On a sunny February morning, Howard Stevens worked a shovel up and down the sidewalk in front of the giant colonial he and his wife Ellen had bought in 1980, right after he got tenure at the state college nearby. Five dry inches of snow had fallen the night before, and Howard had risen early. The house faced south, and if he had the walk shoveled, salted, and sanded by 9:00 there would be a whole day of sun to finish the melting. “Don’t be fooled by the calendar,” he had told his son too many times over the years. “The sun is strong this time of year. The days are getting longer. Nature’s on our side.”
Howard knew to pace himself. He didn’t want to get winded, and he didn’t want to get too sweaty. If he worked steadily, he could get it done in an hour, and today, he wasn’t in a hurry. It wasn’t at all windy, and the sun was indeed strong. The work would be done well, and he even might enjoy a conversation or two. That young couple down the street with the big dog liked to talk. Besides, with Ellen gone, there was nothing for him in the house.
Howard was edging the walk, flipping shovelfuls of the last bit of snow out onto the street. It would melt there, and his walk would only have a little melted snow by noon and be dry by 2:00. No one had ever fallen on Howard Stevens’ sidewalk. He wasn’t going to let it start happening now
Bad things do happen, though. Ellen had come to campus months before, on the day of Howard’s last lecture and for his retirement party. She had sat through it—along with the day he started, it was the only lecture she had seen. Afterward, she was the toast of the party even more than Howard. She was still beautiful at 64—petite and trim, her short brown hair touched with a little grey. So many of the engineering faculty had aged alongside Howard and teased him about getting out early—even at age 65—and stealing his wife away to California. They would join their two children there. He might do a little consulting or he might not.
On the way home she remembered they needed some milk. It was late, and only a small convenience store just off the highway would be open. So they pulled up, and Ellen went in. The young man who held the door for Ellen hardly registered in Howard’s mind, but a minute later the five muffled thumps did, and then the man came running out, dollars flying from his hand. He ran straight past Howard’s car and Howard, as he told the police later that night, got a very good look at his face and even better look at his jacket, a greasy, tattered varsity soccer jacket from New Bedford High.
Howard ran into the store and saw Ellen, lying like an island in an ocean of blood and milk. He would learn later that the young man had shot the clerk first, then turned to Ellen and shot her twice. The first bullet passed through the milk and grazed her arm. The second one passed through her forehead and out the back of her head. When Howard reached her, she was flat on her back, legs splayed. An oval of blood was sprouting from her head, running toward a rack of potato chips. The milk carton had exploded at her side, the milk pumping out and extending from her armpit to her feet.
In the three minutes that passed between Howard’s 911 call and when the cops and EMTs burst through the door, Howard was torn. He knew she was probably gone, so maybe everything he was doing was futile. Maybe, he thought, he should just talk to her. Maybe he should just sit and take his beautiful little wife in, bullet hole and all. But he kept at it right up until the big men were surrounding him, and one was pulling at Howard’s shoulders. “We’ll take over now, sir,” he said almost gently. “We’ll take over.”
Howard got out of their way, stepped outside the store. His knees were wet, and he was glad when he figured out it was only milk. Then he noticed that his lips tasted like his wife’s lipstick. He drew his lips into his mouth and savored the taste as much as he could.
By 28, Eddie Soares had already been arrested five times for assault and battery and three times for robbery. Two of the robberies put him in jail for a year, and an assault put him in jail for three, mainly because he had been caught with the stolen gun he had used to pistol-whip his victim into a coma. He had been out of jail for three months when he killed Ellen and the clerk.
Howard had come to every step in the criminal process that unfolded. The arraignment. The bail hearings. The long series of motion hearings—what would be allowed into evidence, where they would hold the trial. Ellen had been murdered in May, and now it was February and the trial would finally start the next month.
Arraignments and hearings are boring affairs, really. Howard worried the first time that the courtroom would be packed, that things would happen so quickly he wouldn’t be able to follow, but the opposite was true. Lawyers mill around. Court officers walk in and out. Things really only happen when the judge arrives and everyone is standing, ready to proceed. Even then, the judge might ask a question and give the two sides time to confer by themselves. Howard had brought a pad and paper with him the first few times, but the third time had written only the date and time, and then the date they would meet next. He stopped bringing it after that.
