Estelle simply hadn’t considered it. Why would she? How could she? While Ike was still alive, her sins still had an enactor, her silenced thoughts a catalyst. But now that Ike is gone?
“When?” she asks.
“Yesterday,” Reginald tells her. The collar of his blue shirt swallows his thin neck, the gold P.D. pins chomping like teeth.
“Yea,” he touches the back of his head and the stubble there, “that’s the ironic thing. Well I guess it ain’t ironic but, he was hit by a car. Walking his dog at night. Didn’t wear one of them protective vests. With the reflectors on it? You know the kind.”
To Estelle, it’s the finish line of a marathon she was never qualified to run. Not because Ike is dead, but because neither of them are alive anymore. The injustice somehow felt worse when one was breathing and the other wasn’t. But now, with both men gone, her mind surmounts some opaque obstacle in the path of equilibrium, scales balance; even more so than when Ike was released from prison all those years ago. Prison hadn’t solved anything. She doubts if it ever does for anyone.
“I thank you for coming here to tell me.” She grips the handle on her screen door.
He takes his hat off, rubs it between two fingers.
“Mrs. Kline, I wanted to ask you something else as well.”
She nods, looking somewhere far beyond him.
“I know what this means to you,” he shakes his head. “I don’t mean it to sound like that, like something good or bad. I just mean, my pop was so close to this case. I know so much, about you and Stan and Ike.” He clears his throat. “And my mom of course.”
“You’ve always been a very sweet boy, Reginald.”
He laughs. “I think my mom is the only one who calls me that.”
“I never had children, but I do know your mother.”
He turns to his squad car and his partner sitting there, impatient and whapping his thumb to some invisible beat.
“What is it?”
He doesn’t turn back. “Do you want to see the body? I know it’s morbid, but it’s not like Ike had any family. There ain’t going to be a wake or nothing, not that you’d want to pay respects. I guess,” he faces her and she notices the flat, wrinkle free pallet of his brow, pressed with sincerity but unblemished by time. “If it’d bring you some measure of closer, I can get you in.”
A hand at her mouth, Stan would chide her for the small bite marks on her forefinger when she was nervous.
“Is that normal?” Her voice waivers.
He stiffens, the cop coming through. Despite his age, too many generations of blue pump his heart, too many badges and citations hang in his memories. He’ll make detective like his father, sooner too if he avoids the old man’s Johnny Walker habit. He has better friends, of that they are all certain. “I wouldn’t say it was normal, no. But then, nothing about this situation is normal.”
She agrees and leaves with him, taking only her small handbag and a picture of Stan. Reginald takes her arm as she negotiates the concrete steps. It’s her vertigo, she tells the young man, small in her youth but ballooning in severity along with her age. The world never quite sits still anymore, something’s always moving, always falling away.
The officers drive her to the precinct while the leaden Alabama heat presses on the car’s struggling air conditioner. Reginald tries to talk to her a few times, but she is silent, and after awhile the three of them just watch the southern live oaks scroll past and the children play in sprinklers.
Outside the stone precinct walls, a brown dog lays atop a chain leash, licking his paws. A near empty water bowl rests beside his flopped right ear.
It isn’t Estelle’s first time in a police station. She’s seen the calm flurry of activity before, the measured balance between urgency and boredom. It reminds her of what Stan said about combat, but only reversed; the long uneventful days, the horror filled black nights.
“I’ll take you over to the ME’s office in a bit. It’s just across the lot,” Reginald says.
He is kind and quick. Once at the office he walks her down the steps to the morgue, opening the door and helping her through before waiting in the shadows.
Like stone, Ike’s skin, scaled as though braised, a left arm torn and broken open but with petrified blood. The slab below extends past his head, but his feet hang over. It could be an alter, she thinks, an offering to silence. Or maybe to her husband, to Stan, Ike’s body finally there, finally lifeless. It’s definitely Ike though. She couldn’t forget the cleft eyebrow, the weak chin. She remembers the anger. She remembers the violence.
