AN INTRODUCTION BY KRISTEN MILLER
You know you’re two-thirds deep in an Amy Gustine story when someone in the room says aloud, “god,” and you look up and realize it was you. My own utterance, as I read “When We’re Innocent,” the penultimate story in Gustine’s forthcoming collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, was prompted by the cataloging of a deceased woman’s belongings, heartbreaking in their particularity and meaninglessness.
Bewilderment, randomness, effects without causes are central preoccupations of the story. Jocelyn has killed herself with pills and nobody knows why. Her neighbor Brian finds himself requiring the services of, as his lawyer puts it, “a psychologist sympathetic to rapists” for a crime he’s honestly not sure if he committed. Obi, Jocelyn’s father, perhaps the most susceptible to haphazard urges, drives four days straight to Jocelyn’s Phoenix apartment when flying seems “too cheerful…The rules too absurd,” fights a whim to give all the money in his checking account to a hotel clerk, and, later, searches for a suicide note encoded in the arrangement of cereal boxes.
As with many of the stories contained in You Should Pity Us Instead, the characters in “When We’re Innocent” can be understood by the means through which they find — or trick themselves into thinking they’ve found — if not proof of their own innocence, at least a measure of absolution. Brian seeks it in a symbolic act of self-sacrifice, Obi in his own sense of bewilderment. Throughout the story, Gustine deftly and satisfyingly folds each character’s doubts and assumptions into one another, into those of the reader.
Reviewers of You Should Pity Us Instead have frequently characterized Gustine’s style as candid, frank, and forthright, which it is, inarguably: pellucid and instantly immersive. But don’t be taken in: her writing is a subtle needle, and its potions take effect before you realize you’ve been pricked. Gustine is a writer who can hone even haphazardness into a fine point and wield it.
Director of Programming and Development, Sarabande Books
When We’re Innocent
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by Amy Gustine, Recommended by Sarabande Books
Obi didn’t want to go, but he believed there are some things you can’t ask someone else to do for you. One of them is cleaning out the apartment your daughter killed herself in.
So he drove, the mood of a flight too cheerful, the planning too optimistic. The rules too absurd. He feared what he might do if a flight attendant instructed him to put his seatback in an upright position. Even the word “trip” angered Obi. He was going somewhere, but he wasn’t taking a trip.
He climbed in his car on a Saturday morning and drove for four days at the speed limit, not below or above by even a single mile per hour. The navigation system’s mellifluous, vaguely foreign voice, like a Swede who’d grown up with an American parent, kept him company only rarely. At five p.m. on Tuesday, Obi entered the outskirts of Phoenix, the sun a circle of heat on his right cheek until he took Highway 10 and it fell behind, chasing him down the walled expressway. Camelback Mountain, whose name he didn’t know or care about, filled the windshield like a giant’s boot in his path.
Obi and his wife Karen had been in Phoenix one other time, three years ago, when they drove from Toledo to Columbus, helped Jolly load the U-Haul, then made the slow journey west and south so she could start a new job. Jolly and Karen rode in Jolly’s car. Obi drove the truck, a nerve-racking clatter-box with poor sight lines and a soft clutch that brought back the worst days of his life.
As they crossed the country, Obi’s girls got off the freeway for fruit stands and flea markets, then caught up and sped past him, smirking kindly at his white-knuckled, right-lane progress. With every mile Obi prayed, and when he finally pulled into the Phoenix U-Haul, he resolved never to make such a grueling trip again. Staring now at the circle of sun in his rearview mirror, Obi realized that during this journey his habitual terror of driving had been entirely absent. His punishment had already been meted out, after all. No need to continue expecting it.
Still, the mountain unnerved him. No matter where he turned, it stood in his sight line as if it had something to say, but preferred to wait at a discreet distance until the time was right. Obi had lived his whole life in northern Ohio, where the sky remained above, as it should, and it took only twenty minutes driving any direction to see the earth’s round profile shrink to a line of green, brown, or gold depending on the season. Here, the sky reached down and pulled the land up around the city like a knife raises a scar. That’s what mountains were, Obi thought, a cicatrix on the planet. He glanced in each side mirror and saw more of them, thinking for the first time in many days about his own preferences. He preferred fewer reminders of the history of collisions and fractures.
“We need a psychologist sympathetic to rapists.”
“I’m not a rapist.”
