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Just Before They Converted the Garage

Katherine Peterson sat at the circle of her kitchen table. It was September and the air wavered between August and October. Katherine was very much aware of the air and very much aware of the quietness. She leaned, her half-milk coffee cold before her, less than athletically upon her elbows. “The coffee’s good,” she said, with that lack of enthusiasm she wore, like a coat, even in the context of kitchen table. “You do five cups this time?”

Nick Marshall nodded. He was good-looking in a clean, brown French way, and, though his father had left him no worldly advantage outside of a cracker tin of dollar notes, a polo coat, and an infantryman’s tact, he was thought largely wealthy.

Nick spoke to the excess sugar in his mug, “Its better isn’t it? With five and six to the water line?” He stood. Went to the stove. The stove had little splotches along it where boiled water had overflown and dried. Beside it was a pan of pumpkin bread, burned dark orange, and cut two inches in from the right. “You don’t think she’ll go through with it.”

“Oh, she’d stay if he burned the house down. If he sold the Beemer for a horse.” Katherine stirred her coffee, which had turned from cool to cold. “Not if he threw 50K on an Irish Sport. You know. Colby the Clement and all that shit.”

“Is an Irish fifty?” Nick said.

“You hear what she said Sunday? About him putting his ring—”

“About his cleaning it?”

“Said she went to the pantry, you know, to make sandwiches for him and Eaton and found it with the pickles. His wedding band in the jar. She’d just been taking the pickles out and slicing them, you know, putting them on the little plastic plates they have for—”

“You want a piece?” Nick said.

“Sure.”

“Big or small?”

Katherine set down her coffee spoon. “Big,” she said, because she’d burned it but she was proud and she’d make a show of eating it anyway. “Anyway. She had those little plates they ordered and was putting out the salt and vinegar chips and the chips with the ruffles in them and the jelly beans for Eaton. The whole deal. Putting pickles on the plates, taking them out of the jar with a knife and out came his Tiffany band, gold and soaked—”

“You said big?”

“Gold and soaked and with an ocean of vinegar. You know.”

“Yes,” he said. He cut her a large slice from the pan, avenging, as he did often, in the places within their marriage or home where accident was reasonable culprit. He set the slice on a paper napkin and cut another for himself, smaller.

“Would you put some butter on mine?”

“Nick took the butter dish, cut glass and an engagement present from his brother, from the counter. “Two pats?”

“Sure.”

He brought the bread to the table and sat. He set it atop the newspaper, taking, with his napkin, the last two words of the headline. “It’s about Eaton, though,” he said. “Her staying? I mean, it’s not about her loving John or not loving John or having that—what do you call it, docility?—toward him.”

“Well, yes.”

It was quiet. She advantaged the pause to harvest, from the yield of wit and meditation, a straw-colored reply. Twenty-three years of utilized pauses had set, like laurels about her forehead, a façade of intelligence beneath the start of her hair, which was the deep brown that passes often for black. “It’s not Eaton. It’s God and Mary and Peter and Paul and all the other Saints sitting around her head, Nick. It’d be her not having anyone to go to Stewart Farm with. You know that. You know—”

“You don’t really think it’s—”

“You know that. That all she wants is self-pressed apple juice and salvation. You didn’t’ hear her Sunday,” she said, taking a butter knife to her bread, “We were in the living room—you know, that terrible looking couch next to the window?—and she—”

Nick took a piece of his half-consumed pumpkin bread between his thumb and index finger. “I’m sure she didn’t say that all she wants out of her marriage—”

“With her eyes, Nick. You know what I mean. ‘All I want’s a Washington Apple cake’ she said, ‘One of those little Washington Apple cakes from Stewart’s. That’s all I want in the world.’ The world. That’s all she wants in the whole of the world.”

“Look.” Nick folded his napkin around his bread and put it in his coat pocket. “She’s domestic. Docile, if you want to be that way about it. And so what? What’s her tending to glassware and taking Eaton to church and—”

“It’s too simple. All too simple. Her packing her tennis racket press away, her driving without sunglasses like he asked. Is that what she needs?—four thousand square feet of clemency? Of niceness?” She pulled her sweater collar. It was the tan sweater Eaton had, because of the camel in one of her picture books, named Aladdin. The picture book Colby had thought exotic to buy her. The sweater that on the bathroom floor that night Katherine had overheard The Fight.

