Excerpt: East of Jesus

East of Jesus

by Katrina Stonoff

Chapter One

He looked dead, but Grace Hackett had fantasized her husband's death so many times, she couldn't trust her eyes. He lay stretched on his side in the recliner, leaning slightly forward, staring at the window without blinking. Though his face was flushed, the skin around his lips was tinted pale blue, perhaps a reflection from the Jay Leno show flickering silently in the semi-darkness.

Better not risk it. The carton of ice cream would melt -- or worse, get eaten -- unless she got it hidden behind the freeze-dried lima beans before Howard woke up. Her arms loaded with plastic sacks, Grace stepped inside and nudged the door shut with her elbow.

Howard didn't move, didn't speak. And though he did sleep on his side, he usually closed his eyes.

Still, it was ice cream. Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey. She'd just put her treat away, and then she would check whether Howard was dead.

As she tiptoed across the trailer floor in the dim light, she stepped on something.

"STOP!" someone shouted.

She screamed and dropped the groceries, frantically scanning the room.

"Stop me!" The shout came again, but sounded almost musical. On the television, a young woman with spiky hair sat at an electronic keyboard screaming into a microphone, her face contorted. Though she sang a capella, her hands pounded the air above the keys, as if she could hardly bear to keep from playing.

Grace lifted her foot. She'd stepped on the remote. Had she turned off the mute with her shoe? Dismay hit her stomach with a thud. If she acted fast, perhaps Howard would go back to sleep.

"I'm sorry!" She snatched the device and fumbled until silence filled the room. "Here, you take the remote!" She slid the buttons directly beneath his extended forefinger and squeezed his hand closed, but he dropped it the moment she let go.

She squeaked, and startled by the sound, covered her mouth. The chill from Howard's skin transferred to her lips, and she swallowed. Howard was dead! A tiny bud of hope began to swell deep inside, but she gripped it tight. He couldn't be dead. He hadn't planned to die that day. He had a hunt the next morning.

Still, he did look dead. She laid one finger on his arm. Definitely cool. Trembling, she touched his eyelid. When he didn't blink, she pulled the lid closed, but it popped open. She poked him, and he farted.

Okay, not dead. "Wake up, Howard! You need to go to bed and warm up." He didn't move, so she shook him. Hard.

With a quiet little sigh, his upper body slid across the recliner and slumped toward her.

"AHHH!" She leaped up and ran, the floor vibrating under her steps. Outside, she leaned against the back deck railing and gulped the dry air.

Oh, my God. Howard. Dead. Barely sixty-five, far too young. Above her, a star flew from horizon to horizon in a brilliant streak of green that perished into darkness. Grace thought of the unopened Glenfiddich scotch Howard bought in Hong Kong for the day he made his million, and tears leaked through her eyelids to splash on the desert sand. She wept for her husband who would miss his hunt, miss the rest of his life. She wept for the marriage she'd expected when she said her vows with a shaky voice, the love she'd thought would ease them both into old age. She wept for children they didn't have, babies she'd longed to cuddle and kiss. She wept with relief too, knowing she was finally free to live her own life. Last, she wept from guilt. No man deserved a wife who felt relief at his death.

Her sobs subsided, and she became aware again of the desert night, bright now with moonlight. How long had she stood outside while Howard cooled in the living room?

Back in the house, she crept over the beige carpet so he wouldn't hear. Howard lay across the arm of the recliner now. With his head hanging down, his comb-over pointed to the floor like a white-haired Mohawk with a side part. She knelt beside him and smoothed his hair into place, but it flopped right back down.

Howard was gone, gone forever. Soon someone would lower him into the ground to decay and turn to dust. She pictured herself in the cemetery, dressed in tasteful black and pressing a linen hankie to her eyes. As the grieving crowd watched, admiring, she would walk from the gravesite, her strong spine stiff with resolve, and...

And what? With Howard dead, she could do anything she wanted. But what did she want? She didn't want to sit in Howard's recliner and watch television until she too died, she knew that. She wanted to do something important. She just didn't know what.

