By Brandi Handley
Daniel sat at the kitchen table, his hands folded on top of it. He heard the familiar clunk as two of the uneven legs hit the floor. It was like riding a see-saw every time he and Angie sat down to dinner.
Angie stood on the other side of the kitchen island, chopping green pepper and onion. She was facing Daniel, but she had yet to look up at him.
“It’s just for a week or two,” she said.
The quick tap-tap-tap from Angie’s knife on the cutting board matched his rising heart rate. Did she not think he might have some objection to another man’s truck parked in their garage for a week or two, even if she had gone to high school with him?
“Why do we have to keep it?” he said. “Doesn’t Patrick have friends, relatives?”
“Most of his family lives in Ohio,” she answered. “And his friends live in neighborhoods that are just as bad or worse than his.”
“But you’re his teacher. It’s inappropriate. Babysitting one of your students’ cars for two weeks is a strange thing to do.”
“It’s just a favor.”
“Yeah, one I wouldn’t offer my own father.”
“You and your father don’t get along.”
“And you and Patrick do?”
“Patrick’s never had it easy. Why do you think he’s in my adult education class? I want to help him out. He’s a good guy.”
It then occurred to Daniel that she hadn’t asked if he wanted stir fry for dinner before she started chopping the green pepper and onion. She used to always ask. Up until that guy Patrick joined the high school equivalency class she taught, a guy whose truck was now parked in Daniel’s spot in their garage.
It had been backed in, leaving Daniel barely enough room to squeeze around it. There was no getting to his mountain bike or his tools while that squash-colored army tank-of-a-vehicle sat hibernating in his spot. Angie must have known this would drastically cut down on his cycling time.
What was she thinking about as she stared past what was in her hands? Daniel worried she’d cut herself, being so careless. But maybe that’s what she needed. Something to wake her up. Snap out of it! He wanted to demand. You don’t want him! You want me! You have me! His head felt tight, like a balloon pumped full of air, slowly making its way to the ceiling. One little prick from Angie’s paring knife would send Daniel sailing around the kitchen.
He jumped up, knocking his chair over with a bang. The table rocked back and forth. “Let’s invite Patrick over for dinner,” he said.
Angie finally looked up, her knife hanging in the air, mid-tap. She glanced at his turned-over chair before looking at him with raised eyebrows. “Invite Patrick over?”
He detected a flicker of discomfort in her face. The slightest widening of her eyes, a subtle clench of her dainty little jaw.
He imagined his own face in a state of wild hysteria, eyes like dinner plates, pupils spinning around crazily. If his hair wasn’t getting so thin it would be standing on end. What did he just do?
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Why not? He’s a good friend, right? I want to meet him. It’ll be fun. Why not?” he said again. His head now felt so tensely full of air he thought he could actually hear his skull stretching.
“Okay,” she said. “When he gets back in town, I’ll ask him.”
After dinner they went outside to the front yard where Daniel had started scooping up all the mulch around their shrubs and trees and throwing shovelfuls of the stuff back into the bed of his pick-up. Despite his deflated hysteria turning to dull dread over the impending dinner, he kept overshooting the bed of the truck, scattering shards of wood chips all over the grass. What had prompted him to invite Patrick to their house? Their new house in none other than The Dominion, a neighborhood that required houses of no less than 3,000 square feet and gravel instead of mulch around the hydrangea bushes.
Their house stood impressively behind him, a story and a half of spacious rooms, cedar doors, and the kind of windows that slid up and down noiselessly. The cheap mulch was slowly disappearing from beneath said windows to be replaced promptly by Persian Rubble, the second finest gravel filler available at The Home Depot.
“I still don’t see what’s wrong with the mulch,” said Angie.
“Not mulch, Angie. Wood chips. What we have here are playground wood chips.”
Puzzled, she sat cross-legged along the walkway and plucked weeds from between the begonias. Instead of throwing the crabgrass into the yard to be swept away by the wind or left to dry out and disintegrate, she collected it in a little pile next to her knee. She’d gather it all up when she was finished and dispose of it properly. She always took such care with things, paid attention to little details. And yet she had simply shrugged at the absurdity of playground wood chips in a neighborhood such as this when the clearly superior Persian Rubble gravel sample was piled behind her in the driveway.
