The Fireman's Wife
by Richard Bausch
JANE’S HUSBAND, MARTIN, WORKS FOR THE FIRE DEpartment. He’s on four days, off three; on three, off four. It’s the kind of shift work that allows plenty of time for sustained recreation, and during the off times Martin likes to do a lot of socializing with his two shift mates, Wally Harmon and Teddy Lynch. The three of them are like brothers: they bicker and squabble and compete in a friendly way about everything, including their common hobby, which is the making and flying of model airplanes. Martin is fanatical about it—spends way too much money on the two planes he owns, which are on the work table in the garage, and which seem to require as much maintenance as the real article. Among the arguments between Jane and her husband—about money, lack of time alone together, and housework— there have been some about the model planes, but Jane can’t say or do much without sounding like a poor sport: Wally’s wife, Milly, loves watching the boys, as she calls them, fly their planes, and Teddy Lynch’s ex-wife, before they were divorced, had loved the model planes too. In a way, Jane is the outsider here: the Harmons have known Martin most of his life, and Teddy Lynch was once point guard, to Martin’s power forward, on their high school basketball team. Jane is relatively new, having come to Illinois from Virginia only two years ago, when Martin brought her back with him from his reserves training there.
This evening, a hot September twilight, they’re sitting on lawn chairs in the dim light of the coals in Martin’s portable grill, talking about games. Martin and Teddy want to play Risk, though they’re already arguing about the rules. Teddy says that a European version of the game contains a wrinkle that makes it more interesting, and Martin is arguing that the game itself was derived from some French game.
“Well, go get it,” Teddy says, “and I’ll show you. I’ll bet it’s in the instructions.”
“Don’t get that out now,” Jane says to Martin.
“It’s too long,” Wally Harmon says.
“What if we play cards,” Martin says. “Martin doesn’t want to lose his bet,” Teddy says.
“We don’t have any bets, Teddy.”
“Okay, so let’s bet.”
“Let’s play cards,” Martin says. “Wally’s right. Risk takes too long.”
“I feel like conquering the world,” Teddy says.
“Oh, Teddy,” Milly Harmon says, “please shut up.”
She’s expecting. She sits with her legs out, holding her belly as though it were unattached, separate from her. The child will be her first, and she’s excited and happy; she glows, as if she knows everyone’s admiring her.
Jane thinks Milly is spreading it on a little thick at times: lately all she wants to talk about is her body and what it’s doing,
“I had a dream last night,” Milly says now. “I dreamed that I was pregnant. Big as a house. And I woke up and I was. What I want to know is, was that a nightmare?”
“How did you feel in the dream?” Teddy asks her.
“I said. Big as a house.” “Right, but was it bad or good?”
“How would you feel if you were big as a house?”
“Well, that would depend on what the situation was.”
“The situation is you’re big as a house.”
“Yeah, but what if somebody was chasing me? I’d want to be big, right?”
“Oh, Teddy, please shut up.”
“I had a dream,” Wally says. “A bad dream. I dreamed I died. I mean, you know, I was dead—and what was weird was that I was also the one who had to call Milly to tell her about it.”
“Oh, God,” Milly says. “Don’t talk about this.”
“It was weird. I got killed out at sea or something. Drowned, I guess. I remember I was standing on the deck of this ship talking to somebody about how it went down. And then I was calling Milly to tell her. And the thing is, I talked like a stranger would—you know, ‘I’m sorry to inform you that your husband went down at sea.’ It was weird.”
“How did you feel when you woke up?” Martin says.
“I was scared. I didn’t know who I was for a couple of seconds.”
“Look,” Milly says, “I don’t want to talk about dreams.”
“Let’s talk about good dreams,” Jane says. “I had a good dream. I was fishing with my father out at a creek — some creek that felt like a real place. Like if I ever really did go fishing with my father, this is where we would have fished when I was small.”
“What?” Martin says, after a pause, and everyone laughs.
“Well,” Jane says, feeling the blood rise in her face and neck, “I never— my father died when I was just a baby.”
“I dreamed I got shot once,” Teddy says. “Guy shot me with a automatic as I was running down stairs. I fell, and hit bottom, too. I could feel the cold concrete on the side of my face before I woke up.”
Milly Harmon sits forward a little and says to Wally, “Honey, why did you have to tell me you had a dream like that?
Now I’m going to dream about it, I just know it.”
“I think we all ought to call it a night,” Jane says. “You’ve all got to get up at six o’clock.”
“What’re you talking about?” Martin says. “We’re going to play cards, aren’t we?”
“I thought we were going to play Risk,” Teddy says.
“All right,” Martin says, getting out of his chair. “Risk it is.”
Milly groans, and Jane gets up and follows Martin into the house. “Honey,” she says. “Not Risk. Come on. We’d need four hours at least.”
He says over his shoulder, “So, then we need four hours.”
“Martin, I’m tired.”
He’s leaning up into the hall closet, where the games are stacked. He brings the Risk game down and turns, holding it in both hands like a tray. “Look, where do you get off, telling everybody to go home the way you did?” She stands there staring at him.
“These people are our friends, Jane.”
“I just said I thought we ought to call it a night.”
