Jeremy Broyles earned his B.A. from Doane College, now University, in 2001, his M.A. from Northern Arizona University in 2008, and his M.F.A. from Wichita State University in 2011. His work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Santa Clara Review, and Pembroke Magazine amongst many others. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where in addition to reading and writing stories, he helps others to create their own in his role as a creative writing professor.
Resist Such Wickedness
Oceania was nearly complete. Australia, that island continent low in the Indian Ocean, muscled the stretched ribbon of New Zealand far to the southeast, leaving only the flinted arrowhead of Tasmania, like a chipped fang from a marsupial predator’s jaws, pointing its biting edge toward Antarctica. Leonard painted with measured strokes the ragged outline of the tiny nation into its place within the world, and the supple, precise hairs of the paintbrush, like evolution’s first pass at feathers, shaped the country from the south at Hobart to Launceston in the north in a hue of umber amidst the waxed yellow of the globe’s oceans. Like most of the countries he painted, Leonard had never been to Tasmania, but he liked it all the same. There was character carved into its saltwater borders and moxie in its slow-float flee from the landmass above. If ever there was an ambitious bit of land, Tasmania was it. Strange, then, that as Leonard shadowed the coastline for depth and the diamond of Tasmania filled its form in the wash of its more famous neighbor to the north he should be reminded of Virginia’s indiscretion now five years in the past. There was nothing significant about Oceania, a place he had painted many times over, that should have shaken loose such a memory, but here it was with him in the Tasman Sea all the same.
“That one looks to be almost done,” Virginia said from the mouth of Leonard’s studio—a repurposed garage, below and separate from the house proper, built into the junipered red rocks of Sedona.
“Just the finishing bits left,” Leonard said. “Because art is alive—”
“And the details pump the blood.” Virginia finished his mantra for him through a small smile shrunken by the familiarity of the words. Leonard himself found solace in predictable rhythms like currents carrying him from one day to the next, and in the patterned rules of life—governing those he loved and who loved him in return, and the bodies that were his for the touching as he offered his own—he was sated.
“That they do,” Leonard said.
“I’m meeting some friends for dinner,” Virginia said. His wife was now thirty-three years old, and the smooth bloom of her youth—like a yawning flower straining atop its stalk to follow the sun across the sky—had set into her skin something more permanent akin to the streaking striations of stone layered one atop the other as time compressed the Pliocene into the Pleistocene and, now, the Holocene, and those epochs themselves stood on the platforms of such geological grandfathers like the Cambrian, Permian, and Cretaceous. This was not to say Virginia had hardened or that her beauty had ebbed. Not in the least. Her shape, like bold Tasmania, held her place in the world with an undiminished quality even if the shine of her younger years was no longer as bright. “I’ll be home late tonight, so don’t feel obligated to wait for me.”
“Who will be joining you?” Leonard asked.
“The same people who always do,” she said. “My friends haven’t changed.”
“Your female friends I assume you mean.”
“Leonard, why does it feel as if you are trying to ask me if any men will be there tonight?”
“I believe you already know the answer to that.”
“I do,” Virginia said, “but I still want you to have to say it.”
“Very well,” Leonard said. “To draw the finest point, I ask because of your previous indiscretion.”
“Of course you do,” she said. She held her own body across her chest with folded arms while her lips pulled a taut line of her mouth. “I made a mistake, Leonard. One. And that was years ago. I don’t know how much longer I can apologize for it.”
“Please, Virginia. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s just my girlfriends tonight,” she said, “but I imagine between the staff and other customers that at least a few men will be there. I suppose it falls to me to keep my legs closed for the duration. I promise to try, but keep your expectations low. After all, you know me and my history of indiscretions. Or, rather, indiscretion in the singular. Goodnight, Leonard.” She moved a few steps away from the garage as her arms at last let go and swung unencumbered to her sides, but she stopped just before disappearing around the corner. “That’s one of your better globes,” she said. “I like the yellow-brown color palette more than I expected to.”
“Thank you, Virginia,” Leonard said. She nodded her head once and was gone.
Leonard sharpened Tasmania’s tip because the details pumped the blood, and, without them, the world would not spin. A night with her girlfriends meant black tequila margaritas at Agave in west Sedona where the city sloped toward Oak Creek Canyon below, but the night was new and marked by the astral oranges of the setting Arizona sun still stoking the sky with an earthly light but an otherworldly energy that fired the alien shades of red burnt into the very stone of the city’s foundation. He had time. Leonard spun the world backwards against its rotation—carefully, though, so as not to spread the paint from its place before it set—and worked more color into Cape Horn until the distinct easterly twitch in the tail of South America pointed intrepid sailors back to home.
