THE SWIMMER by Jerry Whitus
HE NEVER IMAGINED, NOT for a second, Joy would run out there into that freezing water and begin swimming.
He was trying to figure out how to help the old woman, and Joy was holding his coat sleeve, tugging, and then she yelled in his ear, “Let’s do something, my god, Ron,” and he was trying to think what was doable, and Joy bolted, no warning, and was racing down the shore line, and yanking off her heavy coat, went straight on into the water. She started out freestyle and then breaststroking, and the old woman was thirty or so yards off shore, splashing around, churning up the water. She had fallen from the pier. Joy saw it while he was turned away following two mud hens dropping out of the sky toward the pines on the far shore. It was a long pier built years ago, jutting out into the eddy. Maybe there was ice on it. There had been some ice that morning, a gray Sunday, coating the myrtles outside their kitchen window. It was asinine for that woman to go out there, especially with two little kids in tow. He and Joy had observed them a few minutes earlier, holding hands, hobbling along the plank deck.
Immediately, Ron was sick, wishing that he was in the water and not her. But the shock of it all had scrambled his mind and it was confusion that held him, pretty much taking the wind out of him. He couldn’t get moving. Joy was the better swimmer, anybody would say so. Watching her flailing about out there with the old woman was painful. Still Joy’s strong, a fighter, she’ll be okay, he kept telling himself. And finally she was. The water got still out there and she had control. She was moving toward the shore, dog paddling, kicking water up behind, tugging the old woman along. Christ, by the hair, he ascertained when they got closer.
By then he was wading out. He stopped to sling his jacket back onto the bank, his old camouflaged hunting jacket. The water was like icy claws and nearly to his chest when Joy got close enough to touch. Her fiery red face. Her fingers twisted up in the old woman’s hair, which looked like strings from a dirty mop head. “I’ve got you,” Ron hollered out. “Don’t worry, Babe. You’re safe.” He slipped the crook of his arm under her chin and turned her sideways, and tugged her and the old woman into shallow water.
They laid the old woman out on the brown grass. She was shivering inside a puffy nylon jacket. The wind was sharp, colder than ever. Her face as red and puckered as a stored turnip. There was a gash over one eye faintly showing blood. Ron ran for his coat and tucked it over her, and her tiny eyes rolled back. “You pulled my hair,” she muttered, water coming out of her nose, and she gagged and coughed up a thin stream of gray milky stuff. He jumped up to get Joy’s coat and helped her into it and bent down to kiss her cheek. “You’re okay now,” he said. “Okay?” She hung her head taking deep breaths. He lifted the hood up over her head. Without looking up, she said, “I’m going up there for those kids. Maybe you could take care of her here. Call somebody.” She started off toward the pier.
He hollered out, worked a hand into his soaked pants pocket and tossed her the truck keys. “Go on up and turn the heater on,” he said. Watching her hurrying away, he yelled again. “I’m calling 911,” recalling he’d have to fish the phone out of his coat pocket.
Joy picked up the truck keys, a sharp pain shooting through her hand. She was aware of the cold, the flinty wind, for the first time since she’d left the water. She should have been elated, and proud–she had saved that woman’s life, but it was all mixed up with exhaustion, disappointment, anger. Maybe mostly anger. She had risked her life out there while he stood safe and sound on dry ground. And besides, her hand had lost its numbness and was starting to swell. She had hit the old woman, twice, actually. The woman had kept fighting, panicked, slapping at her, and Joy got scared and lashed out. She had never hit a soul in her life or considered that your own body took part of the blow.
On the pier, the two kids looked up wide-eyed, as if expecting her to save them, too. She got them up to the truck, and they were soon in the cab getting warm under the heater. Cici, the little one, was four, her big brother, Tab, six. “What about Mamma?” Tab had said on the pier, as she was gathering his sister up into my arms. She told him not to worry, that it was just like if his grandma had gone for a swim. “She’s a good swimmer,” she said. “She’s fine.”
In the truck, she asked him where they lived, and he pointed back toward Old Willow Road, the road into the park. “Over yonder,” he said. He asked if she had any candy, and Joy said no. Then she snapped, “Don’t you know not to ask strangers for things.” Which was mean, a mean thing to say, especially at this point, and she instantly regretted it and regretted that she had made herself feel mean. Cici, who was in the middle, scrunched up against her brother. Joy forced a smile. “Maybe we can get something later.” She brushed fleecy bangs out of Cici’s eyes. They were cute kids overall, in need of baths, which was obvious in the cramped, steamy truck cab, but cute, tow-headed with eager brown eyes.