“Everything is wrong with the mulch,” Daniel continued. “That’s the stuff used around jungle gyms and swing sets. And around town homes. We live in an upper middle class neighborhood now. It’s fancy rocks or we move out.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a town home.” Angie said. “Many of my students live in town homes or apartments. I teach decent, intelligent people.”
“You mean, Patrick?”
“Yes, including Patrick.” Her voice was calm as she said this, as if explaining some simple concept that she knew Daniel could understand if she said it slowly enough.
She looked over her shoulder. “The pebbles are pretty,” she said.
Daniel knew she said this to pacify him, to tell him what he wanted to hear. And he did want to hear how beautiful the pebbles were. It was important. This was their home now. He’d shaken loose from the realm of town homes and his father’s shoddy business ventures, and he’d brought Angie out of the muck with him.
Daniel had specifically chosen this neighborhood not only for its irrefutable superiority but for its seclusion. Older trees encircled The Dominion, pieces of forest left intact to separate their neighborhood from the inferior ones on all sides. It might have been out in the country, it was so quiet. But only a few miles away was the rest of the suburb: Department stores, fast food chains, and gas stations were conveniently within reach. And somewhere just beyond a McDonald’s was Patrick’s apartment, a place where one couldn’t leave a car in the street for two weeks without it being vandalized or stolen.
He looked across the street at the flimsy-looking tree in the middle of his neighbor’s front yard. It hardly cast a shadow across the green carpet of Kentucky bluegrass. He imagined how the neighborhood would change in another ten years. How the neighborhood would age into elegant maturity, leaving behind the brittle newness. That tiny tree would shade the street one of these days. And he and Angie would be there to stroll beneath it.
Feeling a little better, he turned back to his own house, only to be startled by the stark contrast between the clean lines of his home and the rusty over-sized grill and square headlights of Patrick’s tanker. He made a move to close the garage to cover up the blight when their neighbor Anderson sauntered up the driveway in a billowy silk shirt and boat shoes.
“Boy, I haven’t smelled that in a long time.” Anderson flared his nostrils wide and took a big long breath. “I don’t think I’ve smelled wood chips since elementary school.”
“Breathe it in while you can,” Daniel said. “It’s getting replaced with Persian Rubble.”
“Persian Rubble, nice choice,” Anderson said. “That was a close second when Ashley and I were deciding.”
A close second, not bad. Daniel would have preferred Anderson had said something about how he had wanted Persian Rubble but the expense was a little too much for him. But a “close second” wasn’t bad.
Anderson turned toward the garage. “Whoa, what a beast,” he said. “What is that an old Bronco?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Daniel said. He picked up his shovel, thinking Anderson would leave if he looked busy.
Anderson examined the truck closely, finding the name near the driver’s side door. “Dodge Ramcharger,” he read. “God, they made them grotesque back in, what is this a ’93?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Where’d you get this thing?”
“It’s not ours,” Daniel said. “We’re just car-sitting.”
Anderson laughed. “Yeah, wouldn’t want anything to happen to this beauty.” He smacked the hood with his hand. “Whose is it?”
Angie had gotten up during the conversation. She wasn’t smiling. “A good friend of mine went out of town,” she said. “We’re helping him out.”
“Couldn’t say no, eh?” Anderson said.
“Oh, I offered,” Angie said. “It’s the least I could do. He’s a good guy.”
Angie excused herself to go inside and wash up.
“Got a spot in the garage and everything,” Anderson said.
Daniel ran his tongue over his back molars before baring his teeth in what he hoped was something of a complacent smile.
“Not sure I could give up my parking space,” Anderson continued. “But I guess I’m a little territorial.”
“We’re just helping the guy out,” Daniel said. “He lives over in Glenwood, poor bastard.”
