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The marriage privilege
At home in Beverly Farms, sitting in his father’s study, Miles Bard, Jr., looked small in the oversized calfskin chair. Fellowes, the attorney, said yes to a whiskey, but hadn’t touched it yet. The father, Miles Bard, Sr., owner of Bard Industries, walked around and around them, remaining on the periphery of the problem.
“Motor vehicle homicide, operating under the influence,” said Fellowes. “This is not going to go away. You are looking at eight hard years, minimum. Minimum. That is, if you plea out. If the media heat doesn’t inspire the DA to go after you with straight-up murder. And if your previous DWIs are allowed in? Then much more. You got into a fight earlier that night.”
“It wasn’t a fight,” said Miles. “We passed this wedding reception. I went in, asked if I could kiss the bride.”
“It was a gay wedding and you popped the guy on the button. Hilarious. Juries love rich kids. They’ll laugh right along with you.”
“I was drunk. Blame the state of Massachusetts.”
“Yes. We’ll put the state on trial. Your personal distress over same-sex marriages caused you to go out and consume 11 Stoli-and-Sprites over a four-hour period and jump the median, killing a man in a Sentra.”
Miles Bard shrugged. He was a pretty kid of 23, sharp-featured, hair shiny and black as the wings of a crow. The soft brace on his arm was all he had to show for the head-on collision.
Fellowes said, “The man you killed was a newlywed. Home from his honeymoon less than two weeks. Married his college sweetheart.”
“Dumb-ass should have swerved.”
“Maybe you should have stayed awake.”
“A deer ran out.”
“Yes. A deer on Massachusetts Avenue. The first such sighting in Cambridge since the advent of the motor car.”
“It’s my word against hers.”
“Ah. The victim’s sister. Do you know where they were coming from? Do you have any idea? An alumni Mass at Boston College. They were driving home from church, brother and sister. You, mister Stoli-and-Sprites? Your word against hers?”
Fellowes eased his grip on the chair back. This was not what he was paid to do. Lecture. Admonish. That was the father’s responsibility. Whether he realized it or not.
“A man is dead, and his twin sister is paralyzed from the waist down,” said Fellowes. “A 26-year-old woman, a social worker, confined to a wheelchair for life, pointing her finger at you in open court? Have I painted the picture? There is nothing any lawyer in the country, myself included, can do to inoculate you against that. You are going to prison, young Miles. All I can do is gum up the process. Delay the inevitable. Giving you maybe a year or so of freedom.”
The chair groaned as Miles sat up, searching out his father. “I had enough trouble in lockup,” he said. “This face, what are they going to do to me in prison?”
At least young Bard was afraid of something. Fellowes looked at the father, who had stopped his circuit of the room.
Ice cracked in Bard, Sr.’s, glass. He nodded.
Fellowes reached for his whiskey, downed it, then transferred the check from his folder into his suit pocket. “Maybe there is something you can do,” said the lawyer. “Maybe one thing. A longshot. One in a million, perhaps. But your only chance.”
Miles looked up at him, then at his father. A scared little boy, his hands clawing plump armrests. “We’re going to kill her?”
Fellowes had never seen a father look at his own offspring with such disgust.
The morning Nicole was released from the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Spaulding Rehabilitation, she returned to her rented West Roxbury house to find a brand-new, fully customized, wheelchair-accessible Toyota Rampvan idling at the curb. The driver, upon her inquiry, explained that he was there at her service. But after learning who had hired him, Nicole angrily declined the ride.
Every morning, the van would pull up, the driver tipping his cap, and every morning Nicole refused his offer—sometimes rudely, though the driver’s courtesy never wavered. She insisted on taking a taxi van for the disabled to her various appointments: physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling.
Friends visited frequently, bringing dinners, movies. A small circle, they even set up a schedule to ensure that Nicole would be occupied nightly. The drop-off in participation, which her friends pledged would never occur, inevitably did.
Miles mailed Nicole a letter every day. The first arrived from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Arizona; later, from his father’s home in Beverly Farms.
Depression came and went in cycles, each one stealing away another little piece of the old Nicole.
One hot day, the taxi van did not show up. The Rampvan driver was so patient, so pleasant, Nicole decided to accept his ride, just this once.
A gentlemanly retiree with an ailing wife, he and Nicole struck up a rapport. Nicole accepted another ride, and another, and soon began relying on the van full-time.