The patrol car arrived before the ambulance. Ron heard the siren in the distance and then in a few minutes womp, womp, womp as the pea green and white car headed down the hill from the parking lot, swerving to miss trees, bouncing over rough spots and kicking up mud on down to the bank. The officer’s name was Honzell. He said an ambulance was on the way. Ron didn’t know him personally but had seen him around town. It was a small town in northeast Texas, maybe ten or fifteen on the police force, and he knew all of them by sight or by name.
The old woman’s sickly eyes were open, and she answered the officer when he kneeled down and asked her name, though she couldn’t give the address. Ron told what had happened–she had fallen from the pier, been in the water ten or twelve minutes, he and his wife had gotten her out and laid her here on the ground. His wife was with the two kids up in the truck. He didn’t say that Joy had swam there and brought her in. He had started to explain that, the small part he’d played, the reason for his own wet clothes, but glancing up into the officer’s hard, weathered face, words to that effect alluded him. He couldn’t bring himself to admit that he had stood by and let his wife swim out there and risk her life in that freezing water. That could come later, he thought, when it was time, or became necessary to reveal the whole story.
The patrol car brought people down from the playground located in a woodsy area above the dam, eight or ten running and walking. When the ambulance arrived they were gathered in a circle around him and the officer and the old woman. A young man had tried to drape his coat around Ron’s shoulders, but he handed it back. The man started taking pictures with his cell phone.
The paramedics trotted up, the circle opening for them. A husky young woman and a man with a short beard. They had a stretcher and metal suitcase. They kneeled over the woman, talked with her checking her out. After a few minutes, they lifted her onto the stretcher, placed a mast on her face and started oxygen from a tube in the suitcase. The man, who wore a black stocking cap, stood up and patted Ron on the back and shook his hand. “So, you’re the hero,” he said. “Seems like you did a good job here.” We’ve got it, he said, when Ron offered to help with the stretcher.
As they were hurrying off, Ron saw Joy and the kids standing close together outside the circle. He went over and put his arms around her. He squeezed. She worn the bulky coat and her hair, nearly blond, cut short, was partially dry and a mess. Ron introduced Honzell and rubbed the heads of the two kids. Joy spoke with Honzell, explaining what she knew about the kids, where the boy had said they lived. “I think they’re both okay,” she said. Honzell wrote all this down in the notebook he had been working on since the moment he arrived. As he was leaving with the kids, the cell phone man took a picture of the three of them alongside the patrol car.
Starting home, Ron tried to convince Joy to let him take her to the emergency room to get checked out. She said no, but he turned off Old Willow Road toward the county hospital anyway. He wanted her to feel his deep concern. “It’s just sensible,” he said. “So we don’t worry.”
“No, dammit I don’t need to go to any hospital. I’m worn out. I just need to get home and in a hot bath.” She felt feverish, bloated, contaminated by the oily, filthy lake water. She glanced down at her aching fist–a ring with a turquoise stone on one finger–opening and closing it.
Ron was thinking how to approach her, to explain why he had held back like that, but he couldn’t get the words organized in his head and maybe it wasn’t a good time anyway. Obviously, at the moment, she might blow up. Later, he thought, they could both get a perspective and talk things out.
“There’s venison stew in the icebox if you’re hungry,” Joy said, as they were passing through the kitchen. The room was dimly lit; winter twilight, finding its way through the bay window, shown on the breakfast table. Ron flipped the light on over the sink. Then realizing she was leaving the room, he caught up to her at the doorway and squeezed her shoulder and turned her. She let him put his arms around her. He was a big man with a broad chest and spreading waistline. She was small, a cheerleader’s build, which she had been in high school. Being engulfed by him like that, the warm, familiar scent that lingered even after she’d left him, had always been comforting. “I’ll wash your back, okay. Okay?” He smiled down into her face.
“My head’s not in a good place right now.”
“Look,” he continued. “I know that today I let you down. Myself, too. Oh, man. But what I want to get out is that you were great. Magnificent. You’re a hell of a lot better swimmer than me that’s for sure.” He chuckled, looking down at her eyes.
