Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fiction #61: Tim Conley

Broken Pangolin

“While you’re out, could you go to the post office?”

“We have stamps.” She pointed to the desk in the kitchen where accumulated coupons, cuttings, recipe cards, and other unfiled odds and ends. “There are stamps right there.”

“Where?” he asked.

“Here. Well, they’re not our stamps, but it’s fine.”

“Not ours?”

“They’re for the office work I’m doing, and they paid for them, but it’s fine.”

“But I – ”

“No,” with a little sternness, “it’s fine, we can use them.”

“But I asked if you could go to the post office.”

“I’ll go to the post office later.”

“When?”

“I have to package up some things to send.”

He turned slightly in his seat for emphasis. “When are you going to go to the post office?”

“Late afternoon.”

“Couldn’t you go now, right after you go to the hardware store?”

“No, it’s in the other direction.”

“What?”

She did not sigh. “The hardware store is along Maitland. The post office is in the other direction.”

“It costs more gas to start the car again,” he said like someone unsure about his argument.

He rose to dry the dishes sitting on the rack by the sink.

She watched him a moment before saying, “For who to start the car again?”

“It’s two trips. Restarting the car takes more gas than just going to the one place and then the other.”

Exasperated with his idiocy, she deftly breaks his nose with a half-bowl of soup. The sound of the collision is unique. There is more blood than she has anticipated and wooziness quickly overcomes her. He manages to catch her before her head strikes the kitchen tiles. He carries her to the bedroom and sets her down on the mattress before pulling off his shirt and using it to towel up the blood. She turns her head left then right and her eyes open. They make love.

“You say we don’t need to worry about money but you’re always worried about money.”

“We’re not talking about money,” he growled, a small growl. “Never mind, I’ll go to the post office myself.” He removed her half-empty bowl from the table and rinsed it out before laying it in the sink.

“But I’m going later.”

“Late afternoon, you said. It’s fine, I’ll go myself now. I can even walk over there, save the gas.”

She glared at an indefinite point in space. “This is exactly like the time that Dominic broke the porcelain pangolin.”

“The pangolin got broken?” he asked. “When? My mother sent that from India.”

“Bangladesh,” she corrected. “She sent me that lovely sari from India.”

“That’s not the point. You’re saying it’s broken.”

“It happened ages ago. You must remember.”

“No. I was very fond of that pangolin.”

She was too irritated to decide how genuine the hurt expression was. She took from his hands the coffee cup he was drying. “Here, that one is still dirty.”

“Is it? Thanks.”

The rain drummed on the window.

“I’m off, then. Where are the letters you want mailed?”

“I didn’t say I had any letters to mail. I just asked if you could go to the post office. You didn’t even ascertain what I wanted there before you cut me off and explained that we have stamps, that you’ll go later, that it’s in the other direction. Anything but ‘yes’ or ‘sure thing’ or even ‘what do you need there?’”

“I asked you, ‘what do you need at the post office?’”

“No, you didn’t.”

His tone made her doubt herself. When he used that tone he was usually right.

“Anyway,” he continued after a moment, “I said to forget about it. I’ll go to the post office myself.”

“You can’t walk there in the rain.”

“It’s not far. Besides, that’s why I asked you to go.”

“But I told you I have to go later.”

He wipes his hands firmly on the dishtowel and marches past her, gathering some letters from the dining room table as he heads for the door. She follows him at a distance but says nothing as he leaves. An hour passes. Another hour passes during which she finds herself scrubbing the unclean coffee cup but unable to remove the stain. Evening falls and he has not returned but she struggles with her worrying despite her fiercely not wanting to worry. She picks up the phone, sets it down, picks it up again and dials her friend, whose remarks on how the gentle rain has resolved itself to really storm prompt the tears. Weeks pass and the police find nothing, though she feels they do not take the matter seriously. Winter begins with much snow. A few of her friends take her out of town for an expensive dinner and try to keep the conversation to safe topics, but she abruptly stops speaking when a server moves through the kitchen door. She seems to glide to the door and does not feel her hand press against the door, but there, there he is, unshaven and working in this restaurant kitchen, having slipped in the rain months before, bashed his head against the pavement, lost his memory, forgotten everything, absolutely everything, had to create a life for himself from nothing, not knowing who he was. She touches his face, repeats his name. She takes him home, to the bed she has not slept a full night in since he has been gone, and as beautiful strangers they make love.

“Remind me again, what are you going to the hardware store for?”

“Caulking,” she said. “For the garage window.”

“It’s not actually along Maitland.”

“What?”

“The hardware store. You said it’s ‘along Maitland.’”

“Well, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

But it’s not the same tone he used earlier, and in any case she generally knows the city routes better than he does. “You turn left off Maitland to get into the parking lot.”

