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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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He began making appointments to be interviewed for office jobs. That went on for months. She couldn’t keep track of the places he said he applied to, and if she asked too often he got touchy. Some mornings he would get up when she did and put on a suit and tie for an interview. It was so comforting on those mornings. They were like two ordinary people getting dressed for work together. But nothing ever came of it, and Charlotte stopped asking. Life was dreary. She would get home, tired from the long day and the crowded bus ride and the grocery shopping, to find him undressed, playing chess against himself with the expensive ivory chess set he had bought, while the television spewed out
Gilligan’s Island
or
I Dream of Jeannie.
Sometimes they wouldn’t even greet each other. She would simply walk into the kitchen, unload her groceries, and start dinner.

One evening she got so exasperated she couldn’t control herself. It had been an awful day at work. They were painting the office and she had had to move all her things into a tiny space in the hall, and her boss had rushed her about reading the galleys, which she couldn’t find until nearly lunchtime because of the general chaos. She hadn’t gotten a seat on the bus going home; it was raining, and a man’s umbrella handle poked into her ribs during the entire trip. To finish it off, as she entered the kitchen her damp paper bag tore and oranges and cans of tomato sauce spilled out and rolled across the floor. Fred must have heard the clatter; surely he heard her cry out when a can fell on her toe, but he didn’t budge. She ran out of the kitchen, shouting, “You could at least cook dinner, goddammit, you’ve got nothing better to do! You sit here watching
Batman
with all the twenty million other kids in America, it’s some life, isn’t it? Don’t you think I’m worn out, working all day to support us? I don’t know why I stand it, I really don’t. Why don’t you learn to cook and make yourself useful? You think you’re some kind of stud? That’s all you’re good for, and let me tell you, you’re not all that great at that either.”

Then she was terrified. She had never shouted at him before in the two years of their life together. She had never shouted at anyone that way. He looked like the violent type. What if ... ? But apparently he wasn’t the violent type after all. He didn’t say a word, merely slunk off to the bedroom and pulled the covers over his head. As she ate her dinner alone Charlotte thought bitterly, Of course he wouldn’t, he needs me.

She began to lose control more often, now that she knew it wasn’t dangerous. They spoke less. Fred kept the house tidy; she couldn’t complain about that. He repaired things promptly, and built cabinets and bookshelves. He even began to cook: two or three times a week she might find dinner waiting when she got home. Charlotte wished he would tell her on the mornings when he was planning to cook, so that she could avoid the daily shopping and anticipate the rest. But he never did—he must do it on the spur of the moment, she imagined—and she didn’t like to push him too far. He was really rather sweet, she thought, and pathetic. He gained weight, and when he sat in the big morris chair watching TV and drinking beer, his belly rolled over the top of his pants.

Last month, March, the man hadn’t come at all for a whole week. Though she knew it was absurd, Charlotte missed him.

“Look, Fred, it’s the second night in a row he’s not there.”

He was watching
Mission Impossible.
“Maybe Godot finally came.”

The fourth night she said, “It’s ridiculous, I know, but I’m worried about him.”

No answer. Well, Charlotte thought, that really didn’t deserve an answer.

On the way home from work she would round the corner cautiously, glance sideways, then walk by the empty space. She knew his precise spot and could picture him in it, hands deep in his raincoat pockets, hat brim pulled low, eyes staring straight ahead, unseeing. His space was blank, like a niche without a statue. She had a sudden glimpse of the static quality of the world, with everything fixed eternally in its accustomed and foreordained place. The man belonged there, just as she belonged on this daily trek from the bus stop carrying her paper bag, just as Fred belonged upstairs in front of the TV, taking apart the blender to see why it didn’t work on the puree setting. She paused at her gate to lean down and smell the honeysuckle, and remained there for several moments till she was dizzy and almost faint from the perfume. Her head was swimming, but she relished the feeling of oblivion. When she stepped back, it was almost like rising from a deep sleep. She took a breath of the clearer air, straightened her shoulders, and walked into the house.

The next night it was close to dawn when Fred returned. She rushed to the door at the sound of his key in the lock.