Well, she knew one thing she definitely wanted. Chunky Monkey. Half surprised to find she held the remote, she clicked off the TV.

"Hey! I was watching that," Howard said.

She shot him a guilty look, but he was still dead. "Did ... did you say something?"

He didn't respond. She shook her overactive imagination away and returned to musing as she picked up the scattered groceries. She tried to remember what she'd dreamed of before her needs were replaced with the drive to keep Howard happy. But those youthful fantasies -- an adoring husband, a home, a baby -- were beyond her reach. Now, she supposed, she just wanted to do something useful.

That and a bowl of Chunky Monkey. Where was that dratted carton? She'd gathered all the groceries in sight. No ice cream. After setting the sacks on the counter, she knelt to peer under the sofa.

She imagined her life stretching out in front of her. After a lonely breakfast, she'd putter in the kitchen, maybe go to the library or grocery store. A long string of weary days, and at the end, a morning she didn't get up at all and no one noticed. She slumped into the carpet and began to cry.

"What are you doing?" Howard said. "You're supposed to call nine-one-one!"

She leaped up. "Oh, yeah!"

No, he couldn't have spoken. He was dead. He was dead, right? She sneaked a peek. Yep. Dead.

Still, dead or almost-dead, he had a point. She picked up the phone and pushed the nine, but before she dialed the first one, realization socked her in the stomach. Without Howard, how would she survive? She lived in his house, ate his food, wore clothes he bought. He made the money. He paid the bills. He repaired the leaky roof, registered the vehicles, dealt with the insurance company when they tried to deny her claims. She was almost fifty, with little job experience, no marketable skills, no life skills. She didn't even know how to unclog a toilet. She needed Howard. Needed him alive. She hung up the phone.

"What the hell?" Howard shouted.

First, though, she needed a bowl of ice cream. Back on her knees, she reached into the nest of dust mice under the couch and felt around.

What about money? Howard always seemed to have plenty of income from the strip mall in Apache Junction he thought she didn't know about. But with Howard gone, would money still come in?

"Quit your goddamn lollygagging!" Howard roared. "Call 911!"

Her fingertips brushed the waxy carton. She rolled it out and stood, brushing dust from her sleeve. "Howard, you can just hold your horses. You won't be any more dead when I call. I'm not losing my Chunky Monkey."

She marched into the kitchen. The ice cream had melted, but she tucked the carton into the freezer anyway, under the concealing package of lima beans.

Did she have a future without him? Grace needed a peek at Howard's files. Once she knew she was safe, she would call 911 and get him out of her house for good.

First, she needed his keys. With his body hanging over the side of the chair, she couldn't reach them, so she shoved him back into his recliner. With one knee propped on the footrest for leverage, she reached into his front pocket. Jumbled with other items, the key ring stuck, but she pulled harder. The keys flew out and skidded across the carpet. A gold money clip, holding a thick wad of bills, also slid out and lay across Howard's chest.

As Grace straightened, she slipped and fell into the recliner he still half-occupied. "Oh, excuse me!" She tried to leap up, but she was wedged into the narrow space between the chair's arm and his massive derriere. In a panic, she flailed at the footrest, and the chair folded, pitching them both out.

The money clip flew across the room, twinkling in the dim light and scattering hundred dollar bills like confetti. Howard timbered to the ground, shaking the trailer as he fell. He landed on his side leaning forward, one arm fully extended, still trying to control the television.

Grace gathered the loose bills, stuffed them into her shirt pocket, and headed for the den. Soon she sat at his desk thumbing through the files. She stopped at a folder labeled, "Will" and pulled out a multi-page document stapled on the corners.

"My last will and testament ... Sound mind and body ... " She skimmed past the beginning. "Here we go! To my beloved son, Rod ... "

She snorted. "Beloved, indeed!"

"To my beloved son, Rod, I leave all my worldly goods ..."

Dread ballooned in her chest, choking out the air. All his worldly goods? Didn't that mean everything? All to Rod? She calmed herself, sure the next clause would say, "except what I leave to Grace, my beautiful, loving wife of many years." He'd leave her the trailer and a little money to live on at least.

