Pillar of Salt
Written By: Jacob M. Appel
On an otherwise inconsequential April afternoon four months ago, while strolling along Owls Point Beach in Laurendale, Rhode Island, my wife of twenty-one years, Edith Quarterman—a loving, attractive yet essentially unremarkable marine ecologist and mother of three—transformed, without fair warning or apparent justification, into a pillar of salt. Here is how it happened:
Our oldest daughter had just returned home from Vassar for spring break, and she had baby-on-the-brain, so I suggested to Edith that we take advantage of the opportunity to drive down to the coast for a stroll along the dunes, maybe also a quick lunch at Izzy’s, while Mallory played nursemaid to her baby sister. Candidly, my wife was reluctant to go. We had only been home from the hospital for two weeks—her labor had been eighteen hours of unforgiving hell—and possibly because Malvina had required so much effort, or because she had entered our lives so unexpectedly, like misdelivered gold, Edith feared leaving her alone.
“What if Mallory suffers an epileptic fit and falls on the baby?” she had asked. “What if she has an abusive ex-boyfriend—one we don’t know about—and he shows up with a shotgun while we’re gone?”
Never mind that Mallory has never before had a seizure, that she fancies Ivy League premeds who sport J. Press sweaters and play woodwind instruments. Not exactly the shotgun crowd. Edith possessed an imagination that way, always conjuring the implausible. Myself, I’m an actuary by profession, so I play the odds. And yet how I wish I’ had yielded to her nonsense just this once!
My wife had been in a dejected mood ever since we had left the hospital—baby blues, I think they call it—although, upon reflection, her gloom might have predated that. Looking back, she hadn’t really been herself since at least last summer, when I had been invited to give a lecture on reserve variability at the Casualty Actuarial Society’s annual meeting in Denver, and she had insisted on staying home to look after our teenaged son. How different from two years earlier, when she’d accompanied me to the American Academy of Actuaries convention in Seattle and left Manny alone for an entire week. Why she’d been willing to trust him at sixteen, yet not at eighteen, proved a puzzle, and a frustrating one, especially as he has always been a color-within-the-lines sort of kid. Takes straight after his dad, to tell the truth. But her intransigence—I eventually traveled solo—stood in line with her increasing anxiety. Neuroticism, if you will. At the time, you understand, I saw this as merely a passing phase, a bump in the road. Only in hindsight did it strike me that my wife’s troubles might have been simmering for some time.
On the ride to the ocean, Edith hardly spoke. She gazed out the passenger window, the glass reflecting her restless eyes. Once, to fill the silence, I flipped on the radio—to a quartet by Schubert we had both always admired; an instant later, her fingers shot to the dial and silenced the music. I reached across the gearshift to caress her shoulder. She shook me away.
When we finally reached Owls Point, I had started to worry that something was truly amiss. That she might be physically ill, for instance. The OB/GYNs had warned us of the risks of infection following episiotomy. But when I asked Edith if she was in pain, she shrugged and replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that right now.”
To cloud our spirits further, a chilly fog had rolled in off the bay, nearly shrouding the beach. At Izzy’s, usually packed on weekend afternoons, the only other customers were two leather-faced women drinking at the bar. A far cry from the bustling joint where we had first met—on a blind date with her sister, Louise, and her sister’s ex, who had been my roommate for one semester at Providence College. Back then, Edith had been studying lobstermen: salty, sea-worn Yankees with little truck for co-ed grad students. Yet somehow, she’d charmed them into revealing a dissertation’s worth of secrets.
We always sat on the veranda, no matter the weather—a tribute to the distant June evening when the four of us polished off two pitchers of sangria and built a campfire on the beach; even when the open-air seating was roped off, Izzy carved out an exception for us. The plank terrace recalled the decks of nineteenth-century clipper ships; maritime netting, speckled with sand dollars and starfish, draped from the eaves. That afternoon, tiny pools of mist had frozen on our plastic chairs, and I had to dry them off with my handkerchief.
Izzy’s mute brother took our order, communicating with pre-printed cards and a pad. I selected crab cakes and swordfish. Edith opted for a house salad with lemon—part of her post-natal diet, I supposed.
“You sure you don’t want something else?” I inquired, once our server had gone. “A hearty meal would do us both some good.”
Edith shook her head. “Are you happy?” she asked, apropos of nothing.
