They had intended to be gone just for the morning but half an hour outside of King’s Canyon (two hours north of Alice Springs) the Jeep began to gasp like a sad child, and when Darver pulled over to see what was the matter the engine obligingly caught fire. His wife Lois rescued the camera and a canteen and he managed to get away with his wallet and sunglasses and the paper pass that had cost them two hundred local dollars. He folded the pass once neatly down the middle and stood in the middle of the empty dirt highway, watching the rented vehicle burn. They were twenty miles from anywhere, they had seen no other car that morning, and they had been told at the station to expect none.
Along the barbed wire fence came a kangaroo. When it leapt onto the dirt road, Darver observed the thing’s brown, mousy, unbarbered fur and foolish forearms with something like pity. Then before he could think to move, the kangaroo was in front of him and coming fast. Its first blow, an abbreviated uppercut, struck Darver neatly beneath the chin, snapping his head back and clacking his teeth together. A glint of sun from the windshield flashed in Darver’s eyes and then the creature was on top of him in the rutted road. It whapped at him with its long, dust-smelling hind legs, striking him over and over. Only when Lois began to scream with a weird repeating intensity did the thing stop. Blood was clotting in the dust of the road and Darver was faintly aware that something serious had happened to his left leg. Darver rolled over to see the kangaroo toss itself over the wire and rabbit off toward the featureless horizon. Then he sat up carefully and swiped at his bloody nose.
“Jibidy Chrisbas,” he said.
The Jeep was still burning and now it gave a little burp and a gray rolling fist of smoke came pillowing out of what had been the engine compartment. He looked down at his leg in its khaki and saw that the knee had swollen. It also hurt to breathe. His wife knelt beside him. Her voice was strained. “Are you hurt?”
“Well for chrissake Lois what do you think?” They were halfway between King’s Canyon and their intended destination, a tiny Aboriginal settlement called Howard’s Station. According to the guidebooks the Aborigines had been living in that spot for upwards of 8,000 years. He heard Lois’ scream again in his ear and a thought now struck him. “Lois,” he blubbed, “were you laughing at be?”
“Oh, Darver,” she blinked, and began to sputter. Then she nodded helplessly and collapsed from her knees to lie down in the dust, racked with desperate laughter. “Your expression!”
She lost the capacity to speak for about a minute.
She lifted her head to cry, “You were so surprised!” then collapsed again in the road.
Out of habit and husbandly duty he smiled and tried to laugh as well, but the pain in his ribs made him gasp and writhe. “Goddabit,” he said instead and remained outstretched in the sun. He did not want to laugh anyway. In his prime he had been a man of some measure, and with some dignity had accepted the usual decline of the post-60 period, but now gravel was digging into the back of his head and no reasonable accounting of the last two minutes could be made without him seeming ridiculous. Furthermore, his wife’s too obvious enjoyment of the predicament rankled. He lay there feeling the sun on his face and its heat on the swelling numbness of his knee. “I’b fine,” he growled, when she leaned over to inspect him.
“You looked dead for a minute there,” she whispered, a note of apology finally evident. Possibly it was only fear.
He was happy to hear it. Her cell phone had no reception and aside from a single airplane tracing a white line across the blue they saw no evidence of civilization until two hours later when a plume of dust appeared in the distance. “Oh, thank God, someone’s coming,” Lois remarked. Ten minutes later Fergus arrived in a newer Jeep. He regarded the smoldering wreckage. “Realized I’d sent you out in the bad runner. Surprised you got this far.”
He turned to Darver, peering down at him. “Looks like you took a bit of a wallopping.”
“A kangaroo beat him up,” said Lois, her hand over her mouth.
Fergus blinked. “You shouldn’t insult them, that’s all I know. Right. Can you get up here?”
Lois hoisted herself into the passenger’s seat and Darver, with the guide’s help, twisted himself delicately into the back, and then Fergus made a circle in the road and set off back toward King’s Canyon. The road was rutted and the Jeep bucked beneath them. Darver gripped the taped and padded rollbar while Fergus drove with the blind recklessness of wilderness guides everywhere, swerving to avoid only the largest holes while motoring along at forty miles an hour. Darver was mute with the effort of keeping his leg and ribs simultaneously immobile amid the jostling, and stared at the back of his wife’s downy neck in order to concentrate his attention somewhere that was not his own miserable corpse. The back of Lois’ neck was turning red, and when he looked more closely he saw that she was jamming her fist against her pursed mouth, her shoulders hunched as she suppressed more impossible laughter. This seemed unkind to him and he was about to say so when Fergus whipped them around a sharp curve. Lois’ round, pleasant bottom slid half out of the dusty leather seat and toward the open side of the vehicle. It seemed to Darver that she would slide all the way out but at the last moment she put down her fist and, gasping, caught herself.