Howard wasn’t sure when he first noticed the young woman, but when he realized she too had been to all of the hearings, he decided that she had to be Eddie Soares’ girlfriend. Howard guessed she was still college-aged. Dress her a little differently, and she could have been a girl he would have seen on campus, but Howard had a practiced eye from growing up in New Bedford and living there. She was a local girl, maybe even a dropout. She looked it, and she dressed it. Howard didn’t like thinking these things, didn’t like judging, but there it was.
Jury selection began on a cold March morning, and Howard got to the courthouse early, only to be told that nothing would happen in the actual courtroom until much later in the morning. Howard could have gone back home, but he had walked the mile to the courthouse that morning. He walked to a Dunkin Donuts, bought the local paper, and sat down to read. He was reading about a new restaurant (“Good food at good prices”) when the girl from the courthouse was suddenly standing there. She cleared her throat, interrupted him.
“Mr. Stevens?” Howard hadn’t seen her up close before. She was tiny. Not much taller than his shoulder and he was sitting down. The silence stretched out and she sat down. “I’m sorry about what happened.” Her eyes were misting over, and she blinked, looked out the big windows. “I’m sorry what Eddie did.”
“Thank you,” Howard said in a way that he hoped seemed wholly sincere. “Are you related?”
“No, no,” she said. She had peeled the lid off the top of her coffee, was blowing on it. “He’s my boyfriend.”
Howard took her in. She was tiny in every way—her hands, her face. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Either she had been in a hurry that morning or she just didn’t bother with such things, but she wasn’t made up, and her hair was oily. He wondered if she took drugs. He knew Eddie did: the detective and the victim’s advocate had both said he stole money to feed a heroin habit. Maybe the two shared needles. He looked for signs of something very wrong with her health, but then Howard scolded himself for being so harsh.
“Did he say he did it?” The question came out even as Howard decided she wouldn’t answer it.
She shrugged. “It’s what he does. He steals and he robs people. He beats people up.” She blew on her coffee and Howard wondered how many times he had thrown her around.
“Maybe he just needs to go away.” He wanted to add, for me and for you, but he kept that thought to himself.
Howard didn’t learn much more about her that morning except that her name was Maureen Hurley. He didn’t want to ask too many things about her. He didn’t want to learn she might be his son’s age or his daughter’s. He didn’t want to learn whether she graduated from the High School or maybe the Voke School. He didn’t want there to be dots to connect, for her to suddenly put together that maybe she and Howard’s daughter had been in health class together. Somehow that would be too much to bear.
She finished her coffee before Howard and got up to leave. “I’ll walk over first,” she said, pulling on her gloves. “I’m sure you don’t want to be seen with me.” As she said it, an older woman, Howard’s age, looked up from the next table, took Maureen in, then frowned. She had taken them for lovers—Howard the older, married man; Maureen the young girl being taken advantage of. He watched Maureen through the big windows. She was waiting for the light to change, pulling a wool hat on, tucking her ears up into it. He wished the woman hadn’t put that thought into his head because he was now looking Maureen over, imagining her body under the layers of clothes.
The trial wasn’t supposed to take long and everyone agreed Eddie would be convicted. There was simply too much evidence against him. There was a video camera in the store. Blood had splashed back on Eddie’s jacket when he shot Ellen. He had idiotically kept the gun under his bed. Howard had got a good look at him. Another defendant might have a dream team or even a competent lawyer. Eddie had a public defender, a lanky young man who bumbled his way through everything. Howard was surprised at first how inarticulate he was, but then decided he and Eddie deserved each other.
When Howard was sworn in, he had a chance to scan the courtroom. There were four people in a row labeled “Media,” including a woman who had a sketch pad in front of her. Three of Howard’s colleagues were sitting together, and a couple who lived next door. The girl, Maureen, was there, sitting by herself. He couldn’t pick out anyone else that might be there for Eddie.
They had put Eddie in a dress shirt and a pair of grey pants that would have fit someone 50 pounds heavier, his belt wrapped around him almost twice. Maybe it was supposed to garner some sympathy from the jury, show his health was bad, the drugs were killing him, and he was somehow made less culpable. Howard decided Eddie and his lawyer just weren’t that bright.
Howard hadn’t expected to cry in court, especially after he got through describing the worst of the scene—the blood and the milk, the call to 911, the attempt to save her life. Instead he cried at the oddest time in his testimony, when he mentioned being outside right afterward and feeling the milk on his legs. In fact he hadn’t even planned to mention it, and he could see a look in the district attorney’s eyes that said he was going somewhere she hadn’t counted on him to go.
