by John Benner
At the Lincoln Memorial, throngs of tourists in neon T-shirts streamed off buses, laughing and sometimes even singing as they surged up the steps to stare at the statue of the long-dead president until the oven-hot air tamed them into the sodden crowd that trudged back down and puddled on the low ground at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Despite the weather, Paul had gravitated to the monuments because he’d had enough of sitting alone in his apartment, and the hordes of strangers made him feel as if he might still be alive.
For those families who didn’t have a selfie stick, he frequently volunteered to take a picture. He especially liked the opportunity to get a father into a photo. At first Paul didn’t even know how to use the camera in his own phone, but now he was an expert in all makes and models, no longer needing to ask which button to press, and waving people off when they tried to coach him. He could judge whether the fill flash was needed and he knew how to turn it on or off. He knew the locations of the settings for the special effects on the various iPhones and threw those in for free – so to speak. On the pretext of seeing whether the shot had come out, he scrolled through their other images, the ones of families smiling as they huddled together outside the White House, held hands at the Tidal Basin, or petted the bronze statue of Roosevelt’s dog at the FDR memorial.
His own photos from Disney World and the Outer Banks lined the shelves of the cheap bookcases in his new apartment. In the earliest photos, when his girls were young, they leaned in close and hugged him. In later years they stopped hugging and even stood apart from him completely. Was it because teenagers just didn’t show parents affection like that, or had they sensed the rift between him and his wife even before he had become aware of it himself? Was he the last person in the family to realize that these images would chronicle the final few times they’d all stand together this way?
One day, as Paul sat watching children play in the arcs of water in the Washington Harbour fountains, he waved back at a tiny girl. “She looks like a water fairy,” said a woman standing nearby. His daughters had once been water fairies. One was now a programmer, one a teacher, and one a flight attendant. None of them called except when they needed something from him.
A few weeks ago, after he moved into his apartment, he went to the grocery and bought only what he wanted, something he hadn’t done since college. He stood over the freezer case of chicken and beef and realized he hadn’t the faintest idea how to turn these icy packages into a meal. His wife had done the cooking and he had done the cleaning, a deal that was looking less prescient by the moment. After all, he had to eat every day, but the tiny apartment only needed cleaning once a week at most.
The apartment came unfurnished, and Paul had been advised by their real estate agent and longtime next-door neighbor, Burt, to leave everything at the house so it would show better. This meant Paul would need to buy furniture during a time when spending money seemed like an especially bad idea. Burt punctuated each sentence with an insipid laugh, “Ah-huh-huh-huh-huh,” which sounded like someone trying to start an old car. This was possibly a nervous tic, and it annoyed the hell out of Paul especially because it frequently came after expensive news.
He slept on an air mattress for the first few weeks, but it leaked slightly and required inflation about 3 a.m. each night when his ass touched the floor. He checked out Craigslist for furniture, some of it listed under headings that included words like “divorce sale.” He suspected that some of the jetsam of his own life would be disposed of on the site in a few weeks, after the house was sold. So it appeared that divorced people on Craigslist were just rotating furniture – all of it with similar wear, similar utility – but free from the memories that made keeping one’s own marriage bed intolerable.
After a couple of depressing hours online he decided he needed a clean start. So he headed to Ikea, where young families wound their way through the maze of perfectly staged rooms, running their hands along tabletops, plopping down into chairs, and putting their feet up on ottomans available in a crayon box of colors.
As Paul watched a young couple bicker, he resisted the urge to give them the benefit of his experience, to advise them to take their time and make sure that the person they were arguing with about something unimportant would step up when the really tough times arrived. After all, if he were so wise, why was he here doing the same thing they were – looking for furniture for a new beginning? How had he ended up where he was thirty years ago?
Paul and his wife had furnished their first apartment from family cast-offs, a bookcase rescued from the curb and a bed they’d purchased from a hotel that was shutting down. They laughed at the mismatched pieces and vowed that one day they’d buy nice furniture. Somehow as their life became more ordered, the two of them had drifted apart.
The indie music pumped from overhead a bit louder than necessary. The mournful songs about love gone wrong felt like the soundtrack to his new life, as if he were living in a movie that takes an unexpected turn that the protagonist doesn’t see coming but that critics indict as predictable. A woman about Paul’s age tried to take pictures of a bedroom set with her phone but frowned in frustration as she poked at the screen. “Are you having trouble?” Paul asked.
She smiled slightly. “It’s a new phone. I got it with my new plan.” She rolled her eyes. “Divorce,” she said in a stage whisper, and he admired her comfort with the word.
“Here, let me show you,” he said as he held out his hand for the phone. In a few seconds she was ready to take over and thanked him. He supposed this was the sort of woman he’d be meeting when it was time to move on, but the prospect seemed daunting.
He searched for an inexpensive bed and debated whether to choose a full or queen. A full was all he needed, but it seemed shortsighted, discounting the possibility that he might want to share a bed with someone again. The cryptic Scandinavian product names seemed to be written in a code he didn’t understand. He half-expected there’d be a sturdy model named Båchelør that would present itself as the obvious solution. In the end, he opted for a queen-sized bed and chose the least-expensive one. After a week of sleeping on it, he moved toward the center of the mattress rather than staying on his customary side, and he no longer stretched out his arm in the night to someone who wasn’t there.
