The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 4, No. 1

The Witch (After a Story by Chekhov)

by Francine Prose

Struggling beneath the thickening snow, the windshield wipers croak why why why why, which is what Zip wants to know. Why the hell precisely is he out here in a blizzard, on a winding road, at midnight, taking the curves at fifty? It's got to be a bad sign when your wiper blades start talking. Getting killed would be a worse sign, a billboard lit up by that final flash, giant letters spelling it out: Zip's pushed his luck too far. He should have taken early retirement, he's been eligible since July, but he refused--a huge mistake about to be corrected when his patrol car wraps itself around the nearest tree. Right now, he could be home in bed watching TV with Irene, or playing computer games with Charlie, if the kid's still awake, instead of driving through a storm just because Jerry Greco's wife, Marianne, called in crying that Jerry was trying to kill her again.
    Wind crashes into the car door, snow weighs down the wipers now barely clearing one frosted saucer of glass. The road is slick as a tablecloth, and naturally Zip has to wonder what's to keep God from yanking it just to see everything slide.
    Lately, Zip's been getting superstitious. It's genetics kicking in, like one of those time-bomb chromosomes you pray your kid won't inherit. Zip's grandmother couldn't leave the house without first touching every icon, every raccoon-eyed Virgin, every bearded saint famous for slaying a dragon or bringing the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavic people. These days Baba would have a diagnosis: obsessive-compulsive disorder. The family's diagnosis came closer: a lunatic and a witch. Zip's mom believed Baba could do things; once, when Zip's mom was driving her to a doctor's appointment, Baba started mumbling gibberish and Zip's mom drove off the road. Obviously, Zip comes from generations of thinking that magic spells count for more than, say, driving experience or skill. Twenty years as a state trooper, eighteen of marriage, a kid who's almost fourteen, a lifetime as a normal guy, and Zip's turning into Baba.
    Zip sucks on his doughnut-shop coffee. The caffeine doesn't help.
    Who says snowstorms are quiet? This one's making a racket, the plop of sodden flakes, the shrieking wind competing with the groans from the trees. As a kid, Zip was scared of driving in weather like this. Then for years he got used to it, and now he's scared again. Some chemical change has turned him into one of those paranoids who think Fate's got nothing better to do than smack you around for staying too long at the party. Is it Fate? Or statistics? You always hear about cops getting killed with two weeks until retirement.
    More like water than solid ground, the blacktop slips beneath him. It would help if Zip knew the road, but though he's lived in the county all his life, he hardly ever gets out here. Certainly, he's never been to Jerry and Marianne's. He sees Jimmy at the barracks and at meetings. Maybe once a year, at Christmas parties and such, he talks to Marianne--boozy, sociable conversations that, strangely, he finds himself thinking about later. But they're not the type who give the jolly hot-dog-and-beer summer cookouts. The far edge of the county is the perfect place for the Grecos. They could kill each other every night, and no one but their kids would hear them.
    The last time he drove this road, it was a gorgeous spring morning. A little girl had come into school claiming she'd seen a human head in a plastic bag in the woods by her bus stop. A pathological liar. But you have to check this stuff out. The grade-school principal, Sally Mayhew, rode beside him in front, and they both half pretended Sally wasn't gay, unseriously flirting, while the kid in the back babbled on about her mom's movie-star friends, all her dad's new cars, the lady's head with blond pigtails--the little girl had blond pigtails--in the pumpkin leaf bag.
    She'd led them to a spot by side of the road. "Oops," the kid said. "She's not here anymore."
    Zip is just as certain that there won't be a corpse when, and if, he gets to Jerry Greco's house. Every couple of months, for years, somebody's had to go out there. It's always a little . . . delicate, since Jerry's on the force. Headquarters tries to send Lois Ryan, when she's on duty, because this isn't your high-risk domestic violence, the crackpot waving the broken bottle, it's some chick thing, Marianne Greco loaded on vodka and pills, crying that her life is shit, while Jerry, also hammered, paces around the edges, yelling that Marianne needs to check herself into a dry-out clinic. The whole force knows about it, and they all pretend they don't. It's a small division. They've got to work together.
