Karen Shepard

More than one of the town residents said that the dog had stayed with Brenda Leroy until the ambulance arrived, that Pete Geary, who called 911, found the dog sitting on her chest, that Scott Hernandez, the first response officer, had to lift the dog off her, and that tugging on the leash had yielded only resistance. In retellings, this was a part of the story that got furrowed brows and hands to chests, yet some felt the detail to be implausible. After all, no one knew how much time had passed between her being hit and being discovered when Pete was driving home from his shift half an hour early so as to make the tip-off of his daughter’s basketball game at the high school. It had been 6:30 pm on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in this New England college town. The night was clear.

She had, apparently, been walking her dog, that Australian shepherd mix she had rescued against most of her friends’ advice five years earlier. Her life, they had pointed out, was already a house of cards: one boy, nineteen, who she had to agree came with his own brand of parental challenges; a double mortgage on a house that had once been an actual chicken coop bought at the height of the market; her health problems—diabetes and chronic back pain—which had meant one job after another over the last two decades. You have dogs, she’d countered when her friends had argued against her getting one. Amy Price had answered, “But we have help.” Brenda knew help meant husbands, which Brenda did not have, had never had, and, though she was only forty-two, believed she would never have. She had thanked them for their advice and returned to the shelter the next day to sign the papers. 

The car, the police department concluded based on two rivets found at the scene, was a late-model Honda. Some suggested this investigation might be beyond the crack capabilities of the local police force. More than a few residents, owners of late-model CR-Vs or Accords, scanned their brains for where they’d been Tuesday evening. Could they have hit somebody and not known it? they asked themselves before dismissing the possibility. It was conceivable, the police announced, that whoever had hit Brenda Leroy had done so unawares. Lisa Miller called her husband as soon as she heard. “Are you in the Odyssey?” she asked. “Were you driving down Tipton Lane at five or six?” Fred Miller said what he always said when faced with his wife’s mild, usually harmless, hysterics: The big picture, please. Paint the big picture.

When she was done repeating what she’d heard from Sarah Hughes, who had heard from Abigail Bronkowski, who had a police scanner and whose father was a volunteer fireman, Fred Miller took a breath and asked if his wife was really suggesting that her husband of twenty-two years might’ve hit a woman with his car, left her in the road, and kept driving.

Lisa wondered if he might’ve thought it was a pothole or a branch.

“A branch?” he said. He told her he was hanging up now and would see her at home, and she sat with the phone to her ear long after he was off, defensive and grim about the way her anxieties were dismissed in their long and otherwise happy marriage.

Scott Hernandez had held the dog’s leash while the paramedics stabilized Brenda’s back and neck and loaded her into the ambulance. After they’d driven away, the dog had whined quietly and licked at Scott’s hand. He was the shape and size of an Australian shepherd, with the long, layered fur, but had the blocky head of a Lab. Scott would’ve said he didn’t like dogs much, but this was a belief born more from childhood disappointments than actual sentiment. He’d had an anxious mother and a father ill-equipped to deal with those anxieties. His mother had resisted the children’s desires for a dog, and his father had gone along. What would happen when the dog died or got sick? She could tell them what would happen: they’d be miserable, and she couldn’t stand that. Scott and his sister had appealed to their father; he had regarded them sadly, but shrugged, conceding without an argument, and Scott had learned the small sad ways that marriage could eat away at a person.

So he had not expected the pleasure he felt at the dog’s warm tongue against his palm. He headed up the road to notify Brenda’s boy, who, he knew from his wife, a friend of Brenda’s from aerobics classes at the Y, was home for the holiday. Jesse was twenty-four; he had lived with his mother, unable to bring himself to leave her to her own devices, until that October, when he’d moved to a town an hour away. He’d been gone less than a month.

By then, it still wasn’t yet seven but had been dark for hours. The street was quiet, garage doors lowered for the duration. A few houses already sported Christmas lights. Most would be put up over the Thanksgiving weekend. It was a neighborhood of ranch houses and Colonials. There was more than one Children at Play sign. Basketball hoops over garage doors, pitching nets in front yards. Driveways were short and blacktopped. In the spring, touch-me-not impatiens would be the flower of choice around the bases of mailbox posts. Most of the husbands and wives on the block had grown up in town. Scott had known almost all of them since he was a boy.

The dog’s tags jingled. “Nearly home,” Scott said. He could see Brenda’s house up ahead. To his wife and their mutual friends, he often expressed sympathy for her. A difficult situation, he would say. Caught some rough luck. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. But a part of him believed her situation to be more her fault than not, and therefore deserving of pity more than compassion. Any number of them had been dealt a crap hand; it was what you did with it that made you who you were. It would take him months to get the images of her in the road out of his head, but he had to admit that he had not been surprised that it was her lying there.

