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Jul/Aug 2002 fiction

Deterioration

by C.A. Long


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

My wife says that the weather we're having is bad. She talks to me about the greenhouse effect over breakfast. I nod a few times, not listening, and she continues to talk knowing that I'm not listening.

Her comments aren't really for me; she'd say this sort of thing to anyone. I sip my coffee and imagine her in the checkout line at the market, talking away to the person in front of her about the danger of warm weather during a New England winter. I imagine this person nodding as they hurriedly hand their money to the cashier. My wife will then tell the cashier all about it.

"Don't you think so, Ray?" she asks me. She is making lunch for our two children, Alicia and Colin. Today it is peanut butter and grape jelly on wheat bread. Both children hate wheat bread, and will whine and groan when they discover this flaw in their lunch.

"I'm sorry dear," I say, "I missed that one."

"Don't you think that Alicia is maturing too quickly?" she asks. "I mean, she's just ten and already she's writing love notes to the boys in her class."

My wife sits across from me at the table. She licks at the peanut butter still stuck on the end of her knife, then nicks her tongue on the serrated edge.

I say, "Isn't ten a perfectly normal age for a girl to start doing these things?" while folding the newspaper over to glance at the stock quotes.

"I suppose" she says, "that it would be considered normal if it were just one boy. But she's giving these notes to all the boys. I don't think that's normal."

I fold the newspaper over again without making a response. I hope that this conversation will deteriorate into silence.

"Anyway," my wife says and gets up from the chair, "I have an appointment to speak with her teacher tomorrow at three-fifteen. She asked if you could come along as well."

"You know I have to work," I say to her, and place the paper down on the table. "I've taken two days off this month already. Once when Colin was sick and you had to go to your sister's, and once when the pipe burst in the basement. There's no way I can go."

I lean back in my chair and she stares at me in silence.

"Fine," she says, breaking the quiet. "I don't suppose you'd have much to say anyway."

I let this last comment slide because I am not looking for a fight right before I leave for work. Most often, my wife and I fight about the small and seemingly trivial things. She thinks that I don't pay enough attention to our children. The children, I always wind up telling her, don't need to be doted on by me. They are babied enough by you. She is constantly at them, nitpicking, fretting over little details: do you think Colin has enough friends? Do you think we should allow Alicia to get her ears pierced? Her questions arrive in mind-numbing quantities and I can never seem to answer them to her satisfaction.

I fork the last bit of breakfast into my mouth and chew it slowly. When my wife turns away for a moment, I show the chewed up bits of toast and egg to the back of her head. I often get the urge to do things of this nature: yell obscenities in the middle of the supermarket, openly pick my nose while waiting in line at the bank, knock bicyclists off their ten-speeds as they wiz by me in the park. These urges are childish, I'm aware. But today, this small act of childish rebellion gives me unparalled pleasure.

When I am through she takes my plate and puts it in the sink. I give her a perfunctory pat on the hand and head out to the car. I wave before I back slowly out of the driveway.

During my ride to work, I pay close attention to the signs on the interstate. Bright green rectangles with glowing white letters: get off here for... next rest stop 18 miles...

I have traveled the same long route to work for nearly seven years. My wife and I had discussed buying a new home, one closer to my office, last fall, but then I didn't get the raise I had expected to, and the subject was quickly dropped.

When we were first married, my wife and I discussed and shared everything. We would tell each other about how someday we'd live in a big house out in the country, home-school our children, have a couple of dogs, cats, cows, whatever. We imagined ourselves in a perfect pastoral setting; the serenity of the country would serve as the backdrop of our peaceful existence. We wanted to buy a big farmhouse and live in it until we died. Instead, we got a three-bedroom split-level ranch in the suburbs. We bought our plot, had our house built, settled in, and had two children.

