~This story was previously published in Ms. Magazine (2005).
You’ve seen me. I know you have. Maybe at the Piggly Wiggly, maybe at the Speedway Auction House, Braum’s Ice Cream, or someone’s estate sale. I waltz in, wearing a wide-brimmed hat adorned with silk flowers and feathers, or a Carmen Miranda number stacked high with bananas, pineapples, grapes. Remember me now? Maybe I step right out of the fifties, demure in saddle oxfords, bobby sox, a poodle skirt, and a cashmere sweater, or better yet, you look up and there I am in a fringed flapper dress with thin shoulder straps and beads around my neck, strands that hang down to my knees. Please excuse me; I’m working on reclaiming joy.
Tonight, at the young widows’ support group the leader, Candace, tells my friend Nadine that it’s all right to be angry with her husband because he killed himself. We all have a right to anger and guilt, Candace says; pain lets us know we’re alive. If we verbalize, we can accept. We can love, and love can save us.
“I’m pissed off,” Nadine says. “I plan on staying that way.”
We’re sitting in a circle, the five of us, around a table in a room off the Interfaith Chapel at St. Anne’s Hospital. The room is bright with fluorescent lighting so we can all try to feel hopeful and work on developing strength and tranquility through continual exposure to emotional intensity. Candace uses language like that; she’s a young widow herself. She tells us that grief relies on memory, so our stories are sacred.
Here’s one I’ve never told.
The night my husband Wyatt died, I found a grocery receipt in the drawer of his nightstand, and on the back in his neat printing he’d made a list like he always did when things were too crazy and he wanted to make sure he didn’t forget something.
This list on the back of the grocery receipt said, Check tires on Bronco, Change furnace filters, Tell Roger. Roger lives in the house next to ours. He’s a bachelor who pretty much keeps to himself, and I always thought that Wyatt barely paid him any mind. But there he was on this list--Tell Roger--and a check mark to indicate that Wyatt took care of whatever he wanted to say to him. I’ve never told this story at the young widows’ support group because I haven’t wanted to face the question that would inevitably arise: What do you think it was? You see, I’m afraid of what Wyatt might have told Roger, because the truth is, when he died, our marriage was in trouble.
At eight o’clock, as usual, the young widows’ support group takes a break for refreshments. Tonight, it’s Sprite--diet or regular--and vanilla wafers.
“Comfort food?” I say to Nadine. “Like we’ve got upset stomachs instead of dead husbands. What’s next? Graham crackers and Jell-O?”
Eight o’clock was the time when the state trooper knocked on my door and brought the news that Wyatt was dead--a car crash on Highway 380.
Let me tell you—you’ll be kind, won’t you; you’ll listen?—how big the house seemed that night. I kept wandering from room to room, and everywhere I looked there was Wyatt: his Barlow knife left on the dresser; his ham radio spitting out static in the garage; one of his caps, that one that says, “Don’t Tell Me What Kind of Day to Have,” tossed on the kitchen table; that grocery receipt and the list on the back--Tell Roger.
As the days went on, I had no idea how to wear my grief because the thought kept nagging me that had Wyatt come home that night he might have told me we were done, and maybe I would have been relieved. I might have even said it: “Good, I’m glad.”
Nadine takes me by the elbow; she pinches me so hard I drop my vanilla wafer. Her snake-skin boot comes down on it and breaks it into pieces. “I have to tell you something.” She leans in close—so close I can feel her breath on my neck, so close a strand of her hair tickles my cheek. “I’ve started seeing someone,” she whispers. She pinches my elbow harder, as if to say, don’t tell.
“That’s wonderful,” I say, remembering what it was like when Wyatt and I were first married and we didn’t know that eventually time would settle in and make us strangers. He had a deep, rich voice, and in the mornings, when we were making breakfast, he used to sing, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” “Really wonderful.” I put my free arm across Nadine’s shoulders and give her a quick hug, suppressing the desire I have to hold on more tightly in hopes that I might feel what she must: the thrill, the delightful fear of love first starting.
Then she says, “It’s someone you know. It’s your neighbor. It’s Roger.”