What’s there to be unhappy about? I wondered. We have stable jobs, healthy children, only eleven years remaining on the mortgage. But I sensed—from decades of trial and error—that to be the wrong response. “I think so. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Rob. Don’t you ever have the feeling that you’ve made a terrible mistake?”
In fact, I had once made a terrible mistake. At the office. Back when I worked for the pension fund. I had inadvertently put together a comprehensive long term plan for a particular public entity—one whose name you would instantly recognize, if I could share it—using data that failed to account for future salary increases. Nearly bankrupted our entire firm. Fortunately, I ran the numbers one final time and caught my error. “You’ll feel better,” I said, patting my wife’s hand. “Those are the hormones speaking.”
After lunch, we followed the wood-slat trail down toward the surf, where fuming breakers pounded the gneiss-ribbed shore. Herring gulls sheltered in the leeward crags of glacial boulders and huddled amid the driftwood. I offered Edith my pullover. “I’m fine,” she said—although she appeared to be shivering.
“Let’s go back up,” I suggested, “before we freeze.”
I turned around and stepped past my wife, assuming she would follow. Shorebirds had gathered in our wake, terns and plover huddled against the elements. Izzy’s pavilion roof poked like a mirage through the haze.
“Wait!” Edith cried. “I’m not ready.”
That’s when I glanced over my shoulder, hoping to persuade her to join me for a hot toddy at the Owls Creek Pub. Instead, I found myself face-to-face with a five-foot-two-inch mineralized column—jagged, rough-hewn—but unmistakably human. Unmistakably Edith.
Five years in the Coast Guard Reserve and fifteen as a lieutenant in the Laurendale Volunteer Fire Department have schooled me on confronting disasters, yet nothing fully prepares a man for losing his wife to a salt heap. Still, I proceeded with the utmost calm. First, I scoured the nearby dunes, thwacking through the high grass while calling Edith’s name. Then I climbed atop a nearby promontory and scanned the landscape. Only when I had fully satisfied myself that the formation bisecting the timber path was indeed Edith—and not merely a facsimile—did I approach Izzy to ask if he had ever noticed the column before.
“Can’t say I have,” replied Izzy, scratching his pate. “Though can’t say I haven’t.” The restaurateur leaned over the veranda railing, cupping his view with his palms. “Don’t get down to the water much.”
As a transplanted New Yorker, I had long ago mastered the key to life in the Ocean State: Never underestimate the provincialism of a laconic Rhode Islander. When I posed the same matter to his brother, the fellow scrawled in his pad: “That’s an excellent question….“So I shook hands with both men, betraying nothing amiss, and drove back Laurendale alone.
I had already turned into our driveway when I realized that I couldn’t simply sleep on the situation, as I might with a statistical puzzle, and hope to find Edith reconstituted in the morning. Mallory and Manny would wonder where their mother was; also, Malvina had to be fed—and I didn’t know how much pumped milk we had refrigerated. At the same time, a person can’t go around claiming his wife has transmuted into a salt pillar. That was how you ended up an inmate in the state asylum—or, if they doubted your sincerity, a chief suspect in her disappearance. No, the only alternative was to file a missing person report. Already regretting that I hadn’t displayed any alarm while at Izzy’s, where the authorities were bound to make inquiries, I backtracked across the county to the police headquarters that serviced Owls Point and its surrounding villages.
The station house occupied half the ground floor of the Hopkinsville Municipal Building. I had been inside once before, years earlier, to bail out my wife’s nephew, who had been picked up on a DWI after a tailgating party. The walls still blinded with the same garish shade of canary; mounds of paperwork still towered behind the security glass. One corridor led to offices, and beyond that, to the underutilized lockup. Another hooked past the public restrooms, connecting the chambers of law enforcement to the assessor’s office and the municipal library. The sergeant on duty that night looked about sixty, coarse gray hairs curling from his ears.
“Missing?” he echoed. “For how long?”
“About ninety minutes,” I estimated.
The cop looked up from his paperwork, grinning. “You sure she didn’t visit her sister? Or duck out to buy groceries? Ninety minutes isn’t a long time.”
“Yes, I’m sure. We were walking on the beach—about four o’clock—and I turned around and she was gone.”
“Okay, okay. Just asking…. We spent half the night looking for this guy’s ma last month, and then found her playing blackjack at Foxwoods….”
“My wife is not playing blackjack. She’s vanished.”
