Mark came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, a vacant look in his eyes. She had pruned the clematis to a single stem. It would never come back.
“Don’t worry,” Nicole said. “I’ll get a new one at the nursery.”
“I liked the one I had,” he said, sizing her up and wandering off alone, leaving her frowning, her eyebrows almost touching. She let the pruning scissors fall—no longer a menace. Her stillness nestled in the heat of summer, an insect encased in amber. The neighborhood too seemed immobilized.
He was lying on the sofa, an open book pressed against his stomach. The day before, she had mentioned she might stay on after the workshop finished.
“We could go for a walk. Before sundown. Have dinner somewhere.”
“You forget I’m writing a book. Going out breaks the spell.”
She wanted him to stretch his arm and pull her down to the sofa, but Mark had glanced at her, letting her know she was intruding. He got up and moved away, disappearing into his room with his book, shutting the door.
Beyond the tall spruce in the driveway, thunder rumbled far out, building up one of those storms that leave a dark trail between the corn fields. That year, nothing would grow on that Ohio farmland, where scorched grass across the fields told of desolation. When she first arrived, driving out of town, he had pointed to the rare old wooden barns, now abandoned beyond repair, their red paint withering against the rolling countryside.
They had met in Cincinnati on a Sunday. Nicole had gone to the game with her new friends from the writers’ workshop she was attending in Yellow Springs. Mark, a professor on the workshop board, was lining up to buy a ticket at Riverfront Stadium.
“Hey. Why not join us?” She was surprised she had said that, panicking at the thought he might think her fast. He turned his head slightly, without any sign of recognition, refraining from commenting. She shortened the distance between them, insisting. “Remember Teresa and Joyce? We met at the Workshop reception. You got us drinks.”
He gave no sign of recognition. “Sure,” he said.
But once inside the stadium he loosened up, giving details about the game’s box score, strategy, top plays, home runs, why it was important to sweep and dust the artificial turf while the players warmed up—how an umpire had died at the stadium’s opening game. They went behind the stands to buy mulberry-flavored ice-cream.
As the game continued Nicole watched his face. He seemed distant, eyes fixed on the field, assuming a new personality, a shadow merging with the teams, losing substance. The Cincinnati Reds defeated the Houston Astros that day. After the game, the four went to a bar overlooking the river. Mark sat next to her, legs touching, eyes locking over the beer, his excitement over the winning Reds giving way to anticipation. He signaled to the waiter, waited for the bill, and when it did not come, he got up and settled at the counter.
“Let’s go. I’ll drive you back,” he said.
On the way, she chatted about her favorite rock music, but he told her he preferred the far more intricate sound of a Mahler symphony. She was totally ignorant about classical music, as she had been about the ballgame, but nodded, giving up on conversation, preferring to let herself warm up to the touch of his hand on her knee. She put hers at the back of his neck, but he kept his eyes on the road.
When they reached Yellow Springs, he went up to her rented room, stayed the night. They rolled in bed but he seemed distracted, never came. He turned from her, faced the wall, knees close to his chin, his body pulsing, like a sulking child. She thought she heard him sobbing. Darkness hid her disappointment.
Despite the frustration of their initial love-making, they slid into a more intense affair, melding their awkward limbs in tight embraces, riding on the edge—baffled by their own desire. Mark would signal the end of their lovemaking by turning toward the wall, his naked body shaking. He seemed to find comfort in his childlike, curled position, but when she woke up in the morning, she found him gone. She stared at the crumpled sheets, her appetite for breakfast ruined. The view from her single window became unbearably common. One morning she paid her landlady, packed her bags. She would fetch them later.
She relished the thought of trimming his neglected garden, sitting out on the porch before sundown under the black parasol he had bought in the new Oriental shop at the edge of town. The assistant had suggested a red one with a Japanese pattern, but when she saw his look, she did not insist.
At first, Mark had been skeptical. “Why move to my place? You’ve got privacy at that guest house.”