“But that’s what the prosecutor’s going to be saying, and we need a psychologist who’s able to present a more…” The lawyer Brian’s father had hired paused, searching for the right word. Brian wished he wouldn’t; he wanted to hear the man’s disgust. “…a more nuanced portrayal of the situation. What we need is a person who can credibly explain to the jury the difference between…” The lawyer stopped again.
“Fetish and pathology?” Brian offered, clamping the phone between his jaw and his shoulder to lean down and pull out the cuffs of his jeans. They had become squashed inside the corner pocket of a fitted sheet during the dry cycle. Smoothed, the denim looked like rice paper, crisscrossed with fold lines.
“Yes,” the lawyer agreed. “The danger in cases like this is that the jury will equate one type of behavior that is” — here he hesitated long enough for Brian to get out the word “aberrant” — “unfamiliar,” the lawyer corrected. “We want them to make a clear distinction between two very different types of unfamiliar behavior.”
Brian stood by his apartment’s patio door. Outside, a metal balcony clung to the lumpy stucco wall. He’d secured a director’s chair to the balcony’s railing with tie wraps, though the desert wind seemed less inclined to take things away than the gusts in his native Chicago. The frigid blasts off Lake Michigan reminded truck drivers and ad execs that everything has its foe. The desert seemed less foe than abyss; it wouldn’t come and get you, but you might fall into it.
“We’ll talk more after I get a psych eval lined up.” The lawyer cleared his throat and the scratch of a fine-point pen on paper traversed the phone line. Brian stepped to the right for a better view of Jocelyn’s car in the parking lot. It hadn’t moved. The front left tire remained at an odd angle, nearly ninety degrees to the wheel well.
The lawyer said, “We want to be careful because we don’t want the evaluation done until we know what it’s going to show.”
From his father, also an attorney, Brian recognized this cornerstone of legal theory — only ask questions you already know the answer to. Increasingly, it struck him as a good policy for life in general.
“So I’ll call you,” the lawyer said. “And don’t do anything between now and then, all right? I mean, don’t go out drinking or ask anyone on a date. Just daily necessities. Nothing special, all right?”
“Yeah, okay.” Brian hung up and went out on the balcony. Over the two years since he’d moved in, the director’s chair had faded from navy to a dusty shade the color of old blueberries. He sat down.
Next door, Jocelyn’s balcony looked the same as yesterday, and the day before and the one before that. The plants, a group of cacti in staggered-height pots, didn’t divulge her absence. Even in containers and with temperatures over a hundred, cacti could go weeks without water. What worried Brian was her red bathing suit. It was Jocelyn’s favorite, and it wasn’t like her to leave it outside for days at a time, and yet it had been there ever since Brian returned from his last flight. Snagged on the spines of the tallest plant, its bright gold stars had tarnished to brass under the July sun.
Brian listened for movement or voices from her place. Hearing nothing, he leaned over the railing. Through the sheer drape he could make out her armless purple couch and yellow chair. The sun blinded him from the rest.
Brian had been off work for two weeks, having taken a leave of absence from his job as a commercial pilot. Before that he was doing overnights to New York and Detroit, and he couldn’t say when he’d last seen Jocelyn, though he did know it was before his arrest.
They’d met at the complex’s pool, where they both liked to do laps in the tolerable heat of twilight. Jocelyn swam every day, straight from taping the evening news, while Brian made it only when he wasn’t flying. They swam in opposite directions. “This way it doesn’t feel like we’re racing,” she said, squeezing her nose empty of water with her thumb and index finger in a cute, ladylike way. She never acted wary, as he expected her to, because she was on TV and he wasn’t. It didn’t seem to occur to her she might be the target of weirdos and stalkers. When he pointed this out, she laughed. “You aren’t the type, and I’m pretty good at spotting things like that.” It was the uniform — captain’s hat and double-breasted navy jacket with four gold cuff stripes and six gold buttons. People had to see you in it only one time and they’d put their lives in your hands.
Last year Jocelyn broke her leg and Brian had carried her groceries and laundry and driven her to work while she was still on painkillers and couldn’t drive herself. Still hobbling around in one of those black boots, her cast cut down to below the knee, she made him dinner as a thank you. While she cooked, he walked around her living room. She must have noticed his expression because she laughed, a little embarrassed. “I know. It’s bright. Turkish monarch moves to Soho.”
