How much snow will fall this winter? That’s what people want to know. How much wood should be stored beside the front porch? How much cash allotted to the Snow Shovelers’ Fund, which pays local boys to excavate driveways and sidewalks for the town’s senior citizens? Judgment is, there’s a long, hard season in store, at least among those who frequent the Lyon Cafe, and this theory has been seconded by the patrons of the reading room at the library as well. Just see how high the hornets have built their nests, always a sign of deep snow to come. Sheep and horses have especially thick coats for November. Squirrels are still storing chestnuts. Warblers have already migrated south, moving through town much earlier than usual, forsaking their nests in the ivy.
Ken Helm has a mountain of firewood outside his small house. He’s been chopping wood all summer and throughout the fall. His wife and two sons don’t even notice the sound anymore, but they hear it in their dreams; a rhythmic hewing that echoes whenever they close their eyes. Susanna Justice drives out to order wood for the season, for her parents and for herself, as she does every year. It doesn’t take much to heat Susie’s little cottage, but she’s heard this winter’s going to be a killer.
“The Judge always gets his delivery first,” Ken tells Susie after she’s ordered two cords and is making out the check. “My favorite customer.”
Susie smiles, but her mind is elsewhere. She’s a bulldog all right; she can’t let go, especially when she’s got the sense that she’s onto something. Yesterday she went into Boston to speak with the oncologist at Children’s Hospital who was in charge of Belinda and Hollis’s son, Cooper. Cooper was diagnosed with leukemia when he was four, and although the doctor refused to let Susie see the boy’s records, he insisted nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing out of the ordinary to get a death sentence for your four-year-old. Nothing out of the ordinary to be married to a man as distant and mean as Hollis, to hold your little boy in your arms all the way home from Boston after the doctor informs you of a diagnosis as cruel as that.
“Is Hollis still letting you cull through his woods?” she asks when she hands Ken Helm his check.
“I pay him good money for it,” Ken says, defensively, as if she’d accused him of dealing with the devil. “I wouldn’t take anything from him for free. I pay for the use of his land, but that doesn’t mean I like him.”
As soon as Susie hears that twist in Ken’s voice, she knows he wants to tell her something. When she began working at The Bugle, it took a while before she understood that just because people don’t answer directly doesn’t mean they won’t eventually tell all. Ken will talk, all right, if Susie asks the right questions.
“Were you using his woods back when Belinda was alive?”
Ken Helm has been accompanying Susie to her parked truck. Now, he stops.
“I didn’t say anything about Belinda.”
“That’s true. You didn’t.” He knows something, all right.
“Is there something you wanted to ask me about her?” Ken holds his hand above his eyes to block the sun, but the result is, Susie can’t gauge his reaction.
“It’s probably nothing,” Susie admits. “I heard some talk about Belinda and Hollis. Just gossip.”
“What’d you hear? That he killed her?”
Jesus, Susie thinks. Everyone does know.
Ken stares straight ahead at the mountainous pile of wood beside his house. The line of his jaw seems unusually tight.
“That’s right,” Susie says, in an easy tone, not wanting to scare him off. “I heard he might have.”
“That’s not gossip,” Ken Helm says. “That’s a fact of life.”
Susie’s heart is racing. To calm herself, she shifts her gaze to stare at the woodpile along with Ken. It’s taller than the roof of his house. Taller than many of the trees.
“Is there some proof?” Susie says.
Ken whistles through his teeth for his dog, a golden retriever who’s strayed too close to the road which runs past.
“Anything at all?” Susie asks.
“The proof is that I know and everyone in this town who had anything to do with Belinda knows the way he treated her. She forgave him not seven but seventy-seven times. You’d see her face, and you knew. Whether or not he killed her with his bare hands doesn’t matter. He’s responsible for her death.” Ken’s dog trots over and Ken pats the retriever’s head. “Just as I’m responsible.”
Susie looks at Ken Helm, surprised at this assessment from a man she’s always known, but has never thought to talk to before. “Why would you say that?” Susie asks. “What did you have to do with her death?”
“I knew what she was going through, and I didn’t do anything.”
Susie can’t imagine that Belinda, who was extremely private and, although well liked by everyone, had no real friends, would ever confide in Ken.
“I was driving home one night, and I saw her in the road. I stopped, and she got into my truck. She said she’d hurt her arm, and I took her over to St. Bridget’s. Now, of course, they’ve got a whole section of the place named after him, but back then when I said I’d call Hollis for her, Belinda got all panicky. I mean panicky. So I waited for her, and when the doctor was through, I drove her home.” Ken’s dog has gone over to the woodpile, probably searching for mice, and Ken whistles again, more sharply this time. “Her arm was broken.”