Paul found himself curiously drawn to shows on HGTV in which families decided whether to renovate or move. He watched people barter over spaces, decoration and seminal ideas about how to run a family, looking for anthropological clues. How did they navigate these rapids? How did they reach compromise? Would these decisions make them happy? Was this just another chapter in the story of their wonderful life together, or a televised high point that would never be matched?
Two months after moving out – a decision that his wife described as his, but, to his mind, one that she had engineered with her coldness – Burt contacted him about the pending offer on the house: “The inspection turned up some radon issues, so we need to have that taken care of by installing a ventilation system.” Then his nervous laugh: “Ah-huh-huh-huh-huh.”
Paul arrived early the next day to meet Burt and the contractor to review the options. The kitchen and living room already had been cleansed of family photos and mementos at Burt’s suggestion. Upstairs he ducked his head into his daughters’ old rooms and stood in the doorway to the master bedroom, unable to enter. He worried that the tightness in his throat would turn into tears just before the men arrived, so he quickly returned to the middle floor. He noticed a couple of chairs and small tables missing and assumed his wife had moved them to her new apartment. He thought it might be nice to keep one or two of the paintings from the living room, but everything else was expendable as far as he was concerned.
Burt let himself in the front door and brought the radon guy with him. “Ah-huh-huh-huh-huh,” Burt laughed as he shook Paul’s hand but didn’t meet his gaze. “You doing okay?”
Paul knew that Burt’s wife, Laura, hated Burt’s guts, an opinion she felt free to discuss whenever she had too much to drink, which seemed to be every time Paul ran into her on the sidewalk or spoke to her across the fence. Her haranguing of Burt had drifted through their open windows for years. Her list of complaints was long, but most were focused on his lack of earning power. In fact, Paul had persuaded his wife that they should choose Burt to be their agent partly in the hopes that this would reduce the screeching that might put off potential buyers. Laura also claimed that their two sons felt the same way about their father. Paul thought this seemed especially unfair, considering the way Burt had doted on the two boys all the way through high school. It was true that the two of them rarely came around, now that they were out on their own. Paul had never thought much about why Burt and Laura had stayed together. But in light of his own situation, Paul experienced a brief feeling of sympathy for his agent: No one should have to live like that. He also wondered just how bad his own marriage must have been, considering he and his wife had not managed to stay together.
The men trooped to the basement. While the contractor made measurements and pried back paneling to look inside the walls, Paul and Burt engaged in small talk. “You got any vacation plans?” Burt asked.
Burt smiled. “We’ll have the boys here for a while around Labor Day. Nick just got engaged and he’s bringing her here to meet us. She’s never been to D.C. before. And Tom will be here for work.”
“That’s great,” Paul said, and hoped things would go even a little bit like the picture he knew Burt had in his head. After the contractor finished his work, they discussed various options for mitigating the radon. Paul signed off on an expensive course of action and dreaded breaking the news to his wife.
They closed on the sale at the end of August. Paul’s wife needed to tend to her sick father in Indiana, so she signed the papers ahead of time. The day before closing, Paul supervised as workers from a local charity loaded up all their furniture into two trucks for donation. In the end, neither he nor his wife had wanted to keep anything more than the pictures on the walls, the books, linens and kitchen items. The tax deduction for the charitable gift seemed preferable to the hassle of selling everything, no matter how much they could have made. The last thing Paul wanted was to hold an estate sale and have all the neighbors come through to pick over the wreckage of his life and ask uncomfortable questions.
On closing day, Paul reviewed the radon-related expenses and noticed that Burt had done a considerable amount of the work himself, saving them a thousand dollars. “It was no sweat. Really,” Burt said in response to Paul’s thanks. “It kept me out of my house for a while.” He winked, but Paul knew he wasn’t kidding.
On Labor Day, Paul stood at the end of the Reflecting Pool, looking at the shimmering inversion of the Washington Monument in the water and ready to assist the crowd of vacationers with directions and photos and to dispense some trivia if the need arose. As he snapped a picture of a family from Maine with their mother’s new iPhone 6, he heard an unmistakable laugh. No more than 20 feet away, Burt held up a cell phone as his sullen wife, sons and future daughter-in-law waited, with the Lincoln Memorial behind them. Paul considered slipping off before they noticed him, but the sound of Laura screeching at her husband stopped him before he walked away.
“Burt!” he called out.
Burt smiled broadly. “Paul! What are you doing here?”
“Same as you, I guess. Taking in the sights.”
“Laura, look who it is,” he said. Laura nodded at Paul, who gave her a brief hug, shook the boys’ hands and introduced himself to the fiancée, Cindy, who he felt sure didn’t know what kind of a family she was getting herself into.
“Burt, let me get a picture of all of you together,” Paul offered.
“Excellent,” he said. “Ah-huh-huh-huh-huh.” He stood at the left side of the family, next to his wife. The boys stood in the center, Cindy at the far right. Only she and Burt smiled.
Paul held up the phone and framed the shot but didn’t take the photo. “Hey, Burt, why don’t you stand in the middle, with the boys on either side of you?” he suggested. The family members rearranged themselves but retained their mostly dour faces and stood about a foot from each other. Paul viewed the scene, which easily encompassed all of them. He shook his head while discreetly holding down the combination of buttons that zoomed in until they no longer fit into the frame. “You’ll need to move in closer together,” he said. They crowded in until all five of them were touching, looking almost like a happy family. “Okay,” Paul said. “Everybody smile.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing