The Cowgirl Comes to the Feast
Nick Toussaint Jr. clutches a handle of tequila by the neck. A pair of Range Rovers wing around him, playing tag in the rain.
An orange moon hangs slightly low over New Jersey.
He mashes the gas pedal. A surge of acceleration fills the hollow in his gut.
Two bodies lie still in the back.
* * *
Halfway up the mountain, inside a farmhouse built when New Hampshire was still agrarian, before Claymore became a beach town for motorcycle clubs, Emily Portis stares into the yellowness of her sheet, presses her ankles against each other, holds her hands balled into her abdomen, because she’s ruined everything and now there’s nothing she can do.
Outside, the chickens don’t cackle or make their scritch-scratch sounds.
Father calls up from the kitchen about something she’s done wrong, his voice enters through her skin. Her left cheek twitches. Little things she feels with vivid precision. Emily holds her eyes open bravely and turns on her side.
Two nights ago with Nick there was a bright silver bridge.
Now he’s gone.
* * *
Eagle Mount is a secluded New Jersey community of nineteen thousand people, two yacht clubs, an osteopathic training school, a Bridgettine convent, and the award-winning roses of the Fairmont Casino Gardens. You can smell the roses nearly anywhere you stand.
Not one resident of Eagle Mount can be said to be completely unhappy. Everywhere there are vistas, tidy homes with widow’s walks. Breezes untangle, rather than snarl, the little girls’ hair. By nature the town is on the lookout for bad omens, hurricanes, carpetbaggers, the Norwegian cruise ships of ruin. How much fuller is happiness when it doesn’t need to be observed?
Shouldn’t we all live in such a way that we can say whatever’s on our mind?
Saturday night, the touchiest business at the Selectmen’s meeting is the news that teenagers are drag racing near the beach. The neighbors are upset, as are a colony of piping plovers safeguarded by environmental statutes. But the laws aren’t clear about enforcement. People are confused as to what they can do. And so it falls to Martin Krug, chief of the Eagle Mount Police Department, to calm the room.
In his own way, Martin embodies the positive image that the Selectmen have acquired about their community during his tenure. He is their familiar: unassuming, stable, easy to sell as one of the Shore’s model citizens. They listen to his plan. They’ll miss him when he’s gone. When Martin’s finished, the agenda is reviewed, the minutes are approved, and everyone walks out to their cars untroubled, into the sort of prelude that only a community like Eagle Mount can impart.
As soon as a person asks himself or herself, How can I live my life in the best possible way? are not all other questions answered?
Martin climbs into his department-issued truck, a Dodge Durango, one of the few cars that fit him, and drives his aching back across town to the Eagle Mount Arts Center, new as of October.
Some of the center’s windows are opaque, some are blue. During the day, they appear to be part of the sky. At night the classrooms glow white as if filled with fog.
He parks, cuts the engine, leaves the windows rolled up—he can’t stand the smell of the goddamn roses—and waits for the appearance of his cheating wife.
* * *
The Mexican border is thirty-eight hours going sixty, thirty if Nick goes eighty. That assumes he doesn’t get stopped by the police.
He presses the accelerator and sips tequila so that his father will reappear.
When he was eight years old he cow-tipped his dad as a joke. Christmas morning, a white Christmas, Nick shoved his dad and the old man fell over backward, laughing. He windmilled his arms and landed in the kindling bucket. On his way back up, he pressed his hand on the chimney plate. He shrieked a second later, they all heard it. When he ran his hand under the tap, his palm erupted with tiny white bubbles. It made Nick sick to watch.
He drops the tequila. It’s not out of vengeance, it’s from fatigue. The bottle splats on the parkway. His eyelids sag like they’re filled with water. He scratches a cut in the corner of his mouth and thinks agonizingly of her.
And how two people equal the smell of two people, the smell of two dead people.
Up ahead is a great pink something.
* * *
Two nights earlier, they laid crumpled together. She touched a cut in the corner of his mouth, from where she bit him. He smiled in his sleep.
