Law of Motion
First published in Elder Mountain, A Journal of Ozarks Studies, Volume 4
Andrea was at the kitchen table amid documents, decrees and letters that made up the elements and variants of her life. The formula to make sense of it all was a secret. Home from work she'd shucked her dress quickly in favor of sweats, her hair gathered in a ponytail reaching to her waist. She did not feel yet, after twelve weeks, at home in this house. Stephan's absence accentuated her ill ease. The place sprawled with the empty spaces of a man's decoration, but was warm with dark woods and bright light from big windows without curtains looking out on a sloping front yard a hundred yards to the road. Always before the man had moved into her house.
Rig had, into her bandbox rental on Higby Street, just down from the high school and less than a mile from Amyx where she monthly coaxed an obsolete computer system into completing one more payroll before conking out for good. Rig Oxley and Andrea met, joined and shared an address in the space of two hundred minutes. Rig had only a well-worn duffel to hustle in from the car to mark his place. The wedding came, as it inevitably did, a month later.
Andrea was easy to please.
It was a trick done with mirrors, a pact made with the Devil who was herself. Andrea, through the progression of bad men none better than the last, refused to be downtrodden, unhappy with her lot. She endured by promising herself that when a good man came along neither would she take the credit for that but merely accept it as due, a matter of what was most likely to happen sooner or later and as impermanent, fleeting as the sorrow she'd swallowed with the same resolution.
It sounded good in theory.
Stephan shot his cuffs before extending a hand to the ill-shaven man who'd hesitantly slipped through the funeral home's gilt front door and squeezed timidly through. Grief expressed itself in different ways, and Stephan greeted all its forms with the same composed concern.
In his tailored suit and with pampered black hair Stephan projected an image contrary to his fellow local businessmen. The thirty-five-year-old came home two years ago to run the family mortuary with the understanding that he would always bear the mark of someone who had chosen to return, who had not been dragged. He had been away. Now he was back. He could go away again. By his dress and his posture, his newspaper subscriptions and his weekend travel itineraries he announced that he was from, but not of, the town. Stephan carried himself above the town.
The man did not accept Stephan's hand.
"You Stephan Garrett?" he said softly, staring at a spot on the floor in front of Stephan's shoetips.
"Yes, sir. How can I help you today?" he replied. The poorest looking people often spent the most, and in cash too.
"You taken up with Andrea Oxley?" he said without explicit menace.
"Mr. Oxley, won't you come into my office?" Stephan leaned toward the man to better hear. He smelled like lemon dish soap.
Having never met him before, and looking much different than Stephan pictured, only a snap realization – Andrea was ever on his mind lately and he found himself seeing the world through a filter that included her life as well as his own – allowed Stephan to identify Rig Oxley. Once the absurd idea occurred to him, there was no doubt.
"I'd rather take it outside," Rig Oxley responded, turned and left the building in taciturn conclusion to any further discussion.
Rig, the felon; Rig, the ex-con; Rig, the ex-husband; Rig, the spurned lover stood by the only vehicle in the lot, a battered Chevy pickup swathed in primer. Stephan thought of this short, rough-hewn man in none of those ways. He didn't think of him. His thoughts were of Andrea: What in God's name could she have been thinking.
"Look, Rig, we've got nothing to talk about," Stephan said. "And I'd prefer you leave Andrea alone, too."
"We've got something to talk about," Rig said, lifting his face to Stephan's with a grin that was one part sheep, three parts wolf. "Ain't this a pretty pistol?"
He produced a gun from his jacket pocket. The weapon looked like a toy in his huge hand. The gun was black-blue and shimmered like the head of a mallard.
"You've got more to be afraid of from that thing than I do," Stephan said. "The sheriff picks you up with it and you're straight back to Algoa."
"I'm glad you're free to go huntin' with me this morning," Rig said, the gun back out of sight. "I hear the woods is full a squirrel."
It was not fear that made Stephan go along, it was not fear Rig hoped to instill. There were only facts that one man implied and the other inferred.
It was not fear that made Stephan get in that truck, it was acceptance.
Stephan slid onto the cracked vinyl seat. Oxley walked around the front of the pickup, head bowed, brow knitted. The funeral director wasn't thinking of the dead woman he'd left inside, nor of the danger of Rig Oxley. One thing occupied his mind and would not be displaced.
It's a good month and a half 'til squirrel season, Stephan thought.
Andrea was a body in motion, tending to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, usually male.