I feel myself sinking—all right, I can admit it; I’m jealous—and I’m surprised to feel that way because until now I haven’t had a clue that Roger—outside of the fact that he was Wyatt’s final confidant—means anything to me at all.
Wyatt was a storm chaser. On weekends, when the weather was ripe, he climbed into his Bronco, switched on his ham radio and his scanner, and drove off in search of convection. I lusted after what he had: the world shaken, made wild and magnificent. Still I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to take me with him because by this time we had forgotten how to ask things of each other. Storm chasing was his the way my vintage clothing and costume shop, Deja New, was mine. That and the mural of the City of Oz I painted on the side of our house and the oversized ladder back chair I built, its legs stretched, its seat a good six feet high. A chair for a giant. I put it in my garden in the midst of purple-headed lavender and white-flowered winter savory. Any trick like this to give my life some jazz.
I never wished for Wyatt to die—let’s get that straight—but there were times, more than I can count, when I thought maybe my life would be more pleasant without him. Haven’t you thought it, too—if only for a moment—about the people you say you love?
I first noticed Roger—I mean really noticed him—one day not long after Wyatt died. He was in his back yard, kicking a soccer ball against the fence that separates our houses. Later that evening, I ran into him at the Piggly Wiggly. He was in the frozen foods aisle, stocking up on microwave dinners, and at first he didn’t recognize me. I’d teased my hair into a bee-hive and lacquered it with hair spray. I was wearing an orange Day-Glo dress and white go-go boots. Very Mod, very Carnaby Street. Hoop earrings and frosted lipstick, peace symbols painted on my cheekbones.
“I saw you kicking the soccer ball this afternoon,” I said.
“Excuse me?” He looked frightened. “Do I know you?”
“Toni,” I said. “From next door.”
“Oh, Toni.” He smiled. “Look at you.”
“I’m working on retrieving joy,” I told him.
“Smashing,” he said.
He picked up a three-pack of Juicy Juice from my cart—you know, the boxes with the plastic drinking straws glued to the back—and told me that he was the one who designed the straws. I’d never known how he made his living. “See that flexible elbow?” He tapped his finger on a straw. “I’m the one who came up with that. The old flex-bend. Gives you a variety of convenient drinking angles. Without that, what do you have? A plastic tube. Sure you could get by, but the old flex-bend. Now that’s really something.”
I could tell that he didn’t quite know how to react to me, a widow cruising the Piggly Wiggly, flashing too much leg, wearing a dress that screamed, Look at me. He was dressed quite modestly in khaki slacks, a pale blue oxford shirt, and a navy blazer. The blazer was double-breasted with gold buttons, but the one that fastened the right side of the blazer to the left was undone, and the two sides were only loosely held together by the interior button, the plain black one sewn discreetly to the lining. I’d seen a certain television talk show host wear his jackets that way, but thinking of Roger spending his life designing drinking straws, the old flex-bend the only curl in his otherwise straight life, I doubted that he was trying to emulate the nonchalant, devil-may-care fashion.
Without thinking, I reached out (Candace would probably tell me I was trying to complete everything that had been left undone between Wyatt and me) and I buttoned the blazer properly.
“Old habits,” I said, embarrassed that I had been so forward.
Why didn’t I ask him then what Wyatt had told him that last day of his life? I’ve already made that plain. Are you listening? I was afraid of what I might hear.
“So you saw me, did you? With the soccer ball. You were watching?”
Men are precious. They have no idea how easily we can take them—just like that. “I was watching,” I said, and then I walked away from him, not knowing what to feel—shame or guilt or joy—because I had just flirted with a man I barely knew.
At my shop, I design and sew all the rental costumes. You want an Elizabethan doublet? I can do that. A Baroque manteau? No sweat. Or if you like things goofy—if you’re one of those—I can fill the bill. A Fat Elvis costume; a flasher’s overcoat with built-in, spring-loaded genitalia; a picnic hat covered with plastic ants, ketchup bottles, hot dog buns. Whatever floats your boat. Just name it.
