By Michelle Geoga
They married while still in college. After graduation they had two children, one after the other. Though a year apart, both babies had pear-shaped heads with pink erasers for noses and backs covered in downy black hair. Later, both grew ears like jug handles. He climbed the ladder, she kept the house. The boys grew up stocky and shy, more reserved by the year. They went to different second-tier state schools, took unpromising office jobs in cities far away from their parents and each other. It was understood the boys would never marry.
On a Thursday night, less than five weeks from retirement, he arrives home early, a mouthful of anger building as he walked the mile from the train station. The anger melts away upon discovering her on an inflatable recliner in the turquoise backyard pool, in her gray fur-trimmed parka, arms spread wide, trailing in the water. The low sun hits him in the eyes but doesn’t blind him, though he’s still not sure what he’s looking at. He watches the recliner float toward a jet and then slowly spin around. She’s looking up at him, expressionless as usual; the float moves into the shade of the oak, her face going dark.
She walks into the kitchen, sharp morning sun screaming through the window. She pours water in the coffee maker, licks her finger to pinch out a single filter from the stack, measures the coffee carelessly and hits the button. The green LED reads 6,5,4. She notices she forgot to put on her new digital watch, the one her husband bought her after she was late picking him up from the train. At first glance she always sees the numbers as a math problem, a pattern, or counting, not as time. The odor of cooking from last night’s cast iron pan gets her attention. Congealed chicken fat mixed with corn oil puddle at one end. Swollen garlic cloves and two dead flies sit frozen in the puddle.
Damn. She’d hoped to catch more. Their mumbly buzzing against the windows distracts her from her thoughts. So many flies, especially for October. The coffeemaker starts coughing and dripping, smothering the odor of chicken fat. She wipes out the golden grease with a stack of white paper towels. A giant black fly hums against the window over the sink and she has a crazy idea—smash the window and let it out, let it free.
“I’ve got so many problems at work right now. I woke up at four and couldn’t get back to sleep. Not that I solved anything. I just can’t stop thinking about them. This quarter can’t end soon enough. Then I’m done, thankfully, and they won’t be my problems anymore.”
She doesn’t respond. As usual she’s looking away, at what he can never figure out. He sighs, gets up from the table for another cup of coffee, rubbing his aching jaw; he must be grinding his teeth in his sleep again. She puts an elbow on the table and rests her cheek on her hand, the sleeve of her pajama slipping down, showing her lined, pale wrist. Hopefully she will remember to put on her watch.
“I have a meeting downtown tomorrow,” he tells her. “I’ll need a ride to get the 6:12 and a pick up, too. I’ll have to let you know what time.”
She nods; maybe scowls a little, either at the assignment or maybe at the dirty frying pan by the sink. He should have cleaned up last night but fell asleep in front of the television, as usual.
“I think I’m getting a cold,” he says, looking into his cereal bowl. Little brown specks cling to the sides, probably fiber. He glances at his watch. Almost ten after. Leaving his bran specked cereal bowl and coffee cup on the table, he heads straight to the garage. He doesn’t bother to say goodbye. She wouldn’t acknowledge it anyway. He may as well be living alone.
Maybe she’ll go to the dog park in the forest preserve after dropping him at the train the next morning, to watch the dogs. She wants one before he retires next month, so she won’t be alone with him all day, every day. She dreads hearing him crunch through his cereal every morning; adding lunch will be intolerable. She resists crossing off the days on her desk calendar.
She takes his dishes to the sink. The cereal bowl will need to soak.
Through the window she watches the red-leaved oak in the yard silently thrashed by the wind, swinging violently back and forth, the oak resisting, hanging on to its branches and leaves amidst the onslaught, limbs bending impossibly, whipping back just as hard. Inside, all she hears is the bored moaning of the dishwasher, old but functioning. She glances over at the microwave: 9,1,1. Too late for the local news; she was hoping to hear the weather report.
After walking through the house putting this and that away, folding the sheets from the dryer, watering her sad rubber plant, wiping the chicken grease off the stove, taking the recycling out to the garage, she heads to the bathroom, almost putting it off too long. She rushes to drop her pants, sits down hard on the seat and sighs, looking down at her watch: 1,1,1,1. Doesn’t matter if a.m. or p.m., both meaningless, floating times with either nothing to do or no possibility of sleeping.