Anderson smiled, amused. “Careful, the guy’ll be moving in next.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said. He choked out a laugh. “That’s–” he paused, “unsettling.”
Anderson shrugged. “Nah, I’m just teasing you, neighbor.” He breathed in one last breath of wood chip-smelling air and strolled back down the street toward the two-story colonial he lived in at the end of the block. “Gotta love that smell.”
Anderson. Daniel hated that guy. Looked like he ought to be manager of a boat emporium where his only job was to yammer about rudders and sails. But he was an eye doctor who could afford to live there in The Dominion.
The idiot optician was right, though. Daniel knew it was insane to let some other dude’ s truck invade his house. He might as well allow the guy to sleep in his bed and spoon with his wife. What was disturbing was the fact that Angie had offered, no insisted on it. Harboring Patrick’s truck was her idea.
Wearing a clean blouse and jeans, Angie came outside, purse in hand. “I’m going to run to the store,” she said.
“Now?” Daniel said. It was half past eight by his watch.
“We’re out of milk,” she said. “I want to make a cake tonight.”
Daniel softened a little at the thought of her baking a cake. “What kind of cake?” He was ready to suggest strawberry or lemon.
“Chocolate, I think. I’m pretty sure Patrick likes chocolate cake. This’ll be a kind of trial run for his dinner.”
The Ramcharger pressed against Daniel’s back as he opened her car door for her.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
He held on tightly to her door, not letting it shut after she had slid into her seat. He watched her closely as she rummaged in her purse. “This dinner with Patrick,” he said, “might be a good time to get that new kitchen table.”
He said this for its shock value, knowing that getting rid of the table wasn’t an option. In Angie’s mind the thing was sacred. A gift from her mother. A used gift. One that Daniel had been trying to get rid of since they got married. But Angie held onto it as if keeping and eating at the table would assuage the guilt she felt for moving away from her mother.
She thought for a moment, then she said, “Maybe it is.”
Stunned, he didn’t realize she had pulled her door shut until she’d backed out of the garage and down the driveway. Daniel thought about trailing her to see where she went. That was what people did, wasn’t it? If a husband was suspicious and passionately enraged, he investigated. If he cared enough, he followed his wife to the grocery store, staked out her workplace, and rifled through her closet.
Instead, Daniel rounded on Patrick’s truck. He stood in front of the hood and gave it a swift kick under the chin. The square headlights bored into him. He kicked it again, daring the front bumper to fall off. When nothing happened he threw open the driver’s side door.
The inside was surprisingly tidy. No fast food bags or pop cans, minimal dirt on the floorboards. The tan cloth of the seats was dingy but more out of use than carelessness. He climbed up into the driver’s seat, disappointed that Patrick seemed to need ample leg room. Sitting where Patrick sat in the lofty seat, Daniel felt the imposition of the truck more acutely. It shouldn’t be there wedged in next to his lawn mower, leaving oil stains on the floor.
He rifled through the glove box, thumbing through the truck’s manual and some old receipts–Patrick was apparently a Dunkin’ Donuts man. Who gets coffee and donuts at ten o’clock at night? Criminals and policemen. And Patrick was no policeman.
Unable to open the tailgate because of how close the back of the truck was to the wall, Daniel pressed his face into the back glass–a cooler, jumper cables, a rusty tire iron and jack sat together against one side, on the other side was a small dented tool box.
Is this what Angie wanted? To ride around with Patrick in a rusty 1993 Ramcharger?
After they had been going out for a while, Angie told Daniel she felt a lot of guilt over her mother. At the end of Angie’s senior year of high school, her stepfather died. He left her mother a nice inheritance, but when Angie moved to college in the fall, her mother would be completely alone for the first time in her life. Angie postponed college two years before finally going, and ever since she carried around this guilt. If Daniel hadn’t talked her out of it, she would have moved back before the end of her first semester.
It was a nice enough gesture, sure, sharing her mother’s misery and all, but going to college was the right thing to do. Angie’s mother made it seem like Angie was letting her down somehow.
Anything she gave them became a monument, a reminder of all she had suffered when her daughter abandoned her for higher education.
