by Joel Harris
Marge's new friend, Sylvia, was painting the den when I walked in with the Sunday New York Times. I usually read it at my apartment in the morning and then brought it over as a kind of peace offering.
The house was for sale, and no one had made any offers yet. Marge decided to have Sylvia brighten up the den with fresh paint. I had given up my share of the house to Marge that February as protection against what seemed like the imminent bankruptcy of my sawmill. I had never felt comfortable in that stately old house. It was too big and too much work, fixing leaking faucets and painting window sills. And I didn't enjoy the gardener's bill or the taxes.
Tears came to my eyes in the lawyer's office when I signed the papers which gave title over to Marge. Her lawyer had been suspicious of my alleged poverty until then. I gave the house away because I wanted my children to have a roof over their heads. He could understand that. And when I asked his advice about going chapter eleven, he knew I wasn't kidding.
"Is it that bad?" he asked.
"I don't know yet," I answered. "I'm waiting for my accountant's report. I've got to keep the mill going for at least another few months."
He had sounded sympathetic, more than enough to remind me how tenuous and confused my life had become. Signing the house over had a finality to it, an irreversible step along the path to dissolution, a stripping away of material things and the sentiments attached to them.
Sylvia had chosen an eggshell color. She had sanded the walls smooth and was just finished painting when I walked in.
"Well, hello," she said, in her Midwest drawl, archness to her voice, full of commiseration when she really didn't give a shit how I felt. "And what have you been up to, David?"
"Very nice, Sylvia," I said, admiring her work.
A kerchief protected her blonde hair from paint splatter. A man's shirt hung out of her tight blue jeans. I loved the irony of her doing my work to get the house ready to sell. Sometimes I felt sorry for the way Marge used her, but that was Sylvia's problem now. No doubt she was a woman you could lean on, and I had not been that kind of man for Marge. Besides painting, she could repair Michael's toys, replace fuses, jump a dead battery, or mount a basketball hoop and backboard. Growing up on an Iowa farm had prepared her to survive.
"And what brings you over?" Marge asked. "You didn't come to help with the painting?"
"Thought you might want the newspapers," I said.
"Thanks. You can leave them on the counter."
Marge never liked having me around when Sylvia was there. It made Sylvia feel awkward, she told me. I didn't feel awkward around Sylvia. I was glad she had replaced me. It didn't threaten my relationship with the children as another man might have. My daughter, Louise, was sometimes upset to see Sylvia so often, but Michael loved all the attention she paid him.
Oddly enough, I liked Sylvia for shouldering some of the burden. She was dependable, she could be imposed upon, and she was a hard worker--all necessary to survive with Marge. She was, also, damned attractive. They looked alike, both about five foot six, small bosomed and shapely, nice legs, blond hair. In fact, they were mistaken for sisters when they went out together, a curious narcissism. But Marge's face had a rounded look, a small upturned nose; Sylvia's turned more towards flat intersecting planes. She had a prominent chin, a strong face that at sixty-five would be lean and leathery, a Western woman John Wayne would have admired. She had seduced all the men at her last job, dropping each one cold after one contact. They never knew what hit them. At the time she was groping for an excuse to get her own divorce. Now she worked for Prudential--one of their star sales people--and could be as circumspect as that corporation demanded. Poor Marge had a fatal attraction for oversexed people. She complained she had trouble handling Sylvia's demands.
"You and she ought to get together sometime," She had once joked.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, in the house that was no longer mine. A contractor had built it for himself and he spared no expense to make it a solid building inside and out. After he died, the house was sold to a couple who lived there for thirty years. They had no children and had kept it in beautiful repair. When Marge and I moved in, the carpets and draperies were new, the paint fresh. We had little to do but bring our belongings and our two children.
The house sat on an acre and a half of land. Attractively landscaped, the yard rolled gently back to a row of fir trees. Had I played golf, it would have been an ideal setting to practice with a wedge and putter. There were lots of trees, red pine, oak, soft maple, a copper beech in the front yard, and three fruit trees; pear, apple, and a plum which spread it's purple leaves like a huge umbrella.
I cultivated a garden and grew tomatoes, zucchini, and green peppers. I tended it with care and each autumn I packed my produce into Mason jars. During the long winter, I loved to make a meat and vegetable soup to remind myself of summer's bounty and the autumn harvest.
