Sam brought in the mail just after noon on Wednesday, threw it on the table, and started to make some lunch.
He didn’t sort through the envelopes until a few hours later. After lunch, he cleaned up his plate and put the long bag of white bread away. Then he got on a kick about straightening up and decided to clean the counters and the sink too, even the floor.
It was mid-afternoon, maybe 2:45, before he finally sat down to go through everything he brought in from the mailbox. He always delayed it for a while, but then it would hit him all of a sudden, the desire to sort through it, to rip into the envelopes and maybe figure it all out. The usual chorus of bills and late notices, demands for money he didn’t have on hand. Darla always said to meet things head on, “We’ll deal with it all together,” but that old song didn’t mean much to him even when he was feeling right about himself. It was his name on the bills, showing in neat computer-generated script through the cellophane windows, not hers.
So with no paycheck coming in, at least not one with his name on it, he shuffled around the house. Out the front window, he could see the whole broad expanse of the front yard, all kinds and heights of grass mixed up to make a shimmering green. He kept track of the birds that flew through the yard, how many might fill up one tree or another, and if there was any pattern to it. For long hours, he massaged his knee until it felt like he’d work his way right through it, that the whole mess of it would fall clean off.
But this time, as he flipped through the mail pile, one of the letters caught his eye, one with actual human handwriting on the front of it, bubbly blue ink letters that reminded him of the passed notes he had tried to intercept back in middle school. Except this one was addressed to him with no return address, and Sam felt his blood chill just a bit. Not every man has good reason to think something bad is angling for him right out of the clear sky. But that’s what he felt just the same, the numb feeling that something was lying in wait for him like a snake between rocks, sticking to shade and waiting out the day. His insides felt oily. He left the envelope on the table and walked off.
When Darla got home, the light was turning purple outside. She pushed open the door with a grunt, muscled the rusted latch and managed an armload of groceries. Sam jumped to her aid but managed only to half prop the door open and put himself in her way at the same time. “Hey,” he said trying to will a smile, to put some kind of spark in his eyes.
“And when’s the door getting fixed?” she asked with her voice all flat, her eyes intently focused on the groceries she was unpacking on the counter. Sam thought she might pop the eggs one at a time with the force of her glare.
“Yeah,” he said, trying to sound casual, “I got busy today.” When that didn’t have any effect, he tried to sound chipper instead. “It’s on the list.”
“You want to show me that list? I’ve got a few things to add.” There were a lot of things Darla didn’t understand, is what Sam was thinking. But he’d never been the kind to really be able to explain things. So things got quiet, and she busied herself around the kitchen, putting away the rest of the groceries. He watched as she opened one cabinet after another, all of them already stuffed with cans of whatever and boxes of pasta. He watched her try to figure out how to jam another couple of cans into the overflow.
This was always the worst part of the day, right when she got home. He leapt up, like a convict getting a visitor, eager to hear her voice. And all she wanted was quiet, or maybe what she wanted was for the door to be fixed, for the cabinets to close easily. Sam thought she looked prettiest then, right as she came in the door, hurrying around, flustered, and more than a little annoyed with him. Even after a long day of having been lived in, her work clothes still looked stylish and smart, and Darla was like a catalog model. Normally, he was right at her elbows, following her around as she shook off the day. But today, Sam thought he’d give her some space and wandered off to the living room.
But just a few minutes later that Darla came looking for him. “Hey, there,” she said into the dark of the living room. She fell into the sofa next to him. “Sorry, okay?” She reached over and smoothed his hair off his forehead. “I mean, I just walked in the door and snapped a bit. You’ve got to give me a second.”
Sam made a small wave, just raising his hand a bit, as if to say “okay” and “forget it” all at once. He felt as if he should be the one apologizing, really, but didn’t want to drag things out. Darla noticed the letter sitting on the table and reached for it. “What’s that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Came today. No return address, nothing. See?” He picked it up off the table and held it out to her, but she just kind of looked at it, then at him with some wild shimmering in her eyes like maybe she knew what it was. But she didn’t take it. Instead, she got up and went back to the kitchen. “Well, open it,” she called back. “Then let’s eat.”
He could hear her down the hallway, even through thin walls of their house. She was in the kitchen, and he could see her plain as if he was standing in front of her, knew exactly what she was doing without even using his eyes. First she was opening a can or two of something, then starting some water to boil. He sat there pretending that was his God-given power, seeing through walls. Seeing what was really happening. But then he got sick of himself imagining his own wife in the other room. He startled her when he said from the kitchen doorway, “Ahoy. What’s up in here? Can I help?”
