Pandemic Files

Stew

The front door swings open slowly, her heels clicking against the tile as she steps inside. I face her and the smile on her face turns my blood cold. Behind her head the dark night sky is suddenly lit up by a crack of lightning, casting a shadow across her face so that—for just a moment—all I can see are her eyes and teeth. Thunder booms loudly, rattling the living room window in its frame.

She closes the front door, and I’m almost sure that she knows.

Water drips from her fingers and her tight-but-conservative black dress (her description, not mine), settling in a puddle on the foyer. Robby gurgles from his crib in the bedroom then settles back to the deathlike sleep only toddlers and old people can manage.

“Honey,” she says, dropping her keys on a side table. “I’m home.”

I watch her face, my sweat pants suddenly constricting my waist and thighs as if I’m standing in the sun wearing trash bags. I swallow thickly, glance behind me at the pot on the stove, faint plumes of steam wafting from beneath the lid. When I turn back to the foyer, she’s loosened her hair, shaking it out with an expression of nonchalance that brings my paranoia down a few notches.

“How’s my baby?” she says.

“Which one?” I say, chuckling.

“Both of them.” She winks. I hold back a shiver.

“I’m fine. Robby’s been sleeping for almost an hour now.”

“That’s nice.”  She drops her purse and umbrella in the corner. “You know, I was thinking…”

I sigh and relax, air seeping back into my pores.

“That’s your problem,” I say, turning back to the stew. “You think too much.”

She mumbles something inaudible as I reach for the pot, the lid making this clinking sound like champagne glasses touching during a toast.

“Smells good,” she says.

“It is good.  Started it at like six and got this—”

“I really was thinking,” she repeats.

I turn to face her, clenching my jaw. “Thinking about what, babe?”

“About these travel plans we had.”

“Our travel plans?”

“Yes,” she says with a nod, removing her coat and tossing it over a dining room chair.

“The plans we made six months ago?”

“Yes, Steve,” she snaps. “I don’t think they’re practical.”

I turn back to the stove, remove the lid, stir the stew.

“Why not?” I say, nonchalantly.

“Because I have to go to Boston the week after that.”

I stay quiet, continuing to stir the stew. A bubble forms at the top of the thick concoction, growing an inch wide before popping.

“You hungry?” I ask finally.

“Actually, yeah,” she says. I face her again, and she’s smiling, eager. I try and fail to hide my surprise. She’s never hungry, and she’s eager even less. I’m instantly indecisive, watching her nod and smile sweetly like a goddamn Cheshire cat.

“Good,” I say curtly.

“Yeah, I ate a little something not too long ago, but”—she glances at the pot—“that smells so good.”

“It is good.” I put  the lid back on and grab a bowl from the cupboard to my left. “You’ll love it.”

“I love you.”

Holding the ceramic bowl, my hand freezes in midair. I turn slowly to face her, and find she’s moved a few steps closer, right up under me. A sudden rush of fear quickens my heart rate and I swallow thickly, leaning away from her.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“I love you, Steve,” she repeats, softer.

“I—” I close my mouth, raise my eyebrows high.

“We don’t say that to each other enough.” She looks down and starts picking at her nails, a nervous habit she used to have back in college, one I haven’t seen since we got married. She seems almost timid right then, which I find more disturbing than anything.

“We’re always so… standoffish with each other,” she adds.

“I know,” I say, still holding the bowl in the air.

“We need to fix this,” she says, then pauses. “I want to fix this. It’s mostly my fault, I know. With work and all, I don’t pay enough attention to you.”

I feel a sudden stinging in my eyes and quickly look away, to the pot of stew.

“I want you to come with me to Boston,” she says. She steps even closer, so her arm is brushing against my leg. I feel myself shying away, a chuckle rising in the back of my throat. I stifle it, swallow thickly.

“You want me to come to Boston with you?” I ask.

“Yes.”

My forehead flashes with heat.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

I open my mouth and nothing comes out, so I just shrug and shake my head simultaneously. She smiles, and for the first time in years, I remember how beautiful she is. We stare at each other and I’ll be goddamned if tears don’t start forming in her eyes. The image of her gets blurry for a moment and I realize I’m tearing up too. I turn away, sniffle, swipe at my face. When I look back at her, she opens her arms and wraps them around my midsection, placing her face against my chest. It’s such an unexpected move that my entire body tenses for a moment. I slowly relax and wrap my arms around her and she tightens her grip, pressing her face into me. We stand there like that for a moment until she finally lets me go.

We stare at each other, and when I look down at my hand I’m stirring the stew again, don’t even remember taking the lid off the pot. The stew bubbles and pops and a spot of brown splashes up onto my hand, and I think about what I’m doing. The bitter taste of bile fills the back of my throat and I wonder if I’ve gone insane.

“I really do love you,” she says, smiling.

I smile back, painfully. “I love you too, babe.”

“I know you do.” She steps close again and puts her lips softly against mine. Pulling the bowl out of my hand, she places it on the counter and lays a palm gently on my chest. Her lips are soft, and after a moment she leans back a little, reaches up and rubs my cheek. “Let’s eat.”

“No,” I say quickly. Too quickly. I flinch. The word just shoots out of my mouth. I don’t have time to consider what it means, that single word uttered in that moment. There’s so much riding on these next few seconds.

She tilts her head, raising her eyebrows curiously. “No?”

“I mean…” I glance at the pot of stew again, frantic, my heart pounding in my temples. Glancing around the kitchen, I notice a tray sitting on the windowsill above the stove, a half-dead pair of daisies in a pile of dirt. Lightning flashes outside, illuminating the plants and their brown leaves.

I hate those flowers anyway.

