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All of August

This story first appeared in Anthology Magazine, Summer, 2002  

The last box was the heaviest, a set of Corelle, a couple of frying pans, some forks. I lugged it up two flights of stairs and set it in the kitchen with the others. With nothing left to do, I shoved my hands into my pockets and stared at her back. A hot breath of air blew through the windows of the apartment, breathing fire into the three miserable rooms. Her home for all of August, or until one of us gave in.

“That’s the last of it,” I muttered.

“Good. Thank you.”

I stood there, shifting in my shoes, like a bellhop waiting for his tip.

“Do you want coffee?” she asked. “Or do you want to go?”

Coffee was Britt’s answer to everything. The smell of it had filled our house on Bridge Street. There was morning coffee. After-sex coffee. Coffee swallowed behind closed doors when one of her friends was having a crisis. It was ninety friggin’ degrees in the apartment and now we had a crisis that coffee couldn’t touch. It was the last thing in the world I wanted. Except to go.

“I don’t care. Sure.”

She dug through the box and found a jar of instant Folgers and the Mickey Mouse mugs from our honeymoon seven years ago. I stared at them while she filled a kettle with water and set it onto the stove. A hell of a jump, I thought, from Disney World to where we were today.

“I didn’t bring any sugar,” she said. “I’ll have to go out later, I guess. Get some things.”

We had a five-pound bag of sugar hardening into rock at home, not to mention a brand-new cappuccino machine. I was thinking this as the Mickey mug grinned stupidly at me. “Britt, this is nuts. Can we please not do this?”

She splashed some milk into her cup. “You tell me, Luke.”

This was my cue to say I was sorry. Looking at my beautiful wife, I knew it wasn’t too much to say. But we’d reached an impasse: I wanted a family, she wanted a career, and “sorry” wouldn’t change a d*mned thing.

“I didn’t earn a Master’s degree just to spend my life barefoot and pregnant,” she said.

“I don’t want you barefoot.” Knowing they were fighting words, but unable to resist, I added, “I just want what you promised me.”

“Don’t go there.” She knotted her hands into fists, relaxed them again. A thing she did when she was trying not to blow up. “Just don’t go there, okay?”

“I’m only saying -- ”

“I never promised we were going to be the godd*mned Waltons. Get a clue, Luke. This is my future we’re talking about.”

“Forgive me for wanting to clutter up your perfect life,” I shot back. “Last I knew, it was my future, too.”

“We’re only twenty-five. God. What’s the rush?”

Those were her mother’s words and I’d been hearing them for longer than I cared to remember. “It’s been six years, Brittany. How much longer am I supposed to --”

She slammed her cup down onto the counter. “Having another baby won’t bring him back, you know? We could have a hundred babies. None of them would be Taylor.”

A hot retort formed in my brain, but we’d said too much already. I turned and walked out with a mumbled, “Call if you need anything.” In the hallway, I turned back. I mouthed the words “I love you” into the peephole, in case she was looking through the other end.

Rex, our five-year-old boxer, was waiting at the door when I got home. He greeted me with a wag of his stump, then seeing I’d returned alone, gave me a filthy look and slunk off to the kitchen. I followed.

“Don’t give me that crap,” I said. “This was her idea, not mine.” I shook a Marlboro from my pack and lit it on the stove, then rummaged through the cupboards for my bottle of Jim Beam. I carried it to the porch and sank into a chair. Across the yard, Britt’s hammock swayed emptily in the afternoon breeze. I opened the bottle and took a swallow, fighting panic. We’d talked about this for days. I’d told myself I’d be fine. Truth was, I never thought she’d go.

As afternoon slipped into evening, I tried to name her reasons for wanting out. Much as I’d tried, seven years ago, to name her reasons for wanting in. Nothing about it had made sense then, either.

Every school has its caste system and East High was no different. If Brittany LaClaire was top drawer, then I was definitely the bottom of the barrel. Britt’s family lived in a big, beautiful house on Cutter Hill. Mine lived in a trailer on Phinney Street. Factor in that I was a Goodman. A bad boy. A f---up in a long line of f---ups. Dudes like me didn’t even talk to girls like Britt, let alone date them.

