Jason Steed’s short-story, “Committers of Nothing,” is the winner of the second annual Lawyerist Short-Fiction Contest.
On our first day in Hinkley my wife, Cory, accused me of sleeping with a woman she’d seen at The Market Place. I was unpacking a box of kitchen appliances. I stood there for a moment, in mute bewilderment. Then I turned and walked out the front door.
I realize, of course, that this was not much of a reaction. I’m a lawyer, after all. Where was my righteous indignation? My scoffing incredulity? She had no evidence to support her baseless allegations!
But I’m a tax lawyer. I never say stuff like that. Instead, I said nothing. I walked out the door and up the road — past the two churches, past the welcome sign, and out of town. I walked for an hour. Then I turned around and walked back.
I knew immediately — before leaving the kitchen, and long before finding myself in the middle of Oregon farmland — that the accusation was a result of our last night with Karl. But what do you say when your wife accuses you of adultery? Seriously. What do you say?
I came home and Cory had gone to bed, and the next day it was like nothing had happened. Then, a week later, it happened again, this time about a woman she’d seen at the park. She made the accusation as she pressed down on one of those apple slicing tools—the kind with the wagon-wheel blade that you line up over the core. She pressed down and the red apple burst into six perfect slices, the core standing naked in the middle, as she said, “It’d be easier on both of us if you’d just admit it.”
But again I said nothing and walked out the door.
Now my walks are a weekly ritual. Cory’s accusations occur like small talk, and I spend my walks thinking mostly about Karl and Liz, and about my wife. About the four of us. About what must’ve gone wrong.
It’s been three months since we moved to Oregon. Three months of almost-weekly accusations. Today it’s Wednesday, a sunny September, and again I’m walking past the two churches, past the welcome sign — a giant slice of tree trunk sitting under a crabapple tree where the corner of a farmer’s field butts up against the Baptists’ lawn. The sign says “Welcome to Hinkley,” the letters burned deep into the weather-beaten wood. The sky is colorless. The faint smell of cut hay.
Today it was about a jogger, her leggings “pink as lemonade.”
The first time we had Karl and Liz over it was spring in Idaho—my first year of law school. This is what I think about while walking in Oregon.
Liz and Cory sat on one sofa, Karl and I on the other, while Karl told stories about the boys he coached on the little league baseball team. Karl was shorter than Liz, with huge forearms and a sandy brown handlebar mustache. When he smiled his cheekbones grew red and pointed, and the tips of his mustache curled in toward his nose.
Liz was plain and younger than Karl. She stood nearly six feet tall and had lusterless, straight brown hair and meaty red hands. When she spoke she put her chin down and looked at you from under her eyebrows, as though you were meant to understand something behind what she was saying.
Sitting next to Liz, Cory was dainty. Her black bob and bird-like shoulders. I can picture her next to Liz, the way she speaks with her palms down, fingers hyper-extended, as though bracing herself against surprises.
That first evening began simply — a few anecdotes, some laughter. Then Cory asked how the Shepards had met, and Liz lowered her chin and looked over to Karl. And it wasn’t until the last possible second that Karl said, “We met at a bar.”
Had Cory left it at that — well, who knows? But she pressed for details, hoping for something quirky or romantic.
“We met at a bar,” Karl repeated. He spoke with his head back, as though he’d told the story too many times. “This little bar in Spokane,” he said. “We went home together, we dated for about six months or so.” Then he leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, and said, “I went and got a divorce and then we got married.”
This sunk in. Then Cory stood up, sat down again, and fidgeted with her shirt hem until Karl started laughing. Cory grew up Mormon in Pocatello. She quit going to church after high school but some of her convictions had intensified instead of fading, as though to compensate for her lack of attendance. She would drink beer but she wouldn’t touch anything with caffeine in it. And curse words were okay, but she wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain — nor could anyone else in her house, which was hard for Karl to remember.
