Not long after Mike and Katherine moved into their spacious St. Louis county house with pillars and brick facade, its value plummeted. But it was a nice house, woods in the back, nice deck.
“What will we do when they’re gone?” Katherine asked, brushing a tangle of brown thinning hair.
“Who?” he responded. She was talking about their kids. Two more years and both would be in college.
“All this space,” she said. “Empty.”
“We’ll be fine,” he replied, but he hadn’t been “fine” for a long time; he was working sixty hours per week, troubled teenagers cussing him out every day. Maybe he needed a break. He hoped his own children were okay. And he worried about his wife, a brilliant elementary school teacher for twenty years, her job now nothing more than data collection.
“We can show-off our hardwood floors,” Mike said, echoing her long forgotten dreams. “Entertain important guests… old friends.”
“You think so,” Katherine said, practically falling into her slacks, bright with primary colors, her body still slim. Actually slimmer than ever. Still attractive if a bit bony, almost skeletal. Had she stopped eating altogether?
He gave her a hug and asked if she wanted to “mess around” knowing of course that they wouldn’t, but he went through the motions, recalling all those sleepless nights when he thought sex would help and she thought the opposite. They’d gone as long as a year without. They had hardwood floors, marble counter tops and ceiling fans.
In their cluttered garage, Mike leaned on his wife’s car door. “What do you think?” he asked. “Tonight?”
“Sure,” she responded. She said this in the same way he had said “let’s mess around” knowing nothing would come of it.
Mike had always worked hard, the guy in charge, making sure everyone else stayed sane. But the questions persisted, how long can I do this? How did other people work long hours in cubicles all day and mow their lawns on weekends? Katherine had been urging him to go on anti-depressants. She’d been on them for a few years and said they worked well – although she still had occasional weeping spells.
Mike took the day off. Maybe that would help. It was 100-degrees, the heat persisting through August and into September. He stood in the driveway, the concrete searing his bare feet. He sat and pulled on his socks and running shoes. Down the street, a garage door opened and a Lincoln Navigator roared out and away.
Mike believed in exercise, and if he ran, ate better, everything would be okay. However, he injured his foot, then his thigh, then his groin, and feared he couldn’t run anymore without re-injuring himself. Funny, he thought, his knees were okay.
He walked down the white-hot sidewalk, past the True-Green lawns, and he walked toward the house on the corner where a woman seemed to emerge every time he passed. She came from a house like theirs, except for superficial design differences – red door, brown shutters, and a brass crucifix doorknocker.
Usually he waved politely at the woman, but seldom did she acknowledge him, and only then with a slight nod in his general direction. She wore thick round glasses, so maybe she didn’t see him. But he suspected she did, otherwise why did she always seem to pop out when he passed? He began to feel anxious about her, eventually thinking of her as that “scary lady.”
Maybe Mike’s Catholic upbringing was the source of his fear. The scary lady reminded him of a nun who loved Father Graham, and Mike remembered his elementary school classmate Jimmy Seckman.
He walked courageously and as expected she appeared, lurching from her wide, pillared front porch and lumbering across the manicured lawn. She stepped onto the sidewalk, and they nearly collided.
“Pardon me,” she said with a sultry, weirdly seductive voice. Her round glasses were pushed against a bulbous nose. Her shoulders were broad, square, and her full-bosomed chest seemed as if the nipples might have hair, her body a disjointed aggregate of curves, muscle, and ambiguity. She was perhaps an inch taller than he… or maybe it was her shoes, cross-trainers, although he had never seen her run. She’d probably fall apart at the joints if she tried to run. She reminded him of his students, a little unusual, outside the statistical norm, ready to explode at any moment. She walked in front of him. He slowed his pace, avoiding getting too close to her round, oddly attractive rear end.
Mike recalled an affair he had about eight years ago, short-lived because he wanted to be a great father and husband; he wanted to arrive at some sort of ideal, kids at prestigious colleges, thin wife, enough money.
Now he didn’t know what to do. Should he turn around, or keep following the scary lady? Should he take his normal route to the far end of the subdivision? Go up the hill past basement excavations rimmed with piles of hard-packed red clay? Follow the trail into the woods ending abruptly in a tangle of jungle-like underbrush – perhaps at one time, leading somewhere.