She was a polished aluminum disc on an incline of oiled glass, her life a trajectory straight and constant save when contacted, ever so slightly, by men, but still utterly predictable in its speed and direction, bound by the laws of physics that Andrea quietly accepted as befitted a simple respect for those laws. Thus Andrea withstood the vicissitudes of life, never despairing nor ever relishing torment or joy, recognizing each and both as only transitory. Neither unhappiness nor anger nor despair nor even, as she was now discovering, love could sway the immutable force of her fate.
Andrea was unable to explain her life, a forty-two-year journey from Pasadena, California, to West Plains, Missouri, through four marriages and seven jobs (not counting those, both jobs and marriages, lasting fewer than five days). A proper accounting required more detail and explanatory references, to all that had gone before and their subsequent effects and consequences back to even the day she was born, than people wanted to know.
"It's a long story," she'd taken to saying.
Depending on the light, Andrea appeared as either a polished gemstone or a ragged rock from the tumble of her troubles. Her hair, straight and black, she wore pulled taut, back from her angular face, its length a measure of how calm were the waters of her life. She did not adorn herself with jewelry or makeup. Her clothes were plain if worn past their useful life. Andrea was tattered.
Andrea could only say, had only ever wanted to say, that she was here and now.
For the first time she wished to halt her own hapless progress from one carom to another rebound. She was surprised at how naive she'd been. To think she'd considered the possibilities of life only infinite.
Stephan's coat and tie stuck out like blood on snow. He and Rig made up what would otherwise be an unnoteworthy scene, even on a weekday: Two men scrunched into a pickup cab, guns in rack and laps and a bottle in the glove compartment. The vehicle rumbled under them. Halfway through the red light Rig spoke, but not to Stephan.
"Don't go out thisaway. Go down to K and through Pottersville," he said, pronouncing the final syllable as though both cheeks were stuffed with rabbit pellets and his tongue were pumped full of Novocain. He spit, not menacingly or far, but wanly and close, his upper lip pursed over the lower one packed with snuff, into the neck of a sixteen-ounce Squirt bottle. It dribbled brown down the green glass marked with the dry-specked trails of earlier spittles, suffusing the cab with a sickly nicotine and wintergreen and spit smell like a poorly cleaned nursing home.
"What, and then KK?" Rig responded to himself in kind, not looking at the other but holding a conversation as though Stephan were not there and someone else were.
"Comes in the back way. Nobody ever down there," he concluded.
The truck belched and smoked and resisted Rig's efforts to reach highway speed. Before the acceleration peaked Rig had to brake and turn off again, the morning sun bright behind them and warming the cab already stuffy with the body heat of two grown men.
"So, you got a plan or what?" Stephan said jauntily, realizing immediately how injudicious it was to break the silent pact that he did not exist.
Rig eyed Stephan absently. No words passed. Rig turned to stare listlessly again at the road and, without a sideward glance, hooked Stephan's neck and pulled him down until the bridge of his nose met violently with the unpadded dash. And again, with surprising strength in such close quarters and while occupied by driving, Rig thrust Stephan forward. This time Stephan turned his head, taking the collision on his right cheek.
He could feel the skin around both eyes blackening, the muscle bruising. A tentative hand raised to his nose revealed the inevitable warm flow of blood.
Stephan said nothing more. Rig drove on.
Andrea, in the gathering darkness of Stephan's kitchen, reread letters from her ex-husband saved diligently over three years. The pages of scrawled script were preserved with a respect greater than that accorded the dry official documents from lawyers and judges, not for any evidentiary purpose or because she took them seriously, but only because she could not bring herself to discard emotions so passionately and, she knew, sincerely expressed.
Her former husband was a career criminal, a job description derived less from sophistication and ability but earned more by the fact that no sooner was he shut of one incarceration than he was caught again, each time incredulous that this perfect scheme, too, had been foiled. In his final failure he'd tried to sell a rare coin at one of three pawn shops in town and the police arrested him perfunctorily. They cuffed him even before he got out of the parking lot.
Andrea testified against him, taking the path of least resistance, and he did not begrudge her the betrayal. The prosecutor immediately offered Andrea immunity in exchange for her testimony. He didn’t ask what she would say. She neither had, nor needed, a lawyer to tell her to look out for herself first.
Nothing bars sexual discrimination being a force for good in the particular instance. Andrea, by virtue of her gender, did not meet any criminal profile in Howell County.
Rig had not objected to her testifying against him criminally but took a dimmer view of her efforts in court against him civilly. The divorce he could not abide, and let her know so repeatedly in letters that were, from the beginning, uncompromising in their violence. His chances had been better with the jury.
Still Rig, possessing neither guile nor wealth and confined to a prison cell almost two hundred miles away, prolonged the formal dissolution of his marriage to Andrea with only the aid of a jailhouse lawyer and the laws of the state of Missouri.
