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by Tertza Rinaldo Keeler
Alma Quarnborough and her husband, Alfred, ate breakfast in silence. The only sound in the small, sunny breakfast room, overlooking Connecticut Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., was the chirping of the buttercup-yellow canary in its brass cage which hung next to the big tiny-square-pane windows. There was no other sound except the drumming of her heart. Al, too, was trying to act as though nothing was amiss, but she became aware that he was suddenly unable to stand the tension any longer. She thought in amazement, he seems like a stranger to me. She noticed that he had cut his chin in shaving, right at the cleft. His nose looked more pointed than usual this morning, and his eyes, normally a blue-grey, now looked like grey ice. As usual, when he was exasperated, he furrowed his high forehead. He spoke finally.
“Well come on, get it off your chest. Don’t just sit there like a martyr. So I didn’t get home till five this morning. Is that a penitentiary offense?”
Alma tried to hold back the tears. “It wasn’t just last night. This is the sixth time in the last two weeks, and you didn’t even bother to telephone. At least other times you had the decency to call. What’s the matter, are you running out of excuses?” Even as she said it, she thought, I’m doing just what I don’t want to do. I’m acting like an injured wife. It’s the worst thing I could do.
He cleared his throat. “I told you before, we were playing poker, the four of us, and we all had too much to drink, so Jim suggested we bed down at his place.”
“Jim? Jim who?”
Now he was furious at her questioning. “Jim who?” How many Jims do I know, for, Heaven’s sake? You know which Jim I mean. Jim Sorensen!”
She thought, This can’t be true. This can’t be happening to us. Al acting this way. What’s happening to us? Trying to calm the trembling that beset her, she looked at his flushed, exasperated face. In his irritation she thought that his eyes, which she had always considered beautiful, now looked like muddy ice.
“You’re sure it was Jim Sorensen? Al—you’re sure?”
“Of course it was Jim. Why all the questioning?”
“All right, Al.” she could feel each word leaving her stiff lips reluctantly. “The reason I asked was because Jim called last evening. He was anxious to talk to you. He called the first time about nine, then once an hour until midnight. He said it was important.”
Al glared at her. “OK, you asked for it, so here it is. I had a date last night. We went to the theatre. You know that show you’ve been wanting to see? Well, I got the tickets, but I took somebody else. Afterwards we went someplace to dance. “
She felt as though encased in ice, but at the same time her heart felt like a red-hot brick, and it was difficult to breathe. Always, in stressful moments she lost her voice, and now she felt her lips moving but no sound came. She was remotely glad that she was able to hold back the tears. She thought, Al’s just being mean. He probably feels lousy. But she was unable to look at him. The small, gay, familiar room closed in around her, the room she had so much enjoyed furnishing. She noticed that the Venetian blinds were open to the full morning sun. She had forgotten to tilt them. The chintz drapes with the big yellow flowers were getting a little dusty. She would have to send them to the cleaners. The gilt frame of the mirror, a wedding present from her now dead friend, Pat, was slightly tarnished. Pat and her husband, Herbert, had lived in Philadelphia. Herbert had taught at a boys’ school. The mirror was low enough so she could see Al’s back. She could also see herself, small, pale, with her short brown hair a little mussed, a deep sadness in her violet colored eyes. She thought distractedly, I look like something in a bad dream. Yesterday was our wedding anniversary. Twelve years. I bought a new dress. It’s hanging in the closet. I didn’t get to wear it.
Unsteadily she arose and walked into the living room, and even now she thought, as she always did when she came into this room, It’s such a pleasant room! She walked over to the big chair in front of the fireplace. It was too warm for a fire. There were pussywillows in an enormous vase in the grate. Al followed her, stood in front of the fireplace. She thought, This is like a soap opera. After a couple of false starts, she said:
He stood, tall, thin, nervous. “There’s always been somebody, off and on. Nobody in particular.” He glanced at the book-filled shelves next to the fireplace, carefully avoiding the small picture on the third shelf from the bottom in front of the children’s books. “Ever since Denny died, that’s how long.” Nervously he kicked at the deep-tufted green rug under his feet.