“I was so relieved to figure out it was just milk,” he said, and then his eyes caught Maureen’s. She was crying, and suddenly Howard was, too. He hadn’t cried in the entire time since Ellen was killed, and it was all coming out. His chest heaving, tears pouring down, his nose filling. When the judge saw that it wasn’t going to stop, he looked at the lawyers. “Perhaps it’s a good time for a break.”
They finished the day with the defense attorney’s awkward, inept cross-examination. Howard was composed again. His answers were concise, on target. Everything he said just made Eddie look worse. The jury hated Eddie Soares. They marveled at Howard—this good man who clearly loved his wife so much, and who had been through something worse than any of them could imagine. When the trial ended the next day, it took them an hour to convict Eddie and put him away for life.
A month after the trial, spring was blooming, and even New Bedford looked pretty, at least the big houses on Howard’s street. Howard was out there on a Wednesday morning, conferring with the foreman of a landscape company. Howard was going to have them do everything, even the lawn. He wasn’t sure if he was selling the house this summer as he and Ellen originally planned, but he wanted it to look good either way and he didn’t want to bother with any of it.
He was out front with the landscaper, seeing him off, when he saw Maureen standing at the end of his driveway. She had a light jacket on, jeans. Her hair was still pulled back, but she looked better somehow. Her face looked a little fuller, and she looked less pale. Howard somehow knew she had been standing there for a while.
Howard nodded, watched her step aside as the landscaper pulled onto the street. The truck with its preposterous oversized wheels made her look even tinier. He wasn’t surprised to see her for some reason, and was even happy to.
“I’m sorry,” she said, walking up the driveway toward him. “It’s weird. Me just showing up. I was walking by and saw the truck in the drive.”
“No, it’s not weird.” It was the only thing he could think to say though in fact it did make him uneasy. Was she working some angle here? He tried to shake the feeling off. “Have you been OK?”
She closed her eyes, tipped her face up toward the sun. People do that in New England when the days are first warm and they want to feel as much of it as they can. She opened her eyes. “I should be asking you that.”
“That’s a very long answer,”
“I would like to hear it,” she said.
Inside, Howard made himself tea, and found ginger ale for Maureen. Maureen sat at the table where Ellen normally would, the end under the windows. Howard didn’t want to sit at the far end—it would seem too formal and removed. He sat where he normally did, to Maureen’s right.
“I’ve been here before,” she said. “It’s how I knew where you lived. I was in class with Anne.” She looked around as if she were taking some kind of inventory. “We had a Brownie meeting here once. We made a terrarium out of a soda bottle. We each kept it for a week to take care of it.” She looked around again. “I had never been in such a big house.”
“I don’t think I ever heard your name.”
She was studying her ginger ale, fingering the edge of it. “We weren’t friends, really. I was only in Brownies that one year.” He thought she was welling up. In a flash he saw how her life and Anne’s must have diverged. He knew the numbers without knowing exactly what happened to Maureen. Half the kids don’t even finish New Bedford High. Of the half who did, less than half of them go to college. The Maureens of the world don’t go to Stanford like Anne, don’t live in San Francisco.
“I don’t think she would judge you,” Howard said, and he meant it. Murder, he had decided, has a way of focusing everything. He only wanted Eddie punished. So did Kevin and Anne. Everything else was unimportant.
“I do. I judge me.” She was fingering the edge of the glass again, then bringing her finger to her lips, almost like she was applying some of the ginger ale like a lip balm. “I didn’t even know him that long. He came into the bar where I work. He’s not even that good looking. I was working the night of the robbery. Maybe if I was around he wouldn’t have gone there.”
“If it wasn’t that night, it would have been another. If it hadn’t been Ellen, it would have been someone else.”
“You know,” she said. “I ruined the terrarium when it was my turn. I didn’t water it, then I dropped it. When it was time to come back here, I left my house and walked around. I think I walked by here three times but I couldn’t come in. I threw the terrarium in the bushes. I didn’t go to Brownies after that.”
“I didn’t even know she helped with Brownies. That probably wasn’t her thing, really. She wasn’t always happy here. She would have rather had more of a career. She would have rather lived somewhere else. We were getting ready to move.” Howard wasn’t sure why he was saying all of this.
