A Series of Controlled Explosions By David Haight
Evelyn sat at the kitchen table the tiny hands of her tiny body wrapped in supplication around her coffee cup and never once looked at her husband of thirty-nine years. This was in contrast to Pat’s massive form, grown fat from years of over-eating, bounding around their cramped kitchen, his whale of a belly swung left and right, knocking into cabinets and the backs of chairs, his voice hoarse as he tried to make a case for the continuation of their marriage. There was nothing forceful or intimidating (or even convincing) about him no matter how many times he banged his pulpy left fist into his equally pulpy right palm. He had done more talking in the last hour than he had the last ten years of their marriage. She didn’t budge.
All she could think about was that cow, that god damned cow that he bought, behind her back, while she was at church, after they had discussed it, after she had told him no, that it was too expensive, that the freezer was already cramped and that it was too much meat for just the two of them no matter how many times the kids were invited home for dinner. It would spoil and then what was the point? But he did it anyway like he always had. She could barely get herself to go into the garage. Her freezer was over flowing with the black, reds, and white rock hard parts of the dismembered beast: rumps and flanks and cheeks, chuck ribs, brisket and whatever else a cow can be transformed into.
It was sickening. Stupid, too. As she had gotten older (which is all she felt she had gotten: older, not wiser, not happier, certainly not richer) she barely ate meat. She knew with a nudge she could have become a vegetarian but with the kids gone she would have to incorporate that infernal cow into every, already generous meal he ate, which was exactly what happened.
He was going on about all the years they had spent together, admitting to mistakes he had made, assuring her they would not be repeated, and warning her that even as adults the kids would be devastated if they split (remember your father? he repeated in a particularly cruel gambit) but she was barely paying attention. She was watching his shadow on the kitchen wall behind him.
She thought about the days before they were married. She would camp out in Frostie’s parking lot with Lisa, munching French fries and sipping sodas and watch him and Eddie Domino set the streets of New Holland on fire in that old Dodge Dart. He thrilled her with tales of County Road 76, and the kids that had died trying to take its ninety degree turn at 100 miles an hour. Every Friday she begged him to take her. She remembered the night he did. When they hit 90 she buried her head in his massive bicep. From the backseat Eddie was screaming, “We’re not going to make it,” and “Pat we’re going to flip,” until she was in tears. At the last minute they shot past it. She was furious. His arm was black and blue for a week.
That was before he received his draft notice. Her father warned her not to be stupid. But they couldn’t stop making love. It’s as if they wanted to get pregnant. They got married, alone at the courthouse and he left for Vietnam. Eddie Domino had left a month earlier. He never came back. Every time one of those army trucks slithered into the neighborhood she stared out between the curtains and sobbed until it left. He came back to a brand new daughter, Cindy, sold his Dodge, and got a job at a textile company. She became a school nurse at Cindy’s elementary school and a few years later Charles was born. Her father true to his word never saw them again or either of his grandchildren.
Evelyn threw herself into motherhood with an almost frightening abandon, monitoring their diet, signing them up for music lessons, getting them private tutors to improve their academics, enrolling them in gymnastics and karate (for Cindy and Charles respectively) and during the summer made sure they had all number of activities to keep them stimulated, their minds active and growing. Unfortunately this singular focus on her children also signaled the end of her marriage as a romantic endeavor giving credence to her sister’s cruel joke that Charles’s conception was the last time Evelyn and Pat had made love. But Evelyn ignored her sisters. Unfortunately she also ignored Pat, when he pined for her attention, when he offered his opinion on the kids. When she’d overhear the guys teasing him that he was no longer on the board of directors in his marriage, she ignored that too and stubbornly stayed in that holding pattern raising her children. When Cindy left for college she had her first nervous breakdown and when Charles followed a few years later, a second. If she wasn’t a mother what was she? After nearly four decades she still didn’t know.
That was why listening to him now was so strange. She hadn’t counted on this young man’s desperation, his manic fear of loss, losing, being abandoned, or whatever this clinging to their dead marriage was. It confounded her. They hadn’t been happy in decades. Wouldn’t he be grateful to be given a fresh start before it was too late, if it wasn’t already? When she was seventeen he was the most exciting man she had ever met. This terror resembled that man reflected through a fun house mirror. She stared at the coffee cup.
