Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris
“Drew's still there,” he said this morning from his car.
“So? Besides, he's in the shower.”
“I can't. I'm running late.”
“Well, why in the office, then? Why there?” He usually couldn't wait to get away from the paper. And never stayed until five.
“I have a meeting right after.” Had he sighed?
“So, when you come home, then.”
“We need to talk.”
“Why? What is it, Ken? Tell me. Tell me now.” In the silence she could feel it. The old fear. That night, that man, so long ago. So, he knew, he finally knew.
“I'm just not myself.”
“You're depressed.” Please let that be it. Please, she implored someone. God.
“Yeah. I guess so. Or something like that.”
“Well, that happens, honey. But the trouble is it just never happens to you, so now that it has you don't know how to cope. Right?”
“I don't know,” he said softly.
She parks next to his car. Funny, she thinks, hardly any snow on it, but the usually gleaming black sports car is mud-spattered and skirted in road salt. Clothes are piled on the front seat, pale blue cotton sweater, yellow blazer, polo shirts. Summer clothes. Probably cleaned out his locker at the club, to bring them to the cleaners. Ken cares how he looks. Always has. Like his mother. A beautiful woman, Addie, with jet black hair and bright eyes. Their daughter, Chloe, has her grandmother's dark silken hair and the same gritty laughter that sent men tripping over curbs and bumping into doorways, trying to see the source of that marvelous voice.
Chloe, she thinks, unlocking the back door that leads to the editorial offices. She's in trouble again. That's why Ken's been so preoccupied and troubled. The worst came last year: Chloe and herboyfriend Max Lafferty holding hands in the family room while Max informed them that he and Chloe were getting married. Everything had been figured out, he said, brandishing his spiral notebook of lists. He would finish high school, of course, and then go on to college for his journalism degree. Chloe would work and he would, too, summers and vacations, and the baby would be in day care. They hadn't told his parents yet, but he knew they'd do their best to help. (Mr. Lafferty was a mailman with twin daughters in college.) Plus, Max added, listing the baby as a dependent would look even better on the financial aid applications. Ken was stunned into rare silence.
“What about Chloe?” Nora asked the gangly seventeen-year-old boy Chloe had been dating for less than three months. He didn't even have his license yet. The first time Nora met him he had been on his skateboard.
“We figure she'll go when I'm done,” Max answered, a flush of confidence reddening his freckles.
“It'll be my turn.” Chloe smiled up at him.
“Well, that's not the way we figure it, Max,” Ken said.
“With all due respect, sir—,” the gangly boy began.
“No due respect, just get the hell out!” Ken growled.
“Dad!” Chloe cried.
“Mr. Hammond, I don't—”
“She's sixteen, and how the hell old are you?”
“Right. So leave, Max. Just leave. I'm taking care of this. Not you.”
And so he had. Nora had been the one wanting to wait, so they could handle it sensitively, give Chloe time to talk it through, sort out her feelings, let her get her head on straight so the right decision could be made and she could fully understand the repercussions of her actions. For Ken there was only one decision, and it had already been made. They took her to the clinic and stayed home with her for the two days after, then sped her to the emergency room in the middle of the
night when the bleeding wouldn't stop. In the end, as always, it was her father she clung to, her father who always understood her, far more than her mother.
Some daughters have to get far apart from their mothers before they can ever get close, Nora's mother said right before she died. Nora had been trying to apologize not just for her own difficult teenage years but, without actually saying it, her eight-day disappearance with Eddie Hawkins. Eight days of hell, her mother had called it, the night she picked her up at the bus terminal. Eight days Nora would give anything to take back. Especially now. Whenever she's afraid of something happening to Ken or her children, the floodgates go up, with all the old dread and guilt seeping back in.
