Steering my truck up a rutted dirt lane to Jim and Ellen Carrol's farmhouse, I wondered if my reception would be icy as the frost rimed Indiana prairie stretching to both horizons. Neither knew I was coming, but it was too late for second thoughts. After driving six hours, fleeing fresh (and wholly accurate) charges of betrayal from my wife, I meant to throw myself at the Carrols, plead with them to let me stay.
It wasn't the first time I'd come to them with no place else to go.
Apprehension dissolved in a happy, impromptu reunion in the Carrols' kitchen, fueled by memories and a case of beer. Jim and Ellen never liked Barbara anyway, and of course I could stay as long as I liked.
It was well after midnight before Jim led me to a spare upstairs bedroom, where I settled under thick comforters cast across a featherbed. Wind whistled a chill harbinger of full winter through the eaves, but I was warmed by quilts and rekindled friendship. Restless creaking of old rafters lulled me to sleep quicker than any lullaby.
A hand over my mouth woke me. After a startled moment, I eased over, making room for Ellen. "We've got to be quiet," she whispered, pressing lips against my chest while her cool hands reached to stroke me. "This bed is bad as the ones at the old Attica Inn."
My friend's wife rose slowly, straddled me and eased lower, imbedding my tumescence in wet female heat. "What if Jim wakes up?" I pulled Ellen down so her breasts flattened against my chest, tasted her breath.
"After all that beer?" Ellen's body lifted, an excruciating prolongation of sweet sensation, so gradual the bedsprings missed the motion. "We just have to go slow."
"Like this?" I arched my back, shoving deeper into Ellen's slick, silken center. "Like that?"
"Yes," she hissed over me.
"You won't tell?"
"Never," Ellen whispered, and then I was lost in feelings and wonder and the heated pride of a man whose bed has been sought by a woman, unasked...
I woke alone. Jim had gone to the county high school where he taught English, assistant coached three sports and sponsored the school paper. In the kitchen Ellen breast fed Gabriel, while three year old Melanie played under the table. Later she took Gabriel to his crib and put Melanie down for her nap. We made love on the living room couch before Jim came home.
My new routine established itself quickly. Jim left for work early, stayed late, and his wife came to me when her children napped. Sometimes, late at night Ellen tiptoed down the hall to my room as Jim slept. I almost never wondered what I'd do when my savings ran out.
"I'm glad you came here, Tom," Jim told me at the end of my third week in his house, over a table littered with empty beer cans. "Until you showed up I was worried."
He shrugged. "I don't pay enough attention to Ellen. She's happier now, with company." Jim sighed. "Few more years, I'll have enough seniority to dump all this extra work. Right now I'm glad she has somebody to talk to."
Jim stood up. "I've wanted to say 'Thanks' for a long time." He patted me on the back, before going upstairs. "Never enough time to say everything, know what I mean?"
For ten or fifteen minutes I had decency enough to feel guilty. But that went away when Ellen shifted in her chair, raised her leg and eased her foot between my legs while a teasing "told'ja so" grin played over her face.
The next day, while her children were asleep, Ellen and I met in a stand of young trees at the corner of the farm. "I love doing this outside," she murmured against my skin, shoving her jeans low, somehow finding a way to fit us together.
Any shame Jim's gratitude might have engendered was long gone as I slipped into her heat. Ellen and I were unblushing thieves, stealing passion and responses from the best friend I had. Her eagerness and my foolish arrogance overwhelmed guilt, fear, even caution.
Trudging back to the house we were exhausted, cold, and in need of hot coffee. Ellen checked on the sleeping children while I busied myself with the percolator. "Let's go away for a weekend," Ellen said when she found me again.
Measuring grounds, I wondered why both the Carrols seemed compelled to say things I didn't want to hear. Passion might burn away conscience, but Ellen's recklessness was frightening, her constant carping about Jim a repetitive bore. I almost missed my stolid, dull wife Barbara.
"We'll make up a story." Ellen touched my arm, eased onto a chair and stretched languidly. "Think about being together a whole night, maybe two. Say yes."