Maybe my voice carried too much intensity, because a blind of suspicion fell over the cop’s weathered features. “Let me get this straight, sir. You took your wife for a stroll along a deserted beach on an afternoon with near-zero visibility—and out of the blue she disappeared without so much as a cry for help. That right?”
“More or less,” I said. “Visibility was better than zero.”
Two hours later, I watched helpless in the parking lot as a team of no-nonsense state troopers combed my Oldsmobile for evidence. They swabbed the dashboard, confiscated the floor mats. Meanwhile, another duo had been dispatched to the house to interview my children. By the time I arrived home, after midnight, WPRO-TV was already reporting Edith’s case as suspicious; investigators, the network revealed, had identified a person of interest.
Mallory wanted to know why I hadn’t called the police from the restaurant. Edith’s brother asked me pointblank if I had been having an affair. Detective Peloquin of the Criminal Investigations Division traced the GPS on my cell phone to map my odd path on the day of the disappearance—first to the house, then back to Owls Point. He surprised me after work the following Monday—I didn’t see the point in staying home, especially as Edith’s sister was looking after the baby—and grilled me on my demeanor in the wake of the “incident.” Peloquin—a French Canadian as lanky and sharp featured as an Ibizan hound—had already spoken to Izzy.
“What I’m having trouble understanding, Mr. Quarterman,” he said, “is why a man genuinely concerned about his wife’s sudden disappearance engages casual acquaintances in a discussion of geology.”
Good question. As I found myself spinning an increasingly convoluted and implausible web of deceit, I began to regret my initial prevarication. Lying to the police is like lying to your spouse: You can’t expect to do it only once. I would have been better off being honest and in the loony-bin.
Not that I didn’t also receive sympathy. My children might have found my behavior odd, but they knew instinctively that I would never harm their mother. Edith’s sister practically moved into our house: cooking meals, coordinating search parties. Detective Peloquin appeared to lose interest after that first interrogation. Quite frankly, and I would like to believe this is to my credit, though who can be certain, I just don’t come across as a killer. An embezzler, maybe. Or a tax cheat. But not the sort to off his wife. Even Edith’s younger brother could sense this. Phil’s a heat-and-frost insulator in Warwick who’s never warmed to me, but after I denied the affair, he slapped me on the shoulder like a coach sending a Little League rookie up to bat—his way of showing support. “All right, I trust you,” he said. “But don’t be lying.”
Twenty-five friends and neighbors joined us the following weekend at the marina to distribute flyers. Mallory and I argued over which photo of Edith to use for the handouts: I preferred something younger, maybe one of the formal shots from Manny’s first communion. My daughter insisted that the foremost criterion for the likeness be accuracy. Of course, she still expected some passerby to lead us to her mother, while I already knew this wouldn’t occur. When a volunteer search party combed the woods opposite Izzy’s for clues, I begged off. Given the circumstances, nobody pressured me. Instead, I waited on a log opposite the pillar of salt.
“Is this because you regretted something?” I asked Edith. “If it’s something I did—or didn’t do—I’m truly sorry.” I considered offering her bribes: that cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna we hadn’t been able to afford; no more late nights at the firm. Yet I sensed she might take such tangible offers as insulting. With Edith, one could never be sure. “Why don’t you come back—at least for a little while—so we can discuss it?”
I had always thought people fools for talking to headstones, as though the dead could hear a person better in a cemetery than in one’s own kitchen. Now I pleaded with the pillar like a nitwit. The only responses I received were the nasal cries of the herring gulls overhead; Edith—true to form—maintained her stony, mulish silence.
Nearly two weeks elapsed between Edith’s transformation and the Saturday afternoon Trent Lionbeck appeared on our doorstep. My kids had gone off to distribute more flyers, so I was alone with Edith’s sister and the baby. By then, the television crews that had camped out on the opposite sidewalk had largely dispersed, leaving only one box van from News Channel 10, but I eyeballed our caller warily from the bay windows in the living room. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches and clenched an unlit Dublin pipe between his teeth—resembling a retired archeologist or a country vicar more than a beat reporter. His shock of white hair contrasted with the well-bronzed skin of his rugged features. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I opened the door and stood in the frame. “How can I help you?”
He extended a hand. “Trent Lionbeck. You’re Quarterman, right?”
Not Mr. Quarterman. Not even Robert. Just Quarterman—as though we had been in the service together. From the nursery came an infant’s guttural cry, followed by the off-key strains of my sister-in-law singing “Toora, Loora, Loora.”
