There was this one time in late November, barely dawn, when a gaunt, bearded man named Winfield Mepps saw a spirit. At least he thinks he saw a spirit. Maybe he didn’t; he doesn’t know what he saw. Whatever it was, it was white and smoky and shined like early morning sun over Lake Michigan—big and in your eyes and impossible to scale. It hissed and whispered and floated like wispy clouds in the pale cast of morning light. Mepps sat petrified in his chair, watching. The spirit called to him across the cold room. Show you something. Over here. But then it left. The room cleared. The light looked frozen as it came through the blinds. Mepps thought of calling to Marsha, who slept a wall over, but resisted. She would never believe him.
Marsha has not trusted her husband since reading his notebooks. She went through them one September morning, just as the maples were turning yellow. At first she read the notebooks calmly, intrigued by the inner workings of her husband, a man she felt she no longer knew. But then she read his recent entries, sizeable sections of sexual fantasy, deceit, sinful thinking. She read in horror, read until Mepps entered the kitchen.
“I always wondered what you wrote in these,” she said, licking her index finger defiantly and turning the page.
Mepps stood quietly by the refrigerator, buttoning his frayed denim shirt. He wasn’t nervous or scared; he didn’t feel much of anything.
“‘Fucking another woman is sometimes all I think about,'” she read, her voice cracking, tears stuck in her throat. “‘It’s almost like Marsha’s forgotten how to make love to me.'”
Mepps scratched his beard and opened the fridge. He took a pitcher of iced tea from the top shelf and poured it into a glass.
“You better explain yourself good, Winfield,” she said. “There’s a lot more shit in here I could read—shit about how you’re not happy, how I’m not enough for you. Shit about Cindy Crenshaw from the hardware store, which please don’t start on me, Winfield, please.”
They shared a moment of thick silence.
“It’s not yours to read,” he said.
“I think I can read what it is I want to read. This is my house, too.”
Marsha leaned forward in her chair, setting aside the journal and loosening her shirt collar. Her graying brown hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and she kept brushing loose strands behind her ears. It looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
After work they came home and ate their dinner in silence. They did not so much as look at each other for three days; Mepps slept on the living room futon all week. There was nothing he could do. He would not run from the truth. A man was allowed to tend to his business, he thought, and if Marsha wanted to snoop and prod then she’d get what she’d get. And look: of course it had to do with the baby. It always had to do with the baby. Marsha’s paranoid that Mepps is planning an escape to have children with another woman. She’s lost faith in her own ability to have a child.
It has been two weeks since Mepps saw the spirit, and several months since Marsha read his notebooks. They talk to each other now, small and simple talk, about the town zoning board and whether to buy new snow tires or not. They don’t talk about the notebooks or what was inside them, and Mepps doesn’t once mention the spirit and how he thinks about it all the time.
It is early December and there’s still no snow. It’s coming, though—you can tell by how the ground hardens and how the air just hangs there, waiting. Mepps feels the looming snowfall once he’s out on his nightly walk, after Marsha’s turned off the bedroom light and put on her sleep mask. As he walks through a grove of white birches and wandering deer, a big moon glowing overhead, he thinks of the dead and how’d they look if they were here—beef-colored and torn, sliding through the night.
Marsha Mepps has been better. She’s not sleeping well with Winfield going in and out at night. Whenever she asks him where he goes he just grunts, nods, says something about coyotes and bears and big moons. Marsha takes this as code for drunk-fucking whores downtown, and frankly, has no reason to think otherwise. She tells this to her widowed Mother in Mississippi.
“Nearly twenty years in Michigan, Mom, and this is what it’s come to,” Marsha says over the phone one morning. “What am I supposed to think? He’s out every night, leaving at ten, returning at one, and waking at five. He’s growing away from me, Mom. He wants nothing to do with me.”
Her Mom sighs and says the same things: that Marsha’s just making it hard for herself. That they all know the same things about Winfield that Marsha does—that he’s a hard, stubborn man, who as a boy lost his mother in that horrific car accident and hurt his face so bad that his lip looks like one of those genetically fucked up lips. This hardens a man, see, a debilitation like this.
“Yes, I know,” says Marsha, biting the last bit of cuticle from her index finger. “But he leaves every night, and when I ask where he goes he avoids my eyes and mumbles and drinks his iced tea slow and says shit about animals. There’s something wrong with him, Mom. I’m afraid he’s drinking again.”
“Well, sure he likes the night,” she says. “Men like the night. Besides, if Winfield really is going for walks outside, which he likely is, then let him be. The best thing a woman like you can do is let him be.”