Twenty minutes later, she was still awake, by herself, darkly alone.
But she hadn’t planned what came next, when Nick woke up and the secret quivered in her chest, and she’d opened her big stupid mouth.
* * *
Even at fifty-nine, Martin dislikes his largeness, he wishes he were more average. To purchase sneakers is nearly impossible. Age hasn’t made him any prettier, and still his great curse is vanity. He passes a mirror, he can’t help but look. His face is tawny, with thick skin like an orange’s. At his wife’s hair salon, he picks up magazines and studies how the movie stars wear their clothes. He wishes he had such compact proportions.
Martin watches the Arts Center from a scrunched position. The front doors slide open. Out walks a pair of older ladies in navy blue, followed a few seconds later by Lillian, his wife, who looks fantastic, of course, as she pulls on her tan coat. Who does so many things to stay in shape, plenty fit for those yoga pants, more than lovely enough in all cases.
But if more than enough, perhaps too much for one man.
A flimsy rain falls in the dark. The laptop in the car is equipped with a satellite connection. A quick search gets him to a website for a medical practice in Chesilhurst. His eyes jump to a status feed for @DrKimFeet.
Surgery Friday: 3 hammertoes, 1 radio frequency neuroma, 5 nails, 2 surgery centers, 1 office. & now art class. #Tired #Podiatrist
Martin looks up as the teacher exits the building. Dr. Youngsu Kim, podiatrist, part-time art instructor. Lillian smiles impassively despite the drizzle, laughs politely at something said, and it’s her false laugh he hears, he knows a stage performance when he sees one. Even from a woman amply guarded, tricky for any man to predict, let alone her husband of six years.
She pauses on the walkway, in a dark patch.
The women keep going.
The doctor catches up.
She says a little something, an aside, below the breath. Slow eyes meet as they both turn in the same direction, down the sidewalk, every gesture mundane, magnetically aligned.
Martin’s chest clenches, his lower back throbs.
The woman he loves.
He was married previously. A bad marriage. His ex-wife now lives outside Seattle, she manages a consignment boutique. Their daughter, Camille, is in Southern California, twenty-seven. Forever in one graduate school after another, that Martin pays for. Who else will? But he rarely sees or hears from her, he doesn’t blame her. She was seventeen when he and her mother separated. In seventeen years she never had a dad who wasn’t drunk, one way or another.
But ever since he quit drinking, ever since he took the job in Eagle Mount and met Lillian at a meeting two weeks after he arrived, his focus has been on the here and now. Career. Sobriety. Marriage. The present moment. The gut-burning present moment.
* * *
A pink neon cowgirl, at least a hundred feet tall, stands beside the parkway and waves a pistol the size of a sedan. In her other hand is a neon dinner menu, ten feet high, that reads EAT AT THE RANCHO NEXT EXIT, and underneath it, THE COWGIRL COMES TO THE FEAST.
Except she also points her big pink gun at the passing cars, so it’s more like, Hey Asshole Eat Dinner or I’ll Shoot.
Nick closes his eyes, lulled by the radio and the swish of traffic, before he remembers, I’ll kill her without a second thought.
He snaps to attention and whips around in his seat.
* * *
Parkway southbound, exit 119 after the underpass, all available units, possible 11-80. Caller reports, black SUV, Ford Explorer, off the embankment. It hit the cowgirl.
When people do know Eagle Mount, outside the rose-gardening community, it’s for the cowgirl. Even where Martin’s parked, the stupid thing’s visible through the glass. He squeezes the radio, calls himself en route, hunches even farther down, in case Lillian should notice.
Thirty-eight, update Captain Krug on EMS, ETA?
Two minutes later, Martin is first on scene. He jumps out of the car and runs down a sharp grade of sucking mud. The Ford Explorer crashed into the cowgirl’s left boot. From which hangs the rib cage of the car’s grille. A bulge of airbag fills the driver-side window, quickly deflating. A boy’s at the wheel, nose smashed and bloody.