Realizing he’d blundered, he said, “Right, right, of course. And it’s in the opposite direction from the post office. You’re right, you’re right, I give up.”

“You always overdo that.”

“What?”

“You turn the admission of error into a full-blown surrender.”

“Well, I can’t win.” His eyes involuntarily went to the high shelf where the porcelain pangolin used to sit. “My stuff breaks and nobody tells me about it. I can’t even get you to go to the post office for me just because I asked you to.”

She groaned. He set down the salad bowl he was drying and looked at her.

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“That groan. What does it mean?”

“I didn’t groan. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“You can’t have it both ways. And how did that porcelain pangolin break? Where was I when that happened?”

She began to groan again but stopped herself mid-groan. She looked up to see him pointing.

“You see?”

The doorbell rings and, welcoming the excuse to leave the room, she goes to answer it. A courier hands her a registered letter informing her that her recently deceased aunt in Wales has left a fortune that no one knew she had to her niece. She must fly to a remote village in Wales by the end of the month in order to claim this inheritance, otherwise it is to be spread among selected charities. The will makes the pointed stipulation that she must come alone. He drives her to the airport two days later and she can tell that he is uneasy about the arrangement, not least because she has an old flame in Wales, a young man she used to know when she stayed one miraculous summer with her laughing aunt. In fact it is he who meets her at the airport in Wales, more handsome than she remembered, and drives her to the remote village. He is the executor of her aunt’s will and for the duration of her visit she is to stay at his house, since the late aunt’s house is in a sorry state, for the aunt lived a life of extreme frugality and hid the slightest hint of any wealth. The two have dinner and she notices that he seems to avoid details about the execution of the will, as he does the next morning, instead asking her if she slept well, what she thinks of the place, all solicitous as to her comfort. He remains vague about the will and only refers to it when she makes any mention of her returning home, reminding her of its legal instructions needing to be fulfilled. At their third dinner she expresses frustration on the point and he places his hand on hers, and when he encloses it tightly she is alarmed by how excited she is. This house has always been too big for one, he says, and she finds she can give no answer. He says that she belongs there, there with him, as her aunt was wise enough to know. She hesitates before standing up from the table, knocking her glass of wine to the floor, and announcing that she is leaving, going home this instant. He throws his own glass to the floor and lets out a huge laugh. His fingers worm into his face: it is a false skin, a mask which he pulls away, and she sees him, those worried eyes that she left at the airport, or thought she had left there, for he must have caught the very same flight she did, or even a quicker and more direct one, and she suddenly recalls how he had insisted on booking the flight for her. She could have chosen the handsome Welshman and a rich life abroad but no, didn’t she see, yes, she sees, she chose home with him, him, she loves him. Confused and laughing and none the richer, except in all the ways that matter, they make love.

“It’s just so passive aggressive,” he said. He resumed drying the salad bowl.

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s fine, I just wish you wouldn’t do that all the time.”

“Do you want me to mail your letters?”

“No.”

“Look, I said I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. I’ll look after it.”

“That bowl doesn’t go there,” she pointed out.

“What do you mean?”

“It used to go there, but now it goes over there with that bowl.”

“I remember always seeing it over here.” The baffled face again. “How long have we been putting it over there?”

“Weeks,” she said, with as little interest in the subject as possible.

“And whatever happened to that sari my mother gave you?”

“Can we talk about this later?” she asked. “I have to get back to indexing those receipts.”

“I know my mother can be a pain,” he admitted.

“I’m not saying that. It’s just I have to get this work done today. And don’t forget that Dominic is expecting that answer to his question.”

“Always Dominic.”

She halted her businesslike exit. “What about him?”

“You said he broke the pangolin.”

“That was ages ago. What does it have to do with his question about swimming?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure,” she said slowly. “You know, I don’t think I can take this right now.”

“Right, you have to index those receipts. Too busy to go to the post office just now, though you’re probably not going to make it there today at all.”

“I’m not the only one who can play passive aggressive.”

The phone rang and he picked it up. He read aloud the number on the call display.

“Probably a telemarketer.”

The phone rang again.

“Might be Dominic,” he offered, extending the phone to her.

“It’s not, don’t be ridiculous.”

“First you say I’m passive aggressive, then you say I’m ridiculous.”

The phone rang again.

He answers the phone.

“It’s not an either/or kind of situation,” she said with a smile.

“I contain multitudes, that’s what you’re saying.”

The phone rang again.

She loosens her hair.

“You know what it is,” she said.

“No.”

“You’re not listening to me.”

He listens.

“I’m listening,” he said.

*

Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in various countries. His latest book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (2015).

Photo credit: Alice Callas.

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