“It made my dad’s career,” Reginald says from the darkness lurking behind her. “Bringing him in.”
She does not approach Ike, the body. Was he even a he anymore?
“It wasn’t just him,” she tries to find her smile there in the dark.
“Sorry. I know. Stan was there too.”
“Of course he was. They were friends.” She listens to her echoing steps. “Isn’t that right Ike? You and Stan were friends.”
She thinks that may scare the boy, a crazy old lady talking to a corpse. But it doesn’t. She’d forgotten he is a cop. And it doesn’t matter how young, a cop knows death better than all but a soldier.
“Friends don’t do that to each other. Friends don’t kill.” Reginald’s voice joins the hollow sound of her footsteps.
And then her balance fades, a halo forming around the pale light above Ike’s body. Reginald rushes and grabs her elbow, propping her up. It’s this damn vertigo, she tells him again. There’s nothing that can be done for it.
It’s okay, he says, they can leave whenever she wants. He was never sure this was a good idea. He just thought it right to give her the choice.
They walk out together, arms linked like to-be newlyweds without a religion to consecrate them.
“Officer,” an older man calls after them once they’ve passed back through the precinct. His suit is ill-fit around the waist.
Reginald’s partner is still in the car, still tapping his thumb, entertaining a beat she cannot hear. She lowers herself into the backseat while Reginald excuses himself to talk to the man.
The spider-webbed protective screen splinters the officer’s entrapped eyes from the rearview. There are creases there, long fractured wrinkles no man his age should have to endure.
“He’s not allowed to do this ya’ know.”
She adjusts the bag on her lap and twists away from his eyes. Outside her window another squad car pulls up, officers emerge with young black boys in chains.
The partner pauses and they listen to the boys and the officers and the ageless inequity of The South.
“I told him it was a bad idea. Told him he’s asking for disciplinary going to get you.”
“His father and I had history.”
“I know your history.” He adjusted the gun belt on his waist. “Robbing banks ain’t no history. Don’t get you any special treatment far as anyone is concerned.”
“A man can have redemption.”
A struggle, the cops wrangle the boys into the precinct. One boy in particular, he’s thin but strong, arches his back until the low slung pants on his waist fall away and he loses his balance on the tangle of his own fashion.
“Not in my world he can’t.”
“They’ve all paid.” Then, “we’ve all paid something.”
He half-turns his head towards her, still not making eye contact. “Reggie’s dad never paid for shit. Just because your dad’s a judge and you’re a cop shouldn’t mean you get off that easy and it especially shouldn’t mean you get rewarded.” He shakes his head and laughs, bitterly. “You should feel that more than anyone, lady. Your bill was the highest out of all of them. Other than your old man, I mean.”
She doesn’t say anything, watches the police drag the boys across the same steps she had just been helped down. The dog barks and wrestles against his tie, leaping until the chain digs into his throat and stifles his voice to a yelp.
One of the officers notices their car. The partner rolls down the window.
“Whose dog is that?” the officer asks.
“Dead perp,” Reginald’s partner says.
“Looks healthy,” he yells over the barks.
“Whatever. They’re gonna put her down.”
“Shame, that’s a nice looking dog.”
The partner waves and rolls up the window. The dog keeps at it.
“I’ll take her,” she says.
“You’ll take who?”
“The dog. I’ll take the dog.”
Reginald appears from the precinct. He takes his time walking down the steps. He too spends a moment looking at the dog.
“Lady, you ain’t owed shit.”
Reginald joins them.
“Told you you were going to eat shit for this,” the partner says.
“Fuck off.” Reginald turns to Estelle through the gate, “Sorry for the language Mrs. Kline.”
She pulls her bag into her chest. “May I ask you a question?”
“Yea,” he shifts back. “Yea, anything.”
“May I have his dog?”
Reginald startles, as though he only just now hears the dog’s cries.
“It was Ike’s dog.”
“I already told her no,” his partner says.
