2011 spring fiction astraightanswer

by Aaron Jacobs

He sat parked in the driveway, in front of the garage, to the left of his house, the driver’s seat cradling his body like a sling bracing an injured arm. The headlights pitched two bars of light at the garage door that exposed every imperfection on its surface: every streak of dirt, every spot where the paint was chipped and wood showed through, dents the height of his bumper, the cracked window from a suicidal pigeon. He thought about repairing it, maybe replacing it next spring. He turned off the car and dragged himself up the walk. The front door had just closed behind him when he heard her.

“Edward? It’s on the news. It’s the big story.”

Because he couldn’t imagine his firing had extended beyond his own intimate relationship with it he didn’t realize this was what she was talking about. She was on the couch in the living room, fiddling with a new camera out of its box. On the table in front of her were two books. The television was on mute and he saw on the screen a street reporter standing in front of 280 Park Avenue. Edward suspected the reporter had no clue that for twelve years he worked in this building. The man’s lips moved but Edward couldn’t hear his voice and the building looked like forty-two stories of petrified elephant hide. At one time he had pinned his own self-worth to that giant edifice—cold and impressive, that was the professional image he liked for himself, and he often stared up at the building, trying to point out the exact spot where it melted away into the sky. Right now he watched the screen and wished the building to crumble. He thought he saw a long crack rise from the foundation, branching outward. Just dirt.

“Could you please fill in the details?” she said. In her hands was a camera and on the cushion beside her an instruction manual.

“Why not spend several hundred dollars?” he said, eyeing the receipt on the coffee table.

“Does this mean you were one of the unlucky ones?”

“Books too. More books, exactly what we need.”

He looked down at her and she said, “I’m asking if you were fired.”

“Have you ever noticed that our bookshelves are a shrine to your failed hobbies?” He picked up one of the books and inspected it at arm’s length, as though it was a baby with a shitty diaper. “History of The Home. Very stimulating.”

“If you were laid off it would have happened a few hours ago. Does that ring a bell?”

He took his eyes from the book. “I remember I was driving to the train station this morning when I saw colorful lights in the sky. I pulled over and got out. This beam of light covered me and I couldn’t move. The next thing I knew, it was nine hours later and I had stitches in my abdomen.”

“Can I please have a straight answer?”

“You can have an answer as straight as Elton John.”

“Tell me, Sir Elton, shall you be going to work tomorrow?”

“I shan’t.”

“Poor Eddie.” she said.

He dropped the book on the coffee table, left his attaché beside it, and disappeared into the kitchen. The mellowing hum of the refrigerator was disrupted by television voices cresting down the hall. They glibly recalled the upheaval at Alexander & Schneider as though it were titillating gossip about which they could do no more than shake their heads and exclaim, “What makes people think they can get away with such things?” Edward shook his head too, heavy with self-pity, and opened the refrigerator. They think they can get away with it because most of the time they do. Visualize your goal and achieve it! The poster in McNamara’s office said it plainly enough, though in his opinion the poster could have used an addendum: In the event your goal is to divert company funds and deceive shareholders, you might also want to visualize the mass layoffs that will result if you’re caught.

In the refrigerator door he spotted a re-corked bottle of Chenin Blanc, full minus one glass. He removed it along with a Tupperware container of roasted chicken breast and vegetables. He sniffed the chicken, dumped it onto a plate. He heard the television still. “Coming up after the break: Is America entering into an era of corporate corruption not seen since the time of the Robber Barron?” What did they know? Nothing, of course. The food heated in the microwave. He sat on the counter sipping wine from the bottle, his legs hanging and his heels bumping the cabinet doors below him. The darkness of his humor rose up and he thought of how many languages in which he could bid his job farewell. Adios, sayonara, auf wiedersehen, bon voyage... later alligator? He strained against his ignorance of foreign tongues. Ciao. One more? Do svidaniya. Not bad.

He carried the food and the wine into the dining room. Mary-Elaine was off the couch and on his heels and sat in the chair next to him. She didn’t speak but she watched him, pondering, it seemed, who exactly was the man eating her leftovers.

“What?” he finally said, without looking up from his plate. “What is it?”

“What are we going to do?”

“We? Are you getting a job?” He lifted his head and saw that she was unpleasantly close, as though to steal a bite from his fork.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Honestly, I’m concerned.”

“Your concern is touching.”

“Being upset is one thing, but why take it out on me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said and kept eating. He took small bites, chewed with his mouth closed. He cut the chicken without scraping the knife against the plate. But he drank the wine from the bottle, licking his lips after each sip, making smacking sounds as he did. She said his name and he pretended not to hear her. He cleared his throat and kept chewing.

“Edward, I’m trying to talk to you,” she said.

“Who said that?” He looked to the ceiling. “God, is that you?”

“What are we going to do?” she asked again, losing patience, leaning closer to him.

“Again with the ‘we’.”