This was the reason they still had the kitchen table, the table that turned eating peas into a game of pinball.
When they first moved into their new house in The Dominion, Daniel felt that it was time to let it go.
“We ought to get rid of this table,” he had said.
“Get rid of it?” Angie said.
“Look at it. The legs are practically coming off.”
“But my mom–“
“She gave it to us because she didn’t want it anymore. She had to expect that we’d throw it out eventually.”
“Daniel, don’t. Don’t get rid of it.”
“Tell me what’s wrong with getting rid of a shabby table? There’s nothing wrong with trading up!”
Tears had started to leak down Angie’s freckled cheeks, and he knew that their pact to keep it until the end of time was air tight. If Angie slept better at night because it sat front and center in their kitchen, then fine, when Jesus or Satan or whoever came to end the world, it would be Daniel, Angie, and that goddamned kitchen table.
But now, not a month later, Angie was seriously contemplating throwing the pact out the window because Patrick was coming to dinner. Even if she didn’t go through with it, Angie had declared Patrick worthy of the act.
Patrick’s dinner came upon Daniel like a death sentence. It was all he thought about. The end was near, yet time dragged by just to make him suffer longer. Let’s get it over with! He shouted in his head, and occasionally aloud if he was in his car. If the dinner was to finalize the end of his marriage, then do it already.
The dreaded evening found Daniel irritable both in temper and in bowels. He felt nervous all day, and when Angie went to pick up Patrick and left Daniel in charge of shredding cheese, he shredded with such force that what was left of the block of cheese had flattened into a dented Frisbee beneath his hand.
A car door slammed from the driveway. Then another.
The two of them walked in together.
Daniel’s intestine’s groaned like a sick cat.
The man was huge–dense without being fat. He was strapping. He wore baggy jeans and a Polo shirt with sleeves that accentuated his biceps. His massive chest practically hit him in the chin.
Daniel felt like a dandelion compared to this guy.
“You have to be Patrick,” Daniel said. His hand shot forward like a spring. Patrick caught it easily and they shook.
“Good to meet you,” Patrick said.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” Angie said. She took Patrick by the elbow and led him to the kitchen table, Daniel following behind.
She had fixed a Mexican-themed dinner complete with crunchy tacos, homemade salsa, rice, and black beans. The festive nature of the meal seemed wildly inappropriate. Their little party was quiet, almost somber, the crackling taco shells and tortilla chips the only break in the silence. Daniel wasn’t surprised that the other two kept their conversation to a minimum. This must be terribly awkward for two secret lovers. He certainly wasn’t going to bail them out.
Angie kept glancing up at him, urging him with her eyes to say something.
On the other hand, here was an opportunity. Daniel suddenly saw himself as the head of the table. He placed his elbows next to his plate and leaned forward. A few of Patrick’s black beans slid in Daniel’s direction as the table tilted.
“I hear you passed the high school equivalency test. Congratulations,” said Daniel.
Patrick’s mouth was full, but he nodded in acknowledgement.
Angie added, “He went in there and passed the test on the first try. Every section. He passed them all with no less than 12 scale points.”
“What’s the highest you can get on a section?” Daniel asked, knowing full well the answer.
Patrick answered this one. “A perfect score is a 20.”
“Oh,” Daniel said, “so you averaged about 60%. Not bad.”
“They say most people who’ve graduated from high school couldn’t even pass the test if they had to take it today,” Angie said. “Patrick’s way above average.”
“Angie’s the reason I passed the test at all,” Patrick said. “I don’t know how many times she had to explain what the hell a slope intercept was. I’m still not sure.”
“He’s going to be ready for college in no time,” Angie said.
“That’s ambitious,” Daniel said. “What do you want to study?”
Patrick rested his forearms on the edge of the table, sending Daniel’s last taco hanging over the edge of his plate. He looked at Daniel steadily. “I’m thinking business management. I work overnights at a metal factory, but I think I could move up to management pretty quickly with a two-year business degree.” He shoveled a tortilla chip into the salsa, leaving a sizable dent.