She continues to sit past needing to, studying the familiar pictures made by the lines in the marble tile on the floor. She thinks of them as her constellations, much like the ones ancient people made by connecting the stars, only her pictures have real lines, not imaginary ones. She should name the creatures, kind of human, kind of monster. They have double chins or no chin at all, droopy eyes and sad-turning mouths, largely in profile. One has a stubby horn on its forehead. One has a Tweedledum belly, or Tweedledee’s. None of them are speaking, just staring. She loves staring back. They are so familiar to her, she can picture them when she closes her eyes.
At lunch in the executive dining room, the in-house counsel suggests having dinner with their wives soon, to celebrate his upcoming retirement.
“Let’s do it before the holidays begin and everyone gets busy.”
“Sure, sure,” he answers, swallowing a spoonful of chowder. “I’ll check with the keeper of the calendar and get back to you. You know how that is.”
The lawyer laughs.
“I do. Between my wife’s book clubs and visits to our daughter at college, I have no chance of guessing when we have a free evening.”
He laughs also, having no intention of making a date. Neither of he nor his wife want to go to dinner with anyone. He tries to remember if they ever did. He knows there was a time when his wife was different. The change crept up slowly, like the mold creeping up the basement wall. He prefers to ignore it. They used to talk about things, go to movies, take weekend trips with the boys. He can’t remember the last trip they took together. Then she was happy and now she isn’t. He won’t be responsible.
She puts on her dark sunglasses when she goes out. Oversized, opaque sunglasses with a tortoise frame. She needs full coverage, not merely when passing someone yelling at their child or their dog. She is in danger even here at the grocery store, in the large almost line of people pooling at the checkout area. She watches as shoppers jockey in and cut people off. The snaking lines blend together between the cashiers. Someone from behind bumps her several times, sighing repeatedly ‘oh my god’ when she does not object to being cut off by a woman in a tight black pantsuit and heels. She looks at her watch: 2,1,0.
“Next person step over,” a new clerk mumbles as he steps up to a vacant register. She feels the person behind rush in front of her, sees the back of his puffy black coat marked with a vertical line of mud splatter as he hurries to take her turn. She knows what her mouth looks like, hopes no one is looking as it grows contorted and twitchy. Glancing up, she knows by the eye roll and superior smirk on the new clerk’s pocked red face that he saw. Tears slowly fill her eyes and she blinks rapidly to keep them from running under her sunglasses, hoping to spread them across the surface of her eyes. She tries a smile, worried it’s more a grimace.
“Next?” the clerk calls, irritated and imperious. She steps up for her turn.
Between appointments, he goes out for a walk. The sky hangs low, draping the sun so thickly he can stare at it openly. The geese population diminished enough to make it possible to walk the path around the office park pond, though he must keep an eye out for the metallic green tubes of goose shit. A car service sedan drives slowly by with a single passenger in the backseat, reminding him of the night before, when he arrived home and his headlights hit the silhouette of her head in the driver’s seat of her car. As the garage door slowly went up, he watched; his wife sat frozen, not reacting to the creaking door or headlights hitting the wall in front of her.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked, after pulling in and getting out. She was already out of her car, standing at the door to the house, empty handed, coatless.
“No. I just got back.”
He followed her inside but paused, resting his hand briefly on the hood of her car. It was ice cold.
Driving home from her errands, her mind wanders in dangerous directions, constructing endings. After the accident they’ll find a digital camera with a dead battery in the center console of her car. It will take them a couple weeks to find a charger. Then they’ll scroll through the pictures, beginning with the oldest. Photographs of places she’s visited but one picture will be a crime scene, something she stumbled on. They will be astonished. Photographs of evidence, some pictures lurid with bloody victims still in the scene. Scenes of bystanders, too. A few images gradually zoom in on the gawking crowds and they will recognize one man. The last photograph will be mostly him, his face, which they will know well. Because he will be famous by then. They will know immediately how important—
She jams on the brakes, almost hitting the car in front of her, the dry-cleaning sliding to the floor of the passenger seat, the groceries pitching forward to the floor of the backseat. She hears the news announcer on the radio: “Two forty-eight, time for traffic and weather on the eights.” Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four…
On his desk is a tarnished silver photograph of them together. They are thinner, dressed up and smiling; he is looking down on her, she is looking into the camera. They are holding hands. Some long forgotten company event. She had a wide, contagious smile that almost swallowed her eyes. Then, she grew her hair long enough to roll; she would comb back the thick open curls and barely spray them, the brown-blond wave just stiff enough to move as one object, jerking back and bouncing when she threw her head back to laugh. He remembers the scent of the hair spray, used on special occasions only. He remembers it was easy to make her laugh then.