“My God, I’ve been frantic. What happened to you?”

His eyes were bloodshot. He shoved past her and headed for the bedroom.

In a rage of relief she went after him, pulling at his sleeve. “Oh, no you don’t! You don’t just fall into bed as usual. Oh, no! You’re going to tell me what you’ve been doing. No more silent treatment. Open your mouth and speak!”

He started to undress. “Lay off, will you? I’m tired.”

She tore the shirt off him. “How was she? Any good? Did you just pick her up or have you known her a long time? But she doesn’t work for you, does she? Oh, no. Not that. I notice you’re always around here at mealtime. Like a dog.”

“Stop it,” he wailed. “So what? So what? You manage everything else I do, can’t I even do that on my own? Can’t I get a little relaxation somewhere?”

“Oh my God.” She sat down on her side of the bed, which was still warm. She hadn’t really believed it, only said it to taunt him. The words seemed to come out of an unknown place, uncontrolled. She had imagined he was out drinking, walking, anything but that. “My God!” What a fool she was. She had had opportunities too, and passed them all up. For she had always felt that Fred would straighten out one of these days. Things would go back to normal. He was down on his luck. He needed time, patience, understanding.

They sat far apart, at opposite edges of the bed.

“I manage everything you do! What a joke. It’s you—you’ve got me on a string. I jump for you. I jump out of bed every morning at seven-thirty for you. Do you think I love to work? I could have saved. ... I could have gone to Europe. ... I could have—I ... Tell me,” she whispered, so low that she hardly recognized her own voice, “tell me just one thing. Were you ever really an actor?”

She knew he was pretending to be asleep.

“Fred, were you ever really an actor?”

He didn’t move, so she began to scream and shake him. Grabbing his hair and his pajama top, she shook him back and forth rhythmically, violently, in time with her shrieked words, over and over again: “Were—you—ever—really—an—actor?”

He sat up and dislodged her fingers. “You’ll never know,” he said viciously. Then he lay down again.

Charlotte got up early for work as usual the next morning. Fred was in a deep sleep. He looked so worn out, she thought, and sad, really. Not vicious, only sad. She had a great pain, like a lump, somewhere in her body, but she couldn’t localize it. She drank a cup of coffee to wash it away. After work she had a hamburger at a luncheonette and went to a double feature, so that she wasn’t home till nearly eleven. The man was still not there. She wondered nervously what Fred’s reaction would be; it was most unusual of her not to come home, not even to telephone. He was watching
Cannon
with half-closed eyes.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello.”

They were quiet to each other, and polite.

The man came back the following night. Charlotte and Fred agreed he must have caught the flu that was going around. Fred had had it two weeks before. Why shouldn’t the man be susceptible, like everyone else, thought Charlotte. He too must live somewhere, eat and sleep and trudge to work like the mass of men. She went back to crossing the street every evening to avoid him.

It was calm in the house for several weeks. Fred finished repairing the blender, and he hung up some old silent-movie posters that made the living room more cheerful. They began to play lengthy games of Scrabble in the evenings, games filled with dense silences, after which Fred would come up with recondite words. Charlotte admired his cleverness. Meanwhile she made a few small gestures she felt were daring. Like inviting the Harrises over for coffee tonight.

They never had friends over. Fred didn’t like most people. People always talk about what they do, he said, and he didn’t do anything. But, thought Charlotte, you get tired of spending every evening alone with the same person. She was a little nervous about telling him. Yet she paid the rent, didn’t she? She bought the coffee. She could invite people over if she wanted to. If he didn’t like it, well then ... So when she met Gloria Harris on the street this morning and they got to talking, and she realized again what a pleasant person Gloria was, Charlotte said, on an impulse, “Why don’t you and Arthur come over tonight for coffee?” The words felt odd on her tongue—she remembered it had been more than a year since she had invited anyone to the apartment.

After she put away the groceries she went into the living room to tell Fred, waiting patiently for a commercial before she attempted to speak. She tried to present it casually, as an ordinary event. The thing to do, she had decided, was subtly, gradually, bring their lives back to the ordinary. Since their quarrel she had come to see how far out of the ordinary they had drifted. Perhaps with the Harrises she could get a better idea of what the ordinary was, what she had a right to expect.