“Yes, I’m Quarterman,” I conceded—too readily.
“Sorry for barging in like this, but I was hoping I could borrow a few moments of your time.” He lowered his voice. “I was a friend of your wife.”
“Were you now?”
Edith had never breathed Lionbeck’s name, as far as I could recall; the very notion that she’d had a friend I knew nothing about—a handsome, male friend, albeit one old enough to be her father—prickled me. I didn’t have any friends I had concealed from her. Besides, our visitor didn’t strike me as the sort of acquaintance one might forget to mention. I also couldn’t help noting his use of the past tense; if I hadn’t already known Edith’s fate, I would have turned the interloper over to Detective Peloquin.
“I promise I’ll explain,” Lionbeck said. “In private.”
So I led the fellow through the dining room and out onto the patio. The neighbor boys were tossing a Frisbee in their yard, but too far away to hear. Squirrels gorged themselves at the feeder, while finches congregated in a nearby maple. A breeze whistled through the azaleas. I considered offering Lionbeck a cocktail, but didn’t. He seated himself backwards on a deck chair and rested his chin on his knuckles.
“You have a lovely yard here,” Lionbeck said. “Exactly as Edith described it.”
I swallowed my anger. “So, you were friends with my wife?”
“I don’t see the point of beating around the bush,” Lionbeck replied. “I’ve been having an affair with your wife. Since last summer. Or maybe was having an affair is more accurate….”
I didn’t protest. As soon as he said the words, I knew them to be true.
“I would never have intruded like this, you see,” continued Lionbeck, “if not for present circumstances. I do hope you can forgive me.”
He meant for intruding, I realized, not for screwing Edith.
“I’m having a hard time digesting this,” I said.
“Come on, man. Surely you must have suspected something….”
But I truly hadn’t. It’s not that I’m the most romantic guy out there, but I’ve always taken that “until death do us part” business rather seriously. Marriage is supposed to be a done deal—like a locked-in annuity. Or, at least, like a long-term CD. Maybe you break your vows under extreme circumstances—if your partner beats you or shoots heroin—but not simply because someone more appealing moseys along. Suddenly, I sensed a glow of self-satisfaction emanating from Lionbeck. The bastard thought he was better than me. “Why should I believe you?”
“Why would I lie? What do I have to gain?” Lionbeck cradled the bowl of his pipe as though stroking a lamp that might release a genie. “Maybe this will help. You were in Denver last July … Boston for two nights in August … New York for nearly a week in November—”
“Okay, you’ve made your point.”
Speaking with Lionbeck was like playing chess against either a grandmaster or a con man—with no way of knowing which.
“So, tell me, Quarterman, man to man, do you know where she is?”
His voice was friendly, lacking any hint of accusation, the tone of a trained interrogator from the CIA or Scotland Yard. Yet the insinuation was unmistakable.
“If I did—and I don’t—why the hell would I tell you?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Lionbeck said. Then he added, matter-of-fact, “And because I’m the father of the baby. I’m pretty sure of it.”
Had I been a violent man—or even a courageous one—I suspect I would have grabbed Trent Lionbeck by the lapels and dunked him into the birdbath until he begged for air. Or, at a minimum, I would have knocked out a few teeth. But I’ve always been one to count backwards from ten before acting, and by the time I reached five, I had already accepted that Malvina was his. While you could despise a man for fathering your baby, you couldn’t kill him.
“Don’t worry,” said Lionbeck. “That’s our secret. Who wants another kid at my age? But I would like to find Edith. You sure you’re not holding out on me?”
He sounded genuinely concerned—a hint of desperation, even anguish, infiltrating his infuriating calm. And maybe because he had offered me his child, albeit under peculiar circumstances, I felt an urge to give something back, so I told him the truth. About Izzy’s and the transformation and even my duplicity with Detective Peloquin.
“You don’t have to believe me,” I said, “but she really has become a pillar of salt.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” he asked, beaming. “This we can fix.”
Lionbeck turned out to hold the Sterling Peabody Endowed Chair in Applied Physics at Brown University. That’s how he had met Edith: She had been invited by the biology department to give a lecture on the cleanup of Narragansett Bay, and they’d had a fender-bender in the parking lot. I recalled the dented bumper—but in Edith’s version, she had hit a pole. In Lionbeck’s, they’d shared a cup of coffee on Thayer Street, then a stroll along the waterfront, then an unexpected kiss beneath the statue of Anne Hutchinson. I cut him off before he could reveal more. What became clear, as the man spoke of Edith, was that he cared for her deeply. “I’m a widower,” he emphasized. “Hadn’t even dated since Janine died. July 6, 2004. I don’t want you to have the impression that I go around stealing other men’s wives.”
