The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Tate woke up and took a quick survey of his emotional state; sure that he had found every last bit of pain that awaited him in life, he stepped out of bed. Jo slept on, resting with her brown hair in snarls, her chameleon eyes closed.
Without the eyes, there was little hope for her appearance, which was not unlike a sculpture created by the artistically challenged.
He was almost sure that he still loved her after fifteen years of unwed cohabitation, mainly because there were always enough furtive pulls on his flask during the day to couch everything she did in cotton. She didn’t rasp against him anymore, and as evidence of his thankfulness, he offered a half-kiss to her warm cheek.
He made his way down the hall, leaving the lights off until he had quietly shut his study door. The clock read 5:03am, just like every other morning in this string of awakenings that went back for years. Each detail he knew by heart. Jo would awaken and leave, out to be the good and meek children’s librarian and suffice herself with other people’s spawn. He, Tate Newcomb, ex-shining light of Johnsburg High’s debate team, National Honor Society member, alcoholic of late, and all around sad sack, would write his way into an advertising coma, trying to decide if it were worth it to point out, yet again, that ‘new & improved!’ really meant nothing. The suspicion had been growing on him like algae for years: He had failed and now, to prove it, he would have to spin golden words to line executives’ pockets for eternity.
He took two steps across the room to the curbside-ready bureau where he hid his flask, lifted it, and studied the photo he kept hidden, him and Jo at prom, 1994. They had a sheen to them, an oil slick of fantastic dreams that stuck to his rented blue tuxedo and her floor-length emerald gown. They had been happy. Neither could lay finger on the exact moment when their hopes had dribbled away, although the last time he remembered being happy was before he had quit volunteering at the library’s story hour for her. Then, he stopped. Just stopped everything. Caring, volunteering, bringing home little surprises, anything. His soul-sucking job and their inability to have children got the best of him, he supposed, and finally he had compacted all of his pain into a stiffly knotted ball, coating it with layer upon layer of filmy, foamy cotton until nothing touched his heart, anyway.
By 5:03pm he was teetering pleasantly, pleasantly shocked with the amount of nonsense he had alchemized in one day. His travel down the hall felt light, chemical, until he reached the living room where Jo’s absurd face stopped him. The look was a wall where a new painting had been placed, and he wasn’t sure that he had been born in the same century as the artist. The left side of her mouth twitched while the right side curled up, and her eyes had a glossy film that he had never before seen. He was trying to figure out what the face meant, when a layer of exasperation dripped down over it. This look he knew; it meant, aren’t you going to ask me?
“Well?” he said.
“Well what?” she replied.
He sighed. Fifteen years and not a single step of the dance had changed. Certainly he wasn’t a genius, but he was smart enough to read patterns. He knew, for example, that men would be most likely to purchase products when advertisers showed those products leading to sexual payoff. He also knew that Jo’s exasperated face meant that she was going to tell him something, but only after he asked enough times and with a slightly wheedling sound in his voice. Advertising and Jo -- the things he knew and the things that made his life a testament to whiskey.
“Well. Well, what is it? I know it’s something. Could you please just tell me, because I’m hungry and not in the mood for guessing games.”
She made a slight harrumphing noise through closed lips.
“W-e-ll, Mr. Newcomb. I happen to be with child.”
In one moment, years of tests and lost hopes had been overthrown. Tate knew her maternal bent. He had had paternal ambitions of his own. The tests, the specialists, the negatives, then the cottony feeling, the booze. Now he saw what the invisible artist had painted over her face. It was happiness.
“I’ll be in my study.” Suddenly the air in the room seemed too thin. Tate saw the graceful green trees droop out of the corner of his eye.
“Where you hide your alcohol.” Jo looked beaten by the years, all happiness gone, her eyes retaking their flat, end of the work day look. She should have known better than to expect that he would simply jump up and down with joy. For heaven’s sake, they had spent so much time trying but so much more time trying to forget that they had tried. He had his life, his pattern, and he wanted no more.
“I’m going to my mother’s.”
Awake again, struggling up through sleep, something was new. A new pain, all his hope of living in his rut destroyed. As he rolled over, he was surprised by the emptiness of his bed. That’s right, he thought, she’s gone to commiserate with her mother. He walked down the hall, then paused in the doorway of his study to consider the clock. Why was it always 5:03? Who was in charge of his life and who had let it become this way? He crossed the room in one giant stride, jerked open the top drawer of the crusty old dresser, then lifted the flask. “I have someone to commiserate with, too,” he said into its distortive silver surface. Today was Friday -- he could take one day off.