She sighed, started to pull away.
“Look, Babe, listen, can we talk later on or even tomorrow? We can go out to Tommy’s, have a steak dinner tomorrow night and talk this out, like we do sometimes. We’ll get everything straight.”
He ate the stew with saltines sprinkled with Tabasco sauce, the wild meat from the buck he had shot that fall. He and his older brother, Richard, and two or three others went down to Central Texas, the hill country, every year. They rented a cabin, partied, played poker, and bagged their two bucks. That, fishing the rivers and lakes of East Texas and high school football were things he’d been born to, the great pleasures of life. Joy, his great love, though he’d had one other, Joy, too, at least one other that he knew of. It wasn’t until two years out of high school that they started going out. By then most of their gang from school had fled town or settled into another life. They began seeing each other at get-togethers and a bar called the Grasshopper and after a time, without a lot of preliminaries, latched on to what they had. What was sure and undemanding–and available. The sex was good enough and they got married. That was nearly four years ago. A sterling four years it seemed to him, something meant to be he had bragged, and now, with a down payment building in the bank, they were talking seriously about a bigger house and kids.
“Ron.” She was leaning on the doorframe in a house robe. She crossed her arms under her breasts. “Don’t make anything out of this, but I’m dead tired. You snore sometimes and make those smacking noises with your mouth. I’m gonna take a pill, so I can get a good night’s sleep. So, if you will, I want you to bunk in the other room for tonight. It’s just tonight,” she said.
She woke in the morning groggy. It was late, almost seven. She heard him in the kitchen and called to him, and when he came to the door with coffee for her, she asked him to phone work and say she was sick and would be in that afternoon. She had worked at Decker Design and Plastic Molding, one of the biggest employers in town, for almost five years, in the color and dye operation. At two-thirty she was in the break room with a cream donut and Diet Pepsi, when Frank Hurley, one of the foremen, stuck his head in the doorway and left quickly and then came back with a newspaper, grinning. “Hey, why didn’t you tell us? Have you seen this?” He opened the paper and spread it on the tabletop.
On page two, four pictures. Ron was in three of them–kneeling over the old woman, with the officer, and one of just him, his big face looking worn out and serious. His hair was tangled and there was something like mud on his cheeks. The photos were slightly grainy and seemed weird, like from somebody else’s life, a life she couldn’t fathom. Reading the short article, part of it in bold print, she realized that there were people crowding behind her, looking over her shoulders. They were touching her, saying “hey,” “congratulations.” “You must really be proud of him,” one of the new girls from the front office said. Joy managed a weak smile. As quickly as possible, she got away and went down the hall to the restroom in the shipping area. She splashed water on her face, not daring to look in the mirror, and sat for a time on one of the toilet seats. She hugged herself breathing nice and steady to try to smooth her head out. Should she be pissed? She was pissed.
On the way back to her work area, Edna Metcalf, Mr. Decker’s secretary, caught up with her. Edna reached out and tugged her into her arms. “My, my, girl. We’re so proud. And I bear this from Bill. Unless you’ve got something really urgent, you are ordered to take the rest of the day off, and please come in to see him first thing tomorrow morning.”
She got her stuff from the locker, feeling an urge to disappear, but as she was leaving through the side entrance to the parking lot, her name was called over the plant speaker. A phone call.
It was Ron. “Did you see the paper?”
“Frank showed me, and everybody else around here.”
“We’re heroes, sort of. I guess.”
“We? You say we? I’m not mentioned. My name’s not in there. What did you say to them?”
“Really, believe me, I didn’t say nothing. After you left, I was tied up trying to help the old woman. Ella what’s her name, Ratcliff. And the cop got there and was asking me questions about her condition and that’s all I know of.”
She breathed hard into the phone, wanting him to hear it.
“Cut me some slack here. Look, can we talk tonight? Can we go to Tommy’s tonight, and I’ll buy you a steak dinner and talk?”
She went home. She spent two hours cleaning house, scrubbing muck from the grout around the kitchen sink, and then the sink and shower in the second bathroom, rearranging the mess in the pantry that had been bugging her for the past three months. She took rushed calls from her mother and Ron’s, from her friend Kathy, who wanted to get together. And then a reporter from the newspaper called. He asked for Ron, an interview for tomorrow’s edition is what he said. Not today, she said. We’re tired, the both of us. He was persistent, almost rude. Ma’am, the public has a right, he was saying as she clicked the phone off.