“Well, don’t say—all right? It’s embarrassing.” He goes around her and back out to the patio. The screen door slaps twice in the jamb. She waits a moment and then moves through the house to the bedroom. She brushes her hair, thinks about getting out of her clothes. Martin’s uniforms are lying across the foot of the bed. She picks them up, walks into the living room with them, and drapes them over the back of the easy chair.
“Jane, ” Martin calls from the patio. “Are you playing or not?”
“Come on, Jane,” Milly says. “Don’t leave me alone out here.”
“What color armies do you want?” Martin asks.
She goes to the patio door and looks out at them. Martin has lighted the tiki lamps; everyone’s sitting at the picnic table, in the moving firelight.
“Come on,” Martin says, barely concealing his irritation. She can hear it, and she wants to react to it—wants to let him know that she is hurt. But they’re all waiting for her, so she steps out and takes her place at the table. She chooses green for her armies, and she plays the game to lose, attacking in all directions until her forces are so badly depleted that when Wally begins to make his own move she’s the first to lose all her armies. This takes more than an hour. When she’s out of the game, she sits for a while, cheering Teddy on against Martin, who is clearly going to win; finally she excuses herself and goes back into the house. The glow from the tiki lamps makes weird patterns on the kitchen wall. She pours herself a glass of water and drinks it down; then she pours more, and swallows some aspirin. Teddy sees this as he comes in for more beer, and he grasps her by the elbow and asks if she wants something a little better than aspirin for a headache.
“Like what?” she says, smiling at him. She’s decided a smile is what one offers under such circumstances; one laughs things off, pretends not to notice the glazed look in the other person’s eyes.
Teddy is staring at her, not quite smiling. Finally he puts his hands on her shoulders and says, “What’s the matter, lady?”
“Nothing,” she says. “I have a headache. I took some aspirin.”
“I’ve got some stuff,” he says. “It makes America beautiful. Want some?”
She says, “Teddy.”
“No problem,” he says. He holds both hands up and backs away from her. Then he turns and is gone. She hears him begin to tease Martin about the French rules of the game. Martin is winning. He wants Wally Harmon to keep playing and Wally wants to quit. Milly and Teddy are talking about flying the model airplanes. They know about an air show in Danville on Saturday. They all keep playing and talking, and for a long time Jane watches them from the screen door. She smokes half a pack of cigarettes, and she paces a little. She drinks three glasses of orange juice, and finally she walks into the bedroom and lies down with her face in her hands. Her forehead feels hot. She’s thinking about the next four days, when Martin will be gone and she can have the house to herself. She hasn’t been married even two years and she feels crowded; she’s depressed and tired every day. She never has enough time to herself. And yet when she’s alone, she feels weak and afraid. Now she hears someone in the hallway and she sits up, smoothes her hair back from her face. Milly Harmon comes in, with her hands cradling her belly.
“Ah,” Milly says. “A bed.” She sits down next to Jane and then leans back on her hands. “I’m beat,” she says.
“I have a headache,” Jane says.
Milly nods. Her expression seems to indicate how unimportant she finds this, as if Jane had told her she’d already got over a cold or something. “They’re in the garage now,” she says.
“Teddy, Wally, Martin. Alartin conquered the world.”
“What’re they doing?” Jane asks. “It’s almost midnight.”
“Everybody’s going to be miserable in the morning,” Milly says.
Jane is quiet.
“Oh,” Milly says, looking down at herself. “He kicked. Want to feel it?”
She takes Jane’s hand and puts it on her belly. Jane feels movement under her fingers, something veryslight, like one heartheat.
“Wow,” she says. She pulls her hand away.
“Listen,” Milly says. “I know we can all be overbearing sometimes. Martin doesn’t realize yet some of his responsibilities. Wally was the same way.” “I just have this headache,” Jane says. She doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want to get into it. Even when she talks to her mother on the phone and her mother asks how things are, she says it’s all fine. She has nothing she wants to confide.
“You feel trapped, don’t you,” Milly says.
Jane looks at her.
“Okay—you just have a headache.”
“I do,” Jane says.
Milly sits forward a little, folds her hands over the roundness of her belly. “This baby’s jumping all over the place.”
Jane is silent.
“Do you believe my husband and that awful dream? I wish he hadn’t told us about it—now I know I’m going to dream something like it. You know pregnant women and dreams. I begin to shake just thinking of it.”
“Try not to think of it,” Jane says.
Milly waits a moment and then clears her throat and says, “You know, for a while there after Wally and I were married, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake. I remember realizing that I didn’t like the way he laughed. I mean, let’s face it, Wally laughs like a hyena. And somehow that took on all kinds of importance—you know, I had to absolutely like everything about him or I couldn’t like anything. Have you ever noticed the way he laughs?”
Jane has never really thought about it. But she says nothing now. She simply nods.
“But, you know,” Milly goes on, “all I had to do was wait. Just—you know, wait for love to come around and surprise me again.”
“Milly, I have a headache. I mean, what do you think is wrong, anyway?”
“Okay,” Milly says, rising.
Then Jane wonders whether the other woman has been put up to this conversation. “Hey,” she says, “did Martin say something to you?”