Somehow, he found himself at the park. He closed one eye, opened it, then closed the other. He moved his hands delicately over his torso, then his thighs, then pondered his shoes. Something hurt, but the cotton was stuck in his throat, just like the top of an aspirin bottle, and the pain couldn’t surmount it. As he sat back, a glint of yellow tugged at the corner of his eye. When he looked over, he saw that it was one of those big jungle gym contraptions, with a swirly slide and monkey bars. A swing-set, too. A little blonde boy sat on one of the swings, and he seemed to be hollering for something. Or someone, he supposed, because a tallish gentleman with a neatly cropped head of bushy brown hair walked up and began to push the child. The child pumped his little legs with abandon while they both laughed. The cotton was gone inside of Tate.
“I couldn’t swing my kid on the swings while I’m drunk,” he said as he opened his flask. A lady he hadn’t noticed, who had been sitting on the next bench over, got up quickly and walked away.
Two cups of coffee later, he noted with relief that the clock read 5:08 as he reentered the house. Jo was home, her car was out front, and the smell of dill and salmon were snaking their way out of the kitchen. His keys clinked as he dropped them into the bowl on the hall table.
“Tate, is that you?” she called.
Who else could it be? he thought. “Yes, and we need to talk.”
She came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her eyes were as green as the dress she had worn to prom, and the unfamiliar happy look was back. “Yes, we do,” she replied. “How about dinner on the back deck tonight?”
They settled in, and Tate realized that this wasn’t going to go the way he wanted it to go, which was easily. She had worked hard on the meal, even included tiny white votive candles which flickered like fireflies. The backyard was transformed into a fairy bower with the graceful trees dipping down to catch their secrets and the aroma of the fish and wine tickling his nose. His thoughts were working furiously to transcend the mood and the wine, when he realized the full import of what she was saying.
“And today, I went over to that new craft store that opened on third, and I bought the most adorable white and yellow yarn, I think the lady called it variegated, you know that I made cushions and blankets for the children’s story time at the library, well, who would have thought that I would get to knit those things for my very own baby?” She paused to take a breath, practically hugging herself in her joy.
“And my mother says that she can babysit, in fact she’d love it, you know how bored she gets during the day with all of her own children gone.”
“And I can take a maternity leave, and I’ve already had practice changing diapers with my little sisters. We can even turn your study into a nursery, just like we had originally planned.”
“Jo, who else have you told about this baby?”
“Just my mother, so far, my sisters are both on a cruise. You know their husbands like to take them places.”
“Jo, listen. I know that you are excited. However, there are some things that we need to consider. Number one, we have almost no money saved. Nothing. And it’s not like either you or I make tons of the stuff. How are we going to afford a baby? Number two, you aren’t really young anymore. Don’t get me wrong, neither am I. But the chances of you having a completely healthy baby, and not being sick yourself, aren’t so great. Number three, I think you know that I drink more than I should. Jo, I can’t raise a child and drink. I’m not going to do that to a kid. It isn’t fair.”
“What are you saying?” she said as she set her fork down beside her plate.
“I’m saying that you have to get rid of it. Jo, listen. It’s not going to work.”
“How could you. . .”
“I don’t want to do this. My life is on autopilot, and I’m fine there. Get rid of the baby or I’m, well, Jesus, you can’t expect me to raise a child this way. Get rid of it or I’m gone.”
“You know what? I’ve had it with you,” she cried as she stormed into the house.
He pinched the stem of his wineglass, gulped his third glass without tasting it, then followed her into the house. “Jo, come out to the garage for a minute, please. I want to show you something.” She looked at him for one long moment, then started towards the garage.
The cold concrete chilled Tate’s feet as he walked his customary route through the pile of boxes. Most of it was junk they had meant to get rid of -- old sports equipment, too-small clothing, and the like -- but there was one box that he kept stacked in the heap, one box that she didn’t know about. He sifted through the boxes with efficient movements, then lifted the special box out.
“Alright, Jo, here is what I want you to see. Take a good, long look, then tell me if you think bringing a baby into this environment is a good idea. Think very carefully, okay?”
He opened the box. The whiskey bottles glittered like Christmas. All of them the same size, the same brand, stacked neatly, cradled together in rows on top of rows, each clean and snug in their home.
“So what?” Jo said. “You’ve always been a packrat. Although this collection must’ve taken you awhile.”
“No. I empty this box every month. I don’t go visit friends on the weekends. I sit in the park and drink. I drink while you’re at work, and I drink while you’re asleep. Do you get it now?”
Jo seized on her last hope. “But if you can admit it, you can change it. Isn’t that the first rule of getting help? Once you admit you have a problem, you’re well on your way to correcting it?”
“Except I don’t want help, and I don’t have a problem. A problem would imply that I wanted to change it. I don’t. I’m tired and most of all I’m disappointed. In myself. In the way everything has turned out. And I don’t want to deal with a baby.”
Tate could see that it was time to bring it home. Before he had been in advertising, he’d had a very successful run in sales. Now was the time for the close.
“Alright? You’ll have the procedure, then we’ll try to be a family, just you and me. You can do that, right?”
She started to cry, and he knew he had her.
© Melissa Harr Nov 1st 2010
melissaharr6 at gmail.com
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