There was the night last summer when Ken was called down to the police station. Chloe had been brought in along with a lot of her friends from a keg party that had been raided. She was drunk and vomiting, the chief said. “She needs a lawyer,” Nora said, starting to dial Stephen's number, but Ken said he'd handle it. The only reason she was vomiting, Ken informed the chief, was because she'd been sick for days with the flu. Even though she reeked of booze and could barely talk, the chief let him take her home. The other parents were called and nothing was ever in the paper. Days later Nora was still angry, shaken. Chloe's losing control like that hit too close to home. But for Ken it was just one of those hot shit things all kids do sooner or later. He thought it was wild the way boys flocked around his Chloe. Her poor grades and his had always been a joke between them. Although lately, with college looming, he's been after her to study more. Last September he promised Chloe her own gold card if she made honor roll.
“Absolutely not!” Nora protested. That would be irresponsible of him. Last month he'd found Chloe smoking a joint in her room. Stubbing it out, he told her there was a time and place for everything. “And this isn't it,” he said. “Not on a school night. Not up in your room all by yourself.”
Nora sailed into him. “So it's okay? But just don't do it alone, that's what you're saying.”
“That's not what I said.” His eyes dulled with a familiar weariness.
“Yes it is. In other words, it's okay as a social act, just watch out for the whole bad habit thing.”
For the rest of that night Ken was so quiet she accused
of sulking, though she's always been the brooder, the grudge holder, the darker spirit. “You're mad at me,” she said when she looked up to find him staring at her.
“Actually,” he sighed, resting his head back on the chair, “I was just envying you.”
“For marrying you, you mean,” she laughed. Their oldest joke, but that time he didn't even smile.
“It's your good sense, your values. You always get right straight at things, you know what I mean?” he said with a sigh that even now, weeks later, bothers her.
She opens Ken's office door. The only light comes from the black-shaded lamp on the credenza. Day and night, he usually has every light burning in here. He sits with his hand on his chin. Just thinking, he says, when she asks if he has a headache.
“What's wrong, Ken?” And with his long gaze, she is acutely aware of the tangle of potted vines hanging in the dark window and, beyond the glass, the jagged row of icicles dripping onto the granite sill. “My God, what is it?” She sinks into the chair and unbuttons her coat. His hair is mussed and he's unshaven. “You're scaring me, Ken!” Chloe: she knows by his utter devastation.
“This is so hard.” He has to clear his throat.
Though she won't say it now, her mind is made up. Chloe will have to find her own way out of whatever mess she's gotten herself into. This time she'll make her own appointment. Chloe needs to see how this is tearing her father apart. Oh, Kenny! she thinks, with her hand over his, dear carefree Kenny, this is what you get for spoiling our little girl rotten.
“This is so hard,” he repeats, wincing. “I've got to tell you this. I've got to. And I don't know how. Jesus, this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But then I think you know. I think you know some of it. A little. You must.” His hand slips free. “I tried to stop it. I never wanted
to hurt you. More than anything else it was that, not wanting to hurt you and Chloe and Drew.” His voice cracks. “That's what tears me apart. That's the worst of it—hurting anyone, especially you. Especially you.” He blows his nose. “The thing is, it started almost as a joke, really. Innocent, like, ‘How come you never invite me to lunch? It's always Bob.’ And we were such old friends, it seemed … it just seemed funny, you know, so … I did. I did. I met her and it just—” He shakes his head, closes his eyes. “Happened,” he whispers.
“What are you talking about?” she says, but he's right, isn't he? His agitation these last few weeks, his remoteness. She knows. Of course she knows. Now that she knows she is sure she has known. Known what? That for the last few weeks everything's been a lie? It makes no sense. Nothing does.
“Robin. Robin and me.” His hoarseness grates in her ears, sets her teeth dryly on edge. Robin and Bob, their dear old friends, his childhood playmates, and Robin, his teenage steady. His lover.
“You fucked her?” She is as startled as he is by her smooth utterance of a word she hasn't used in over twenty years. He nods, mouth trembling. “How many times?” she asks, and he winces.
“I don't know.” He won't look at her.
“Why don't you know?”
“I just don't. Please, Nora, that's not—”
“Not what? Not important? Well, to me it is! What was it, at lunch? Or … or after that? Last week, when you missed the staff meeting, was that it? Is that where you were?”
He stares with stricken, unblinking eyes. “Nora, I'm not talking about a few … a few times,” he says, gasping out
“I'm talking about a relationship we … I had.”