She had swept away all arguments with the kind of rash innocence that usually goes with youth. “Who wants privacy? I’m getting writer’s block from that dreary view. Besides, I can walk to the grocer’s from your house. We can eat at home. Save on food. I’ll sweep, do laundry, wash the car. We’ll get drunk . . . listening to Mahler.”
He flinched, but in the end he gave up.
Sipping coffee at the kitchen table, he sounded dreamy, enthralled by the symphonic intricacies of Mahler’s First, as he began recalling his past. He would linger on detail about his childhood, giving her details of his mother’s work at the telephone exchange, her bleak war memories, as if his mother were still holding his hand as she walked him back from grammar school, guiding his first steps as a boy—now a man.
Nicole waited, hanging on his words, as he filled in gaps in his tale, wishing to learn from what he craved in the past.
“We always stopped at my father’s used car lot on our way home from school. All I could think of was that battered gunmetal Hudson with the bulging chrome grill and its the shiny ornament—a glittering goddess darting sparks. I would rush toward that car, sitting on its faded leather seat, fidgeting with the wheel, glancing sideways at my father, who would wink at me in silence from the passenger seat, avoiding war talk.”
But the thought of that glittering goddess was powerful enough to break his dream.
“Junk,” he said, his voice rising above Mahler’s winds—“like a marriage.”
Nicole ignored his remark and walked out onto the deck, shutting the connecting door behind her. The sun hung low, close to the fence, bringing shadow to the backyard. Ohio’s damp summer heat brought out dragon flies buzzing above the artificial pond. The sound of water cascading over the waterfall’s basalt rocks mixed with the male toad’s hoarse croak. Nicole lay on the deck squeezing one of Mark’s sweaty t-shirts.
Night fell, but Mark remained inside the house listening to Mahler, as if his passion for music excluded her. He never called her in.
His solitude remained a mystery to Nicole. Often, when they shared a meal, she would look
into his granite-speckled eyes, fixed on some azimuth, while listening to his modulated voice, her coffee getting cold as Mahler’s First came to an end with a clashing of sound. He would fall silent, listening to the reverberating notes disturbing the air, then brush her mouth lightly with two fingers. She parted her lips waiting for a kiss.
But he continued to stare, and she noticed the furrows in his brow grow deeper, his mood
changing, as if an ill wind was blowing from some hostile dark matter from an earlier life—the failed marriage, the ex-wife he seemed to have relegated to a hidden pouch in a shadowy recess of his mind. Whatever was catching up with him—some elusive, chilling flash into his past—became invasive like Japanese honeysuckle.
She glowed with a sudden happiness, her senses heightened by her recent experience with Mahler’s dissonant sound. The sight of the natural, violent world out in the garden made her bold, as she watched the erratic flight of bats, birds pecking, fighting for worms in the rain-soaked grass, wings rustling, uneasy at the proximity of the squirrel. She could feel the wilderness within her, as she paced the backyard counting her steps, but her frustration mounted as she realized she could never equal the beauty of sunsets and flickering glow worms in the stillness of summer night. She would be the one falling silent, sensing tears coming to her eyes, while she deliberately slowed the unbuttoning of her blouse to show her breasts cupped inside her bra.
Meals. Short-lived bliss. “We’ll do with salad. Chickpeas. Tuna.” She spiced her cooking with exotic herbs, coloring rice with saffron, turmeric, adding an Indian flavor to mango-yogurt paste. When she lit a candle and burned incense sticks on a special copper-engraved wooden block, he blew them out before sitting at table, giving no explanation.
She was unsure about his liking Mediterranean or Indian food. He never complained, refraining from commenting on the meals, eating in silence, indifferent to her talk. He would lower his eyes, scraping his plate clean, pushing it aside. She watched him pick up the milk carton, then stand facing the open refrigerator, glaring at the bright light, scrutinizing its shiny interior, the food stacked and aligned in neat rows.
“We’re out of butter, leeks, celery . . . corn. Make a list. I can’t afford taking you out.”