He was not looking forward to ringing her bell. He stopped and the dog stopped with him, expectant and optimistic. He patted the shepherd’s head and offered his hand again as if it held something the animal had always wanted.

Alex Ripton called home from the ambulance. He’d been an EMT with the Village Ambulance Service for six months and the others still gave him grief about how often he called his wife. He was unfazed by their teasing. She’s my best friend, he told them. Hearing her voice is the best part of my day. They’d laugh loudly, and Alex would smile and continue to say the things he felt.

He’d been married for nine months to the only girl he’d ever dated. This would be their first Thanksgiving as a married couple, and they were hosting both sets of parents and all their siblings. He’d sat behind her in ninth-grade English and had fallen in love with the back of her head. When he’d told his boss that detail, his boss had stared at him and then asked what the hell that even meant. Alex had just shrugged and told him that if he didn’t know, he couldn’t help him.

He wasn’t going to make it home in time for dinner after all, he said from the bench seat in the speeding ambulance. He watched his partner record Brenda Leroy’s stats. They had to go to Central with this one. He wasn’t supposed to share any details, but none of the paramedics paid attention to that rule, so he told her what he knew.

Jane Ripton texted her book club, and that was the way most of the town found out, twelve women armed with cell phones and information. Amy Price was one of those women, though she texted no one but her husband. Jesse would need help, she wrote, and she got to Brenda’s minutes after Scott. Through the picture window at the front of the house, she could see him and Jesse standing in the living room. She didn’t ring the bell; no one ever did. She knocked twice, businesslike as usual, and walked right in.

Over the next few days the town talked of almost nothing else. The local papers covered the story, telling residents almost nothing they didn’t already know. The state police were involved. They had interviewed, fruitlessly, all the residents of Tipton Lane more than once. Brenda was in a coma and on life support. And when the papers used the phrase “neurologically devastated,” many repeated it as if they had thought of it themselves.

Only Carol Li, who shared a driveway with her neighbors, Bert and Penny Misko, knew that the front fender of the Miskos’ car, a late-model Honda CR-V, had, at least from her kitchen window in the early morning light three days after the accident, looked both damaged and freshly washed. She couldn’t remember if it had been in the driveway the night of the accident or the day afterward, and if it had, she couldn’t remember if it had been damaged in any way. So when she’d told the two officers who’d interviewed her that she knew nothing, she had not felt herself to be lying.

Carol Li was a Chinese lesbian who had moved here less than two years ago from Manhattan. She’d been hired as an assistant VP at the college, where until recently Bert Misko had worked as a locksmith. Her yard sported raised garden beds filled with organic radishes and kale. Theirs featured a decorative wishing well and campaign signs for Republican candidates who didn’t stand a chance in a town like this. The Miskos liked Carol’s chickens. They reminded Bert of the ones his father, a Czech immigrant, had kept. Recently, Carol had been finding Bert in her backyard, sitting on a three-legged stool next to her coop, watching them. Penny had been embarrassed, telling her husband of fifty-eight years that Carol didn’t want an old fool sitting in her yard, but Carol had assured them both it was fine; he wasn’t hurting anyone.

Carol thought Penny looked like the lifelong drinker she was rumored to be and felt sorry for Bert. Based on the recyclables, Penny’s drink of choice seemed to be gin, and based on what Carol could hear through open windows in the summertime, Penny was a mean drunk, spilling over with resentments and grudges. As far as Carol could tell, Bert never left his wife to rage away on her own, never quit the house until she calmed down, and never retreated behind a closed door, but his own voice was always too quiet for Carol to hear. Once, Carol had looked out her kitchen window and seen Penny sitting on her back stoop, a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other, a woman worn out by the gap between what she’d hoped for and what she’d gotten. Carol had recognized the exhaustion of keeping yourself protected from what the world threw at you. And this might have been the other reason she hadn’t, at first, told the police what she had seen.

But then she had. The town claimed to be shocked by the arrests, but most confided that they’d always known Penny Misko would end up doing something like this. She’d always been a liar and a drunk; it was not hard to imagine that she could leave a neighbor in the road not twenty feet from her front door, could listen to the ambulance arrive from the comfort and darkness of her own home, could convince her husband to lie not once, but three times to the police, and could claim, even after having been caught, her innocence. She’d most likely been drunk. Didn’t she have those previous two DUIs? Poor Bert had always been cowed by her.

The more compassionate suggested that maybe she hadn’t known she’d hit someone, but they’d been dismissed. The car’s windshield had been replaced! The police who’d retrieved it from the body shop said the damage was “consistent with something large striking it.” Something like Brenda Leroy’s head. The Miskos had left her in the street, and they’d sat there at their kitchen table listening to the ambulance come and go, and they’d lied, lied, and lied again. And Brenda was their neighbor. She’d known them her whole life. Penny had worked with Brenda’s mother at the sleeping bag factory. Penny Misko was a terrible person. Not guilty? they said. Please.