She turned toward him and said, “So, what was it? The letter.” She pointed down at this hand held at his side, and he realized he was still holding onto it.
“Huh,” he said. “Didn’t open it yet.” He tore into a corner of it, pulled out a big broad sheet of newsprint while Darla watched him. One side was just a full advertisement spread, houses for sale and come-on-in-today-for-low-mortgages. The other side was incomprehensible, stock figures in their small print. And there was a yellow Post-it note stuck to the advertisement side which read: “Hey—thought you might be interested in these deals! —J.”
“Hah!” he yelped out almost involuntarily. “Some kind of scam is all.” He put the envelope and the newspaper page down on the table and moved in closer to her. He couldn’t make out Darla’s expression, which was sort of relaxed or maybe tired out. “What do you say we go out tonight? After dinner? Just get a few drinks or something. I’m going a little buggy.”
She turned fast, away from him, and slammed a bowl of something down on the table. “You’re buggy? Sam, listen—I don’t get what’s happening here at all. You sit around the house all day. I come home, and you’re all over me like a puppy. I just don’t…” She trailed off as she made her way back to the stove to stir a pot of something. He stood there with his hands at his side, kind of flexing his fingers a bit. He imagined that his hands were getting bigger by the second, ballooning up, that pretty soon he wouldn’t be able to use his hands for any of the things hands were supposed to be used for. But it was all in his head.
He started to talk, but let her cut him off because he didn’t really have anything to say. “Okay. Hey. I’m just edgy. I go out to work. I come home. Sometimes you haven’t even gotten dressed. Did you even call back in to work? To see what’s up?” She looked him over and then kept on going. “I don’t know. You’ll figure it out, right? I need to give you some space to figure it out is all.” She walked right up to him, reached down, and put her hand on his knee, not really gently. “Here’s the facts. Your knee is healed up. Has been. But here’s another fact: your mind is still off, something inside it. But I accept that.” With that she turned and went back to the stove. “It’s just that I wonder when things are going to get back to normal.” And he just stood there.
The next morning, the kettle was making a racket so he grabbed at it, fast and clumsy, brushing his dumb hand right against the metal.
He flinched and swallowed his other reactions. “The water for the coffee,” he mumbled though he’d meant to sound regal.
“Hey, thanks,” Darla said, with all the sunlight anyone could muster at this early hour. “This is great, huh? Back at it, right? I’m glad.” Sam could see that Darla had closed her eyes, was maybe imagining back to when simple things weren’t such a big deal, when she could take things like this for granted.
But this was all part of his plan. On a whim, he’d gotten up with the alarm, with Darla fumbling in the blunt dark. He wrangled himself into a shirt with sleeves, pants that buttoned and zipped instead of the kind with an elastic waist. He was going out, sure. Back to work, he said, and he saw a change come over her features when he said it. So now he was doing it. He’d locked himself in.
“So I figure I just walk in, right? Tell Kev I’m back, whatever.” He mustered all the confidence he could manage, casually predicting what would happen. He hoped Darla would take it at face value. But he knew that every other time he told her he’d talk to Kevin about getting back to work, what he’d really done is thought about it and thought about it and not done anything. And she knew that, too. But he needed her to believe him, even if just for a little bit. Sam picked up a piece of toast, cut a slice of butter, and smeared it into the bread, wrecking it.
He put a plate in front of her and grinned like a lunatic, half apologizing for the disaster he was handing her and half embarrassed. Darla looked up at him, said, “About last night. Again. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, don’t you worry. You’re right, anyway. And I’m back at it. Back on the horse.”
“No, really. I’m sorry.” She took a few sips of her coffee, and, past her, out the window, Sam could make out a few birds flitting into the front yard tree.
“Well, okay. Right. Time to get going?” He kept watching those birds as she put the dishes in the sink. She grabbed a pair of shoes from by the front door, then grabbed another pair, then put them both down and reached for a third.
“Let’s hit it,” she said as she looked over at him, a nervous last check to make sure he didn’t have toothpaste on his collar maybe. It was nerves all around. “Look out world, right?”
“So—what? You can’t pick up a phone or anything?”
Kevin gave Sam a half smile, the kind that says he’s not joking, that he only wants you to think he is. And Sam stood there, half smiling—but like an idiot. Kevin came out from behind his desk, gave Sam a hug, then pulled back and looked him over. “I mean, come on. I thought you were giving me a hint or something, not answering, not coming in. Early retirement, right?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Sam said, forcing himself to grin.
“So, you’re back?”
“Yep, put me back in. Ready.”