The shopping lists were endless. She made sure the refrigerator needed replenishing, throwing
leftovers to the birds, sensing his rage at having to interrupt his work on the book, while he felt an urgency to leave things behind, slam a door. Like Scheherazade, she tried to hold his attention, forever suggesting errands to the local grocer’s, the distant mall and its bright crowds, where he would wander around, sizing up giggling teenagers. She would leave her bra on the sofa, walking naked from the waist up before going to bed. Once he grabbed his jacket and placed it over her shoulders.
Trash—leftovers from lunch. Splintering Mark’s best dishes—the porcelain ones with the thin gold rim and the Zodiac signs he had fought over with his sister when their mother died. His granite eyes darkened, roaming over disaster.
“What the hell have you done now? Those were my mother’s plates. Priceless.”
Nicole saw him stare beyond the fence, disembodying himself from her presence. He seemed to speak out of memory, as if recalling a scene painted in somber colors, perhaps from the early marriage—a time he seemed reluctant to recall, even when she pressed him for details. He stalked from the room, dismissing the matter over his shoulder.
“Forget replacing them.”
Next day, after dinner, she ventured, “I saw plates, much like your mother’s. I could get some.”
“You’ll only break them again.”
“Give me a chance. You can’t hold on to things forever. Let your ex go.”
She regretted her last remark, touched his cheek with her hand, drew nearer to him on the couch. But he seemed absent, isolated inside some bubble, carried away by some enthralling Mahler cadenza. Her eyes scanned his tall figure, disproportionate to that low-ceilinged house sitting on the edge of town, where birds fought over spilled seed in the aftermath of storms and bats swished close to the French window, possibly aware of reflections—life inside the house.
Wrestling in bed, naked, sweating to exhaustion, he would fit his mouth to the hollow between the two protruding bones at the base of her neck, before turning against the wall in fetal position. She thought she heard him crying.
“You make me nervous.”
His inertia disturbed her, as he continued to lie in the bed, without moving. She would get out of his narrow bed and head to the bathroom, splashing cold water over her face and neck, then take a deep breath, before heading back to the bedroom. His silence told her he had relegated her to the tool shack, among harvest knives, hedge shears, pruning scissors. She clutched to his naked body, curled like a threatening Kafkaesque beetle feeding on her dream. A sense of déjà vu.
In the weeks that followed, Nicole’s energy throbbed, building up to its usual peak. Sensing a resistance from the house—a negativity surging from some gutted quarry on the property—she would get up when darkness was at its quietest, rearranging the library and Mark’s CD collection. Later she would watch him silently restoring books and CDs to their original order. She found the incense sticks and candle in the trash.
When his friends from the university came to visit, curious about the new guest, she remained silent, afraid to spoil the evening by some inappropriate remark. She retreated to the kitchen, leaving the crowd to their bickering.
Days vanished like a magician’s illusion. Soiled dishes piled up in the sink, since she had silenced the dishwasher, clogging the drain. The water had ploughed across the kitchen and into the living room, running freely over the wooden floor, soaking the Kazak Oriental area rug—another irreplaceable item that had belonged to his ex-wife.
Cursing the marriage, he dragged the wet rug out to the garbage pickup at the end of the driveway. Nicole watched him walk back to the house, uneasy at the thought that he cared more for the rug than for the woman who had left him. He stood looking at his mother’s carved walnut chest, which had stood on the now useless rug, entertaining some idea he had no intention of sharing.
The telephone rang, but before he turned away to pick up the receiver, she heard him say to no one in particular: “Aha! The chest looks better without it.”
That evening, he had shut his bedroom door, his telephone busy late into the night. She had waited for him to return to the living room, but he never did and she fell asleep on the sofa.
Some days later, the ballgame was on, and Mark had left the door to his room ajar. This was his inner sanctum, an untidy space, unlike the rest of the house. She leaned against the bedrail, watching the game, the Reds pushing to win. Larkin singled to right field. Sanders scored.
“Lucky, if they make it to second place this season.”