What Marsha can’t say to her Mom is that she’s tired. That this is not what she wanted for her life. That she wanted to raise kids in Mississippi, marry a man who would take her to church on Sunday, a man to love her as she grew old, who’d treat her the way she deserved to be treated. A man of tradition, she thinks—yes, tradition; she’d know it if she saw it. But instead she married the first man she kissed, Winfield Mepps, a quiet Midwestern boy with thick dark hair and a good face, who took her up to his home in Michigan after they met at a dance in Mississippi.
But Michigan winters get lonely when it’s just the two of them. Marsha misses Mississippi mornings, strolling through the town, feeling the quiet looks from men and older woman whispering quietly, “Is that Marsha Dollar? My, my.”
She wants to do it all over. She wants to go back.
Mepps holds his sniper steady in his hands. The morning sky is silver and wet. Jim, his contracting partner, is crouched low behind a huge birch tree peering through his sniper’s scope, one eye closed, visualizing a deer and what it would look like when he lined it up and shot it.
“Women,” he says, flipping the gun onto his shoulder and standing, his big tummy hanging over his belt. “Can’t trust them with a nickel. You give them a house and food and a kid and what do they do? They spit in your face and twist your balls until you can’t take it anymore.” Jim withdraws an apple from his back pocket and takes a thunderous bite.
“Well, I don’t have a kid,” says Mepps, sitting on a stump and laying his gun on the ground. It’s been weeks since either of them has shot a deer.
“Kid, car, house: same thing,” he says. “You give them the world and they just keep twisting on those balls until you’re fucking screaming. But they don’t ever get near those balls, do they? They don’t fuck no more, haven’t fucked in years.”
“Hm,” says Mepps, staring at a troop of black birds flying in V-formation.
“Now, I’m not going to tell you what to do, Mepps,” says Jim, bending to tie his shoe. “But if I were you, I’d kick that bitch out and tell her that if she wants to read something she can read your divorce papers.”
“I’m not kicking Marsha out.”
“Suits you then,” he says.
Mepps and Jim gather up their gear and walk to a new location. Their boots crunch over frosted leaves and dried twigs.
“You go to church, Jim?” asks Mepps, walking slightly behind him.
“Yeah, only because Elizabeth wants to raise the girls Protestant. Which is fine, I guess. It doesn’t matter to me. I just go so I can check out the babes, like Claudia Frasier from the town offices. She brings out her bust in church.”
“You don’t feel, say, spiritually connected to anything when you go?”
“Only thing I’m concerned with is titties.”
“Come on, Jim.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Why? Is Marsha forcing you to go to church now?”
“No,” he says sharply, although Marsha’s been asking him to go to church for years. “It’s just I’m curious is all. There’s not a lot of places for men like us to find an outlet these days.”
“Outlet? Brother, look around. You’re in the outlet,” he tosses his sniper in the air and clumsily catches it. “We’re sucking deer soul right now!”
Jim crouches behind a bevel of brush and levels the sniper between two small trees.
“What I’m trying to say is,” says Mepps. “I’m looking for answers I can’t answer myself.”
“You’re scaring me, Mepps. Marsha’s really turning the wheels in your head, isn’t she? I haven’t heard you talk this much in months.”
“You don’t ever think about why you’re you? Why you do certain things? Why you treat people the way you do.”
Jim is about to answer when they hear ruffling. Jim puts a finger to his lips and they both squat low behind shallow brush. Mepps lifts his gun and holds it in shooting position.
It is just before eight on a cold, December night. Marsha stands at the kitchen counter thinking of snow.
“I can’t believe it,” she says. “In all my years.”
“It’ll come tonight,” says Mepps, carving a chicken under the oven light. “I’m sure of it.”
“I suppose we’ll see.”
Mepps brings the food to the table. He salts the sweet potatoes and butters the corn. He fills a pitcher with iced tea and pours it into two glasses. Marsha stands at the counter mixing a drink with her finger. It is Mepps’ Father’s scotch glass, clear and stout, filled to the lip with ice. She walks to the table carrying the glass. Mepps watches her from his seat, sipping his iced tea. The ice cubes clink as she walks and bubbles rise and fizzle in the drink. She doesn’t have to tell him what’s in it because he already knows.
Marsha sits and serves salad to Mepps. When she finishes he backs away from the table and stands. Her eyes follow him up.
“I think I’ll eat outside tonight.”
“Why it’s no more than twenty degrees out tonight.”
“Don’t mind,” says Mepps, calmly. “It looks like you have your own plans anyway.” He nods at the gin glass.