Occasionally, we play cards or go golfing with our neighbors, Ted and Judy. Their two kids play with our two kids, only their two kids also have a dog that they play with as well. Alicia and Colin have been nagging my wife and me to get them a dog of their own, but we tell them that it would just be one more thing that we'd have to take care of. And neither one of us wants that. No doubt that the children hate us for this, but I remind myself that someday, they'll hate us for a lot more.

The guy in the car behind me blows his horn, and I notice that I am only going sixty miles an hour. I speed up, but then slow down again when I spot an exit sign for Providence, RI. I realize that I haven't been to Providence since I was twenty-one years old.

The last time I was there, my wife and I were still just engaged. We went to visit some friends, another couple, who had an apartment there. They, like us, had just graduated from college and couldn't yet afford a down payment on a house.

We pulled up in front of their building at seven, right on time. They showed us in, all of us exchanging warm greetings, my wife handing over the wine we had brought as a gift. We were showed around the apartment, which was small, but very homey. There was an oversized couch in the living room and a folding chair across from it. They didn't have a TV.

After dinner and a few glasses of wine, we all ended up sitting on the couch, not quite smushed, but very close together. I ended up sitting between my wife and my friends' wife. The wine had livened my mood considerably, but everyone else was feeling mellow. I could smell my wife's hair, and I could feel her leg squashed against mine. My friend's wife was leaning slightly forward, causing her shirt to ride up and expose the soft skin of her back. We were having a conversation about the impending season change. I began tapping my foot to counteract the tingling sensation that was spreading throughout my body.

My wife turned and said something to me but I didn't understand her. My mouth was dry, and I felt as if I were choking. My friend's wife began laughing and I felt her body shaking next to mine. I swallowed hard, leaned back, and let my hand slide down the soft skin of her back. My fingers slowly traced the knots of her spine, and I felt her shiver. I stopped, but kept my hand lightly pressed against the small of her back throughout the remainder of the evening. My wife and my friend didn't seem to notice. My friend's wife didn't seem to care.

Around eleven, I told my wife that we'd better be heading home. We all said goodnight to one another, and promised to get together again soon. A few months later, we got a postcard from them saying that they had moved to Hawaii. We never saw or heard from them again.

I open my glove compartment and pull out a map of the tri-state area. I lay it on the passenger seat, and veer over into the exit lane.

Providence is much like I remember it. Like most small New England cities, its growth has been slow. Using my map, I navigate toward Westlyn Street, and park my car along the curb opposite my friends' old apartment building. I turn off the engine and stare at the place. It has been recently painted; its exterior is now a faded colonial blue color. Before, it was white with green trim.

A few minutes pass, and then a woman comes down the stairs from my friends' old apartment carrying a laundry basket stuffed to its capacity. She sends a quick, suspicious glance my way, then loads the basket into her hatchback and drives off. I watch her disappear down the street before restarting my engine.

I cruise into the center of town looking for a payphone. I find one and call work to tell them that I'll be late. I tell Rita, the receptionist, to put my calls through to voice mail.

A few minutes later I'm back on the interstate, heading toward my office. I arrive just two hours and twenty-four minutes late.

The first thing I do after greeting Rita, is check my voice mail. The first message is from my wife. She says that she's sorry to have pestered me this morning. She's making chicken for dinner. She bought it from a whole foods co-op. The chickens are free-range, and therefore, better tasting and more nutritious. She hopes that I'll eat something healthy for lunch and not some greasy hamburger loaded with hormones and God knows what else. She says that she loves me and hangs up.

I sit behind my desk cradling the receiver. The computerized voice asks me if I want to save or delete this message. I hit 2 for delete, and the voice tells me "message deleted. Next message..." I place the phone back on the receiver. I buzz Rita and ask her to hold my calls. It is not yet noon and already I am tired. I stretch out on the floor in front of my window and prop my head up on my briefcase so that I can feel the sunlight on my face. I watch the clouds spread across the smooth blueness of the sky. I'm amazed by how fast they move, how quickly they pass away from me.

 

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