By Don Dussault

Bustling more than usual this morning, Thelma sets the omelet platter down hard before me and deftly slides an omelet into my plate, then one into hers, without looking at me. In the perfect silence the omelets sound as if they’d fallen from the ceiling. It’s about me reading the newspaper at breakfast again? I lower the paper halfway. “If the paper irritates you,it gives me a start on the day. Do you mind too much?”

“Your business gives us too little spare time.”

Your business she says, true, hers is our home. She’s holding back. Deflect. “Excellent omelet again.” She’s done omelets for years, hard to make bad omelets. At worst, you get scrambled eggs. “Perfect coffee, too.”

It ought to be, with a two thousand dollar coffee maker. Something  on her mind. She ventures, “Did you sleep well?”

I must look bleary. Not what I want to think about. “Fine. You?”

I recognize her strenuously bland tone. “I slept well, under the circumstances.”

Circumstances? The word wakes me up and turns me off at the same time. True? I couldn’t tell, with my back to her, instantly asleep. “Midweek,

I need to crash early.”

Not the greatest excuse and she doesn’t buy it. “Those long days of yours must be dreadful.”

I hear a little empathy in the words, less than usual. Irony? She knows the demands of my work. “I’m too busy to notice.”         

“We both have long days. The boys will be up soon. I’ll have to get them ready, drive them to school…” She continues talking while, unhearing, I nod and turn to the business page. Then a slight edge to her tone alerts  me she is watching me. She has a rhetorical question I’ve heard before: “Is this another of our talks where I do all the talking?”        

Unusual cutting edge in her voice, start of a rebellion? No way I want heavy talk. Stall, say something. “We’ll talk when I get back.”

“Today is your Zanesville trip?”

“I’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Of course you will. And tired.”

Some empathy there. Despite my hopes, she may not forget. This could   turn unpleasant. I hate this let’s talk. Get it over with now, while I can spare  only a few minutes. “What’s tiring is I’ll be in suspense for two days.” If she saves up her anger or whatever it is, she’ll cut loose tomorrow evening, let me have it at length. Better defuse her now. She has that waiting look, forcing me to pursue, “So talk.”

Serious look, serious voice. “The last few times we made love…” a subtle emphasis on few… “I felt objectified.”

She sounds like she wants to continue but she stops and waits. The sex thing again. Objectified! An accusation? Her features have gone blank, meaning she expects a response. I could have done better. Too quick. It’s happened before. Avoid that one for sure. Sound convincing: “You made me happy.”

Inane. Her tone and demeanor firm up. “I’m glad you were. I mean, we weren’t quite together. I mean even when we were, we weren’t. Oh, for sex it’s no big deal…” She lies. Sex is more to her than she’ll admit… “It’s a symptom. We don’t connect much in other ways. Even when you’re home.”

“I feel connected with you.” My automatic denial. “We men are different…” not a good start… “our pleasure isn’t as all-consuming as yours…” I hate this, for her it’s about  romance while I worry about the plumbing. Division of labor? She looks impatient. I’m awkward at this kind of talk. Must avoid blather. Skip this and go to work. No, get it over with. Soft soap it. She’s skeptical. “For us men compartmentalizing works.”

Her eyes say she wants to buy in. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“We can’t open the door too early.”

“You make it sound so businesslike.”

Why the hell are we talking about this? Not like we’re sexcrazy kids.

Admit we’re getting on. “It can’t be like it was at the beginning, can it?”

“We’re not that much older.”

Some calm has entered her voice. She’s coming around. She is still well within child-bearing age. Does she want another? There’s a topic to avoid! Delete from my head. Where does romance go? It slips away in the flood of daily chores, hers, mine. She knows that. Never admit our romance slackens. “We’ve grown less demonstrative. Um, quietly romantic.”

She makes a little frown, “Maybe too quiet.”

Her revenge. Was that supposed to hurt? I can win this, clinch it, feelings, emphasize feelings, “We’ve slowed down. At heart we haven’t changed.” That better be my last ploy. quick glance at my watch, seven-thirty. Still unsettled, she admits, “We have our ups and downs like everybody else.”

