This story is by Ann E. Fowler and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
For the first time since the viewing, I stared at my husband’s photograph. I’d taken this black and white image on our honeymoon. Framed in light oak, it marked our beginning. As I touched the glass, a panorama of fifty-two years together raced through my mind. Gazing over Roger’s youthful smile made it easy to remember why I’d fallen in love with him. Tan and muscular, warm seawater dampened his sunlit hair. Behind him, ocean breezes reshaped the dunes. What young woman wouldn’t fall for a handsome army officer with a dry sense of humor? I’d quit nursing school to marry him. A mistake few girls make today. Tomorrow, they’ll close Roger’s casket forever. I won’t see him again—except in my memories. Fate smiled. Halloween Day would be his funeral. Let his friends and family be horrified. For me, a perfect ending awaited.
Upstairs, I hung up my cardigan and stared at Roger’s side of the closet. Perhaps our grand-nephew would appreciate a memento. I pushed aside uniform jackets and pulled out an olive-green sleeve. Roger’s shirt from the Korean War might do—a novelty to a twenty-six year old, if nothing else. Fashion never interested my husband. Other than his career, little did. As a military officer’s wife, my role had been to support Roger. And support him I did.
Settling beside my nightstand, I retrieved a bundle of yellowing newsprint from the drawer. Opening it, I smoothed out wrinkles for the ten-thousandth time. Side-by-side, I set down two baby books—one pink and one pastel blue. The pages opened as blank as the day they were printed. Mother had given them to me after our honeymoon. Since my older brother died in Korea, I’d been her only hope for grandchildren.
As the 1950s ended, I feared I might never become pregnant. Every darling boy playing on our street, or walking with his parents, prompted Roger’s pat remark. ‘Cadet Roger A. Murphy, Jr., reporting, sir’. I still cringe. After each month’s failure, I’d listen for Roger’s car engine before crying in to my pillow. Father Williams urged me to be a good wife. Keep trying. God would provide. Perhaps I wasn’t as faithful as I’d thought. Finally, Roger became silent—to a point. Gnawing disappointment filled our home. And I shared my darkness with Mother and a few transient military friends.
On Roger’s fortieth birthday, I set down my martini and poured a scotch for him. As he sipped, I suggested adoption. A couple in our parish brought home a perfect little girl the month before. At bridge night, Margie beamed from her newfound motherhood. As I’d waited for Roger’s reply, I smiled, hoping to reassure him. His gaze froze, like a Greek statue’s. Setting down his drink, he’d shifted his weight and cleared his throat. “You expect me to love another man’s child?” The disgust in his voice lingers still. “A girl?”
Hesitating, I feared inciting his anger. I softened my voice. “Margie’s husband does.” As I wiped perspiration from my forehead, my heart pounded.
“He’s not me.” Roger picked up his scotch. “You should know better than to ask me that.” Without another glance, he’d hurried from the dining room. I can’t say for sure, but a chilly void opened in my heart that day.
* * * * *
Downstairs, I imagined what Father Williams might say about Roger tomorrow. His usual Catholic rituals, I’m sure. With a martini, I settled on the sofa. I grabbed the sympathy cards from the end table. Did these people know Roger as I had? Doubtful. His outward charm seduced everyone as it had me. I pulled a card from an envelope. The signature was illegible. The return address said, “Phillip Stevens”. I tilted my head, remembering that he’d been one of Roger’s subordinates. Phil also witnessed one of those rare, unguarded moments.
That 4th of July, Phil, his wife, Gloria, and two other couples, had joined us for a barbeque. Gloria mentioned their youngest son would start kindergarten in September. Even under a wide awning, sweat beaded on my forehead. Politely, I congratulated her.
Roger sipped his scotch. “Who thinks Irene would’ve been a good mother?” He laughed softly. “Any bets?”