“Did she tell you how it happened?”
“No, but after that, she came here sometimes. When she needed a ride to the hospital. I always did it, and I never said a word to anyone. Not even to my wife.”
“You’re not the only one responsible if everyone knew what was happening.”
Ken shakes his head. “One time I was asleep, and I woke up for no reason, and when I looked out the window I thought there was a ghost out there. She was wearing something white, I guess that was it. She had the kid with her that time-he was only a baby and I figure she didn’t want to leave him with Hollis. I can’t say that I blame her. Nobody wanted to confront him, but we should have. We should have gone to him.”
It is getting colder, even now, but Susie and Ken stand there, unmoving.
“ ‘If your hand or foot should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.’ Matthew 18:8.” Ken Helm pauses to clear his throat. “It would have been a blessing if someone had stopped him.”
They finally head toward Susie’s parked truck. When they get there, Susie shakes Ken’s hand before she opens the door. She has never before noticed that his eyes are green.
“It’s the sun,” he says, to explain why his eyes are watering, and of course Susie nods, even though the sky is filled with clouds and the light is hazy at best.
“Don’t worry about the Judge’s delivery,” Ken says as Susie gets into her truck. “I’ll make him a nice, neat woodpile.”
On the way home, Susie stops at the Red Apple to pick up a few things-some yogurt, a box of fancy bakery-style cookies-but instead of turning left on Route 22 and going home to have lunch with her dogs, as she usually does, she turns right and drives to St. Bridget’s Hospital. Leave it be, Ed keeps telling her, but how is she supposed to do that, especially now that she has that vision of Belinda dressed in white standing beside the woodpile in Ken Helm’s yard?
Susie parks in the nurses’ lot, and props her Bugle parking sticker up against the windshield. The bad thing about living in a small town is that everyone knows your business, but it’s a good thing too, since it makes for connections which crisscross each other more often than the strands of a spider’s web. Susie has known Maude Hurley in the billing department at the hospital for ages. In fact, she dated Maude’s son, Dave, for quite a while, and remembers mostly that he was a terrific ice-skater and too perfunctory in bed. Maude, however, was a pistol, and Susie always enjoyed going to her house for Sunday dinners. Now, when she goes to the billing office, Susie brings the fancy chocolate chip cookies as an offering, but she doesn’t need to bribe Maude for information.
“Honey, everybody knew about Belinda,” Maude says.
But unfortunately, all of Belinda’s hospitalizations date to the time before admissions were computerized. Try as she might, Maude can’t call up anything on her terminal.
“That’s that,” Susie says, disappointed and starting in on the chocolate chip cookies herself.
“Not likely,” Maude says, and she leads Susie down to the basement of St. Bridget’s, to a room filled with ancient, mildewed files, suggesting that if anyone discovers her, Susie should say she’s gathering information for the hospital’s fiftieth anniversary.
Maude, Susie believes, would have made a great mother-in-law, and she gives the older woman a hug before getting down to work. It takes an hour and a half, but Susie finally finds what’s left of Belinda’s file. The file, however, covers only the last two years of Belinda’s life. The upside, if one can call it that, is that even in that relatively short period of time there were four admissions. More than average, Susie would guess, but proof of nothing. Two of the entries are illegible, but the other two-“broken mandible,” “fifteen stitches”-send chills along Susie’s spine. What, exactly, she can do with this information, she’s not sure, at least not until she notices Dr. Henderson’s name at the top of the page in the listing for the patient’s physician.
Susie eats from a container of yogurt while sitting in her parked truck; then she heads over to Main Street, where, to her surprise, Dr. Henderson agrees to see her, although he has a waiting room filled with patients.
“Are you writing an article about Belinda?” he asks when she brings up the name.
“I’m just interested.”
“The circumstances of her death, for one.”
Susie would have guessed that Dr. Henderson, who’s known to be cool and businesslike. would insist that the circumstances of a patient’s death were privileged information, but he seems relieved to be talking about this subject. He takes off his glasses and leans back in his chair.
“Acute pneumonia,” he tells Susie. “Which, of course, is absolute bullshit.”
“Excuse me?” Susie says.
“She died because he let her die. I could have done something if someone had called me. By the time she was brought into the hospital-and then only because Judith Dale had happened to stop by and Judith had understood how desperate the circumstances were-Belinda’s fever was raging and she couldn’t breathe. She died of neglect.”
“But she’d been your patient for years, surely you must have sensed something was wrong with her situation at home before that?”
“My dear, something’s wrong in every situation if you look hard enough.”
