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Oct/Nov 2008 Fiction

The Favor

by Bojan Pavlovic


The Road to Simmerton

After nine years of marriage, Mary knows that the holidays are not a good time to ask her husband for a favor. He is a bundle of nerves as usual. The drive up to Simmerton, where her parents still live in a decrepit old colonial, has had a spastic impact on his neck muscles; he smokes one after another, pulling back his jet-black hair once in a while with his right hand, greasy from the sweat and the pomade, as the car floats by endless farmland. Yet, she needs him to be there for her today. When the car stops, she thinks, I will ask him. He will have to help me, if that's the last thing he does. If that's the last thing he does.

I knew both Mary and Steve for over ten years. I can't say that Mary was a talkative woman, but she held her own. Steve and I worked together at the university, where he lectured for ten years without a finished doctorate on Russian Medieval history and published little. His mother was born in St-Petersburg before the Revolution and came over to New York as a babe. He said that he grew up with all things Russian around him, and I tend to believe that. I think that he wished secretly that his father had been Russian, that he could have put a last name of relevance on the door of his university office, instead of his simple O'Reilly, that name that was neither here nor there. In contrast to Steve, Mary was a nurse from a working family. All that we need to know about her is that she was a woman who held her own, who had given him three children, one of them still-born (which drove her almost to suicide at one point, but no one spoke of it since), that she did not speak much to Steve and neither did he to her, but that they got along in the way that well-married couples do, through silence and nods.

She never asked much of him, but she would ask this one thing, even though they were on holidays, even though they were driving up to her parents' house with their two adolescent boys, and even though Steve was a bundle of nerves for it all.

We don't need to know yet what sort of a favor she has in mind, but it is, to her, the most important thing in all the world. She rolls down the window and closes her eyes. The car's boat-like pendulation lulls her to sleep, and she has the following dream:

It's dawn and she's outside, in the frost. She feels cold but only around her feet, and even though she's wearing no more than her sleeping gown, her skin is smooth, almost sweaty. Slowly, she walks around the lawn, the lawn outside their family house, only it's not their house but some other one, and all the things seem as familiar as they are strange. There is, in front of her, a large tree, with a wet, throbbing root, where she imagines must live all sorts of toads and frogs, fairies and leprechauns, and at that moment she sees herself on the same lawn, but she's a child, and Steve is behind her a grown man and is putting on the same fiendish smirk he has just before they make love, and she can't stand his teeth, she can't stand his smile, she wants to scream, but she can't—not a word, not a voice comes from her mouth; all around her is silence. And then she wakes up.

Steve offers her a cigarette, but she waves it off. He may be all tense and uncomfortable—it's hot outside and his shirt is limp, moist (and as this story happens some years ago, their car is not equipped with an air conditioning system)—but she needs to talk to him now or she will simply die.

 

Steve

A bit more about Steve here: In all the years of our friendship, he did not appear to me as a mean man, but he did have a tinge of tragedy about him that I could not explain. He seemed to me like someone who had wanted something and had reached for it hard, or perhaps not hard enough—regardless, he remained empty-handed and slightly off-set by the world about him. Sergei Golgin, our department head, said to me once that Steve was more Russian than he thought: he wore his tragedy on his sleeve, unlike in his pocket, as was the way of the Irish. Perhaps that was the case, but I doubt that Sergei knew more about Steve than I did.

Once I asked him whether he wanted to talk to me more about his child that had died in birth. I think it was their first born, and a girl at that. He waved me away. I offered him a cigarette, he took it and inhaled it, and we discussed work for a while, but then he turned around and said: She was going to be Olga, like my mother. I knew better than to ask more questions.

Steve had his more amusing moments. He'd get drunk easily, and peeling away the label off his third beer, he would eye the pretty secretaries that giggled in gaggles at the bar. He had some charm, yet his adventures would irrevocably end in a famous line that he'd pronounce with a smirk on his face at the closest lady: Come over here... Don't make me go home and wake up my wife.

