by David LaBounty
There is coffee in the bottom of the pot just starting to burn and that is left untouched because neither Bill nor Amy want to be the one to have to make the next pot. Bill thinks about getting up from the table and drinking that last bit of coffee because he feels himself start to get drowsy but he really has no reason to keep himself awake. He is sitting at the kitchen table in boxer shorts and a t-shirt even though it is eleven o’clock on a Monday morning but that is the beauty of a severance package he tells himself, it gives him the time to exist without consequence, it gives him time to sit around the house without shaving, without showering and he knows without looking in the mirror that his glasses are showing specks of dandruff and dust; knows that his thinning and brownish hair needs to be trimmed and is sticking out in jagged and oily spikes.
But the money is starting to run out. A couple of grand left to last him for the rest of his life and he is only forty and the kids are still small. He has a long way to go before he can hang it up and retire and that couple of grand will easily be eaten up with the next mortgage payment, with the next couple of car payments and something has to happen soon.
Something like another job or a swift and merciful death and he thinks about death every now and again, he wouldn’t want to leave his kids behind but he remembers his own childhood, his parents’ divorce and how he managed to overcome it.
Kids always adjust, he says to himself. Often.
He is staring blankly at a newspaper spread out across the kitchen table, various sections tossed here and there in no particular order.
Both the Sunday and the Monday Detroit Free Press classified sections offer no solutions. There are no jobs anywhere and he thinks of the young man he used to be, finishing college already engaged to Amy, already hired by General Motors who had recruited him earlier that year. He remembers walking the stage with his Bachelors degree in engineering clenched in his hand and that was followed by an M.B.A completed at night in the mid-nineties when his potential was unlimited. He thought he had his ticket punched; a ticket to a happy and well-adjusted family along with eternal comfort and wealth and an easy retirement to a life of golf in the Carolinas or maybe Nevada and he did rise through the General Motors ranks, from entry level engineer to the boredom and comfort of middle management and project supervision.
But there will probably be no golf, not at this rate he tells himself daily and he thinks about what will happen when the house will indeed go into foreclosure even though some politicians have promised otherwise. Where will they go? An apartment? Squeezing their 3000 square feet of belongings into a two bedroom apartment in some decaying suburb or maybe with a generous relative and there have already been some lukewarm offers but Bill has declined them, telling aunts and uncles and brothers and in-laws that they’ll be fine. He tells everyone that there are interviews and things starting to happen but there have been no interviews and nothing has happened in the six months since his job was eliminated, save surfing the internet and scanning the newspapers for want ads and watching TV from the afternoon until late at night, watching the same cable news programs with the continuous coverage of companies laying people off and banks on the verge of failure along with talk of celebrities and gossip.
Forty is supposed to be a good age, he says to Amy who is standing at the sliding patio door that leads to a two-tiered deck which leads to their half-acre patch of suburban earth in a newly developed subdivision full of houses large and gabled and brick that stand in monolithic uniformity along the ground that rises and falls and it as all gentle and beautiful and shiny and new. She is looking at it all, the homes of their neighbors and there is no sign of life anywhere as it is cold outside and the children are in school and the men and some of the women are at work and there is a starkness in their neighborhood as the winter has come and the Michigan sky is low and swirled charcoal and silver. The young trees that are planted in front of each house are bare and several inches of fresh snow covers everything save the asphalt road that winds past everything like a black snake through a white and silent and windswept landscape.
You know, Amy says, I could handle not living here anymore, the place may be magical but there is no magic.
What do you mean? Bill asks with surprise because it was the urging of Amy that made them buy this house a year and a half ago, even when there were signs of trouble at work and they really couldn’t afford it.
Well, I mean,,, we’re going to have to leave unless something happens soon and the only way I see our way out of this is if you die or win the lotto and this she says with just a little bit of humor in her voice, as if to say she doesn’t want him to die but she thinks things would be easier with him out of the way. There would be a life insurance settlement, something like a hundred thousand dollars, maybe more.
But it’s not just the money.
She has doubted their marriage and existence for so long and the new neighborhood proved it as she learned about the lives of all the neighbors. There was a sort of homogenous quality about all of them, their upper middle class existence and shuffling children and careers and weekends around. She can look out the window and peel back the walls of all the houses like that Japanese art of folded paper. You fold and unfold and the people and their lives are all the same, blank and white. Just like the snow covered world that currently exists in front of her eyes and she has always felt a little bit out of place, like a misfit, like someone a little too dirty to live in some setting so clean.
She wonders and has been wondering about life without Bill. There would be a freedom there. It would just be her and the kids and no one to answer to. She’s thought about divorce but she doesn’t want to kick a man when he’s down. Divorce also takes money and neither one of them have any money, not lawyer kind of money, not starting a new life kind of money.
She wonders about other ways to get rid of Bill and this she does with a measure of excitement mixed with but not tainted by guilt. She constantly plays back a memory from college. How she kissed a girl not once but twice, when they were drunk and found themselves naked in the same bathroom in their sorority house in Mt. Pleasant. It was one of her sorority sisters and they lost touch and each day Amy wonders what the girl would look like now. Probably close to the same, with maybe just a hint of gray in her long and jet black hair that rolled across her bare and slender shoulders and porcelain skin.
