by Teresa Burns Murphy
As Tom Langston drove up the street where he lived in the suburban neighborhood of Kennerly, Arkansas known as Hawk Hills, he saw his recliner sitting on the curb in front of his house. He pulled his car into the driveway, jerked the gearshift into park, and shut off the motor. Sweat dripped down the back of his shirt as he strode over to the curb. Taped onto the front of his chair was a piece of cardboard with “Goodwill” printed in big, black letters. He yanked off the cardboard sign and tossed it into the street.
The chair had been Tom’s when he married Suzie twenty years ago. He’d bought it for himself with the money he’d earned working at a sports camp during his summers off from teaching high school history and coaching football at Kennerly High School. Initially the chair had a brown leather cover, but Suzie had a thing about the color brown. She said brown made her think about the old men who used to sit on a bench outside the Kroger store in Kennerly. “Aunt Carol called it dead pecker row,” Suzie told Tom one night a few years after they were married. “Every last one of those old men wore these raggedy-assed brown pants and spit tobacco juice on the sidewalk. I’ve just never liked the color brown since.” After more than a year of arguing about it, Tom agreed to let Suzie have the chair recovered. She chose a textured cotton fabric in ice blue.
Tom had to admit that his chair looked a little worn out. The arms were frayed and the seat sagged a little, but it was still his chair and it burned him up that Suzie would throw it out without consulting him. Tom was fifty years old, and the muscle tone he’d had as a fullback at the University of Arkansas had gone to flab, but he was still stronger than most guys his age. He grabbed the chair by the arms and carried it across the lawn. He half-pulled, half-hopped it onto the front porch of the gray brick Georgian house where he and Suzie had lived for the past fifteen years. He steadied the chair with one hand and reached for the doorknob with the other. When it wouldn’t turn, he banged on the brass knocker. The bass beat of the music Suzie exercised to blared from the sunroom at the back of the house, and Tom figured Suzie couldn’t hear him knocking. He dug around in his pants pocket for the key. Just as he was about to put the key into the lock, the front door swung open, and Suzie appeared, wearing a pair of black bicycle shorts and a red sports bra.
She put her hands on her hips and scowled. “Tom, what the hell do you think you’re doing with that old thing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“I just had a guy from the furniture store move it out of here.”
“Well, I’ve got a newsflash for you, Sooz. It’s coming back in.”
“It’s worn out and it doesn’t go with the new stuff.”
“It’s mine and I say it stays.”
“Fine,” Suzie said, turning to walk away. “But at least let me put a cover on it.”
Tom wedged the chair inside the door and carried it into the living room. A wingback chair covered in gold chintz sat in the space his recliner had occupied. Tom shoved the wingback aside and put his chair back in its place.
The next day when Tom got home from work, he found a rose-colored afghan with little welcomes written in cream-colored letters all along the edges draped over his chair in such a way that even the lever that adjusted the chair’s position was obscured. He went to the kitchen for a beer and yelled to Suzie that he was home. Getting no response, he went back to the living room.
It was always muggy in Kennerly in August, but after a day of workshops at the various campuses of the Kennerly Public Schools where Tom worked as an assistant superintendent, he felt like all the starch had been taken out of him. Suzie had talked him into getting his administrator’s license. Then, when the assistant superintendent’s job had come open ten years ago, Suzie had urged him to apply. Her argument had been that he would make a lot more money than he did teaching high school history and coaching football. She’d already quit her job teaching second grade to sell real estate. Suzie was what people called a real go-getter, and she’d made a bundle selling houses. Tom made good money too, but he missed working with the kids, especially the coaching.
Tom stripped off his clothes and sank down into his chair. He popped open his beer and flicked on the evening news. Reaching underneath the afghan to shift his chair’s position, Tom gripped the wooden handle and pulled hard, but he couldn’t get it to budge.
“Damn afghan,” he mumbled, pulling it out from underneath him and flinging it onto the floor.
He was just about to settle back when he heard the sound of Suzie’s heels clicking across the hardwood floor she’d had laid in the living room, then go silent as she crossed the Oriental rug they still argued about because Tom insisted they couldn’t afford it, and she pointed out they already had. He caught a whiff of gardenias and ginger, and for a second he and Suzie were back in their old house, their starter house, a three-bedroom ranch with two bathrooms and a small deck out back. Suzie had once told Tom it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in. She’d grown up in Kennerly, on the west side of town, with her Aunt Carol and Uncle Larry and their four kids. Suzie’s mom had died of a ruptured appendix when Suzie was six. When her dad remarried, he left Suzie to be raised by his sister. Tom had driven past the house Suzie grew up in—a two-bedroom cracker-box covered with brown asbestos siding. Having grown up in a sprawling split-level house in North Little Rock with his parents and younger brother, Tom wondered how seven people could have possibly all fit into that house.