Senior year, she underwent a strange metamorphosis. She dropped out of cheerleading, got a butch haircut and a silver eyebrow ring. When she started asking around about me, rumors spread through East High like a bad case of syphilis.

It was like Christmas every day of the year. Like after eighteen years of wanting, Santa Claus had finally dumped the mother of all treasures into my lap. And I was careful with it. Possessive as a Doberman, I chased off all the other dogs who came sniffing around. Like everything else in my life, I knew what I had with Britt was too good to last, so I formulated a plan. Her pregnancy shocked everyone but me. When we got married, a week after graduation, Taylor was only a bulge under her waistband. And my insurance policy against losing her.

It took a near-miscarriage to make him real to me, but once he was real, I loved the little dude. I loved every beat of his heart, every ripple that moved across Britt’s belly. She hated her body while she was pregnant. I thought it was the most beautiful body I’d ever seen. Creating Taylor was the single greatest accomplishment of my life. I got a job at the factory, took over Britt’s father’s payments on our house. I cut off my ponytail, stopped drinking and smoking dope. I grew up, waiting for Taylor to be born.

He showed up right on time, a five-pound miracle with my blond curls and his mother’s almond eyes. But there was this problem with his fingers. If it had been just that, they said, a plastic surgeon could have built back those fingers and created a normal kid. But there wasn’t a surgeon alive who could build back half his brain. He lived just fourteen hours.

It was a long haul, getting over Taylor. Secretly, I worried that it was my crack-tainted blood that had caused him to be born the way he was. I knew Britt thought the same, though she never said so.

Ironically, it was me who brought home the college catalogue. I picked it up on a whim, desperate for something that would make Britt stop crying. She sipped black coffee while I read her the course list. No one was happier than me when she signed up for Creative Writing.

When she enrolled in college full-time the next semester, I tried to be part of her new world. Nights, I sat bleary-eyed over pots of coffee, helping her memorize theorems and Yeats. And all the while I wanted to throw her to the floor and bury myself inside her. Sex became a rare privilege, something between exams. If she was feeling good about her grades. And never without her diaphragm.

Her parents gladly paid for her education. We were young, they said. There’d be plenty of time for children. Later. I knew they still thought of me as Britt’s bad habit. Something she’d give up when she came to her senses. Hell, maybe they were right.

I threw the empty bottle into the yard and gazed out at the darkness. Everything I was, I was for the sake of us. If there was no us anymore, there simply was no me.

As the days passed, I felt myself begin to disappear. I couldn’t work. Couldn’t eat. My stomach ached and my bowels seemed to erupt at random. On a rainy Tuesday night I drove to her apartment, with my heart and a week’s worth of junk mail in my hands.

She didn’t answer the door, but the soft music on the other side told me she was there. Maybe in the bedroom out back, reading, I thought. Tuning out the world in that aggravating way she had. I knocked louder. Or in the bedroom, I thought, doing something else. My heart froze in my chest as my imagination caught fire.

I burst through the door, my eyes full of murder and my mouth full of threats, into a room filled with people. Pretty, perfect people. Drinking wine. Eating cheese. Laughing. Sitting around and laughing, I thought, about big, dumb Luke. A shrimpy looking jerk in perfectly pressed jeans took a step toward me. I stood in the doorway, glaring, while he nervously eyes my tattoos. Britt hurried over and all but shoved me out the door, not wanting her friends to see me. She was ashamed of me, and it hurt. When the door was safely closed, she lost her party smile.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed.

“I wanted to talk to you.” Putting her in the truck and taking her home was what I’d had in mind. Obviously that wasn’t an option.

“You should have called first.”

I realized that. Then. But by then it was too late, and what was I supposed to say, I know that, baby, but you see, you got this urgent document from Wal-Mart and I thought I’d better bring it right over? I hid the junk mail behind my back, feeling like the ass she thought I was. “Forgive me for missing you. I didn’t think you’d be throwing a party, for chrissake.”

“It’s not a party, it’s my writing group. We meet on Tuesday nights, remember?”

Ah, yes, I thought bitterly, her writing group. The one that never met at our house on Bridge Street because she claimed it was too small. I raked my fingers through my hair. “I’ll come back later. What time do you break up?”

“I don’t know. Late.”

