FICTION WINNER- Moving
This is the winning story in the Hook's 2008 short story contest. Announced in January and judged by none other than top novelist John Grisham, the contest drew well over 100 entries. The winning author was slated to receive a check for $700 at the opening ceremony for the Virginia Festival of the Book at the main library downtown on March 26. The second- and third-place winner received checks for $200 and $100, and the Hook will publish her stories later this spring. –editor
On the day Greg's wife left him, she made pancakes for breakfast. Perfect circles floating in Mrs. Butterworth's maple syrup, topped by melting squares of butter. If he hadn't been lulled into optimism, he might have been suspicious. But it was a beautiful morning, he'd gotten laid the night before, and Marta had cooked him breakfast.
"Wow, pancakes. Thanks, Babe. They look great."
Marta set a plate in front of Greg, her hand brushing over his upper arm like a whisper as she moved away. At the stove she poured hot water from the kettle into a ceramic mug and dropped in a teabag, then turned to look out the kitchen window.
"Aren't you gonna have any?" It had been so long since Marta had shown any interest in food. He hoped that maybe the sex had been good for her, had increased her other appetites.
"No. I'm really not hungry."
"I wish you'd eat something, Marta. I think if you'd just try a little you'd realize how hungry you are."
"I said I'm not hungry. I'm an adult. I know when I'm hungry."
Her words bounced off the window pane and slapped him in the face. He turned to his plate and ate in silence, swallowing Marta's anger with each bite of the pancakes.
On the day Marta cooked him pancakes for breakfast, the day after she'd made love to him, Greg came home from work to a silent house. Tossing his keys on the counter, he called out, as he always did, "Hey, Babe, I'm home." But on this day, Marta didn't answer. Only his own voice, boomeranging from room to room, echoed back from the dark silence.
"Marta?" He listened, thinking maybe the radio was on in the bedroom upstairs, that it had drowned out his voice. But no footsteps, no sound of running water from the bathroom, only the air conditioner's asthmatic wheeze.
He opened the door to the garage. No car. She must have gone out shopping, or was out somewhere with a friend.
But no, not a friend. Marta had left most of her friends behind over the last year, scattered like litter along the highway. Only her sister and the women in her survivor's group had not been jettisoned. The rest were too difficult, knew too much and too little of what her life had become.
Greg went to the kitchen table, thinking maybe she'd left a note. No note, but then she never had been good at letting him know where she was.
He walked into the family room. It looked as it had that morning when he left, dirty mug on the coffee table, the newspaper beside it. In the kitchen, he tossed the paper on the counter and went to the refrigerator for a beer. He pulled out a Becks, popped the top, and drank half of it before taking it and the paper to the kitchen table.
The paper was still folded to the classifieds, and he picked it up, curious to see what had drawn Marta out of the house. Halfway down the page, just under the fold, "Charming fully furnished cottage for rent" and "Move in now" were circled lightly in pencil. He stared at the ads until the words blurred, then he folded the paper into a square and took it to the trashcan, where he shoved it beneath the still damp coffee grounds and eggshells from breakfast.
The night before, he'd reached for her in bed, had finally pulled together the courage to roll up behind her and put his hand on her hip, kiss the nape of her neck where the darkest of her hair grew in downy whorls. He'd felt her stiffen, but then miraculously she'd raised his hand to her lips, kissed it and set it gently down on her breast, the perfect one, the one without the roadmap of scar tissue. He'd moved against her, pressing himself along the length of her, while he rolled her nipple between his finger and thumb. She moved onto her back and pulled him over and into her. It was the first time he'd been inside her in months, and he hadn't lasted long. Afterwards Marta had turned silently away from him, but he'd gone to sleep content, certain things would only get better.
Greg wandered downstairs. In each room he saw images of the life they'd made together. He saw her on the floor of the family room, laughing as she tossed aside brightly colored Christmas wrap, gift after gift, until she was surrounded by a red and green paper mountain. He watched her come down the stairs, vamping in the black strapless dress she'd worn one New Year's Eve, back when strapless was still an option. Imagined her in the kitchen, ratty bathrobe pulled around her, hands hugging a mug of herbal tea for warmth.