“What would Martin say?”
“I don’t know. I mean I really don’t know, Milly. Jesus Christ, can’t a person have a simple headache?”
“Okay,” Milly says. “Okav.”
“I like the way everybody talks around me here, you know it?”
“Nobody’s talking around you—”
“I think it’s wonderful how close you all are.”
“All right,” Milly says, standing there with her hands folded under the bulge of her belly. “You just look so unhappy these days.”
“Look,” Jane says. “I have a headache, all right? I’m going to go to bed. I mean, the only way I can get rid of it is to lie down in the dark and be very quiet—okay?”
“Sure, honey,” Milly says.
“So—good night, then.”
“Right,” Milly says. “Good night.” She steps toward Jane and kisses her on the check. “I’ll tell Martin to call it a night. I know Wally’ll be miserable tomorrow.”
“It’s because they can take turns sleeping on shift,” Jane says.
“I’ll tell them,” Milly says, going down the hall.
Jane steps out of her jeans, pulls her blouse over her head, and crawls under the sheets, which are cool and fresh and crisp. She turns the light off and closes her eyes. She can’t believe how bad it is. She hears them all saying good night, and she hears Martin shutting the doors and turning off the lights. In the dark she waits for him to get to her. She’s very still, lying on her back with her hands at her sides. He goes into the bathroom at the end of the hall. She hears him cough, clear his throat. He’s cleaning his teeth. Then he comes to the entrance of the bedroom and stands in the light from the hall.
“I know you’re awake,” he says.
She doesn’t answer.
“Jane,” he says.
She says, “What?”
“Are you mad at me?”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I have a headache.”
“You always have a headache.”
“I’m not going to argue now, Martin. So you can say what you want.”
He moves toward her, is standing by the bed. He’s looming above her in the dark. “Teddy had some dope.”
She says, “I know. He offered me some.”
“I’m flying,” Martin says.
She says nothing.
“Let’s make love.”
“Martin,” she says. Her heart is beating fast. He moves a little, staggers taking off his shirt. He’s so big and quick and powerful; nothing fazes him. When he’s like this, the feeling she has is that he might do anything. “Martin,” she says.
“All right.” he says. “I won’t. Okay? You don’t have to worry your little self about it.”
“Look,” she says.
But he’s already heading out into the hall.
“Martin,” she says.
He’s in the living room. He turns the television on loud. A rerun of Kojak. She hears Theo calling someone sweetheart. “Sweetheart,” Martin says. When she goes to him, she finds that he’s opened a beer and is sitting on the couch with his legs out. The beer is balanced on his stomach.
“Martin,” she says. “You have to start your shift in less than five hours.”
He holds the beer up. “Baby,” he says. IN THE MORNING HE’S SHEEPISH. OBVIOUSLY IN PAIN. He sits at the kitchen table with his hands up to his head, while she makes coffee and hard-boiled eggs. She has to go to work too, at a car dealership in town. All day she sits behind a window with a circular hole in the glass, where people line up to pay for whatever the dealer sells or provides, including mechanical work, parts, license plates, used cars, rental cars, and, of course, new cars. Her day is long and exhausting, and she’s already feeling as though she worked all night. The booth she has to sit in is right off the service-bay area, and the smell of exhaust and grease is everywhere. Everything seems coated with a film of grime. She’s standing at her sink, looking out at the sun coming up past the trees beyond her street, and without thinking about it she puts the water on and washes her hands. The idea of the car dealership is like something clinging to her skin. AT WORK HER FRIEND EVELINE SMOKES ONE cigarette after another, apologizing before each one. During Martin’s shifts Jane spends a lot of time with Eveline, who is twenty-nine and single and wants very much to be married. The problem is she can’t find anyone. Last year, when Jane was first working at the dealership, she got Eveline a date with Teddy Lynch. Teddy took Eveline to Lum’s for hot dogs and beer, and they had fun at first. But then Eveline got drunk and passed out—put her head down on her arms and went to sleep like a child asked to take a nap in school. Teddy put her in a cab for home and then called Martin to laugh about the whole thing. Eveline was so humiliated by the experience that she goes out of her way to avoid Teddy — doesn’t want anything to do with him or with any of Martin’s friends, or with Martin, for that matter. She will come over to the house only when she knows Martin is away at work. And when Martin calls the dealership and she answers the phone, she’s very stiff and formal. She hands the phone to Jane as though it were a piece of hot metal.
“Jesus,” Martin says. He can’t eat much.
She’s drying her hands on a paper towel.
“Listen,” he says. “I’m sorry, okay?”
“Sorry?” she says.
“Don’t press it, all right? You know what I mean.”
“Okay,” she says, and when he gets up and comes over to put his arms around her, she feels his difference from her. She kisses him. They stand there.
“Four days,” he says.
When Teddy and Wally pull up in Wally’s new pickup, she stands in the kitchen door and waves at them. Martin walks down the driveway, carrying his tote bag of uniforms and books to read. He turns around and blows her a kiss. This one is like so many other mornings. They drive off. She goes back into the bedroom and makes the bed, and puts his dirty uniforms in the wash. She showers and chooses something to wear. It’s quiet. She puts the radio on and then decides she’d rather have the silence. After she’s dressed, she stands at the back door and looks out at the street. Children are walking to school, in little groups of friends. She thinks about the four days ahead. What she needs is to get into the routine and stop thinking so much. She knows that problems in a marriage are worked out over time.