“Ignoring me won’t make me go away.”

“Let me ask you something, why do you think I’ve been hosting cockfights in the basement? It’s not easy work but I do it for us. And let’s not forget the treasure map I found at the beach. That’s as good as money.”

“Why do you keep making jokes?”

“I’m funny.” He finished off the wine in one long pull.

“This act of yours is getting pathetic.”

“Someone put me out of my misery,” he said, appealing to the empty chairs across the table. When they didn’t come to his aid, he began tapping himself in the head with the empty bottle.

“You’re not doing it hard enough.”

She was almost touching him, breathing his air. He squeezed his eyes closed. “Shut up. For ten minutes, please. I’m begging you.”

It was common enough fighting, nothing they weren’t used to, but he wanted to eat in peace and she wouldn’t leave him alone. Again he squeezed his eyes shut. She was so close he smelled her shampoo. He opened his eyes and focused on the plate, as though beneath the food laid a fond memory.

She said, “They were interviewing this man on TV before, he looked familiar. I don’t know, maybe you’ve introduced him to me. He was practically crying.”

“So what?”

“Did you?”

“I hope you know by now that my tears are reserved for special occasions, like anniversaries. . . Just as your tears are reserved for the results of home pregnancy tests.”

She opened her mouth to snap at him but she stopped, averted her eyes to the wainscoting, and blinked back tears.

“What’s that strange noise? Is it silence? It can’t be. Have I gone deaf?” He saw an expression crossed her face, vanished, and then was replaced by another. She wouldn’t look at him. He was the reason she wore a number of angry faces but this was more a wince, as though she’d accidentally chewed the inside of her mouth and didn’t want to let on that she was swallowing blood. He disliked being a symptom of this face because he knew what it meant. He looked away from it. “The chicken is good,” he said.

She said nothing.

“Not dry at all. I think I microwaved it too long, though. You ever do that?”

Her breathing was loud.

“I was just saying that we should probably put our floundering experiment on hold.”

“Absolutely not!” she shouted.

“Don’t you understand what happened today? It might surprise you, perhaps even shock you, to learn that raising a child requires money. Lots and lots of money. Oodles of money, bags full of—”

“Don’t you understand?”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“If we can’t do this thing, we’ve failed the most basic objective of the human race? This is no longer about what you or I want. I’m not even sure it’s about a kid anymore.”

“The new generation of McDonald’s eaters doesn’t need another in its ranks.”

“I wish we had kids so I could kill you in front of them.”

“I want them because there’s too much love here for only two people.”

“Edward, you’re an asshole. I’ll be upstairs.”

He stuffed the ends of two string beans under his upper lip so that they looked like rotting fangs, butter dripping slightly down his chin. “Before you go, darling, give me a kiss.”

Against her will a laugh shot out with a snort. “Maybe you’re not an asshole, just a child.”

After she left the dining room he took his time finishing his meal and then watched television alone. He watched the news and marveled at the way the commentators spoke without a trace of doubt. He envied their self-confidence. Gone was Edward’s confidence that he knew who he was anymore. Being an accountant was his identity. It was easier to think of himself that way than coping with what it meant to be Edward Merrill. At the same time though, he felt an extraordinary sense of relief. He hardly remembered a time when Sunday night hadn’t caused him silent terror, knowing he was one brief tract of sleep from a new workweek. He’d made his way to midtown and home again, for years, while his totality was pick-axed, chips of it falling here and there to join the greater decay. He tried ballparking when it all went to hell. The day of his interview with Alexander & Schneider the summer he was twenty-three? Maybe his wedding four years later was the beginning of the end. Perhaps, he feared, he and Mary-Elaine were doomed from the very start, from the first time he saw her with a group of her friends in the dining hall, stoned and giggling and offering him one of her mozzarella sticks.

Was it betrayal if she hadn’t turned out to be the person he expected? Was it betrayal on his part if he’d changed in ways that she once thought she could have prevented? What sort of breach of faith could they claim when the weakest of his attributes and the most grating of hers had gone from latent to undeniable? They’d known each other since college and much had changed since then, but what was most enervating to him was that there were remnants of her former likeness left intact. What he loved about her was still there, diminished of course, obscured by everything he hated about her, but there absolutely. They sneaked out of her: in her smell, in facial expressions, in the way she gave herself a pedicure and made words out of her toenail clippings (he recently caught her spelling toad), in the way she dunked toast in tea and frowned when crumbs collected at the bottom of the mug. He understood the same was probably true for him, although he couldn’t think to name them. This, he realized, kept them together. As long as those things were there, then there was a chance they could gather strength and break through the obnoxious, unpleasant exteriors with which he and Mary-Elaine worked so hard to swaddle themselves. In this hope, he found what he needed to stay, along with what he considered a maddening and inexpedient flaw in his character.

About the Author

Aaron Jacobs' fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Atticus Books online, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and the Foundling Review. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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