Miles stopped mailing his letters, instead trusting them to the driver to be hand-delivered. Nicole accepted them wordlessly, and, if she opened them, never did so in the driver’s presence.
Six months after the accident, Fellowes petitioned the court and somehow got Miles’s driver’s license reinstated.
One morning, as Nicole rolled up the side ramp, she noticed that the regular driver was not there. Realization bloomed into horror as she recognized Miles and, shaking, demanded to be let out. Miles went around to help but she yelled at him to get away, demanding that he call her a taxi van.
The driver’s wife was ill, Miles told her. But Nicole would not look at him. She would not speak to him. The taxi arrived and she wheeled aboard.
She refused the Rampvan for the next few days, punishing the driver for his absence, but eventually resumed their comfortable routine.
Two weeks later, Miles was back at the wheel. “Please,” he said.
Nicole would not get inside.
“Have you been reading my letters?”
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “Haven’t you the human decency to stay away?”
Three weeks later, he was back again.
“What is it you want?” she demanded to know.
“To help you.”
It was late. Waiting for a taxi van to be dispatched would mean missing therapy. “Don’t you talk to me,” she said, as the ramp lowered. “Don’t look at me.”
Her physical therapy session took place at a local gym. From his stool at the juice bar, Miles saw her through the glass door. Saw her struggling.
“If you want a better therapist,” he said, on the way home, “I could get you one.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Please. Let me do something for you. Anything.”
“Stay away. And you can keep your van.”
“This van is yours. The driver too.”
“You can’t buy your way out of this.”
“I don’t want to. I mean—I don’t intend to. I don’t expect anything. Please. Just let me help.”
Nicole said, “You killed my brother.”
Miles remained patient and penitent. Every now and then he drove. One day Nicole returned home to find the bumpy, insurer-provided front-door ramp gone, and a smoother, wider ramp built in its place. Miles watched her stop before it, then roll up to her door without a word.
Another day, the Rampvan broke down. Furious at having to spend time with him, Nicole occupied herself by grocery shopping. “You seem to be getting around better,” Miles said.
She was at the deli counter, trying to get the server’s attention. “Don’t talk to me.”
In the cereal aisle, he said, “I was terrified of going to prison.”
“But not anymore. I just mean that I no longer dread it. It’s an opportunity. That’s how I look at everything now. Every day, every minute.”
A taxi van returned them to West Roxbury. The grocery bags were too heavy to hang on the back of her chair, so, for the first time, Miles set foot inside her home. Old and small-windowed, with push-button light switches and iron radiators that hissed. Miles noticed gouge marks on the narrow walls, from her chair. “May I use your bathroom?”
But she did let him. He saw the seat in the tub, the railing installed over the toilet.
She was sitting in the sunlight of the front windows when he emerged. “You hate me,” he said. “And you have every right. I can’t change or fix what happened, what I did. I can only act in the here and now. Please, let me be of some service to you.”
She refused, but for the moment appeared less certain of him.
He began coming inside some afternoons. Straightening up the place. Changing lightbulbs, fetching things from the basement, clearing out high closet shelves. He was something of a butler. Few words passed between them.
One afternoon, Nicole’s doorbell brought Miles face to face with Thea, her sister-in-law, the widow of the man Miles had killed. Thea stared at him, the CorningWare pan exploding with a crack as the casserole slipped from her hands. “What are you doing here?” she shouted, pushing past him to check on Nicole. “What are you thinking, Nicole?” Thea dialed nine-one-one as Nicole watched from her chair in the corner of the room. “You’re getting a restraining order!”
But Nicole did not get a restraining order. Miles began bringing her movies, and occasionally watched a few minutes with her. One time they caught themselves laughing at the same thing, and then Nicole became very quiet, and Miles got up and left the room.
He replaced the seat pad and armrests on Nicole’s motorized chair. Lifting her back into it was the first time he ever touched her. The frail thinness of her dead legs shocked him. Nicole stared straight ahead the entire time.
Thea never stopped by again. Miles sensed that she and Nicole were no longer talking. Letters from Nicole’s lawyers and the district attorney arrived in the mail, but he never looked at them.
Miles was learning how to cook, and began preparing meals for her. He ate in the kitchen, Nicole sitting alone in the dining room, until one night he joined her. Their conversations were generally confined to movies and television shows. At some point she began calling him Miles. The one time he ever brought up her dead brother, he received a quiet yet harsh rebuke. “Never speak Greg’s name to me again,” Nicole said, shaking. “Not out of your mouth. Never.”