One winter, I remember, he had come to my office with a bottle of Schnapps. It was Christmas, the students and the staff were gone, and why the two of us wiled away these quiet hours in our dark offices was known to us only at that time and never since. He wanted to toast the year. We sat by the window that I had cracked open just enough to allow some crisp air. At some point the discussion turned to family, and he inquired into how Elisabeth and I were doing, whether we would have any children in the near future.

If it happens, I answered laconically.

He disagreed. Children never happen. They need to be planned, seeded like some vegetable, cared for enough to develop even before they exit the womb. Have you read any of those studies that claim that the babies can hear while they're in the womb? Amazing, really. They're now saying we should be telling them stories, having them listen to classical music.

I nodded, but I am not sure that I agreed.

He continued. Mary and I had a daughter as you know. She died at birth. Mary blamed herself for a long time after, and to this day I will swear to her that it's all but her fault. But between you and I,—at this point his eyes glassed over—her and I both know that it was indeed her fault. She was careless. We had these long, wound-up stairs leading from the pantry to the attic, and even though I'd told her many times to avoid going up there while in her state, one day she had climbed regardless and slipped, fell all the way down, onto the little one. Went into labour the same night... The thing came out, all blue, shriveled up, a turtle. A girl, they said, and I remember thinking... that her name was Olga.

If Mary had a dream that she noted, so did Steve:

He walks into a house, but he's not sure which house this is. It looks on the outside like his childhood home in Jersey, all with its small windows and dark brick, but inside it's wide open, with a shining balustrade and a chandelier that hangs off a long sliver. Carefully, he walks from one room to the next, and he opens one door after another with a shudder—is it fear, he wonders, or is it that unnerving feeling of anxiety that he had once had as a youth, looking at girls change into their bathing suits at summer camp from behind a shrub—he opens these doors then with strange anxiousness, and each one leads him to a large room that remains unrecognizable. Finally, he stands in front of a single black door, gilded with a golden handle, and he wishes to open that door. However, he dares not. A single voice, coming from the ether, is whispering to him in stoic tones: That is Olga's room. The voice neither says enter nor leave, but there is fear in the voice, such fear that it subsumes him so that he cannot swallow, he cannot breathe, and he wakes up and rushes to the washroom to cool his face off in the sink.

 

On the Road to Simmerton

They stop at a gas station, and the boys run into the store to load up on sodas and chocolate bars, and Steve waves to them a sign of two—two each and no more—but they don't heed his warnings. Mary is now covered in sweat, she's a complete wreck, and he offers her a cigarette and asks what's wrong. As he's holding down the gas nozzle and leaning on the side of the car, he looks to her like a careless youth. That's how she must have met him, I imagine, and she surfaces a slight smile. Nothing is wrong, dear. It will all be fine. And they are on their way again.

The trip is no less than six hours by car, and he loudly wonders why they ever agreed to go up there again this year, when there are so many other places he'd rather spend his long, professorial vacation. Nor is the drive enjoyable. I can imagine that the flat farmland stretches on for miles, one vast sea of green and brown linked, as if by God's thread, with electrical poles backward and forward, on and on. She offers him some water, and he draws on the bottle, but it's lukewarm so he equates it with urine. The boys laugh, and Mary warns him to mind his language.

They travel as if on air. Steadily, the car sways from one side to the other and the horizon is nothing but a hazy smear. They will be in Simmerton, that unfortunate little town of nine hundred souls, in no less than two hours—two hours!—but it seems like an eternity to Steve. He asks Mary to take the wheel. Perhaps he'll take his mind off the platitudinous drive if he can just get some sleep.

Mary looks calm as she drives, but her hands clutch the wheel stronger and she bites on her lower lip. How could I have been so stupid, she thinks to herself. There is nothing here, between them, nothing at all—they are two solitary people; he doesn't understand her language and she doesn't understand his—so what keeps her in this marriage if it's not trust? If I can't speak with him now about this, if I have to go through hell just to utter what is on my mind (no matter how stupid it may sound at first!), then I have no reason to be with him at all.

