When the foreman hands you the pink slip, it isn’t actually pink. And you work hard to make the muscles in your face stay exactly as they are. You’re getting screwed, sure, but the last thing you want to do is let the bastards see a reaction. They’re sorry, they say. Sure as hell are, you mutter. After you’ve cleared the door.
They said to go home early. Process the information. Make a plan. So you do. And when you step out into the blue breeze, there’s no more sawdust in your nose or oil under your fingernails and suddenly you feel giddy, dangerously unbounded. You concentrate on striding, not running, to the truck. You turn the country station up loud. You wish you had a dog.
There’s no place to go but home. When you get there, you pour yourself a cup of tepid coffee. It’s only ten am. You tap your fingers on the kitchen table, wrangle a few crumbs from one end to the other. Your wife is at the nursing home, dumping bedpans and wiping one or the other end of someone’s papery body. You think about calling her, but you want to keep the news to yourself for a few hours. The dread and exhilaration is yours and yours alone. She’ll share it eventually. What’s a few hours? You pour the coffee down the sink. If ever a day deserved a beer before noon, it’s this one. Propped up against the sink, you drink the first beer in two long swigs. The sun is barging through the faded curtains. A sun so bright and so brave and so quiet.
With your third beer you take a stroll around the house, half as inhabitant and half as third-party observer. You wonder if it lives a secret life when you aren’t home.You stare at the rooms that you and she christened together, against the kitchen sink, on the bathroom counter, on the couch in the living room, sagging on a busted frame. The farmhouse was bigger than you should have been able to afford and you toasted with cheap champagne in solo cups. Prices aren’t the only thing going up, you told her. She pulled you back to the couch.
You are on your last beer when you decide you’re better off without the mill. Now you can do what you’ve always meant to, whatever that might be. You can move somewhere else, anywhere else. A place where the vista is interrupted by the jut of a mountain instead of a horizon made of corn. A place by the sea. You think you might like the sea.
But then you remember you visited the sea as a kid. Maybe you were ten or twelve. And the sea was cold and it smelled like rotting, salted death. Your mother and father smiled at each other with their hands on their sun hats, as if they didn’t notice. You decide that you won’t move near the sea.
By the time the sun has moved off from the kitchen window, you’ve opened a bottle of whiskey. The burn feels good in your nose and your throat. Your wife’s job doesn’t gross enough to cover the mortgage. It’s one of those labors of love. You can make it maybe a month or two, as long as the interest doesn’t change. It’s some adjustable rate nonsense. Your dad said it was too good to be true, something about negative amortization. The whole world is going to hell, he can go to hell too. There are locusts in your head. Or your father’s voice, over and over. Or it’s the whiskey.
In the living room, you notice the picture leaning against the wall. You chose it together, an idyllic farm in the setting sun. You’ve intended to hang it for a month. You intended to save a little money. You intended to refinance. You intended to get that dog. You intended to have a kid. You intended to buy her that necklace. You didn’t intend to put your fist through the drywall, but there it is.
Later, when the tears come, the roar in your ears eases. The light is orange and soft. You find the hammer and a nail and you hang the picture over the hole. It’s lopsided, but it hides your crime.
You hear her keys before you hear her or smell her or feel her.
“You’re home early,” she says. “Everything okay?”
“Allergy attack,” you say. “Damnedest thing.”
She slips her arm around your waist. You might crack in half.
“You finally hung the picture,” she says. “I always knew it would be perfect in here.”
And she’s right. For just a few more moments, you let things stay that way.
Camille Griep lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in Bound Off, The First Line, and Punchnel’s. She is at work on her first novel.