    How can people live like that? Zip can't understand it. When he and Irene have an argument--for example, the one that grew out of her asking why Zip all of a sudden wanted to lose so much weight, the fight that escalated into Zip saying Irene knew goddamn well she didn't want him taking early retirement, and Irene saying well, actually, what did Zip plan to do with his time?--Zip feels gloomy and tired for days. Some people must like drama. The fighting. The making up.
    Marianne and Jerry probably have every reason to want to kill each other. Jerry's got girlfriends all over the county, amazingly, since Marianne's got him on such a short leash that when Jerry's an hour late for dinner she calls in to the station and asks if there's been an accident on the road. Zip's pretty sure that Jerry is harmless. But there's always that guy everyone swears wouldn't hurt a fly until the night he chops up his wife into little tiny pieces. Plus Jerry's a fellow trooper, and if something did happen and Zip got there, let's say, twenty minutes late, the story would be all over the state, he might as well retire.
    And finally, there's this: Marianne called in, as she always does, and then Jerry called in, as he always does, and said to ignore Marianne, as he always does, and then he called back a few minutes later and said maybe they should send someone out. Which he never does. Ever.
    Zip turns right, the wheels go left. Zip thinks, I'm dead, until adrenaline jump-starts his instinct and he lets the car do what it wants. The wheel spinning in his hands makes him feel like a circus bear driving one of those tiny cars. But he's not a bear anymore, he's dropped twenty pounds in six months on the "Zip" Ziprilic diet: all the coffee he can drink. His doctor's thrilled, his cholesterol's dropped, Zip likes the way he looks. For the first time in his life, his nickname doesn't seem like a joke. Only Zip's heart doesn't like it. It's been doing this trippy salsa beat, down low, so maybe it's only his stomach. Irene thinks the weight loss means he's having an affair, which he isn't. Though lately he's had the feeling that there is less . . . interference between him and other people, especially women, which is why he could flirt like that with Sally Mayhew as he drove around thinking that he was a lucky guy, a grown man getting paid to cruise a lovely country road with a nice-looking friendly lesbian grade-school principal on a beautiful spring morning.
    Tonight Zip feels less lucky as he tries to convince himself that the storm is letting up and that by some miracle he'll find the house. The mailboxes are miles apart and already buried in snow. He'll drive around forever and then get stuck at the bottom of a hill, radio in, freeze his ass off in the car all night until the roads are plowed and somebody comes to get him.
    The house should be somewhere around here. He slows down, but not enough to lose the power he needs to get up the inclines.
    Suddenly, just as Zip is driving by, a gust of wind lifts the snow off the top of a mailbox, and he sees the name: GRECO. Come on, how freaky is that? Maybe it's God trying to help him save Marianne Greco's life, or Fate sadistically ushering him from one death trap into another.
    Through the veiled windshield, clumped with white, Zip makes out your basic prefab split-level--a cheaper and less cared-for version of his own. The Grecos' downstairs lights are blazing, the upstairs windows are dark.
    Zip parks at the bottom of the driveway. Later, Jerry can help him dig out. He honks the horn--a big friendly shave-and-a-haircut how-are-ya--just as he was taught during that wasted weekend of Domestic Violence Training. Don't surprise somebody high on all the ordinary substances plus the domestic-violence chemicals. Zip can't imagine hitting Irene, their fights don't go like that, either she sulks for three days or becomes so logical that, all right, he's had fantasies of wringing her neck, just to make her shut up. The fantasy passes in a heartbeat--as it does for Jerry, Zip hopes. Zip couldn't imagine hurting Irene. Lately she's seemed so fragile, first the lactose intolerance, then the wheat allergy. That's why she doesn't want Zip around the house, it must take her all day to figure out what she can and can't eat. That's not fair. Zip loves Irene. He wishes he were with her and Charlie right now. Maybe that's why he kept working--so he could feel this desperate, lonely longing to be home.
    He puts on his jacket, pulls up the hood, and heads up the drive. The snow is halfway up his calves and keeps melting into his boots. Thank God he lost the extra weight, it's tough enough trudging through the drifts, and it's so humiliating to show up huffing and puffing. There's a place by the front steps from which Zip can see into the living-room window, and that's where he pauses to catch his breath. His heart is jumping again.