Ellen unbuttoned her shirt, spread it open as she slipped to the floor. "Say yes," she crooned again, crossing linoleum on her knees. "Tell me yes." Her fingers reached upward as I nodded.
Later, I sat at the kitchen table, watching Gabriel at his mother's breast, wishing both kids asleep again. Ellen distractedly pulled at peeling wallpaper until it was coming off in long strips. "Hold Gabriel," she said, excitement lighting her eyes.
As more of what the old paper hid became visible, I stowed the baby in his high chair and helped with high places. The first mural was exposed in less than an hour.
A rough punt floated across a wide pond, surrounded by endless Indiana prairie. An almost life-sized young man, fishing in the boat, raised his hand, waving to another figure whose long white skirts were stirred by a breeze. "I've never seen anything like this," Ellen breathed.
I hadn't either. Despite -- perhaps because of -- being covered for years by layers of ancient wallpaper, the old colors were bright and vibrant. Wherever I looked, clever, finely depicted details caught my eye.
Robins nested in near trees, a bass leaped a high wet arch and a fat muskrat dove from the far bank, all of it under a perfect summer sky. There were tiny buttons on the woman's white dress, a delicate gold chain suspended over her bosom. The somber expression on her beautiful face seemed out of place in such a lovely setting.
Wandering into the kitchen, Melanie was transfixed by the colors, and when Jim came home he was equally excited. He found a number for the family that sold him the farm, and came back from his call with intriguing news. "No one knows how old the paintings are," he told us. "But they say a man named Charles Stoneman did them."
"More than one?" Ellen asked.
Jim grinned. "In the living room. There's another."
We put Melanie and Gabriel to bed before attacking layers of old wallpaper, uncovering snow capped mountains, a doe grazing a clearing, alert twin fawns studying the world after decades of shrouded darkness. The same woman leaned against a tall oak, clad in the same costume she wore by the pond, looking no happier than in the other painting.
It was late when I went to bed, to dream about the woman in the painting. I woke with a bad taste in my mouth, a dull ache behind my eyes. The taste was the bitter electricity of adrenalin, and my lungs panted as though recovering from a fearful race.
Downstairs Ellen pouted in the kitchen. "You slept late." Her voice was petulant, accusing. "I put the kids down twenty minutes ago."
Wordlessly, I settled into a chair with coffee.
"Chicago," she whispered. "We could go there."
I'd forgotten her talk about stealing a weekend. "What'll you tell Jim?"
"We'll say we're going to visit Joan Wilson." Under the table a bare foot massaged my crotch. "Jim never liked Joan. He won't want to go with us."
I was looking for words to decline the rash invitation when the door to the stairs, kept shut during the day, eased open, unoiled hinges protesting. Bumping noises sounded inside the stairwell. "Damn it," Ellen hissed. "Melanie knows she's not supposed to go up there by herself."
I opened the door onto unoccupied steps. The sounds were real, though, a thump as something heavy struck a tread, paused, then another loud thud, higher up. I watched empty air as the sound moved up and away.
"Melanie, get down from there now..." Ellen's voice trailed off as she looked over my shoulder. "Jesus, what's making those noises?" she whispered. "What..." The door at the top of the stairwell opened, then closed softly.
"Something under the stairs." I tried to think what might live in musty darkness. "Raccoons. Maybe rats. They jar the doors open."
Ellen flinched. "I'm not staying in a house with rats."
I moved higher, but the only sound in the stairwell was my breathing. Ellen followed, and once we were at the top, it seemed natural to go to my bedroom.
I murmured appropriate words of delight against Ellen's perfumed throat while my mind seethed a nagging presentiment of wrong. A corner of my consciousness resented being trapped in a cold, drafty old house with a woman who might ruin us both. Ellen mistook angry lunges for passion and urged me on with whispered obscenities.
After lighting our cigarettes, I heard, over Ellen's contented exhalations, the click of a door latch, and the weight on the steps, going down now. From across my bed she breathed, "You kill those goddamned rats."
