I read On Writing during one of Mike’s crazy all-night work shifts last month. (I hate those. Hate. But that’s a rant for another day.) So you can imagine my surprise when an exercise from that very book came up in my weekly writing assignments. Consequently? Fun With Dick and Jane (And holy hell was this fun to write. I’m novelizing the Fiction Project over the next few months so I can get it out of my system and get back to this joyful falling through the words.) I will be absent often. And also grouchy…. (I’ll rant about that another day, too.) Anyway, uh, herewith:
He startled at the sound of his keys hitting the crockery bowl by the door. His own keys, dropped by his own hand, and he jumped like a child at Halloween. Ridiculous. There had been so much tension for so long, with the divorce, and the restraining order, and endless trips to court. This day was a gift. This time for him by himself in his home while the kids were with their Poppy and Gee was a gift to himself and to them. He slipped off his jacket and scarf and hung them on the hooks, ugly Pottery Barn things that were supposed to look like fishing lures – whimsical, you know? Jane picked them up during her last frantic attempt to purchase motherhood wholesale on her way home from yoga. Whimsical coat hooks hung to look random, clumsy like a decade of weak cover-ups. I fell. Again, I know! Yeah, it’s crazy man. I really need to get my ears checked out. Ear infections when I was a kid. Messed up my balance for life, I guess.
Dick decided speak with Brad and Julie about her stuff when things settled down. Make sure they were okay with getting rid of it before he tore it all down. He imagined the black cloud of smoke rising over their backyard barbecue, while a bunch of cheaply made crap blistered then burned and burned. A drink would be good. Something hot to clear the scum from his throat and shore up the fact she couldn’t hurt him anymore.
In the kitchen, he grabbed his camp kettle from the shelf above the sink and cranked the faucet on full. The stainless steel Kelly was blackened in places from Scouts trips and backcountry treks after college. She hated it, of course. But her plastic Breville smelled like her, like Tweed touched lightly behind her knees, and if he couldn’t escape it he was going to vomit right here and forfeit his day off. This gift from his parents who could see he was stressed and loved him enough to pretend they weren’t ashamed, even as their eyes slipped off him. Well, she’s just a little thing. How’d a girl like that kick your ass, Richard? Words for which Ma had made Dad produce a rare in-person apology, and required a halting and painful explanation of the vulnerability built into Dick’s marriage. A man has to sleep. A man has to protect his children. A man can’t tell his son to never ever strike a woman, and then raise his fists to fight off his own wife. Real men take it on the jaw and walk away, even when the knock-out punch is your gruff old dad saying if the problem is, you know, effeminate, that’s a-okay with him. Ray Miller’s boy turned out to be of one of those homosexuals, too.
Dick set the kettle on the burner and leaned his hip against the oven-door. The handle was festooned with a half-dozen dishtowels with crocheted loops sewn on, kitschy, crafty, flea-market trash with wooden buttons and cheerful country prints. They would burn well.
“I need to lay down,” he said out loud, then scrubbed his face with his palms. “I need a drink.”
There was a bottle of brandy tucked in a shoebox with a package of Players Plain and his collection of Zippos, up in the cupboard above the fridge. He found the booze and a squeeze jug of honey, and sat on the edge of the breakfast nook bench to wait for his water to boil. She had re-upholstered this too, of course. Faded faux southwestern prints to make the kitchen look like a freakin’ Tex-Mex diner. Crazy how he didn’t notice this stuff when the kids were here with him. Crazy how much more the house felt like hers when he was alone. A week before the police showed up, she’d installed a Seeburg Wall-O-Matic, refitted to pick up radio (and consequently gutted of all collector’s value), as a makeup gift for him. Like she’d forgotten their anniversary or backed into the garage door or spent too much money on shoes – the kind of trivial lapses typical of the kind of suburban housewife who hadn’t destroyed his life.
He jabbed the ‘on’ button, folded his arms on her ridiculous adobe table, and let his head drop. This was just psychological fall-out, or something. Raw nerves were to be expected after the trial, the media coverage, and all those questioning, disbelieving, pitying eyes. He’d kept himself together to protect his kids from the worst of it, but away from them now his body felt grated, his mind chained to the back of a truck and pulled over miles of gravel. The nasal news anchor bleated this hour’s top story.
“….Rutherford community members are incensed about today’s escape from Brighthope Women’s Detention Facility. This morning, four women are alleged to have incapacitated two male guards in order to flee a prison transport van. The convicts were returning from an enrichment activity at Ruby Lawson’s Clayworks and Art Centre on Seventy-Fifth and Maple. Ms. Lawson is a longtime supporter of women’s rehabilitation and told reporters this incident will not affect plans to continue offering pottery classes to female criminals. Three of the four escapees are back in custody. One offender, Mrs. Janet Anne Cole, known as Jane or Janey, remains at large….”
She’s here. Of course, she’s here. Of course, she had come for him. He breathed in her perfume and heard her step on the stairs and allowed himself to contemplate her murder. When she’d first lashed out, about a month after Brad’s birth, they had cried together afterward and talked about getting help. But before plans were firm, she was pregnant with Julie. Janey had begged him not to risk the baby; the stress would be too much, she was sure. And Dick believed it. His wife was so beautiful, funny and smart; so much more than he deserved. He couldn’t punish her for one mistake. He had to man up and be fair, to her. And so they had waited, until it was his fault for not giving her enough, for not listening enough, for not remembering enough, for not being enough of a man. When he had curled on the floor like a child in fear and she brought the belt down again and again, it was his fault for not being enough.
He sat up and pressed his hands down flat on the varnished orange clay. “Hi, Janey,” he said, with his little boy smile. “How are you, honey?”
“Oh, you know,” she laughed from the foyer. “I’ve had better days.”
“How can I help, baby? What do you need?”
She was moving to the kitchen, now. The heavy canvas jumpsuit rubbed at her thighs and dragged on the floor. She’s just a little thing. “Can you give me my life back?” Grinning. Threatening. “Where’s your time machine, Richard?”
He stood for her, a true gentleman, and gestured at his seat. “Rest now, sweetheart. I’ll fix you something.”
“I’m very angry with you, Richard,” she said, settling into his seat.
“I know, baby. I’m sorry.”
“You are.” It was an old joke, but always effective. “I just wish you were more remorseful.”
Chuckling, he caught the kettle at its first whistle and touched his hand to the flame-control knob. “I am, Janey. I’d give anything for a chance to start all over.” He reached into the cupboard above the fridge.
“You’re a liar and an idiot. The brandy’s already on the counter.”
“Sorry, honey. I wasn’t thinking.”
She tipped her head back and laughed out loud, greasy hair falling over her collar, mouth open wide. He remembered the first time she had laughed at him like this: Their date at the coffee shop down the street from her dorm when he’d stood up to applaud the Open Mic band and they had glowered at his lack of reserve. He’d watched her rage flash, and set his mouth to set her straight. But then her laughter had amazed him, like an orb weaver’s web. He was caught.
“Will you walk into my parlour?” he grinned, holding out both cups. “You’ll be more comfortable on the sofa, my love. I need to step out for a smoke.”
“You’re disgusting, Richard.”
“I won’t be long.” A mistake, and he knew it the second he turned to pace toward her front door. He was supposed to ask permission. She expected him to ask permission. He felt her hand on his shoulder just as he reached the coat hook, and he knew it was too late.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as his hand tightened around it, as his body pivoted, as the snubbed metal barbs found their target. “I’m sorry,” he wept as she fell to the floor and the natural gas stink rolled closer. “I’m sorry,” again as he lit one cigarette and left the flame cranked high.