In Idaho, most of this wasn’t too big a deal. But lately, since moving to Oregon, Cory’s quit drinking and reactivated herself. (The Mormon church is next to the Baptists — the two churches I pass every week on my walk.) Last month Cory spent a Saturday cleaning the garage to make room for food storage. She goes to church for three hours on Sundays and buys wheat in five-gallon buckets.
That first night after Karl’s revelation, Karl’s laughter faded before it could become cruel, and we all sat in silence till Liz looked up through her eyebrows at Cory and said, with a slight quiver, “We’ve been married about a year.”
Then Cory shot me a look that said, clearly, How dare you. Karl was my friend, after all. We’d met at 1L orientation. It had been my idea to invite them over, and now Cory’s face said, clearly, How dare you bring these adulterers into my home.
I’ve wondered for weeks now about how I should’ve handled that situation. About what I might’ve said, with the Shepards sitting there — or after they left — to demonstrate that I was not complicit in Karl’s flippancy toward fidelity. But of course, I said nothing. I sat in silence, as Cory shot me that look. And I think Karl and Liz saw the look too, because they didn’t stay long.
A month later, Liz called Cory to invite us over, to “redeem” herself, she said. She apologized, Cory forgave her, and during that second meal the two of them were inseparable — a sinner and her saint. The Shepards rented a small yellow house with a large porch, and after dinner Karl took me outside. It was May, and the sun had set. I remember facing Karl as he spoke, and with the light of the kitchen behind him his face was a shadow.
We chatted about gunners in law school. About taking Professor Hu’s tax class together in the fall. Then Karl said, “You know, Jake, I hope you guys don’t look down on us because of all this.”
Karl was the only person who ever called me Jake, and every time he did I felt disoriented.
“I mean,” he said, “I hope you don’t have a negative impression because of — well, whatever.”
It was the first time I’d seen him straight-faced, and it made the tips of his mustache point out sideways.
“See, the thing is,” he said, as he settled his massive forearms on the porch railing, “I don’t really—I mean—I guess you probably believe in adultery, and the thing is, I don’t.”
He looked at me. Then he continued.
“I just don’t want you to think bad of Liz because of it, you know? I just don’t believe in adultery,” he said. “It’s not my thing.”
He smiled. Then, as though struck with the thought that I might not know what he was talking about, he said, “Because of Cory’s reaction that night and everything, I mean.”
I knew what he was referring to, of course, but I asked what he meant about not believing in adultery. I didn’t get it. And he seemed pleased at the opportunity to explain.
“I mean,” he said, “I don’t think there’s any such thing. The whole construct. I don’t believe in adultery like I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Karl explained that adultery was a lot of cultural mumbo-jumbo — that biologically a man wasn’t meant to mate with one woman for the rest of his life. He said he was twenty-eight and Liz was his third wife — and his other two marriages had ended because of affairs. He declared this as though it were a matter of accomplishment. As though he was single-handedly subverting a social paradigm. And I began to think that maybe he wasn’t just rationalizing his behavior.
He asked how long Cory and I had been married and I said, “Two years.”
“Have you ever cheated?”
“No,” I said. And I admitted I’d never even thought about it.
“C’mon,” said Karl. “Everybody thinks about it.”
But I really hadn’t. I told him so, and Karl said, “Jeezom. How can you do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You just do it, I guess. It’s not that big a deal.”
“Jeezom,” Karl said.
“What about you?” I said. “If you believe so much in mating with all these women, then why do you keep getting married?”
Karl smiled as though he’d been hoping for the question all night. His cheekbones grew red and pointed, the tips of his mustache nearly touching his nose. “Taxes,” he said. “It’s better for taxes.”
He burst out laughing and I joined him. Then his smile relaxed and he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it just seems like the thing to do.”
Then he turned and went inside to get us more drinks.
That was the night Karl discovered my wedding ring. He noticed it just after we talked about adultery. He came back with the drinks and we talked on the porch, in the early dark, and when I set my glass down on the railing Karl cried “Jeezom Crow!” — so loud that a dog started barking.