Finally she put on a sweat suit and her beat up old Adidas and went out into the brisk cold wind, hatless. She stretched in the front yard and took off up Forest Lane to Rayburn. She ran through neighborhoods and past the old high school, a vocational school now, almost to the town square, nearly an hour. She was drinking water over the kitchen sink when the wall phone rang.
“We’ve got a date tonight,” Ron said. “Remember? Tommy’s. Just tell me what time?”
“What time? I don’t know. I don’t think I’m up to going out.”
“Listen, hold on now. Some of the boys here, they want to take me out for a beer. And then I want us to meet, whatever time you say.”
She said no. She said she was exhausted. She had catch-up to do at work tomorrow. “Mostly I want you to spend some effort and make things right,” she warned. “I want the truth out there.”
He came home about ten, dropped his clothes beside the bed and slipped under the covers, bringing the smoky, acrid smell of the bar with him. He was careful not to touch her. She lay awake thinking that maybe he had said something at the bar, come out with the truth of it as they drank their toasts. She waited for him to come to life and tell her that, but instead, within a few minutes she heard the sounds of sleep, his breathing, his lips sputtering. She lay in the dark for as long as she could manage, and then, in her bathrobe, and dragging a quilt, went into the living room and curled up on the couch. Surprisingly, she slept like a rock and was up before six.
She made coffee, fried sausage and whipped up eggs, so she could scramble them soon as Ron appeared. Don’t bagger, she thought. Get things back on an even keel, and he’d have the space to get his mind engaged, and do something.
“I wasn’t shitfaced if that’s what you think,” he said, entering the kitchen, pulling on his unruly hair. “No hangover, see.” He opened his eyes wide. At the table, though, she could smell the alcohol like he’d bathed in it. It pricked the wound.
She said, “I’m serious. I want this thing settled.”
He was tossing Tabasco on the scrambled eggs. “I understand. I understand where you’re coming from.”
“Agreed, yeah. That was the idea about going out last night.” He was gobbling the eggs. “I’m late.” He looked up. “God, I hate it when you worry. Don’t worry. We’re going to get it straight.”
She settled back, stifling a comeback, which was almost painful. She didn’t mention the reporter, not trusting what they might print and not wanting to see her name in the paper at all. Certainly not his again. He was stacking dishes in the washer when she left for work.
Oil and gas well equipment and maintenance was what he did, working for the same old company his father had worked for before he retired just last year. Ron was a welder and general repairman, and sometimes he traveled out to rigs, things busy now with the mess in the Middle East and oil over a hundred dollars a barrel. He was out in the yard on a forklift stacking an order of second hand drill pipe when the man from the TV called, the station over in Texarkana, Channel 11. Ron took it on his cell phone. The man wanted an interview, and he wanted to do it down at the eddy where the rescue had taken place. It jolted him, just the idea of it. He stuttered for a second and then said no. It wasn’t possible. He had work and besides he thought it was all finished, the fuss about the whole thing was over, he said. Then Dotty Dunwoody, the woman on the six o’clock news, got on the phone, her voice a sweeter version of the one that filled his living room some evenings. She told him that the public wanted to see him that they deserved to meet him. She told him that the police officer was going to be there, and they were going to shoot Ella Ratcliff, and how would it look if he, the central attraction, wasn’t included. She promised to help him get through it.
“I’ll guarantee you’ll look great,” she said. She begged a little, she sweet-talked him. It was already nine-thirty. They wanted to meet him down there at noon, 12:15 at the latest, and in his work clothes, that’s the image they wanted.
It scared him, talking on TV, and he was scared to call Joy. He got coffee and took it back outside, steam rising from the white ceramic cup, and sat in the cold on the forklift looking up at a washed out sky. Finally, it struck him that, after all, maybe they could make it something good. He pictured Joy and himself together by the water, looking like this great couple, and they’d tell the story step by step pretty much the way it happened. There was some misunderstanding earlier, he would explain, but Joy was a great swimmer and had a great heart, and she took off lickety-split without him having time to react And so what? so he stood by and monitored it all, including the kids up there, and then swam out and helped with the final part of getting the woman in. It was at least 90 percent true, he told himself. He felt a lift, perfect. He called Joy.