Is this a talk all couples have? Could be a few out there who just live, happy with each other? She has a full enough social life, reads books, pop psych, women stuff, grand notions of married life and consummate orgasms. She’s not as bright as I thought when we were courting. Years of housework wear  down the brain? Shift gears. “Next year I’ll take an extended vacation. We’ll travel. Send the boys to your mother’s.”

She doesn’t quite concede. “You should go. Your driver’s waiting.”

He’d better have taken the car to the wash this morning. “He can wait. It’s his job to wait.” Let her see I’m willing to talk as much as she needs. “I can finish the newspaper on the way in.”

If not satisfied, she’s mollified. “Go. It’s good we can talk.”

Free at last. “Yes, Thelma, we’ll talk more,” and I’m hoping not for another ten years or so…

The best hotel in Zanesville, they call this place. Another dinner in a no-star restaurant, fattening American fare, a steak fresh from Chicago too well done, an over-buttered baked potato, a choice of whipped cream desserts, then to a room with soporific walls boasting color photographs of Middle America. The local landscape is a straight line dividing an endless cornfield from an empty sky. Is any structure more boring than a grain tower? Damn, forgot, call Thelma.

Exchange of hellos. Her voice sounds normal, without residual anxiety from our chat this morning. I tell her, as if she couldn’t guess, “I’m in Zanesville.”

“How was your trip?”

Same old everything, airport, pilot, sky above, dollops of clouds below,  the familiar multi-green midwestern checkerboard. Brevity the soul of wit. “It was good. Clear skies all the way.”

“Good. The boys are studying in the livingroom. Want to talk to them?”

“Really studying?”

“Really. And the TV’s off, if you can believe that.”

“With things running so well, it’s best we don’t interrupt them. How was your day?”

“Good. I did the laundry. Found some nice filet steaks at the butcher’s, so I didn’t need to raid the freezer. Picked up some shiitakes, green beans. Think you can make it back for dinner tomorrow?”

“Probably. Pretty late, though.”

“By ten?”

“Nine-thirtyish, with luck. I’ll call if I get delayed.” A moment of silence.

“After that long trip, I’m crashing early tonight.”

“You do sound tired.”

“Yes, and restless at the same time.”

She sounds concerned. “Our conversation this morning, it left me a little on edge. You?”

A hint of apology? “We had a good talk. Travel wipes me out sometimes. Strange rooms. Erratic sleep leaves me feeling ragged in the morning. I’ll  take a pill and I’ll be fine.” 

I seldom call her on these trips. I’m content with her as a helpmeet. She sees to my comfort, stabilizes my life. The hunter needs a village to return to, and his own warm hut and a ready meal. Isn’t romance overrated and rutting like pups undignified? Should have interrupted the boys’ studies  a moment. No harm in a short break. I don’t talk to them enough. They’re closer to Thelma.

In daylight from a taxi Zanesville is no more prepossessing than at night. The morning sun darts in and out of my eyes as I ride toward the   outskirts to visit the factory expecting a dreary day going over numbers  with a manager who might be failing and should get fired. Funny how shop foremen restrain their ebullient language in my presence. When I encounter a union rep or have a question for a technician at a machine, our chats are technical and terse. My chauffeur concentrates on his driving. Recently married, two kids already. Pilot stays in his cabin. Fifty-something, new grandkid, Red Sox fan. To me, minimal people. The loneliness of power.  A cliché, but personal.

The roads are shiny damp. Must have rained last night. Automatically I read, Your driver is Felix Jackson. Full-face photo of a Negro man. Here in Zanesville a black cab driver? Do many whites signaling him on the streets change their minds when they see the driver? Better not ask him about that. The serious mirror face looks at me. He’s noticed my interest in the wet road. “Rain’s done. We should get sun all day.”

Thanks for the weather report. Looking for a bigger tip? I can dispense wisdom, too. “Sun helps the corn grow.”

I’m coming off as a farmer now? Unconvincing. He rolls with it. “Rain and sun, they bring life.”