Then there was more noise, window-rattling knocks at the front door. By the time I pulled on trousers both children were awake, Melanie whining for lunch, Gabriel wailing the misery of a wet diaper.
I opened the door to a young man with a camera, behind an old timer wrinkled enough to be God's older brother. "Come t'see the paintin's," the old man rasped in the nasal tones of a Hoosier farmer.
"Goddamnit Melanie I'll feed you when I have your brother changed!" Ellen bellowed from the kitchen.
The younger man blushed at the shouts, but the old timer only complained "Ain't you gonna let us in?" He shoved past me to stand in front of the mountain scene. Having seen it, he drifted toward the kitchen.
"I'm Carl Bishop," the younger man offered. "From the Courier, in town. The old guy's Lester Stoneman." Bishop stepped across the threshold. "He's over ninety, lives in a nursing home now but he was born in this house. You're Jim Carrol?"
I shook my head. "Tom Stockwell."
In the kitchen, Stoneman turned his cold gaze on me, leaving an impression he knew exactly what Ellen and I were doing before his noisy arrival. By the time the old man turned back to the painting, I'd been examined and found seriously wanting.
"The Stonemans called the paper after Jim told them what you'd uncovered," Bishop explained. "They thought we might be interested in doing a Sunday spread on the paintings." The reporter shrugged. "I phoned the high school. Jim was supposed to meet us."
Ellen's face mirrored my relief. If Jim had arrived before Stoneman and the reporter, he might have found his wife in my bed.
Bishop didn't notice our nervous glances. "Lester's probably the last one still alive who saw these paintings before they were papered over."
I went upstairs to finish dressing, and stayed there, away from Lester Stoneman's judgmental glare until Jim came home. Waiting, I toyed with the stairwell door. I pushed on the wall and the door frame, tried wiggling black lacquered fittings around the lock, applied pressure on the door itself. Whatever I tried, the door stayed closed.
At the sound of Jim's voice I came down the stairs slowly, stopping on each tread, attempting a duplication of the noises. I found the sound I was looking for when my stockinged feet slipped and my full weight dropped onto the next lower tread. A wide eyed Ellen snatched open the door at the foot of the stairs. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." I got up and came downstairs, feeling an unnameable dread about the sounds.
Jim was in the living room with Lester, Gabriel cradled in his arms. Stoneman's wrinkled face puckered a smirk when Ellen brought cups and the coffee pot into the room. "Got 'nything stronger?"
Jim fetched a fifth of Jim Beam from the kitchen. Waving away the offer of a glass, the old man lifted the bottle. Grimacing, he drank again before surrendering the bourbon and whining, "Can't hardly get a drink where I stay now."
Jim recapped the bottle, setting it on the floor near the chair. "What can you tell us about the paintings, Mr. Stoneman?"
"Ennythin'. Ever'thin'." The old man took a long, deep breath. Exhaling, he filled the room with the smell of whiskey. "He done the deer picture first, spring of ought two." Lester was silent for a moment. "Took'm two weeks, and then he done the boat one, in the kitchen."
"Who are you talking about?" Bishop prodded.
"My uncle." The old man leaned forward, a trembling hand waving in front of his chair, not quite reaching the bourbon until Jim moved it closer. "Lived two farms east till a tree he was cuttin' fell acrosst his legs. Never walked again, the rest of his life. Him and Mary Lorena come to stay with us."
The old man talked a long time about Charles Stoneman, who died a decade after his crippling accident. I thought of sounds an invalid might make, dragging useless legs over stairs.
Lester Stoneman groped for the bottle again, found it easily this time. Soon his eyes dulled and he slumped in his seat while Carl Bishop took pictures in the living room and the kitchen, posing Jim and Ellen in front of the scene with the boat.
A few minutes later the reporter helped Lester to his feet and walked him to the door. "What about the woman?" Ellen asked, following the men outside. "In the paintings, who is she?"
"Mary Lorena Stoneman." Lester paused without looking back. "Drowned in the pond out back."
"There's no water on this place," Jim said.