Just crossing Market Street.
Powder’s in the air. The airbag must’ve deployed in the last two or three minutes.
“Hey kid, wake up!”
“Kid, stay with me.” He reaches in, twists the key. “Listen to me! Anybody else in here? What hurts? Kid!”
He looks into the Explorer and tries the back door. Locked.
The boy mumbles something.
“What? Say it again.”
The kid, drunkenly nonchalant, “They’re in the back.”
Far away, a siren. Martin frantically presses buttons on the door panel until the locks click. He yanks open the left back door. There’s a woman in the footwell, in an eggshell-colored nightgown. Underneath her, like dirty snowmelt, a gray bathrobe is dyed darkly, soaked in brown blood.
He flinches when he sees the woman’s face, a smear of white. Her top lip’s gone. The nose is broken, flattened by something much, much harder.
Have Memorial stand by.
Ten-four, Memorial notified.
He thinks, but the kid said “they” …
One twenty-five, what traffic personnel do you have?
He pops the gate. Inside is a large man splayed out. Like an animal killed on a hunting trip. Big guy, big hands. Late sixties? Khaki pants and a button-down shirt. Eyeballs rolled back, tie loosened, shirtfront paisley with blood.
Approaching the underpass now.
Martin tries for a pulse.
* * *
Nick Toussaint Jr., of Claymore, New Hampshire, sleeps almost the full morning handcuffed to a hospital bed. No middle name, Caucasian, twenty years old, five-six, 137 pounds. Organ donor. Face bandaged from the banged-up nose.
It’s a quiet Sunday. Leaden clouds, no rain. Martin is fresh from the station. He leaves the hospital room and gets updated by the officer posted at the door: The kid grinds his teeth in his sleep, that’s it.
He departs to go find coffee number five and rides the elevator down to the cafeteria, where he spies a tower of Honey Buns. His archnemesis.
On a good day, Martin Krug can still touch his toes. He hasn’t had a drink or cigarette in seven years. Ever since he had a heart attack, he’s been a vegetarian, and mostly does the stuff you’re supposed to do, like quit Honey Buns. He plays racquetball, he’s one of those guys now, he still can’t quite buy it. He refuses to give up other pleasures. The nightly ice cream. Medieval war games on his computer. Biographies in hardcover that he plans to read someday.
Especially off the job, Martin keeps to himself. At dinner parties, thanks to his profession, people are disinclined to ask him any complicated questions, but treat him, his great size a further inducement, like an enormous child. Lillian’s more outgoing, hot-blooded. The mirror opposite of his first wife. By day an interior designer, at night she swings kettlebells, climbs rock-climbing walls. Also an alcoholic in recovery, but her drinking days were over before she was twenty-five, and does he begrudge her that? Does his begrudgement earn her indulgences? She thinks so.
Rarely, if ever, is Lillian in distress. Oddly, those times she is are when she’s most lovable to him, more human. More like himself. They can sit on the tasseled couch in the TV room and walk through their days. But mainly she’s overconfident, bossy. Attributes that intrigued him from the start. And when she projects her affirmations across dining tables that seat twelve, in the Ermenegildo Zegna jackets that she buys him, that he loves that she buys him, Martin grins and hunches his shoulders to make the others feel more comfortable, to make himself resemble a piece of furniture under a cloth.
He purchases a Honey Bun and mauls it over a trash can, crumbs flying, and instantly wants another one, wants restored all of his old vices.
His belt vibrates with a text from upstairs.
* * *
The boy watches him like a shelter dog. Courage to conceal fear. Martin pinholes his lips and blows on his coffee, exhales through the same place where he used to stick a cigarette, then inhales likewise. But plain air is never nicotine.
“What are you,” the kid says, “the big boss?”
In fact, his retirement is only two weeks away. Everyone asks what he’ll do with his time. Finally, he figured it out: he’ll resume smoking.
“I want a pen,” the kid says. “I want a piece of paper.”