    Didn't they hear his car horn? Why aren't they looking out? Jerry's on the sofa, Marianne on the love seat, both just sitting there. Stunned. Not talking. Nothing looks torn apart, Marianne's face is okay, everything fine and dandy.
    Except for the two handguns, one on the end table beside Marianne, the other on the couch next to Jerry. Two guns. Enough bullets for everyone and the kids, as well. If Zip had any brains, he'd turn around and get back in the car and take early retirement tonight.
    Zip knocks, gently but firmly. Jerry lets him in. How warm and bright the house is! Shelter from the storm! Jerry flashes Zip a big goofy smile that might be more welcoming if not for Jerry's pointy little cat teeth, which go right along with his caged-bobcat nervous energy, the scary ratio of tension and instinct to brains that has always put Jerry Greco near the bottom of the list of guys Zip would want to work with.
    Jerry's T-shirt and jeans look slept in, or grabbed off the bedroom floor. He squeezes Zip's shoulder and says, "Man, am I glad to see you. What a night, huh? They're predicting a foot and a half, but what the hell do they know?"
    Zip follows Jerry into the living room and gets as far as the doorway. That's when he sees the icons jammed into every corner, all the old familiar faces, Our Blessed Virgin of Whatnot, St. Michael and St. George, the two tall guys with the long white beards. What are they doing here? He hasn't seen them since Baba died. Obviously, a coincidence. Zip feels oddly dingy. Too much caffeine, for a change. He doesn't want his hands shaking, especially if he has to separate the Grecos from their guns.
    Fortunately Marianne and Jerry are too out of it to notice where Zip's looking. So there's no need for a little group excursion down memory lane, back to somebody's Orthodox childhood, that sinkhole of superstition that Zip's been running from ever since. Whereas someone in this house--it's got to be Marianne--has never left that place where you tear out big fistfuls of hair, crying to a Madonna who, any moron could tell, has more problems than you do.
    Jerry's sunk back into his couch. The spazzy way he keeps reaching out and touching his gun is exactly how Zip's grandmother used to poke you at inappropriate random moments. Might as well add Tourette's syndrome to Baba's diagnosis. His grandmother's got his attention now, from beyond the grave, and while he's spaced out and distracted by this voodoo paranoia, Jerry Greco will pick up his gun and blow them all away. Baba's last little joke.
    Baba was a witch, which is, come to think of it, what Marianne Greco looks like with her long crazy black hair, her dark eyes ringed with smudged makeup.
    Marianne says, "Hey, Zip, good to see you. Would you mind taking off your boots?"
    Would Marianne mind go fucking herself? He's not dropping by for a beer! Then he looks down and, sure enough, his boots are seeping grainy black puddles into the grayish wall-to-wall. Zip crouches and unlaces his boots, clumsily shakes them off. He feels like Jack in "Jack and the Beanstalk." He'll never leave here alive. He looks around at this giant's lair--functional, modern, somehow institutional despite the children's sneakers and toys piled up in the corners.
    "Jesus, Zip," Marianne says. "You lost a ton of weight."
    "No cake," says Jerry. "That's all it took. Am I right?"
    "That's all it took," says Zip.
    "Please," says Marianne. "Sit down. You want something? Coffee? A beer?"
    Zip would love some coffee. "No thanks. You guys called in?"
    "Sit." Jerry gestures at a recliner placed conveniently between Marianne's love seat and Jerry's couch. Not so conveniently, as it turns out, because when Zip sits and the couple begins to talk, Zip has to swivel between them while still trying to keep one eye on the guns.
    "Well," says Jerry, "we were sleeping."
    "You were sleeping," says Marianne. "You know I haven't slept in, like, six months."
    "You were snoring," says Jerry.
    "Fuck you," says Marianne.
    "Marianne," says Jerry. "Give Zip a fucking break."
    "All right," says Zip. "You guys called into the station. That's what this is about."
    "Okay," says Jerry. "I was sleeping. I heard noises downstairs. Someone walking around. Maybe I was still dreaming, but I was sure I could hear the fucker moving from room to room. I asked myself a million times, was I awake, and then I got my gun out of the nightstand, got dressed, and went downstairs to look around."