Pat put his hands on either side of the sink. There was a slow drip. “Please don’t do this Evelyn. I love you.” She straightened up in the hard, unforgiving chair. Her mouth dried up. She felt each breath start at the pit of her stomach and make its way up and out of her body like rotten food that needed to be expelled. If he was playing a game he was playing to win. She had to concentrate on the yellow chicken on the coffee cup to keep her eyes from welling up. After all the years measured only in the silences between the times he had spoken those rotten words and the anticipation of when he would speak them again, they had simultaneously lost their meaning and grown more powerful. They were like the sun: large, remote and incomprehensible. Nevertheless they had the power to give and take away life. It didn’t matter if he meant it or was lashing out in the death throes of their marriage. There was something primordial about her need to hear them. She exhaled and said nothing.
“Evelyn? Did you hear me?” he said staring into the sink.
His voice had that strange lilting tone she had only heard a few times in all their years together: when he accidentally electrocuted himself while cutting branches off that dying pine in the back yard, knocking him off the ladder (the jolt stopping his heart, the fall restarting it), when his mother died – now. Her heart ached. But a sourness, like a best friend pointing at a scar, reminded her of that family picnic when he accused her of flirting with her younger sister’s boyfriend, a claim he knew was fraudulent the moment it left his thin graying lips, gathered in the back of her throat. He slept in the guest room the rest of the summer. She never acknowledged his accusation, not then, not ever. Addressing any of the things Pat had done was risky. She couldn’t give her mother another divorce. Stephanie had given her three, Sheryl one. Her mother always said quite simply, I want you to be happy, when one of her girls told her of an impending divorce, a compound lie. Being an ardent Catholic she would have sacrificed all of her daughter’s happiness to avoid that stain. Evelyn knew this and waited. She knew every humiliating thing Pat did was a charge placed throughout their marriage that she believed would detonate the day her mother died.
Then her mother died and her marriage still stood, continued on for eight more years. It became clear she would have to end things herself. But she hadn’t the courage until he bought that cow, until now. She took a breath, put her hands on her thighs and was about to stand up and look at Pat, for the first time in years when she noticed it – hung on the back of the kitchen chair opposite her: Robert’s favorite leather jacket, the one with the furry collar. It had been right in front of her the entire time but remained invisible. She nearly gasped. He had come over early this morning to fix the bathroom sink. She had forgotten all about him.
He was on his back, under the sink, right up the stairs, oblivious to what was going on, or perhaps waiting for them to stop so he could excuse himself as he crept down the stairs (even abandoning his beloved jacket) and sneak out of the house. He would minimize the damage when he told Cindy. She would find a pretense for calling, babysitting little Gregory or a shopping trip. She would need to get warmed up before finally asking about what Robert had heard. Charles wouldn’t call. He would drive over and demand to know what was going on. The thought of seeing her son’s face, the knowledge of what just occurred saturated in his eyes, etched in his too-large forehead would be too much. He already would know. They both would. They would take her side. They would exile their father. Evelyn knew about exile. After her marriage to Pat she never saw her father again until he lie buried at St. Marks. By no fault of his own Robert had destroyed everything.
“Robert honey,” Evelyn said, calling toward the stairs, once more grasping the now cool coffee cup between her shaking hands.
“What’s up?” he said appearing at the stair head, panting, his hair sweaty, sticking to his forehead. If he had heard she couldn’t tell.
“Why don’t you call Cindy and have her bring little Gregory over for dinner.”
Pat lifted his head.
Robert nodded, “Sounds good,” and disappeared into the bathroom.
“Why don’t you go get some vegetables, snow peas and some wine and I’ll make… I’ll make something,” she said to Pat.
Pat reacted sluggishly the way he had when he fell from that ladder not completely certain she was even speaking to him. He made his way swiftly to the car. She heard the engine growl to a start. He backed swiftly, carelessly down the driveway nearly flattening the mailbox. She could hear Robert’s muffled voice on the phone to her daughter. Evelyn entered the garage and leaned against the freezer. It was dark. She stood until the soft humming threatened to put her legs to sleep but the turgid meat inside the freezer let out a sickening howl. Straightening herself up Evelyn was prepared, eager for whatever was to come. Before she could sacrifice herself to that nameless something she was jolted back to her senses, by the rough spinning, pulling motors and the slow steady rising of the garage door. By the time it had risen entirely she reentered the house and had begun preparing dinner.
About the author:
David Haight was born in Minneapolis and educated at Hamline University where he received a degree in English and Philosophy and later an MFA in Writing where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published his first novel Overdrive in 2006 his second Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and recently finished a collection of short stories. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Lynn.
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