Fiction · 08/10/2011

Support System

Your husband walks into the kitchen carrying two knives, the kind with long blades that can slash through raw meat and thick vegetables as if they were Jello. You have no idea what he’s up to. And you don’t ask. He is tall and muscular, a man who chews his food deliberately and swallows decisively. You drink your second cup of coffee and pretend to be absorbed in the morning newspaper, but it’s hard to concentrate on wedding announcements while someone is polishing a blade.

You thought it was going to be a day like recent others, the two of you sharing space now that he’s unemployed. There are things that need to be done around the house, things he’s promised to do. None require a knife. You look hard at his turned back for some detail you might have missed.

You try to remember how the morning started. You didn’t make love. And if you had, it wouldn’t have inspired violence. On the other hand, he’s only ventured outside to stake the tomatoes. Neither of you has jogged in the month since he lost his job, long enough to make both of you prickly.

He was relieved to get laid off, he said. Better than being apprehensive each time the company downsized. We have savings, you have your job as a transcriptionist, so why are you worried, he wanted to know. Worried indeed. You began a checklist of what you needed to cancel: a trip to the Outer Banks, the new living room sofa. You showed him how to search for jobs online.

He trails a finger along the edge of one of the blades to test its smoothness. When he finishes, he switches the radio station from jazz to oldies. The music brings back the first time you danced together. You think of his face against yours, the sliver of stubble brushing your cheek, the smell of cigarettes on his clothes. “Lucille,” he whispered so soft you thought you imagined it, then again and again with an urgency that made you press into him so he knew your longing. He said your name when you walked through the woods. He said it when he called you from his office. You wanted to hear him say it this morning. You awoke and saw him staring at the ceiling, his eyes not watching the birdfeeder at the bedroom window, but far away, so distant when you moved against him he continued to be still, as if he were dead. You got up and beat eggs for breakfast and hummed “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

There’s a ballad on the radio. He strides down the hall to the bathroom, still carrying the knives, the tread of his feet heavy as thunder.

Again he’s wearing that old tee shirt with the frayed neck and traces of several dinners. At least his jeans, worn as they are, aren’t exposing his underwear, or worse. At least not yet. Nothing like the Dockers and shirts he wore to the ad agency. And his hair, thick and brown with streaks of silver. He used to wash it every day.

You know you should sit at your computer and work. You have a noon deadline. Instead you creep down the hall to listen at the bathroom door for troublesome sounds. If he’s going to damage himself, you must be ready to call 911. If it’s you he wants to hurt, you must be prepared to protect yourself. The music changes to a fast tune. The bitter smell of old coffee hangs in the air. Outside your dog barks. In the bathroom, silence.

In eighteen years he has raised his voice but never his hand to you. He has shot game but never pointed a gun at you. He has sprinted ahead when you ran in the park at night, but always returned to look for you. He never lost a job before.

You researched the grieving process of the suddenly unemployed. You expected angry conversation. You thought he would criticize the plans you’ve made, the people you see, or the way you’ve arranged the soup cans in the pantry. Instead he’s become a room that’s locked, and you’ve learned to hold your breath in anticipation.

He opens the bathroom door, and like startled cats you both jump. He asks you to accompany him outside to hold the ladder while he severs the ivy choking the gutters. Ivy? Gutters? You try to keep your face neutral. It’s ten o’clock and you have work to do. You don’t ask him why he’s doing this now. You don’t tell him it’s foolish to mount a ladder carrying two knives with the wind gusting hard enough to fell pears from the tree. You don’t say for chrissakes I have a deadline to meet. You grip the rickety wooden ladder like a talisman while he climbs.

The wind pelts your face with sand. You turn your head to protect your eyes and notice the garden gate is ajar. Your black lab is in the street. You rush after the dog and collar him before he can be struck by a passing delivery van. Strands of red hair blow across your face. Your husband is calling, no, screaming. You run back. The ladder has started to tilt and he grasps the roof with both hands. The knives are on the ground where you had stood. You steady the ladder while he climbs down. You’re proud of your actions.

When he steps off the last rung, he is shaking. His eyes bulge, his face is scarlet, his voice rich with anger. You don’t respond. You don’t make excuses. You let the sand sting your skin. His hands grip your shoulders. “Geez, Lucille. What the hell were you doing? You could have killed me.” You touch the ladder and exhale.

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Rayne Debski’s stories have appeared online in flashquake, Rose & Thorn, and The Greensilk Journal, and in print journals and anthologies. She is the editor of a short fiction anthology to be published by Main Street Rag Press in 2012. After years of hanging her hat in New Jersey, Florida, and Virginia, she now lives and writes in central Pennsylvania.