    "Did Jerry say anything to you?" Zip asks Marianne.
    Marianne props her elbows on her knees and leans forward. The cuff of her pink terry bathrobe falls back, revealing her thin forearm, on which she's wearing a thin gold bracelet.
    "Marianne," says Jerry, "you're falling out of your clothes." Zip looks up just in time to see the tops of Marianne's breasts before Marianne makes a face at Jerry and tightens the sash on her robe. She doesn't look like a pill freak. She and Jerry seem all too sober.
    "I don't know," she says. "Maybe I dozed off. Anyway, I finally heard it, too. Footsteps downstairs. And Jerry wasn't in bed. I figured it was Jerry going to get a snack, but I don't know, something felt weird, something told me to check for Jerry's gun. It wasn't in his nightstand. So right away I got nervous. What if something happened to Jerry, and it wasn't him down there, But some other guy, some stranger--"
    "Wishful thinking, ha ha," says Jerry.
    Marianne rolls her eyes. "So I'm not, like, about to yell, Oh, Jerry, dear. Is that you? Let the guy know where I am. So I get my gun from my night table."
    Marianne's looking hard at Zip, but strangely, he doesn't notice until she cuts her eyes to the gun and he realizes that he and Marianne are in intense visual communication. He sees Jerry noticing, too. How ironic if Zip, who never cheated on Irene, got blown away on duty by a jealous hothead like Jerry Greco.
    Jerry says, "I got her the gun after Lorraine Prentiss got held up down in Reedsville--"
    "It wasn't then," says Marianne. "It was when that kid down the road was doing all that half-assed breaking and entering--"
    "Craig DeBellis," says Jerry.
    "You know something strange?" says Zip. "Last spring, I got this call, this kid from the grade school said she'd seen a human head at her bus stop. Heather DeBellis. Isn't it weird I'd remember the kid's name?"
    "Everyone on this road is named DeBellis," says Marianne. "Except us. Gross. Was there a head?"
    "No," says Zip. "People imagine things all the time."
    "Tell me about it," says Marianne. "Anyhow, I got my gun and kind of snuck downstairs, and I hear this noise and turn toward it, and so help me Jesus Christ I'm just about to aim and shoot when the sensor light, you know, the security light, goes on outside. A deer must have passed or something. And I see it's Jerry, backlit, pointing his gun at me."
    "We could have killed each other," says Jerry. "We could have fucking killed each other. Man, we came as close as that . . ." He pinches the air with his thumb and forefinger.
    Something is wrong with this story. Zip's got it. A deer in a snowstorm.
    "But you didn't," Zip says. "Kill each other. And the intruder?"
    "Must have been the wind," says Jerry. "Listen to it out there."
    Zip says, "So Marianne calls in because . . .?"
    "Flipped out. Hormones. As usual. She's like one of those sports cars goes from zero to seventy in six seconds. Totally bananas, crying, blubbering, saying I'm trying to kill her. I don't love her. I hate her. The usual shit. Women. Shit."
    Zip can't look at Marianne. "But you weren't trying to kill her, Jerry. And then you called in."
    "Okay," says Jerry. "This is the hard part. But you're right, I called in, so fuck it, I might as well deal with it. Right? I was scared. I mean it. I thought: You know, if Marianne and I did kill each other, there wouldn't be a single person in the whole world, probably not even our own kids, who wouldn't think we'd done it on purpose. Everyone would say: All right. They finally did it. What the hell took them so long? And I'll be honest. That scared the shit out of me. It fucking terrified me, man."
    "Terrified," says Marianne. "Now he gets fucking terrified."
    Zip's a little nervous himself, because he'd also been thinking that Jerry and Marianne probably had a million reasons to murder each other, and if they'd wound up dead, accidentally or not, everyone would have assumed that they'd done it on purpose . .
    "Are you okay?" Marianne asks. "Oh, God, are we freaking you out?"
    "Yes," Zip says. "I mean no. I'm fine."
    "Christ, Marianne," Jerry says. "Zip's a cop. Not a fucking marriage counselor."
    As if on cue, a series of shrieks float downstairs. "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
    "It's Chris," says Marianne. "For you."
