Fiction Fiction 2009


What I know now is that I should not have continued shelling out 200bucks a pop to you. On some days I felt you two were picking up a frequency like a dog whistle that I just wasn’t able to hear. Of course, you might just have a great gift for empathy, but then I’d have to ask where was this gift when Jerry was trying to have me committed to the attic like that woman in Jane Eyre who set everything on fire.

Image: Polly Becker

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Interview: "Happy Endings"
Jill McCorkle talks about her recurring themes and her imaginary life as a therapist.

Dear Dr. Love,

By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last. I don’t care that you never respond. In fact, I’m glad that you don’t, because if you did, a response would show a weakness in your professional ethics. In all my other letters, I have been trying to explain myself a little better because I always felt that maybe you liked Jerry more than you liked me. And what about human nature makes us all want to be the one liked the most? In those other letters I was still trying to convince you that I was the right one, but the truth is that now so much time has passed I just don’t give a shit. The right/wrong stalemate is what keeps people in your office for way too long. I thought I might settle things in my mind by writing you this final letter. And I will tell the truth—not that I haven’t told the truth in the past, I have, but let’s just say I also lied.

What has been consistent and honest in all my letters is how I don’t think your name works, and I still think you should change it. You might say it led you to do what you do, and you might mention other people with prophetic names like Judge Learned Hand, or someone I knew named Clay Potts, who makes mugs and stuff to sell by the highway, but I never liked the way your name feels like a bad joke to all those people who are struggling with their marriages. Maybe you should change it to Dr. Apathy, which they (the 1960s shrink set) said was the opposite of love—instead of hate—and I absolutely agree with this. In fact, I think if they ever remake The Night of the Hunter, which is one of my very favorite movies (or was until Jerry got religious), they might rethink the tattoos that the preacher has on his hands. Lord, Robert Mitchum was scary there using his hands to show the fight between love and hate, and him a cold-blooded killer hiding behind Scripture. But imagine a preacher (or a marriage counselor) with hands saying love and apathy. You love all those little games; you can put your hands behind your back and say, Pick.

Anyway, when you last saw me, I did not look good. In fact, I looked like shit on a stick. Most of us coming in and out of your home office did, you know. I know you think that you have figured out a way so people don’t see one another—five-minute intervals and in one door and out another. It is a big-ass house—but truth is, I rarely made an immediate exit. I would stop off in your little bathroom there at the front to splash water on my face and get myself looking good enough to go pick the kids up from school. Sometimes, you may recall, I would even have to excuse myself during a session. You might have thought I was being avoidant, but truth is, I was bored. I suspect being bored and having your mind wander during marriage counseling is not a good sign. I would suspect that that level of boredom should say something big. You should tell people right up front how, if they’re bored, then probably the best thing for everybody is to stop. Don’t take their money, don’t make them sit there and say stupid things back and forth.

Anyway, I did like sitting there in your bathroom, the way the white noise enveloped me and kept me from hearing all that Jerry was probably saying about me while I wasn’t there. He probably said things like how I often rearranged the furniture or changed the lightbulbs to get a better feel to the room, or how I didn’t check the cabinets and pantry before going shopping and how he was tired of me buying things like sugar or mayonnaise or a big can of pepper for fear we had none back at home. He didn’t like that I bought Chef Boyardee either, even though the kids love it. Who doesn’t? I don’t like being told what is right and what is wrong.

“Do you know how many bags of sugar are in that pantry?” he would often ask, and I would say, “No! How many?,” which made him mad enough to pull out a bunch of bags and stack them there on the floor like we might be getting ready for a flood. Then I might say something like Do you know how many Sports Illustrateds are in the bathroom getting all wet and soggy? or Do you know how you bruised my arm when you grabbed me so hard during sex the last time we had it? But you know better, because you know Jerry. Those would be my fantasy marriage-counseling complaints, where I might also have big stinky jock sneakers in the hall and a man thinking of all the new ways he might go about satisfying me.

In reality I would say, “Do you know how many daily-devotional books and Mensa quizzes are neatly stacked on the shelf in the bathroom? Do you know where the antibacterial cleanser might be, or that thing you use to scrub your tongue?” Jerry did not like for his tongue to look like a normal tongue. I don’t even know who thought of a tongue brush, but I am open-minded enough that I said if he needed to, I was okay with that, that I personally didn’t feel the need to scrape my own but certainly I wouldn’t judge him for doing so.

You (and the whole planet Earth) were always talking about Venus and Mars, which I understand. We don’t agree about the tongue brush, or the way I like toilet paper backed up to the wall and Jerry likes it spinning off the front. Different strokes and so on. But that explanation just didn’t work with religion, mainly because Jerry kept trying to save me. “From what, Jerry?,” I must have said 40 times. “What are you saving me from?”

I guess coming to you was like going somewhere like Saturn or Uranus to work it out. Remember when I observed that? And then I said how sometimes a planet is not a planet, like Pluto for instance. All these years we thought it was a planet only to find out it wasn’t. Clearly, I was too subtle for both of you, because you didn’t do anything with my observation, and Jerry just shook his head and winked at you as if to say, You see? You see how off she is? and I said, “Up Uranus.” Do you remember that? I’m hoping that you can picture us there that day: Jerry and Hannah from three suburbs over.

Anyway, I think that marriage vows should include an escape clause that says the contract is broken if one party ups and makes a big switch in religion or politics or aesthetic taste. I mean, these shifts just aren’t fair, and we need an easier way out. Some people talk about marriage versus civil union. Well, I think everybody needs to be civil, and I think anybody that wants to call a relationship a marriage should have the right to do so.

I’m an open-minded person, and these days a more honest person, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you that you were not our first counselor. In the beginning, we—like so many who come to you—were just hoping for an honest appraisal, like when you take your car in. Do they open the hood and just close it with disgust, like the way people often describe cancer: They opened and then just closed her right up? Or do they say, Well, this vehicle might not have been the best choice for you, but she has miles left in her. Keep her in tires and oil and she’ll probably get you where you need to go? Or do they say, Ah yes, she’s a beauty and if you just pay attention to the subtle sounds of this complex engine then she’ll be purring for life and won’t you feel proud to have a hand on her wheel?

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Jill McCorkle is the author of five novels and four story collections. Her most recent collection of short stories, Going Away Shoes (from which this has been adapted), will be published in September.

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