She read on. "... including but not limited to cash; stocks and bonds; commercial property in Phoenix, Apache Junction, and Lordsburg; the acreage in Apache Junction with the mobile home; and the ranch in New Mexico with everything on it (except the cook, Maria; you don't get her, Rod!)."

The cook, Maria? And since when did Howard have a ranch? Or commercial property in Phoenix? And why hadn't he mentioned Grace? He couldn't leave her with nothing. Not after she worked for him all these years with no pay other than the security of knowing she had a place to sleep and food to eat. She turned back to the will, relieved to see her name in the next line.

"To my wife, Grace, I leave many years of good advice she refused to follow and the reminder that the best wealth is wealth you earn yourself. Oh, and she can keep the ring."

Her future bore down on her: a semi-truck careening down the Mogollon Rim without brakes. She pictured herself alone, forever alone, shuffling down the street in a dirty housedress and torn sneakers with no socks, mumbling, licking shredded cheese from a discarded taco wrapper.

No. That couldn't happen. Her stomach tense, she flipped through the pages in her hand: lists of assets, addresses, specific instructions. Her name wasn't mentioned again until the last sheet, printed on cheap paper that had turned yellow and brittle.

It was a prenuptial agreement, dated three days before her wedding. She had signed away all rights to anything Howard owned before the marriage or income resulting from that property, though she didn't remember ever seeing the document before. But since he'd retired before they married, everything came from money he'd had before. She had nothing. Nothing but a ring, left like a penny tip in the bottom of a milkshake glass.

In a haze, Grace lowered the agreement to the desk, the paper rattling in her shaky hand. Above her, a fluorescent light hummed, and the tang of pine cleaner bit the inside of her nose. She remembered Howard's massive hands shaping every red-streaked stone in the fireplace and tearing down the old barn that became his rustic, silvered paneling. There was nothing of her in the space, no shred of femininity. It was like she'd never stepped into the room before, like she'd never lived at all. Her hand clenched involuntarily, and the agreement crumpled in her fist.

He couldn't be dead. Howard dead was too horrible to contemplate. Somehow, Howard had to survive his death.

She brandished the Will at his lifeless body. "You son of a bitch."

"I see you found it." From the tone of his voice, he'd be smirking if he could, but his face was frozen.

She wanted to smack him, pummel him until he cried like a little boy. It would be so satisfying to hit him, knowing he couldn't hit back. But she didn't want to just hit him; she wanted to hurt him, and he was beyond that.

She'd settle for shutting him up. She laid a sofa cushion over his mouth. He sputtered, but the sound was muffled. She piled all the cushions on him and dumped a laundry basket of clean clothes over them. Now she couldn't hear him.

She wandered around the house, pulling blinds. She picked up the dirty socks he'd left by the recliner and put them in the hamper. It was full, so she collected a load of towels. As she loaded the washer, toilet bowl cleaner caught her eye, so she scrubbed the toilet. She put away the groceries and made an apple pie. With the scent of cinnamon drifting through the house, she headed to the laundry room, but on the way, she tripped over a pile of pillows and clothes.

And Howard. Who not only looked dead but was dead.

Grace began to giggle. She tried to stop but just laughed harder, laughed until her stomach muscles ached. The impossible had happened. Howard had died, and Grace was finally free. She'd find a way to keep the money. He couldn't stop her now.

This deserves a toast, she thought. She grabbed a dark bottle with a dingy wax seal from Howard's liquor cabinet -- his Glenfiddich scotch. Why had he never opened the bottle? He'd surely made his million years before.

"No matter." Back in the kitchen, she poured an inch of the amber fluid into a glass. "Here's to my first million." She took a deep slug.

"BLAAACCCHH!" She spewed the liquid across the floor. "Tastes like a burn barrel," she called into the living room. "How can you drink it?"

Howard didn't answer.

Maybe she wasn't drinking it right. She held up the bottle and squinted. The print blurred, so she straightened her arm. Now it was clear, but too small to read. Oh, well, there probably weren't instructions anyway.

