MS. LAWTON She knelt beside her husband, trying to remember something.

She had sweat in her eyes and she wiped away its stinging. She tried to remember how much blood was in a body. They taught that in freshman biology, but what had she been doing that day? Thinking about Ronnie Jones and how his starched wrinkled button down hung on his bones, the way the tail of it was always trying to come out of the soft grip of his belted khakis. Thinking about biology just gave her pictures of Ronnie Jones, who never noticed her, not one bit. So she just stayed on her knees beside her husband and waited. Was she waiting for the knowledge to return to her? That didn’t seem likely. Still she waited. Her husband wanted a divorce, that much was clear. He was careful to make that clear to her. Now, she could remember the day she first met her husband at school, in graduate school, and that was much later. He was young, too young for her, of course. Like everyone in her graduate program, even her professor. She started teaching English straight out of the education program at the University of Southern Alabama. Marched straight out of one school and into another thinking she would be in charge this time. She taught senior English for ten years and decided no one could ever teach you how to teach. Her return to graduate school to pursue her master’s degree in English was a labor of love. Literature was the only thing she could think of in this world that did not have to be tainted. She would creep to the back of the house with a glass of wine and slide down deep into her old overstuffed thrift store chair and open the book, whatever book it was that time, with a dark secret feeling like taking a lover. And then one day in class during her first semester, in walked a beautiful man. How had she not noticed him before? He was tall and stringy, like wire. His dark hair needed a brush and played with the collar of his shirt as he bent over his notebook. From her sticky orange seat she could watch him without his knowledge. His bony wrists and thick jawbone intrigued her, they looked like they were too much for him, like he could only just contain everything that he was inside that one body. She looked down at her own white soft arms, hated them. Quietly, she reached down and tucked what she imagined would be thick rolls of pocked fat on her thighs up underneath themselves. Maybe he would look her way and think gee, a woman without those big fat curdled gams. And he would want her. But of course he didn’t want her. He didn’t even notice her. Day after day, he just sat twirling an ink pen round and round, his whole body trembling with some unconfined energy and impatience. He was bursting at the seams with it. Every answer he had in class sounded like he alone suffered under the weight of some ancient knowledge and everyone else was just plain silly. After everyone else had answered a question on say, why Peter Taylor felt the need to describe in such eloquent detail a thing as revolting as skinning a rabbit, this man would speak and then everyone else’s attempts were left floundering, foolish, flat on the floor of a cold classroom. How did he do it? He seemed burdened by it. She watched him for three weeks. At first, she was expectant, eager, hopeful. Of course they were perfect for each other, who else could understand and appreciate how his easy understanding tortured him? But he never even glanced at her. In

fact, he never really looked at anyone. He was far away. So her watching that was initially robed in anticipation quickly gave way to a sullen disappointment and she got a feeling in her gut that her mother would call “sour grapes.” What was so great about him anyway. Then one Monday she found herself standing smack up against him during break, smoking a cigarette in the tiny courtyard reserved for the purpose. She needed to say something clever, to convey the feeling of not patronizing, exactly, but more like commiserating, with so lofty a mind. Something clever to show she didn’t give a fuck either. She said, Hi, are you going to be a master also? And was immediately struck dumb by the stupidity of it. It was horrifying how stupid a person could look. She didn’t think she really was as stupid as everyone else, but maybe she was, maybe the proof was in this ridiculous comment. And he must have thought so too. He said, Pardon me, and looked just exactly like someone who never in this world expected another person to speak to him out of the clear blue. And she had just jumped right in, made a total idiot of herself. Didn’t someone say once that if you weren’t sure how to pronounce a word you should say it loudly. It was a vague notion of this sort that drove her on, talking like a fool to this man who needed no one. I was just wondering what sort of master, if it really is so. Some idiot was talking right out of her head. He stared at her and she wondered for a moment if someone really had taken over her being, was possessing her, talking out of her head like an idiot. In what sort of a world do you live? he asked, one in which we’re not only inclined to confer titles, but to believe in them, as well? She tried to smile, Why not, she heard herself say. A foolish species, indeed. Then he smiled, a nice big cracking smile that had pain in it. Yeh, she said and walked away, too fool-struck to continue, too proud to see how it might play out. Looking at her husband now, while she still sat on her knees, trying to remember, it was hard to believe that she’d ever thought him arrogant. He simply had no idea how to communicate with anyone. He walked somewhere outside convention and fuck him, he didn’t even know it. When something came into his head he just said it straight out, like you might say I’m hungry or boy it’s hot out. And that only if you were engaged in conversation with him. And you had to start it. For the most part, he couldn’t see the point. And lord, she hated him for being so out-there smart. She hated him for carrying with him maybe the burden of brilliance, but not the one of caring what other people thought. Hated him for his burden should not seem more noble, but it did, and she fought fiercely against admitting this to herself, or him, or anyone. Problem was, he didn’t care. But she pulled him into conversation with her in the weeks that followed like pulling a scared cat out from under a couch. Had to do it just right or you’d spoil it. They would stand in that courtyard, the cement square with brick walls on three sides, and blow smoke around and stick the butts in a bucket of sand and talk about Geothe. Or weakness. Or longing. Or dogs. She talked and listened, shivered sometimes with expectation of the unfolding, the trepidation, like putting your foot out carefully to test the steadfastness of a piece of wood in a stream. He made her hate herself. She