“For four years.”
All she thinks about, even now, a week later, this pressure building in her head. For four years her husband has been spending every spare moment with Robin Gendron. Where? He doesn't
want to, but she insists he tell her. After years of lies, she is entitled to the truth. He owes her that much, at least. But can't she understand that all talking about it does is to keep hurting her, and he doesn't want to do that anymore?
“I have to know so I can get things straight. So I can put things in perspective.”
“What? What do you have to know?”
“Everything!” she insists. Everything.
Chloe and Drew leave for school. The minute the door closes she races into the kitchen. She doesn't trust herself near him when the children are home. Under her bathrobe are yesterday's clothes. She fell asleep on the couch and when she woke up at three in the morning, thoughts racing, she didn't dare go up to bed because all she wants to do is hit him. And hurt him, and hit him. Ken hunches over his granola and thinly sliced bananas. For days all she's been able to keep down are saltines and weak tea. He stops eating and puts his hand over hers. “I've told you the truth, Nora. I have.”
“You haven't told me where.”
He closes his eyes. “Mostly there, at her house.”
Shocked, she pulls away. “But what about Drew?” He and Clay were best friends. Drew would be over there all the time. Her mouth falls open, remembering a day last summer. Drew came home with his cheek bruised. Basketball in the face, he said, but after that he stopped hanging out with Clay, stopped going to the Gendrons'. “He knew, didn't he?”
“Of course not,” Ken insists. “My God, Nora, give me some credit at least.”
the madwoman raves inside her head. Credit for what? For being duplicitous enough? Sneaky enough? Or for knowing how an affair—excuse me! a
—should be conducted? And what two people would better know than sweet, generous Robin and dear, fun-loving Ken.
“So where, then? Where did you usually fuck her?” She likes the way the word rolls off her tongue, the power of its vileness and poison. His misery hearing it.
“Nora, please.” I'm trying to eat, is what he wants to say as he picks up his spoon. If only he would so she can dump the bowl over his head or throw it through the bay window, an explosion of plants and glass onto the stone patio. Life's wreckage made visible, rubble underfoot, shards for all to see. Instead of this bloodless dying.
“In her bed? In the basement? The car?” Yes, she sees. All those places. Everywhere and all the time. The thrill of it. Teenagers again. “What did you say when the children were there?”
“I told you, they weren't.”
“What about Lyra? What is she now, four?”
“She must've been there. Of course she was.” She had to have been, throughout. “What does she call you? Ken? Kenny? Uncle Ken?” She remembers something. The club. The Fourth of July cookout? No, Labor Day. The little girl asleep in Ken's arms. So sweet of him, Nora thought, watching his easy tenderness cradling the child. Bob was drunk so Ken drove him home, once again. Ken called to say he'd be late getting home, Bob needed some settling down. She throws back her head and laughs. Yes, all so perfectly orchestrated. “What would you do after you put him in bed, climb in on top of … his wife?” She can't bear saying her name anymore.
She, Her, the Bitch.
He knows who she means. And so does she, knows, by the long, dismal sigh that it happened like that, Bob passed out in the next room, down the hall, downstairs, but under the same roof, the three of them, Bob, Robin, and Ken, entwined since childhood, playmates from first grade on. Did he ever wake up? He must have. To go to the bathroom, to vomit, the two of them tensing closer as he staggers down a dark hallway, she pictures it, their naked clutching, her breath on his hairless chest, every sick detail. There must have been some close calls. There were, weren't there? Weren't there? What was it like to be inside her, having to worry the whole time that Bob might stumble in on his old friend fucking his wife, her long blonde hair hanging down in Ken's face, because that's how she keeps picturing it. Can't stop seeing Robin lean over him in broad daylight, all the lights in the room on so he can admire every naked inch of her tanned body, perfectly toned and
muscled from the years of tennis and running, Pilates, weights. Her six-pack abdomen, he actually said that, teasing her, at the club last summer.
“Well, would you? Did you? You must have.”
“Don't. Please, Nora.”
“Was it more exciting that way?”
“I don't want to do this anymore,” he says, rubbing his eyes.