It had been two weeks since Osin’s wife Merrill had left him, and every afternoon around two he went looking for her. She had moved from their beautiful Marin home to an ugly, working class San Francisco suburb where children threw things at cars and the supermarkets were a low grade. He never ventured there. There was no need to; the probability was high that she was still shopping locally. Osin made a left and crept by the tinted windows of the Stop and Shop, watching the Mercedes’s wavery and slightly menacing reflection.
Today he’d tried to repress the expedition by taking a nap, but he’d woken up while it was still light out. Only sixty-seven years old and he felt a hair’s breadth from the big sleep every time he lay down. He now spent much of the day in bed. Before retiring from his publishing house last month, he bragged he would do nothing but read. He’d been the executive editor, and his staff had given him the complete set of Emerson’s works as a goodbye gift, some of them rare editions. “For your new library” the card said. The box, unopened, sat at the base of the stairs.
Literature, that was a hobby. Amazing, really, the possibility that could be trapped between the covers of a book. His profession had been business books—how-to’s—a lifetime spent convincing the average joe he could get himself rich for $24.95. He’d done a few titles for businessmen, but the biggest sellers always came with a video or a compact disc and were for the guy who understood money to be cash, not equity, who walked around like a kid with a dollar bill burning a hole through his pocket. It was the same principle as selling used cars, which he’d done as a teenager. A volume business. The real money was made off the trade-ins, off the guys just a few rungs up from the bottom of the ladder.
Coasting past her nail salon, one foot riding the break, he saw Merrill’s bottle-nosed Volvo parked up close to the front doors. He screeched to a near halt, then pulled across two lanes of traffic and into the lot. Blood thudded in his ears. “Calm down,” he said out loud. He got out of his car and crossed the hot asphalt. There it was—the same beach pass, the roof rack, that scrape along the back fender. Peeping inside the rear windows, he saw a baby seat. His heart fell. Not hers. Up close he was surprised he had mistaken it; the car gave off signs of unfamiliar ownership. On the passenger side a newspaper was splayed out like a dead bird.
Straightening up, Osin caught his unkempt reflection in the window—his red-rimmed eyes and nose, the unshaven chin. His gray occipital hair waved nuttily in the breeze. He looked like his grandfather, who, in his eighties and with little to do except sit around, had suddenly declared bathing a waste of time.
Osin tracked down three other Volvos that afternoon, the last in the parking lot of Merrill’s sports club. For at least twenty minutes he sat outside the building’s front, watching the women frenetically racing on the treadmills. The gym was filled with young looking thirty and forty-year-olds like her. Even if she had been inside, he couldn’t envision having a showdown where he’d be at such a clear disadvantage. With his heavy shoes and crumbling physique, Osin looked like a member of the Franklin Street Y next to the old folks’ home.
Pulling onto Route 101, he realized he couldn’t go home. The expanse of nighttime hours, the winking TV set, the glass of scotch, the silent bedroom—it was all so oppressive. He deliberated heading up the interstate just to hit a truck stop and have a meatloaf dinner. He was a sucker for these middle-class totems; they reminded him of his first marriage, and all the roasts, casseroles, and crockpot dinners he’d had. That was a time when women wore aprons, and Rosanna had one with a big carrot stitched onto it. She’d bustle around the kitchen, her hair tied up in a knot, her forgotten cocktail glass sweating on the counter. When they’d bought the house, she’d been thrilled with the kitchen and its pantry and cupboards, although by today’s standards, it would be considered claustrophobic. Osin had repainted for her. Trying to remember the color he’d chosen, he found himself almost in Oakland, at Rosanna’s. It had been at least fifteen years.
It was startling to see the old place again, to see that it existed as a real edifice separate from the shimmery refraction of his memory. He felt a strange pang, as he did when driving past an accident scene, the urge to look, the urge to turn away. The front walk was cracked, but Rosanna had put a new coat of yellow paint on the siding. The last time he was here was right after the divorce. He and Rosanna stood in the driveway screaming obscenities at each other, while their neighbor, old Ms. Battle, called in a trebly voice, “Who’s over there? Is somebody hurt?”
The yard was kept up decently—nothing professional, the work of some neighborhood boys. The butterfly bush really needed to be cut back. Rosanna’s rattletrap Honda was in the drive, and when he followed his line of sight up to the house, he saw her standing behind the screen door, watching him get out of the car and come up the walk. She’d gotten wider through her hips—the sediment had settled to the bottom of the glass.
“What are you doing home in the middle of the day?” he said. She had a scattered, leftist look, like a 1970s communist, or a recluse. Her gray hair had escaped the clip and flew all over the place. She was looking him over with those heavy-lidded eyes, one green, one blue, which had recessed like his with age. She’d opened the door but was holding her hand up, palm out, as if to say, “stop.”
“Osin? What are you doing here?”
He halted under the shade of the awning. “Just a social call. I was in the neighborhood.”
Her mouth was still slack with surprise, and the intimacy of that dark, exposed space bothered him.
“Well, aren’t you going to let me in?”