Still it did not really occur to Darver that he might actually succeed in killing his wife until five days later when they were on the airplane home.
They boarded first with the cripples and the babies, Darver the slowest of them all as his left leg was in a plaster cast. He made his way down the aisle with a bamboo cane while Lois banged ahead with their Goretex carryons. The kangaroo had torn Darver’s ACL, which had required surgery to repair, and severely strained his MCL, pulling it, as the doctor, an Australian-born Chinese woman, had told him, “like a length of sugar toffee.” Two ribs were indeed broken and there remained a weird graininess to the workings of his jaw. Though the X-ray had not shown them, he suspected there were bone chips floating somewhere in his face, and he had acquired a habit of swirling his still-sore jaw to produce its troubling sensation. At their row Lois said, “You take the window.” He grimaced and angled himself to topple into the seat. As he released himself to gravity, he caught Lois’ amber necklace in a loop on the sleeve of his nylon windbreaker and dragged her down with him. She made a strangled noise and fell heavily against the bank of flimsy seats. When she sat up her hair was mussed and her eyes had a wild, hunted expression. “For chrissake, Darver,” she scolded. The impact against his broken ribs had left him breathless and sparks flashed in his eyes but he was struck by the change in her aspect, from one of tolerant superiority to something very different. While she slept, her long legs in their cotton chinos wedged considerately to the left (to avoid contact with his knee), he began to plot.
Their life in the city was regular and pleasant. Their three children, now in their twenties, had lifted themselves out of the nest and with only a little flailing had managed to find their ways. One daughter was a lawyer, another was a high school teacher, and their son Guy was in computers and lived in California. Darver was semi-retired from his investment firm and even in the months before his injury had worked mostly from home. His black leather chair and glass tabletop welcomed him every morning as he looked after his few remaining clients’ interests, usually following their doings through the financial pages and, when he was asked, offering advice on the consequences of this or that acquisition or divestment. Lois for her part held a position on the board of their children’s old preparatory school and organized a window-gardening group. She had been trained as a chemist and when he had met her she was wearing plastic eye-guards and a white coat, blonde curls flying as she passed down a corridor in a building where Darver had gone, as a very young lawyer, to track down a certain research pharmacist. Dr. Dunlop had thus brought them together and for years after their marriage they had, as a joke, sent him a card on their anniversary. Lois gave up her work gladly for the children though now and then she admitted to feeling a certain incompletion in her life. Travel had been one means of filling her out, as she had put it, and this impulse had directed them to various destinations around the world, and at last to Australia.
For a month after their return Darver did nothing. Darver told no one about the kangaroos and enjoined his wife from telling anyone. “Oh, but Darver,” Lois complained. But he felt strongly that it was too embarrassing a story to tell. Instead the official line was a car accident. His injuries healed slowly, as though the systems of his body were semi-retired too. He was only sixty-six and this pokiness troubled him. His plans to do with Lois required him to be at least mobile but he worried about his knee, as it seemed he could feel a knot of scar tissue forming in it under the plaster. He would be patient, he decided, as he could not be otherwise.
He had two reasonable plots. One was very simple. As Lois was a window gardener there was an obvious opportunity. She was not afraid of heights and often leaned precariously out to prune or tend a dangling item or two. A six-story fall would almost surely be lethal, unless as in some farce she landed on a mattress or a pedestrian. Even the shade of this possibility haunted Darver, but he could not control for sidewalk traffic. The other plot was less attractive. She had a careless habit, born of long familiarity, of hailing cabs by stepping brazenly into busy streets. There is an art to this and she had mastered it, but there had been some near misses.
At the next chance he could fake a misbalanced lunge and send her against someone’s fender. The problems with this were obvious, and he did not think he could manage to carry always at the ready, like some springloaded mechanism, the impulse to really kill his wife. It was a moment, he sensed, that he would have to be properly prepared for.
In the meantime he waited. Their slides came back from the developer and Lois sat him down one evening to look at them projected onto the white wall above the sleeper sofa in the guest room. In glowing color against the red sands he waved his uninjured wave. “Oh,” she said, aghast, “you look so young.” She hurried forward to the next slide but he was the same. She turned to him in the light back-thrown from the slide projector’s interior. “Well, you’ve been tired,” she said.
He lifted his cane and smashed the slide projector. “I have not been tired,” he said. “I’m as strong as I ever was.”"I hope you can manage to clean this up,” she said, “because I’m not going to.”