“Does it matter what impression I have?” I demanded.
“It does if we’re going to be working together.”
I didn’t follow, and I told him as much.
“We’re going to bring Edith back. You wait and see. “He stood up and glanced at his pocket watch. “I’ll pick you up at 9 a.m. tomorrow.”
Lionbeck must have sensed my doubts, because at the threshold, he added, “Besides, we should be able to get along. We have a lot in common.”
He had driven off before I realized what he had meant.
The next morning, Lionbeck’s Corvette pulled up at the stroke of nine. He had dressed for a safari in a broad-brimmed hat over an open-collared khaki shirt with contrast flaps. I had taken the morning off from work—the firm didn’t ask questions—but saw no reason not to wear one of my standard three-piece suits. I had chosen a gray tweed and my burgundy tie. Arriving at Owls Point Beach, we proved a study in contrast: as though a big game hunter had inadvertently trapped a forensic accountant. On the drive, we had stopped by Hager’s Home Center and purchased fifteen gallons of copper-based house paint and a set of brushes. “Copper isn’t ideal,” explained Lionbeck, “but they don’t make silver-based paints. For obvious reasons.”
“Ideal for what?”
“For conduction,” he replied. “We can try with copper. If that fails, we can always make our own with a silver base. We can afford it.”
I still had little understanding of my companion’s plan, but he sounded so sure of himself, and I was so desperate to recover Edith, that I dared not question him. Maybe I feared that his scheme would prove harebrained—and I wished to prolong my denial. He had already started speaking of us as a team: We’ll do this; we should consider that. As though we were designing a supersonic aircraft or a hydrogen bomb. Yet even his cheer was tempered, at least momentarily, by the sight of “Edith” protruding from the dunes. She stood as I had left her the previous weekend: a crude, startling monument to a life cut short.
Lionbeck circled the human stalagmite; he touched his fingers to his lips and pressed them to the unyielding rock. “From your report, I’d expected table salt. Sodium chloride,” he said. “This looks more like milky quartz.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not at all. Just a surprise.”
Lionbeck set his hat on a nearby post and raked his fingers through his hair. He nodded to himself, as though confirming his own plan. If I had possessed half that man’s self-assurance, I would have made a marketing fortune ages ago.
“Very well,” he announced. “Time to paint.”
“Can you please tell me what we’re doing?”
“I thought that was obvious,” replied Lionbeck—though he clearly knew it wasn’t. “We’re going to use electrostatic energy to catalyze reanimation. Or, in layman’s terms, we’re going to coat Edith with conductive paint and then get lightning to strike.”
“You’re going to wait for lightning to strike? You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious. But I didn’t say wait. I said get. Sort of like Ben Franklin and his kite—only a bit more sophisticated … Now grab a brush and let’s make hay!”
Seeing that I had no alternative solutions of my own to propose, I followed Lionbeck’s lead. All morning long, we lacquered the pillar in multiple layers of paint. I regretted my choice of attire—though I hung my jacket and vest beside Lionbeck’s hat, I couldn’t work without trousers on the public beach, so I ended up sacrificing a 250-dollar pair of bespoke slacks. Quite frankly, I resented Lionbeck for not having given me advance warning.
Around noon, as we were completing the final coating, a light drizzle blew in off the sea, and we borrowed a bedsheet and a set of tent posts from Izzy to shield our labors. The restaurateur betrayed little interest in our endeavor. “You want lunch?” he asked, and dispatched us back to the dunes with a basket of fried-sole sandwiches and curly fries.
I’ll confess I did have lingering doubts about Lionbeck’s plan. Edith’s disappearance struck me as requiring a psychological solution rather than a metaphysical one—the sort of disorder that called for intense psychotherapy: the kind that Freud performed on those hysterical women with healthy yet paralyzed limbs. Of course, you couldn’t exactly psychoanalyze a pillar of quartz.
“Are you certain this is going to work?” I asked.
“Certain? In science, nothing is certain,” boomed Lionbeck. “But I do feel the odds stand in our favor. That being said, molten copper would have been preferable.”