Before I can even think about what I’m doing my arm jerks up and the tray falls off the sill and suddenly there’s soil and petals everywhere, on the floor, the counter, the stove, and in the pot of boiling brown stew.

“Shit,” I say, then louder, more convincing, “Goddammit!”

“Steve,” she says, looking at me with a smirk on her face. “You have got to be the clumsiest person I’ve ever met.”

“I know.” I say, into it now, standing with my hands on my hips and a genuine look of disappointment on my face.  “Shit, man. I spent a long time on that.”

I study her face sheepishly, looking for any sign of suspicion. She stares at the stove for a moment, then shakes her head.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I wanted to go out anyways. We can make a date of it. Drop Robby at my mom’s for a couple of hours and get some Chinese.” She touches my arm. “Like we used to.”

I sigh and nod.

“I’ll wear this,” she says, holding her arms out and turning in a circle. “Go get ready, I’ll clean up here.”

“Okay,” I say. I move to walk past her and she touches my arm. I look down at her fingers, then up at her face.

“Wear those pants I like,” she says, winking.

In the bedroom, I stare at myself in the mirror until my face looks like a stranger’s, then take off my shirt and study my hairy chest, my slight paunch, my receding hairline. I don’t want to think about what I almost just did, and as a result I’m not really thinking about anything at all. So it’s a good ten minutes before I remember I’m supposed to be getting ready. I glance at the bedroom door and walk over, closing it quietly. At my dresser, I grab my discarded pants and pull out my cell phone, redialing the last number on my caller ID. Shirley answers immediately, no hello just:

“Is it done?”

I’m quiet for a moment.

“Steve?” she says with a weird tone in her voice, almost fearful yet at the same time a little excited. The sound of it gives me strength and I clear my throat, glancing at myself in the mirror.

“No,” I say, pausing. “I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it.”

“What?” she hisses. “What the fuck do you mean you can’t do it, Steve?”

“I just can’t.”

“Do you know how long we’ve been planning this?” she yells. “What about the insurance, Steve? You can’t back out now!”

“I don’t care about the money,” I say, and it feels good to say, feels like truth the moment it’s out.

“You don’t care about the money,” she says, chuckling scornfully. “Okay then, what about the life? The marriage? Your son? All the things you hate about her?”

I close my eyes. “I don’t hate everything,” I say. “And Robby needs his mother. Plus, Shirley—” I look up at the ceiling, shake my head and laugh. “This was insane, what we were trying to do.”

“Steve,” she says, a pleading tone entering her voice. “You can’t stand her, remember? You love me and you hate her and she brought this on herself with her attitude and the screwing around and her controlling bullshit and—and the threats!” She yells this last word, laughing almost hysterically. “The threats, Steve, do you remember the threats? This was the plan, your plan.”

“I know,” I whisper.

“You’re messing everything up.”

“I was,” I say.

“What?”

“I was messing everything up.” I pull the phone away from my ear so I can’t hear her anymore. “I’m fixing it though. Goodbye Shirley.”

I end the call and throw my phone on the bed, facing the mirror again. I stare at myself for a long time, then walk over to the closet and pull out the blue dress shirt and black slacks she bought me last Christmas. . I have the pants on and my right arm in the shirt when I smell the gas. My body’s on autopilot by then though, so I’m already putting my left arm in the other sleeve when the house explodes around me.

I get about a split second to realize what’s happened, and in that second—the moment I’m guessing most people refer to when they say “my life flashed before my eyes,” I experience something much different than a film reel of major life events. What I see in that brief moment is a series of images illustrating all the ways I could have possibly survived: if I’d still been standing in the closet, maybe, where a piece of the ceiling could have shielded me from the brunt of the blast, giving me some serious injuries but nothing fatal; or maybe if I’d taken a quick shower before I got dressed, I could have avoided the giant ball of flame that hurtled into the bedroom; or maybe if I’d even taken a dump, seated on the toilet where the pieces of tile that blew out of the walls in the bathroom would have given me a few cuts and bruises on my arms and legs but, again, totally survivable.

But I’m not in any of those places. Instead, I’m standing in front of my dresser, a few feet from the bedroom door, which is a few feet from the kitchen. I’m getting ready, staring at myself with an awkward, loving smile on my face, moments away from buttoning her favorite shirt, fixing her favorite tie around my neck, pulling the zipper up on her favorite pants. I’m doing this when the bedroom door explodes off its hinges and slams into me with the force of a hurricane, sending me flying into the wall where I experience a small burst of excruciating pain, and then everything goes dark.

* * *

She drops the lighter in her purse and watches the proceedings. The living room windows shatter and flames shoot out like tentacles, smoke filling the moist air above the house. Robby rests his head against her collar, seemingly undisturbed by the commotion. She holds the umbrella over his head and shrugs her purse up her shoulder. The frown on her face is painted, disconnected from the rest of her expression. The smoke rises and rises, the flames reflecting hollow in her pupils, as if colliding with a black stone wall. A portion of the roof caves in and she slowly turns away from the house, shifting Robby to her other shoulder and pulling her cell phone from her purse. She dials 911 and as the phone rings, the corners of her mouth slowly start to twitch. She clears her throat as the line clicks.

“Emergency,” the operator says.

“Yes,” she says, then lets out a loud, wet sob. The noise shatters Robby’s peace, and her son lets out a voluminous, siren-like wail. “There’s been a terrible accident. Please, come quick!”

She gives another painful sob then presses the END CALL button and slips the phone back in her purse. Stepping off the sidewalk back toward the house, she stares up at the smoke, wind from the rainstorm blowing it in her and Robby’s direction.  It smells like barbecue.

She closes her eyes and raises her chin, sucking in a deep breath.

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