    "Duh. I know it's Chris," says Jerry. "Can't you go? See what he wants. I'll owe you one."
    "One," says Marianne. "You'll owe me one. I can tell you what he wants. He wants you."
    "Who would you want?" she asks Zip. "The dishrag mom who washes your socks and wipes your ass and gets dinner on the table? Or the dad who comes home in a uniform with the snappy hat and gun and handcuffs and shiny badges? What would a seven-year-old boy want? Who would anyone want?"
    "Okay, buddy," Jerry yells upstairs. "Dad's coming. I'm on my way." He shrugs at Zip, then takes off, leaving his gun on the table. If these were strangers, Zip would pocket the gun, telling the wife he was just holding it for safekeeping. But with Jerry and Marianne, that would be . . . socially awkward.
    Marianne listens with the back of her head till the noise upstairs dies down. She rakes her hand through her hair, then jackknifes forward and wraps her robe tighter. Okay, there's that witch thing, but there's something else, too, some restless dissatisfied energy animating her long skinny body that--if this were any other situation and anyone but Marianne Greco--Zip thinks he might find sexy. Interesting, at least.
    Silence. Silence. More silence. Marianne looks at her gun.
    Zip says, "How old are the kids now?"
    "Besides Chris?" says Marianne. "Zack's fifteen. Patty's eleven. What's Charlie now?"
    "Twelve?" says Zip, then thinks: Thirteen.
    After another silence, Marianne says, "Seen Lois lately?" But she's not really asking. It's shorthand to find out if Zip knows how often Lois Ryan has driven out here in the line of duty.
    "Lois is fine. Off tonight, I guess."
    "Lucky her," says Marianne. "You know the real reason he got me that gun? Because he's never home."
    Is Zip supposed to admit he knows? "Marianne . . ." he says.
    "Let me talk," she says. "I assume you figured out that Jerry's not being on his side of the bed was not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime event."
    "I got that much," Zip says.
    Marianne shivers, grabbing her arms, though the house is overheated--as Zip notices, only now. It must cost them a fortune to keep the place like this, with the wind raging outside, flinging snow against the windows. Zip wriggles out of his jacket, trying not to interrupt the conversation. Marianne's shoulders ripple, reflexively mirroring his, and her bathrobe gaps again to reveal a curve of breast arcing under her nightgown.
    "Mostly it's fine with me," she says. "I'd rather be alone. You know . . ." Her pause is a warning. Zip doesn't want to hear what's coming. "I'll bet you think Jerry's a normal guy, a sane, normal guy. That's what everybody thinks, especially his girlfriends. Even the guy's own kids don't know how nuts he is. But trust me. The guy's insane."
    "Marianne . . ." Zip tries again.
    "Please, Zip. Don't Marianne me. You wouldn't believe the crazy shit he says. All this stuff" -- she waves at the icons -- "they're his. Jerry's a believer. I feel like I married my grandmother. And that's the sensible part of him. He's way more fucked up than that. He goes into these jealous rages, saying I'm some kind of witch, that I'm making guys think about me, look at me, which wouldn't even make sense even if we ever went anywhere where guys could look at me. At some point tonight, probably the minute you leave, he's going to come out with some paranoid bullshit about how I brought you here with my magic powers."
    Zip misses the next few sentences. Once more he's distracted by Marianne's saying that Jerry thinks she's a witch when he, Zip, has been thinking that's what she looks like. Well, Marianne looks like a witch. Anyone would think it.
    ". . . and it's not exactly like I need a black cat to go out and spy around. My girlfriend calls one day, and it takes me half an hour to figure out she's trying to tell me that Jerry's fucking that teenage nympho slut from the beauty parlor in Loudonberg."
    Even Zip knew about that one. Word got around the force that Jerry was giving this big-haired high-school jailbait free rides in his patrol car.
    "You knew, right?" says Marianne.
    "You mean Amy Fisher?" Zip likes making Marianne smile.
    "So it wasn't exactly top secret. But this time I couldn't stand it. So one day I drive into Loudonberg and walk right into Quickie Cuts, No Appointment Necessary, and tell her I want my hair cut. Of course she knows who I am, I know who she is. It's one of those moments, everybody knows everything, no one says a word. You tell me how ballsy that is, letting some slut your husband's fucking get her hands on your hair."