Before she leaves for work, she goes out into the garage, to look for signs of Teddy’s dope. She doesn’t want someone stumbling on incriminating evidence. On the work table along the back wall are Martin’s model planes. She walks over and stands staring at them. She stands very still, as if waiting for something to move. But nothing moves.
Today things aren’t very busy, and they work a crossword together, making sure to keep it out of sight of the salesmen, who occasionally wander in to waste time with them. Eveline plays her radio and hums along with some of the songs. It’s a long, slow day, and when Martin calls, Jane feels herself growing anxious— something is moving in the pit of her stomach.
“Are you still mad at me?” he says.
She says, “No.”
“Say you love me.”
“I love you,” she says.
“Everybody’s asleep here,” he says. “I wish you were wdth me.”
She says, “Yeah.”
“I do,” he says.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I said okay”
“Is it busy today?” he asks.
“Not too,” Jane says.
“You’re bored, then.” “A little,” she says. “How’s the headache?” “Just the edge of one.” “I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s not your fault.” “Sometimes I feel like it is.”
“How’s your head?” she says.
“I wish something would happen around here,” he says. “A lot of guys snoring.”
“Martin,” she says, “I’ve got to go.”
“You want me to stop by tonight?” she asks.
“If you want to.” “Maybe I will.”
“You don’t have to.”
She thinks about him where he is: she imagines him, comfortable, sitting on a couch in front of a television. Sometimes, when nothing’s going on, he watches all the soaps. He was hooked on General Hospital for a while. That he’s her husband seems strange, and she thinks of the nights she’s lain in his arms, whispering his name over and over, putting her hands in his hair and rocking with him in the dark. She tells him she loves him, and hangs the phone up. Eveline makes a gesture of frustration and envy.
“Nuts,” Eveline says. “Nuts to you and your loveydovey stuff.”
Jane is sitting in a bath of cold inner light, trying to think of her husband as someone she recognizes.
“Let’s do something tonight,” Eveline says. “Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“I’m not going with you if you’re going to be giving strange men the eye,” Jane says. She hasn’t quite heard herself. She is surprised when Eveline reacts.
“How dare you say a nasty thing like that. I don’t know if I want to go out with someone who doesn’t think any more of me than that.”
“I’m sorry,”Jane says, patting the other woman’s wrist. “I didn’t mean anything by it, really. I was just teasing.”
“Well, don’t tease that way. It hurts my feelings.”
“I’m sorry,” Jane says again. “Please—really.”She feels near crying.
“Well, okay,” Eveline says. “Don’t get upset. I’m half teasing myself.”
Jane sniffles, wipes her eyes with the back of one hand.
“What’s wrong, anyway?” Eveline says.
“Nothing,” Jane says. “I hurt your feelings.”
THAT EVENING THEY RIDE IN EVELINE’S CAR over to Shakey’s for a pizza, and then stroll down to the end of the block, to the new mini-mall on Lincoln Avenue. The night is breezy and warm. A storm is building over the town square. They window-shop for a while, and finally they stop at a new corner cafe, to sit in a booth by the windows, drinking beer. Across the street one of the movies has ended, and people are filing out, or waiting around. A few of them head this way.
“They don’t look like they enjoyed the movie very much,” Eveline says.
“Maybe they did, and they’re just depressed to be back in the real world.”
“Look, what is it?” Eveline asks suddenly.
Jane returns her gaze.
“Something’s wrong,”Eveline says.
Two boys from the high school come past, and one of them winks at Jane. She remembers how it was in high school—the games of flirtation and pursuit, of ignoring some people and noticing others. That seemed like such an unbearable time, and it’s already years ago. She watches Eveline light yet another cigarette, and feels very much older than her memory of herself. She sees the person she is now, with Martin, somewhere years away, happy, with children, and with different worries. It’s a vivid daydream. She sits there fabricating it, feeling it for what it is, and feeling, too, that nothing will change: the Martin she sees in the daydream is nothing like the man she lives with. She thinks of Milly Harmon, pregnant and talking about waiting to be surprised by love.
“I think I’d like to have a baby,” she says. She hadn’t known she would say it.
Eveline says, “Yuck,” blowing smoke.
“Yuck,” Jane says. “That’s great. Great response, Evie.”
They’re quiet awhile. Beyond the square the clouds break up into tatters, and lightning strikes out. They hear thunder, and the smell of rain is in the air. The trees in the little park across from the theater move in the wind, and leaves blow out of them.
“Wouldn’t you like to have a family?” jane says.
“Sure.” “Well, the last time I checked, that meant having babies.”
“Yuck,” Eveline says again.
“Oh, all right—you just mean because of the pain and all.”
“I mean yuck.”
“Well, what does yuck mean, okay?”
“What is the matter with you?” Eveline says. “What difference does it make?”
“I’m trying to have a normal conversation,” Jane says, “and I’m getting these weird one-word answers, that’s all. I mean what’s yuck, anyway? What’s it mean?”