Marsha stares into her plate. “Winfield, I—”
Mepps feels a violent urge to throw the glass against the wall. How could she break their promise? Ten years ago, agreeing never to have alcohol in the house again. It was too tempting for Mepps, too risky, and Marsha offered solidarity by not drinking herself. She was the one who insisted he go to AA, turn his life around, find help before it got out of control. They thought they could have children then. But Mepps chose to stay sober even after they found out. So Marsha knows better than to drink gin in front of him. She knows what she’s doing.
I’ll drink if I have to I’ve given up everything for Winfield Mepps and if I want a drink at the end of the day then I will and Winfield must understand that he has to understand he has to know I have nothing here besides him and if he isn’t here for me then something has to be this drink will do just fine it will be just fine right now and it feels good inside it feels good on my lips a little sting in my throat I’ve missed the feeling of it sliding over my tongue and down inside numbing my stomach this is for me this is for me not for him because if he doesn’t care then I won’t care and that’s how I’ll see to it.
Mepps turns toward the door. Marsha watches him go. He slips on his boots and leaves her behind, like she was the gin glass herself, inanimate and emotionless. He opens the screen door and leaves the house without a word. When the door closes Marsha throws the glass and it shatters and splinters across the floor. She puts her head on the table and cries, her shoulders rocking back and forth, her knees bending into her stomach. She cries as loud and as hard as she can, knowing Winfield will never hear her.
Mepps stares into the long black night, eyes glittery with tears. You push yourself to the edge until you become the edge, he thinks. Until it is night and you no longer have to be anything for anyone or feel anything you don’t want to feel. He hears the glass shatter in the kitchen. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t think about what it means. The night is cold and stiff. He stares into the trees. They look like tall, walloping shadows. Marsha’s crying is loud and ugly; he closes his eyes and tunes it out. Mepps wants to feel things for her he can’t. He wants to build but has not time to lay the individual brick—to change what needs to be changed, to cover himself with another man’s skin in order to love her.
He wipes dried tears from his eyes and looks into the sky: no stars tonight. He hears coyotes wailing in the wind. He wants to walk, explore below the trees, and he will, in time. For now he stands on the porch, his food getting cold, Marsha inside reeling with tears.
He thinks of the spirit and wonders if it will return. If he were religious he would say it was God, but he’s not religious. His Father raised him Roman Catholic and burned in him the concept of sin, a concept Mepps will never be free of. His Father whipped him whenever he didn’t memorize Bible verses, and whipped him still when he mispronounced words or names in verses he had memorized. His Father told him that he was alone in this world, a born sinner, and the only thing he could do was get on his knees and beg God for forgiveness. He was hit early mornings outside his home, his forehead pressed against the wood siding. He made no noises and never cried. He just stared ahead at the tree line and thought about wolves and bears and being alone.
Those mornings taught Mepps to draw inward, where he could stay safe and protected. He thought he’d never need to find refuge in another; it was up to him to stay alive. But now, standing on the porch and staring into the trees, he figures he was wrong. That one day you’re forced to believe in something other than yourself.
Mepps reenters the house, stepping over broken glass and sitting at the table. Marsha lifts her head from her hands and looks at him. Her face is red and wet.
“Do you believe in spirits?” he asks her.
“Do I what?”
“Ghost or demons. You believe in that stuff?”
“Do I—?” she looks at her husband and shakes her head in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m asking you.”
“I guess no, not really.”
“Well, I seen one, two weeks ago.”
Marsha can’t remember the last time she saw Winfield like this, talking with his hands and looking at her with wide-awake eyes. She stares at him skeptically, pushing hair from her face and wiping her eyes clean.
“Did you hear? I seen one.”
“I heard you, I heard you.”
“It was dawn so the light wasn’t all that good. But it shined and hissed and moved fast.”
“You think it was a person?”
“That’s the thing,” he says, crossing one leg over the other. “I don’t know what it could’ve been. But it tried to tell me something.”
“Tell you what?”
“I’ve been thinking it over and it’s killing me. I don’t know.”
“You ever think you were just seeing things?”
“That maybe you just thought it up.”
“No,” says Mepps, harshly. “This thing was as real as daylight.”
Marsha sits erect at the table. She closes her eyes and shakes her head weakly.
“Don’t you believe me, Marsha?”
Marsha looks into her husband’s face, looks in a way she hasn’t looked in quite a while: she studies the lines, the stray beard hairs, the imperfect lip that flattens and fuses into his nose. She sees him there, hands in his jacket, looking dazzled and unaware.
“Sure I do, Win. Sure.”
Marsha will wait to tell him her decision. She will sit with Winfield and listen, and not think about leaving.