# # #
Across the sleepy four-lane highway opposite Agave, Leonard sat on a bench within one of the numerous Sedona retail plazas with musical though appropriated names like Oaxaca Pavilions or Medicine Man Marketplace. The crisp, pinpoint starlight, though still sturdy after millions of years of intergalactic travel, did little to light the words chipped into shape within the mortared signage colored the same blunted red of caliche clay that most all Sedona edifices shared, but he had it in his memory that this particular one went by Playa Plaza despite the hundreds of miles of desert giving way to palm trees and fault lines between here and the nearest ocean. That, however, was the exact fantastical whimsy that provided Sedona its impractical charms. There were trade-offs though.
Leonard hoped he blended into the backdrop by wearing his rattiest winter coat—a holdover from his days of January hikes when the trails were clear of tourist clusters clogging the paths that snaked their ways through the sharp air scented with sequoia. He wrapped his body with his arms and ducked as much of his face as would fit into the collar. He felt confident he could pass as the anonymous vagrant who had no better place to sleep away the night if he received nothing beyond a disinterested glance. A closer inspection, however, would give away his game; the late spring day had put into the dusty, pink ground enough carry-over heat that his bulging coat was unnecessary. Leonard, in fact, felt the tickle of sweat leaking from under his arms as he held himself in place. But he kept to his plan all the same, trusting that this space would provide all the camouflage he would need. Sedona was, first and foremost, a city of beauty. And the beautiful—that inspired by the natural surroundings, built into the architecture, and worshipped by the people—was nothing short of sacred, making that of the unbeautiful sacrilegious. In instances when such offenses could not be mandated away, they were ignored with a collective conscientiousness that rendered offenders invisible, perhaps nonexistent. The homeless, for example, were not shunned so much as they went unacknowledged. Ghosts from the deepest Southwestern folklore denied the power to haunt. Leonard sat motionless on the stone-slab bench arranged around a drained fountain of stacked spheres marbled like slate grey limestone, and he waited to learn who would walk out of Agave with his wife tonight.
Her indiscretion, the only one as far as Leonard knew, had redefined the parameters of their marriage. At the time, Virginia was a week away from opening her specialty tea, spice, and locally-sourced organic food stuffs and clothing shop within a modest retail co-op, called Western Willow Shoppes, that leased to purveyors who included a portion of their goods, a minimum of one-third, from local artists, farmers, weavers, craftsmen, wood workers, jewelry makers, potters, glass blowers, and clothing designers hailing from the central region of the state that included Flagstaff, Sedona, Cottonwood, Jerome, Prescott Valley, and Prescott. At the time, Leonard had a showing at his gallery for his run of work inspired by the gruesome side of the state’s mythic wonders—collage paintings done in acrylic depicting the hundreds of people who had tumbled down the walls of the Grand Canyon leaving pieces of their pulped selves behind as they fell, and abstract splash art, the violence of the creative process apparent in the bursting splatter patterns smashed into the canvas, as an effigy for the bodies of sunbaked bones that had been swallowed by flash flood sinkholes while searching for the Lost Dutchman’s gold only to end up part of the land itself. The turnout had been disappointing. Maybe his subject material had been too macabre, or maybe the swamping monsoon from the west with its godly grey clouds piled like frozen, deep space asteroids had been threat enough to keep potential patrons at home. Regardless of the cause, Leonard had closed the gallery two hours early of the original ten o’clock cutoff and drove through the fat rain popping like meteorites against his windshield to see if Virginia could use some help at her shop.
He made the short dash from his car to the front door and plunged his right shoe into a deceptive, deep puddle that soaked his sock and seeped into his skin now squishing with every subsequent step. The shop’s space was taking shape, and there were even small table displays stocked with product. Virginia had built a map defining the latitude and longitude of her retail world. The rain quickened, and the staccato drumbeat reverberated through the building itself, but carrying through the discord of the violent Arizona storm came the sounds of breathy exertions which Leonard followed to the back office. There he found Virginia lying on her back while gripping the edge of her desk to provide resistance to the movements of this other man around whom her legs were wrapped and anchored at his waist with ankles crossed like a bow low on her lover’s back, and together they moved with a choreographed cadence at odds with the countless hammerfalls of the blistering rain.
“Virginia?” Leonard said into the room.