Jesse Leroy had spent the better part of his childhood tending to a mother who refused to tend to herself. He’d wake to find her on the kitchen floor, in diabetic shock. Her back would go out, and he’d carry her to her bed or the sofa, help her eat, retrieve things she’d dropped. Some years she’d spent more time in the hospital than out. Friends would put him up to keep him out of foster care. He’d move from house to house, trying to be invisible, gratitude and rage filling his insides at these homes with their two parents and squabbling siblings, their full refrigerators and well-made beds. He could not yet understand that the picture those families presented to him might not have been complete, that rescuing him might have allowed them to keep their own fault lines at bay.

So he felt his whole life had been like the last several weeks: sitting in a plastic scoop chair by his mother’s bed. Other people came and went. A lawyer produced papers Jesse hadn’t remembered existed, a health care proxy, a living will, a power of attorney. An estranged aunt, a distant cousin, doctors whose specialties he could never keep straight. The same friends who had taken him in. Some brought food or hope, walked the dog or tendered advice. Especially Amy Price. Every time Jesse managed to take a break from the hospital and drive home for a few hours, it seemed Amy had been there. The house had been vacuumed, the garbage had been taken out, lasagna was in the oven, the porch light was on. Jesse liked her, always had, so he couldn’t say why he could barely bring himself to say hello, why he couldn’t offer thanks or gratitude.

He and his mother had always been a planet unto themselves, so when one of the doctors, apparently the neurologist, began to speak to him about removing his mother from life support, Jesse’s instinct, like that of a stubborn horse, was to set his feet and resist.

The doctor spoke across her in her hospital bed, and it seemed so wrong. Hadn’t the nurses been telling him that she could hear him, that he should read to her, talk to her? Didn’t it seem wrong to be talking about this as if she weren’t lying between them, as if she were already dead? But he had been humiliated by people like this doctor—teachers or principals, managers or store owners—his whole life, and he’d been working to still his rage in the face of them, and so he said nothing as the doctor talked about her lack of improvement, her lack of brain activity, about the very, very clear unlikelihood of her ever coming out of this.

What Jesse said was that he would think about it. What he didn’t tell the doctor was that he and his mother had had an argument that Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and to end it she had grabbed the leash and said she was going to walk the dog; they would talk when she got back. So, no, Jesse thought, he would not be removing his mother from life support. That was something he could not do.

Carol Li found Bert Misko in her garage a few days after the Miskos’ arraignment. She’d seen the newspaper photo of the couple standing in court, looking familiar and unrecognizable at the same time. The trial was set for April. They’d been released on bail.

She hadn’t seen either of them since the arrests. The police had told her the source of the tip about their car would be confidential, but even Carol knew how this town worked. Yet Bert seemed pleased to see her.

She didn’t know what to say. She was sorry? Was she sorry?

He smiled at her.

“I’ve been thinking about you guys,” she finally said. It was true.

He nodded. “I know,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about you, too.”

It was a strange conversation. They regarded each other for a moment, and then he said he had to get to work; there was a lot to be done. He headed across the yard to his front door.

Jesse had not meant to get as upset with his mother as he had that Tuesday evening. Over the years, they had developed a kind of parallel play, like an old married couple, and this time it had been the usual resentment and anger at her way of saying one thing and indicating its opposite. Have your own life, she was always saying. Never leave me, she was always making clear. That Tuesday it had been her supposed enthusiasm over his new job and new apartment. She was so glad, she kept saying, that he had finally gone out on his own. She’d lit a cigarette and was blowing it out the back door, which she’d cracked open a couple of inches. The cold air crisped the kitchen. He was sitting at the small Formica table that Amy Price had given them when she had married and gotten a new one. The dog was at his feet.

“Why don’t you just smoke in here?” he said, though he knew why she didn’t. She wanted to believe she didn’t smoke at all, and a house that smelled like cigarettes made that harder.

“I’m not finishing it,” she said, stabbing it out against the frame and flicking it into the yard.

“That’s the fourth one you haven’t finished,” he said. He didn’t know why he said the things he did. Or maybe he did. It had been hard in the new town, at the new job, in the new apartment. It had been a month, but he still got lost making deliveries; his boss still yelled at him, wanting to know if he had any brain at all. The friend he was staying with was a high school friend who had recently graduated from college and was already making sounds about Jesse finding a place of his own. Jesse had thought he was moving toward something, but the gap between the world and him just seemed to be getting wider.