She slaps the grate and both young men jump. “No sir.” Her voice catapults from her mouth. “You told me I was not owed anything. Which is false. The world is owed to me. It’s owed to everyone. You just have to be willing to take it. And I always take what’s mine.” She addresses Reginald directly. “A dog bears no fault of its owner. I will take her, if you will let me. If money is the issue, I can take care of that too.”
He nods, tells her he’ll see what he can do but it shouldn’t be a problem. They pull away and on the short ride back to her house, he’s already made the call. Reginald drops her off and says he’ll be back to drop the dog off within the day.
A week later, she invites Reginald’s mother, Helen, over for tea. They speak about the weather, and about the president, whom they both think is doing a poor job of running the country. Within the guts of their first long pause, Estelle gets up and lets the dog out into the backyard.
“Reginald told me about that dog,” Helen says.
Estelle closes the screen but leaves the heavy backdoor open. The dog runs to its hole, the one it’s been digging for hours. Of course Ike’s dog would find it. She should’ve assumed that before she even brought her home.
“You’ve raised quite a handsome son, Helen.”
“At times,” Helen tilts her head, wandering in her thoughts, “he reminds me too much of his father. It makes me hate and miss Tom all at the same time.”
The dog circles the hole, sniffs its depths, and then climbs in. She read somewhere that dogs don’t do their business where they sleep. She knew the same wasn’t true for humans. “All sons bear the scars of their father’s inadequacies.”
“Estelle, I wanted to talk to you about Ike.” Helen sips tea Estelle knows has gone cold. “I don’t know how I feel about it so I can’t begin to imagine what you’re thinking.”
“It’s not about thinking.” The dog settles in the hole, rubs the side of her face into the dirt or against what she’s found beneath. Estelle will have to name her at some point, have to make her real. “What we did, Helen, that was all the thinking I could tolerate for a lifetime. Everything since then has just been acting, pretending.”
Helen pulls her pocketbook from the floor, something heavy weighing it down. She uses two hands to place it on the table. She digs through, producing a yellowed photograph and pressing its creases until it’s flat on the floral print tablecloth.
“I want to give you this before I leave. I’ve had it forever, but hadn’t looked at it again until I heard Ike was finally dead. Now that he’s gone, that all three of them are, I wanted to destroy it. But I thought you ought to see it first.”
Estelle leans over to look, catches a glimpse of something metal in the handbag. “The state fair.”
“Of course.” Helen laughs. “We were so young.”
“No we weren’t.” Estelle walks around the table, picks up the picture and stares at the cold yellow eyes of her dead husband and his two best friends. Stan, Ike, and Tom, all three of them smile with high-waist pants and short ties. In the background, a tilting Ferris wheel slumps to one side.
“I know it’s been forever,” Helen says, gathering her things, sensing her time to leave is imminent. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry.”
“It was the only solution that worked, that kept Stan out of trouble and Tom from sacrificing his career,” Estelle waves the picture in her hand, almost fanning herself. “I may have always done the same thing.”
“No you wouldn’t have.” Helen drapes her bag over her wrist. “We couldn’t have known Ike would’ve done that.”
“Everyone knows a trapped dog will fight for his life.” She walks over to the waste bin and tosses the picture in. “That it’ll kill anyone in its way to escape. We knew.”
“It was the money. If Ike had only told us where the money was, we could have all made it work.” Helen says with her own cold yellow eyes staring through Estelle.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was about finding trust.” Estelle straightens the creases in her dress, brings herself rigid. “And four people can balance trust better than five.”
“Or so we thought.”
Helen leaves it at that. She doesn’t say what they both know, that they did end up with four people, just the wrong four. But balance eluded them still. Even after Tom’s liver finally gave way and there was just the three of them, Helen, Estelle and Ike, left alive. No closure ever sought them out. No peace is ever found in odd numbers.
They hug and Estelle sees her to the door, kissing both of her cheeks, the way the French do. She watches her from the doorway as she saddles into her 1960 Ford coupe, a gift from Tom. She doesn’t wait for her to drive away.