Now Sylvia had replaced me. I was the visitor in Marge's eyes, the intruder, disturbing this nest of domesticity with my threat of financial ruin, wearing my sorrow like a hair shirt.
I still went over to the house every morning to see the children off to school. Sometimes Sylvia would be there. She slept over a couple nights a week, and I would sometimes meet her in the upstairs hall, fresh out of the shower, with a towel wrapped around her.
"Well, good morning, David," she'd say. I always wondered how she could turn on that good nature so early in the morning. But Marge had no tolerance for our run-ins. She began insisting that I not come over in the mornings when Sylvia was there, or if Sylvia was to arrive in the evening, I was to take Louise and Michael out for dinner.
"We never have any privacy," Marge said, to justify my exile. "You have your apartment for your affairs."
"But I like Sylvia," I pleaded.
"She likes you, too."
"Can't I even say, 'Hello'?"
"Don't be cute. We have the kids around here all the time. And we have her kids at her house. We don't need you around, too."
Sylvia slept on my side of the bed. Before Marge tightened the rules I'd stroll into the bedroom to find Sylvia smoothing the covers on the king-sized bed. When I stayed there Saturday night to baby-sit I could smell her perfume on the sheets, her sweet smell, a woman to lean on and lie next to, with a man's sex drive and mechanical talents but with a warm woman's touch. What more could Marge want?
The only thing that bothered me, really, was the impact their relationship was having on our daughter. I knew I couldn't abide by Marge's edict. I had to be with Louise as much as possible. Despite that, Louise was often melancholy.
"I don't want to be like Mommy and Mrs. Parker," she'd say and burst into tears. I'd tell her not to worry, that she was going to grow into the woman that she wanted to be.
"You'll never leave us, Daddy, will you?" I knew she was lonely. She couldn't confide in her friends, yet, about her mother.
One evening I put my six-year-old Michael to bed and lay conversing with him in the dark as we always did.
"Squirrels and ants save their food because they don't want to die," he said.
"I might not go to heaven when I die," I replied.
"Because I'm afraid of heights."
We laughed and then I kissed him good night.
Downstairs, the two friends were watching television in the den. Sylvia had her feet on Marge's lap. I dreaded returning to my empty apartment, and I lingered just a moment more. Despite everything, the house at that instant seemed serene and tranquil. I wanted to thank Sylvia for all she had done, for setting me free, for loving my children, but I slipped out the door without a word.
That night, in a strange dream, I was transported back to Marge's and my first home on the top of Paramount Drive, along the crest of a hill overlooking the city, an upside down split-level with a living room, kitchen, and sun deck on the second floor to take advantage of the view. I felt at home, again, in my dream but, also, lonely returning to an empty place. I walked downstairs to the lower hall past Louise's small room, her white bed against the wall.
My bedroom was next to Louise's. I looked in the doorway and, in my dream, saw a hologram of myself making love to Marge. The couple paid no attention to me. But was it really Marge or some other woman, a mystery woman, to whom I was somehow connected? I closed the door, apologetically, feeling as if I had wandered into a wrong hotel room.
I stood in the hall, disoriented, the walls closing around me like a dark cave. My old home was empty save for those two dream-ghosts fornicating on our king-sized bed. I stumbled out the lower door onto a concrete pad beneath the sun deck.
Outside, in the late afternoon, the sky had faded to a drab gray. The grassy lawn sloped towards the woods. I felt overwhelmed by sadness. I would never revisit my home again. I went over to the bedroom window. Carpenter ants had eaten away the sill. It was soft and full of holes where I leaned my hands to look inside at my proxy couple.
Marge stood next to the bed, gazing at herself in the mirror. She had a diminutive penis, larger than a clitoris. She looked Hermaphrodite. I lay back on the bed, watching her. She turned nonchalantly away and said, 'Oh, my interest? It's definitely bisexual.' I was stunned. After all those years of stroking, I had never noticed her peculiar attachment.
My terror mounted. I turned from the window and ran stumbling into the woods, through vines and sharp branches that slapped at my face, pursued by demons, and terrified at this change in my wife.