The two of them, his wife and her lover, came apart in a scramble of sweat-slicked skin, and Leonard felt a strange shame at the gracelessness of their separation juxtaposed with the artistry of their coupling from mere moments ago. Now they were flushed with embarrassment as they rearranged bunched clothing to hide the souring guilt of their nakedness, and the fluidity of their lovemaking had been replaced by start-and-stop clumsiness like marionettes made to move by a talentless puppeteer.
“Leonard, what are you doing here?” she asked him, and her voice had gone pitchy and thin as if her throat was squeezing closed under the pressure of a gripping hand—any tighter and her voice would be no voice at all but a shriek like piano wires trembling from the tension of a new tune.
The two of them, his wife and her lover, stood shoulder to shoulder like chastised children. Leonard had never seen this man before and had no name for him. Virginia wiped away tears with too much insistence, and her already inflamed cheeks deepened in red from her own careless touch. Why she cried Leonard could not be sure; he wanted to believe it was from knowing she had betrayed the person she had promised to love, both emotionally and physically, without condition and to the exclusion of all others. There was a chance, however, she cried as a reaction to the undeniable sadness of the scene. Leonard himself acknowledged how pitiful the three of them had become since he’d walked into the office. The cuckold, the faithless wife, and the nameless lover—together in the close air of a claustrophobic space sharing the most shameful part of a revealed secret. It was all so shabby. So kitsch. Leonard wondered if the better choice had been to turn right back into the rain the moment he’d heard them.
“I finished earlier than expected at the gallery and came to see if you needed help with the shop,” Leonard said. “Please forgive me for asking the most obvious of questions, but what are you doing here, Virginia?” Her silent slip of tears became sobs that bent her in the middle until she sat back into the edge of her desk for support. Her right arm cradled her stomach under the shuddering that began in that center space beneath her forearm before shaking through the rest of her body upwards into her sloped shoulders and the left hand covering her face as best it could—the thick run of mucus and phlegm bubbling and sucking at turns timed with rattling exhalations and heavy, heaving inhalations. She pealed like electronic bells of alternative spirituality churches dotted along the edge of the city where the Martian red relented to the green-brown of terrestrial desert, and all the while the white noise of the rain kept time in its asynchronous way.
“I think I’d better go,” the man said, braving a glance first to his right at Virginia then up to Leonard. With his hands jammed into the safety of his pockets and his stare again fixed to the floor, the man—still shirtless—slipped past Leonard without making any physical contact and exited. Until then, Leonard hadn’t realized how young he was.
Leonard sat on a bench in Playa Plaza remembering that night with the same undiminished clarity now as all those years ago. He remembered the initial indignity that felt like a current poured into his teeth until his mouth tasted like copper. He remembered the drive home with Virginia—silent except for the swish and clunk of the metronome wipers clearing away the vestiges of the swooning monsoon. But most of all he remembered the days that followed and the woman his wife became. Dutiful. Faithful. Predictable. Leonard thought back to the night of her indiscretion and, as he always did, smiled at his fondness for the memory. Despite its unseemly beginning, that night had given him the wife he’d always wanted. Now he wanted that wife back.
A knotted group of women energized by alcohol and comradery burst from Agave like an orchestral swell carrying their crescendo voices across the highway and over to Leonard and his plaza. The ringing notes of unfiltered laughter punctuated the overlapping, garbled speech of half a dozen women he could not differentiate nor name. But as they moved away from the front doors, a figure in the shape of Virginia lingered for a moment until she had space from the merry mob splitting off like strings on an instrument to their respective vehicles to return to their unique yet indistinguishable lives somewhere in the quiet cracks of this rocky, red city. Virginia lingered, but she did not do so alone. She spoke with someone else; her quiet words lost to Leonard in the space between them. In response, a hand raised and touched her face. A hand belonging to a man.
# # #
Alcohol, no matter the type, made Virginia sleep the sleep of the dead, so Leonard knew he could take his time the following morning. He split and toasted a bagel—one half smeared with butter and the other half with cream cheese. He poured a glass of water, no ice cubes, and set it along with the bagel at Virginia’s place at the dining room table. Several minutes later, she shuffled to her seat while compressed under the weight of the hangover Leonard knew she carried.
“You made me breakfast,” she said as she sat down.
“I figured you could use some food and water. Tequila can only take you so far.”
“And the place it always takes you to is regret.” She swallowed three-quarters of her water in a single tilt. “Where were you last night? You weren’t here when I got home.”
