Of course, she knew about the boy. For a while, at first, Martha did her best to stay out of sight. Her house occupied a stretch near the woods south of town; and she knew Luke liked to hid in the tree line, watching her. She didn’t know his name, though she’d seen him with his mother, on occasion, at the local store. One night, months back, she caught a glimpse of the boy in a tree. Initially she opted to dash past windows on the side facing the woods, pulling curtains shut, and planning to tell the boy’s mother whenever she saw her next. However… her husband, George, left her three years back for a women named Elsa Dee, a southern tart with more breasts than brains. The experience left Martha more than a bit unsettled. George used to reach for her in the night and pull her close, kissing her into a state of frenzy. But over time he reached for her less. She did her best to inspire his desire: dropping from a curvy120 to 105, purchasing lingerie through a catalogue (always desperately afraid someone in town might find out), and even going so far as to attempt certain acts which would make her mother die hearing about. In the end, begging him to explain why he didn’t want her anymore, George said, “I’m just too used to you. Maybe in a couple years, when I’ve settled down, I’ll be back.” And with that he left. George sent her money for a few months, but the cash eventually stopped. Martha got a job at the post office sorting mail. It paid the bills. She took to a new routine -- work, bills, empty home, occasional meals -- which if anyone pressed she’d be forced to confess was just her way of passing the time till she died. At thirty-seven years old Martha Branson harbored no delusions about her husband’s return. Yet, she believed his actions somehow indicated she was meant to be alone.
So her initial shock at the sight of Luke Ansome gradually faded. She went from dashing to strolling past windows, eventually taking to lingering at one or another. When she realized he never brought friends Martha felt flattered in a way. The boy didn’t want to share. George once suggested… she liked the idea of belonging to one person.
One night she lounged in a window wearing a black lacey two piece. Luke just watched, content to be a witness.
They passed each other in the store one afternoon, and neither acknowledged the other. Luke thought Martha behaved in her home for her own satisfaction not his and didn’t dare let her know he watched her by even risking eye contact. Martha could never explain to Luke’s mother how she knew the boy, so she ignored him herself. The secrecy made her wet. Luke carried the grocery bags home low.
And the two carried on in this fashion -- witness and observed, disciple and goddess, promise and possibility -- well into the fall. Until one night, a spring in her step knowing it was Friday, the school year shaping their current routine, Martha arrived home to find the lights all glowing. She wondered for a second if Luke had, for whatever reason, decided to break their unspoken divide; and she couldn’t help feeling a bit excited at the prospect. She’d fired his desire to the point he stormed into her house, waiting to take her with all the passion his youth could muster. It seemed unlikely. Yet, she entered the house without concern.
“Hello?” Martha called from the door.
“In here,” the gruff voice sounded familiar. Her heart dropped into her stomach. George.
Martha made her way to the bedroom at the back of the house. She found him sitting on the bed, smoking. When she entered the room he pointed at a new piece of lingerie already spread out on the mattress for the evening.
“You expecting someone?” George asked. She could tell he’d been drinking -- the way he sweat in the cool air, and his eyes wouldn’t hold still, constantly drifting.
“What do you care?” Martha said, surprised at her own ferocity.
George stood up, “Well, the fact you are my fuckin’ wife.”
“Who you left,” she said making sure not to fully enter the room. She stayed close to the door, ready to slam it shut and run.
Nodding, a loose rubber neck bob, George said, “I said I’d be back. So I’m here. And you’re not seemin' too glad about it.”
“What have I got to be glad about?”
“I came home.”
He shrugged, “I been to New Orleans baby. And I ran out of wild oats… as it were.” Martha grimaced at the way George scratched his crotch. She wondered if he’d always looked like this: hutched over in sweat streaked clothes, staring out of bloodshot eyes with purplish halos. She didn’t have any photos of him to remind her. Somewhere in the midst of August, during a heat wave when she’d rub ice on herself as she sat in the window, she drank a few tall glasses of whiskey and sour mix. Listening to the ice crack in the cocktail, she caught the notion to burn George out of sight, perhaps then out of mind. Martha collected every photo she could find, piled them in a wash basin, and took it all outside. Standing naked at midnight, she burned the pictures. Only now she felt a twinge of regret because she had no reference to know the man who used to be George and this thing before her. Maybe he wasn’t the one who had changed -- her evolution giving her new eyes to see him in a different perspective; Like a prism refracting light to a different color.
