Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Linda Hollandsworth
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Shirley Martin uttered nervously as she stepped into my foyer. I thought she said, “I’ve got something to sell you,” so I ushered her into the living room, offered her some homemade mints, and pointed to the beige and blue Victorian sofa.
“Now, what are you selling?” I asked the young girl. She stood there sort of nervously frowning and bit the skin around her thumbnail.
The room seemed to close in as she stood there, eyeing the mints. She was searching for something, words maybe. She squinted her eyes as she exchanged glances between me and the mints. She finally spoke.
“I’m not selling anything. I’m telling you something,” she said, “and you’re not going to like hearing it.”
I stumbled backwards in the direction of the large La-Z-Boy rocker, then sat down. My gut told me that I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. A tiny bit of worry stabbed at the impatience I felt. Standing there, Shirley Martin looked like the guardian of doom, about to deliver bad news. I noticed that her dark blue denim jumper was a tad tight in the bust, and the strap on her pocketbook refused to stay on her shoulder.
“Okay,” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no mam,” she shot back quickly. Her voice had gathered some independence, a little aggression.
Deliver bad news, she did, on that cold March afternoon. Right in my own living room, she presented an epistle of dates and meetings she’d had with James, so numerous that I lost count in her non-stop delivery. James and I had been married for more than 40 years when I was caught off guard by this youngster who announced to me, in rather grand style, that they were an item.
The knot in my chest gradually came loose. I was numb. At one point, I fanned the air with my hands. I seemed to be in one of those nightmares that recurred often. Shirley jumped up from the arm of the chair (she refused to sit completely down) and headed toward the door.
“Let’s take a breather,” I said, as I headed for the kitchen to put the water on for some hot chocolate. “This is quite a bit to absorb at one time.”
“You’re so calm,” Shirley said as she followed me into the kitchen.
She was about 20, somewhat stocky, and had worked for James as his assistant in the towel mill personnel office for about two years. Her long blonde hair had split ends and the clothes she wore were the best of K-Mart’s Kathie Lee Gifford line.
James had mentioned her only casually. He was near retirement and this was her first job. Seemed strange to me that a young woman would fall for an old man like him. What little hair he had left was iron gray, and his six-foot, two-inch frame held a measly 150 pounds. I weighed more than he did. His glasses hung off his nose and he had this peculiar way of pushing them up. You could be in the most intense discussion with James and he would take his thumb (only) and slide those spectacles back into place.
James and I had known each other since high school. It was just naturally presumed that we would marry one day. Our families both set the date for us one year, and we had the good sense to tell them that we would like to wait until we finished college before jumping into the marriage scene. We were more like friends when we actually tied the knot; James didn’t even want to make love on our wedding night. Maybe I should have seen this coming years ago!
A high school graduate, Shirley had worked in the packing department of the towel mill during the summers while she was in high school. Then, as soon as she graduated, she landed a job in the personnel office, working for James.
All this was going through my mind as she raced on and on about how much they loved each other and how right they were for each other. “How can this poor child even think such a thing,” I thought, feeling more sorry for her than myself at that moment.
Certainly I was ticked off at James who had probably had himself a time with this young thing. He’d said he would be bound to do more physical activity after his triple bypass, but this? Where did they do it? In the closet? In the coffee room? No, no, no, I knew those places were out of the question. Too many people around. Did they even do it? Well, we hadn’t done it in two years or more. I couldn’t even remember the last time.
“Yes, what did you say?” I poured Shirley a cup of hot chocolate. “Want to sit here?” The kitchen was really two rooms so there was plenty of space to hear her out. The clean, white linoleum floor just put down the year before to brighten our solid, colonial house served as a stage for Shirley as she described how she just had to tell me about their relationship and their plans for the future. I guessed those plans did not include me. I sipped my hot chocolate and listened a little more attentively since most of the numbness had worn off.
“We just fell in love one day, Mrs. Hillburn,” she bleated.
All the while I listened to this lovesick, pug-nosed child go on, I imagined James and me on a safari in Africa. Pow! I stood up in the jeep and shot him in the back of the head, just like Margot in Hemingway’s “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In my mind, I was claiming it to be an accident, but in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do.
“What was that?” I interrupted Shirley just as she was saying something about getting laid.
She repeated. “He laid the phone down one day,” Shirley spoke slowly, “and looked across the desk at me with those big brown eyes.” Then, she stopped.
“And?” I was eager to hear what he’d said when he laid the phone down. What did she see in those brown eyes that I’d been looking into every day for 43 years? How is it that she could be sexually stimulated by a cadaverously thin old man who never stayed awake each evening past 8:30? Did she realize that a 65-year-old only has a few golden years left? My God, what is she thinking?
“And that was it,” she said dreamily, like the star-struck girl she was.
“That was what?” I desperately needed an explanation.
“That was the moment when I knew we were meant for each other.” She wiped the last of the chocolate out of her cup with her pinky. Looking squarely at me across the oak table, she said, “Don’t you care about what I’ve told you?”
“Yes,” I said rather calmly. My cheeks burned with annoyance at her. Here was this monsters sacres, the French would call her, someone beyond all ethical judgment with no morals at all. What’s the matter with young people today, I thought. Don’t they have any scruples at all? What happened to marriage vows? Here I was putting most of the blame on this child when I should have picked up the telephone, called James and asked, “What the hell is going on here?”
Suddenly an image came to mind. I was lost in another daydream right there sitting at my kitchen table. I was driving down the road behind a 1977 Ford pickup truck whose bumper sticker read, “How’s my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” I wondered if I should spend another minute even thinking about this affair, if that’s what it was.
But I did care. Here was a woman one-third my age telling me that she intended to take my husband. Yes, I cared. At least, I think I did.
I wondered about the chemistry between the two and marveled at the energy it must have taken James to initiate (if he really did) action (if he did). I thought about my future. Without James. Telling the children. What would they think? What would my friends think?
At that moment, I decided I needed James. I needed him in my old age. I had him in my youth, and I was going to have him here with me in my twilight years. I never knew why people referred to them as twilight years. There’s not much light, hardly any sparkle. Old people are too tired to twinkle.
“Shirley, I think you should take a deep breath and think about the consequences here,” I said slowly, “because James will never leave me and his family. Do you understand?” She had this puzzled look on her face as if she was disappointed that I didn’t resign myself to the fact that she and James were going to be together. Maybe she thought that I would just turn over the keys to the house!
I sat still until I heard the start of her car’s engine and then the squeal of tires that meant she’d pulled out of the driveway, probably angry. No, more than likely, in a hurry. I was still sitting, still stirring, my third cup of hot chocolate, when the telephone rang. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of James and Shirley. Those brown eyes! Yeah, right!
“Mrs. Hillburn? This is Dolores down at the office. Pete’s going to come over and take you to the hospital. Uh, um, Mr. Hillburn has had a heart attack, and we called 911. The medic thinks he’s going to be okay, but they won’t know anything for sure until the doctor examines him.”
“Yes, right, I’ll be ready. Thank you, Dolores.” A slight smile crossed my lips as I put down the phone. I couldn’t help it. Pity flickered and then a small sense of triumph. For a moment, I stood silent. The image of his pale face, smiling faintly through his white teeth, forced its way in front of me.
I almost shouted, but I didn’t. The lump in my throat disappeared, and I felt a great primitive surge of sadness and fury.