He couldn't bring himself to go upstairs to the bedroom, couldn't bear to see evidence of abandonment there. Couldn't stand remembering her as she lay beneath him just the night before. Would the bed still hold the scent of their sex? Would her essence still float around the room, that wildflower smell of hers? Or did she pull it about her, taking it with her when she left?
Suddenly he was tired, so tired that he was incapable of thinking. He went to the darkening family room, stripped down to his underwear and curled up on the sofa.
When the phone rang, somewhere around eight o'clock that night, Greg couldn't force himself off the sofa to answer. The machine picked up on the fourth ring, and he lay in a fetal position, listening to Marta's disembodied voice.
"Hey, it's me. Listen, I just wanted to say... well, to say I'm sorry. I know it was lousy of me to leave the way I did, but, well, I knew I couldn't do it if I saw you looking at me the way you do. So, anyway...." A pause, and Greg imagined her picking at a cuticle, the way she always did when trying to decide how best to say something. "Oh, God, this is hard. Anyway, I'll talk to you soon."
He replayed the tape again and again, trying to interpret each word, each breath. If he strained hard enough he thought he could hear tears in the thickness of her voice.
He called work at 6am and left a message on his partner's voice mail. "Doug, it's Greg. I'm not coming in today. Woke up with some kind of bug," he forced a deep cough, "and I don't want to get everybody there sick."
It was late afternoon, the sun floating just over the treetops in the back yard, before he roused himself to push up from the sofa and wander into the kitchen. He considered making coffee, then decided that he was anxious enough without the caffeine. Maybe he should make himself something to eat. He was not incapable of surviving on his own, after all.
He opened the refrigerator, but Marta was everywhere in its shiny depths. Yogurt, Diet Coke, hummus, those strange little baby vegetables she always brought home and then let rot in the bin. These were still firm, so she must have bought them within the last week or so. Surely if she had been planning her escape she wouldn't have stocked up on miniature zucchini. Why it should matter how long she'd been planning on leaving he couldn't say.
He felt foolish. He should have known she was leaving: she'd been leaving him little by little for the past two years, ever since she'd been diagnosed with cancer. Marta was in a place he'd never been, couldn't go with her. He was an intruder peeking into windows when she'd shut the door to close him out. Even after coming through it alive, she'd stayed shuttered and closed off to him, but he'd arrogantly believed that if he tried hard enough, he could bring her back to him.
"Is she there?" The silence on the other end of the line stretched, until Greg thought Marta's sister had hung up. He was ready to disconnect and dial again when he heard her inhale.
"Yeah, she's here. But I don't think she wants to talk to you right now."
"Put her on, Livy. Please?"
Marta's voice was groggy with sleep, even though it was only 7:30. "Hello."
"When are you coming home?"
She sighed. "I'm not, Greg."
"Look, we can fix this. Just tell me what I need to do."
"You can't fix everything. Not my cancer, and not this."
He bit the inside of his mouth, afraid he might embarrass himself by crying. "You should have talked to me. You didn't even leave me a note."
"I have talked. You just haven't been listening. And would a note have made it easier?"
Greg was pacing now. "I don't know. Yeah, maybe."
Marta was quiet, and he wasn't sure what to say. In the silence, he looked around the room. His eye caught the painting she'd bought at an art show last year, a huge canvas covered with what looked to him to be the results of projectile vomiting. He felt his anger gathering, had the urge to toss the monstrosity out the window.
"So what should I do with all your stuff?"
"Your stuff. The stuff you left. You can't just leave it here."
"Because I don't want it here."
"Christ. I'll get it, okay?"
"Look, I've got to go. I'll come by next week and get everything. But please don't call me again. This is hard enough already."
Greg woke on the sofa Saturday morning with his back clenched and neck aching. He knew he couldn't continue this way. I just need to get moving, he told himself. Only movement can get me through this.