“How about tomorrow, then? I‘ll buy you dinner.”

“No. Tomorrow’s no good.”

“Do you think you could pencil me in for sometime next week?” I shouted. Easy, I told myself. Easy. Don’t make it worse. “Come on, Britt,” I said softly. “I just want to talk.”

“Brittany?” The shrimpy guy poked his head out the door. “You have a phone call.”

Her relief was so real I could have touched it. “Look, I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you.” She went back to her party that wasn’t a party. I went out for beer.

When the Waymann’s Superstore came to town, the mom and pop groceries that lined the broken sidewalks on the north side began to fold like losing poker hands. Lou’s market, however, stayed in business. It gave ex-Marines like Lou a place to drink cold beer and rehash the Vietnam War. It also gave Lou’s son Benny and me a place to hang out after school, stocking the coolers and looking at porno magazines. Fifteen years later, at twenty-five, this had become Benny’s full-time job.

The store was thick with smoke. When he heard the bell above the door, Benny grabbed a can of Wizard from the shelf and pumped a cloud of lilac scent into the air. Seeing it was me, he grinned and threw a fake punch.

“Hey. If it ain’t the Good-man.”

“How’s it going, Benny?” I grabbed a case of Coors from the cooler and set it on the counter.

He shrugged. “Same sh*t, different day.”

He studied me while he rang up my beer. We’d been tight, growing up. I guess he still considered us tight enough that he could tell me I looked like hell. I opened my wallet and mumbled about having a few problems. He handed me my change. Probably remembering how he’d tried to stop me from getting involved with Britt, I thought. She ain’t our people, man, he’d said. Sooner or later that bitch will break your heart. For a minute, I was sure he was going to say I told you so. “Stop by the trailer sometime,” he said instead. “We’ll burn a couple. Talk about the old days.”

I said “Yeah, I’ll do that,” and walked from the store, wondering how he made the distinction. Benny was in exactly the same place now he’d been fifteen years ago. I felt like I’d walked a million miles.

I drove home feeling utterly lost. There was no way I could go back to Benny’s world. And I was no longer welcome in my own.

Rex wouldn’t eat and I couldn’t stop drinking. Two lost souls, we drifted through our lives, his anorexic, mine alcoholic, waiting for Britt to come home.

I wandered through the house, touching things. Pictures. Nightgowns. An old perfume bottle she’d discarded in the trash. I went through her books, read her old term papers, looking for clues as to what had gone wrong. In the bottom drawer of her computer desk, in a Bandolino shoe box, I found our wedding album and a handful of memories. I carried the box to the porch and settled into my chair with a bottle of vodka.

I flipped through the album. It was the usual stuff: me looking as stiff as a corpse, a bunch of girls in prom queen dresses, Britt’s old man crying. But there was one picture I went back to over and over again. I was haunting and familiar because I’d been carrying it in my head for the past seven years. We were leaving the church, Britt looking at me like no one had ever looked at me before. Like I was Superman and had just rescued her from a burning building. I was stupid enough to think I could keep that look in her eyes forever.

She’d taped her ultrasound picture of Taylor to the back cover. Probably the last time she’d looked at the album before tucking it into the box with a handful of napkins that proclaimed our love in lavender, and the statue from the top of our wedding cake. I pulled the statue from the box and held it, tears raining down my face. A child bride and groom. Two kids who didn’t know each other at all, standing, hands clasped, ready to take on the world.

I didn’t hear the phone ring. It was Rex’s howl, his face smashed against the screen door, that brought me back. “Luuuuke! Luuuuke!”

He brushed past me on my way to the kitchen, whining as Britt’s voice on the answering machine filled the room. “So if you could give me a call --”

I grabbed the phone. “I’m here, Britt.”

A sigh whispered across the phone lines. “I’ve got some things to tell you.”

“I’m all ears.”

“I mean face-to-face.”

My bowels threatened to give way again. “Do you want me to come over?”

“No, not tonight. Meet me tomorrow at Wet Goods.”

I carried the statue back to the porch. As I killed the bottle of vodka, I stared at the rock garden we’d put in after the loamy soil had refused the roses. She loved roses. Well, you can’t always get what you want. What did I want? What was I willing to settle for?

