by Susan Tepper
At the time I first saw the little cottage I never dreamed I would someday live here. The light-pink door—a woman’s door ran through my mind. This is a place a woman would walk into alone and live. The door, almost flesh in tone. Soft against white clapboards. A small contained cottage on a small plot of land. Out front a weedy, pebbled path. There’s an arbor, too, strung with climbers; also pink. Old-fashioned roses. The kind people planted when life was simpler. A cottage like a fairy tale makes real.
I don’t remember what I was doing here when I first saw the cottage. I must have been doing something.
One bright day I got into my car and drove off. I thought I was going to the outdoor market to buy apricots. I drove past the market, and the parking area, out to the veteran’s cemetery where everything seems frozen, even during summer. Then I got on the parkway going east. I could’ve driven west. The parkway offers those two choices. This island is long and longer than narrow. If you drive too far east, eventually you will fall off. I drove a while then exited when the name on a sign appealed to me. The sign had a sea name.
“She left? You mean left left?” Mickey leans under the awning of the juice bar to get out of the sun. He beat my ass in squash. Again. We do it anyway. It’s a ritual. He’s wringing out his sweat band saying, “Isn’t that pretty dramatic?”
“Paula is the dramatic gesture.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean?”
“It’s who she is is all I’m saying.” I watch a blonde with a tennis racket making her way toward the club house.
Mickey gives me one of his low-lidded stares. I’m thinking this juice bar is total crap, I need something that burns going down.
“You have to be back at the hospital?” I say.
“OK. Bings for a quick lunch. But I gotta shower first.”
Bings being one of those places my old man used to call joints. Off the exit of the Northern Parkway right before you hit Queens. I back into an end spot. Ours the only cars in the lot. The rest are vans, commercial, SUV’s, pick-ups parked sloppy. Younger guys than us hit Bings for pool, the betting, the stacked waitresses said to be Hooter rejects.
Mickey grabs a booth directly under the cold air vent. I am about to say this a bad idea, what with the lousy ventilation, probably standing water, legionella spores.
He stares at me across the booth. “What now?” he says.
I rap-tap-tap my knuckles on the varnished table.
The place is jammed, noisy. The mid-day crowd. A game of Chicago underway at the table. Some tinsel-head Goldilocks on acid keeps screeching after each move. It’s starting to get on my nerves. “Chicago! Now there’s a game with balls!” she shouts.
“Shut up!” I yell. She looks surprised, her red mouth forming an O.
Years ago I put a pool table in our basement. Antique with mahogany trim and deep, embossed leather pockets. Paula would never play. Below ground level depressed her. That was the excuse. I played alone. The random clacking of balls like atoms splitting if you could hear that. Thirty years of living with random violence—the ER is a car wreck a minute if you stop to assess. There can be some comfort in that—the counting of things. Sure, it gives a false sense of control but all the same. Medicine is mostly assumptions based on symptoms. The pretentious docs like calling it art. You could puke.
“So, Paula . . .” Mickey is checking out the crowd.
“Don’t expect her to come walking in here.”
“It’s got to be one of her old jaunts she’s on,” he’s saying, “right?”
I shrug. “Where’s the waitress?”
“So Paula gets bored and goes back to that old gig.” Mickey blowing into the neck of the beer bottle he grabbed on his way in. “Christ this dark shit delivers. Where is she this time? Southeast Asia? Madagascar?”
“How the fuck do I know.” I laugh, too, but not really; rubbing the back of my neck slow like you rub the neck of a dog. It feels good—the rubbing.
I signal a waitress who’s killing time near the bar. “She fucking . . . last week. No note, nothing. Typical Paula.”
The girl comes over in that swig-swag way, the short checked apron, square dance kind of white top gathered tight to show cleavage when she bends to take the drink order. “And, you, another?” she asks Mickey. He’s shaking his head stupidly.
I’m watching him thinking: You cardiac guys, you’re supposed to stay pumped. No falling in love for half an hour. Not in this joint, anyway.
The waitress saunters off. To Mickey I say, “Keep this to yourself. OK?”
He puts out a hand in friendship. “Steady. Steady partner. She’ll get bored with that soon and come running home. You’ll see. Mark my words.” He’s talking way too much. He’s already mapped out the deal.
“Well isn’t that beside the point?”
If my first baby had lived. But what's the use in going back? I was young, barely twenty. Didn't even know it was a baby. Pain like a hot knife and I’d sort of folded in half—the yellow blood goo and staring into the toilet thinking what is this? All pain gone in an instant. If only the rest of life could be that way. That baby knew it had no future.
Ten, fifteen years later it all dawned on me. By then things were different. Different husband, different life. Abundance. No coupon clipping and the measuring out of things.
I’ve got maybe the best house in the world. Not huge. But no way modest by any stretch. The land is crisp, rolling in back like those lakes where you trip down a slope to the water’s edge. Specimen trees in between native oaks and white pine—what Paula called woodsy-manicured.
Custom built using glass wherever possible; wherever a beam could be spared—glass. When I am drunk, tired, confused—it’s easy to get the inside and outdoors muddled. Balconies—what my wife calls terraces—track the perimeter on all three levels like deer runs. A straight drop of glass to the ground. Our son Cody named it The Tree House. We get deer and other wildlife. The black bears terrified Paula, especially at night. She heard somewhere they will crash through windows to get at a food supply.
This is possible.
The realtor who rented me the cottage said, “This must be your lucky day. Cheap for such a good place.”
I kind of felt the same. I have felt lucky in spurts. I felt lucky both times I got married. Even when my first one turned quickly to sadness, then I felt lucky getting out, both of us relatively unharmed while still so young. If you have to get out, it’s best to leave early.
The cottage, luckily, came furnished. Not exactly what I’d choose but nice comfy stuff, like a fifties movie. A few antiques. I like sitting at the speckled formica table having my meals or a cup of tea. The vinyl chairs are cracking but the bright yellow makes them cheery. When I shift, they squeak like canaries. According to the realtor, some man who lives in California owns the cottage. He hasn’t been back in twenty years. How can she pin it down so precisely? A man painted the door pale pink? I am totally surprised by this.
I’m thinking of buying a couple of long silk nightgowns. Winter is coming and silk is good for staying warm.
Tuesday I brought a woman home. Nell. Nurse from the cath lab. She changes in the locker room without panties. A thirty-something streaked-blonde with those deliberate black roots. Bitch I call her, she calls me bastard. The patients love it, makes them laugh, takes their mind off other things.
When I described her to Mickey he said: Yeah, yeah, the no panties one; and that she probably gave me a dose. Well good for Nell. Let it fester. Feel the burn before you reach for the drugs. Burn my cock, I’m thinking.
In the end I couldn’t do it. I thought of telling Mickey then kept this to myself. Paula could be crazy in bed, insatiable. Then nothing. Touch her, bite, lick, batter her with my dick and she’s gone into a trance. Dead. A stone thing. Twenty-five years married. Who is so wise they can see hate smack in front of their lips when it tastes so good?
* * *
Susan Tepper is the author of The Merrill Diaries, a Novel in Stories (Pure Slush Books, 2013). Four of her other books are also published. Currently, her story Distance (Thrice Fiction Magazine) is a finalist in the story/South Million Writers Award for this year. More about Susan at her website: www.susantepper.com
Wildebeest was first published in Thrice Fiction Magazine, Issue 10.
Thrice Art Director David Simmer II offers some blog commentary about Wildebeest and his artwork that accompanied this story:
Story download at: http://blogography.com/archives/2014/04/thrice-10-1.html