“Let’s say it means I don’t want to talk about having babies.”
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
Each is now a little annoyed with the other. Jane has noticed that whenever she talks about anything that might border on plans for the future, the other woman becomes irritatingly sardonic and close-mouthed. Eveline sits there smoking her cigarette and watching the storm come. From beyond the square they hear sirens, which seem to multiply. The whole city seems to be mobilizing. Jane thinks of Martin out there where all those alarms are converging. How odd to know where your husband is by a sound everyone hears. She remembers lying awake nights, early in the marriage, hearing sirens and worrying about what might happen. And now, through a slanting sheet of rain, as though something in these thoughts has produced her, Milly Harmon comes, holding an open magazine above her head. She sees Jane and Eveline in the window and waves at them. “Oh, God,” Eveline says. “Isn’t that Milly Harmon?”
Milly comes into the cafe and stands for a moment, shaking water from herself. Her hair is wet, as are her shoulders. She pulls the hair behind her ears and wipes her forehead with the back of one hand. Then she walks over and says, “Hi, honey,”to Jane, bending down to kiss her on the side of the face. Jane manages to seem glad to see her. “You remember my friend Eveline from work,” she says.
“I think I do, sure,” Milly says.
“Maybe not,” Eveline says.
“No. I think I do.”
“I have one of those faces that remind you of somebods you never met,”Eveline says.
Jane covers this with a laugh as Milly settles on her side of the booth.
“Do you hear that?” Milly says about the sirens. “I swear, it must be a big one. I wish I didn’t hear the sirens. It makes me so jumpy and scared. Wally would never forgive me if I did, but I wish I could get up the nerve to go see what it is.”
“So,” Eveline says, blowing smoke, “how’s the baby doing?”
Milly looks down at herself. “Sleeping now, I think.”
“Wally—is it Wally?”
“Wally doesn’t let you chase ambulances?”
“I don’t chase ambulances.”
“Well, I mean—you aren’t allowed to go see what’s what when you hear sirens?”
“I don’t want to see.”
“I guess not.”
“He’s seen some terrible things. They all have, it must be terrible sometimes.”
“Right,” Eveline says. “It must be terrible.”
Milly waves her hand in front of her face. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke.”
”I was smoking before you came,” Eveline says. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
Milly looks confused for a second. Then she sits back a little and folds her hands on the table. She’s chosen to ignore Eveline. She looks at Jane and says, “I had that dream last night.”
Jane says, “What dream?”
“That Wally was gone.”
Jane says nothing.
“But it wasn’t the same, really. He’d left me, you know—the baby was born and he’d just gone off. I was so mad at him. And I had this crying little baby in my lap.”
Eveline swallows the last of her beer and then gets up and goes out to stand near the line of wet pavement at the edge of the awninged sidewalk. “What’s the matter with her?” Milly asks.
“She’s just unhappy.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No—really. It’s nothing,” Jane says.
She pays for the beer. Milly talks to her for a while, but Jane has a hard time concentrating on much of anything now, with the sirens going and Eveline standing out there at the edge of the sidewalk. Milly goes on, talking nervously about Wally’s leaving her in her dream, and how funny it is that she woke up mad at him, that she had to wait a few minutes and get her head clear before she could kiss him good morning.
“I’ve got to go,” Jane says. “I came in Eveline’s car.”
“Oh, I’m sorry—sure. I just stepped in out of the rain myself.”
They join Eveline outside, and Milly says she’s got to go get her nephews before they knock down the icecream parlor. Jane and Eveline watch her walk away in the rain, and Eveline says, “Jesus.”
“She’s just scared,” Jane says. “God, leave her alone.”
“I don’t mean anything by it,” Eveline says. “A little malice, maybe.”
Jane says nothing. They stand there watching the rain and lightning, and soon they’re talking about people at work, the salesmen and the boys in the parts shop. They’re relaxed now; the sirens have stopped, and the tension between them has lifted. They laugh about one salesman who’s apparently interested in Eveline. He’s a married man—an overweight, balding, middle-aged Texan who wears snakeskin boots and a string tie, and who has an enormous fake-diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand. Eveline calls him Disco Hill. And yet Jane thinks her friend may be secretly attracted to him. She teases her about this, or begins to, and then a clap of thunder so frightens them both that they laugh about it, off and on, through the rest of the evening. They wind up visiting Eveline’s parents, who live only a block from the cafe. Eveline’s parents have been married almost thirty years, and, sitting in their living room, Jane looks at their things—the love seat and the antique chairs, the handsome grandfather clock in the hall, the paintings. The place has a lovely tended look about it. Everything seems to stand for the kind of life she wants for herself: an attentive, loving husband; children; and a quiet house with a clock that chimes. She knows this is all very dreamy and childish, and yet she looks at Eveline’s parents, those people with their almost thirty years’ love, and her heart aches. She drinks four glasses of white wine and realizes near the end of the visit that she’s talking too much, laughing too loudly.