Rig's obstructionism consisted of scrawled letters spewing bile on frayed spiral paper. The natural bog of the system meant its justice moved at a glacial pace.
Only a month ago had the dissolution been finally decreed, ending a three-year struggle. Andrea had yet to receive completed papers from the court.
He wrote every week without fail, either short or long depending on the perceived injustice. Only days after her first date with Stephan he'd apprised her that he knew of it, disapproved, and vowed vengeance. That was eight months ago.
The final seven letters followed her to Stephan's home flagged by yellow forwarding address notices. Only in the last short note had Rig said, "Don't think I don't know where you are." And then for the month just past nothing, no letters at all, the absence more foreboding than the three years of unrelenting postal assault.
Andrea never knew she had such a vivid imagination.
The truck turned off onto successively smaller, more rutted, roads. Stephan was ignorant of his whereabouts. At last Rig pulled off the track into a make-do parking area. There were fire rings of blackened rocks, discarded beer cans and worn trees where horses had been hobbled; the unmistakable signs of a hunting camp. On a weekday and nothing in season to shoot at (spring turkey season remained weeks away) the place was deserted.
Rig cut the engine and all was quiet. Stephan was disconnected from the scene, not seeing it as a whole, compartmentalizing his thoughts. He wasn't afraid that way. He thought about the hunters that were here for deer season last fall, the men with guns casually gathering at mealtimes. Stephan thought about Rig Oxley, not the man before him, but the idea of a man he hadn't met, had only known as an entity imprisoned far away. He considered a hospital emergency room, having broken bones mended, broken skin sewn, handing over his insurance card and paying deductibles. Stephan remembered the grapefruit he'd had for breakfast. All these thoughts ran in his mind, on parallel tracks, none in touch with the other.
A thick blow across his back, neck and head sent Stephan stumbling forward. He pitched onto the ground hands first, skidded through flint and chert and collapsed full length. His body was heavy, but with effort he flipped over. Stephan felt the stones pressed deep in his palm, the bits of leaf stuck to the tacky blood on his head and face. The impact focused his thoughts, converged the tracks of his mind until they all intersected and he was violently in the moment, fully aware of the complete scene, and quite afraid.
Rig stood over him holding a three-foot log four inches across with beavered ends where someone had hacked out a piece of firewood. Stephan thought he could see hair, his own, embedded in the coarse oak bark.
"You gonna leave off with her? You learned to not go messin' with another man's woman? Huh?" he said nasally, not loud, but forcing the words out with great effort. He waggled the stick, trying to brandish it lightly but struggling against its unwieldy weight.
Stephan propped up on his elbows. The world looked as though it were not made for him, was not of him. Stephan in his pinstripe suit and red print tie certainly did not belong here amid wood and rocks and leaves and the entrails of gutted deer and his own blood soaked in the soil. White sunshine of winter shone through leafless limbs and dappled the forest floor fecund with funguses, molds and worms: The life that springs from death.
Quick, Rig was down there on the ground, too, on the same level and yet looming ominously, somehow greater than the sum of power he should have. Stephan felt it pressing hard at the soft spot of his temple, pressing with its own authority. The gun barrel felt branding-iron hot against his skin and hair.
"Scared? Check your drawers?" Rig whispered, blowing in his ear.
Once again Stephan's thoughts shattered like glass shards skittering over a tile floor. He skipped from one to the other trying to make sense of the whole now so irretrievably broken.
He saw the parts clearly. This wasn't about anything he'd done. Andrea herself was coincidental. It didn't even have anything to do with Rig. Only a view from space, seeing the globe in its entirety, and with an encyclopedic understanding of human motivations combined with a detailed knowledge of each of their lives, every second leading up to now, could explain this scene.
Only God knew what was happening.
Stephan was uncomforted.
She was still fishing through the cardboard box labeled V.I.P. in thick black marker for Very Important Papers. It was ten o'clock and she was drunk on an empty stomach and two bourbons.
She was drunk, not sharp of mind. Andrea came upon a golf scorecard with Stephan's phone number written neatly along the bottom. The drunkenness made her slow to recognize the feeling.
Stephan did not pursue her, he merely acknowledged her, was kind and civil and charming to her when weekly or more often he came in the office to pick up her boss for a round of golf. The kernel grew inside her that not only could a relationship be nurtured into existence (instead of being discovered whole, like a fallen coin on the sidewalk) but that she could initiate one herself.
Andrea was intrigued by him, a feeling unknown in her earlier linkings where attachment itself served as reason enough. She called him, full of trepidation at this simple act, unable to shake her mother's admonition that nice girls don't call boys. After a couple dates she found her interest growing, her curiosity and desire to know unsated.