“I like it,” Brian said. “It’s a hell of a lot better than tan and turquoise.”
On the balcony, mindful of being caught peeping, Brian sat back down. Jocelyn hadn’t delivered the news since he’d been off work. If she was on vacation, why hadn’t he seen her at the pool, or passed her coming and going? It was possible she’d taken a trip, but why would she leave her suit out? Maybe she’d heard about his trouble and was avoiding him. Maybe she was scared of him.
Under the Phoenix sun, Brian’s jeans and long-sleeved shirt felt like a suit of armor sweat-welded to his skin, so he gave up and went inside, to the opposite problem — too-cold air conditioning, the annoying hum of the fan that never turned off. His apartment had come furnished, castoffs from another pilot who moved out to get married. Brown leather sofa with enormous saddlebag arms. A pine Adirondack chair with cushions in the ubiquitous, threatening Navajo pattern of expanding triangles. Scarred pine coffee table. Cut-pile, tan wall-to-wall carpeting and turquoise drapes. Besides toiletries and clothes, the only thing Brian brought with him was the faded director’s chair. That ought to make prison a simpler affair.
Taking up a pad which bore the flight carrier’s logo at the top and their slogan — Travel made good again — across the bottom, Brian sat down on the couch. After thinking a moment, he wrote, As you might have heard, things haven’t been going well for me. I promise, though, I won’t bother you if you don’t want to be my friend anymore. So I hope to see you around just to say “hi” and be relaxed where you live. Brian.
And be relaxed where you live? He crossed out that part, reread the note, then copied the edited version onto a fresh sheet of paper, went outside, and walked the ten feet of squeaky metal planks that separated his door from Jocelyn’s. As Brian leaned over, ready to work the note into the generous gap between the door and the frame — a gap he counted as another reason he hadn’t bought a house here: what kind of craftsman could the desert produce who didn’t need to guard against bitter cold, furious hurricanes, or sneaky earthquakes? — the lawyer’s admonishment made him pause. Just the daily necessities.
Brian straightened up. Maybe Jocelyn had started seeing that guy again, or someone new, and was staying at his place. But wouldn’t she have her car there? He raised his hand to knock, then stopped. Even if she wasn’t avoiding him, she probably knew about the arrest. She was in the news business, after all, though his story had not garnered enough attention to appear on TV, thank God.
Brian reread the note, went back to his apartment for tape, then left it hanging on Jocelyn’s door. If the note disappeared it meant she was safe and he’d let it go. If the note didn’t move, he would call. Maybe screw up the courage to knock. If that yielded nothing, he’d have to ask around the complex. But Brian didn’t know any other residents. They might not even recognize him. In the desert, where construction of gated communities never stopped, dozens of people transferred from these holding pens to their fake adobe two-cars on the last day of every month.
Brian walked back along the squeaky planks, wondering how long until his father called to find out what the lawyer had said.
Jolly for Jocelyn. The nickname originated in infancy or toddlerhood and stuck. Obi didn’t remember why. As a child she wasn’t particularly jolly, but she wasn’t glum either.
After the medical examiner had cleared her body for burial, they flew Jolly home. “We’ll bump you over and put her where you were going to go,” Karen said, referring to Obi’s burial plot as if it were a place setting. “That way Jolly can be between us.” She nodded at this plan to protect their daughter in death as they hadn’t in life.
Karen also made plans to clean out Jolly’s apartment, booking them a hotel in Phoenix, but when Obi insisted on driving instead of flying, she refused to go. “I can’t sit in a car for four days. I have to get this over with.”
Karen preferred to chew her pain hard and swallow it quickly, while Obi let it dissolve on his tongue, the bitter flavor stored permanently, he feared, in every taste bud.
At the hotel, he signed the credit-card receipt, guessing Karen hadn’t even looked at the room rate. Five hundred a night. He handed the signed charge slip to the clerk, fighting the urge to offer more, all the cash in his wallet, everything in their checking account. He might have handed over their 401(k)s if he’d known how. The woman, a brunette in a cheap red suit coat and navy blue pants, directed him with a polished finger down the hall. He carried his bag up four flights, suddenly repelled by the thought of elevators.