So he began where he could, going through the downstairs rooms and gathering anything that smelled, looked or felt like Marta. The shell soaps in the guest bath that she had found in a shop in Charleston. The gardening magazines on the coffee table. The wedding picture in front of the chapel, Greg looking down at the top of her head, Marta staring off at something over the photographer's shoulder. He'd always thought she seemed to be looking into the future, but when he pulled the picture off the wall he was certain he saw in her expression a wistful longing for something lost to her.
All of this he piled into cardboard boxes he'd brought up from the basement. Which he then carried into the garage. The more he dragged out, the more he found that needed to go. Her dog-eared copy of The Bell Jar. Melissa Etheridge and Sam Cooke CDs. DVDs of Sex and the City, Seinfeld.
Greg was panting by the time he finished the downstairs, and the pile half filled the garage. In spite of the hard work, he was energized, and ready to face the upstairs. But once there, he found it easier to identify what did not disturb him than what did. Everywhere there were signs of her, of their life together. She had taken so little. Only a few clothes, some books. Still hanging on the bathroom door was her robe, the robe she'd worn for endless days and nights after the chemo, hovering between bed and toilet. He thought he understood why she'd left it. It was a reminder of what she'd suffered while under his care.
The bed, of course, Greg would never be able to find peace in. He would forever turn in his sleep to breathe her in, feel her warmth, suffocating in the emptiness. Turning, he shut the door behind him. It would be easier to gut the bedroom than erase her ghost from those four walls.
He thought surely the guest room would be easier. But when he pulled back the quilt on the guest bed, planning to climb in and bury himself, he stopped. There, on the mattress, was the first set of sheets they'd bought as a couple, back before they were married. Grad students, they'd spent almost every night together after the first few dates, usually in Greg's studio apartment. Marta had complained loudly and frequently about the pilled polyester sheets he'd inherited from his parents, until one Sunday afternoon he'd dragged her to Filene's Basement in search of the best sheets they could afford. They'd ended up with a 300-thread count sateen set that was discounted because of an irregularity visible only to those who knew it was there. This tiny imperfection hadn't bothered Greg, but Marta had never been able to forget it, and as soon as they could afford it, she'd replaced the sheets, exiling the less-than-perfect ones to the guest bedroom.
Greg headed back downstairs, unsure what to do next. He couldn't carry out every memory and box it in the garage. He tried to find things that might be safe. His old recliner, long ago banished from the family room, the television that she rarely watched, a few broken pieces of furniture in the garage. Enough for a room, he thought, and headed to the basement.
But as he carried the recliner up the narrow stairs, he was struck by the futility of his efforts. There was still no room in the house unhaunted by her, no space that was truly his. He lifted and thumped the chair towards the kitchen, becoming more and more angry that he was the one dealing with the consequences of her decision, just as he'd had to deal with her withdrawal after the cancer, and her resentment, a resentment that so often seemed directed at him. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, he was sweating with fury and exertion, and he shoved the fraying chair across the kitchen floor. It slid the length of the room and slammed into the door to the backyard. Jerking the screen door open, he kicked hard at the back of the chair, sending it thudding down three cement steps to land bottom up on the patio.
Breathless, Greg stood with hands on his knees, looking down at the innocuous lump of metal and brown corduroy. He felt suddenly foolish. He padded down to the patio in his boxers and dirty white socks, reached under the back of the chair, and grabbed the headrest. But when he attempted to pull it up, instead of flipping over, it flipped open, the footrest jumping out and turning the chair into an inverted V. Greg maneuvered it onto one side and awkwardly lifted it, shoving it upright. The chair dropped into place in the center of the patio, and it looked so much like it belonged there on the carpet of concrete that Greg sat down and leaned back. His feet propped on the now crooked footrest, he relaxed, free of his anger, able to take a full breath at last.
A door slammed behind him. Greg peeked around the side of the chair as Lisa Atwood walked to her trashcan and dropped in a white plastic bag full of what he imagined were dirty diapers and formula cans. He turned back around and closed his eyes, but she'd seen him. "Hey, you finally getting rid of that chair?"