“Playa Plaza,” Leonard said.
“What’s Playa Plaza?” Virginia asked.
“In truth, I do not know. But what it is, is far less material than where it is.”
“Is that so?” Virginia said, shoving the plate away from her and leaning back into her chair. She folded her right leg over her left and held her knee with both hands in a grip made of interlaced fingers. “And where is Playa Plaza?”
“Across the highway from Agave,” Leonard said. He pushed the plate back into place closer to his wife. “Remind me who joined you last night.”
“I don’t believe you need any such reminder, Leonard. It seems you saw for yourself.”
“That I did.”
“Go on then.”
“I want to know who he is,” Leonard said.
“How do you know Sack?”
“He works part-time for me at the shop.”
“Do you believe it prudent to socialize with him given your history?”
“There it is again,” Virginia said. “My history.” She released her knee to reach the buttered half of the bagel Leonard had made, and she took a careful bite by peeling her lips away from her teeth—she’d stated more than once how she enjoyed the nuttiness of good butter but despised the greasy unctuousness left behind on the skin it touched. “Should we talk about my history, Leonard?” she asked after swallowing and then wiping the corners of her mouth with the napkin Leonard had set out for her. “We’ve never done so in any meaningful way. And when I say ‘my history’ I of course mean ‘our history.’ It’s something we share.”
“We have spoken, Virginia. We moved forward once before just as we must now.”
“Leonard, you walked in on me mid-throes with a lover I’d taken outside of our marriage, and not once have you ever asked me who he was.”
“He never mattered,” Leonard said. “We do. You and me.”
“Then why are you interrogating me about Sack now? Does he matter as much as the two of us?” Virginia asked.
“We are married, Virginia. I am your husband.”
“And I’m your beautiful bride corpse. Isn’t that what you love about me the most? My stillness. It’s okay to admit it, Leonard. Keeping it secret does not make it any less real.” Virginia finished the water in her glass with a final emptying gulp and placed it back down upon the table.
“Remember the advice of Dr. Brainard,” Leonard said, and his mouth tasted of copper again. The conversation had not made her pliant as he had anticipated. Leonard thought that when faced with the discovery of her lie she would return to him repentant. But today there came no pleading for forgiveness passed along with promises of penance and pledges of love. She was hardening like glass at each of his words, and he could not tighten his hold further for fear of shattering her into sparkling, spectacular shards. He had caught her in a lie, but that did not seem to matter to her. Perhaps, then, the lie itself was not big enough. “Our walks in this world, even the smallest ones, are beset by temptation. We must resist such wickedness,” he said.
“Indeed,” Virginia said while nodding her head. “Sage advice from Dr. Brainard. Though I must admit I found it odd you chose him as our therapist. Remember his office was in a refurbished theater that also included a tarot card reader? And you recall the name of his practice, don’t you?” Leonard knew she waited on his answer, but he did not want to offer it. “Christian Centered Counseling. A strange place for a pair of atheists such as ourselves, wouldn’t you agree? But I played along. I was happy to go, in fact. I was disgusted with myself and wanted to show you I could change. But you? You seemed unfazed which I figured to be a coping mechanism of some kind. Whatever it was, it made me hate myself more.”
“We were married then as we are now,” Leonard said. “And what was true between us from that day until this has not changed.”
“You may be right,” she said. “I’ve given a great deal of thought to that truth. I think I misinterpreted your quiet contemplation and even temperament as signs of your unshakable fidelity when all along it was actually a quiet jackboot stepping on my throat. You’ve never raised your voice to me, Leonard. You’ve never screamed or cried. You’re immovable, and I think you may well be the cruelest person I’ve ever known. You don’t care about me. You care about having me.”
She rose from the table and held a hand to her head; the sudden stand must have flared the headache thumping away behind her eyes like vibrating cicadas that buzzed in the background of the Arizona high desert nights. It took a moment for her to steady herself before she moved with considered steps back toward the bedroom, and the gentle click of the closing door was all the more closure to the conversation Leonard received.
# # #
In the end, Virginia named her shop Leaves and Rivers. She said she’d wanted to invoke a sense of movement like the point in a journey somewhere near the middle when the initial excitement of setting off had faded but the thrill of arriving was not yet real—the eddies in the water, she’d said, that indicated progress best captured the journey’s memory. Everyone wanted to memorialize first steps—the bottle broken against the bow—and celebrate the last, but without the in-between neither the beginning nor the ending could exist.