Just before Halloween, Roger and Nadine come into the shop to rent costumes. Roger’s idea is to go really bizarre—no witches or devils or mummies or ghosts.
“Something juicy,” he says, and then we all laugh because he’s drinking a box of juice, sipping from one of his straws. “Juicy,” he says again. Then he winks at me. “Toni, what do you think?”
“I’m seeing Tarzan and Jane,” I say. I know what Halloween can do to people—unleash them. I see it year after year. “Or if you want something even wilder, Harley Dude and Biker Babe. Or maybe Jack the Ripper and a Victorian prostitute.”
“What about this?” Roger is standing beside what I called the Naughty Rack, the one that holds the really risqué costumes: belly dancers, French maids, Playboy bunnies. He takes a dominatrix costume off the rack: black leather bustier, thigh-high boots, fishnet stockings, riding quirt. “Nadine,” he says in a quiet voice.
“That?” She puts her hand to her mouth. “Oh, I couldn’t wear that.”
“No?” says Roger, and I can hear the disappointment in his voice.
“Why not?” I say to Nadine. “It’s Halloween, and you’ve certainly got the figure for this get-up.”
All right. I’m lying. Like me, Nadine left her best body a few years back. But this isn’t about the truth. This is about fantasy and desire the way Halloween always is.
“Tell her, Roger,” I say, and suddenly, as so often happens when I know I’ve got a customer hooked, I feel in control.
Roger touches the riding quirt with the hand that holds the juice box. “Is this real
rawhide?” he says.
Nadine grabs his arm, tightens her hand around his biceps hard enough to make him grimace. For a moment, the two of them stare at each other, and it’s like I’m not there with them. “Careful,” she finally says. “You wouldn’t want to spill your juice.”
So the dominatrix outfit it is, and for Roger, a dog costume, complete with collar and leash.
“You’ll be a hit,” I tell them. “A real scream.”
“Oh, it’s just for fun,” Nadine says.
“A party at work,” says Roger.
I imagine all those juice straw hotshots letting loose at Halloween. How wild can they get? Maybe someone will come as Superman, or a couple will be Raggedy Ann and Andy. I imagine Bo Peep, Peter Pan, Robin Hood.
“You know I have fruit costumes,” I say. “Grapes, apples, strawberries. Maybe they’d be a better fit for your party.”
Let the record show that I’ve tried to save Roger and Nadine. I’ve given them this one chance to back out, to make a safe choice, to return to the lives that suit them.
He winks at her. “No,” he says to me. “No fruit. We have exactly what we need.”
By the time I leave the store, the temperature has started to drop. The weather report on the radio calls for a hard freeze even though it’s too early here for frigid air. The wind is out of the north, and it’s rocking traffic lights. The fences around open pastureland are cluttered with plastic bags.
When I turn into my driveway, my headlights sweep over Roger who’s crouched down in the shrubs in front of his house, trying to fit a Styrofoam cover over a faucet. I get out of my car, and when he sees me, he holds up the cover and says, “I always have trouble with these.” I walk over to where he is. “It’s the design of the faucet,” he tells me. “See how it sticks straight out? It’s all wrong.”
“The cover’s no piece of cake,” I say.
In North Texas, people call these covers, “Dolly Partons” because of their shape. Whenever it looks as if the temperature is going to drop below freezing, the radio disc jockeys start spreading the word about how important it is to insulate outside faucets. “Time to get your Dolly Partons on,” the D.J.’s say. The cover consists of a hollow mound of Styrofoam with a long hook through its middle. The idea is to catch this hook over the faucet head and then tighten down a thumbscrew until the cover seals tightly against the house, and the faucet is warm and cozy inside the shell. “Look at it,” I say to Roger. “It’s like some medieval instrument of torture.”
“Yes,” he says. He looks at me the way he looked at Nadine that day in the shop, earnestly and with longing. “It’s like that. Exactly.”
“Here. Let me see if I can have any luck.” I slip the hook over the faucet head and hold the cover tight against the house. “Now you tighten down the thumbscrew,” I tell him. We huddle together, the wind whipping our faces and hands.