“There’s a lot of older college students these days,” Daniel said. “You’ll be out of there before you’re 40, for sure.” He placed his hands heavily on the table. A mud-slide of food threatened to land in his lap.
“Shouldn’t take too long to get through,” Patrick said. He continued eating, at ease. “Hell, maybe in a few years, I’ll be movin’ in next door.” He smiled before attacking another taco.
“Wouldn’t that be something!” Angie said.
They moved to the living room for dessert. Patrick sat deep and comfortable in the couch, his arms spread across the back. Daniel sat tensely in the recliner.
“So you and Angie went to school together,” Daniel said.
“We didn’t have too much to do with each other, me and her. But I remember her.”
Daniel hadn’t known Angie in high school, but he’d seen pictures, and he could imagine her as a teenager. Like a fairy, petite and lithe, she probably made even the smallest boy in school feel like a big man. They all must have been in love with her.
“She was really something,” Patrick said.
“She still is.”
Angie emerged from the kitchen with two plates of chocolate cake. “What are you two talking about?”
“You,” Daniel said. “What you were like in high school.”
“Oh, talk about something else. Anything else!” She laughed uncomfortably and instead of settling next to Patrick on the couch, she returned to the kitchen.
“She seems to take a special interest in you,” Daniel said. He squared up to Patrick, sitting up straight and trying in vain to add weight to his presence.
“You think I’m the only one Angie bends over backwards for?” Patrick said. “Nah, man. She’s always giving students rides and bringing in coffee and donuts. I bet she buys all those nice pens, too.”
Patrick slid a large bite of chocolate cake into his mouth, icing smearing his lips. Then, in an offhand sort of way, he said, “I think she feels kinda bad.” He shrugged. “She doesn’t remember me from high school. She says she does, but I don’t think so.”
“If Angie says she remembers you, she remembers you,” Daniel said.
“I think she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
That sounded like her, too, Daniel had to admit. Angie was sweet, yes. Polite, of course. But she was no liar.
“How do you know she doesn’t remember you?” Daniel asked.
“I can just tell.” Patrick continued to take massive unconcerned bites. “Doesn’t bother me. As long as she explained algebra to me, she coulda kicked dirt in my face and I wouldnt’ve cared.”
Patrick was still talking, but Daniel was now thinking of the possibility that his wife was something of a liar. If she didn’t know who Patrick was, then why go to all the trouble of not only pretending to remember him, but actively becoming his friend?
Shortly after dessert, the Ramcharger rumbled forward and down the driveway. Daniel waved amiably, hoping Patrick wouldn’t notice the smudge in the back glass where Daniel’s nose had been.
Angie waved, too, then she said, “He’s a good guy.” And she went inside.
The aftermath of the feast lay across the kitchen table and into the living room. She immediately began collecting chocolate smeared plates and sticky lemonade glasses. For only three people, they’d used most of the dishes they owned. Angie had displayed each taco topping in a different bowl and presented the tortilla chips on a festive platter, and now, ignoring the automatic dishwasher, she washed everything by hand. Daniel might have complained about letting a top-of-the-line appliance go to waste, but instead he waited with a dry towel in his hand to assist.
“It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember him,” Daniel said.
Angie’s fervent scrubbing of the skillet slowed. “What?”
“Patrick. It doesn’t matter.”
“I do remember him,” she said. “I do. I remember him.”
Daniel expected Angie to admit, perhaps sheepishly, that she couldn’t remember Patrick, that she at first thought that she knew him but was mistaken. He thought she would open up to him, confide in him. But she was practically pleading with Daniel, begging him to believe her.
“Angie,” Daniel started.
“Of course I remember him. If anything, he’d forgotten me.” She smiled as she said this and regained the fervor for scrubbing the burnt ground beef from the skillet.
About the Author:
Brandi Handley has previously been published in The Laurel Review and Number One magazine. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and she teaches writing at Park University. In addition, She teaches adult education students–some who are working towards their high school equivalency certificate and others who are learning English.