How did Howard drink scotch? She poured a few inches of water into the glass and took a cautious sip. Still tasted like smoke.

She dumped her glass and tried again, using Diet Coke instead, and it was at least tolerable. After a couple of sips for courage, she carried her drink into the den, averting her eyes from the pile of textiles as she passed.

As she sat in Howard's chair, the alcohol warmed her stomach, and the future glowed in its smoky light. Her future. Without Howard.

Her fingers roamed over the desk, sliding across the polished wood. She opened a drawer to find a wooden box filled with aromatic cigars. She laid one on her upper lip and scrunched her face to hold it like a mustache, then took a sip.

Grace bit off the end of her cigar, but unsure which end to bite, she bit the other as well. She held a lighter against the cigar's end, like a candle, and sucked. Smoke poured into her lungs, making her cough, and the half-hearted glow disappeared the moment she stopped inhaling. Overwhelmed by the too-strong flavor of smoke, she reached for her drink to wash out the taste, but the glass was empty.

On her way to the kitchen, she stepped over the laundry. "Pardon me."

With her drink refilled, she walked out to the back deck and looked at the vast expanse of ebony sky, glittering with stars. Her eyes were drawn to the dark patterns between the points of light, patterns so intricate, she had the distinct sense she sat under a Palo Verde tree, viewing the stars through its delicate tracing.

When Grace first stepped off the plane in Phoenix behind her new husband fifteen years earlier, searing heat had rolled across her like a tornado. She soon realized the desert was a harsh, unrelenting place. Black widows moved to strike, faster than you could flinch, if you touched their haphazard, glittering webs. Rattlesnakes sought body heat in the night's chill, and the Gila monster, the lumbering purple and orange lizard, had a tenacious bite, filthy with bacteria. If one bit you, Howard warned, he would not let go. You'd have to tear out a chunk of skin and muscle to remove him, and you'd still get an infection. The smallest mistake, like walking a few feet from your car without water, might be fatal. Even the trees were too stingy to give shade, and Grace was not a multi-segmented, hard-shelled creature with a stinger. How would she survive?

But she'd come to love the extreme fierceness of the desert moods. Rainstorms soaked her clothes in the dash from door to car. Lightning sprawled across the horizon, jagged veins of white that broke the sky into shards of cobalt glass. Even the heat that scorched her lungs challenged her, tested her determination to survive. And she had survived. Like the barrel cactus that grew round and plump on hoarded water and shrank to a thin stalk in the lean times, she learned to manage her few resources.Now, she needed to adapt again, mimicking this time the roadrunner. Independent. Too fast and too smart to be caught.

The day's warmth had faded. She shivered. In the distance, a lone coyote yip-yip-yipped until he was joined by the unearthly keening of a pack. The moon hung behind the Superstition Mountains, a toenail clipping in the sky, bisected by a stately saguaro cactus. If only a silver stream meandered through the moonlight, it could have been a Bob Ross painting.

Bob Ross. Grace smiled to think of his fuzzy beard, his gentle voice, his frizzy hair, hair she knew was red by his picture on her set of oil paints. A new Bob Ross painting would be the perfect way to celebrate her new life.

She stumbled out to drive to her studio. In the car, she groped on the floor for the mouthpiece of Howard's Breathalyzer. When the tone sounded, she hummed into the tube and blew. She turned the key, but nothing happened. A second try gave the same result. She stopped and methodically went through each step exactly the way Howard had taught her.

The headlights came on, shining at the garage wall, lined with tools. The horn honked, a long, loud "BLEAT!" like a toddler playing in a car.

"Oh, my God." Grace yanked out the key. "Am I drunk?"

"Ding, ding, ding!" Howard's voice sounded gleeful. "You win! A new car! Complete with your very own, state-of-the-art ignition lock!"

"I'm a drunk driver." Grace started to cry. "As bad as he is. Was." She stumbled back into the house. She'd hadn't been drunk enough to pass out for twenty-five years, but it seemed a good night to try it again. Tottering toward the kitchen to refill her glass, she stumbled over the body.

"Sorry," she said.