“You widows,” he says in a soft voice. “You know, don’t you?” I feel something chill inside me as if he’s reached through skin and muscle and bone and touched an icy finger to my heart. “Pain,” he says, and all I can do is nod.
Later that evening, I’m straightening up the kitchen counters when I spy the grocery receipt with Wyatt’s list on the back lying beside the microwave. At 14:21 that afternoon—August 27—he stopped at the Piggly-Wiggly and bought two red delicious apples, a six-pack of Lone Star Beer, and a tube of Bausch and Lomb eye ointment from the pharmacy. It’s the ointment that breaks my heart because right away I’m remembering how each night I squeezed it into his eyes—those chronically dry eyes—and how he looked so helpless. He could never get the hang of putting in the ointment himself, and I can’t remember all the nights I did it for him without believing that eventually we might have moved on beyond the differences between us. We might have gone on into old age, companions and friends.
Looking at that list, I’m suddenly greedy. I want to call Roger and ask him what it was that Wyatt told him on the afternoon of the day he would die.
I’m about to pick up the phone when I hear sirens. The glow of an ambulance’s lights splashes into my house. I hear muffled voices over a two-way radio, the clackety-clack of a gurney’s wheels over concrete. When I step outside, the paramedics are rolling the gurney up Roger’s driveway. Through his open front door, I can see Nadine standing at the foot of the staircase, tightening the satin sash of her robe. The paramedics take the gurney up the stairs and she follows.
When the paramedics bring Roger out to the ambulance, an oxygen mask covers his nose and mouth. I’ve edged over onto his driveway, and as the gurney passes, I see a red crease across his throat where something has bitten into the skin.
Nadine is following the gurney. I smell an acrid scent on her—perhaps incense, perhaps smoke from a candle. She’s wearing a pair of flat-soled mules. When she climbs into the back of the ambulance, her robe parts just a bit, and I can see the loose strap of a garter dangling along her thigh. Before the ambulance doors close, she looks at me, and her stare is hard and flat.
Later, she calls me from the hospital to say that Roger will be all right. “An asthma attack,” she says. “That’s what it was. Asthma.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything. Really, Nadine. I don’t want to know.”
But I do. After the ambulance sped away, I went to Roger’s house to close the front door, left open in all the excitement. I had to stop myself from going inside, climbing those stairs, slipping into the bedroom to see what I could see. I try not to think about what goes on there, but of course I can’t help myself. Can you?
The next day, I’m at the sewing machine behind the front counter at the shop, mending a cupid costume with torn wings. I hear the front door open, but because I have a curtain at the end of the counter, I can’t see who’s just walked in. It’s a bleak day, the sky all overcast and a drizzle falling.
Then there he is, Roger. He taps his car key on the counter. “Toni,” he says, “you’re just the person I want to see.” He tells me that he’d like me to paint a mural on his bedroom wall. “Just to liven things up a bit.”
“A mural?” His request takes me by surprise. “For you? In your bedroom?”
“I like what you did on the side of your house. Nadine and I are going away on a little weekend trip. We’ll give you a key, and you can work while we’re gone.”
“What kind of mural?”
“We’ll leave it up to you. You’re a smart cookie. Do something that’s us.”
When the weekend comes, and I’m alone in Roger’s house, I go into his bedroom. I open my paints, and I start with fruit: vines of swollen grapes, trees laden with oranges and lemons, bushel baskets heaped high with red and yellow apples. And for a while, I’m glad. I’m true to my intent: to leave something bright and hopeful—a landscape anyone would be glad to wake to each morning—on Roger’s bedroom wall.
But then, out of the corner of my eye, I notice the pointed toe of a woman’s shoe peeking out from under the bed. I can’t help myself from pulling it out for a closer look. It’s a pump with a stiletto heel. The leather is scuffed, the polish dull. I let the shoe’s high arch balance on my palm, and something about the way it teeters there, makes me imagine what Nadine must feel each time she wears such shoes—precarious. At any moment she might topple over. I rise up on the balls of my feet and feel the strain in my calves, the ache in my toes.