Having exhausted my interest in conversation, disinclined to reveal anything about myself, I plunk a period on philosophy. “So true.”

Last night I felt better about Thelma after my phone call than I do now, in clear daylight. I can’t dismiss a faint unease. Our diminished enthusiasm  may be simply what happens after spending years together, every day, every night, which I find reassuring yet sometimes boring, while she feels haphazard dissatisfaction…

The boys have gone to bed and I’m pouring myself two ounces of cognac (this was a week ago) while she watches me in a hiatus from her distracted demeanor all evening. As if to invite trouble I observe, “You sometimes think you made a mistake?”

I’d tuned into her thoughts or she into mine. She gathers herself. “It isn’t you. You’re who you are. Steady, rational.” Compliments not entirely complimentary. Stuffy, uninspiring? “I knew who I was getting.”

She didn’t say I haven’t disappointed her. “We were young then. Full of expectations.”

Bluntly, “We still are.”

As she looks at me, she is confirming she still resents the forced change in our lives six years ago, when the former grad student envisioned hanging out with academics and their spouses in ceremonies, teas, book clubs sparkling with wit while I’d advance from adjunct college instructor to full professor, my expectation at the time, and she, this grad student, couldn’t let go those expectations after I’ve moved on into my father’s business as he long wished, an unplanned career change after my indiscretion in a lumberyard she hasn’t quite forgiven me for, most likely saw me as prime laughing stock when, driving home, I detoured to pick up six hardwood planks for garage shelves and in a far corner of the yard decided I couldn’t suppress nature any longer and was observed peeing near the fence by a part time employee, the son of a department head, initiating a widespread rumor that reached the dean. In her longsuffering mode, surely embarrassed, Thelma never scolded me.

“You’re disappointed over… that.”         

“Oh, kind of, I guess,” she acknowledges with suspect reluctance the  shock she hasn’t quite recovered from and the loss of a lifestyle she loved perhaps as much as she loved me. Academia’s departure from our lives took part of me with it. “The past is past,” she concludes without conviction…

The taxi is turning onto a steel bridge with a bend in it. The driver   catches my glance. “This is the only Y-bridge in the country. Maybe anywheres.”

I spot a second entrance merging onto the single bridge span. Green traffic light. Not desiring a tour guide I say nothing, preferring he concentrate  on driving. Not much to see anyway, with a concrete barrier just high enough to bar my view of the river below. Bridge walls revive my unease. A wrinkle in my expensive suit? Uneasy about Thelma. Why shouldn’t we be happy, when, after our financial struggles while I was a lowly economics instructor, Father brought me into his expanding tool and die business, entrusting to me his midwestern enterprises while he remains, comfortably for me, on the coast, bringing us, Thelma and me, into the arenas of self-made wealth. She should be happier and, come to think of it, also should I…

I swirl my cognac. She has more to say. “Except it’s hard to keep the     past in its place, sometimes. You know what I mean?” Her unnecessary qualifier, sometimes, tells me she is hedging. I wait. She goes on, “You’re less relaxed. Early to work every morning, late for dinner most nights.”

“I’m content.”

“That isn’t the same as happy, though.”

Is this discussion now about my failings? “You’re picking at tiny scabs and making them bigger.” Come off as positive. Sell her on getting used to this new life we have. “We have the good life.”

“I’m doing fine. I’m thinking about how your work consumes you.” Meaning she worries my work consumes her. Gradually, of course, like a python that swallows its victim whole and takes weeks to digest it. “Are you saying I make you unhappy?”

The instant I say that, I’m sure she’ll misunderstand it. She frowns. “Where did that come from? I’m not unhappy and I’m not blaming you for anything. Can’t I be concerned about my husband overworking himself?” She’s on a roll, “When we talk, you call it picking at scabs. Can’t we just say what we feel?” 

She has used that before and it always stumps me. I have too many feelings to sort out on a moment’s notice. Tell her she’s hiding her own feelings. From me, from herself. No, she’ll hear that as an accusation. Restraint. Don’t push hard. “I hear some doubt that you’re happy.”