She wants to tell him that she is pregnant. He doesn't know, but she is quite certain. It has now been three weeks. Most important, she is dead set on having the child taken out of her. It is a girl! Yes, it is a girl. But this one, too, will be stillborn. There is a horrible premonition that gnaws at her from within, she knows it, feels it, it comes to her through cold shudders, the wind that creeps from underneath the doors. Each time she hugs the banister, each stair she takes up and down creaks like the cry of a stillborn child—she has no doubts—I will kill this child just like I killed the one before. Madness, all of it, but she must believe her instincts. She must speak, because the silence grows in her throat and makes her hands spasm.

As the farms glide by, she seeks a gas station, an excuse to stop the car. Her time is running out. With each kilometer they are within reach of Simmerton, her mother's clammy hands, and the silence that pervades that entire house. She regrets ever having agreed to take up the boys to Simmerton—why did Steve not protest more, why did she cave in (again) to her mother's indecorous insistence and all the guilt that comes with it?—but now it's too late.

She must tell him, she must tell him, or there is no reason to be with him. There is no reason to be with him, if she can't tell him what she wants to do, if he can't tell her that it's going to be fine—It's ok sweetie, it's all ok—that he will support her decision, that there will be no other daughter than the one that she killed, the one whose death (she was certain) he had blamed on her carelessness. If all these things cannot be, then she cannot be as she is and all must end. The end of her world.

She must tell him, she must tell him, or there is no reason to be with him. No reason. Marriage is a vault of solid walls. There must be silence on the outside—all good families are tight lipped, she agrees—but within there should be all sorts of shouts and cries and embraces. She straddles the steering wheel in agony, her legs shake, and as her head moves right to look for what may or may not be a gas station's neon sign, the car veers off the road, into the ditch, and violently pushes forward, only to be jerked back by a swell of dirt. The boys are startled from their sleep. Charlie, the little one, cries. Steve is up, holding with both hands onto the dashboard, and she is... she is completely calm. The car's hood is popped open, luckily, so that they cannot see the size of the trench, so Steve says to her in calm tones—It's ok sweetie, it's all ok—and at that moment her throat that had been clumped up with so much silence finally releases into a long, raspy cry.

 

Epilogue

Sometimes I think that most narratives tend to symmetry not because writers enjoy to follow form, but because art in itself is driven by a search for an order that does not exist in reality. That's the beauty and the uselessness of art. I would like to tell you that Mary had a difficult childbirth and that she delivered a girl, still-born as the first, and that Steve, driven to insanity by his guilt, finally did the most Russian of all things in his wretched life and blew his face off with a single bullet lodged in a revolver, its barrel spun until he had run out of luck. But this did not occur.

Life tends to follow threads that are either long broken or at least tied up in ways that I cannot understand. Mary had a lovely baby girl, red and plump, and they named her Olga. As far as I know, the girl is now married and has children of her own and is no happier or sadder than most of us. Yet a few years thereafter, Steve had come into my office, sullen and gray in the face, and announced in hush tones, that Mary had left him. She had taken his children.

I would also like to say here that Mary had had a dream, the same dream where, in the middle of the lawn, she was a helpless, white little girl held from behind by her old, wrinkled husband, lecherous, horny, his hairy hands all over her slight rags, and that, having woken up in cold sweat, she rushed to the washroom, cooled herself in the sink, glanced at her aging face, and decided that her life there was a mistake—that she simply could not stand the silence. But this, too, did not occur.

I should have paid more attention to our charming, drunken Steve, I suppose. It had so happened that at one of our staff parties, Steve had caught the eye of a new assistant professor, and she had caught his, and for some reason his usual humorous remark was just what she needed to hear to take him to her apartment that same night. They had engaged in an affair that went on and on, quietly and pointlessly, until one day, the two were caught, having dinner at a restaurant in New York City by Mary's cousin. All else happened very quickly, expeditiously, with the speed of a process that has neither the patience nor sympathy for dreams and their symmetry.

 

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