He never again did. A few days later they were back on speaking terms.
Together they attended the driver’s wife’s funeral. Nicole wept at the interment, and Miles did too. At one point he rested his hand upon her shoulder, and she reached up and touched his fingers. Then both hands fell away.
She agreed to let him take her to a small Italian restaurant on the way home. He ordered a soft drink with his meal, explaining how he had not tasted a drop of alcohol since that day. “You do seem to have changed,” she said.
“All due to you. For allowing me the opportunity. And by your example.”
“Moving on. Facing such adversity and making yourself into something new. And by allowing me to serve you. It gives my life some meaning.”
It was late when they arrived home, the latest they had been together. Nicole was exhausted, and Miles removed her shoes so she wouldn’t have to, then bid her good night.
The trial date, after two protracted delays, was set to begin in five weeks.
Nicole grew more and more nervous, and Miles sought to reassure her. “All you have to do is tell them what happened that night.”
“I can never forgive you,” she told him later.
He said, “I wouldn’t let you if you tried.”
“But it’s no secret. I’ve come to rely on you. I don’t know what I’ll do after. It will be lonely around here.”
He assured her that he felt the same. Then, with just two weeks until the trial, and still so much unsaid between them, Miles broke down one night at dinner. “I have a terrible confession to make. All this—at first—was my father’s lawyer’s suggestion.”
“The Rampvan. The letters. But you must believe me that, over time, everything has changed.”
“What suggestion?” she said.
“It’s something called the ‘Marriage Privilege.’ Massachusetts law exempts a person from testifying against his or her spouse, even about events that occurred prior to their marriage. He told me it was my only chance to stay free. The man is a crook—they’re all crooks, my father included. Scoundrels and thieves. But I have no fear of prison now. It is only right that I should atone. As I have tried to do here, in serving you.” Nicole remained still as Miles went on. “This is very awkward, what I am saying. But I can’t imagine leaving you now. I don’t exist anywhere else, except here, in this house. With you. If it was just me, I wouldn’t care about prison. I’d welcome it. But . . . what about you?”
After some time, Nicole said, “Marriage?”
“I could provide for you. At the very least. My father’s money, my place in his company. I could build us a bigger house. All the special things you need. Of course, I would never expect you to love me. But there are reasons to marry beyond love—don’t you think?”
She stared, thunderstruck.
“I know,” he said. “And it would be so awkward for you, what others would think. My fate is entirely in your hands—as it should be, as it has been ever since that terrible night. It is for you to decide. What is best and right for you—and you alone.”
The case was dismissed with a single crack of the gavel. “A terrible violation of ordinary moral decency,” decreed the judge. But Nicole just sat there, unmoved.
Bailiffs held Thea back as she fought to get to the defense table, swearing wildly at Miles. Her cursing faded to anguished sobs as Miles wheeled Nicole away through a side door. They sat alone together in a clerk’s room, holding hands, not saying anything, waiting for the Rampvan to pull around to the rear exit in order that they might avoid the media.
Miles began to feel that a great weight had been lifted.
Fellowes watched Miles Bard, Sr., read about his son in the newspaper, while the genuine article sat before his desk.
The father said, “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or spit on you.”
“No prenup,” Fellowes reminded Bard, Sr. “You’re exposed here. Miles’s shares in the company, the personal family assets in his name. A divorce will be costly, much more so than a Rampvan and some home improvements.” He looked at the son sitting deeply in the dimpled leather chair. “How long are you willing to play this out?”
“Six months,” said young Miles. “Then I’ll get the marriage annulled. She’s paralyzed from the waist down, right? And all the charges have been summarily dismissed.” On Fellowes’s look, he said, “She can keep the house.”
The newspaper rustled as it was folded and set aside. “If only you’d applied yourself to the company with such ruthless determination,” said Bard, Sr. “But that doesn’t hold your interest, does it. The legitimate world.”
The old man had come late to fatherhood, building a corporation instead of raising a son, and this was the result. Someone he did not know; a creature with half his genes and none of his respect. A creature who frightened him. And to whom he could never say No again.
Fellowes watched Miles cross to the mirror-backed bar. “Should you?” said Fellowes.
Miles toasted himself with a glass of bourbon. “I earned this.”