When Tom looked up, Suzie was standing beside his chair. Her short, blond hair was fanned out in a feathery flip, and the way she’d applied her makeup made her look like one of those women on television who had gone for the extreme makeover. She was wearing a short, red cocktail dress that was cut so low, Tom was certain she couldn’t have possibly been wearing a bra. With the implants she’d gotten a couple of years ago, she didn’t need one.
“Tom, I know it’s hotter than blue blazes outside, but we do have air-conditioning, you know. Do you have to sit around like that?”
“You mean naked?”
“Look somewhere else then.”
“I’m actually on my way over to Denise’s. We’re going to have a couple of drinks at her place and then maybe head out to the Bird’s Nest. A few people from work are going to be there.”
“I figured Denise would have a hot date with what’s-his-face tonight.”
Suzie let out a little chuckle. “You mean Rodney?”
Suzie pushed her hand through the air. “She dumped him.”
“I thought she liked him.”
“She likes him okay, I guess, but she said he was boring. She said at her age, she doesn’t have time to be bored.”
“At her age? She can’t be more than forty.”
“She’ll be forty-five her next birthday, same as me. I guess she doesn’t feel like she has time to waste on a limp biscuit, if you know what I mean.”
“God, Sooz, is that what she said?”
“Not in so many words, but that’s what she meant.”
Tom didn’t say anything else, just turned his attention to the weather report.
“I’d better get going. You don’t need to wait up for me—like you would anyway.”
Tom could feel the eye-roll without looking up.
After the weather Tom suffered through an ad for yet another erectile dysfunction medication, thinking the women in the ads looked a lot better than the men, even though the men always seemed to be fit and driving around in convertibles. He watched the sports news and when it was over, Tom flicked off the television and went upstairs to take a shower. He entered the walk-in closet to get a clean shirt, noticing that his clothes had been shifted until they occupied less than a fourth of the space. Tom looked at Suzie’s clothes. The suits and dresses she wore to sell houses in were hung up straight as soldiers, her shoes lined up along the floor. He lifted the sleeve of a champagne-colored silk blouse and rubbed it against his cheek, breathing in the gingery gardenia smell Suzie always wore.
She had worn that blouse the last time they went out together. They’d gone to JoElla’s Place, a restaurant on the banks of the Little Red River. Kennerly was in a dry county, but JoElla’s Place had a license to serve liquor. They’d actually had a good time until the meal was over and they argued about what to do next. Suzie wanted to stay and listen to the band and have a few more drinks, but Tom was anxious to get back home. He’d taken his Viagra before going to dinner. When they got home, Suzie put on some music and gulped down two more beers, seemingly unconcerned about her new weight-loss plan. She was sloshed by the time they got to the bedroom, but she still made sure Tom wore a condom.
“You think I’m boning some other woman?”
Tom would never forget the look of disgust on Suzie’s face, her eyes focusing on his gut. “You seem to have forgotten that I could still get pregnant.”
Tom flinched, remembering how his penis had gone flaccid, and Suzie had rolled over and fallen asleep.
Tom loved kids but Suzie had been enlisted as a child herself to change diapers and warm bottles for her aunt’s younger children. She told Tom she’d wiped enough butts to last her a lifetime.
“Just one,” Tom had said. “I’ll do all the work. I promise.”
“You want to carry it while you’re at it?” she’d said, making a huffy sound in her throat.
Tom glanced at his watch, wondering if he had time to catch up with Suzie and Denise before they left for the Bird’s Nest, a small, private club inside the Ramada Inn. A guy from Suzie’s high school class owned the real estate company where she worked, and several people she’d gone to school with worked there as well. They were all pretty friendly, and Tom didn’t think they’d mind him tagging along.
He called Suzie’s cell phone, just to make sure. When he heard it buzzing inside the closet, he figured she’d laid it down while she was getting ready to go and had forgotten to pick it. She’d seemed distracted lately. So Tom called Denise.
“Hello,” a guy who sounded out of breath said after the third ring.
“Hi. This is Denise Sims’s number, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, can I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Tom Langston. Suzie’s husband. Is Suzie there?”
“Uh, hang on just a sec.”
There was a pause and Tom thought he heard some whispering. Then Denise’s voice came through the phone.
“Tom, you just missed Suzie.”
“Oh well, I thought you two were going to the Bird’s Nest tonight.”
“Um, yeah, we…are. Rodney and I were just about to take off.”
Tom hung up the phone without saying good-bye. He sank down on the edge of the bed and sat motionless for a minute. Then he headed back to the living room. He curled up in his recliner and, feeling a chill, reached down, picked up the afghan, and covered himself up.
Category: Fiction, Short Story