The mouth closed. “I’d like to know what you’re here for, first”
“Jesus, Rosie. Can’t I just make a visit? Don’t you ever get visitors? Or do you run them off the property with a shotgun?” It did look as if she were hiding something behind the door.
“You look awful, you know.” She stepped back to let him in.
Inside the layout was just as he recalled it—narrow and low ceilinged, the close hallway hung with photographs and watercolors of the ocean. The center of the hall carpet was worn a lighter shade of blue. After he got over the initial pleasure of the familiar, he found it depressing that she’d never bothered to renovate. She went to make some coffee, and he wandered into the living room. With him gone, she had replaced his space with knickknacks that didn’t fit into any particular decorating scheme—little ceramic animals and decorative plates, so many drink coasters. It was like a yard sale indoors.
“You really should replace this couch,” he called to her. He pressed the faded cushion. One of the springs poked his hand. “I remember sitting on it.”
“Why? It’s fine.”
“How many years have you had it? It’s upholstery. It’s not meant to last forever.”
He strolled back into the kitchen. Over the pantry door, the cream paint had flaked, revealing the gypsum masonry underneath. The room reminded him of his Aunt Stella’s apartment in Queens. He remembered then that he had pushed Rosanna, back when they were married, to rip out the old pine cabinetry and replace it with something more contemporary. “You never had the kitchen redone.”
“Enough. It’s not your life to criticize.”
“It makes me feel guilty seeing this. Like I left you destitute after the divorce.”
She handed him a decaf in a mug that said “World’s Best Grandma.” He tasted at least one shot of brandy.
The implacable silence bothered him. That wide back to him, his aunt’s back. He hadn’t gone back fifteen years in coming here; he’d gone back fifty. “I didn’t leave you a pauper,” he insisted. “I gave you plenty.”
“I spent it all building a hospital. Then it folded.”
He wasn’t amused. Taking a seat at the chipped linoleum table, he looked down and noticed one ragged cuff flapping around his shoe. Where had he found these pants?
She sat down next to him with a pillowish thud. “Well, if this is a social call you might as well tell me how you’ve been.”
A breeze came through the window above the sink, making the curtains flutter. She had African violets on the sill and one of those old-fashioned barometers—the woman in the sundress was out; the man with the umbrella was hidden indoors. Osin heard the sputtering of a car starting up down the street.
Then, without warning, Osin laid his head on the linoleum table and began crying in big, ugly sobs.
Rosanna shoved her chair forward. “Osin! You’re not ill, are you?”
“Merrill left me.”
“Oh,” she said.
He cried on. It was uncontrollable, like urination. It went beyond Merrill, but he couldn’t identify the cause. After a minute, he felt Rosanna’s cool flat palm on his arm. He felt the skidding car that was himself, slow up. Come to a stop. Her voice floated somewhere near his ear. “It might not be for good. Give it some time.”
Her response seemed to belong to the wrong scenario. He lifted his head and grabbed the offered tissue. What had that been, that darkness? He had lost the original thread of distress.
He returned to Merrill and the awful things she’d done. “She cheated on me.” Rosanna was looking at him sympathetically, but she didn’t seem appalled. “She’s living with him,” he added. He allowed himself to think of Merrill in the man’s bed, her breasts pressed against his chest.
Rosanna didn’t say anything. Osin followed her into the living room, talking about Merrill, that awful day she’d left, packing up her things, refusing to speak with him. Going through the cabinets. “She took the sugar even.” Was that true? He was exaggerating, but it didn’t seem to matter. Rosanna just sat there, saying nothing, and eventually he trailed off. That mortifying scene in the kitchen came back to him.
What had he expected? That she’d make up the sofa, run her fingers over his scalp, as she used to. Instead, they sat staring at each other. The clock ticked on, reminding him, in this house where time seemed to stop, that time had indeed passed.
“Well, I guess I should go home,” he said.
“Are you all right to drive?”
He didn’t feel like going outside where it was now night, where the saturated darkness pushed at the windows. As a boy, it was never under the bed he feared, but what lay outside the window, some loathsome oppressive dark, a shapelessness waiting to slide into his room. Even on the warmest nights he’d shut his windows before going to bed. His mother would come in the middle of the night and open them.
“How much liquor did you put in that coffee?” he asked Rosanna.
“Not enough to make a difference.” She stood now, stolid, arms crossed over her upper chest like Renoir’s Balzac. There was comfort there, but she wasn’t going to provide it. But her defensive posture signified an internal war. It must be lonely for her, night after night. If he pushed her the right way, she might even let him in her bed. What would that be like? Pleasurable or horrific? Like the tale of the monkey’s paw, where all the man’s wishes arrived as tragedies, in perverted, terrifying forms.
But still, she was a woman with needs. He asked her tenderly, “Would you like me to stay?”
She started laughing. She started laughing so hard, her body pitched forward, and she covered her mouth with her hand.
“What’s so funny about that?”
“Oh, Osin. I think it’s best you go home. You’ll be just fine.”
With these generic words of comfort, she shut the door on him.
Copyright © 2007 by Jessica Lott. All rights reserved.
Low Fidelity Press
Paperback, 108 pp.