Bryan Gruley: The Hanging Tree

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Bryan Gruley The Hanging Tree
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    The Hanging Tree
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Bryan Gruley

The Hanging Tree


I have learned that you can be too grateful for love.

She stood in front of the window across the kitchen, backlit from the glow of the streetlamp outside her apartment window.

“Darlene,” I said.

But she just waited, watching as I set my hockey sticks against the wall, her arms folded across her breasts, her head tilted so that her mahogany hair fell across the left side of her face. She was barefoot in black panties and a scarlet bra.

“Why do you bring those things up here?” she said. “Nobody’s going to steal them out of your truck, Gussy. This is not Detroit.”

“I suppose not,” I said. I pushed the door back open and stood the sticks on the landing outside. Snowflakes swirled around my head.

“Still storming?”

I closed the door. “Slowed down a little while ago.”

“You’re early. I’m glad.”

I pulled my boots off, dripping melted snow on Darlene’s throw rug. “Enright’s was closed. We get out of the game and there’s nowhere to drink.”

“Did you win?”

“Tied, two all.”

“You score?”

“Hit the post.”

“Hmm,” she said. “You do that a lot.”

“Somebody cross-checked me in the back of the neck just as I got the puck.”

“Did you get his number?”

“Didn’t,” I said. “Got an assist.”

Darlene didn’t seem impressed. She stepped away from the window and dropped her arms. Her pale body glowed through the shadows. She slowly drew herself into a boxer’s crouch and put up her dukes. The hint of a smile crossed her face, her dark eyes glinting.

“Come on.”

“What? This again?”

“Let’s go. Wimp.”

We had known each other since we were children growing up side by side in clapboard houses on the southwestern shore of Starvation Lake. I had never quite figured out how to know Darlene as an adult. But here we were, in Darlene’s second-floor apartment above Sally’s Dry Cleaning and Floral, spending more nights together than not in the year since she had formally separated from her useless husband, since he had left town without a divorce decree or a forwarding address. A married woman whose marriage was over.

I left my clothes in a pile near the door. She circled closer. I was more than aware that, as a deputy for the Pine County Sheriff’s Department, Darlene had undergone expert training at how to take a man down and that her method might well involve my groin.

“Don’t be a wuss now.”

I made my move. I tried to secure her arms and keep her at a safe distance, but she slipped her right arm out and punched me in the shoulder.



I still had a grip on her left forearm. Keeping an eye on her knees, I twisted sideways and tried to push her elbow above her head so I could use my weight to ease her back against the wall. But she wriggled loose and slapped me hard on the back of the head, loosing a giggle as she did. She had never spelled out the rules of these engagements, but I assumed I was not allowed to hit, maybe because I had no desire to hit.

I crouched and slid to my left and got a hand on her right hip, grabbing the hem of her panties, and shoved. That threw her off-balance and she stumbled back, laughing. I grasped her left arm under the elbow and pushed it as gently as I could up and back to move her toward the wall. But she screwed her body into me, whacking me in the chest with the heel of a hand and driving me back half a step, still laughing. I pulled her back in close to me, safer, and took her by the chin.

“What are you doing?”

Her eyes were lit with mischief and lust. I felt her fingertips brush the skin on my belly as they sought the inside of my thigh, and I shivered.


“I don’t fight, Darl.”

“Oh,” she said. She reached a hand up to caress my cheek. I felt the tension leach out of her body, and out of mine.

“You’re such a girl,” she said.

She slid her panties off and nudged me backward toward her bedroom.

I must have glanced at the phone on her nightstand when it rang a few minutes later, because Darlene grabbed the back of my neck and whispered hard in my ear, “Do not stop.”

The phone rang this late only if something was wrong with one of our mothers or if the sheriff needed Darlene. And if the sheriff needed Darlene, then there was a chance that I, as executive editor of the twice-weekly Pine County Pilot, circulation 4,124, had a story to report.

The answering machine clicked on after four rings. I heard Darlene’s recorded voice-“You know what to do”-over her stuttered gasps in my ear and I thought, Yes, I do, and rolled her over onto her back and felt her calves and her heels digging into my back, squeezing me into her.

The caller didn’t leave a message. Which meant it was probably the sheriff. Our mothers left messages, but the sheriff, knowing I might be here, wouldn’t take the chance that I would hear what he had to say, lest it appear in the Pilot before he decided it was time. I told myself to try to remember to call him the next day while Darlene clutched me to her breasts and pleaded, “Don’t stop, Gussy. Don’t stop.”

For the moment, I forgot about the phone call.

I awoke as Darlene undid herself from my left arm and crossed the tiny room and dug her cell phone out of the brown-and-mustard sheriff’s hat she’d left upside down on her dresser. The nightstand clock said 2:21. The cell phone’s keypad shone on Darlene’s face as she punched keys. I heard three beeps. Must be voice mail, I thought. She couldn’t help herself.

She put the phone to an ear and turned away from me, facing the mirror over the dresser. I stared at the ceiling, replaying the goal I hadn’t quite scored earlier that night. I’d parked myself at one goalpost, all alone. Zilchy had slipped out of the opposite corner, made a move on the defenseman, and zipped the puck right onto my stick. I’d had the whole damn net to shoot at. But I tightened up a little and the puck caught in the heel of my blade and I pulled the shot. Back when I played goalie, I would’ve loved hearing the clang of that puck off the post. Instead, I was just embarrassed. Still, we played, got a good sweat, there was beer in a bucket of ice in the dressing room.

And now I was in Darlene’s bed.

I moved my head enough to see her reflection in the dresser mirror, but her hair obscured her face. I watched as she listened to the phone, then took it off of her ear, punched another key, put it back on her ear.

Now, as she listened, her head slowly bowed into her neck and she drew her right arm around her waist until I could see her fingertips against her left hip. I raised myself on an elbow.

“Everything OK?” I said.

She tossed the phone back into the hat, straightened herself, threw her head back, stared up at the ceiling. In the mirror I watched her shut her eyes and press her lips together.



“No, what?”

“No, everything’s not OK.”

I got to my feet and moved toward her but she spun around and pushed past me toward her closet.

“I have to go.”

“Go where?”

She flung back the folding door on her closet and yanked out a deputy’s uniform folded over a hanger, tossed it on the unmade bed.

“Let me just do this,” she said. “Go back to bed.”

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