Wait . . . what? “Your wife lived here? And you lived right next door?”
“We were two people who didn’t know how to live closely with another, so we came up with a solution. It worked until she wanted to move back in with me. I refused.”
“Why?” I asked, flabbergasted. I couldn’t imagine spending my married life without Jesse in my bed.
“Because I was certain it wouldn’t work.”
“Oh. Again, why?”
He shrugged. “It sounds impossible, but we fought over everything and still loved each other. If I said the day was cloudy, she’d say it was sunny. If I wanted to paint the living room beige, she wanted blue. I wanted children, and . . .”
“No. Our differences were nearly irreconcilable. I loved her madly, though, and I was certain she loved me with the same fervor. My heart shattered when she moved away.
“She left her wedding dress and those earrings behind, and the rest of this house empty as the day we bought it. I was so furious I put her things in that metal box and buried it in the backyard. There wasn’t a fence then. She called once, about fifteen years ago, and wondered if we could get together to talk. I told her about the buried wedding dress and set my condition—if she could figure out where it was, I would talk to her. She hung up on me.”
“I would have, too. You’re kind of a jerk, Bill.” I’d never called Mr. Eckhardt by his first name either. He rolled with it.
“She hurt me. I lost her and learned to live a good life even with the pain. That’s what strong people do.”
I thought for a moment. “Is that why you got so mad about the garden? You thought I wasn’t being strong?”
“In a way, yes.”
“With all due respect, Bill, even though I’m still not sure if you deserve any, I don’t think you’ve lived a good life without her. Definitely not as a strong person.”
“I disagree,” he said.
“You’ve been a miserable neighbor. Rude. Haughty. You’ve never once invited us over, even though we extended invitations until we got tired of hearing you say no. You didn’t even offer an excuse. I see those biddies from the village coming by to discuss whatever evil amendments you’re making to village bylaws, but other than that? No one walks up to your door unless he’s delivering the mail. Shutting down is not strong. I tried it, and it doesn’t work. Jesse’s dead. Acting like I am, too, isn’t going to bring him back.”
“That’s the wisdom you’re offering me?” he said angrily.
“It is.” Like Petra’s, my wisdom was hard-won, but I didn’t know how to explain that to Bill. His misery was hard-won, too.
He tossed the onions into the oiled pan with more violence than the vegetable deserved.
“You know I’m right,” I said. “It takes a strong man to admit it.”
“My wife had a garden,” he said. “It was smaller than yours. Neater. She knew what she was doing.”
“I’m learning. I’ve realized that’s what I should be doing at this stage in my life.”
“And what should I be doing at my stage?”
I paused and took in this hardheaded, heartbroken man. “You should start healing. It’s not too late.”
He didn’t fight me on that one but said nothing, losing himself to cooking once again. We made the sauce together and let it bubble. I found a couple of boxes of spaghetti in the pantry, and he wordlessly filled the pot with water and salted it. Petra and Trey stopped bringing tomatoes in at some point but didn’t come back inside. I could see their figures standing in the garden, talking.
“The rest of the tomatoes are ruined,” Bill said. He set the pot to boil and sat down heavily in a kitchen chair. “Who would do such a thing?”
Yes, who? I’d been so distracted by the events of the evening that I hadn’t been able to analyze the situation. With Trey and Bill off the suspect list, who else would commit such an act of violence?
“I don’t know,” I said.
“As much as I dislike you personally, I’m getting a sense that I’m in the minority. You don’t have any enemies, do you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“So you really have no idea?”
“I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
I wasn’t quite sure I’d actually ever heard someone harrumph, but the sound Bill Eckhardt made was pretty close to what I’d imagined.
I joined him at the table. The kitchen resembled a crime scene, a description that made me think of Sean. I’d call him in the morning to get his take on things. There weren’t enough tomatoes left to make canning worth our while, I sadly realized. I’d make some more pasta sauce and give jars to Mykia, Jackie, and Glynnis. It was something I could do.
“I still suspect you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill said, “but do you really think a man my age can heal an old wound?”
“I don’t think it’s all that old. Sounds pretty fresh to me.”
I tried to be respectful when I asked, “Why did you give your wife such a hard time when she called? Why didn’t you welcome her back? Was it all anger? Revenge? Something else?”
“I couldn’t let her come back into my life, so I gave her that impossible task.”
“Why couldn’t you let her back? Oh, Bill. Was it your ego? Were you too proud?”
“No, nothing like that. I just knew, with certainty, that she didn’t love me. She never did. You can feel love in a touch, can you not? A look. A way of caring for someone. I saw it every day with you and Jesse. Noreen didn’t communicate love with any of these things, and she didn’t find any other ways, that’s for sure. I’m sure she had good reasons for wanting to live as a married couple again, but they didn’t have anything to do with love.”
I opened my mouth to contradict him, but I could tell this was his truth. Whether she’d ever loved him or not was irrelevant. He didn’t feel loved.
Bill’s blue eyes, which I suddenly realized were a deep, clear shade of cornflower, filled with tears. “It’s not easy for me to admit this, but I don’t know how to heal. I haven’t the first clue.”
I had at least one clue. “Go get the dress.”
“Go home and get the wedding dress. I have an idea.”
He did what I asked without any more questions. By the time he got back, I had the bubble envelope waiting on the kitchen table. On it, I wrote Noreen Eckhardt. “Do you know her address in Santa Fe?”
“How do you know she lives in Santa Fe?” His brow furrowed, but there was humor in his voice.
“I thought you might be a serial killer. I had to look out for myself.”
“With the help of a certain Willow Falls police officer, I presume.”
“We’ll discuss that later. Give me the dress.” I carefully folded it into the envelope. I put the earrings in a baggie and dropped them in as well. “Do you want to write a note?”
He took the pen and paper I offered, thought for a moment, and then wrote, We no longer have any ties, so I am no longer bound.
“Wow. You’re kind of a poet.” I watched as he sealed the envelope.
“I will write my own future,” he said, a grin taking up most of the real estate on his narrow face. “So being good with words might be beneficial.”