Sunday, September 7, 2014

Stable (full version)

                                                If you can read this you are NOT Glen Fadlo of Waltham, CT.

This story resides in the Bleak Holiday collection.

  The man sat at the table, drenched in the dense California sunlight that burned through the glass patio doors - American sunlight - and he felt like an important part of an important moment. He was in this place now. He stirred his coffee and scanned his newspaper and felt satisfied. He felt proud of his house, his career. He loved his wife. He realized this with urgent clarity and a gratitude that usually eluded him. The sounds of Carol fixing breakfast in the kitchen comforted him, secured him to the world, and after a while the smell of bacon and toast traveled through the swinging door and he felt better still. It was a perfect moment, an exact moment, when the very molecules of existence seemed to coalesce and charge his darkening heart; a heart that had begun to harden and retreat from the anxious complications of impending middle age.  
     The newspaper was still filled with the recent tragedy. A great American had died in Dallas at the hands of a troubled young man, and then the young man was in turn gunned down by a man with a jeweled name who ran a nightclub. He wondered if he should feel so calm and contented so soon after a national calamity and with this thought, the perfect moment was gone. One brief blaze of doubt had kindled it to mist.
      The man felt diminished again.

     The swinging door flapped open and Carol crossed the dining room and set a plate of fried eggs, bacon and toast in front of him.
     “Here you are, darling,” she said, beaming. When she smiled, her whole face smiled. The depth of her eyes intensified her expressions to the point of heartbreak.
     “Thank you, dear,” the man said, glancing up from his paper. She bent down, offering her cheek, and he gave her a quick peck.
     “What are your plans for today?” she asked him.
     “Plans,” he said, then scooped a forkful of egg into his mouth.
     “Yes, plans. What are your plans?”
   She spoke his name in anger, her eyes transmitting sudden frustration. The bright smile had vanished.
     He laughed. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m drawing up plans for the new art gallery they want to build downtown. So, I’m planning… to plan plans!” He laughed again and shrugged his shoulders, eyebrows raised in a way he knew she found cute.
     But she didn’t find it cute this time. “Oooh!” she said, giving voice to her waning patience and then stormed back into the kitchen.
     He shrugged again and returned to his breakfast.
     When the man finished eating he lifted his plate and coffee cup and carried them into the kitchen. Carol was standing at the sink, scrubbing the frying pan with brisk, angry strokes, her small, delicate hands hidden under Playtex Living gloves. The man came up behind her and kissed her gently on the neck. She stiffened slightly, still cross with him.
    The man cast his eyes down and toed the linoleum like a repentant little boy. “Gee, I’m sorry honey,” he said. “I was just kidding around. I woke up feeling playful today.”
    “Well, I’m not feeling playful today,” she said in a firm voice, dunking the frying pan in the soapy water. Bits of eggwhite floated in the foam and the man studied them as if they were keys to a dream.
     His wife released a long, suffering sigh and the man wondered, not for the first time, why he felt driven to continually test her patience. Maybe he just couldn’t understand what she saw in him, such a beautiful woman, and he needed to prove himself unworthy of her love by acting like an obtuse clown, a bumbling fool.  
    He cleared his throat and tugged his collar and when he spoke he hoped that his tone conveyed honest concern.                        
     “What’s bothering you, dear?”
     She tilted soapy water from the pan and then dunked it in the clear water of the rinse basin. “Well, if you must know…”
     “Yes?” he said, an eager inflection in his voice. But he knew from her prologue that he would not be getting the truth. She would complain about wanting a new dress, a fur, or a week in Hawaii. But he knew what she really wanted above all else. It was the cruel, desperate nucleus from which all the small, pesky little demands sprang. He had been unable to give her a child for two years now and maternal panic kept her on a precarious emotional edge. When they were in town and a newborn in a stroller wheeled past, the pained, longing look on her face was enough to make his heart burst into soft fragments. Even now, without looking at her face, he felt a sickening mix of pity and guilt.
     “Never mind,” she said, slipping his yolk-smeared plate into the warm suds.
     He thought of saying something cheerful, or cracking a joke, but he knew the gesture would only make her feel worse. He placed his hand on her shoulder, felt a nuance of tensed muscle, and then left her alone.
      He stepped outside, into the backyard, the fresh air reviving him, gifting him with a faded filament of his earlier reverie. The little apple tree next door was dotted with blossoms, active with orbiting bees. The man still found it hard to believe that Roger, his neighbor and often-difficult friend, was gone. A military officer from the man’s Air Force past had moved in not long after the funeral. A colonel. His old commander.
      The colonel sometimes thought the man was crazy.
     A lot of people thought he was crazy. He could see it in the baffled, uneasy expressions that sometimes confronted him. He knew what people said about him behind his back. He didn’t care. He knew his grasp on reality was not tenuous. He was not clinging to sanity like a man in a roiling void. His sense of himself, of his life, was settled on a foundation of safe, unyielding bedrock. He knew this. Granted, he could act eccentric at times and circumstances necessitated a certain degree of secrecy, but he was not crazy.
     The man entered a small stable at the edge of the backyard. His office was there. His best friend lived there.
     “Good morning, Ed!” he said.
     The horse was wearing glasses, reading The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t look up when he said, “Mornin’, Wilbur.”

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