“I’m not up to it,” she said, bursting his balloon. “I’ve got to work. Besides I don’t even want to be on the TV. I’m not a TV kind of person.” The truth was she couldn’t imagine going back to the eddy, revisiting that old woman’s face, conjuring up the unholy feelings she’d had toward Ron, the whole episode or what was left of it. And so she put her foot down. No.
When he started down the path from the parking lot, the TV cameraman and Dotty Dunwoody and the officer, Honzell, were already there. The patrol car parked beside the water. Dotty looked just as sharp as she did on the TV, with her long auburn hair and bright teeth and sharp red nails. She stood swinging the cord of the microphone waiting for him. Honzell was tall, straight, at ease. Dotty greeted him and, winking in a sexy way, reached up and took his baseball cap off. “Without the cap, Ron, okay.” She ran a brush through his hair, and then through her own, tossing her head to one side expertly, letting the wind whip through it.
“Ron, you’re over here,” she said, as if suddenly in a great hurry. The wind off the water was icy. Before he could catch his breath, she was talking into the camera. She talked fast and then turned abruptly to Honzell. She asked a couple of questions and then stuck the microphone in Ron’s face. “How does it feel to be a hero in your hometown?” she asked him. “I’m doing fine,” he said. He was more nervous than he ever imagined he’d be, a little lightheaded. The sun was too bright. Dotty said that Miss Ella Ratcliff could think her lucky stars that a man like Ron Sipes was right here that day, pointing a red nail toward the ground. She tilted the mic toward Ron again.
“So, Ron, tell us, what possesses a man to jump into that freezing water?”
“Joy,” he said, “that’s Joy Sipes, my wife, we well, she…” and he was struggling to remember the way he had rehearsed it in this head, but the words seemed slippery, and his voice coming from somewhere beyond him, and he was suddenly aware of Honzell drilling him with his hard-assed eyes.
Dotty jerked the mic away. “Wonderful,” she said. “I understand your wife, she was here, too, that day. I know she must be a proud woman these days.”
After another question for Honzell, she gave him one more chance with the mic, and he heard himself mention something about “us” pulling the woman out of the water, and then Joy and the kids. He glanced at Dotty for help, but, without warning, she had the mic at her own mouth again like she might swallow it, and signing off.
The interview made the ten o’clock news and was as he feared–Honzell strong and well-spoken in his shining uniform, and Dotty Dunwoody glamorous, and Ron Sipes, the misfit. He had on a soiled Levi jacket with a felt collar that his dad had turned over to him, baggy work pants. His eyes were too big, his face flushed red and what he said cut up and unconnected, though the part about Joy and the kids got in.
From the windy lake there was a jarring cut to the old woman. She was in a rocking chair with her son on one side of her and Dotty kneeling down on the other. The old woman rolled her head and chewed on her lower lip. Dotty prodded her. “What do you have to say to Ron Sipes?” she asked at last. The camera inched toward a bruised and wrinkled face, a band-aid over the eye. “Thank you Mr. Ron…What?” Her son whispered in her ear. “Sipes,” she said, turning to the camera. “I am here today.”
In a moment it was over. Ron muted the sound. “Jez, shit. “It was too short. Way short.”
Joy turned her eyes on him. “Ron, there was nothing. You said absolutely nothing about me.”
“Look, listen. Everything was rushed. They were in a huge rush out there. I tried to get more in. I did say that about you and the kids.”
“You didn’t say I was in that friggin’ water. That I’m the one that coldcocked her. That I swam her in. None of that.”
“Hell, that wasn’t the crux of the interview.”
“I think they must of planned it all before hand. She knew what she wanted me to say and that’s all she let me say. They do that on TV.”
She stared hard at the silent television screen.
“They cut out a bunch, too, Joy.”
He swallowed, looked at her looking at the silent images jumping around.
He softened his voice. “Alright, understand, in reality I was really nervous. On TV. What could I say right then? I mean, I sent my wife out there in that freezing lake. I stayed back and watched like some fool or bump on the log or something.”
“The truth, for one thing.”
“Me too. Yes, I agree. I just keep looking for a way to say it making sense.”