In water-cooler conversation she glimpsed how skewed was her conception of the extraordinary. Her co-workers did not agree that Stephan was a revelation, only that he was a nice man and nothing more than Andrea deserved.
Deserved. And now unjustly imperiled.
The eight-month courtship played in her mind like time-lapse photography of a budding-then-blooming iris, unfolding in soft lavenders and pinks and whites. Her life was spent underground, dormant, awaiting the warmth of Stephan's shining attention to bring her out of a tight, compact bulb's existence.
She'd stepped in love before, got it all over her shoes and couldn't scrape the stuff off. She fell in love with Stephan – free falling through space, unable to catch her breath in the great rush of wind. Love had no parachute.
The doorbell, a single jarring note, cleared Andrea's head.
On the front stoop a sheriff's deputy stood, hands behind his back.
"Ma'am," he said when she opened the door, doffing his brown baseball cap. "Are you Andrea Oxley?"
The man shifted on his feet, sending up a sigh of stretching leather.
"We have bad news, ma'am," he said. "There's been an accident. You need to come along."
For a time she leaned back in the patrol car and was chauffeured.
"What happened?" She didn't want to know what had befallen Stephan, feared she already did.
"There was an accident, ma'am," the driver said. "A shooting. I'm afraid he's dead. Some ol' boys out spotlighting found the body a couple hours ago, out around Devil's Backbone."
The cruiser was nearing the hospital now, slowing.
The morgue was in the basement. Get them underground as soon as possible. The hospital hall, alit with harsh fluorescence, was like an after-life experience. The deputy opened a wide, heavy door marked Pathology. On a central table, draped with a thick, black plastic blanket was the body.
"There's no way to make this easy," said the bald officer. "Best just to get it over with." He folded down the plastic, revealing the corpse from the armpits up.
What she saw did not disgust her, it did not resemble anything enough to evoke revulsion. Andrea registered a misshapen black mass covered with leaves and bark. It might have been a big mushroom. She found herself regarding the plastic sheet, its rigid smoothness impervious. There was a smell.
She cleared her throat to signal her renewed attention and leaned in over the table. Now it became a matter of trying to decipher a puzzle, answer correctly a Rorschach test, the effort detaching her from the moment. Yes, she could begin to see it now – the outline of a jaw receding into a neck attached to shoulders. The trick was in knowing what you were looking for and imagining the rest, projecting what no longer existed.
Above the chin the face fell away, caved in, its top left quarter sloughed off like a fleshly avalanche. It was all complicated by gross discoloration, the blackened bloating of tissue decayed in open air.
But she could see it.
Andrea straightened, pulled her sweater down in back, up in front and addressed the deputy.
"Yes," she said, and he replaced the cover.
"Miss Oxley, you positively identify the deceased as Gerald Beauregard Oxley, otherwise known as Rig, and signify such by signing hereon?" he read from papers.
Andrea signed unflinchingly. Halfway out the door she stopped and asked in a low, tremulous voice, "May I have a little time alone with him?" She peered with effort at the man's shirt. "Deputy Stull?"
He scooted out with his eyes averted.
When the door clicked behind him she rushed back to the table and uncovered the corpse completely. She got bare inches from the once-living flesh and examined it with the eye of the first-fooled. Filled with self-doubt, she could not now be certain.
Hanging from the end of the table was a bag full of the same clothes Rig had been hauled off to prison in three years before, and boots that were the only footwear Andrea had ever seen her ex-husband shod in. Her examination returned to the body, touching the cold, dry carcass.
There, on the right hip, barely discernible but clearly delineated was the outline of a coiled snake with its mouth agape and fangs bared. The colors of Rig's tattoo were unclear on blackened skin, but the impression remained. Stephan this was not. Her mind cleared, breath deepened, eyes brightened, spirit flew free.
Outside in the hallway Stull leaned against the wall with a leg up like a fat brown flamingo, smoking. Andrea made no attempt to appear distraught; her new-found mission could not be achieved by performing, it required good fortune. She had already drawn certain conclusions and would soon guess at more. The trick was mixing what she thought she knew into what she must do. She would act.
She rode home in sullen silence.
"Will you please come inside with me for a sec?" she asked, back at Stephan's.
Stull turned off the ignition, cut out the lights and made a growled radio communication. Once inside, Andrea did not take off her jacket, only went directly to the kitchen where she gathered the contents of the box she had earlier been perusing. The deputy stood uneasily about the living room, hat in hand.
"I shot Rig," Andrea said.