    Zip looks at Marianne's tangled hair. No one's had their hands on it in a while.
    "This was last year," says Marianne. "I ask for a trim. We go through the whole charade, she washes my hair, takes off a quarter inch, exactly like I tell her. Finally I check the mirror and say, Perfect, great, could I borrow the scissors? There's this one teensy stray hair I need to get... I liked how she got nervous, but only for a second, because we were both so good at pretending that I just happened to be some woman who wanted a haircut, and she just happened to be some little whore who cut hair.
    "I took the scissors and threw them across the room. They landed right between the eyes of this blond model in a poster for some bullshit pixie haircut. And they stuck there, the scissors stuck there, kind of . . . twanging in the wall."
    Would scissors do that? Zip wonders. You'd have to throw them hard.
    Marianne says, "I can't throw. I can hardly play catch with the kids. So maybe Jerry's right, maybe I am a witch. Everyone thinks I am, so I might as well be. But listen, let me ask you: If I was a witch, if I had magic powers, why would I let my marriage get to the point where I was flinging scissors around some low-rent beauty parlor in Loudonville? The point where I believe that the fucker is trying to kill me. Listen, when I call into the station, I mean it, when Lois comes out here, I mean it, and then a couple days pass, and I forget until it happens again. You think a witch would live like that? An abused wife lives like that."
    Zip can't help it. "Marianne, has Jerry ever . . . ?"
    "Jesus. Please," says Marianne. "That's not what I'm saying at all. If I was using my powers to get you out here, wouldn't I have fixed myself up first? You think I'd look like this?"
    "You look fine," says Zip. "Anyhow, you and Jerry called."
    "I rest my case," says Marianne. "But okay. As I was saying. It was like something guided my hand and put that scissors between the model's eyes on that poster. And it was pretty soon afterwards that bitch dumped Jerry. For which, needless to say, he blamed me."
    Marianne leans forward, and now Zip does, too. She says, "I'll be honest. There's been a million times I wanted to shoot him. But it just so happens that tonight wasn't one of them. But I thought the same thing he did. That if he and I killed each other everybody would think we meant it. I figured that out before he did. And Jerry's right. It was scary."
    Zip feels something like . . . jealousy. But what could he possibly envy?
    "And that's when I thought: he's killing me, and I called in, and Jerry called. And then he called back. How many times has he called in when we were having trouble?"
    Zip shrugs. What's he supposed to say?
    "Never," says Marianne.
    There's something Zip's not getting, the step that leads from their not killing each other to Marianne thinking Jerry is--thinking it seriously enough to call in to the station. But that's how they play it out here. Some people count to ten when they're mad. Others throw dishes. Some pick up the phone and call the troopers their husbands work with.
    Marianne makes a cup with her hand and presses it over her eyes. "Jesus Christ," she says. "Do you know how embarrassing this is?"
    "Don't be embarrassed," Zip says. "Marriage isn't easy." What the hell is Zip talking about? And what's made Marianne take her hands from her face and stare at him across the room. What is she seeing in his face? Zip doesn't have a clue. Still, there's something exciting about a woman looking that long until Marianne ends their little moment by bursting into tears.
    "What am I supposed to do now?" she says, between gulping sobs. "I'm forty-one. I've got three kids. Am I supposed to start over? Look for another guy? Go back to shaving my legs?"
    Zip sneaks a look at the fine dark hair climbing up Marianne's calves. Ordinarily, he doesn't like hairy legs. Irene gets hers waxed at the mall, he thinks guiltily--guilty because an unprofessional, inappropriate, tiny . . . hiccup of lust is making him want to push up Marianne's robe and see. Ordinarily, for that matter, he doesn't like women crying. Irene did lots of crying before her crackpot nutritionist figured out about the wheat allergy. Suddenly, it occurs to Zip: Irene has a crush on that nut.
    Zip has heard guys say that when their wives or kids cry, it makes you want to give them something to cry about. Whereas Zip just wants to be somewhere, with anyone else but Irene. That's what women's tears do to him. Yet right now, for some reason, he thinks it would be criminal, pitiless--inhuman--not to get up and cross the room and sit down next to Marianne and put his arm around her.