Karl said it that night and it’s true: my ring’s a monstrosity. Cory’s uncle in Boise is a jeweler — our rings were our wedding gifts. Cory had chosen hers when she was sixteen and it’s a classy little thing. But she was marrying a non-Mormon, so her uncle didn’t travel for the wedding, and I wasn’t given the privilege of input or selection. The rings came special delivery, and mine turned out to be a giant platinum band, three-eighths of an inch wide and covered with tiny baguettes. Clearly Cory’s uncle was purging inventory. The ring is two sizes too big, and we couldn’t get it fitted without doing all sorts of damage. So, for the sake of Holy Matrimony, I quickly formed the habit of keeping a fist or holding the ring on with my thumb.
I told Karl all this as we stood on his porch, and he kept saying, “Jeezom, look at that thing!” Then he said, “Wait—now I get it. That’s why you never think about cheating.”
We laughed and made dumb jokes about balls and chains until we fell into a jovial silence, staring up at the stars. After that night, things were okay between us. Cory and Liz had stayed inside, huddling in whispers. And for the next two years of law school, as though to prove the depth of our friendship, Karl spent every moment coming up with clever ways to thieve my ring from my finger. He waited for me to doze in class. He got me drunk. He came up with crazy handshakes or fine-tuned distractions. Then he would return the ring later, gloating in victory.
In fact, the last night we saw Karl, he was returning my wedding ring.
Out among the Oregon pastures, you can hear a car coming for miles. Huge wheels of hay are spread across the field to my left, and their smell is like an end and a beginning all rolled into one.
I find myself thinking about what these women might look like — the ones I’m supposed to be cheating with. I picture the woman in the park with her smooth brown hair in a ponytail. The woman in pink leggings has short blonde hair, the curls tight against her head as she runs. But imagining these details makes me feel disloyal. So I distract myself with landmarks.
The Chief’s mailbox comes into view as I round the second S-curve. As usual, there’s no sign of the Chief. His mailbox is painted red and stands across the road from a little blue house that is losing its paint. The Chief, so I have heard, is maybe seventy or so. He lectures on Native American history at Hinkley University. He’s not Native American himself, and he isn’t called “the Chief” because of what he teaches. He’s called that because he was the head of the history department — the department “chief” — for 22 years. I’ve never seen him, but his mailbox sits at the top of a hill that leads down into a valley of ongoing pastures, and it is here where I sometimes turn around to go home. On the mailbox, KEN JACKSON is painted in sloppy black lettering.
I step into the ditch by the mailbox where the blackberries are overripe. They fall apart on my tongue. Thorns snag at my pant legs. I hear a car coming and I pretend to look for more berries.
A Mustang — late-sixties, faded-gold — rounds the S-curve. I start to wave, but the Mustang slows as if to stop, so I try to shoo it along with a silent “Thanks anyway.” I don’t need a ride.
The Mustang pulls over just ahead, at the crest of the hill. Reverse lights come on, and the car weaves backward. The car stops and a young woman — brittle brown hair, bronze-skinned — sticks an elbow out the window and looks up at me through big white sunglasses.
“Hey,” she says. “Can you help me?”
I’m not sure what to say. I feel the sun on the top of my head.
“Can you tell me where Mistletoe Road is?” she says, the word mistletoe eliciting a slight whistle from her teeth.
“You’re on it,” I say.
She crinkles her nose and looks in both directions. “I thought it was supposed to be dirt,” she says.
She has duffel bags in the backseat. A folded map and empty Pepsi cans in the front. Her tank-top is tight.
“Oh,” I say, “it does. I mean it is. I mean —” and I shake my head. “What I mean is, the road does turn to gravel, up ahead.”
She considers this, thanks me, guns the engine, and is gone — down the hill and into the valley. And I realize my stomach is jumpy. Is it guilt? I hardly said two words to her. Maybe it’s anxiety. I’m worried about what Cory might say if she’d seen us talking. And I realize I forgot to tell the girl in the Mustang that the road up ahead splits in two.