thought how he must see her and she saw someone small, petty, unnecessary. And she clung to him like you cling to the sharp pain that biting down on a sore gum gives you. Seems like biting down on it is easier than ignoring it. And at night she would smile face-down into the soap smell of her pillow and dream. After that class they had no more classes together. He was in the art program and spent increasing amounts of time in the studio. She, too, gazed into whiteness. She was trying to write. The assignments to create, to produce something of lasting importance, left her hollow, carved out. Was there nothing? Her mind floated, circling over the events of her life, the pockets of time she had carefully stitched, like the careful patterns of a quilt. She felt numb, empty. Where was he? She sat at her middle-class pre-fab desk, the one that her mother thought “gorgeous,” and which seemed even uglier because. She began dropping by the studio. He wasn’t offended. He wasn’t anything. She would come up behind him and see his shoulders pushing up the straps of his overalls. Of course he would wear overalls. She watched his arms shooting out the ends of his rolled up shirtsleeves. They would be moving, always moving, splashing color, dancing over the air. She would watch. She was sick with jealousy and need. Then all of a sudden it all just happened like a line of dominoes falling down on the table. They started going out on dates to ice cream parlors and museums, places she pretended to want to go to, pretended to have been to before. Then they moved in together. He had lived in a tiny bubble, a completely self-contained cocoon and needed no one. She let herself in through the tiny opening he offered. She went in and found no need to come out again. They did things that she thought only happened in commercials and magazines. In the summertime they would sit on the roof of the building next door (she made the six inches or so of midnight air with nothing but pure faith in him, pure faith sharp and clear), soaking their feet in mop-buckets filled with ice cubes and tap water. They drank cheap red wine (the kind bought in gallon-size) from coffee mugs. He pulled their speakers out onto the window ledge and played Mozart and Stravinsky for all the world to hear. And that was them: all the world. Inside the apartment they had cultivated an herb garden in an old piece of PVC pipe. He cooked without recipes. After dinner they read books to each other by candlelight: Plato, Voltaire, Faulkner, Camus. In wintertime, he painted a fireplace scene and they hung it on the wall in front of the couch and then sat there, drinking sherry and shivering in old wool coats. They laughed at humanity. And didn’t they have every right to laugh? They had done it; they had tricked reality. “Um, ...” he would say, smiling, waving his wine glass like a scarf, “do you think the neighbors are doing this?” as they added to the apartmentlong timeline they had constructed. It stretched from room to room, down the hallway. Pens hung from the walls at intervals and anyone visiting could add an event, but they must be absolutely certain and it must be documented. It started in A.D. and stretched to the present day. But no, he never said that. He would never say something like that because it would never occur to him that everyone else in the world wouldn’t be doing the exact same thing. She had said it. But only to herself. To say it aloud would reveal her.

They traveled to Jamaica for their honeymoon. She brought along books and he painted the brave brown fishermen, most of whom risked their lives daily to bring food to their villages. She thought them tragic, he found them humbling. The years went by, anonymous and cold, like unopened books on a shelf. They attended workshops, took classes here and there. He took up photography, to complement his art. She learned French, or tried to, in order to enhance her understanding of foreign literature. He painted a stool for her because she said she would like to have one for her lectures, her classes. One day she came home and found it waiting, pink with mad green swirls and purple triangles. He nodded when she thanked him. Another evening she came home late from a meeting. In the foyer was a painting of their dog with heavy sad eyes. A note attached to the still-wet canvas said where are you? He had gone to look for her. Then he came home and hugged her, walking away silently. And all throughout the cold silent years, she still thought their life together beautiful. Beautiful just like those commercials and magazine articles about spending quality time together. What he thought, she couldn’t say. There would be no children. He did not want any and so she did not have to tell him that she could not have any. When he found out the truth he was furious. It was the first real emotion she could ever remember seeing from him. She almost laughed, it seemed fake. That made him madder. Later he told her he wanted kids. She was in her forties by that time but he was eleven years younger, had she forgotten? He wanted a family. Was it fair to make him stay in this barren relationship? He had changed his mind, that was all. There was no apology. He moved out and she started working on the house to get it ready to sell. She could not afford it alone. That was the truth, she could not afford it. Maybe if they had just stayed in that first apartment with the timeline and the roof next door. But it wasn’t the house. It was her. Then she got hurt. She was cleaning the gutters and she fell, spraining her wrist and breaking her back. It was stupid. Who else could break their back on a six foot ladder? She was in bed for weeks. She smelled herself. He did not come to visit and she hated to admit that she admired him for that. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t do something because convention required it. He wouldn’t lie. And it was about all she could do. That summer she laid around in bed or on the couch, drinking wine and saying do you think the neighbors are doing this? out loud to the empty house and then answering herself, No stupid, no one is this much of an idiot. She tried to read. Then he did start coming by from time to time. He would check on her and grab some more of his things. It almost seemed as if he was worried about her. Everyone was. She had finally disconnected her telephone and just refused to answer it. She parked her car in the garage, pulled all the curtains shut and stuck a note on the door that said, Gone to the store, be back later. Who would leave a note like that on their own door? She was going crazy, she knew it. Oh well, who cared. And that was just it, no one cared.