“People like niceness.” Nick said to his coffee mug.

“And people like Grey Goose, Nick, but does that mean they should brush their teeth with it? Would you have her lie thorough it, Nick? Through her stupid Grey Goose teeth?”

“Katherine.” He sighed militarily.

“Should she? To God and John and the twenty something houseplants beside the liquor cart? To me, when I’ve heard her cry through the phone and chalk it up to pneumonia? You know it don’t you? Tell me you know—”

“I know it.”

“Well? If you know it then why—”

Nick put his hand in the coat pocket where he’d folded away the pumpkin bread. Crumbs had made themselves known along the crease. “Kinney’s expecting me at seven.”

“It’s five,” she said.

“There’s traffic. There was an accident on 22 Continental, and one by Neperan Friday and always a run-in on the eighty.”

“There’s never half as much traffic as you predict.”

“Right,” she said.

“Right what?” he said.

“Right it’s five, Nick. Just sit, would you? Just sit and breathe for once?” said Katherine. She adjusted Aladdin. Took a small sip of coffee.

He removed the pumpkin bread from his coat pocket and sat back down. It was a polo coat, slightly loose around his waist, for his father had been bigger than him, taller and larger, before the war had swallowed him. He looked into his mug. The grounds made sedimentary rivers along the porcelain; sugar and dried milk and coffee grounds. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Just don’t do it.”

Nick raised his head. “Would you let me alone for two seconds? I just apologized for nothing. You took the coverlet off at four and I’ve already cut my chin twice this morning. Twice with the razor and managed another burnt pan of that—”

“I tried, Nick. You know I—”

“It was fine. The bread was fine. I’d just like if you’d let me alone.” He arranged a respective elbow on either side of his mug. “You wanted quiet. You just a second ago asked me to sit and breathe.”

“Breathe, then.” She adjusted her camel colored sweater. It was the small, instead of the extra small she’d wanted. Better that way, Colby had said. Conservative. Whatever that had meant. Kathrine went to the fridge and took out the eggs. There were two left in the cardboard container, cold and white and lovely sliced with salt. “You want one?”

“There any salt left?” said Nick.

“I’ll look.” Katherine brought the hardboiled eggs to the table.

Nick cut his with the butter knife and put a generous amount of salt on them, then pushed the plate aside to let them cool. “I should go,” he said.

“No—stay.”

“So now you want me?”

“Of course not,” she said to the spots on his jaw where he’d nicked himself with the razor. Adjusted her tortoise headband. “—I don’t know.”

“Are you okay putting the coffee and stuff away?” He wrapped up his cooled eggs in a new napkin, folding it at their thick, mustard colored middles. He buttoned the top of his coat and Katherine thought as he did that it was the coat that she’d liked immediately about him when she’d met him, and not his voice or his hair or any of his features, good as they were. He’d had his nose taped up, she remembered, because an airplane man had broken it for him in the bathroom of the Carlyle bar.

“Okay,” said Nick in departure, as one might put up a hand in wave or adjust the strap of a wristwatch.

Katherine leaned her arm again over his shoulder. Their limbs pressed together, she thought, looked like the brown ground and gray sky of some familiar painting: modest, simple. She kissed the first of his currant stars, closer to his mouth, then the other, further up his jaw, then turned away.

Nick put his left hand in his pocket where the wrapped up eggs weren’t. He picked at the things in it. A lemon drop, melted and re-hardened in the cold, nougat from a forgotten candy bar, cellophane wrapper. “What’m I to you?” he asked.

“Nick Marshall.”

“Who’s he?”

“I don’t know.”

Nick smiled. It was a close-mouthed smile, very military and very New York Metropolitan Area. “Don’t worry about Colby,” he said, “About any of it. And if you’d let dinner alone? I was going to pick something up on—”

“No you’re not.”

“Just the Stop and Shop roast chicken and some pasta salad. Kinney’s coming Wednesday now. So let me get the chicken.” Nick reached in the pocket of his coat, took out a slice of the boiled egg and ate it in the kitchen door frame. “If you don’t want me to,” he said, wrapping the egg back up in his pocket, “I don’t have to. I just thought you’d like to do something today. Play tennis, pick up some of that tea you wanted—that basil kind? See Eaton.”

“I don’t want to see Colby,” said Katherine to the sink.