She opened a jar of olives and ate a few standing by the fridge. “Well,” she finally said, “I’m glad you’re moving on.” She put the jar back in the fridge. “I was beginning to think I’d be taking care of you the rest of my life.”

And Jesse had known she was baiting him, and that his leaving had been hard on her. He knew she was lonely. But none of what he knew had kept him from saying what he’d said: that it didn’t matter where he lived, that he’d be taking care of her until the day she died.

So when he eventually gave permission for her to be removed from life support, and against all odds she kept breathing on her own, but showed no other improvement, he figured that was about exactly what he deserved.

That Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Bert had been in his reading chair in the front room when Penny got home from teaching her four o’clock Senior Aquacise class at the Y. Recently, she’d felt little waves of relief every time she came home to discover him safe and sound. She knew she shouldn’t leave him alone, but she couldn’t afford at-home care, and a nursing home was not an option. So what was she supposed to do? Sit and stare at him all day long?

She knew she needed to take him to the doctor; she’d made an appointment weeks earlier but had canceled it. She didn’t need a doctor to tell her what she already knew: her husband was losing his mind. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, it didn’t matter what they labeled it. She’d gone through this with both of her parents. She knew what was coming.

She told him she was going to take a bath and change, and then they’d get moving on dinner. Since he’d started acting not quite himself, she’d found herself narrating what they were about to do one or two steps before they did it, as if supplying him a script could keep him in the play. Maybe it was the warmth of the bath, or the dim quiet of the house. Maybe she had exerted herself in class more than usual; maybe it was the martini she sipped while bathing. Maybe the last few months with Bert had taken more out of her than she’d realized, but she closed her eyes and sank to her chin in the hot water. When she woke, the water was cool, it was past eight, and the house was still.

Their car was missing, as were Bert’s keys. Why hadn’t she hidden them? His shoes were under the mudroom bench. His coat was on the hook in the front hall, his wallet in the pocket. He was out somewhere in his slippers, she kept thinking, even as she understood this was not the biggest part of the problem.

After she had checked the house and the yard and the few streets nearest to them, she could think of nothing to do but wait. She had no one to call. She had avoided most socializing and had covered for his confusions when she had to. Their siblings were all passed, their nieces and nephews scattered far afield. If the police or a neighbor brought him back, she would tell them he was on a new medication, temporarily disoriented. If he found his own way home, she would not scold him. They had no children, which felt now like it always had: blessing and curse. She understood she would not have been an ideal mother. She understood she had not been an ideal wife. But when he finally pulled into the driveway at four in the morning, unable to explain where he’d been or how he’d gotten home, but so, so happy to see her, she had understood that wherever he was going, she was going with him.

She warmed his feet, and got him a cup of hot milk, and put him to bed with a heating pad and an extra blanket, and he reached out to hold her hand with his. He was agitated. She didn’t know, he said, what he’d been through. The suffering had been enormous, he said. One day he would tell her all about it. He was afraid he had lost her. And then he was calm, insisting that she was too good for the likes of him, and she told him he was a fool and went downstairs to turn off the porch light.

And there was the car, in the driveway, where it was supposed to be, but there was the bumper and the windshield, and whatever relief she’d felt at his safe return slipped away. One end of the bumper was folded into itself. The windshield looked like a giant had struck it. It was cold and still dark. Carol’s shades were drawn. Penny went inside. She stood, leaning over the computer. When she found what there was to find, a fist closed around her heart and she sank to her knees, because, ideal or not, for fifty-eight years she had been Bert Misko’s wife, and she did not know how to be anything else.

The dog went everywhere with her: If she quit one room in the house for another, he got up and followed. If she was working in the yard, he patrolled the perimeter. He was well-trained enough to go without a leash or a collar, but she always used both and the dog resented neither. He was not a dog who held a grudge. His first situation had been unpleasant, but he had survived, and this one was better. He was grateful for where he’d ended up, refusing to dwell on where he’d been, and he sensed this was something they had in common. What’re you gonna do? she often said out loud to herself. He understood the meaning if not the words.

And he knew the car; it had passed them thousands of times. The man in it was unthreatening. It smelled of fuel and gravel, rubber and pine needles. He did not see it hit her, but he felt her pitch away from him, the leash yanking at his neck. The car never slowed, its smells disappearing away from where she lay. And this was not how she stayed in her bed or on her couch. This was different.

He sniffed her face. Metal and paint, blood and hair. He whined and barked once. The street was empty.

Lives were being lived all around them. He settled like a sandbag across her chest. It rose and fell beneath him. Stay, he thought. She understands, he thought, the woman in the road, the woman who had saved him.

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of WomenThe Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic MonthlyTin House, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in More, SelfUSA Today, and the Boston Globe. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives.

Her collection of short stories, Kiss Me Someone, is out from Tin House Books next week.