I step out of the ditch and walk to where the road begins its descent. The Mustang is out of sight. I look at the Chief’s mailbox. Then I hear the faint hiss of tires on the asphalt, growing louder. A mass of birds scatters from a telephone wire like a handful of thrown rocks.
From my perch at the top of the hill I see the Mustang returning. I feel a slight panic. I turn and run back toward town — to make it look like I was walking in that direction. Why am I embarrassed? I slow to a race-walker’s pace, spinning my ring on my finger.
She’s going so fast she can’t stop until she’s well past me, her break lights dusty and weak. I approach the passenger window.
“You’re going to think I’m stupid,” she tells me, “but I can’t figure this out.”
There’s a bluntness in her demeanor. She’s almost certainly a college student, but she has the leathery look of a middle-aged factory worker.
“Hang on a sec,” she says. She shifts into gear and the tires spit rocks from the shoulder as she whips the Mustang around to face her original direction. I haven’t moved, but she’s deftly repositioned me at her window.
She looks up at me. “My sister gave me directions for Mistletoe Road but I can’t find a thing.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I forgot to tell you there’re two roads up ahead.”
“Would you mind,” she says — not really listening — “would you mind maybe showing me where I’m going?”
She moves her shoulders as she speaks, in little shrugs.
I raise one arm to point, saying, “I think Mistletoe’s the one—”
“No,” she says, pulling her shoulders up and smiling. “Actually, I was hoping you could show me?”
What’s happening? It’s like one of those fictional encounters — some other man’s fantasy. I raise my left hand to my chin, hoping she sees my ring. I turn to look at the Chief’s mailbox again. There’s that feeling in my stomach, like when you know you shouldn’t do something.
“Take your time,” she says flatly. And I realize she was only trying to get me to help her. I’m a fool to think it was more.
I agree to help. I walk around the front of the car. The vinyl seat is warm. I pick out space on the floor for my feet, between Pepsi cans. When I look up she’s smiling. She has taken off her sunglasses. And before I can stop myself I say, “I really shouldn’t be doing this. My wife would go crazy.”
She raises her eyebrows. She cocks her head and says, “You’re only giving me directions.” I can’t tell if she’s being playful or mocking me.
She puts the Mustang in gear and spins the tires. Her legs are short. She wears cutoffs and boat shoes. Careless white shoestrings dangling around her bronze ankles.
The wind rushes through the open windows and she drives with one wrist hanging over the steering wheel. She raises her voice over the noise of the wind and the engine. “My name’s Larron,” she says.
“Yeah,” she says, crinkling her nose. “Guys usually call me Larry.”
She smiles, her hair whipping around her face. I ride awkwardly, my palms on my thighs.
“What’s your name?” Larron says.
“Oh, Jacob. Sorry,” I say. We course down the hill and through the valley, approaching the end of the pavement — the fork in the road. Larron goes left without asking me, and when the tires hit the gravel the noise erupts in a roar.
“MY SISTER SAYS WE’RE LOOKING FOR A FIELD OF BUFFALO,” says Larron. She is practically screaming.
“BUFFALO?” I yell at her.
She’s nodding. I think she’s laughing. “BUFFALO! YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE?”
Gray dust swirls from under the Mustang. I shake my head and yell, “NO, I LIVE IN TOWN.” But I’m not sure she hears me.
The gravel road runs up, out of the valley, past a herd of cows, past a farmhouse with a trailer in the front yard. Larron presses the Mustang through the corners, forcing fishtails and kicking up waves of gray dust. Then she pulls the emergency break and we slide sideways, coming to a full stop.
The clouds we’ve created overtake us. The sudden silence presses a cottony hum into my ears. Larron looks at me triumphantly. Then a tension seems to go out of her shoulders. She peers through the dust ahead of us, and with a little shrug she says, “So? What should we do?”
On her side of the road there are two sprawling oak trees by the barbed-wire fence. There are no buffalo. I glance at Larron and she’s looking at my legs, at my hands. She’s looking at my ring.