In the room, undyed hemp drapes framed the bright sky and the insistent mountain. Obi shut the drapes, dimmed the lights, took the coverlet — quilted squares of expanding triangles in rust and turquoise — off the bed, stuffed it in the closet, and turned on CNN, knowing it would sound the same in Phoenix as it did in Toledo. He felt dizzy because he hadn’t drunk anything yet today, so he opened the warm bottle of water he’d bought in New Mexico, drank it in two long gulps, used the bathroom, washed up, and left for Jolly’s place, unwilling to face going to sleep tonight without this part over.
The method: pills. The reason: no one knew. Not her GP, who, when Jolly shattered her leg falling down a flight of stairs, had prescribed the narcotics she overdosed on. Not the medical examiner, who’d looked for evidence of injuries on her body to suggest an abusive relationship or foul play. Not the police, who claimed to have interviewed all her friends and colleagues. Who had supposedly searched her apartment. They claimed there was no note. Obi didn’t believe them. He would find something. They just didn’t know how to look. During the long, quiet days on the highway, he had imagined a dozen types of code she could have used, from food arrangements in the cupboard to highlighted passages in the messy stacks of romance novels she always had around.
On the way from the hotel to her apartment, Obi’s cell rang. Normally he didn’t answer while driving, but he’d just stopped for a red light and the phone lay at hand on the passenger seat.
“How close are you?” Karen asked.
“I checked into the hotel. I’m on my way there right now.”
“You’re in the car?” Karen knew his rules. Obi’s real name was Ken, but in college, where they met, she’d dubbed him Obi after Obi-Wan Kenobi. “You’re just so damn good.”
He’d tutored her in math, dug her car out of snowdrifts, driven her to class when it rained and, that first summer, turned down a chance to camp at Yellowstone in order to volunteer on Habitat houses. Nowadays, only strangers called him Ken.
He explained to Karen he was at a red light. “I can’t talk long.”
“Okay,” she intoned, as if he’d reported disarming one bomb of several.
“I’ll call you later.”
“Yes,” she agreed in that tone again.
He could see her sitting at the kitchen table with the phone in her hand, anxious for the all-clear. “It’ll be a while.”
“He’s looking for a psychologist sympathetic to rapists,” Brian said. It was past six. He sat at the kitchen table, a two-person, glass-topped rattan outfit against the kitchen’s end wall, his back to the apocalyptic Indian upholstery, to the balcony and to the blank, burning sky. The days here stretched past the breaking point. No wonder these Indians never wove a circle. Everything had to imply not the sun, but its rays.
“I don’t know anybody down there,” his father said. “Do you? Any contacts in that world?”
“Well, that’s what Chris is for.” The lawyer. “How you doing on money?”
Brian thought he could hear his father’s checkbook opening. It touched him. “No, Dad, I’ve got plenty. I save most of every paycheck.”
A pause allowed Brian time to think of the joke. “Except for what I spend on ads.”
“You don’t have an ad in now, do you?”
“I was joking.”
“Yeah, okay, good.”
“Dad, I’m sorry about this.”
“Cool it on the ads, all right. We’ll take care of it, just…” A brief pause, then his father said, “I have to go. I got a call coming in.”
Brian admired his father’s restraint. He’d never asked why Brian had to get his kicks by paying a girl to clean his apartment naked, though Brian felt sure his father’s own sexual yearnings could be satisfied without money changing hands, unless you counted hundred-dollar-a-plate restaurants. In the twenty years since Brian’s mother died, his father had dated several lovely women before marrying Carol, a divorced pediatrician whose two kids he helped get into Loyola. At Christmas her kids bought gifts for Brian’s father at the local mall which were more creative and apt than what Brian picked up on his flights to Paris and London.
He wondered what his father had told his other family about the arrest. That’s how Brian thought of Carol and her son and daughter, even though they had a good relationship with Carol’s ex and had lived with his own father for only a few years of high school.
It was possible, even likely, Brian’s father hadn’t told them anything. In front of Brian, he’d treated the arrest for rape — technically vaginal penetration with a digit, in this case his finger — with a lawyer’s professional indifference. The details — that Brian’s ad had specified if the girl came to the job interview without a bra, he’d give her thirty dollars; without panties, fifty dollars — he’d taken in dispassionately, explaining that what mattered most was contact — Brian touching the girl’s genitalia — vs. penetration — his finger entering, however briefly or shallowly, her vagina.
“So when you’re talking to Chris, this is what you keep in mind. Contact gets you a year. Penetration, you’re looking at five to fourteen.” Guilt or innocence never came up. Maybe his father took one or the other for granted. Brian couldn’t tell.