With the TV interview the story took on another dimension. She couldn’t look at anybody at work without encountering a big grin or heart-felt comment or the occasional hug. She had forgotten to go to Bill Decker’s office, as he’d asked, and he came down to her work area, the color and dye department, to say congratulations and how much he appreciated her and bring Ron around when he was free. Several people stood in a circle around them while they talked.
The local newspaper reporter tracked Ron down at work, the article in the Wednesday afternoon paper, more about the facts of Ron’s life than the rescue, sounding like an obituary is what Joy thought. That evening Ron came home with a check and laid it on the kitchen table, four hundred and seventy dollars. It was from Ella Ratcliff’s family. They had taken up a collection, and one of the sons had delivered it to him at work.
“You’re not going to cash that?” Joy said. She was putting together a meatloaf for dinner. “You can’t.”
“Look, they want to do it. It’ll make them feel good. Hell, it’s half the mortgage this month.”
She turned away and plunged her hands back into the ground meat.
Ron retrieved the check and slowly tore it in half, then fourths. He sat in the living room drinking a beer, watching a rerun of last night’s basketball game on the Fox sports channel. Let it die down a bit, he was thinking, and her mood will change and then they could talk about it and figure something out. He had always felt confident he could decipher her moods, which was comforting.
After work on Thursday Joy met Kathy at the Grasshopper. They had been friends for a hundred years, since junior high, but they really became close after high school when so many had left town or gotten married. Kathy’s marriage lasted six months. Free, free, free, she had said with the divorce papers in her hands. She was warm and fun and the most independent woman Joy knew, just what she needed now, that and a friend to listen, help her deal with this thing. But as soon as they sat down at a table with a window looking out onto the highway, Carol Ann Bolton and a girl Joy barely remembered named Anita arrived and came over. They were all anxious to see Joy and hear about Ron.
“Yawl all know I’ve had my share,” Kathy said at one point, “and Ron’s a good man, comparing.” She got a laugh.
Carol Ann piped up. “There was always something there,” she said. “People were attracted to him. And, hey, ask him about plane geometry. He wouldn’t of got through plane geometry if he hadn’t sat next to me.”
They had ordered frozen margaritas and a big plate of black bean nachos. Joy worked at changing the subject, and they seemed to catch on, and after a while she found herself laughing and loose. They played shuffleboard and then pool with two fat guys in black leather jackets. The weight of everything, the bitterness dissipated. Glancing at Kathy, Carol Ann, it came to her how difficult it was going to be to get the truth out without running Ron down, embarrassing him. Hell, destroying him. As she was leaving, pulling out onto the dark highway, she turned her cell phone on, and there were three calls from Ron. The anger hit her again, the disgust. The stone he’d handed her to carry. She didn’t listen to the messages or call back, just drove on home.
“Damn, I was getting worried,” he said. “You always call when you’re going to be late.”
“I left my phone in the car.” She told him who she was with. “I had a good time.”
Ron had called for a pizza. They were delivering it. “I got the veggie special, “he said. “Whatta you think about that?”
“I need a shower,” she said, hearing the tension in her own voice. It was all around them. Something’s going to happen, she thought, wanting to get away for a minute to postpone it, to get herself together.
When she came back, warm and a little more at ease in an old sweatshirt, he had laid the table and opened two beers.
“It’s in the oven,” he told her, “staying warm for you.”
She filled a big tea glass with water from the icebox door and sat down. Ron took the pizza from the oven. It was broken into slices and piled on her very best platter, the platter she’d inherited from her grandmother.
“Fuck! You put that in the oven, my grandmother’s platter?”
“Oh, man. I didn’t think about it.”
“You don’t think, Ron. You don’t think about a lot of things.” She looked hard at him. “I wanna talk.”
He sat down and then got up and came back with an old chipped plate and transferred the pizza onto it. He took up a slice of pizza, bit into it and looked at her, waiting.
She looked down and then up, holding his eyes. “Well?”
“Well, sure I’m going to get it done,” he said. Said he was thinking he’d go down to the newspaper and talk to the reporter again. Then he backtracked. “Maybe we can just get the family together and tell them what happened and maybe some other people and let the story come out like that, so it’s not such a big deal issue all of a sudden.”
“It’s a big deal already. You don’t get it. So when’s all this going to happen? You have a habit of putting things off, realize that.”
