She heard the saw’s constant angry growl, unfamiliar and suburban. It must be Tuesday. They had rented a house on the eastern end of Long Island, where time distilled into a Rosé-fueled euphoria scented with coconut oil, charcoal, and hydrangea. In Water Mill even the rain smelled good. The buzz and grind of the saw drew nearer, but when she looked out the window there was only greenery bowing and shimmying.
Her three-year-old awoke from her nap crying. Wails that rankled and startled in Manhattan resonated quietly, dully out here. The woman brought her daughter to the window seat; she buried her face in the warm crook of her child’s neck and blew strawberries into her belly. Giggles and cackles replaced whimpering. These are treasurable moments, she thought, the memories I will use to counter strife and sorrow.
Her daughter, nerves raw and unresilient, screamed first. “Shhh,” her mother cooed, “It’s just a silly saw,” and she imitated the sound. But the saw was close and loud. She followed her daughter’s gaze out the window. The woman gasped. The man cut the sound but remained planted, centered in the frame. From his lower eyelid to his jaw a scar guttered the right side of his face. Smooth, hazelnut cheeks flanked red, undulant skin glistening like cooled lava. The little girl, having climbed down from her mother’s lap, scampered away trailing tears and urine. Though conscious of her open mouth and the wet spot on her leg from her daughter’s accident, the woman was transfixed. And so was the gardener. It was probably fifteen seconds that, like summer days, existed outside time. They stared at each other long enough for his downturned eyes to skewer her with guilt. He had just stood there enduring the recoil and shudder of strangers, accepting it as his daily toll.
When her husband came home the woman said, “I did a terrible thing today…” Seeking exoneration, she told him about the gardener. Although she had been shocked by his disfigurement, her reaction was shameful. “Whoa, you’re killing my golf buzz,” he said as he retrieved a bottle of Domaine Ott from the fridge. “Don’t feel bad, the poor guy must get it all the time.” Then he asked whether she thought their daughter would have nightmares. Probably not. The woman distracted the child by bringing her to Flying Point Beach, where she had hunted for shells and waded in the Cut. She had not fallen asleep on the way home nor had she mentioned the man. Yes, she assured her husband, their daughter would fall into that drugged, deep sleep, the purview of innocence. She herself might have nightmares; she was definitely haunted. After the eleven o’clock news ended the woman was still wide-awake. The man’s face loomed in her mind like a car accident. Her husband’s snore reminded her of the saw’s hum. She counted golf balls to no avail. She imagined herself in a plane staring at the clouds. She envisaged the man’s face before the scar. Finally, she slept.
Morning light cantilevered through the blinds’ slats softening the man’s image. His scar, which had looked as if the cheek were cored and the flesh whisked, had paled to an abrasion.
“Mama, you come in here peas,” her daughter beckoned. The mother lay down next to the little girl, who was fingering her favorite blanket decorated with pictures of Russian nesting dolls. “Is the ugy man gonna scare me ‘gain today,” she asked. The woman wondered where her daughter learned the word, “ugly”, had she taught it to her? She vowed never to use subjective descriptive words like pretty, fat, ugly, thin. “Is he, mama?” No. The gardeners came every two weeks; thus, yesterday was their last appointment before the lease was up.
“I have to run to Schmidt’s,” she said to her husband on Friday morning. They were having weekend guests. “Of course you do, because we never have enough food; yet, there’s always so much leftover we could call City Harvest.” The woman conceded she had food angst. “People are starving,” he tsk-ed.
After making the left from 27, she joined the caravan crawling along North Sea. The woman scanned the men who, hoping to find day work, thronged by the side of the road. She craned her neck to see if there was an accident ahead when she saw him. Or his profile, the scar; he was branded like livestock. The man was helping a pregnant woman to her feet. It could be his wife, his girlfriend, his sister—he clearly cared about her, whoever she was. He didn’t just extend a hand; he knelt beside her. Mottled skin, a shade deeper than the man’s, wispy, unkempt hair, and a pained expression belied her youth. Either blood or mud droplets mosaicked the center of her powder blue skirt. She slipped her arm through his and clutched her belly with the other, as if she could keep the baby from falling out. He pointed at something across the street, maybe McDonald’s, and whispered in her ear. The car ahead moved forward, allowing enough space for the couple to pass. She kept her foot on the brake. The man looked to see who had stopped for them. He squinted, the driver was certain, out of recognition; there was no glare. She lowered her window. “Get in,” she said. He waved a finger, “No hablo.” She pointed to the back seat. The woman said something to him in Spanish. It was definitely blood on her skirt. There was a thin gold band strangling her swollen left ring finger. The man didn’t move. The car behind honked. She flicked them the international sign for F.U., then turned to the couple and thumbed toward the passenger door. He nodded. The man had checked his pride for the woman he loved; and perhaps the animosity he felt for the woman in the driver’s seat, who he had seen behind glass, whose eyes had dilated with fear.
The woman took the first left she could and headed for Southampton Hospital. An elderly couple in the pedestrian walkway across from the entrance waylaid them. The man opened the door. “No, no, I’ll drive you.” She pointed to the hospital. He shook his head. He got out. In her rearview mirror she watched him scurry around to open the door for his wife. On the back of the woman’s skirt red puddled and blazed like a sunset. He escorted her the few small steps to the curb, pausing to make sure she was steady, before coming up to the driver’s window. Again they were separated by glass; again she froze. This time her fear merely hiccupped. Still, she flushed with shame. “Gracias,” he mouthed. Juxtaposed with his dignity the man’s scar fainted to a pink streak. “De nada”, which in addition to no hablo and gracias was the only Spanish she knew. The woman glanced at her watch. There was no time to go to Schmidt’s. Her husband would question, might even be annoyed, that after an hour and a half she’d returned empty-handed. The woman could temper his foul mood with a chilled bottle of Rosé. She would tell him that while idling in traffic she decided he was right: buying more food was wasteful, indulgent. He would be satisfied.
A dashboard light signaled that the rear passenger door was open. When the woman went to close it she noticed the bloodstain, feathery like the imprint of a damp sponge. The wipes that she kept to clean up her daughter’s messes succeeded where her memory would fail; they erased any trace of the couple.