking. Gable decided he needed a walk around the block. He wandered through the round pools of light from the streetlights, thinking about Fred’s story. He thought about suffocation.
In those first days after Hollis left, Gable felt as though he couldn’t breathe, like he couldn’t possibly bring enough air into his chest to survive another day. Then, when he found out about the man she’d been seeing for months and months before the separation, the weight evaporated instantly, magically. He suddenly had a reason everything went wrong. Bad news brought him back to life, and he could gulp in air once more.
Fred made him realize this. For half a minute, Fred had tried to kill Betty and, in the process, reeled her back to life. Had Hollis done the same thing for him? No, Gable thought, it’s completely different. It has something to do with love, but it’s completely different. Gable wondered what Betty felt, lying on her floor, her eyes shut, hoping she’d remember how to breathe again.
Gable found himself in front of Laurie’s house, at the edge of the shadows on the street. He saw glimpses of kids flashing in front of the windows and thought he heard Laurie yelling at them to slow down. He didn’t know the story of Laurie’s marriage. That subject hadn’t come up. Gable assumed that one person, at some point, had made it difficult for the other to breathe. He stood in the street, studying her windows, wondering if she was suffocating in a house where children sprinted up and down the hallway until bedtime. Gable was still confused, but he suddenly knew sometimes it wasn’t about love anymore. It was about breathing out and breathing in.
The only thing he missed on-camera, it turned out, was Fred’s final gulp of beer and dramatic crushing of the can. Gable stayed up late the next night, batching the clips of Fred into a single folder and downloading them into his editing program. He watched Fred tell the story over and over. Gable was surprised at what he’d forgotten, how Fred’s eyes darted to the far corner of the room as he talked about sealing off his wife’s airway, how he’d racked the focus once on Fred’s hands during the story, at one of the rare moments when they weren’t winging around.
Fred didn’t return for a couple of days, didn’t shuffle across the street in the afternoons, but Gable wasn’t worried. He saw Fred in his yard, slowly ferrying a bag of garbage to the dumpster or doing laps on his riding lawn mower.
Then, one afternoon, Betty returned in a quiet ambulance. Gable didn’t see any of the neighbors watching. They must have known this was a drop off, not a pick up. Much less exciting. Fred leaned on his walker in the driveway, directing the two men who pushed Betty’s stretcher toward the side entrance. Fred waved across the street at Gable and motioned him over.
“Come say how do,” Fred called out as Gable crossed the street. “Betty’s back. She’s going to tell you everything about her thumb. You won’t even have to ask.” He rolled his eyes behind his glasses.
Inside, the two ambulance company employees settled Betty on her bed, then left Gable and Fred standing beside her. Fred patted her on the shoulder. “The new hip’s coming along and the ribs only hurt when she laughs, so she’s pretty much pain free there,” he said.
“Fred tells me you been making a star out of him,” Betty said to Gable, her voice thin and brittle, without the normal volume.
“Oh, yeah, I’m trying,” Gable answered, laughing and noticing that he didn’t sound like himself. The camera ran in the palm of his hand. He knew he had the angle right to catch Betty in the frame. He only hoped there was enough light in the room.
“I can tell you what it’s like to be dead and brought back. You should get that on your camera. Fred brought me back, you know. He probably didn’t tell you about that. He doesn’t like talking about what happened. He’s too modest, but I remember it all,” Betty said, tapping her temple with her finger. “Oh, you should get this thumb in your movie. Doctor says it will never be the same again. I’ll be scarred for life.”
Fred sat beside her on the bed. Without glancing down, Gable widened the angle so he could frame both of them in the picture. The sun shifted slightly behind the blinds, dipping into the limbs outside her window. Fred appeared happy to have her back in the house, back in their bedroom. He couldn’t stop touching her arm or stroking her shoulder. Gable thought about Fred’s story. He wondered how long they could live together without both of them knowing what really happened in the basement.
“Just wasn’t your time, dearie,” Fred said. “We all punch a different time clock.”