He looked at her as if puzzled, a slice of pizza in one hand, the can of Budweiser in the other.
“The shelves in the garage,” Joy said. “You were going to build shelves and clean up that fucking mess out there. I can’t even put my car in the garage. And talking to the man about investments, you were supposed to get us an appointment? Our savings stuck in a fucking savings account. Those are men’s jobs, Ron. So when?”
“Oh, man,” He said, dropping his head, his breathing unsteady. “Look, take into account what I’m going to look like. I don’t know, a fool, or worse. That’s hard, Joy.”
She stood up to leave, and then turned back and looked down at him across the table.
“I guess you got a choice,” she said. “You can look like a fool, if you wanna call it that, in front of your friends or whoever. Or you can look like what? A liar to me.”
In the bedroom she packed an overnight bag and phoned Kathy and asked if she could come over and stay there.
“You’re leaving me,” Ron said when she came back in the kitchen.
“No. For one night. I think you deserve time to think and make some decisions without me pushing anymore. I’m sick to death of pushing. I’m not leaving you, I’m just worn out, that’s all.”
But when he got home from work the next day, she wasn’t there. Right away the phone rang, and Richard, his brother, asked him to go with him and his son to the high school basketball game. “They’re playing Delmont. It’s going to be a good game,” he said. Justin was eight, full of energy and outgoing. He liked his uncle, used to love snuggling up in his big lap, and sometimes they all went fishing together.
The new gym, brightly lit and smelling of fresh varnish, was nearly full, and the cheerleaders had the crowd riled up. Eight years ago that was Joy out there in a short maroon skirt, white gym shoes–jumping and yelling, full of electric energy. Richard played basketball, but Ron didn’t have that kind of agility. He played football, though, as was expected of a guy his size. His senior year a starter at defensive end.
People came up to pat his back and shake his hand, men and women both, sometimes two or three together. Some he knew, some he didn’t. They’d seen him on TV or in the paper. Each time he would notice his brother’s big smile, and Justin puffed up. Ron took his nephew up onto his knee the way he used to do when he was smaller. Richard went down to the concession and bought hot dogs and popcorn and big drinks and brought them back in a cardboard box. The lights poured down on them. The pleasing sounds of the ball bouncing on the gleaming hardwood floor, and drummers playing during breaks, and the crowd cheering and calling out, echoed through the gym. It was a good game.
In the parking lot, as the cars pulled out, their lights sweeping over him, Ron sat in the cab of the truck, letting the frantic pace of the evening dissipate. Then he flipped the phone open. No message, and so he called Joy. She was home. She said that being with Kathy a while had been good. Kathy was a good person to talk to. She didn’t scream, so he felt hopeful.
When he got home she was sitting on the couch reading a magazine with the TV on low. She looked up and said hi, how was the game?
“Delmont. We played good,” he said. “Except we lost on a free throw.”
But after he came back from the bathroom something had change. It was all there–the step by step agony of the past few days fouling their little house, and for a long moment everything cold and silent. She was holding the magazine, turning the pages slowly, and he knew that she was waiting for him to bring it up.
“Monday,” he said all at once. “For sure, I’ll get stuff ironed out on Monday. There wasn’t any chance to get away from work today. We’re snowed under. Half the assholes in East Texas looking for oil again.”
“What about Richard? Did you talk to your brother?”
He tried to think what to say and then told her about Justin, that he was with them. That there wasn’t any chance to talk.
“Well, at least, I guess you were the big hero tonight,” she said, glancing back at the magazine. “Everybody loving you.”
“It wasn’t nothing like that,” he said. “Honestly, I think it’s all over. It’s all pretty much over and forgotten. In a few days nobody’s going to remember anything anymore.”
She was glaring up at him now, the slick pages of the magazine lit by the lamplight.
JERRY WHITUS' stories have appeared in Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing and Nimrod, and on-line on the home page of Potomac Review. In addition, another story will be published in an upcoming special fiction edition of Potomac Review. He studied fiction writing in the graduate program at the University of Texas and for a number of years made a living as a freelance writer specializing in film and TV for education, industry and entertainment, with a large number of national awards. He has also been an administrator, teacher and teacher-trainer in universities in the USA, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam (on a USAID grant), and Colombia. He has completed a collection of stories and a novel, which is in the hands of an agent. He is now writing fiction full time.