He felt awkward walking too close to her, wondering if she sensed him. Would she turn and confront him? He headed back to his empty house, glancing over his shoulder. She moved on, something to talk about that evening when he and Katherine zoomed toward parent-teacher conferences at the high school. “She seems nice enough,” Katherine said. “Why don’t you just talk to her?”
Mike said, “She’s too scary.”
After a gloomy silence, his wife said, “Go see Doctor Long.”
He knew this was code for suggesting he take the anti-depressants, so effective for her, but he was afraid of the side-effects. He would be a mess. He knew this from watching his wife. He kept thinking that if they just made love more often, he wouldn’t need to see the doctor. Too simplistic, he thought. What good would it do anyway? After all, the few times they had sex, nothing much changed.
Mike took another day off, which seemed to irritate Katherine. He followed his normal route, up the hill onto his one-way path into the thick woods, sweat dripping from his chin, horse fly circling like a fighter jet. He flailed madly at the fly, his eyes stinging from sweat, and traipsed off the end of the path into a tangle of vines and thorns, underbrush full of spiders, tics, and chiggers. He stopped and the horse fly landed on his forehead. Christ, he muttered, tearing himself free, a thorn puncturing his leg.
Mike headed back with the blazing sun rising to its apex. He shielded his eyes, the path narrow where the woods met the suburbs, and the scary lady appeared suddenly. They brushed against each other. Mike stumbled, and she squeezed her big hands onto his arms, as if to steady him. He mumbled “excuse me” and emitted the obligatory chuckle at their absurd dance and then wondered – When was the last time he had a blow job?
“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice velvety. Mike nodded, and said he was fine. She stared, her eyes no less scary than the rest of her, dark brown and magnified behind the thick glasses.
“What about you?” he asked, and she responded that she wasn’t the one hurt. Her hint of superiority irritated him. He wiped blood from his leg.
“Helen,” she said.
Mike was startled that she had revealed her name, and he was hesitant to give his own, as if they were making a pact, and he didn’t know what for. He gave his cocktail party smile and talked about Helen of Troy, Trojans, spyware, condoms, a nervous cascade of bad jokes.
She smiled so slightly he almost missed it – maybe more of a smirk – and she stared, as if his banter were a reason for reflection. But he’d had enough of reflection… he needed jokes to survive. Didn’t everyone? She walked disjointedly into the woods.
Mike thought about following her, but knew right away it would end in disaster. She would accuse him of immoral thoughts, immoral behavior, and there would be rumors, eventually legal problems. Perhaps he was desperate, yes. On edge, yes. But no, he would not be stupid…. He could see the story now – Principal for troubled children caught in nefarious affair with neighbor in woods. Besides, if he were going to risk everything, have another fling, he would choose wisely, choose someone like his wife when they first met.
He told Katherine that the days off had helped, he felt better and was sleeping well, except it wasn’t true. Their teenagers were being as demanding as his students and Katherine, even with her anti-depressants, shouted at him, telling him that she could handle first-graders but teenagers were his specialty.
Must be the moon, he thought, waking at three a.m. unable to go back to sleep, keenly aware that such chronic sleep problems were a harbinger of major depression and that Katherine in her own hysterical way was right again. Lying on his back, moonlight seeping in around their thick curtains, he listened to his wife’s labored breathing. He could try going back to sleep, but it would be difficult. He would roll over, pull covers, reach for his water on the nightstand, spill it, and eventually Katherine would wake angry at him for waking her. So he dressed and went into the night, walking the subdivision, knowing that, if anything, the exercise might calm him enough to eventually allow sleep. Besides, he could watch the lunar eclipse. Wasn’t that the real reason for waking, not wanting to miss the eclipse, even though he’d seen one before, maybe two or three of them.
The moon was so bright the sidewalk glowed, and so did his hands. So did Helen appearing in the moonlight wearing tight black neoprene shorts, accentuating her bulging lower abdomen and her watermelon thighs with T-shirt tucked in, pulled tight against her breasts. They exchanged quiet hellos as if perfectly normal to be out strolling the sidewalk at three a.m.
“The eclipse?” Mike offered.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she said.
And he felt the effects of her arousing voice in the darkness, the sidewalk not wide enough for them both, so they stepped into the empty street. He struggled for something funny to say. For example, he thought, what cosmic joke placed him here walking with her.