My companion surveyed the rock formation, now glistening under its metallic finish. He chased down his sandwich with a swig from a pocket flask. The fear crossed my mind that Lionbeck might actually be a crank.
“So, there’s scientific evidence for this?” I asked.
“Would I squander our time if there were no evidence? What do you take me for?” demanded Lionbeck. “But science is more than just color-by-numbers. You’ve got to have imagination, man! Dream the impossible and make it happen.”
How like Edith he sounded at that moment—how different from me. What an actuary does is precisely the opposite: conjure up the possible and prevent it from happening.
Lionbeck excused himself—I assumed to use the facilities at Izzy’s—but he returned ten minutes later with a bulky canvas structure and a coil of wire hanging over his shoulder. Once again, he wore the superior look of a successful philanderer.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A kite,” he replied. “Remember Ben Franklin.”
My face must have divulged my horror, because he chuckled and added, “Not really. It’s a solar-powered drone. We’ll attach to Edith and trap us some lightning.”
“I didn’t know those were on the market yet.”
“They’re not,” he said. “It’s homemade. Forty-eight-hour rechargeable battery.”
Lionbeck released the drone overhead and managed it remotely like a skilled falconer. Soon the contraption had risen at least a hundred yards; against the clouds, its torso did resemble a kite, tethered by the tail to a thin copper wire. He had hooked the other end of the wire around Edith’s “neck” like a noose. As Lionbeck stepped away from the formation to admire his handiwork, Detective Peloquin emerged at the head of the dunes. Bundled under a trench coat and fedora, he looked like he’d just walked straight out of a 1950s detective movie.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” he called.
The investigator strode up the path.
“Friend of yours?” asked Lionbeck.
“You might say that, broadly speaking,” interjected Peloquin. “I’m with the county. Criminal investigations. And you are?”
“Trent Lionbeck. Brown University.”
Peloquin turned away, indifferent.
“Funny running into you down here, Mr. Quarterman,” the detective said. “I’m not sure what to make of two grown men flying a kite . . .”
“We’re conducting a science experiment,” said Lionbeck.
The detective nodded, stone-faced. “And I see you’ve painted some rocks. That part of the experiment too?”
“Indeed, it is,” said Lionbeck.
“I imagine it’s also a criminal offense,” observed Detective Peloquin. “Desecrating public property—or something of that sort.”
“Not public property,” said Lionbeck. “We’re on Isaiah Wainwright’s land and we have his full permission.”
I was impressed that Lionbeck knew Izzy’s full name—which was more than I had.
“You don’t say. Good to know.” Peloquin sized up my companion. “If we need to do any excavating around here—for evidence—now I’ll know who to ask. Say, Mr. Quarterman, can you think of any reason my men might want to dig around these rocks?”
“No sir, I can’t.”
“That’s a relief,” said Peloquin. He removed his hat momentarily and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “Glad to run into you, gentlemen.”
And then the detective ambled down the path toward the ocean as though nothing were amiss, as though an afternoon constitutional composed part of his daily routine. I didn’t know whom to fear more: him or Lionbeck. Meanwhile, unruffled, my companion gathered up the used brushes and the empty paint cans.
“What now?” I asked.
“We go home,” he answered, “and hope for a storm.”
A warm front from the Midwest brought us five consecutive days of bright sunshine and clement afternoons in the low seventies. Hardly a cloud in the sky. I tried to focus on my work, not the weather, and dove straight into a new bond prospectus for the airport authority. Mallory returned to Vassar to sit for her finals. Edith’s sister removed the infant to her own house, two towns away, “for the time-being.” This transfer troubled me less, I’ll confess, now that the girl was a constant reminder of Edith’s infidelities. In short, the contours of our lives returned to near normal, but always surrounded an abyss at their core—as though a sink hole had opened up in the living room, and we spent our days circumventing it. Once, watching a Perry Mason rerun on television, I nearly called Detective Peloquin and threw myself on his mercy. But to what end? Besides, I feared he might indeed excavate Edith’s remains, and derail our experiment in the process. I confirmed Trent Lionbeck’s credentials on the Brown University website, but I didn’t dare contact him directly. Yet, I’m not ashamed to admit that I checked the forecast multiple times daily, like a drought-stricken farmer praying for rain.
