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She had a dream of going into the swamp and finding her opera records, unharmed, and retrieving them and playing them for the sheriff, who as his appreciation of them increased began to dance with her in a ballroom that somehow appeared in her house, the operas having become waltzes, and who began to lose weight, becoming as slender as a bullfighter; then, in the swamp again, she found the records hung in the trees and melted into long, twisted shapes that suggested, of all things, the severely herniated intestines of a chimpanzee she had once seen in a cheap roadside wild-animal attraction. She woke up glad to wake up. She would look for no records and wish no diet upon the sheriff. “Have my head examined,” she muttered, getting out of bed.

In a very vague way Mrs. Schuping had decided — before the decisions and lack of decisions that set her life on its course of winnowing — that having one’s head examined was going to be the certain price if she did not begin to clear a few, or many, things out of it. She saw at the end of theories of consciousness and lay physics and broad familiarity with things topical and popular a wreck of the mind, her mind, on the rocks of pointless business and information. None of that knowledge, good or bad, simple or sophisticated, was ever going to allow her to do anything except more of it: drive another eighty miles to another touring concert or exhibition, read another article on the mating dynamics of the American anole.

She decided that a green lizard doing pushups with his little red sailboard coming out of his throat was one thing, but if she read about it anymore, saw any more stylized drawings of “distensible throat flaps” on vectors heading for each other like units in a war game, she was going to be in trouble. This was a petty, flighty kind of fed-upness to reach, and not carefully thought out, she knew, but she did not care. If you looked carefully at bee No. W-128, which was vibrating at such and such a frequency, wagging its butt at 42 degrees on the compass … God. Of all her pre-winnowing interests, this arcane science was her favorite, yet, oddly enough, it was the first to go. It had looked insupportable in a way that, say, Time magazine had not. Yet over the years she had decided, once Time etc. had also been abandoned, that the lizards and bees and flow mechanics were supportable in the extreme by comparison — as were the weirdly eclectic opera records more justified than the morning classical-music shows on public radio — but once she had opted for winnowing there was no pulling back. “I’m going beyond Walden,” she told herself, and soon thereafter began eyeing the cluttered swamp, which was not simple enough.

So she winnowed on pain of having her head examined. If it were to be, she wanted them to find nothing in it. She knew enough about the process. Her mother had had her head examined, many times. Mrs. Schuping did not like her mother, so that was all she needed to know about having her head examined. Not for her.

She looked out the window that morning and saw a man with a white stripe down each pant leg walk away from the house and get in a yellow truck, which then drove off. When she investigated she found a fifty-pound sack of dog food on the porch and the two puppies scratching at it very fast, as if they would dig in spoonfuls to China.

After their first night together, the sheriff arrived without Mrs. Schuping’s having to set the swamp on fire. The sheriff had established the two things he would do for or to Mrs. Schuping. One was talk trash in bed and the other was supply her with goods and services that came through his connections as sheriff. After the dog food, which had belonged to the county police dogs until her puppies got it, a crew of prisoners showed up one morning and painted the entire porch, which surrounded her house, with yellow road paint, giving the house the look of a cornball flying saucer about to take off. The sheriff appeared that night — the fluorescent paint job more than ever inspectable then — beaming with pride. He did not remark upon it directly or ask Mrs. Schuping how she liked it, but from his face, which in its pride nearly partook of the same yellow glow, it was obvious that he was sure she liked her hideous new paint job. She could not deny it.

She had watched the crew from a lawn chair, drinking coffee while they changed her haunted-looking, unpainted, unannounced house into something like ballpark mustard with mica in it, and never had asked them what they thought they were doing. Nor had she asked the man with the shotgun what he was doing. And now it did not seem proper to ask the sheriff. The dog food was done, the porch under which the puppies were to live was done, and something else would be done, and it was in the spirit of winnowing to let it be done.

But in bed that night, before they got to the sheriff’s spontaneous trash talking, she did let out one question.

“Listen,” she said. “Isn’t this, prisoners and—” She made a kind of scalloping motion with her hand in the air, where he could see it. “I appreciate it, but isn’t it … graft or something?”

The sheriff took a deep breath as if impatient, but she already knew he would not, if he were impatient, show it; he was a man who could talk about rape in bed, but in other important ways he was a gentleman. He was breathing to compose.

“If you see something I have,” he said, “there is something behind it I have given.” He breathed for a while.

“Law is a series of deals,” he said next, “and so is law enforcement.” More breathing. “Nobody in law enforcement, unlike law, makes money near what the time goes into it.”

They looked at the ceiling.

“If you don’t do Wall Street, this is how you do it.” A deep sigh.

“That dogfighter I got your puppies from made fifteen thousand dollars the next week in one hour, and I let him do it, and I did not take a dime. You have two good dogs he would have knocked in the head. He is a homosexual to boot.”

Mrs. Schuping was sorry she had asked, and never did again. But if she saw the sheriff studying something about the place she might attempt to steer him off. He seemed to look askance at her mixed and beat-up pots and pans one night, and, fearful that he would strip the county-prison kitchen of its commercial cookware — perhaps inspired by the odd presence of her commercial toaster — and stuff it all into hers, she informed him casually that broken-in pots were a joy to handle.

She missed his siting for the deck and the boardwalk into the swamp, however, and the one clue, mumbled in his sleep, “Ground Wolmanized, that’ll be hard,” she did not know how to interpret until the ground-contact-rated, pressure-treated posts were being put in the yard behind her house and on back into the swamp by black fellows with posthole diggers and the largest, shiniest, knottiest, most gruesome and handsome arms she had ever seen.

She watched them, as she had watched the housepainters, this time putting brandy in her coffee — something she had tried once before and not liked the taste of. Sitting there drinking spiked coffee, she felt herself becoming a character in the gravitational pull of the sheriff despite, she realized, efforts nearly all her life not to become a character — except for calling herself Mrs. Schuping.

The boardwalk through the thinned swamp looked miraculous, as if the burning had been a plan of architectural landscaping. The handsome, lean swamp, the walk suggesting a miniature railroad trestle going out into it, resembled a park. If you winnowed and got down pretty clean and were normal, she thought, and something happened — like a big-bubba sheriff and thousands of dollars of windfall contracting and a completely different kind of life than you had had — and you started becoming a character, and you paid nothing for it and did not scheme for it, and it reversed your winnowing, and you liked brandy suddenly, at least in coffee, while watching men who put classical sculpture to shame, was it your fault?