I feel the sweat of my palms on my thighs. I tell her I haven’t seen any buffalo. We sit in silence. I try to imagine what other men might do in this situation. What would Karl do? What am I doing in a Mustang, with a girl in a tank-top?
The Mustang drops into gear and Larron whips a U-turn over the gravel, and the roaring returns. I sneak a look at her, and she’s shaking her head. Is she disappointed? Irritated? I don’t know what’s happening.
We get back to the pavement and the Mustang comes to a stop again — gently this time. We sit in silence again. Then Larron starts tugging at her tank-top, pulling it away from her skin in clutches.
“Gawd!” she says. “I’m all a mucksweat!”
I have no idea what to say. I don’t want to get out of the car, because I’m three or four miles farther from home than where we started. But I really want to get out of the car.
Larron looks at me, and she waits for me to look at her. When I do, she purses her lips. “I’m really sorry,” she says. “This is probably the last thing you wanna do, going around with some dumb girl looking for buffalo.”
She looks out the windshield. And suddenly I feel sorry for her. She’s so haggard and sunbeaten.
“Did you want to try the other road?” I say.
She looks at me and cocks her head. Then she straightens up. “Naw,” she says, wiping hair from her face. “I’ll take you back to town.”
We hum over the asphalt going seventy, eighty. I move my feet among the Pepsi cans. I rub my palms over my thighs. I’m feeling more confident now, more collected. In the plastic tray by the gearshift there’s a pile of trinkets — bracelets, paperclips, coins. A silver ring shaped like a coiled snake, with fake emerald eyes. The snake is way too large for Larron’s fingers.
I spin my own ring with my thumb and I think about Karl.
The last night we saw Karl it was snowing like crazy. It was Idaho, a week or so before Christmas. Outside, the cars were shelling over in ice. Inside, the kitchen light was yellow, making mirrors of the windows. Final exams were over and Karl and Liz were coming for dinner. Cory was bustling near the oven while I tore up some lettuce.
We weren’t expecting the Shepards till six, but Liz came in with a burst of cold air and Cory quickly gathered her into her arms and said, “Hey hey hey — whoa — what is it?”
At first Liz hunched into Cory’s embrace as though it was exactly what she’d come for, with Cory stretching her chin up to accommodate Liz’s height. But then Liz let out a wail and pulled away.
“It’s Karl, it’s Karl,” she lamented, throwing her head back. She went to the counter and pressed against it, doing a small standing pushup. Then she turned around and said, as though she might collapse with shame, “I think he’s having an affair.”
I put my lettuce down and Cory asked if Liz had seen something.
“No — that’s just it! I have no idea,” she said, flinging her red hands in all directions. She stopped and looked at the linoleum. “I just know he is,” she said. “He has to be.”
Then Karl came in with another burst of cold air. He was yelling before the door closed. “Liz, Jeezom Crow! I said I didn’t do anything!”
Liz shuddered. They stood there for a moment, tensed — as though they might rush at each other with claws or kisses — until finally Karl turned away and looked at Cory, then at me.
“Sorry, guys,” he said. He shook his hands at his sides, as though to uncoil his forearms. He looked at the ceiling. “She thinks I’m cheating on her.”
I started to say something, but Liz took a step toward Karl’s back and screamed, “You BASTARD! How the hell am I supposed to know? You’re a cheater! You do it all the time! You’re a regular committer of adultery!”
But Karl was waving her off, his mustache pulled thin with denial. “Liz, Elizabeth,” he was saying, moving toward the door. “You know damn well—”
“How many times, Karl? How many times have you committed—”
“I’M A COMMITTER OF NOTHING!” Karl bellowed. “There’s no such thing,” he said. He held the door open and cold air flooded in, permeating the room with its metallic smell.
“ADULTERY, KARL!” Liz was screaming. “YOU’RE A COMMITTER OF ADULTERY!”
But Karl was outside, the door sucking shut behind him. Then, after Liz went silent, he poked his head back inside and said, “I’m a committer of nothing, Liz. And anyway, hon, so are you.”