Ike’s dog meets Estelle in the yard. She pats the dog’s stomach. She’ll need a name. Maybe something Greek, Hera, or what about Roman? Yes, that’d be perfect. She’ll call her Augusta, and absent a man, she will inherit the empire.
She tosses a blackened stick towards the fence and Augusta hustles after. Estelle walks to the hole.
She knows what she will find. Estelle has dug it out before, moved it even though no one but her and Stan ever knew where it was. When she arrives, and the plastic edge, tattered from the dog’s imprecise digging, flaps from its tomb, there is no hesitation in her belly, no immediacy to bury her shame.
Augusta returns, scratching again at the dirt. Estelle lets her extra paws unveil the last of it. Without much more trouble, Estelle pulls free the first of many items entombed there.
The bills are all still intact, though a few have ripped from the dog’s claws. But overall, the bag has preserved them well. Beneath the first she sees the second, shrink-wrapped and still tightly bound together even after all this time. Four more huddle below those.
In forty years, she’s only needed to exhume two; such is each bag’s value.
She meant what she said, about knowing, about the entropy caused by the havoc of greed, of people and their desire to kill. Helen can’t hide behind naiveté. It had been her idea, to frame Ike. She had the most to lose of course, her husband had just made detective and there he was covering up a bank robbery for his two childhood friends. But Helen never understood greed the way Estelle did. That’s why the money had to always remain hidden, from all of them. It would be her and Stan’s reward, for protecting Tom and Helen, from Ike, from themselves. At least, that’s what they had planned.
Augusta scratches her ear in rhythm with Estelle’s rubbing before darting back to the house. She barks at the backdoor until Estelle sees Helen, silhouetted in the frame, the waning afternoon light burning the tip of her nose orange and glinting off top of her husband’s 9mm service handgun at her waist.
“With Ike gone, you were the only one left.” She says through the screen door.
Augusta’s head aligns with the ground, a snarl replacing the lapping tongue that has until now been her only form communication. How strange, that Ike’s dog should be the one here in the final hour, the last defender of her wretched life.
“I thought you knew.” Estelle stands, wipes the dirt from her wrinkled hands. “After all of these years I just assumed you knew Stan and I had the money all along.”
Helen pushes open the screen door, rusty hinges whine against the warped and weathered wood frame.
“Stan always loved you so damn much. I should’ve figured he’d make sure you were taken care of.” She looks down at the gun and the growling animal at her feet. “And no. I assumed Ike had it. Thought that was why he left us alone all these years since he’s been out.”
“No.” Estelle closes her eyes, lets the wave of nausea and vertigo lap against the back of skull. She opens them again. “Ike had no more use for us, never knew it was us that called the police. Your Tom was already dead when he was released after serving his twenty-five, and the money he thought confiscated a lifetime ago.”
“I guess in a way it was.” Augusta’s low growl boils to barking. “I wish I didn’t have to do this. But that was my Tom’s money too, at least a third of it. It just isn’t fair that you got to keep it for all these years.”
Estelle shakes her head, the vertigo is gone, anger bringing the blessed equilibrium so long denied to her. “It was never Tom’s. Keeping your mouth shut isn’t the same as putting your neck on the line. I paid the highest cost. My Stan. The money was the least of it.”
Helen pulls the hammer back. “That may be true. But with Tom gone I have to look after Reginald. This is his inheritance now.”
“And you know I can’t let you do that.” Estelle steps atop the hole, straddling it, guarding her land.
“Don’t make me do this, Estelle.”
Spiked hair, matted and dirty but enraged, sprouts from Augusta’s back. Estelle lowers her glasses, lets them sway from her neck and stares down Helen from the twin barrels of her stalwart eyes. “And I’d say the same to you, you incompetent old dullard.”
In the fading Alabama heat, a gun fires and a dog charges and two old women fight over one last plot of dirt.