IT’S VERY LATE WHEN SHE GETS HOME. SHE LETS HERself in the side door of the house and walks through the rooms, turning on all the lights, as is her custom—she wants to be sure no one is hiding in any of the nooks and crannies. Tonight she looks at everything and feels demeaned by it. Martin’s clean uniforms are lying across the back of the lounge chair in the living room. The TV and the TV trays are in one corner, next to a coffee table, a gift from Martin’s parents, something they bought back in the fifties, before Martin was born. Martin’s parents live on a farm ten miles outside town, and for the past year Jane has had to spend Sundays out there, sitting in that living room, with its sparse, starved look, listening to Martin’s father talk about the weather, or what he had to eat for lunch, or the wrestling matches he watches on TV. He’s a kindly man but he has nothing whatever of interest to say, and he seems to know it—his own voice always seems to surprise him at first, as it some profound inner silence had been broken; he pauses, seems to gather himself, and then continues with the considered, slow cadences of oration. He’s tall and lean and powerful-looking; he wears coveralls, and he reminds Jane of those pictures of hungry, bewildered men in the Dust Bowl thirties—with their sad, straight, combed hair and their desperation. Yet he’s a man who seems quite certain about things, quite calm and satisfied. His wife bustles around him, making sure of his comfort, and he speaks to her in exactly the same soft, sure tones that he uses with Jane.
Now, sitting in her own living room, thinking about this man, her father-in-law, Jane realizes that she can’t stand another Sunday afternoon listening to him talk. It comes to her like a chilly premonition, and quite suddenly, with a kind of tidal shifting inside her. she feels the full weight of her unhappiness. For the first time it seems unbearable, like something that might drive her out of her mind. She breathes, swallows, closes her eyes and opens them. She looks at her own reflection in one of the darkened windows of the kitchen, and then she finds herself in the bedroom, pulling her things out of the closet and throwing them on the bed. Something about this is a little frantic, as though each motion fed some impulse to go further, go through with it—use this night, make her way somewhere else. For a long time she works, getting the clothes out where she can see them. She’s lost herself in the practical matter of getting packed. She can’t decide what to take, and then she can’t find a suitcase or an overnight bag. Finally she settles on one of Martin’s travel bags, from when he was in the reserves. She’s hurrying, stuffing everything into the bag, and when the bag is almost full, she stops, feeling spent and out of breath. She sits down at her dressing table for a moment, and now she wonders if perhaps this is all the result of what she’s had to drink. The alcohol is wearing off. She has the beginning of a headache. But she knows that whatever she decides to do should be done in the light of day, not now, at night. At last she gets up from the chair and lies down on the bed to think. She’s dizzy. Her mind swims. She can’t think, so she remains where she is, lying in the tangle of clothes she hasn’t packed yet. Perhaps half an hour goes by. She wonders how long this will go on. And then she’s asleep. She’s nowhere, not even dreaming.
SHE WAKES TO THE SOUND OF VOICES. SHE SITS UP and tries to get her eyes to focus, tries to open them wide enough to see in the light. The imprint of the wrinkled clothes is in the skin of her face; she can feel it with her fingers. And then she’s watching as two men bring Martin in through the front door and help him lie down on the couch. It’s all framed in the perspective of the hallway and the open bedroom door, and she’s not certain that it’s actually happening.
“Martin?” she murmurs, getting up, moving toward them. She stands in the doorway of the living room, rubbing her eyes and trying to clear her head. The two men are standing over her husband, who says something in a pleading voice to one of them. He’s lying on his side on the couch, both hands bandaged, a bruise on the side of his face as if something had spilled there.
“Martin,” Jane says.
And the two men move, as if startled at her voice. She realizes she’s never seen them before. One of them, the younger one, is already explaining. They’re from another company. “We were headed back this way,”he says, “and we thought it’d be better if you didn’t hear anything over the phone.” While he talks, the older one is leaning over Martin, going on about insurance. He’s a big square-shouldered man with an extremely rubbery look to his face. Jane notices this, notices the masklike quality of it, and she begins to tremble. Everything is oddly exaggerated—something is being said, they’re telling her that Martin burned his hands, and another voice is murmuring something. Both men go on talking, apologizing, getting ready to leave her there. She’s not fully awake. The lights in the room hurt her eyes; she feels a little sick to her stomach. The two men go out on the porch and then look back through the screen. “You take it easy, now,” the younger one says to Jane. She closes the door, understands that what she’s been hearing under the flow ot the past few moments is Martin’s voice muttering her name, saying something. She walks over to him.
“Jesus,” he says. “It’s awful. I burned my hands and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t even feel it.”
She says, “Tell me what happened.”
“God,”he says. “Wally Harmon’s dead. God. I saw it happen.”
“Milly—“she begins. She can’t speak.
He’s crying. She moves to the entrance of the kitchen and turns to look at him. “I saw Milly tonight.” The room seems terribly small to her.
“ The Van Picked lumberyard went up. The warehouse. Jesus.”
She goes into the kitchen and runs water. Outside the window above the sink she sees the dim street, the shadows of houses without light. She drinks part of a glass of water and then pours the rest down the sink. Her throat is still very dry. When she goes back into the living room, she finds him lying on his side, facing the opposite wall.
“Martin?” she says.