Their silence and the darkness made Mike uncomfortable. He hadn’t intended on walking into the woods but they were headed that way. With the shadow moving over the moon, they approached the dark path, the moon frowning, and they stepped into the woods simultaneously, bumping into each other, her glasses reflecting the down-turned crescent.
She put her arm on his lower back, touching – a gentle push? Mike felt… awake, nerves pinging down his spine and yes he had an erection, no denying that, but he thought, what guy wouldn’t under similar circumstances?
They reached the end of the path and stood together in the dark woods, the air relatively cool, cooler than the hell of day, sliver of moon glinting through the treetops… they stood listening to the racket of insects surrounding them suddenly go quiet.
When his arm accidentally touched her breast, Mike thought, not enough space, and that’s why she didn’t flinch. Excuse me, he said, and she seemed to edge closer. Or perhaps she was merely shifting, turning to go. He almost shouted – wait!
He watched the shadow overtake the moon, no longer visible, no longer reflecting the sun – the earth, battered as it was, obliterating the light. Only a small dot of reflection remained and Mike heard her breathing in the quiet woods – Helen breathing deep, almost guttural, strangely frightening and exciting to Mike who at once felt like he should run and stay, choosing, he thought, to stay.
As the last glimmer of moon disappeared, her big hand crawled along his arm and her breathing deepened even further, husky, her hand running down his wound-tight back and brushing against his thigh. She edged closer, her breath hot and warm upon his face, smelling of garlic, and he stood still, thinking none of this was his doing, he hadn’t made the first move, he’d done nothing.
Besides, logically adultery was okay. He had, after all, had an affair and it worked out well for him because his wife never found out and overall it improved their relationship, didn’t it? In his heightened arousal he had worked hard at stimulating Katherine, and it was exciting for them both for awhile. But this felt different, more like a betrayal. Perhaps a little perverse. But Mike reminded himself, he and Helen were two consenting adults, he, an agnostic workaholic on the verge of a breakdown, a sinner, and she, perhaps a fundamentalist determined to convert sinners. Maybe this was how Jimmy Seckman felt in the seventh grade learning to drive while sitting in Father Graham’s lap.
All his thinking seemed to be affecting Helen, her breathing becoming shallow because he had not responded to her touch. He had a split second to act, moving ever so slightly, but it was enough, enough to prod her… continue what he could only call or justify as a seduction. But he was a willing participant. He almost blurted the joke about God giving men two heads… Could he only use one at a time?
Helen ran her fingers along his belt loop while her other monstrous hand grabbed his leg, adding to his excitement, the anticipation, but this was unlike him… he enjoyed talking during sex… sharing… probing with wondrous words and with touch… but this… this was different.
Total darkness. No dot of moon. The night black and even blacker in the Ozark woods. Only touch. He felt he might explode. He grunted in a feeble attempt to initiate conversation, to reassure himself. “You…” he gasped but was unable to say more as Helen unbuckled his pants, pulled them down. He felt her lips. What did they look like? He had no memory of her lips – he’d been distracted by the bulbous nose and bulging midriff and Christianity. But now as her lips slid over him, they became who she was, saliva, tongue, silky whirling, and no longer did he have to deny his wife’s allusions, no longer did he have to act as if all were alright, no longer did he want hardwood floors, ceiling fans, gas fireplace… “No,” he said, but she didn’t stop, he yelled again no and pushed on her broad shoulders, but she was strong, and both her hands gripped his rear as he moved reflexively in and out exploding and…. as he shrank away, his body falling limp, he felt embarrassed, dirty… already torn between wanting to do this again and wanting to flee, to move, get away, run to the doctor and get his anti-depressants, or move away, go… go somewhere.
Jeffrey Penn May has won several short fiction awards, including one from Writer’s Digest, and has published numerous short stories, poems, and mountain climbing articles. His novel Where the River Splitsreceived an excellent review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and his work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jeff has been a waiter, hotel security officer, credit manager, deck hand, technical data engineer and currently teaches writing and fly fishing. His adventures include floating a home-built raft from St. Louis to Memphis, navigating a John boat to New Orleans, digging for Pre-Columbian artifacts, and climbing mountains from Alaska to South America. Please visit www.askwritefish.com.