She tries to explain, “Not like I’m hysterically happy. If we’re not unhappy, aren’t we happy?”

She’s asking me. Good. I seize my advantage. As in business, you strike while the iron is hot. “Yes, we are, basically. We’re settling down. That’s not thrilling. But we’re alive and well.” Mustn’t forget, “And we’re together.”

She’s taking in my words. A long second passes as she flips them over. “We go through these stages, don’t we?” I’m not sure what she means. I force a smile…

Leaving downtown we’re into more suburbs and trees than I expected. No cornfields. Thankfully no sights for my tourist guide cabbie to point out. Heading southeast into the morning. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed when my cabbie put on dark sunglasses. Modified aviator style, though more rounded. Almost black. The sun flashes on them. I can’t see his eyes. I don’t think he’s looking at me. Hope he won’t try more chitchat. My briefcase waits on the seat beside me. I could review some reports. No, enjoy the morning light, the trees. My eyes glaze. I confront a machine the size of a diesel locomotive, no, a three-story building, with flat unpainted steel panels, thousands of panels, removable so I can oil the machine, and I must, all day every day haul around a quart size oilcan, red with a foot-long spout narrowing to a tiny opening I insert into thousands of places in the machine  so it won’t fail to do whatever it ‘s supposed to do. Low single story homes in the suburbs yield to fewer, larger homes surrounded by broad open spaces and clusters of trees. Fresher air. The machine continues running in the back of my mind like a silent movie.

While otherwise faithful to Thelma I’d sought solace from boredom

a mere twice compared with other executives I’ve chatted with, who lacked all scruples in their eagerness for pay to play. Only in this last year have I partaken of the itinerant businessman’s prerogative, with bowlsfull of trepidation and a richness of guilt until, over weeks, I could convince myself  I’d done nothing unfair to Thelma, for there’s no real infidelity in my minimal whoring— ugly word, face it— when I did employ the services of a thirtyish woman made up and dressed as if fresh out of her teens and found the experience diverting yet, afterward, unsatisfying, a weak replacement for some undefinable loss in my life, a pale reward for driving myself hard.

The suburb outside the taxi window blurs. My thoughts wander. Peripatetic adventurisms are natural for the descendants of hunter-gatherer males, not betrayals of the spouse-mother back home tending the hearth. Thelma would never consider having one-nighters. Too staid for soirees with random muff-divers, too protective of her wife-mother status to invite the complications of a second man into her affections, she might yield to a damaged lonely soul seeking a stable berth in a womb-bearer. Nothing to worry about. She feels sorry for me as I leave on these trips, spending nights alone in hotel rooms in cities where I know no one. Never occurs to her my time away  may be a blessing, some relief, bring a rare taste of adventure…

At her parents’ home after our wedding, noisy and stuffy with guests, the hired photographer, a family friend, takes us aside and stands us, Thelma and me, in front of the fireplace, with a lushness of bright flowers swelling from tall wicker baskets beside us. From the face hidden behind the camera comes the photographer’s voice, “Smile, not that I need to tell you. Holding hands, good. So pretty in that white dress, Thelma.”

Thelma’s mother chimes in, “Face the camera.” Her tone pleads, as  does Thelma’s sometimes. “You’ll have plenty of time to gaze into each other’s eyes. Face the world.” We aren’t inclined to hear her. Turned inward, we are, from the beginning, as we’ll always be in that photo. Enough that we have ourselves and time. I tell Thelma, “You fell to me like a trump card in a weak hand.”

The notion amuses her. “You look so impressive in the classroom.” I’m not tall nor handsome, though not ugly either, was never considered an imposing figure. I appreciate the flattery. “I want to have a part in my students’ growth.”  Sometimes I get sententious, which amuses her. “I like the growth of  your manly part better.”