I drank a couple of beers before I left for Wet Goods, just to steady my nerves. I had a bad feeling in my gut. I took Rex along for moral support and locked him in the truck.

Every male eye in Wet Goods focused on the door when she walked in, including mine.

“How are you, Britt?” I asked. “You look great.”

“You look awful.” She lit a cigarette. “Timmy says you’ve been missing a lot of work. I hope you’re not drinking again.”

“I’m not,” I said, tipping a beer bottle to my lips. She caught my eye over the top of the bottle and we laughed. For one beautiful moment, she was back. She’d taken out her eyebrow ring. My eyes were drawn to the hole. I thought about how much I wanted to love her. “I’ve missed you so much,” I said, covering her hand with mine.

“Luke,” she said, pulling it free. “I’ve been offered a position at Smithfield University.”

My heart cracked. “Congratulations.”

“I’d say thank you if I thought you meant it.”

I looked into her eyes and saw the future. It was all there. Meetings. Conferences. Late night classes. Me, sitting alone over microwaved dinners. For a long moment I wrestled with the children she would never have time to create, weighed them against a future without her.

“I do mean it,” I croaked. “It’s okay if we don’t have kids. Now or ever. I can live without them.”

“No, you can’t.”

“I can,” I insisted. “We’ll just go on like before. Do what you need to do. I won’t get in your way.” I sat on the edge of my chair, trying to read her silence.

“It’s not that simple,” she finally said.

“Sure it is,” I said, going numb.

“I want to make the separation permanent.” The blow knocked me to the ground. Before I could recover, she dealt another. “I don’t love you anymore, Luke.”

I had never shed tears in front of a woman. I had no intention of doing so then. I stood to my feet and walked from the bar, eyes burning. I got in my truck. Tears splashed onto the dash and onto my pants and wouldn’t stop coming. When Rex saw Britt come out the back door, he cried and danced a jig and p*ssed all over the seat. She opened the door and rubbed his ears. “How are you, baby, huh? How’s my boy?”

“He’s my boy!” I shouted.

“I know that, Luke. I was just--”

“I know exactly what you’re doing. First you’ll take my house. Then you’ll want my bank account. You can take the godd*mned Fiesta ware, but you are not going to take my dog!” I glared at her, fighting tears.

“This isn’t about who gets what,” she said. “It’s about me going in a new direction. It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to go there. And I’m sorry.”

I got out of the truck and locked my arms around her. “I’ll go in any direction you say, Britt. Just don’t do this. Please don’t do this.”

“Luke, don’t.” She tried to free herself. I clung to her, sobbing against her neck. “Luke,” she whispered. “Let me go.”

Being legally separated was like being legally blind. There was no black. No white. Just a rolling cloud of gray I couldn’t understand or find my way through.

On the first night of September I stood smoking on the porch of what was no longer my house. Heat lightning raged in the sky. Summer wasn’t giving up easy, I thought. Not as easy as I had.

Rex followed close on my heels as I packed my clothes into a box. I laid my keys on the kitchen table and closed the door behind me.

I’d left the wedding statue sitting on the porch. On impulse, I threw it on top of the box. I still don’t understand what happened next. Rex tripped me as I was going down the steps. The box tipped. The statue fell off and hit the sidewalk with a clink and cracked. I picked up the broken piece, turned it over in my palm. Two tiny, clasped hands stared back at me.

Filled with rage, I sent the bride and groom crashing through the window of Britt’s study. Rex stared at me as though shocked.

“Did you like that, boy? That’s what I think of her Masters degree.” I grabbed a rock from the garden, aimed it at our bedroom window. “This one’s for all her father’s money.”

And there were more.

One for promises neither one of us had kept.

One for dreams we hadn’t trusted each other enough to share.

One for the needs my love hadn’t been enough to fill.

The last one was for Taylor.

Lights and shadows appeared in the neighbor’s windows. Rex raced to the truck and back, barking wildly and stamping his front feet.

And by the time the patrol car had crawled down Bridge Street, by the time it had pulled to the curb, its floodlights sweeping across the wreckage at number eight fifty-six, by the time the neighbors had begun to gather on their lawns, and click their tongues, and point their fingers, by then, there was nobody left to blame.
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