Then I let myself be what I think—from my best sense anyway—I truly am: a woman who needs the exotic.
I paint giant plastic drinking straws rising up like antennae from the grapes and apples and oranges and lemons. Juice drips from their lips, draining down into a river of juice, out of which rises Dolly Parton—my best imitation of her at least. She wears a leather bustier, but her breasts are shielded by faucet covers, the screws sticking out, the thumbnuts tightened down. In her hand, as a whip, I paint another giant drinking straw, the old flex-bend giving it the angle it needs to mean business. A series of floating clouds, each slightly larger than the one above it, comes out of Dolly’s nest of hair. Across the top cloud, the largest one, I paint a slogan I recall from an old orange company: “Eat me and stay young.”
Roger and Nadine come home the next evening, and soon my telephone rings. It’s Roger. “I’ve been a bad girl, haven’t I?” I say, and it startles me to hear the flirtatious tone in my voice.
“Bad?” he says. “Let’s say imaginative. Very imaginative.”
“You said, ‘do something,’” I say.
“Well, it’s something.”
“I can change it if you’d like.”
“Change it?” he says with a little laugh. “Toni, I told you, it’s very imaginative. It’s so you, so us.”
Something in the way he says this makes me understand that he thinks he can say anything he wants. I’m part of his secret life now; he has rights to me.
I remember the list Wyatt made on the back of his grocery receipt: Tell Roger. “You talked to Wyatt, didn’t you?” I say. “On that last day, the day he died. He came to you.”
“So he told you that?”
“Yes, he told me.” I can’t bring myself to admit that there was something he told Roger that he couldn’t tell me.
“Good. That’s good, Toni. I’m glad you knew.”
Wyatt said there was always a moment during a storm chase when he wondered what the hell he was doing out there so close to a tornado, a moment when he wanted to run for cover, but the storm, its fierce beauty, always mesmerized him. It was only later, when the skies were clear and he drove through towns where houses had come apart and trees had twisted out of the ground, and he saw people moving through the debris, sobbing, trembling like wet dogs, that he felt guilty for being there, guilty for the thrill he got each time a tornado dropped. “But lucky, too,” he said. “Damned lucky.”
The night he died, he said to me, just before he left the house, “I think you want out. Is that right, Toni? Do you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I want out.”
Okay, that’s the truth. That’s what I told him. And I won’t take it back. Not even if I could.
Understand, then, if I stand too close to you some afternoon in the Piggly Wiggly—if you catch me staring at you with longing. Please know I’m only hoping to remember what it was like when I, too, could strike up a perfectly trivial conversation with a stranger, engage in harmless chitchat with the checkout girl. Forgive me if I try on your ordinary lives, if for a moment I let myself remember that I used to be one of you. Don’t look away from me. I said, don’t. I like to know someone’s watching. So go on. Look at me. All of me. All of you.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story began, as my fiction often does, from people and things around me. I knew a woman who owned a costume shop, who created and sewed those costumes, whose home and gardens were full of interesting objects. She was one of the most creative people I’ve ever known. She wasn’t a widow, and I’m really not sure how that element came into my story outside of the fact that I’m often interested in loss and what we leave behind us. From that premise, I began, much as my character Toni does, to gather what was at hand and to see what I might make from it all. I had a friend who was a storm chaser. One of my neighbors worked for a company who made flexible straws for juice boxes. I used the facts to create others and wove everything into a narrative about grief and the desire for an ordinary life. Even the mural that Toni paints at the end of the story comes from a gathering of the details of the story, that and my memory of a thrift store shirt I once had with oranges on it and the slogan, “Eat me and stay young.” When I wrote this story, I was interested, as I always am, in what came to me that wouldn’t let go, and what I could make it all mean.
ABOUT LEE MARTIN
Lee Martin has published three memoirs, most recently, Such a Life. He is also the author of four novels, including Break the Skin and The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He teaches in the MFA program at The Ohio State University and posts regularly about the craft of writing on his blog, The Least You Need to Know, accessible at www.leemartin.author.com