Yes. He was pleased. He was pleased, in the same way he had been pleased during his sophomore year in high school, when the boil on the inside of his thigh finally succumbed to the ministrations applied by his mother, had issued a mixture of red and black goo into the bandage she had taped to his leg. The loathsome fluid was welcome after the days of awkward pain, and the tedium of explaining to his classmates why he was walking that way, and then watching the expressions on their faces as they realized they had not really wanted to know after all.
Last night’s supper dishes were in a neat pile on the drainboard, clean and dry. He thought he might put them away later. He congratulated himself on that, on at least having washed the dishes. The laundry—ah well, maybe Saturday he could do the laundry. The laundry. He could not think of it as the laundry. It was the laundry when it was a mixed pile of his dirty shirts, the girls’ odd fragments of fashion statements, juvenile underwear, his wife’s modest laces and boyish shirts. Now it was just a pile of dirty clothes, all his, on top of the washing machine in the garage.
He carried the morning mail up the unfinished and slightly rickety stairway to his office above the garage and dropped it diffidently onto a small table next to the coffee maker. He did not bother to sort the letters from the junk. Later for that. He poured water for the coffee, opened the blinds on the window overlooking his backyard. He stood looking out over the odd geometry of the neighboring yards, listening to the coffee maker gurgle its way through its task.
The computer clanked as it came to life, and he realized that he did not remember pouring the coffee and bringing it to his desk. What had he been thinking about? Ah, the backyards of the neighbors, how they looked like rice paddies. He inserted a thumb drive into the computer and called up the file of the short story he had been trying to write. The midnight inspiration he had written last night was a tangle of long, convoluted sentences incomprehensibly laced with dashes and colons. He deleted the last four pages and vowed to stop reading Henry James while he was working on a story. The computer whirred and clicked to a stop. The cursor blinked at him expectantly. He blinked back at the screen, a void in his mind where a string of sparkling prose had resided when he was coming up the stairs a few moments before. He looked out the window.
The sky was a low, gray blanket fringed with dark, ragged edges, and the wind buffeted the window in small gasps. It would probably start raining again, he decided. Across the row of houses, he could see only the yellow top of the school bus as it stopped, and he let his imagination supply the sound of the air brakes. He remembered that he had not heard his older daughter, leaving for school, slam the door this morning, and then he remembered that he had not expected to hear it this morning. He did not quite actually sigh.
He turned his attention back to the story, but the thread he had envisioned for the plot escaped him. He scrolled the text back and forth, looking for a hook to hang his plot on. The corner of his eye caught the flash of faraway lightning, and seconds later his window rattled with muted thunder. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.
He waited until the phone rang three times before he picked up the receiver.
“Hi, it’s me,” said his wife.
“Ah. Good morning.” He frowned. He had not meant to sound cheery. “What can I do for you?” he said, trying for a neutral tone, wondering if he achieved it. His voice sounded too loud in his ears, and he decided that he was coming down with a cold.
“I’m coming into town today,” his wife said. “I wonder if I can stop by the house and pick up some things.”
He nodded. He could see her parking in front of the house, getting out of her car, walking up the sidewalk and disappearing behind the roof of the garage as she approached the front door.
“Ed?” his wife’s voice was soft in his ear. “Eddie?” she asked. “Is everything all right?” There was a pause, and he was about to scream at her that everything was not all right, but she said, “I mean, is it all right if I come over to get some things?”
“Yeah, sure.” He could not think of anything else to say, so he asked, “What time?”
“About one o’clock. Is that okay?”
One o’clock. He could help her load the car. It would be a nice gesture on his part, and then maybe they could have lunch. He could knock off early, and then he could impress her with how decent and understanding he was about the whole thing. He smiled grimly. He would not, however, follow her to her boyfriend’s house to help her unload. He was not that understanding.
“One o’clock would be fine. What is it you want to pick up? I can have it ready for you.” He pulled a notepad from a drawer and held a pencil poised above it.
“My things in the closet downstairs,” she said, her tone indicating a long list. He scribbled “closet” and held the pencil ready on the next line. He didn’t want to forget anything.
“Uh-huh. Go ahead.” He mumbled a little so that she would know he was writing.
“The girls’ beds,” she went on. “The rest of their clothes, the bicycles—”
He dropped the pencil onto the desk. “How are you going to get all that into your car?” He had an image of the items stuffed into her car, into his pickup, the bicycles tied on top of the load. No, wait, the rain. He’d have to put the camper shell back on the pickup. Not a problem. Just a few moments’ work. She probably expected him to drive out to the country. She would. It probably never occurred to her that…
“Larry is bringing me in his truck. We can get it all in one load.” She said this quickly, casually. He knew the tone. It was the tone she used when she did not want to discuss something, when she wanted him to just accept it.
“Oh. Yeah. Okay, then. One o’clock is fine.” He looked at the clock. Three hours. “I might not be here,” he said. “You‘ve got your key.” He wanted to yell at her, but he did not: You are bringing him to my house? To our home? He said, instead, “Did the girls get off to school okay this morning?”
“School? Yes. Why?”
“I was just wondering. The storm. I heard a news bulletin, that some of the schools would start late because the buses were having trouble in the rain.”
“The buses don’t run this far out in the country,” she said. “Larry took them in the Jeep. You know how I hate to drive in the rain, and the roads here are a mess when it rains.”
His daughters, sitting beside a man he had never met in a Jeep with foggy windows, the heater blasting, the rain pelting the roof, the man—a shadow who had shared a bed with his wife that night and who had gotten out of bed and had dressed in a semi-darkened room, maybe lit by a yellow glow through a half-open bathroom door. That man driving carefully over the slick, muddy road, taking his girls to school after breakfast. His girls, talking to the man, letting themselves trust in adults who had done these things before. His girls, his wife.
“I…” He had lost the thread of what he wanted to say. “Mmm. Yes. It was a pretty bad storm last night.”
“It wasn’t raining this morning when they left,” his wife said. She sounded cheerful. “Larry said one of the neighbors was stuck, and he had to stop and pull him out of the ditch.”
“Nice of him,” he said, searching again for a neutral tone.
“It wasn’t serious. Larry got all muddy hooking up the chain. It took half an hour, because the car was half in the bar ditch, and all that.”
He smiled and hoped that Larry had had to lie down in the muck to hook up the chain. He pushed away the image of Larry actually drowning. “Is that so?” he said. “They weren’t late for school, were they?”
“Only a few minutes.” She chuckled. “It wasn’t a—”
“God dammit, Elaine,” he said, suddenly angry, but not shouting. No, not shouting. “The least the bastard could do is get my kids to school on time.”
He hated himself for having let the words slip out. He refused to apologize. There had been too many apologies. He waited.
“Well,” he said, finally, “I liked it better when you lived in the apartment.” Elaine did not respond. “At least we could get though a conversation without—” More silence. “Look,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize anymore.” “I know,” she said. Her breath brushed across the receiver, so close in his ear. “I know,” she said again.
Mark Carter served as an infantryman in the US Army from 1963 until 1971, the fun years. After his tours in Vietnam he was a signals analyst in the Army Security Agency. He drove big trucks cross-country to watch the seasons work their way up and then back down the latitudes. He packed mules for the US Forest Service, where he learned to let the mules show him how things were to be done. He was farrier, a job that requires a specific diplomatic skill in order to convince mules and horses to stand still while you drive nails in their feet. He now lives in Idaho with his partner and a critter that resembles a cat.