He spent twenty minutes scooting on his rear around the carpet and gouged his palm on a shard of broken bulb. As he wrapped his hand in his handkerchief he thought of his client Brian Morgenstern who had gone to prison for concealing funds from shareholders in order to support a mistress and the two children they had together. The mistress was in her forties and a close copy of Mrs. Morgenstern. This seemed a true betrayal and in some ways more hurtful than murder, as it could be argued that to murder one’s wife represented a definite commitment to the importance of one’s marriage. Then it struck him that this was sophistry and not dignified and when he had finished cleaning he hoisted himself up and found his wife dressing to go out. “Come on,” she told him, in apology, “let’s go have a good time for once.”
“No thanks,” he scowled, but he went off to dress. They took the elevator to the street and she hailed a cab with her usual brio. Their restaurant was half-empty for it was a Wednesday night and almost eleven. Across the table in the upthrown candlelight Lois looked very beautiful. Darver caught the young waiter staring more than once as he smoothed the front of his apron. His own plotting suddenly seemed desperate and unsuitable to a man of his station. As though sensing his contrition she reached across the table and took his hand. “Darver,” she said, “I have a proposition. I want us to sleep with a woman.”
“What woman?” he asked.
“I want us to sleep with Mary Elizabeth Collins,” Lois said. “She’s been suggesting it for a little while, since we got back, I mean, and I really like her. You don’t have to say yes but I thought it would be nice to tell you. I mean, ask you.”
“Do you want to?”
A considering look entered her eye and she gazed out the plate glass at the traffic. “If I don’t, I’ll always wonder.”
“Does her husband know, that big bastard?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” she said, and lifted a foot into his lap. In the taxi home they kissed madly and she outlined his jumping unit with her hand. The next week was full of vigorous sex and his plans for murder faded away while he learned to keep his cast out of the action. The meeting with Mary Elizabeth Collins was planned instead. She was married to Jack Collins, a partner at Carter-Havens, a rival firm, which made the prospect all the more delicious. For Darver the lesbianism of his wife did not count as betrayal and besides it was not really lesbianism as she described it. He had been a good lover over the years, he thought, and he did not see his wife’s proposition as arising out of any dissatisfaction with him, indeed it seemed a new chapter of their common story.
The meeting was finally set for a Tuesday afternoon. Coming off the elevator into the apartment Mary Elizabeth Collins had the appearance of an old-fashioned committeewoman, with a pillbox hat and veil and long tan gloves. This outfit if it was one seemed to Darver both ridiculous and unbearably erotic. She had a purple suit on with a skirt that went to her knees. She gave them each a separate smile as she lifted her hat from her head and set it with care on the hall table. “We have three hours,” she announced. They used the master bedroom as it had a king bed. Undressed Mrs. Collins was trimmer than his wife with small but well-kept breasts and longish nipples. She made for Lois rabidly and his wife threw back her head and accepted her. Darver watched Mrs. Collins’s narrow rump waggle before him and then, with his left leg thrown to the side, he took her on. The acrobatics of three in a bed were foolish and elaborate and halfway through the three hours he flagged, sinking onto the pile of clothes he had shed on the armchair. His knee throbbed and the troubling sensation in his jaw had returned. He watched Lois receiving the endless attention of Mrs. Collins and felt his affection for his wife blooming. “She’s going to leave her husband,” Lois told him later, as they were dressing after a shower.
“Boy howdy, she can come live here,” he offered.
“Oh, no. That was enough for me. My poor thingie is already complaining. Did you like her? Different from me?”
“She hardly noticed I was there.”
“Oh, yes she did.” Lois snapped herself into her hose. “If she did come live with us she’d be all over you, too. She likes both. Well, it was interesting, anyway.”
Darver was thrilled by the memory of this dalliance and replayed it often, especially Mrs. Collins’ avid expression as she undid the padded buttons of her nice cream blouse. Soon it came time to remove his cast. The doctor looked curiously at the foreign work and then approvingly as he cut through the tough cast with a bone saw. The dangerous whirring so close to Darver’s flesh did not frighten him as the doctor was steady with the big hands of the old quarterback he was. Darver’s leg was gruesome, white and matted with stinking hair, but it bent without much pain, and he felt no clot of scar. He hid the embarrassing limb hastily in his trousers but found walking a pleasure now, after a minute of clumsy recalibration. Outside on the sidewalk he hailed a cab with his wife’s fearless step and was not surprised when it stopped for him.
He did not dare hope for a replay of the episode with Mrs. Collins but one afternoon he heard the elevator grinding and she came in, this time wearing a rather formal black dress and no hat. “She’s not here,” Darver said. She calmly took his hand and sat him down in the living room in front of the silent television. Light from the drawn curtains filled the room with an aquamarine radiance. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she said. “I know what I asked of you was an imposition, and I’m very grateful to you.”
“That’s all right. Let’s screw right now, okay? Really, you were super.”