“I said Eaton. Not Colby.”

“Eaton’s a child, Nick. If I see Eaton I see Colby, and I’m not going over there to talk for another five hours about how she put away her tennis racket press and her pride in the garage. Or what’s she call it?—the stable-house?”

“And who even calls their garage a stable-house?” She scratched her collarbone. “There’s not a horse around for fourteen miles. I mean, anyone can hang a riding crop next to their tennis rackets and call it Riverdale, but who’d do it? Did I sleep through to 1867, Nick? I mean, the way she talks you’d think she was keeping mares and things for the Eastern Theater.”

Nick checked his watch. “Why do you care where she keeps her tennis racket press? It’s just—I don’t slightly see—fine. Fine. Let’s say it matters. It matters so you want to use up the whole morning talking about it? Analyzing why she keeps her tennis racket press in the garage instead of beside the coffee table? Is that what—”

“No. That’s just—that’s unkind, Nick. It’s not—”

“Right. It’s nothing. That’s just exactly right.” He stepped through the door way, under the chipped white paint door frame. Paused a minute, re-buttoning his coat. Assessing what he’d said. “Why’nt you go and have a day with Eaton? Go to the races even. Go where you pick blueberries and make that jam. Something like that? Try and not think so heavily? And let your shoulders alone? Put some of that Aloe on them? Wear a coat that won’t rub.”

Katherine slid some of the pumpkin bread crumbs from the kitchen table into her palm.

“And you’ll let it alone about dinner?”

“Fine.”

Nick nodded his clean, brown, French face from the door frame. He was a few feet into the mudroom, where the scarves hung, and the coats and the leather boots they wore that weekend in the Adirondacks, and at that night at the Astoria, also, when they’d lied about being equestrians. “So I’ll get the chicken.” An almost imperceptible notch could be seen in his nose, where the airplane man had hit him. Where something had lapped, and he was more skin than marble. “And you’ll put the aloe—”

“Yes. Get out of here.”

“I’m leaving,” he said. And he went out through the mudroom.

Katherine sat at the kitchen table and looked at the grain of it, painted black over, at all the places she’d failed. Where she’d made a notch with his ski’s, where she’d set the pan of toffee hot from the oven, and all the water rings where she’d thought better of coaster.

She found the aloe, in a clear bottle with a green cap, put out some on her palm, worked it into her shoulder blades. Thought herself stupid for the places where the skin was peeled. Took the phone from the latch and called, thought better of it and hung up. Called again.

“Yes?” she said into the phone. “He—yes. . . . . just left for work. Be back around six maybe—I don’t know. Six-thirty? . . . . I wanted to know if Eaton was—Yes?” She found a coffee mark and tried, with the pressure of her finger pads, to remove it. “She did what?” she said, continuing to rub at the coffee spot, “She ate what? Ate a candle with a spoon this morning? What do you mean Eaton ate a candle?” Another shove at the coffee stain. “. . . . No. I’ll be over there. I just have to clean up from breakfast.” Katherine moved the phone to the cradle of her shoulder. “You said she thought it was what? Jell-O, Colby? . . . I told you not to buy the apple scented one, Colby, did I not—”

A pause ensued.

“I did. I told you a thousand times not to buy the apple. I don’t even know what to tell you, I told you a thousand. . . . Fine. Yes. I’ll be over before three. Just get her to drink some water and all, okay? Get her dressed. We’re not doing anything big today. Should’ve heard Nick. . . . Yes. To pick blueberries. Should’ve heard him. And with that straight face to boot. . . I’ll take her to the ones past Nepperan. . . . Fine, Colby. Fine.”

Katherine returned the phone to the base. She put the aloe bottle beside the light blue porcelain mugs in the sink and wrapped up the second half of her boiled egg in a napkin. She put the boiled egg, as Nick had, in her coat pocket. It was also a wool coat, but not half as nice, and she knew it as she copied his action.

In the garage she sat down in the car: a dark, forest green BMW, with tan leather seats. She looked a minute, at the tennis rackets on the wall, at Nick’s ski’s in the corner, at the rungs of the sled with the crooked front. She sighed at what was definitively garage and not stable-house. Let her almost black hair come undone. And with warm self-hatred dripping from her jaw—wetting the sweater her niece had named Aladdin—she cried a while over the slant of the steering wheel.

 

 

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