They already did his rights. They took away his clothes. Dirty jeans, old T-shirt, a denim jacket with an air of poverty about it, a pair of suede boots with what look to be bloodstains on one toe. The kid’s not ugly, Martin decides, just undersized, kind of stringy, with bloodless lips, black hair that’s long enough to tuck behind his ears, peaked cheekbones like a girl. Feet and hands small and scuffed. Light blue eyes. The kind of guy the girls go crazy to rehabilitate. Though frightened about something.
Martin thinks about the dead. He waits before he says anything. Always better to let them play first, let your presence fill the room.
The kid just gnaws skin off his fingers and spits it out.
“What do you want the paper for?” Martin asks.
“I want something to eat.”
“They’ve got Honey Buns.”
“I killed those people,” the kid says. “I want to write it down.”
“Great. What’s the rush? You need to go somewhere?”
“Shit, can I have some paper already?”
After a minute, the officer outside arrives with paper. He sends her out again, this time for a Honey Bun. He hands the paper to the kid, plus his favorite pen.
Nick writes for ten minutes before his hand cramps.
“Eat up,” Martin commands, and passes the Honey Bun. “After that, we’ll read.”
“I’m finished. You read it.”
Martin puts on his reading glasses. “To whom it may concern,” he says slowly. “My name is Nick Toussaint Jr. I live in Claymore, New Hampshire. I’m the one who killed Dr. Ashburn and his wife. The reason was money. The Ashburns were supposed to keep a lot of money around the house. Dr. Ashburn used to help me with my knee. It was on Friday. I had my dad’s old gun.”
They’d already searched the kid’s SUV. No surprises, no weapons, no drugs, only the residue of bodies. No money.
The kid licks icing off his fingers.
The door opens, a young Latina nurse tries to interrupt.
Martin scares her away, and sits down in the visitor’s chair.
“But they didn’t have any money in the safe,” he continues, “just their passports, so I stabbed him in the hallway. So Mrs. Ashburn would tell me where they keep the money. But she said the same thing. Dr. Ashburn died. I only stabbed him because I wanted her to talk. She said she had a couple hundred bucks in their blizzard kit. So I had to kill her because I had no other choice, to say the least. I got a shovel to dig the graves and hide their identities. I couldn’t find a good place so I started driving to go find one. I don’t remember much after that. I probably went crazy or else I’m crazy now. I’m really really sorry. I’m really sad and I will be forever.”
Martin balances the papers on his knee.
That morning, in the ash of dawn, he’d woken up from a dream about Lillian. She wore the dead woman’s mouth, exaggerated like a cartoon, but without any lips, just a hole. And in the dream he’d stood there and slid his penis back and forth over the empty space.
He’s repulsed by the memory. “So, you’re crazy,” he says, too aggressively.
“We’ve got a lot to go over here.”
“How about we start with the gun.”
“I said, it was my dad’s.”
“So what happened to it?”
“I threw it away. Off a bridge.”
“Did you use it for anything? You say you ‘stabbed’ the doctor with it.”
“What? Of course not. I had a knife.”
“Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. So you had two weapons. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s what I wrote, isn’t it?”
“Well, you wrote you had your dad’s gun. So a gun and a knife.”
“Yeah. My dad’s old hunting knife. It’s a Puma.”
“It’s a Puma. Does your dad have a lot of weapons?”
“Where’s the knife now?”
“I chucked it.”
“Mr. Toussaint, are you a wrestling fan, professional wrestling?”
“It’s a hoax. It’s theater. Everyone knows it. But the weird thing is, no one talks about it, even though the whole thing’s a sham. Where’d you get the shovel from? Also, why the money? What’s the money for?”
He checks to see if there’s more coffee in his cup—and without looking up he feels the kid’s stare adjust. That he’s registered the questions as rhetorical and doesn’t know what will happen next. Smart kid.
“You were going to rob them,” he says, more quietly. “So the Ashburns are known to have a lot of money around the house?”
“That’s what I wrote.”