Amy knows she looks the same. Pretty much. She still has her looks except she is looser – looser in the chest, in the stomach, in the face. And in the reflection of the patio door she can see that Bill has changed too much, so different from college, his face wider and flatter as if he has become a caricature of himself, his stomach bigger and his eyes starting to recede into their sockets as if he’s readying himself for decay. For death.
Yes, she says, I could live a lot of other places and I would be just as happy. Happier Bill nods in response and he can hear a resignation in her voice, as if she finally has given up on him and he wishes he was gone, but this he doesn’t say. Not out loud.
Amy thinks about life as a widow and she worries about the happiness of the children as Bill has been a decent enough father and the kids love him and they have been concerned with his being home all day and every day and they can tell the joblessness is starting to change him, making him a man without an identity, just another animal breathing and surviving like the family dog that exists to eat, to sleep on a warm spot on the floor.
But the kids, she tells herself, will adapt, eventually. Their lives will go on and they may even improve because their mother will be happier, a free woman, free to touch and kiss other people even of the same sex and Amy wonders how she would go about doing it, finding someone willing to be intimate with someone like her, just another anonymous and bland suburban housewife in her late thirties with a collection of jewelry in a box on her dresser and lingerie too tight and now dead.
She continues to stare out the patio door and she shivers at the sight of all this whiteness in front of her even though the fireplace in the kitchen is roaring. She has her arms crossed across her chest and her sweater is tied shut as if she is doubly wrapped by limbs and clothing and she sees her reflection just every so vaguely in the glass of the patio door. And through the vagueness she can see the wrinkles around her eyes and the curves of her body starting to soften and fall and beyond the vagueness she studies the other houses of the subdivision, about forty houses in all wrapped around a couple of ponds and stands of maples and poplars thinned and lonely and bare.
Yeah, Bill agrees, it would probably be easier and he stands up, stretches like a cat and decides to shower.
I’m going to pound the pavement today, he says, if there’s enough gas in your car. Mine’s about empty and you get better gas mileage, you know, not having four wheel drive and all.
Amy says that’s not a problem and tells him that he should shower and shave and maybe trim his eyebrows a little, and maybe tug a nose hair or two, before he goes out.
Yeah, he says, and he walks upstairs and showers, grooms himself and splashes on some aftershave and he feels almost new as he stares in the mirror and puts on a shirt and tie and a suit with the same ease he exercised for so many years.
He finds himself ready for a new life as he comes downstairs and Amy surprises him with a fresh cup of coffee poured in a travel mug.
It’s starting to snow out there, she says with a nod towards the same patio door that is still fogged with her thoughtful breath. And it is indeed snowing. The mid-day sky is dark and snow is falling so fast and thick that the houses in the subdivision are no longer visible.
I think I may drive down to Dearborn. Sniff around Ford. I still have a couple of friends there, from college. You remember Steve-O and Larry? I may go and find them at their desk and Ford does seem to have its shit just a little bit more together.
He kisses Amy automatically on the cheek like he did happily every morning for so many years. Years when his life was happy and bland and clean like the falling snow or a fresh sheet of paper. When his life was like his neighbors’ life and he felt like a part of something big and permanent, part of a life, of a lifestyle.
He opens the door of Amy’s minivan, a Buick Terraza he got for Amy so she could haul around the dog and the kids. He starts to get in but then stops. He walks over to his tool box that is red and gleaming. He forages it for certain things. For a wrench, a pair of pliers. For a utility knife, the kind of knife with a retractable blade that he uses to open packages on Christmas mornings.
He takes the handful of tools and lies underneath the Buick, not caring that his suit is touching the garage floor stained with road grime and tire tracks. He loosens every brake line at each of the four wheels. The van is still fairly new and everything loosens fairly easily, just enough to let a little brake fluid drip.
But Bill doubts a drip will be enough, so to be sure he takes the knife and saws through each rubber line with a little bit of braided metal. Line strong enough to handle the pressure of hydraulic brakes but not strong enough to withstand the strength of a man full of doubt. Doubt about the future, doubt about his marriage, doubt about his ability to rejoin the blank and white culture that is in progress in the subdivision that surrounds him.
He slices and sweats, and makes a knick in each line, enough for a little bit of fluid to seep out, like a pinprick in the tip of a finger.
He stands up, climbs in and starts the van and opens the garage door with the automatic opener stuck in the visor. He backs out of the garage and starts to drive. He will go to Dearborn, and that means the expressway, it means slippery roads and lots of braking.
He winds through the subdivision and stares at his face in the rearview mirror. His face that was put together just a few moments ago is now streaked with sweat and grease and his eyes are red from the concentration and adrenalin and, for the first time in a long time he smiles at himself, the smile of a man without a doubt in the world.
David LaBounty’s prose and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals and his third novel, Affluenza, has just been released.