But she can’t find anything to tell him. She says, “God—poor Milly.” Then she goes into the bedroom and begins putting away the clothes. She doesn’t hear him get up, and she’s startled to find him standing in the doorway, staring at her.
“What’re you doing?” he asks.
She faces him, at a loss—and it’s her hesitation that gives him his answer.
“Jane?” he says, looking at the travel bag.
“Look,” she tells him, “I had a little too much to drink tonight.”
He just stares at her.
“Oh, this,” she manages. “I—I was just going through what I have to wear.”
But it’s too late. “Jesus,” he says, turning from her a little.
“Martin,” she says.
“Does—did somebody tell Milly?”
He nods. “Teddy. Teddy stayed with her. She was crazy. Crazy.” He looks at his hands. It’s as if he just remembered them. They’re wrapped tight; they look like two white clubs. “Jesus, Jane, are you—” He stops, shakes his head. “Jesus.”
“Don’t,” she says.
“Without even talking to me about it—”
“Martin, this is not the time to talk about anything.”
He’s quiet a moment, standing there in the doorway. “I keep seeing it,” he says. “I keep seeing Wally’s face. The—the way his foot jerked. His foot jerked like with electricity and he was—oh, Christ, he was already dead.”
“Oh, don’t,” she says. “Please. Don’t talk. Stop picturing it.”
“They gave me something to sleep,” he says, “and I won’t sleep.” He wanders back into the living room. A few minutes later she goes to him there and finds that whatever the doctors gave him has worked. He’s lying on his back, and he looks smaller somehow, his bandaged hands on his chest, his face pinched with grief, with whatever he’s dreaming. He twitches and mutters something and moans. She turns the light off and tiptoes back to the bedroom. She’s the one who won’t sleep. She gets into the bed and huddles there, leaving the light on. Outside, the wind gets up—another storm rolls in off the plains. She listens as the rain begins, and hears the far-off drumming of thunder. The whole night seems deranged. She thinks of Wally Harmon, dead in the blowing, rainydark. And then she remembers Milly and her bad dreams, how she looked coming from the downpour, the wet street, with the magazine held over her head—her body so rounded, so weighted down with her baby, her love, the love she had waited for, that she said had surprised her. These events are too much to think about, too awful to imagine. The world seems cruelly immense now, and remorselessly itself. When Martin groans in the other room, she wishes he’d stop, and then she imagines that it’s another time, that she’s just awakened from a dream and is trying to sleep while they all sit in her living room and talk the hours of the night away.
IN THE MORNING SHE’S AWAKE FIRST. SHE GETS UP and wraps herself in a robe and then shuffles into the kitchen and puts coffee on. Fora minute it’s like any other morning. She sits at the table to wait for the coffee water to boil. He comes in like someone entering a stranger’s kitchen—his movements are tentative, almost shy. She’s surprised to see that he’s still in his uniform. He says, “I need you to help me go to the bathroom. I can’t get my pants undone.” He starts trying to work his belt loose.
“Wait,” she says. “Here, hold on.”
“I have to get out of these clothes, Jane. I think they smell like smoke.”
“Let me do it,” she says.
“Milly’s in the hospital— they had to put her under sedation.”
“Move your hands out of the way,” Jane says to him.
She has to help him with everything, and when the time comes for him to eat, she has to feed him. She spoons scrambled eggs into his mouth, and holds the coffee cup to his lips, and when that’s over with, she wipes his mouth and chin with a damp napkin. Then she starts bath water running, and helps him out of his underclothes. They work silently, and with a kind of embarrassment, until he’s sitting down and the water is right. When she begins to run a soapy rag over his back, he utters a small sound of satisfaction and comfort. But then he’s crying again. He wants to talk about Wally Harmon’s death. He says he has to. He tells her that a piece of hot steel the size of an arrow dropped from the roof of the Van Pickel warehouse and hit poor Wally Harmon in the top of the back.
“It didn’t kill him right away,” he says, sniffling. “Oh, Jesus. He looked right at me and asked if I thought he’d be all right. We were talking about it, honey. He reached up—he—over his shoulder. He took hold of it for a second. Then he—then he looked at me and said he could feel it down in his stomach.”
“Don’t think about it,” Jane says.
“Oh, God.” He’s sobbing. “God.”
“I’ve done the best I could,” he says, “haven’t I?”
“Shhh,” she says, bringing the warm rag over his shoulders and wringing it, so that the water runs down his back.
They’re quiet again. Together they get him out of the tub, and then she dries him off, helps him into a pair of jeans.
“Thanks,” he says, not looking at her. Then he says, “Jane.” She’s holding his shirt out for him, waiting for him to turn and put his arms into the sleeves. She looks at him.
“Honey,” he says.
“I’m calling in,” she tells him. “I’ll call Eveline. We’ll go be with Milly.” “Last night,” he says. She looks straight at him.
He hesitates, glances down. “I—I’ll try and do better.” He seems about to cry again. For some reason this makes her feel suddenly very irritable and nervous. She turns from him, walks into the living room, and begins putting the sofa back in order. When he comes to the doorway and says her name, she doesn’t answer, and he makes his way to the kitchen door.
“What’re you doing?” she says to him.