    Under Zip's hand, Marianne's thin shoulder trembles like a hamster, trapped in fuzzy chenille. Marianne leans against him, at which point Zip's soul vacates his body and watches it hugging his co-worker's wife. The only way he can come down is to convince himself he's just seeing a trooper comforting a domestic 911.
    "Feel this." Marianne takes his other hand and puts in inside her robe. Zip's hand is twice the size of hers, but it lets itself be led, burrowing into the warm dark place between soft robe and softer skin.
    "Feel my heart," says Marianne.
    Zip can't feel a thing. And then he thinks he can: a bubble swelling and popping lightly against her rib cage. Or maybe it's his own heart, doing that dance the coffee's taught it.
    It started before the coffee. That's why Zip lost the weight.
    "Feel how unevenly it's beating," says Marianne. "That's what I mean: he's killing me. I'm not saying that just to say it! What else can I do but call in?"
    Of course, it's then that Jerry appears, bouncing down the stairs.
    "Great," says Jerry, meaning them, meaning Zip's arms flying from around Jerry's wife's shoulders and out from under her robe. "Would you look at this? Is this beautiful, or what?"
    "Mariannne was upset," Zip says, jumping up and springing back to his chair, trying at the same time to keep semi-focused on Jerry's gun.
    But it's one of those times that Marianne was just describing. Everyone knows everything, and no one says a word. It's clear that Jerry doesn't want to kill Zip. He doesn't want to kill Marianne. If he did, this would be the moment. No one wants to kill anyone, except maybe Zip, who could still get creamed driving home in the storm. Neither of those guns will be fired tonight. Zip can cash it in, and take off.
    "I'm really sorry, man," Jerry says. "Dragging you out in weather like this. Shit, I don't know what got into me. Into Marianne. You don't need to drive home in this. Want to spend the night?"
    Looking over at Marianne isn't anything Zip can control. And Marianne's staring right back at him. So it's not all in his mind. Something's going on here. No one says it has to make sense. He would give anything to know what Marianne's expression means. But what doesn't he know, exactly? It means she wants him to stay. Really, it would be smarter to stay. He could call Irene. Irene would rather he stay over than try to get back in this blizzard.
    "That's okay," says Zip. "I'll make it. Don't worry about it."
    All this time, he's looking at Marianne, whose disappointment is so visible, it's as if they've had a long affair and he's just told her he's leaving. What's worse is, Zip is horribly sure that the same look is on his face.
    "Are you positive?" says Marianne. "You could stay on the couch. Or Chris could sleep with us, he'd love it, and you could have his room."
    "Positive," says Zip. "I've got to get back."
    "Fine, then," says Marianne.
    "I'll walk you to the car," Jerry says. "I'll bring a shovel, just in case."
    Doesn't Jerry see what's going on? So what if he does? Zip's leaving. Jerry goes to get his coat. Zip follows him into the hall. Marianne rises, then stops in the living-room doorway, the gold icons winking behind her.
    "Well . . . thanks . . ." Marianne's voice trails off.
    "Don't mention it." Zip's manly response is undermined by the awkwardness of putting on his boots.
    "Ready?" says Jerry.
    "Drive carefully," says Marianne.
    "See you," Zip says, without turning.
    But when at last they get outside, and the wet snow whips their faces, it takes all of Zip's self-control not to turn and look back to see if Marianne's watching. The warmth they've brought with them from inside lasts about a second before the cold sneaks under their jackets and their teeth start chattering lightly, a reflex that neither Zip nor Jerry wants the other to see. They take the first few steps boldly, stomping in and out of the drifts, but soon slow up and stagger down the drive, bending almost double against the stinging wind.
    "Motherfucker!" Jerry shouts at the wind.
    Zip doesn't have to answer. His only job is to get to the car. Finally he succeeds. He brushes the snow from the windshield and climbs inside.
    "Get in," he tells Jerry. "At least while I try to start this."
    Jerry props the shovel against the car and slides into the passenger seat. Miraculously, the car starts up and eases forward out of its space.
    "Okay, then," says Zip. "Take it easy, man." But Jerry isn't moving.