“When I’m settled in, you come on over and I’ll tell you all about it,” Betty said, “and you can put it in your movie. A week or so maybe. Right now, I need to do my thumb exercises. I saw your yard when I pulled in, neighbor. You got it looking good.” Betty stuck her bandaged thumb right in Gable’s face and wiggled the gauze for him.
That night, Gable sat in front of the computer, scanning and downloading, dumping video clips of downspouts and mosquitoes to free up memory for footage about love. More than once, he butted clips together in various combinations, rejected their order, and started over.
In the quiet, he heard the noises his house made—the metallic tick of the air conditioner before it cycled on, the roof joists creaking as the night grew cooler, the floorboards shifting in the hallway. Once, the cicadas became so loud outside that Gable walked to the window to see if he could spot any of them lighting on the tree trunks to lose their skins. He noticed the Randall’s lights on. It was long after midnight. Gable imagined it must be difficult to sleep with broken ribs. Maybe Fred was waking up now and then to make sure the wife next to him was still breathing.
Gable shuffled the video clips, hoping a perfect combination would suddenly fall together. Finally, he decided on a plan. He would make a series of scenes. He would take random clips from Fred, from Laurie, and from Betty, then place them one right after the other, in that same order, again and again, without previewing them. Fred, Laurie, Betty. Fred, Laurie, Betty. Just to see.
Fred says he moved Betty away from the door.
Laurie walks across the front of the camera, naked, and returns in a couple of seconds
with the vodka bottle and sits down on the couch, smiling.
Betty says Gable is making a star out of Fred.
Fred says he put his hand over Betty’s mouth.
Laurie closes her eyes and touches the scar on her belly and recites the exact time of
birth for each of her children.
Betty says she has to do her thumb exercises.
Fred says it wasn’t your time, dearie.
Laurie gathers up her clothes and says she has to let the sitter go and that she’s getting
up early tomorrow anyway. She says she likes to run before the children are
Betty opens her eyes to the camera as the EMS people roll her to the ambulance.
Fred says it was quiet under Betty’s shirt, but maybe, just maybe….
Laurie tells the camera not to expect her to get naked every time they get together then
stretches and slips her sports bra over her shoulders.
Betty says she can tell you what it is like to be dead and brought back to life.
And that was it. A running time a bit shy of four minutes. Gable watched it a couple of times before he output the digital video to a CD. Once it burned, he labeled it with a Sharpie: Gable’s Love Movie. He didn’t have any spare jewel cases, so he found a music CD he never listened to and threw the cover art and the lyric sheets in the trash.
He drove to Hollis’ duplex and spent several minutes deciding if he really wanted to leave the CD for her. It was almost five in the morning. He sat in the shadows on her curb. He knew his little movie said something important to Hollis, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t recognize love. She wouldn’t understand the suffocation. Gable wasn’t even sure he understood his footage, didn’t know if the CD meant he was over Hollis or only beginning to realize he never would be. At least he could breathe better now. A breeze suddenly sprang up, chattering the leaves in the pin oaks and poplars that canopied the street.
Okay, Gable thought, maybe it’s all those things. You cover a mouth, yet someone survives. Babies leave a scar on you as they enter the world. You throw a switch, and your thumb burns forever. The person you least want to leave says she has to go and the best you can do is watch her go down the driveway.
Gable climbed back in his car and drove toward home. He slowed at the curb in front of the Randall’s house. For a second, he thought of sailing the CD into their yard like the morning paper, leaving it for Fred to find after dawn. Let him figure out what to do with it, Gable thought. Instead, he continued to roll quietly, winding through the streets toward Laurie’s house, thinking he would leave it in her mailbox. Let her see what the local Spielberg turned out. Maybe one night they could watch it together on the plaid couch. But he never so much as tapped the brake. When he found himself reaching for the blinker yet again, he realized he was driving odd circles around and around his own neighborhood, Gable’s Love Movie still sitting on the seat next to him, still waiting for someone to watch it.