A cloud passed over the sun outside, and the light in the kitchen shifted, softened. They were both silent for a minute, and he studied her face. The stress was gone. That was the difference. She hadn’t come to court to see if Eddie would get out. She had been there to make sure he would go away, and go away forever.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“That’s not why I am here.” She stiffened, put the glass down, and Howard winced, afraid he had offended her. “I am back with my mom. I’ll be able to get a place soon. The bartending is good.”
Howard started talking again. “Did you know I grew up here, went to New Bedford High?” She didn’t answer. “I left for school and I thought I would never come back. Then I came back here to teach, and it’s almost 40 years later. We were supposed to move.” He heard himself say that again. “Now I am not so sure.”
“I would leave in a second.” She had finished her ginger ale, and Howard felt the conversation starting to end. He didn’t want it to. “I could bartend somewhere else. Maybe go to Florida. No more winters.”
In all of his years of teaching, Howard had always been appropriate with students. Of course he didn’t teach many girls, but the ones he did, he was always respectful. He called the boys Mr.—Mr. Medeiros and Mr. Benoit, the girls Ms.—Ms. Hartnett and Ms. Sheehan. He never closed his door during office hours. He was there to teach, not to get embroiled. But here he was alone in his house with a girl 40 years younger. He was deciding she was pretty after all and he tried to picture her under her clothes again.
“It’s a big house. I have a guest room. I go to bed early and get up early.” He sipped the last of his tea, watched her over the edge of the mug. She was turned to the window, tilting her face up; even with the clouds outside now it must have felt good.
She came back that evening with a backpack jammed with things, a trash bag full of clothes. “I’ve never had a suitcase.” He took both from her and led her to the guestroom. He knew it was the nicest room she had ever slept in, and she would feel awkward at first, unsure where to put things or whether she should even sit on each of the chairs or just on the bed. She probably wouldn’t even turn on the television for the first few nights.
She would be more comfortable after a while. They would find a rhythm, eat certain meals together, others not. He would go to the Y more and the library, give her space and time, let her feel that it really was where she lived. Finally one night she would come to his room, slip all her clothes off, slide into his bed. At first they would just touch before they slept.
One night that summer, Howard couldn’t sleep. Maureen was at work. The bar closed at 2:00 and it was a little after 1:00 now. He sat in his study, scanning his books, the four walls of mahogany shelves, floor to ceiling. He had built them one long-ago summer, organized his books and journals. He used the Library of Congress system, affixing his own stickers, pulling each binding forward so that each was even to the edge of the shelves. It was something he would return to for years—adding new books, shifting the others around on the shelves.
At the end of that summer, with the project almost done, Ellen had appeared in the doorway, watched him. She had left work a year before when Anne was born. Two children, they both reasoned, was too much stress for them to both work. Even that week she had watched them while Howard did his project. She looked around the room. “I guess this means we are staying,” she said.
Howard had been sitting with a book on his lap, Approaches to Low Power Design, and was applying the subject sticker, TK7871, across the bottom of its binding. How he still remembered that amazed him. It was only then he thought to mention to Ellen that he had always noticed this house when he was young. It was the biggest house on the nicest street in this sad little city. But he didn’t say that. He just smiled what he hoped was a warm smile and full of love. “I guess so.”
A blaring horn from a passing car pulled Howard from his reverie. He walked one of the walls, found his way to the book, pulled it from the shelf. The binding was unbroken, the pages untouched. He walked to the waste basket behind his desk and dropped the book in.
It was almost Labor Day. He and Ellen would have sold the house by now, bought something in California. He would have walked these walls a dozen times, selecting the books he wanted to bring with him, packing the rest to donate to the college. He would have donated most of them and never would have noticed that half of them were unread. Now they all seemed to speak to him, one after the other, of work left undone.
An hour later, he had piled books, ten deep and eight wide next to the desk. Some were decades old and technically useless now, others newer and obscure, but all were unread. When he finished the last pile he knelt in front of them, straightened the piles. He was almost done with them when he saw Maureen in the doorway.
“Are you packing?” She was wearing jeans and her shirt opened at the belly. Howard couldn’t think if Ellen had ever showed her belly like that.
“Busy night?” It was the only thing he thought to say.
She was scanning the walls and Howard watched her gaze fall on a shelf that was almost empty. She looked tired.
He stood, walked to her, took one of her hands. “No. Not moving.”
She kissed him on the cheek, pressed her face to his chest, rested it there. This was it, he realized. This was all he could do—comfort this one person late on a warm June night. The books could wait. The house could wait. He would do this one small thing.