“Can you give me some water?”
She moves into the kitchen and he follows her. She runs water, to get it cold, and he stands at her side. When the glass is filled, she holds it to his mouth. He swallows, and she takes the glass away. “If you want to talk about anything—” he says.
“Why don’t you try to sleep a while?” she says.
He says, “I know I’ve been talking about Wally— “Just, please—go lie down or something.”
“When I woke up this morning, I remembered everything, and I thought you might be gone.”
“Well, I’m not gone.”
“I knew we were having some trouble, Jane—”
“Just let’s not talk about it right now.” she says. “All right? I have to go call Eveline.” She walks into the bedroom, and when he comes in behind her, she tells him very gently to please go get off his feet. He backs off, makes his way into the living room. “Can you turn on the television?” he calls to her.
She does so. “What channel do you want?”
“Can you just go through them a little?”
She’s patient. She waits for him to get a good look at each channel, waits for commercials to end. Finally he settles on a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show, and she leaves him there. She fills the dishwasher and wipes off the kitchen table. Then she calls Eveline to tell her what’s happened.
“You poor thing,” Eveline says. “You must be so relieved. And I said all that bad stuff about Wally’s wife.”
Jane says, “You didn’t mean it,” and suddenly she’s crying. She’s got the phone held tight against her face, crying.
“You poor thing,” Eveline says. “You want me to come over there?”
“No, it’s all right—I’m all right.”
“Poor Martin. Is he hurt bad?”
“It’s his hands.”
“Is it very painful?”
“Yes,” Jane says.
LATER, WHILE HE SLEEPS ON THE SOFA, SHE wanders outside and walks down to the end of the driveway. The day is sunny and cool, with little cottony clouds—the kind of clear day that comes after a storm. She looks up and down the street. Nothing is moving. A few houses away someone has put up a flag, and it flutters in a stray breeze. This is the way it was, she remembers, when she first lived here—when she first stood on this sidewalk and marveled at how’ flat the land was, how far it stretched in all directions. Now she turns and makes her way back to the house, and then she finds herself in the garage. It’s almost as if she’s saying good-bye to everything, and as this thought occurs to her, she feels a little stir of sadness. Here, on the work table, side by side under the light from the one window, are Martin’s model airplanes. He won’t be able to work on them again for weeks. The light reveals the miniature details, the crevices and curves on which he lavished such care, gluing and sanding and painting. The little engines are lying on a paper towel at one end of the table; they smell just like real engines, and they’re shiny with lubrication. She picks one of them up and turns it in the light, trying to understand what he might see in it that could require such time and attention. She wants to understand him. She remembers that when they dated, he liked to tell her about flying these planes, and his eyes would widen with excitement. She remembers that she liked him best when he was glad that way. She puts the little engine down, thinking how people change. She knows she’s going to leave him, but just for this moment, standing among these things, she feels almost peaceful about it. She has, after all, no need to hurry. And as she steps out on the lawn, she realizes that she can take the time to think clearly about when and where; she can even change her mind. But she doesn’t think she will.
He’s up. He’s in the hallway—he had apparently wakened and found her gone. “Jesus,” he says. “I woke up and you weren’t here.”
“I didn’t go anywhere,” she says, and she smiles at him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, starting to cry. “God, Janey, I’m so sorry. I’m all messed up here. I’ve got to go to the bathroom again.”
She helps him. The two of them stand over the bowl. He’s stopped crying now, though he says his hands hurt something awful. When he’s finished, he thanks her, and then tries a bawdy joke. “You don’t have to let go so soon.”
She ignores this, and when she has him tucked safely away, he says, quietly, “I guess I better just go to bed and sleep some more.”
She’s trying to hold on to the feeling of peace and certainty she had in the garage. It’s not even noon, and she’s exhausted. She’s very tired of thinking about everything. He’s talking about his parents; later she’ll have to call them. But then he says he wants his mother to hear his voice first, to know he’s all right. He goes on—something about Milly and her unborn baby, and Teddy Lynch— but Jane can’t quite hear him: he’s a little unsteady on his feet, and they have trouble negotiating the hallway together.
In their bedroom she helps him out of his jeans and shirt, and she actually tucks him into the bed. Again he thanks her. She kisses his forehead, feels a sudden, sickswooning sense of having wronged him somehow. That makes her stand straighten makes her stitfen slightly.
“Jane?” he says.
She breathes. “Try to rest some more. You just need to rest now.” He closes his eyes and she waits a little. He’s not asleep. She sits at the foot of the bed and watches him. Perhaps ten minutes go by. Then he opens his eyes.
“Shhh,” she says.
He closes them again. It’s as if he were her child. She thinks of him as he was when she first saw him, tall and sure of himself in his reserves uniform, and the image makes her throat constrict.
At last he’s asleep. When she’s certain of this, she lifts herself from the bed and carefully, quietly withdraws. As she closes the door, something in the flow of her own mind appalls her, and she stops, stands in the dim hallway, frozen in a kind of wonder: she had been thinking in an abstract way, almost idly, as though it had nothing at all to do with her, about how people will go to such lengths leaving a room—wishing not to disturb, not to awaken, a loved one. □