And he was gone.
Maybe two hours later, after Liz had left, Cory found my ring on the counter near the door, where Karl must’ve left it. I had noticed earlier that it was missing, but I was so used to Karl stealing it that I hadn’t thought much about it. He must’ve been planning to celebrate another victory over dinner.
Cory handed me the ring without saying anything. And that night in bed she suggested we should leave Idaho. She cried and knelt by the bed and said prayers about it. She wished our lives could be the same as they were before we met the Shepards. She said Idaho had nothing to offer us, and she complained about the cold.
The Mustang takes the hill up to the Chief’s place without hesitation. And as we pass the Chief’s mailbox I catch a glimpse of something moving in the driveway. I spin to see, out the back window, a little gray man, shirtless and square-chested, crossing the road to check his mail. But as the Mustang enters the first S-curve he is lost behind the landscape.
I face forward again and Larron looks at me with raised eyebrows. She’s been silent since the fork in the road, driving with her hands at ten and two.
We come around the second S-curve, nearing the welcome sign, and I point at it, raising my other hand for the door handle. “You can just drop me here,” I say. I try to act casual but I’m starting to feel panicky and disjointed again.
“Are you sure?” she says.
“Yeah, this is fine. Here by the sign,” I say.
Maybe it’s the car ride after so many weeks of walking. I feel unsettled. Like the world has moved underneath me. I see these people in my life. This sweaty bronze woman sitting next to me. Karl Shepard. The Chief. Liz and my wife, Cory. I know something is wrong with my marriage. And I’m filled with a fulsome sense of urgency. To get home — to gather Cory into my arms. To heal whatever it is that wounds us.
Larron coasts to a stop by the welcome sign. I start to open the door but she says, “Hey, listen.”
I turn and she has shifted. She’s pulled one leg up onto the seat, so she can face me squarely.
“Listen,” she says again. “You’re sweet. Thanks for your help.”
There’s no flirtation, but no bluntness either. It’s like we’re sharing a moment of unaffected reality. And I think maybe she’s apologizing, so I lean forward and say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
I’m feeling good about myself. I do not believe in adultery. I see how easy it can be — how we’re all just making choices, and how easily choices can be made. And I feel like I’m making the right choice.
Larron takes my hand in both of hers and rests it on her thigh. She says, “You’re really sweet — you tell your wife that.”
She’s smiling. Her hands are smooth around mine, like a pillowcase. I take a moment to feel her touch. Then I slide my hand out from between hers and say, “Thanks.”
The coolness of this new world seeps through me. There was something in her touch — something liquid, like an end and a beginning — and I let it wash over me. I stand up, out of the Mustang. I shut the door. She makes another U-turn and she’s gone.
I feel like I’ve passed a test. I breathe deeply. The welcome sign squats like an altar beneath the crabapple tree. I walk past the two churches, down our street, and through our front door.
There is something new and strange inside of me. Cory meets me in the living room. Her little bird shoulders. She’s been crying. She tells me she doesn’t know what she was thinking. She speaks with her palms down, fingers hyper-extended. “Let’s start over,” she says.
But I know what’s happened, and now it overtakes me like a gray cloud. I want to gather Cory into my arms, but I know that I won’t.
She tells me I won’t ever have to go walking again.
“What?” I say.
There’s a cottony hum in my ears.
She takes me by the hand and leads me to the kitchen. “Jac—” she starts to say. But she stops. All I can do is shake my head. I know what has happened. I made a choice. I knew what I was doing. I try to look at my wife but she’s not looking at me. She’s pulling at my hand, has bent herself over, is saying something from far away.
On the counter I see an apple split into slices, the core exposed.
From far away my wife says — what is she saying?
“Your ring, Jacob. Jacob! Where is your ring?”
But I cannot answer her. I do not believe I will ever know what to say. All of us make choices. And I know now that our lives can never be the same.
Featured image: “a dirt road with mailbox” from Shutterstock.