It was nearly time for the news, so Brian turned on the TV. If Jocelyn was at the desk, he would assume she wanted nothing to do with him and go take the note off her door, saving himself another irrevocable humiliation.
Jolly’s apartment complex wrapped a large asphalt lot. The three buildings had no red-tiled roof or rounded eave; their Spanish style relied entirely on the stucco, painted a dirty yellow and punctuated by metal balconies whose railings reflected the sun in blinding shards like knife blades.
Who kills themselves in the summer? Someone who lives in Phoenix, Obi realized. If she’d lived at home his daughter would be alive. No one kills themselves during July in Toledo, Ohio. There’s January, February, March, and most of April for that. In July there is sun, and such a shame to waste it. But in the desert, no matter how many Targets and Costcos you build, how many fluorocarbons the air conditioners pump into the atmosphere, the biggest star remains a malevolence.
Star. Jolly had seemed like one, smart and beautiful, blond hair from somewhere in the family they couldn’t identify. Blue eyes from grandparents who hadn’t managed to give them to either him or Karen. Jolly majored in journalism at Ohio State, took a job in Columbus, then the promotion to Sun City. Being a newscaster wasn’t the same as acting, though Obi had feared it, too, would deliver an unnatural life, your face known by thousands whose names you never heard. So that was something else he had to do: find out whether things were going well at Jolly’s station.
The other cause Obi planned to investigate was the boyfriend they’d never met, a first-generation Lebanese guy Jolly had been on and off with for a year. Obi and Karen considered Middle Eastern men sexist and authoritarian. They worried Jolly would get taken advantage of. Obi had been able to give only the guy’s first name — Sam — to the police, and realized as he did that even that was most likely just a nickname, some truncated, Americanized version of the truth. They tracked him down anyway, through a coworker at Jolly’s station. Sam claimed he hadn’t seen Jolly for over two months. A hundred witnesses and a paper trail put him in Sonoma at a wedding the day she died.
In the parking lot, Obi took a stack of flat boxes out of the trunk along with garbage bags and a roll of packing tape. Karen had instructed him to send Jolly’s clothes and furniture to charity but to bring home anything personal, like letters, diaries, financials, jewelry, and trip mementos. To make sure he didn’t make a mistake, she’d written a list. He could throw out Jolly’s toothpaste and toothbrush, but he should bring back her makeup, her hairbrushes, and her perfume. He didn’t ask why. These were the things that had littered the bathroom counter for years, that her mother always complained she didn’t clean up.
Struggling with the boxes — too awkward to carry horizontally, yet slipping against one another when he tried to grip them in a vertical stack — Obi made his way across the lot and up the three flights of stairs to Jolly’s apartment. The day he moved her in, after the fifth climb up, he’d said, “I’m too old for this schlep. Next time you can hire movers like the rest of us grown-ups.”
Jolly kissed him on the cheek and handed him a lemonade. “You’re doing fine for a chubby schoolteacher.”
At her door, Obi propped the boxes against the walkway’s railing and from his pocket fished out the keys the police had mailed. They still bore the tag with the evidence number. Sliding them into the lock, he looked up to see a note taped to the door. Her name on the outside was written in a masculine hand — large and messy, with alternately blocky and jagged lettering. Whoever put it here did so after the police had come and gone or they would have taken it. Obi stared a long moment. Would there be fingerprints? What if he smudged them? No crime, Obi reminded himself. No crime had been committed.
He looked at the boxes, then at the door handle and the dangling keys, trying to fight the feeling coming up from his knees. It entered his stomach, then his chest. As it invaded his throat, Obi sunk to a kneel, hands pressed against the apartment door. Grief took his breath away, then returned it in gulping sobs. Obi let his forehead fall with a clunk against the metal door, its heat a blank brand, and beat his palms against the beige indifference, cries turning to shrieks like a baby seal.
“Excuse me?” a deep voice said.
Obi looked up. A man stood there, not swarthy, but dark enough to be Lebanese. He’d come out of the neighboring apartment. “You!” Obi said, pushing himself to a stand. He tore the note from the door. “Is this yours?”
“Yes,” the man said.
Obi started forward. The man flinched, features puckered as if ready to take a hit. Obi stopped. “What’s your name?”
The man opened his eyes. “Brian.”