She had her prurient moments in those times long bygone, when any day or night could like wildfire flare into an adventure. Like that spontaneous Sunday afternoon when we’re side by side sweating on a damp bed, still  breathing hard, and she says, “I never knew I married Tarzan,” her sincerest, most telling compliment. Tarzan, the primal male who controlled nature, commanded apes and elephants, yet at times found himself embroiled with uncooperative feline species. A mental image brings a wry inward smile, Thelma hugging and kissing her cat. She’s always had cats. Now we’ve    mellowed, a subterfuge word to say whatever we’re not saying. Last night’s pussyfooting. We’re saying what? Oh yes, stages. I go on, “Well, I’m nowhere close to my midlife crisis of eyeing red sports cars and chasing trim blondes. I may be a betrayer of male-hood because I’m content, really. Not looking anywhere else.”

A chill infiltrates her voice. “Why should you, anyway?”

Amazing how little she knows of men or biology, remarkable ignorance   for a college grad. A secretive mistrust of the male where temptation lurks? Long-distance telephone isn’t the best medium for debate, if that’s what this call is turning into. Irritation creeps into my voice. “Well, that’s my point.”

Her irritation aroused, she snipes, “It isn’t much of a point.”

I shouldn’t push back now, at this moment, this distance, yet I hear my voice: “I don’t understand menopause, either.”

“Is that some kind of accusation— that I’m pre-menopausal, a male code for goofy?”

I recall how smartly we communicated in our early years, how we grasped with ease the nuances of each other’s casual words and gestures, every faintest shift in the shading or brightening of our eyes. Times long gone. Now annoyed, obliged to explain the obvious, I suppress my stern   maleness to win a truce. “I wasn’t clear. I simply meant we’re heading toward middle age in a proper way.”

She sounds mollified, “It’s my fault for leaping to conclusions.”

So I surrender and now we’re apologizing to each other. I tell her I’ll see her at dinner and she wishes me a safe trip home. Pro forma. An emergency landing we can walk away from. What were we mobilizing for, and what got resolved, if anything?

The taxi driver cuts in, “Looks like they got more rain out here.”

I’m yanked too abruptly out of my ruminations to respond. A strange enervation persists. I’m elsewhere. On edge over banal talks that portend  dreaded destinies. The taxi turns into a street of low apartment and industrial buildings. Sunlight strikes the driver at a new angle. His face brightens in the windshield mirror. Pockets of dark shadows appear. Under his cap a skull grins at me! A death’s head, brownish as if dug from the earth! Is that a tiny light in the eye sockets? Death conveying me to my work. The taxi slowing— why? An instant of fear… Relax. It’s nothing, simply that we’ve arrived. The skull disappears from the mirror as the driver removes his sunglasses and turns toward me. I focus on the meter. Twenty-six fifty. In conspicuous black-on-yellow the meter warns, “Cash Only.” I fish in my billfold. Total cash content: a fifty and a twenty. Blame my distraction for poor planning. Let him keep the change, he gets a tip almost equal to the fare. Thirty feet from the two-story building with tiers of windows like a school, I can’t be seen haggling for dollars with a taxi driver. I resign myself to overpaying for my social prestige. “Keep the change.”        

A broad smile. Large white teeth. “Thank you, sir.”

I open the door anxious to end this damnable ride. He reminds me, “Don’t forget your briefcase.”

Of course. I half-turn, reach for it, clutch it, launch myself out the door, and my feet slide in the wet grassy road-verge on the outer edge of the sidewalk. I make a futile grab at the door before I’m sprawled on my back in a puddle I hadn’t noticed, a slather across the sidewalk too shallow to drown a spider, nevertheless wet enough. I hear the front door of the taxi creak open. Queasy, quick to rise to my feet, I’m brushing water off my suit with my hands as the driver arrives. I’m muttering to him, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

The taxi is gone. My suit is water-stained, probably grass-stained. Trousers soggy. Socks damp. Erect, trying not to trudge, I advance toward the building and its many windows. Every window must have people in it watching my inelegant arrival.

About the Author:

Don Dussault lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His history includes a BA and MA in English literature and postgrad study in linguistics. He’s placed several pieces in literary publications and is wrapping up a multivoiced saga of a dysfunctional family.