She thought, Denny was six when he died, and felt again the unbearable longing to put her arms around his sturdy little body. Three years ago. He had just started school. He was so proud of himself. She remembered achingly how in the evening after supper she and Denny would sit in the big chair in front of the fireplace. Sometimes he would sit on the small green hassock at her feet, and she would read to him, all his favorites, about knights in shining armor, fiery dragons, adventure stories. Sometimes Al would take them driving after they ate. Sometimes, rarely, they would go to a drive-in. Denny loved that. Then—it was only measles, the doctor said—nothing to worry about—just be careful. Nothing to worry about—nothing to worry about. But Denny died—
Al shifted restlessly. “I want to talk to you.”
He went over to the big rocker facing her chair. It was dark cherry-wood and matched the chair she sat in. She reached out and took a cigarette from a hammered pewter container on the small cherry-wood table next to her. Al leaned over and lit it for her. He shifted uneasily, seemed not to know how to start, then blurted out—
“I’ve been going with this girl, off and on, for years, since Denny died. It—it—the affair has gone too far. She—we—I—want you to give me a divorce so—so—we can get married—soon.”
She thought wonderingly, All these years we’ve known each other. When I first met him in the senior class at high school I thought he was the most wonderful person in the world. Then we started going together. We’d either be at his house or mine. His mother looked just like him, but she was such a nice, homey little woman. His father was a hard-working man, gentle, but his feet always hurt. He was a mailman. It seemed as if he was always excusing himself, when he was home, to go soak his feet. She thought, It’s ludicrous, me thinking about his father soaking his feet, but as if to escape from the present she thought, Mama and Papa wanted us to wait until we finished school, but no, we got married by the Justice of the Peace. Papa wanted me to stop seeing him, but we were already married. She was aware that Al was waiting for her to say something, but her thoughts continued. I felt sorry for everybody else when Al and I got married. I thought there was nobody like him. When he was finishing school I worked to make ends meet. I never worked before we were married. I felt sorry for all the other women in the world who were not loved by him. She felt her lips twist in a wry smile. I could have saved my sympathy…That time he had pneumonia... I thought I would commit suicide if he died... When we were first married he said ‘If anything ever happens to our marriage it will be your fault, not mine.” She could still remember his sanctimonious tone of voice. “I will never do anything wrong.’ He never wanted me to have any children. When I became pregnant with Denny and had to stop working, he was furious... She felt the hot river of tears running down inside of her, but no words would come.
She thought, I know who the girl is... his secretary... He described her one time after she first started working for him... small... slim... with black curly hair and a heart-shaped face. He said she was divorced.....
Al was twisted sideways in his chair, one long leg over the arm, his favorite position. He looked guilty and miserable. She wanted to comfort him, but all the time she felt that river of hot scalding tears flowing inside of her.
With a great effort she forced herself to speak. “Al, you want me to... to divorce you? That’s what you want?”
Al couldn’t look at her. He kept looking down at the rug. He just nodded his head, yes.
She heard a voice, and realized with a shock that it was hers... It seemed to be coming from a great distance.. “It’s all right, Al… if you want it... it’s all right... only... only...” Again that terrible tightness in her chest, making it impossible to breathe, making it impossible to say what she had to say… She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes... Again she felt the river of hot tears flowing inside of her...
She felt frightened, alone, and because she couldn’t bear to look at him, she kept her eyes closed... feeling almost relieved at the sound of the front door closing behind him.
The ’phone must have been ringing for a long time before she noticed its insistent clamor. Again she rose, awkwardly, like an old woman, and stumbled blindly to the breakfast room and picked up the telephone, and answered, almost whispering her “Hello.”
“Mrs. Quarnborough?” a crisp feminine voice queried. “This is Mrs. Swanson at the Maternity Modes Shoppe. I’m terribly sorry, but by mistake I gave you the wrong dress yesterday.”
“Wrong dress? It looked like the one I decided on.”
“I mean it’s the wrong size. I didn’t straighten up the fitting room until this morning and then it struck me. The dress I gave you is the bigger size. I found yours here this morning. I hope it didn’t inconvenience you. I’ll send it right out, and the delivery boy can pick up the other one.”
Again Alma heard the voice that was hers and yet not hers. “No, it didn’t inconvenience me. I didn’t use it. Thank you very much for calling... I’ll have it ready for the boy when he comes... Thank you so much.... Goodbye.”
Feeling her way like a blind woman, she walked slowly back into the sun-flooded room and sat down......
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