She wondered how much of him she forgot, or simply failed to realize, blaming herself when he left.
Martha folded her arms across her chest, “What do you want George?”
“I’m home baby,” he spread his arms wide, advancing as if to hug her, hold her close. She took a step back. George’s face fell, “Whatsa matter? You don’t miss me?” He jutted a thumb over shoulder, jabbing at the lingerie.
“I want you to leave,” she said.
“Well I ain’t goin’ nowhere you fucking bitch!”
Martha turned to go, figuring it would be best to call the police from a neighbor’s house rather than argue. She took two steps before a pair of vices clapped around her arms holding her in place. Hot breath stinking of cheap bourbon hissed down the back of her neck.
“What you gonna do? Huh? What you think you gonna do? This is my house. You’re my woman. Nobody leaves me. No big titty sluts and not you. Nooo, not you. Not you.”
She squeezed her eyes shut.
He kissed her on the shoulder, muttering, “We get back to us, and it’ll be all good… all good…” -- pulling her back to the bedroom -- “All good… good.”
Through the window, from the trees, Luke Ansome watched his lady walk back to the bed. He didn’t recognize the man, but Luke did recognize the actions. He’d seen enough films to know what a kiss on the shoulder might mean. Usually the screen faded to black and then the next morning started playing. However, instead of a fade out, Luke watched the man spin Martha around and kiss her hard on the mouth. Her arms wriggled, feeling all over as the man clutched her. The man grabbed her by the shoulders and flung her onto the bed. Luke thought it looked passionate and wondered what it would be like to do the same -- throw yourself into the moment with an animal fury, grasping and pawing at one another till you screamed… help?
“Help! Hel-up…” It sounded like someone shouting then getting a hand slapped across their mouth. Sometimes at school kids got beat on, and the larger boys would clamp a hand down to stop any shouting for teachers. The quick shrill scream followed by the muffled holler -- Luke knew what it sounded like, what it felt like.
The stink off George’s hand filled Martha’s nostrils: tobacco, bourbon, and some earthy aromas. She slapped at him as best she could, but he ignored her struggling. It almost seemed to excite him. Her eyes stared at the window hoping.
Luke didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t figure how to explain being in the area. He thought, I can say I was walking along and heard the shout. But that would mean admitting to a lie -- he’d told his parents he’d be at the creek, on the other side of town, fishing with some of his friends. People would find out what he’d been doing. He knew that would mean trouble. He started climbing down the tree slowly, afraid for the first time someone might see him.
“That’s my girl -- oh girl!”
A rock crashed through the window.
“What the fuck?” George jumped out of Martha, thudding against the wall next to the bed. He launched himself off the bed and planted a foot right on broken glass. Jerking his foot back, he twisted at an awkward angle and fell in the corner. Swearing he pulled his cut foot to his face, the sock filling with blood. He plucked a three inch shard out, hollering all the way. Leaning against the wall, George got to his feet. Walking on the heel of his cut foot he limped to the window and called out, “You fuckers! Breaking a window, interrupting… I oughta…” he felt the first blow. But when he turned to acknowledge what had happened, Martha brought the rock across his temple. George spun around and fell into the broken glass. Martha dropped to her knees and beat on his skull till she felt the rock hammering the floor boards. Then she stopped. Still holding the stone, she squeezed her eyes as tightly shut as possible trying not to cry.
She sucked in a startled breath.
“Are you all right?”
Martha sniffed back running mucus. She looked over at the window. Luke peered in through the broken pane. Martha made a hybrid sound, laughing-crying. A strange twisted smile spread on her face, and she wiped away the tears on one cheek leaving a smear of blood. Dropping the rock, she got to her feet.
She went to window and whispered, “I’m fine. Did you…”
“Yeah,” Luke said quickly, “I didn’t know what to do.”
Martha placed a hand on the side of his face. Luke blushed just a touch; her hand felt so soft. Martha said, “You did just fine.”
His eyes darted to the mess on the floor, “Is he…”
“Yeah.” Martha nodded without looking. She stroked the boy’s cheek with her thumb, “But never you mind. He deserved it. You understand?”
“He was hurting you,” Luke said.
“That’s right,” Martha replied. She placed a finger over her lips, “And it’s our secret.”
“Of course you do,” Martha said, smoothing the boy’s hair back. It stuck down, plastered by George’s blood. She smiled, “You saved me.”
She leaned through the broken pane and kissed him on the mouth.