She grinned showing small bottom teeth. “Your wife is super,” she said. “I want a divorce. I want to level my motherfucker husband. Do you know any decent lawyers? I can’t use anybody my husband knows, because of the bias.”
“He can’t know anything,” she whispered. She leaned forward and gave him a long kiss. “You look different.”
“Oh! That must be a relief.”
“Actually, I was attacked by a kangaroo,” he admitted.
Her face dropped into a leaden seriousness. “They can be very dangerous,” she agreed. It was for the moment gratifying but a minute later she was making her swift excuses and after she was gone he began strongly to suspect that her seriousness had been a put-on and that perhaps his wife had already told this woman the humiliating and hilarious truth. He felt suddenly ridiculous, and the furious affronted shame he had felt on the dusty road returned and with it the need for action. He put on a jacket and tie and took a taxi to the Carter-Havens building where Jack Collins worked. On the forty-ninth floor the air was soft with money and good carpeting. He discovered Jack Collins standing at his office window with his hands clasped behind him.
Collins turned. “Why Darver,” he exclaimed.
“What on earth could you want? It’s not old Weaver again.” Jack Collins was a bluff corn-fed mouth-breathing monster, still blond and wearing a yellow tie. “I’ll kill him if he’s got you over here to stir up trouble.”
“Your wife is a lesbian,” he said.
“Oh, hell, again. Well, Mary gets someone into her head once in a while but it blows over eventually. Mary wears on people, they can’t take her for too long. I don’t really give a damn, I guess, only I’m sorry you had to get roped into it. You always struck me as a pretty straight bastard but you look pretty broken up to me at the moment. Say, aren’t you retired or did I hear you were dead? Somewhere!”
Darver went home. The apartment was empty and quiet. At the open windows the window boxes beckoned but he turned away. The aquamarine light was now shading orange with the afternoon. Everywhere he turned in the apartment he found the absence of his wife. Lois’ black jacket with the felt buttons on the back of his office chair, Lois’ silver bracelet on the bathroom counter beside the column of cotton balls in their plastic cannister, Lois’ eyeglasses upside down in front of the television. How he missed her suddenly! Then he thought to look in the bedroom. She was not there either, nor was Mrs. Collins though his heart had flared briefly at the idea. Faced with his solitude and feeling unmanned by Collins he stripped off his coat and tie and put on his old college sweatshirt, by now a riot of holes. Over this he put a sweater and he jammed an old baseball hat on his head. Jingling his keys he rode down the elevator again. In the lobby he spied his wife coming in with Mrs. Collins. Tangled in each other they did not recognize him as he strode past them and he overheard his wife sigh, as the elevator doors closed on their embrace, “Oh, darling.”
He considered stumping it back upstairs to join them but he feared the figure he would cut hallooing through the apartment to the bedroom. It was clear to him that the kangaroos had delivered a near-mortal wound to his dignity and that only redressing this would put him right again. On the train to the zoo he gripped the chrome rail and clutched his ticket like a talisman. His problems had begun with the goddamned kangaroos and would end there.
Once above ground again he breathed the hot zooey air floating over the brick walls and paid his admission at the turnstiles. He followed the signs to the kangaroo enclosure and when he saw the long brown sleeping forms in the grass he did what he had been seeing himself doing since he was a child, he hoisted himself over the black pipe rail and shimmied down the concrete ditch that separated the great leapers from the zoogoers. Full of vengeful resolve he climbed the iron rungs embedded in the other side and when he rose up to ground level again the crowd was shouting at him and nannies were hurrying their children away. He was not in the kangaroo enclosure but the lion pen. He had made mistakes before but this was a big one. Darver considered crying out for help but his dignity was at stake, that was what had brought him here, and he was not going to foul it up now. The Aborigines had lived in one spot for 8,000 years and that was goddamned dignity if he had ever heard of it. Besides the lions looked tired and old and did not seem interested in him.
Then the big male got slowly and obligingly to his feet. His rising was made of many joined and following segments including a complicated motion around the shoulders. Once upright he lowered his gaze and with an unbelieving shake of his head came forward across the tufty grass. Darver shrank only a moment. It was all foolishness from beginning to end, he saw that suddenly in the lion’s great yellow eyes. Everything human was full of striving and sad foolishness and the only way to beat it was to know this fact and rejoice. No matter what happened he was no worse off than any of them, this was a beautiful solace. It struck him that this was the only worthwhile idea he had ever had, and that it had come at just the right time. Full of sudden joy he bent his injured knee and lowered himself into a fighter’s stance. He felt a burbling in his chest and began to laugh. They would report a laughing man on the news! A laughing man torn to bloody bits! “Come on, you big gorgeous beast!” Darver cried, unafraid and happy at last, holding his pose like a lineman as the creature leapt at him, “Come on, you big gorgeous wonderful killer you!”