Obi unfolded the note and read it. “Why wouldn’t she be your friend?” he snapped.
Obi flapped the note at him violently. “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing,” Brian said. “I never did anything.”
Obi took Brian in. He wore socks, jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt. “Why are you dressed like that? It’s hot. You aren’t supposed to be dressed like that.” Though Obi himself was dressed like that.
“Air conditioning,” Brian said. He looked suspicious. “Who are you? How do you know Jocelyn?”
The yelp broke from Obi again and he shook the note in the air. “Did you kill her!” he shouted. “Did you kill my Jolly?”
The man’s expression was enough to exonerate him. “Kill her?”
Obi leaned on the wall, pressing hard against the jagged stucco.
Brian whispered, “Somebody…killed her?”
Obi bleated, “I loved her. I loved her,” and covered his face with his hand.
There was a long pause before Brian said, “You must be her father.”
“Come into my place. Come in here for just a minute.”
The man’s apartment hummed with cool. Obi felt as if his execution had been stayed.
“Will you sit down?”
Obi looked at the furniture. “Here,” Brian said, fetching one of the rope-backed rattan chairs from the kitchen. Obi sat facing the living room, like part of an audience, and thought of the days when Jolly put on shows for them. Dances, skits, sometimes readings of stories about princesses and rocket ships.
Brian sat on the edge of the coffee table, his folded hands clamped between his big knees. Despite his size, he looked incapable of hurting someone, which disappointed Obi.
“I don’t understand.” He shook his head. “I just watched her newscast and they didn’t say anything.”
Obi ground his fists into his eye sockets. “I’m supposed to clean out the apartment. Her mother is waiting.”
“In the car?”
Several seconds passed. Obi was looking at the floor. “I was supposed to find out why. Did they say anything about why?”
“Yes, it was her station, wasn’t it?” Obi looked up with a glazed, desperate hope in his eyes.
“They didn’t say anything, sir.”
“There’s got to be a reason, you idiot!”
“Right, right,” Brian agreed. “Do they know who did it?”
Obi looked at him with disgust. “Jolly did it.”
“The police are telling us Jolly killed herself,” Obi said, his voice accusing.
Brian shook his head. “She wouldn’t do that.”
Obi nodded, his tone now beseeching. “That’s what I said. She had no reason to do that. There has to be a reason.” The sun had sunk near the horizon. It shone straight across the room, a hot spot on the far wall above the kitchen table. Its careless light made the tears at the edge of Brian’s lashes glisten.
“So you knew her?” Obi asked.
Brian shrugged. “I moved down from Chicago for my job. We both liked to swim at night, and when she hurt her leg, I helped her get around a little.”
“Are you Lebanese?”
“No, sir. Italian and German, a little Greek. Maybe some Russian. Nobody remembers exactly.”
Obi looked around the place. “Did the police talk to you?”
Obi explained about the investigation, the lack of a note. “They said they talked to everyone who knew her.” His voice had grown suspicious again.
“They probably did look for me. I’m a pilot, though, and I’ve been out of town.” Brian spoke like a job applicant, striving to explain himself without giving the impression he thought his personal views or circumstances worthy of discussion.
“They should have left you a note, or a phone message. Idiots!” Obi shook his head. “I knew they had missed something.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could help. I don’t know why…” Brian raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Can I do something? You’re hot. How about a drink?”
Obi shook his head. “I’m supposed to pack up her things and bring them home.”
“Do you want some help?”
Next to Brian on the coffee table were the TV remote, the pad and pen he’d used to write the note, and the first draft. Obi narrowed his eyes. Brian picked up the note and casually crumpled it, as if he were just keeping his hands busy.
“Give me that.”
Brian reluctantly extended the paper. “It’s stupid.”
Obi read the note. “Why wouldn’t she be relaxed here?”
“I got in some trouble recently. It was reported in the papers. I thought maybe that’s why I hadn’t seen her around since I’ve been off work. I thought she heard about my trouble and was staying away from me. I didn’t want her to feel like she had to avoid me. I wanted her to know I wasn’t going to bother her.”
Obi examined him a moment. “Rape?”
Brian looked down and squeezed his folded hands together until it hurt. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, aren’t you going to tell me you aren’t guilty?” Obi’s tone implied this would be futile.
“I don’t know for sure.”
“You don’t know?” Obi sneered.