“You say they’ve got a safe.”
“They do. They’re rich.”
“Did,” he says. “They did have a safe.”
“You murdered them. That’s what you’re saying.”
“So, they had a safe,” he continues. “They kept a lot of money around. Because he’s a doctor, and doctors are rich.”
“So, like how much money?”
“I don’t know. Like ten thousand. That’s what everybody said.”
“People said. How would they say it? ‘Hey, everybody, the Ashburns have ten thousand bucks lying around in cash.’ Come on.”
“There’s no one else to rob? In a beach town? Isn’t Claymore full of tourists?”
The idea is that you want to dribble out the facts, a few at a time, so they can’t know how much you know.
“Well, that means a lot of cash businesses. T-shirts. Knickknacks. Bars, restaurants. A lot of cash floating around.”
“What’s your point?”
He thinks of the woman’s face. Her missing lip.
He says quietly, to control his anger, “Nick, are you employed?”
“I work in a tire shop. I do pizza delivery.”
“I’ll assume that’s two different jobs. Do you like your work?”
“Man, what the hell is this about?”
“What it’s about, you piece of shit, is the fact that we found two dead people in your car.”
His voice booms. It echoes in the room. The kid looks terrified.
“So this is me asking you questions,” he says, more quietly. “Such as, why do you need ten thousand dollars? Of all people, with two jobs?”
“I’ve got responsibilities,” Nick says, a beat behind the fear.
“Okay. Good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
The kid tries to clasp his hands together, but the left one’s cuffed to the bed.
“Can you take these off, please?”
“Do me a favor,” Martin says. “Look at my hand.”
The boy resists.
“Look at my hand! Now, count for me out loud. How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Two. Meaning one finger for each question you’re about to answer. Now, before you say anything, I’m going to get another coffee. So I want you to listen, right now, then I want you to think really hard. That way, when I come back, you can answer my questions perfectly, you understand?”
He pulls out an envelope. They found it in the kid’s jacket. Addressed to one Nick Toussaint, at the same address on his driver’s license, 108 Oak Hill Road, Claymore, NH. Envelope still sealed.
The kid strains forward, furious all of a sudden.
“You think I care?”
The handwriting is female. No return address.
Martin taps his ear with the envelope. “So here we go. Question one, what’d you need the money for?”
“That’s my letter!”
“Question two, you’re going to tell me a little bit more about the doctor. Like, something simple: How does the doctor get into the back of your truck? You killed him in the house, you said. Dead on the floor. Big guy, no gun blast. You got him with the knife, the Puma, it was your dad’s. Nick, look at you. You’re no weightlifter. You’re not even a wrestling fan. How does the doctor get into the trunk? How does his big body get into the back of your Explorer? So that’s question two. I’ll leave you to it.”
The kid’s about to say something. Martin walks out. Staircase, coffee, staircase. Ten minutes.
“I’m finished,” the kid announces as soon as he returns.
“Finished with what?”
“I want a lawyer.”
“Well, I should hope so.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re a little guy, Nick. You need help. No offense. Most people do. Personally, I’m big enough I can muscle guys, but you’re the kind who gets by on his smarts. Am I right?”
“It’s a math question. The medical examiner told me Dr. Ashburn weighs two-forty. I asked her again, just this morning, to confirm it. Two hundred and forty pounds. You see what I mean? Let’s say you’re one-forty. I’ll give you one-fifty by dessert. Even then you’re not lifting him. So who puts him in the truck? Mrs. Ashburn? Does the wife carry him out? On the night she’s the most scared she’s been in her entire life? Even if it’s adrenaline, this woman—who’s a hundred and eight fucking pounds—who helps you drag out her dead husband and hoist up his remains—is that what you’re telling me? This woman whose face now is so badly smashed up, along with her husband’s, that it looks like someone ran them over with a dump truck, and you’ve got the balls to tell me you did that with a shovel? And shortly after that you can’t even do arithmetic? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? How stupid do you think I am?”
Another nurse opens the door.