“You must have seen them around,” Charlotte said. “They live two doors down from the house with the man. Gloria and Arthur. She’s a teacher and he’s a—well, that doesn’t matter. He’s stocky and blond, you’ll recognize them. They’re very nice people. I see them on the street all the time.”

He was in a good mood tonight. “Okay. What time?”

“Eight-thirty. Listen, Fred—uh—will you talk?”

“What do you mean, will I talk?”

She tried to speak gently. “I only meant, you know, will you talk to them?”

“Maybe you’d like to prepare a short script for me.”

Charlotte went to the kitchen to get dinner ready. The dogwood, she thought, will bloom any day now. Tomorrow morning, even, she might have a glimpse of pink before leaving for work.

Gloria and Arthur Harris were congenial guests.

“I’m glad you asked us over,” said Gloria. “You know, I’ve really wanted to get together, but every time I meet you on the street one of us is rushing off somewhere.”

In the kitchen, scooping vanilla ice cream over the pie, which she had warmed in the oven, Charlotte listened anxiously. Thank heaven the Harrises weren’t talking about their work. Arthur Harris was describing their camping trip in Maine last summer. They had had two weeks alone in the woods. Arthur said, “It was great. We’re both so busy all year that this was finally a chance to, well, get away and concentrate on each other for a change.” Then Gloria talked about her family, how she had four sisters scattered all over the United States. Fred asked a few questions. He mentioned his sister, far off too, in Detroit. It was going smoothly. Charlotte, after settling down with her pie and coffee, tried not to lead the conversation. Let Fred see how pleasant it could be, spending a little time with friendly people. They got to talking about articles in magazines and about current novels. That was good. Fred spent whole days reading, which he could do even while the TV chattered. He sounded somewhat scornful of everything he read—she hoped that wouldn’t put the Harrises off—but at least he was talking.

Later, while they were having brandy, Charlotte said, “By the way, have you ever noticed the man who stands in front of that house near yours at night?”

“Noticed!” said Arthur. “How could we miss him?”

“Then tell me, what on earth is he doing there? I’ve been wondering for over a year.”

“It’s one of those peculiar stories, Charlotte,” said Gloria hesitantly. “It’ll depress you.”

“That’s all right,” said Charlotte. “We’re dying to know.”

“Well, he used to live in that house. Some of the older neighbors even remember him from back then, which always strikes me as weird—he’s not someone you can picture as young. Anyhow, his wife ran off one day and took the kids. One of those ghastly stories. I don’t know the details. He moved out. No one knows where he lives now.”

“But why ... why is he standing there, after all this time?” As she spoke, Charlotte noticed that Fred had picked up a magazine and was starting to leaf through it.

Gloria shrugged. “Kind of an obsession, I suppose. You know how these things are.”

Charlotte set down her glass carefully. She was faintly dizzy from the brandy. “But what about the people who live there now? Don’t they mind him just standing there night after night?”

“Oh, there’s no one there now,” Gloria said. “The house is empty. Didn’t you know? It has been for years. He never sold it. Hung on to it.”

Charlotte’s whole body was trembling. She looked over at Fred again. He had let the magazine drop and didn’t appear to be listening. His hands were clasped loosely over his stomach and his eyes were half shut.

“Do you mean to say he stands in front of an empty house?” Her head was pounding. She was remembering all the stories she and Fred had invented about the man, and how far off they had been. They had never thought of the force of memory, of habit, of yearning, nor of madness. And yet she felt it was not really yearning, or madness either. It was something for which she could find no name, a kind of dogged, rooted, purposeless sticking. ... She felt herself starting, childishly, to cry, and felt, too, that she must say something to explain her tears or she would be mortified. “That’s ... that’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard.”

“Ha ha ha,” roared Fred suddenly. His fat belly shook and the bottom button of his shirt strained, threatening to burst off. “Ha ha! What an ending!” He laughed raucously, stomping his huge feet on the floor and bouncing his head up and down. He laughed on and on, as if he could not stop, as if he might go on forever.

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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