Brian shook his head. “I really don’t.”
“We always know when we’re guilty. Were you drunk?”
“Were you in the room with the woman? I assume it’s a woman?”
A long moment of silence passed before Obi asked, “Why did you scratch out that part about being relaxed?”
“I thought she might think it was dumb, or that I was sort of, like, threatening her. Like when you say the opposite of what you mean to make someone uncomfortable. I wanted to be plain. Not misunderstood.”
“Did the girl, that other girl, misunderstand?”
“Maybe. Maybe I misunderstood.”
“You better tell me exactly what happened.” Obi sounded like the police.
“I put an ad on Craigslist.” Brian never planned to do anything the woman didn’t want. “If I did, why would I place an ad? Or meet her here, where I live?”
Obi leaned forward and nodded. “Okay, yes. But what did you want from this girl?”
No one had asked Brian this question, and until this moment he would have said he didn’t want anyone to, but now that someone had, he wanted to answer.
Brian described that afternoon. It had been a little like using an escort service, except because the girl wasn’t a professional, that had made it better and more difficult at the same time.
Obi nodded. “Yes.”
When she sat with her legs apart to show Brian she hadn’t worn any panties, he’d reached up slowly and she’d had plenty of time to close her legs or tell him to stop. He couldn’t say for sure what he’d touched. “It just made me so happy that she trusted me.”
Obi turned toward the patio door.
“Sir?” Brian asked. “Sir? Do you believe me?”
Obi was sixteen, barely three months into his license, when he ran a red light, T-boning Gerald Sorens, a paunchy father of four with a bumper sticker across his rear window. Everything we see is a shadow cast by what we don’t see. Forty years later he still couldn’t account for it. He hadn’t been speeding or drunk or fiddling with the radio or talking on a cell phone. There were no cell phones back then. It was broad daylight, but the sun was at his back. Despite all this, Gerald Sorens died on a gurney in the middle of the intersection, five police cars directing traffic around him while Obi knelt in the plastic shards of shattered headlights, praying.
“Sir?” Brian asked again. “Did you hear me?”
Obi looked down at the note. “It’s when we’re innocent that we’re confused.” Then he smoothed the rough draft and the edited version he’d pulled off Jolly’s door over his knee, one on top of the other, folded them together into a perfect square and put them in his pocket. He and Brian sat in silence, staring at the sand-colored carpet. Neither man wore a watch and there were no visible clocks, no audible ticking, nothing at all to mark time, not even the sun, which shone fixedly on the opposite wall like a bare bulb. Time made no difference now. If you cannot understand or be understood, if you cannot make amends, what good are the hours and the days and the weeks?
But Karen was waiting. Obi made himself speak up. “I think they missed something. Jolly must have left a note. She had to have left something.”
“Did they look at her computer? Emails and stuff?”
Obi brightened. “They said they did, but maybe not. Or they didn’t understand.”
Brian went next door and brought back Jolly’s laptop. In a few seconds he had it booted up and he’d opened her emails. Sitting at the table, they analyzed each message, memo, and PowerPoint presentation for hidden meaning. Finding nothing by way of explanation, Obi slumped in his chair. “I thought for sure there’d be something.”
“I’m sorry,” Brian said.
“If not a note, then a clue. Something.”
“Maybe it’s in code. Something the police wouldn’t notice.”
Obi looked at him strangely.
“That’s dumb. Sorry. I watch too much TV.”
“No, that’s what I thought. That she might have left a code.”
They sat for several more seconds considering this until Brian said, “What if I taped her place? You know, before you touch anything, I’ll video it exactly as she left it. Then you can study it all you want.”
“You have a camera?”
Karen kept saying she wished they’d bought a camera so they would have video of Jolly, but Obi was secretly glad they didn’t. He felt pretty sure he wouldn’t make it if he had to watch her or hear her voice.
Brian retrieved the camera from a black bag under the TV.
“Don’t touch anything,” Obi said. “Just tape.”
“Yes, sir. I got it.”
Brian unlocked Jolly’s door and went in, leaving it wide open. From where Obi stood, in the doorway of Brian’s apartment, he could see a trapezoid of beige wall that could have belonged to anybody.