"I'm the one who killed Rig Oxley. It was in self-defense."
He said nothing, only escorted her back out to the car and put her in the caged back seat with more formality than before. He radioed ahead.
"Better call sheriff up, Darlene. Comin' back in with a passenger."
"What you want me to tell him?" a voice queried through the static.
"Tell him one case wrapped in ribbons and bows. Confession. The wife."
At the jail she was left unattended and untethered in a small cinder block room, alone with her box.
An hour, precisely, passed before they came: the sheriff and prosecutor. An election had intervened since Rig's trial and this prosecutor was new. When they came in and sat heavily across from her (the two old men had rolling guts and skinny butts, their hair was matted and sticking out at angles) her truth was the truth, her story was practiced and sure and the Way It Happened.
"Miz Oxley," the sheriff said with a nod and ran his hand flat across the length of his face, trying to pull the sleep out. "Miz Oxley, why don't you just tell me and Mr. Turner here what happened."
"I shot him."
"That's what we understand. Maybe you could tell us a little more about it. When did it happen, for instance?"
"Three days ago. In the night. He pulled me out of bed. He'd just gotten out and was pissed."
Andrea's hands did not tremble, her voice did not waver.
"He was threatening me, said he figured he ought to just kill me. He had a gun," she said.
"What kind of gun was it, Mrs. Oxley?" Turner said precisely without looking up from his yellow legal pad.
"It was his forty-four. A revolver."
The two men nodded.
"Rig wasn't one to threaten," she said, pulling her hair off her face. "He did. I kicked him in the groin. Took the gun. Killed him myself."
"And what did you do with the gun?" The sheriff.
"Left it there." Andrea looked each in the eye, neither brazen nor furtive. She couldn't fret, worry whether this was going to pass muster, fit with the facts. There were more questions, many of them. How had she got home? Why didn't she call the sheriff immediately? Where had Rig come up with his old gun after being in prison for three years? Andrea answered from the vantage point of her constructed reality, her version of truth.
Without prompting, the prosecutor riffled through the papers in her box, picking out venomous letters from a dead man, arranging them in chronological order, scanning their contents. The sheriff kept asking questions about the shooting, confirming for himself his own wisdom and intuition. Abruptly they both arose.
"Give a moment, Miz Oxley, will you?" the sheriff said and they adjourned to the hall where she could hear their hushed conference but could discern no words.
They came back into the room grim-faced, resolute, and did not sit down.
"You sure should have called us on this right from the start, Miz Oxley," Buck, the sheriff, said while looking at Turner. "That's our biggest problem right there. Now there may or may not be an inquest on this, I'm not sure right now."
Turner cut him off.
"We are not charging you, Andrea, if I may. I'm keeping a file, but the matter is closed. You're free to go."
The prosecutor turned and left, his loafers clicking down the hall.
Buck remained, shifting his weight leg to leg, sleepily slumped as he tried to think what next to say.
"Give you a ride home?" he settled on finally.
Stephan's house seemed emptier still upon her return. She cranked up the furnace, built a fire and breathlessly drank down a half glass of bourbon for sensation in her gut, to bring the feeling back. Presently she went to bed.
Next morning Andrea cleaned, scrubbed and straightened Stephan's home. She put up pictures and rearranged the furniture to suit herself.
Rig's shooting and her involvement was the top story in that evening's paper, pictures of the two grinning poachers who'd discovered the body above the fold. Turner was quoted throughout, the burden of justification now on him more than Andrea, explaining his decision not to bring charges offered in greater detail than his description of the shooting.
"All the evidence indicates Mrs. Oxley acted in self-defense," was all the prosecutor said about Andrea, about the shooting itself, everything else pertaining to points of law, his own judgment and the wishes of those who elected him to make such decisions.
Andrea fixed herself a tumbler of iceless bourbon cold as formless mercury in her stomach, not to calm her nerves but to occupy herself, to give her something to do besides go out and kill someone. She could get away with it. She'd proved that. She had power beyond her own understanding. What else could she do? What else did she not know she could do? Such possibilities, endless too as the permutations that might previously have acted on her life but so different now.
Stephan's dogs heralded his arrival, the garage door rolling up remotely in confirmation. She rose to peer out the living room's broad window to see him behind the wheel of his mother's Audi. She resumed her seat.
He came in from the kitchen clean-shaven, wearing new clothes and a copy of the paper in his armpit. Stephan leaned over Andrea wordlessly, kissed her cheek and embraced her shoulders, then he too went to the sideboard for a glass of liquor. He sat down upon the couch.
Andrea said nothing.
"Do you want to know?" Stephan said.