He remained mute, partly because in the past few days he was sure that his vocal chords had atrophied beyond use. And partly because he no longer felt it necessary to smooth the path between the two houses.
He'd tried to get Marta to make an effort with the neighbors, and he'd thought for a while that she was warming to Lisa, to their lives in suburbia. But then Lisa had gotten pregnant and Marta had gotten sick. At the hospital, the day of his wife's surgery on the fifth floor, their neighbor had been on the seventh floor giving birth to a healthy baby girl. Since then they had spoken across lawns and in grocery lines, politely but uncomfortably, and Greg had long given up acting as matchmaker.
The Atwoods' door slapped shut, and he felt pleased with himself, pleased with his own rudeness.
In his recliner, he slept better than he had in days. That morning he rose early, refreshed, a plan pushing the fog from his consciousness. He went into the house to gather what he needed. By noon, he was finished.
He started setting up on the patio, but changed his mind and moved into the garage when he noticed the sky begin to cloud overhead. With the garage door open, it was almost as nice as the back yard, with the added benefit of being out of sight of the Atwoods' back door.
First, he moved all of the boxes from the garage back into the house, piling them in the center of the living room floor. Next, he went back outside and half dragged, half carried the chair in and dropped it in the center of the garage. By the chair he created a makeshift table of milk crates, in front of which he placed a crumbling Styrofoam cooler. It took six trips with a bucket to the ice machine in the refrigerator to sufficiently cover his twelve pack of beer. Eventually he would have to go to the store to restock, but he was set for now.
He hauled the television out and put it on the workbench along the back wall, where the outlets were. The cable proved to be a bit more problematic, but in the end he drilled a hole straight through the wall into the kitchen and ran the cord through the house to the connection in the family room. Once he moved the tools from their shelf, the microwave and coffeemaker fit perfectly. For water, he threaded the hose through a window, and dropped the end into a bucket. The telephone and answering machine, cords running under the kitchen door, provided easy access to the world outside, if and when he wanted it. His suits and shirts hung on nails along one wall, shoes in formation underneath. A two foot inflatable parrot from his college days hung from the ceiling, lending a festive air to the space.
On the back of an old movie poster Marta had gotten at a flea market, he printed a sign in red Sharpie. After stapling it to a piece of wood, he hammered it into the hard ground by the street. Then he unlocked the front door, went into the garage, leaned back in his chair, and drank a beer.
The knock, first soft, then louder, reverberated from the tinny surface of the garage door. Greg looked over at his travel alarm– barely 7am on a Sunday morning. He reached over to the milk crate and pushed a button on the garage remote. As the door began to rise, he watched as tennis shoes, then white crew socks, then stubby fat legs beneath red Bermuda shorts appeared. Interesting to watch someone appear from the ground up, he thought. Watch them grow up, sort of, fully formed.
The woman looked into the garage like a visitor peering into a cage at the zoo. Not bothering to get up, Greg asked, "Can I help you?"
"Well, um, I saw your sign. You know, the one that says moving sale. Is this what's for sale?" Clearly she was not impressed by the furnishings of his garage apartment.
"Nope, this is what stays. Everything in the house is what goes."
Relief relaxed her face. "Is everything marked?"
"Doesn't need to be. It's all free. Just take what you want, and close the door behind you."
"What is this? Some kind of joke?"
"Nope, no joke."
She was barely on the walk to the front door when he saw her pull her cell phone out of her pocket, heard her say, "George, I need you to get right over here with the truck."
By mid-morning the street was crowded with cars and trucks double- and triple-parked, and Greg turned up the television to drown out the chatter of the people tramping across his lawn lugging the sofa, a dresser, the vomit painting, and boxes– armloads of his life. Swallowing a mouthful of coffee, he looked out just as two brawny men in dirty jeans walked by carrying his king-sized bed, the one he and Marta had slept in, had made love in. As they hoisted it up onto the back of a pick-up, he punched the button on the remote, watching until it all disappeared from view.