My head swirled. With blurry vision, I rushed to the kitchen. Behind me, Gloria’s sandals clicked over the tile. I tore off a paper towel to wipe my eyes. She put her arm around me. As I stared at the sink, she had to feel my heart pounding.
Gloria whispered, “I’m so, so sorry.”
My throat constricted, forcing me to nod.
Releasing me, Gloria pulled my shoulder so I’d face her. From her gaze and smile, I found empathy. She’d kept her voice low. “I know we’re not best friends. But does he do that a lot?”
I wasn’t going to lie. I nodded again and sniffed. “Normally not around others. It’s the scotch.”
“Then why st—?” Gloria bit her bottom lip. Another understanding gaze met mine. “Phil has his moments, too.” She hesitated. “But that was really nasty.”
As my heartbeat slowed, I cleared my throat. “I’m used to it.”
Gloria reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Don’t get used to that.”
I sighed. “With no other family and no career, where would I go?” Gloria wanted to say more. Luckily, she didn’t. I pointed to the stockpot on the stove. “Help me chop the eggs. For potato salad.”
Gloria raised an eyebrow. “Will he complain about the food, too?”
Shaking my head first, I replied, “He never complains about my cooking.” Twenty minutes later, I was back on the patio smiling like a schoolgirl and hating myself for it. In June, Phil was transferred to the Pentagon.
* * * * *
After the funeral, my neighbor, Ellen, set the guest book on the coffee table. Two decades younger, she reminded me of myself early in my marriage—eager and happy. Her accounting career and family defined her as Roger’s life had defined me. When Ellen looked my way, her brown-eyed gaze softened. She approached the sofa, sidestepping the black heels I’d cast-off in relief.
Clutching a tissue, I sniffed. Several tears dropped to my lap. Ellen touched my shoulder. “It was beautiful. You were so lucky to have him all these years.”
Without looking up, I wiped under each eye. Thankfully, tears of relief matched those of sorrow. I’d played the perfect wife a final time.
“If you like, I’ll come by later.”
I needed more than a dry face to convince her. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
Ellen squeezed my shoulder. After another smile, she hurried out the door.
Leaning back, I gazed across the room. Yesterday, I’d set Mother’s picture on the piano. My father snapped it in the back yard of the house where my brother and me grew up. Mother, in her favorite straw hat, stood beside a cluster of day lilies. Orange and burgundy flowers dominated the photograph, not her smile. My father spent as many nights at his mistress’s home as he did ours. When Mother finally told me, I admitted I’d known about her for years. Calmly, she’d whispered:
The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
By the time I found that first receipt from a nearby Holiday Inn, my parents were both gone. Still, I pictured Mother’s face and prayed Roger would finally leave. But that day never came. Soon, I convinced myself that bad husbands make bad fathers. That freed me from caring about the mysterious woman in Roger’s life, or the empty nursery at the end of our hallway. Instead of growing children, I concentrated on nurturing my garden. My heirloom roses were the envy of the neighborhood. I warned everyone, even Roger, not to touch the foxglove—no matter how beautiful.
Soon, my doorbell would start ringing. For once, I wasn’t up to donning my witch costume and spooking neighborhood children. A mixing bowl on the top step, full of chocolates and hard candies, would do. If the first goblins filled their sacks, so be it.
In the kitchen, I mixed a double martini. The icy gin soothed far more than my throat. Tonight, I’d earned the right to be giddy—even drunk. Let fake monsters appear at the door. The real one would never haunt my life again.
If I could call Mother, I’d describe my garden—and send pictures she’d love. I’d try not to sound lighthearted as I revealed Roger’s sudden death. With a heart as weak as his, there’d been no autopsy. Even if there had been, Roger was desperate for a cure. No one could prove he hadn’t brewed the tea himself.
I glanced at the refrigerator magnets. A real estate agent lived on the next block. I’d call her tomorrow.
Once a “For Sale” graced my front yard, I’d burn the foxglove. I couldn’t bear the thought of a terrible accident—or even another monster’s demise.