“Well, let me ask you this. Did you feel that some of her physical ailments, not the pneumonia of course, but the broken bones, the bruises, were caused by her husband?”
“It doesn’t matter what I feel,” Dr. Henderson says in his coolest tone. “Did I see him hit her? No. Did she ever confide in me that she was abused in any way? No. She did not.”
Susie Justice can feel a pulse in the side of her throat.
“But she’s dead,” Susie says.
“That,” Dr. Henderson allows, “is the sad truth.”
That night, after Susie has told Ed Milton everything, he simply shakes his head. They’re at his place, an apartment on the High Road, and he’s cooking fettucini Alfredo, which smells even better because Susie is starving, in spite of the yogurt and the box of cookies she ate earlier in the day.
“All you have on him,” Ed says, “is that he was guilty of ignoring her.”
“Come on,” Susie says. “It’s like some secret that everybody knew, including that damned Dr. Henderson who always acts as if he was higher than God.”
“Everybody thinks. If you ask me, she killed herself.”
“How can you say that?” Susie can’t wait for dinner and has gotten a jar of olives from the fridge. She stopped at home to get her mail and bring the dogs along with her, who seem oddly comfortable here at Ed’s place. Best of all, Ed doesn’t complain when two extremely smelly and slobbery canine specimens stretch out on his couch.
“She could have phoned Dr. Henderson herself. It sounds like she wanted to die.”
“That’s horrible,” Susie says, but she is not entirely sure he’s wrong. “So what do I do now?” she asks.
Ed Milton smiles. He used to hate it when cases didn’t get solved; now he figures that some situations are simply beyond human control. “Belinda died twelve years ago, and it seems that legally Hollis had nothing to do with it. He probably smacked her around, but there are no comprehensive hospital records to back that up and no eyewitnesses. Basically, you have nothing.”
“I don’t accept that,” Susie says, which may be the moment when Ed finishes falling head over heels for her.
“You don’t have the makings for a criminal case,” Ed says. “What you have, Susie, is a moral issue, and it’s one which can’t be tried in front of your dad.”
Susie doesn’t ask Ed’s opinion about whether or not she should pass this new information on to March, who, it’s quite clear, doesn’t want to hear anything negative. This is not a new dilemma for Susanna Justice. Since that summer when she saw her father walk past the roses and knew he was in love, she has been wrestling with this puzzle: How do you tell an awful truth to someone you care for and wish to protect? She thinks about the nights when her father phoned home to say he had to work late, and the sinking feeling she had in her stomach whenever she took that message and had to report back to her mother, as if she and not the Judge were the liar.
Once, and only once, she tried to tell her mother. She was a freshman at Oberlin and home for the holidays. She was full of herself, and how much she had learned in a single semester. She was certain of everything a woman could be, all of which, of course, her mother was not. They had been wrapping presents at the dining room table, bickering over why Susie would not be allowed to move out of the dorm and into an apartment with her then boyfriend, when the argument had become heated.
“End of conversation,” Louise had finally said. “Your father will not allow it.”
“My father!” Susie had shouted. Why, he was probably with his mistress at the very moment they were wrapping his Christmas presents in gold paper. “Why should I listen to anything he has to say about morality? If you knew what he was really like, you’d walk out of here and divorce him!”
Louise Justice had gotten up and slapped Susie across the face. Louise had never hit anyone before, but she hit Susie so hard she left a mark on her cheek, making certain to silence her daughter before she could divulge anything more.
“You don’t know the first thing about love,” Louise Justice had told Susie that night. “And you certainly don’t know anything about marriage.”
This assessment is probably still true, Susie thinks as she takes off her clothes and gets into bed with Ed Milton later that night. She circles her arms around Ed and kisses him. Does she love him or not? How will she ever know? She loves the way he is in bed, she trusts his opinions, values what he thinks, yearns to see him at odd hours of the day. So what does all that add up to?
Look at the trouble love brings. Look at the mess it makes. Who knows what caused Belinda to marry Hollis-bad judgment or compassion or desire, maybe even loneliness. Who can tell why March would throw everything away for a worthless man, or why Bill Justice, the most honest man in town, would tell bold-faced lies every day of his life. There, in Ed Milton’s bed. Susanna Justice suddenly needs to know if she’s the only one so completely in the dark about such matters. Ed is honest; he’ll tell the truth. His back is to her, and the hour is late, but she asks Ed anyway. Have you ever been in love? She’s certain that he laughs when he turns to her, but in the morning she can’t quite remember if he actually said, Not before, or if, perhaps, that was only what she wanted to hear.