He considered discussing retirement plans with his wife, before realizing he had no idea what to talk about. He has no plans so nothing to consult with her about. Once, things were different. He wouldn’t have picked out someone who had nothing to say, never laughed, just wanted to stay home. He didn’t see her disappearing until she was gone.
The phone on his desk reminds him he once called her almost every day after lunch, to say hello. She was always home. He considers trying her now…but no, he doesn’t really have anything to say. They have nothing to talk about. Picking up the photograph to look closer, he notices a button missing on his sleeve, above the cuff. He will have to remember to point it out.
Weaving through the bushes and trees away from the asphalt path, she feels the breath of a spiderweb on her cheek. She finds a low, sawed-off stump in a small clearing, surrounded by thorny thickets of bramble. Unpacking her sons’ collection of Beanie Baby dogs and cats from the attic, she sets them in an equidistant ring around the stump. After brushing away bits of gnawed acorn shells, she sits on the stump and they regard each other in the prickly-damp air. Audience, story circle, maybe camping trip. It isn’t long before the chill starts to get to her. Maybe she’ll go home early; her watch reads 3,2,1. She looks at each happy dog and cat, holding her gaze on each for a full second, then nodding, taking her leave silently. She folds up the bag, jams it in her coat pocket and feels the smooth grasping-stone she keeps there. One doesn’t seem like enough, and at the least, imbalanced. When she gets to the parking lot, she picks out smooth granite stones from the border between the asphalt and sidewalk. Using her hands to count, she makes sure each pocket carries an equal number: two, four, six. Six stones seem a perfect number.
Home again, she hangs up her parka, now evenly weighted, and changes from walking shoes to house shoes. She puts away the groceries, hangs his dry-cleaning in his closet. She looks at her watch, again: 4,3,2. She can watch the local news until he is home from work. It will repeat every half hour until the six o’clock national news; if she gets distracted, she won’t miss anything.
Sitting at a table on the winterized screened porch of the restaurant, he tries to concentrate on his newspaper. He holds it high, catching the last light on the paper, his back to the storm windows. In a couple weeks it will be pitch dark at dinner and then it will really feel like winter.
“Lean on Me” is coming from the overhead speakers. He has trouble distinguishing the words even though it is too loud. Lowering the paper, he sees the hostess showing in two couples. She seats them at the next table. “And I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on…” He holds up the paper again to catch the light but also to block out the neighboring table. “The food was good.” “He and I always….” The couples are having two separate conversations. “Call me, …call me…” A new song begins. “What you want, baby I got it…” What you need, he hears in his head before the next line. “It’s always someone very recognizable...” “They’re playing like they actually want to lose…” Not only can’t he read, he can’t think. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out…” “Gimme a Martini, up with a twist. Do you have Bombay?” “So anyway, you wouldn’t believe what she said…” He puts the paper down and tries to focus on the song instead of their conversation as the hostess leads in another group, a family of six with bickering children. “It’s my turn to pick the movie.” “No mine! Mom?” The whining kids are the tipping point. He gets up to walk out, although he’s ordered his dinner.
“Let’s go,” he says, looking down at his wife. “This is intolerable.”
Dropping a twenty on the table for their wine, he walks away, his wife following. As they pass the hostess stand, he reaches back for her hand, pulling her along.
They drive away without speaking. Then something occurs to him.
“You know what your problem is? You need a hobby,” he tells her.
“Yes. I am missing something,” she answers.
He waits for her to suggest an alternative for their dinner. He’s hungry and it’s late. The dashboard clock reads 8:08. He glances over at his wife; she is staring at the clock on the dashboard.
Home again, home again. She drapes her coat over a kitchen chair, heads to their bedroom—no talking, no teeth brushing. She slides into pajamas, then straight on to bed. Before slipping into the envelope of flat coolness, she walks around the bed with its two matching depressions and turns on his matching nightstand light so it doesn’t jar her awake when he comes to bed. If she is lucky enough to sleep.
She does not want any food. She missed her opportunity to talk about a dog. And then there was the clock in the car. She tried to ignore it, but who can ignore a clock glowing SOS. She wonders if he noticed, and if he was for him, not her. Pulling the quilt up to her ears and turning to the wall, she feels the day of stacking, this on this on this, pressing on her chest, tightening things inside. She tries not to look at the glowing orange alarm clock on the nightstand, but she must: 09:08. The never final count down.