“Pardon me,” Leonard said to the employee tidying up a small table of jars containing prickly pear jam stacked in a low pyramid. “I presume you are Sack.”
“That’s me,” this stranger said. He had a young face, but it was far too hollowed to be cherubic. Only the silver painted into his hair at either temple, as if stabbed into place with a single thrust of a bushy brush first to the left then to the right, gave him the credence of manhood. He was slight and stretched; he was barely there at all.
“I saw you went to dinner with my wife, Virginia, a few days back.”
“Oh, you’re Leonard,” Sack said. His smile seemed the product of anxiety as it appeared across his childish, haunted face. “Virginia has told me a lot about you. Strange that we haven’t met before now.”
“Do you want her?”
“Excuse me?” Sack’s eyes rippled like a dropped stone in standing water, but his smile grew more ghoulish as it widened.
“My wife, Virginia. Do you want her? Before yesterday, she had never even so much as mentioned you to me. As you pointed out, we have never been introduced. I do not believe any of this to be coincidence. And after dinner outside of the restaurant, you touched her.”
“I swear to you, Leonard, I didn’t.”
“You lifted your hand to her face and touched her. I saw this for myself.”
“Okay, Leonard, please. I would never do anything inappropriate. Virginia is my boss and your wife. I know my place.”
Leonard had thought a direct question would serve best, but now he realized his mistake. It was too bracing. Sack’s teeth chattered through the hurried words spilling from his phantom face in his uncomfortable effort to protest too much. How garish it was.
“Sack, please pay attention,” Leonard said. “I am going home to retrieve a globe. I will then drive to my gallery where I will spend several hours arranging the new display. As is my custom, I will then commemorate the occasion with good scotch at one of several local establishments. At the earliest, I will return home at two o’clock in the morning. My wife will be home alone during this entire time. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure,” Sack said. The misery in his words turned his mouth a dulled shade of yellow. “It sounds like you want me to sleep with your wife.”
“What I want,” Leonard said, and he let his voice carry through Leaves and Rivers, “is for my wife to be happy. I will see it so because that is what a good husband does.”
Leonard left the shop and the sharp elliptical orbit of a man that, for reasons he could not understand, his wife fancied. It was of no matter though. In a few short hours, this nonsense would be done and his wife would again be his, and this wraith with the ridiculous name could fade away like so much cloud under a withering summer sun.
# # #
It was just past eleven o’clock at night, and the high desert had gone still save for the scurrying of nocturnal ground animals and the occasional cracking caw of the predatory birds above coming to earth, leading with talons outstretched. Leonard waited outside his studio garage and hazarded a glance toward his house where, moments ago, the living room lights had gone dark; he imagined Sack and Virginia had retired to the privacy of the bedroom. Still, they needed more time. He did not mind the waiting. And though he found the steps of this process somewhat tedious, his patience would pay off with a wife he could again call his own.
Leonard found globes mesmerizing and wondrous. It was the perspective. A globe allowed anyone to look on with omnipotent eyes. An entire world and all its places spun along its tilted axis by a single hand or held in position under a single gaze. From pole to pole and along the bisecting equator, the planet in total taken from its cold orbit and housed in a gallery. An office. A home. And if a single, significant explosion had created all the matter that ever was and ever would be and scattered the pieces through all of space, then how elegant that in all the surging, ricocheting chaos enough had landed here, in this place and at this time, to create a small likeness of that marbled white and blue world that housed the totality of humanity and all their fidelity and loyalty and love.
Leonard figured he had given them sufficient time, and he, quiet as a secret, entered his own house. He crept through the living room atop soft footfalls that he willed into silence. Outside the bedroom where a fragile yellow light smoked out from under the closed door, Leonard sat down so he could hear his wife and her lover within. Leonard had learned from the last time, and he would not repeat the mistake of interrupting. He rested the back of his head to the wall and listened.
Soon enough they would be done, and then Leonard could walk in and find his wife with another man again. There would be the shame and the embarrassment, but Leonard would console and forgive. And then he would have her back, and together they would be man and wife again just as it should always be.
It was odd, though, Leonard had to admit. There was something new from Virginia escaping out from under the door. A sound. Nothing so crass as a moan but not so subtle as a sigh either. Leonard could not explain it away. He tried dismissing it as a fault in his hearing. Ears, after all, could play the same tricks as the eyes. Such explanation, however, failed to provide him any comfort. He could not name what he heard from his wife, but whatever else it might have been, he knew it was not indiscretion.