    "I need to tell you something," he says. "About what happened tonight. This is going to sound crazy. But trust me on this. Marianne's a witch. I told you, I know it sounds crazy, but I've seen her do shit you wouldn't believe . . . Listen, the first time I met her mother, this was back in Brooklyn, her mother tells me that when Marianne was a kid, they'd go to church on Sunday, this is in the Orthodox church, where everyone stands up--"
    "I know about it," says Zip.
    "Her mother tells me that every Sunday, in the summer, a bunch of people would faint, and it was always the people standing directly around Marianne. And she always thought it was Marianne. Clearing herself some room. Her own mom tells me this, and I don't listen!"
    Mother of God, it's Zip's dead grandmother speaking to him in the voice of a not-very-smart and probably crazy cop! Baba always talked like that, blamed the neighbors for souring the milk by looking at her funny. And there was always that same wild look, that same wacky glint in her eyes. Isn't that what Marianne said? It's like living with my grandmother. Zip remembers his mother--dead for how long now? Could it really be five years?--telling him how Baba's mumbling made her drive off the road.
    Zip's attention drifts briefly, but snaps right back when Jerry says, "How do you think you got here tonight? Man, you cannot believe how many guys get lost around here, the FedEx man, the UPS man, the electric-meter reader, they're always knocking on the door, Marianne's bringing them up here, and I know it's just a matter of time before one of them decides to stay. Or comes back. Or calls her. And if she leaves me, it'll kill me. I swear. Look, I know what you're thinking. I'm not exactly a saint. But let me tell you: there's a difference between nookie and a woman who can make weird shit happen. The mother of your children."
    It's not just that Jerry could say this stuff, but that Jerry believes it, and the naked longing that creeps into his voice when he talks about Marianne, the love and terror, respect and desire, all knotted and gnarled up together. Jerry doesn't care if Zip hears. He doesn't care who's watching. How slow Zip's been to understand: Jerry loves his wife. He's terrified of losing her, and who's to say he isn't right? Jesus, what went on at that house? What happened between Zip and Marianne? Zip feels a bolt of sheer longing sizzling through his chest. Was Marianne at the Christmas party this year? Why didn't he pay attention? It's another year--eleven months--till Christmas comes again. Maybe Jerry's right about her. Some people have strange powers.
    Zip says, "I don't know, Jerry. I don't think Marianne's planning to leave you. Like we were saying, people imagine things. And Jerry . . . there aren't witches, really. No one believes that shit. Your grandmother believed it. Think about it, Jerry--"
    "Oh, really?" says Jerry. "Really? How did you get here tonight?"
    "You and Marianne called, remember? Picked up the phone and called. That's a little different from her dragging me out here by magic."
    "I mean, how did you find the house, wise guy? This weather sucks. You can't see two feet. The mailbox is covered with snow."
    Zip sees an image, clear as a film. Snow gusting off the mailbox just as he drives by. He shakes his head to get rid of it.
    "Homing instinct," he says. "Speaking of which . . ."
    "All right," says Jerry. "I'll let you go. Hey, man, listen. This is, like, our little secret, right?"
    "Sure," says Zip. "No problem. Who am I going to tell?"
    "Okay, then. Drive safely, man. Thanks again. See you at work." Jerry gets out of the car.
    "Take it easy," says Zip.
    Zip waits with the engine running until he's sure that Jerry's back home. A shiver crawls down the back of his spine. Is it cold--or fear? What if Jerry kills Marianne--and Zip never sees her again? Then he gets out and takes a piss, looking up at the house.
    If Marianne Greco were a witch, why would she live in that dump? It's not the gingerbread cottage, not the hut on chicken legs. Because she isn't one, Zip thinks. There are no bolts of magic sparking around that split-level. There was no head in the trash bag. Just people making up stories and telling them until they believe them. No evil vibrations crackling, except between the Grecos, no deer in the security light, no intruder downstairs, no scissors twanging between the eyes of a model in a poster, no grandmother playing with Zip's head from beyond the grave.
    How he wishes there were all those things. But he knows there aren't. There is only a plain, thrown-together house, not so different from his own, disappearing, inch by inch, under the deepening snow.