Kevin turned his back and started shuffling through some papers on his desk. “I wish you’d told me you weren’t dead or something. Anything. Once the doc gave the okay, we figured you’d be right back in, you know.” When he turned back around, he looked Sam right in the eye, hard, concentrating all his disappointment into a thin beam. “I told ‘em you’d be right in. But then nothing, so…”
Sam could feel his hands going clumsy again, but on the inside, as if the gears and mechanisms weren’t quite right. He felt like if he tried to handle anything, even pick something up, he’d drop it fast. Or his fingers would fall off.
“So, here it is. You’re back. But—we got another guy doing pipes now.”
Sam squinted at that, remembering when he grabbed that kettle earlier in the morning. “Okay, yeah. But what about sprinklers? I’m good on that.”
“Yeah, got that covered, too. Look, I can put you out there, sure. Always plenty of stuff to do. But just general work right now. Maybe work you into masonry.”
“Well, yeah. If that’s it, then that’s okay with me.”
“All right. Back at it. Pop in here tomorrow at six, and we’ll send you out.” Kevin stretched out his hand for a shake and said something happy about Sam being back, and Sam reached for it, Kev’s hand. He was pretty happy to grab it without missing it, overshooting it or something, happy that he could pump it like he used to.
Sam walked into the soft light of an afternoon that was already falling all apart into evening.
He tried not to think about Kevin, smug with his desk and his little office. He tried not to think about how he had to take it in there, take whatever Kev dished out to him. It’s my own fault, anyway, Sam thought as he looked up and down the street, taking note. It wasn’t all that often, at least not lately, that he got into town at night. He could see the lights flicking on as it got dark, the bold neon snapping to life. Three women came out of the bank together, closing it up for the night, and he looked at them a little too long. The whispering sound their nylons made as they walked to their cars and headed home was almost too loud for him.
He realized Darla would be getting home soon, too, and he wanted to be there, to tell her. Tell her about getting back to work and everything else, too.
All up and down the main street, businesses were closing up, people heading home—or at least out somewhere else. What did he know about what people did? But all around him, he saw the windows blazing light then blacking out. The jewelry shop and the flower shop—already dark. He saw the big Turkish guy who ran the dry cleaners still leaning on the counter and, behind him, that big carousel of clothes, bagged and numbered, everything pressed and clean.
And across the street, Sam saw the real estate office, the same one that had sent him the advertisement. The big front windows were pasted over with pictures of houses for sale, descriptions, and prices, but he could still see through the glass front doors, right into the office. He saw an older lady sitting at the front desk, hidden behind the big wooden curves of it. Maybe that was “J”—the one who’d sent the note—or maybe she was someone else all together and the person who sent the note was someone else, too. Or maybe “J” wasn’t anyone, just a convenient letter to use. He could see the few worn chairs scattered around the waiting area, a cheap pressed-board table to hold magazines and different brochures.
Sam tried to think of what he’d say to her, what he might really want to know. He’d ask about the letter, maybe, just to hear her say they tried to trick him into thinking it was personal when it wasn’t. He wished he’d brought it with him so he could show it to her, match it up, find out who actually wrote it out, then maybe ask her to write a few more things so he could watch her hands arc and swirl across the page. And then he’d know for sure that it was all empty, meaningless, that even his own name written that way didn’t mean anything at all.
It was solidly dark by the time Sam got home.
The sky was flat, the roads shimmering with all that blackness, and even the windows of the little house were blank squares. He pushed open the door, jammed it a bit, and reminded himself he needed to work at it, to fix the door and anything else that was broken around the house. He’d have to look. Tomorrow, he’d have to head to work early but then it was Friday, then Saturday. And on the weekend, he’d take a look around.
He flicked the kitchen light on and didn’t notice the few things that were missing, not the framed old-timey photo of Darla’s great-grandmother snapped back when she was just a girl, not three of the six pairs of shoes that Darla kept by the door, ready access for the ones in heavy rotational use.
He didn’t go into the living room and so didn’t notice that there were a few things missing there, too—just a few—and even if he’d gone in, he might not have realized what he wasn’t seeing among all the other things that were stacked up everywhere. Books and old newspapers. The letter he wished he had brought with him so he could have proved a point.
Sam sat down, heavily, at the kitchen table. Just on the table in front of him was a folded piece of paper with his name written on the outside of it. Sam didn’t see it then, didn’t pick it up and read it through. He didn’t turn it over in his hands a few times, trying to figure it out.
The door needed fixing, is what he was thinking. And there was a span of gutter at the back of the house that had sort of pulled away, was leaking, and wasn’t really doing its job. He’d hammer it back into the roofline, secure it somehow. Make it work. He’d have time—Saturday, Sunday, maybe even the next weekend, too. Sam knew he could bang it all out, get things back in shape.