One of my increasing concerns was not that the physicist’s plot might fail, but that it might succeed, leaving Edith to decide between us. Could I truly stomach losing my wife to this smug prick? But what choice did I have? The only other option was to sabotage his efforts, leaving Edith forever as a stone monument to infidelity. So I was both exuberant and apprehensive on the sixth morning after our paint job, when I awoke to a 5 a.m. phone call and a violent rain drumming against the siding.
“I’ll be there in an hour,” said Lionbeck. “Meet me out front.”
“That makes no sense,” I said. “We’ll get there faster if we each drive on our own. Why don’t I meet you at the dunes in forty-five minutes?”
I hung up before he could object and darted out to the Oldsmobile, still tucking my overshirt into my dungarees. Outside, rain swirled in vortices. Gusts rattled the shutters, slapped the lid of the mailbox open and shut. Water ran eight inches deep on the county highway, deeper on the local roads by the coast. I inched my way past flooded sewer grates, around toppled canoe birches. Thunder pummeled the cloudscape. But I beat Lionbeck to Owls Point by a solid fifteen minutes and had ample time alone with Edith. By the time he arrived, I’d found shelter in a rundown cabana that afforded a view of the dunes.
“There you are!” exclaimed Lionbeck. “Ready to roll?”
He wore a scarf over his hooded mackintosh.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“You? Just watch.” he said. “And then he fiddled with the remote to the drone.”
The contraption, largely plastic and canvas, had an extendable steel rod—akin to Franklin’s key—designed to attract lightning. Once we had a strike, the rod would transmit the electricity down the copper wire into Edith. Or so Lionbeck promised. For a moment, I felt genuinely bad for the fellow: Despite his bravado, I sensed an undercurrent of loneliness—the same isolation one detects in those ex-pat bachelors who glad-hand the crowd at actuarial meetings abroad. After all, he might have conducted this entire experiment on his own. Why did he need my help to paint a stone formation or fly a drone? But to him, my collaboration seemed essential.
“Here we go,” he cried. “Get ready.”
The words had barely left his lips when the entire sky ignited. A thrashing, serrated bolt of energy leapt from the darkness and cascaded down the wire—and then the wire itself seemed to explode into fragments. From our perch, the copper paint appeared to resist the current; rather than engulf Edith, the voltage dissipated above her. When we climbed into the storm to examine the pillar firsthand, we found the wire gone and the noose severed inches above her neck. Edith herself stood as inanimate as ever.
“Next time, we’ll get it right,” said Lionbeck. “That’s science. Trial and error.”
We had taken a corner booth at Izzy’s, across from the artificial fireplace. The worst of the squall had subsided, but a hard rain still hammered the roof. Several chairs had toppled sideways on the veranda.
My companion ordered a double brandy, then topped it off with a shot of spiced rum. His mood alternated between boisterous and crestfallen. “I tell you, Quarterman, we have not yet begun to fight. So the copper didn’t conduct sufficiently. We’ll try silver. Or molten aluminum ore. And we’ll double the gauge of the wire. You wait and see …
It was easy to understand what Edith had admired in Lionbeck: He flashed a resolve that—under different circumstances, or with another set of tools—might have altered the course of history. A veritable Mungo Park or Lawrence of Arabia. In modern day Rhode Island, he had been relegated to adultery and transmuting quartz into flesh. Or trying…
“And we’ll have to look into the effects of positive versus negative lightning. I should have considered that,” continued Lionbeck, his face flushed with drink. “There’s no reason we can’t get back to work later this afternoon…. What say you?”
“Maybe,” I pledge. “I’ll think it over.”
Yet already I knew I would disappoint him—that I would soon tell Detective Peloquin of this peculiar gentleman who’d had an affair with my wife, and was now insisting that she had turned to a pillar of salt. It was the only way. I could so easily picture Edith on Izzy’s deck twenty-three years earlier, a mug of sangria in one hand, listening patiently, beside her sister, as I explained the principles of double entry bookkeeping. I was willing to carry my love for her in my heart, but not on my back. As Lionbeck spun his fantasy, I twirled the thin band of copper wire in my pocket: the six inches above the noose that I had replaced before his arrival with non-metallic twine. A stranger might label this an act of sabotage, I realize, but for me it was a feat of devotion, a show of love—love for a woman I couldn’t bear to lose more than once.
About the Author
JACOB M. APPEL is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of six collections of short fiction, two novels and a collection of essays. His short stories have been published in more than two hundred journals and have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His commentary on law, medicine and ethics has appeared in the New York Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press and many other major newspapers. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.