In the fall, she went back to teaching. The pain was bad and she had to lie down on the floor between classes and during her planning period. Students carried books for her and ran errands. It hurt to stand, sit, or lie down if it lasted for very long. She kept thinking she would meet that one student, the one who makes it all worthwhile. You know the one, every teacher talks about it. Every teacher has that story. It doesn’t matter if they have been teaching 30 years or 2 days, they all have a favorite student they judge themselves responsible for having saved. Or discovered. Or whatever. But she hadn’t found one yet. She lied about it all the time. She couldn’t wait until the real one came along and she would no longer have to make up stories about tears coming after reading a term paper, about a years-after visit to thank, about an acceptance to college, the first in his family. She lied about her students and she lied about money. She didn’t have any left after her medical bills. After all those lies it was easy to lie about her marriage. Who knew? They had completely isolated themselves and so had no close friends to notice a difference. She didn’t want to lie anymore but what did she have left. Then one day in July, over a year after the accident, and longer than that since he moved out, he called. He wanted to come over and talk. That was good, she wanted to talk too. They could go to marriage counseling, all kinds of people did it, even smart ones who thought they had outsmarted the world. He came over that next evening. She opened a bottle of wine but he didn’t want any. She poured herself a glass. He asked her if it was her first drink of the night and she said yes, she lied. She shouldn’t be drinking so much, she had a workshop in the morning. She hoped he would stay, just maybe, and Mrs. Ely, who was giving her a ride in the morning would see his car and not doubt all the other lies. It would help. She sat back in the old brown chair and he sat near her, on the footstool. He was wearing brown corduroys, in the summertime, and a green t-shirt tucked in carelessly. No belt, so the pants hung on him like a boy’s. His hair was still long, his bones prominent. If you saw him in soft light, you might think him a teenager, if you couldn’t see the tiny lines like hairs running away from his eyes. He sat like a child, too, legs splayed, hands hanging down between them like carefree living. She hated herself for not being him. Then he said it, he wanted a divorce. He had met someone and they wanted to get married. Maybe not this summer, but soon. He wanted to have children, you know, it was only fair. She cried and he squeezed her shoulder, barely grabbing skin beneath the thick robe. She felt like a child and almost slapped him for it. He got up. She couldn’t stop herself from asking him to stay the night, just one more night, and he said no and he was kind when he did so. She said Wait, I’ve got something for you. And it was true, she did. But it was a lie in the sense that he would think it was the painting he had done for his mother as a child and had not been able to find when he moved out, and she knew he would think that. But there were so many lies now, what difference would one more make. And after you had so many lies, maybe it became the truth and the truth became a lie because of the way it stuck out like daylight. Maybe it was like

wallpaper. The wall might be light pink but once you started covering over it with green and white striped wallpaper it turned into a green and white wall. Now you would be lying if you said it was pink. She got up out of the old chair, pulling her robe around her. She said, Just a minute. She walked to the bookcase and reached up above Geothe, had he not noticed it there? It was funny how he never said a word as she pointed the gun at him and fired, over and over. He opened his mouth but for once had no words of wisdom. She almost laughed. He just reached out for her and opened his mouth. Then she got down on her knees beside her husband and thought about Ronnie Jones. Damn he was hot, but he had no time for her. And now she couldn’t remember how much blood there was. It seemed like an awful lot. When it got dark, she turned on a light. Her back hurt her like a thousand knives pressed into it, so she had to change her position from time to time. She watched her husband. She did not cry, and that was not a lie. Morning came and she was still beside him when she heard a knock at the door. Was it the police? A concerned neighbor? No, it had happened hours ago, it was morning now. Then she remembered that Mrs. Ely was there to pick her up for the workshop. She still had the gun in her hand, the blood was all around her. She looked at the gun and then pointed the barrel down her throat. Another knock, louder this time. “Yoo-hoo, it’s Marty, Rise and shine!” She pulled the trigger.

----Traci de Lorge 7/97

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