Brian was gone several minutes. Occasionally he would call out what he was doing. “I’m in the kitchen, looking in the dishwasher.” When he was done, he and Obi sat side by side on the edge of the coffee table and watched the playback over the TV. Repeatedly, they freeze-framed the video to discuss the arrangement of objects — how book titles might be combined to spell out a message, if seemingly innocuous bills and shopping lists could have hidden meaning. They discussed what significance there could be to Jolly having no medicine of any sort in the house except the Percocet she’d overdosed on. No Tylenol or Advil, no NyQuil or Sudafed or Pepto-Bismol. While they dissected and discussed, writing notes and rewinding the tape a hundred times, the sun finally gave up for the day. At some point one of them turned on a light.
“Sir, I don’t think there’s anything here,” Brian said. They were seated across from each other on the floor, the notepad from the airline disassembled, its pages scattered on the coffee table and covered with anagrams of the words Jolly left behind via cereal boxes and shopping lists.
The feeling made its way from Obi’s knees to his chest again and he began to sob. “What am I going to tell her mother?” he bleated, bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose until his knuckles went white. “She had to have a reason.”
“Tell her it was my fault,” Brian said. “Tell her Jolly lived next door to a depraved soul unworthy of her, and if he’d only been a better man, Jolly would still be here.”
Obi looked up, sobs still shaking his shoulders.
“Tell her it was me, that I’m the one to blame,” Brian repeated.
Obi sucked in his breath several times. When his shoulders finally went still, he whispered, “Can you do me one more favor?”
“Can you bring me Jolly’s things?”
Brian nodded. Obi gave him the list and one by one he carried Jolly’s things to her father. Her hairbrush. The tarnished silver spoon ring Karen’s brother had made. Her college diploma. Her key ring with the Siamese cat that looked like the cat she had in grade school. A box of warranty cards, receipts, and instructions he’d already videotaped and dissected for secret meaning. Perfume bottles and a tray filled with lipsticks and blushes. Old yearbooks and greeting cards. A swimming trophy from high school. A camera, a boom box, and an iPod. A stuffed frog she’d carried everywhere until she was seven.
When Obi satisfied himself that everything on Karen’s bring-home list had been collected, he sent Brian back to pack the remaining things for charity. At three a.m. Brian touched his shoulder. Obi had fallen asleep on the floor in front of the balcony door, which looked like the black mouth of a deep cave.
“Sir? Sir? You want to lie on the couch?”
“Is it all done?”
“Yes, sir, it’s done.”
Obi struggled to a stand, stiff from lying on the thin carpet. Outside the heat sat waiting, even without its sun. Brian stayed in his own place while Obi went over to Jolly’s.
A neat line of boxes along one wall. Across the room a purple couch and yellow chair, a silver coffee table, sheer drapes layered below velvet side panels, an enormous mirror framed with black glass. Somehow, in his zeal to find the smallest clue, Obi had not noticed the furniture itself on the videotape. It wasn’t what Jolly had brought from Columbus. That had been a profusion of flowered slipcovers and tables in need of a fresh coat of paint, a rickety coat rack made of old canes lashed together with twine and picture frames whose original life had been as racket presses. Obi opened the empty cupboards one by one, then the medicine cabinet and the closets. He made himself glance at the bed, but it was stripped bare, a mattress on a metal frame that could have belonged to anyone, to a complete stranger.
Movement on the balcony caught his eye and Obi rushed over to the dark glass, flipped the lock and pushed open the door, for a crazy moment thinking Jolly had been out there all along. Brian was leaning over the railing of his balcony, the hook of an old-fashioned umbrella employed midair to snatch a red bikini from the spines of a potted cactus. Looking up at Obi, Brian lost his balance and for a moment dipped forward like a gymnast on the uneven bars. Obi lunged to catch him as the umbrella dropped three floors, its metal a sharp crack on the stone garden below. Brian righted himself. He and Obi looked at the suit, still snagged on the cactus.
“Sorry,” Brian said. “I didn’t want to leave it there.”
Obi picked up the bikini’s top and examined it in the light from the living room. Dangling cords connected two small red triangles decorated with gold stars. It didn’t seem like clothing at all. Jolly swam in a one-piece blue Speedo with wide shoulder straps. Obi tossed the bikini across the gap to Brian. “This is nothing like Jolly. I don’t think it belongs to her.”
Brian folded the suit carefully into a single neat triangle like a flag. “Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
Obi turned away. Now he could go home. Jolly didn’t live here anymore.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Amy Gustine.