For the first few days, everything was the same between them. It was decided that Miles would sleep at his father’s while the Dover house remodeling continued. Nicole began to notice that his afternoon errands were taking longer. One Friday evening he came in muttering to himself and fell asleep on her sofa.
Dinners together dropped off. Miles cooked less and ordered takeout more. He didn’t always stay and keep her company. On some days, there was no dinner at all.
He chauffeured her to her appointments, but was not always there waiting when she finished. “Where were you?” she would ask, when he returned.
“Nowhere,” he would answer, with an empty smile.
Her home grew shabby as Miles let his cleaning duties slide. Nicole did most of the packing for the move.
“You’ve changed,” she told him, confronting him one rainy afternoon. “Do you think I don’t know you’re drinking again?”
Miles bared a knife-blade smile. Nicole could see, behind his eyes, every hateful thing he wanted to say to her. He went out, staying away for days.
When he returned, he pretended nothing had happened. He expected relief from her, maybe even forgiveness, but Nicole did not crumble. Instead, she watched him all the time. Judging him. He feigned indifference, but his discomfort was evident. Her gaze haunted him.
Moving day was a joyless affair. Miles spent much of it talking on his phone to people Nicole had never met. The ride from West Roxbury to Dover passed in silence, and she felt herself crossing a line that she could never cross back over. An onlooker might have thought they were downgrading from a fully accessible three-bedroom showplace to an underfurnished rental, rather than the other way around.
Inside her new home, Nicole rode the brass-gated lift to the second floor. She rolled along the wide and silent hallway into the master bedroom suite, where her steel-framed hospital bed looked small.
Had Miles looked in on her that first evening, he would have seen that the only item Nicole had unpacked was a framed photograph of herself and Greg, the two twins laughing and dancing at Greg’s wedding. Instead, he retired directly to the bed in the guest room.
Miles awoke to find his wrists bound behind his back. He tried to stand, but a cord around his neck tethered him to the headboard.
The lamps came on brightly inside the newly painted room. Miles squinted and blinked at the intruder. She wore a black sweatsuit and pale latex gloves, her hair tucked up inside a knit cap.
Thea, the widow. A small silver revolver trembled in her hand.
“Nicole!” Miles called out, when he could dislodge the word from his throat.
Thea’s jaw quivered as she pulled a photograph from her pocket and showed it to Miles from the foot of the bed. Her wedding photo.
Thea told him about her life with Greg. How they met, what his hobbies were, his favorite movies, sports, foods. She took Miles through their wedding day, from breakfast with her parents to the farewell dance. She told him all about Bermuda, what they did each hour of their honeymoon. And the last time she saw Greg, kissing him goodbye that afternoon in the kitchen of their Somerville apartment. She swiped angry tears on her sleeve at the end, the revolver trembling all the more.
Miles saw that she was working herself up into a killing. “You’ll never get away with this!” he cried, through the choking neck cord. “Even if you kill us both!”
Thea said, “You haven’t figured it out by now?”
Tires whispered over carpet as Nicole rolled in through the wide door. She wore a long, sheer white nightgown, barefoot and delicate-looking in the chair, even lovely.
Thea never broke aim on Miles. “Nine months ago, I bought this gun. Never fired it. Reported it stolen in a break-in two months later. I have an alibi for tonight, not foolproof, but good enough. These gloves hide my fingerprints, the hat keeps in my hair. Leaving only Nicole as a witness. She will tell the police the truth of what she sees here tonight. Because we want your father to know. Who will be running Bard Industries alongside him from now on. And who will inherit everything after he is gone. The same two women who avenged their own losses by murdering his degenerate son.”
“Inherit everything . . . ?” The cord was too tight.
“‘There are reasons to marry beyond love,'” said Nicole, sitting ghostlike in the chair. “Your own words, Miles. Couldn’t one of those reasons be revenge?”
Thea said, “Without any proof that I was ever inside this house, my criminal conviction will hang on one thing. Nicole’s eyewitness testimony in a court of law. Which she will be exempted from giving.” The revolver stopped trembling as Thea aimed it at Miles’s heart. “You got away with murder. Why can’t we?”
“You see, Miles,” explained Nicole, “Thea and I, we are going to be married.”
Chuck Hogan ’89 is the author of Prince of Thieves (2004), winner of the Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing. His fourth novel, The Killing Moon, will be published in January 2007.