Nicole brushed against the TV, aware his remark was not directed at her. She sensed he was keeping her out of his private enclosure, slumping on his couch, inert and aloof, dwelling on the game’s mathematical combinations and infinite dead ends. He glanced swiftly at her and she seized the moment, moving toward him, sitting on the edge of the bed undoing her jeans.
“Want a beer?” she asked.
But nothing could drag him out of that stupor—not even desire.
Outside, the tangy smell of freshly-cut grass heightened her senses, as she walked past the
untamed bitternut hickory, shedding its woody nuts, casting a mottled shadow over the back porch.
Inside the garden shack she kneeled to inventory the array of tools neatly stacked on the lower shelves. She honed the hedge clippers and pruning hedge shears, their cutting edge sharp against the wood, then reached for the razor-tooth pruning saw hanging on the wall. Her arms had grown stronger from clipping.
Pushing the wooden ladder outside, she positioned it under the hickory, ignoring the pain from the blisters on her fingers, as she handled the saw expertly with one hand, back and forth, while humming a familiar childhood rhyme—Eggs, butter, cheese, bread, / Stick, stock, stone dead. / Stick him up, stick him down, / Stick him in the old man’s crown—the rhyme turning into a dreary warrior song, her voice growing harsh, rasping, as the hickory branches tumbled to the ground. The woody nuts clattered on the deck, as if echoing the sound of the crowd on a big day in Riverfront Stadium. She heard the gray squirrel’s chattering sending out alarm signals, flicking its tail, growing nervous—aggressive. She raised her eyes from her work with the saw to look at the grimacing squirrel doing his balancing act on the fence. Fixing her eyes on the rodent’s furry coat, she arched her slim shape, both waiting for the other to make the first move.
The ladder was back in its place. Nicole grabbed the heavy-duty garden broom, the finger hedge shears and some smaller weeding tools. A tremor crawled up her spine at the thought of worms breeding in the undergrowth. She edged closer to the shallow Japanese pond. Overgrown papyrus grass had clogged the drain, stopping the pump from recycling the water, making the pool overflow, wetting her garden boots. She crouched to inspect the muddy green pool, a decomposing reptilian universe pulsing at her feet.
Rising from her position, she surveyed the backyard, its narrow brick path cluttered with untamed ivy creepers, the yucca’s glossy white buds littering the deck, fading to a rusty shade. The bordering Virginia creeper stretched across the path narrowing it every day. The heat was stifling, sweat made her T-shirt cling to her breasts, but her feverish hands had acquired a life of their own, tugging at the thriving dandelions and musk thistle, uplifting them by their roots from the cracks in the brick walkway.
Like a frightened animal, her ears perked up in attention to summer vibrations, she listened for some friendly sign, or call from inside the house. She watched tiny drops of blood on her parched hands as she snatched off the gloves. She crossed over to the heavy-duty trash can in the garage, raised the lid and ditched the pair.
Walking down Main Street the day before, she had stopped at the hardware store and bought the boots and the pair of rubberized garden gloves, choosing them for toughness.
Old man Chester took a while before answering. He saw an attractive woman, probably in her fifties, the outdoor type, tanned arms and legs, her smile showing the eye wrinkles beginning to surface. His eyes traveled over her face, no thrill, no questions, letting her know he was aware she was staying with his faithful customer, the professor living on Suncrest Drive.
“I’ll give you a discount,” he said. “You’ll be back,” he added, while he thought, like the others. Many of the professor’s women had come his way, and he usually gave them a rebate, volunteering advice. “Check on soil acidity for azaleas; make your own compost. Watch out for invasive species, treat them with care. Don’t kill them all. Leave some for your next visit.” He laughed, paused before adding one last comment: “The professor likes clematis—the indigenous type.”
Like a player entering a scene, she remembered her lines. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll be seeing you.” She enjoyed Chester’s mischievous babbling, already feeling at home with him, treading her ground with assurance, unaware of the silent audience hiding in darkness beyond the crude summer light.
Nicole refrained from talking, as she watched Mark revert to his usual lethargy, revolving in his silences, muttering, barely moving his lips, his eyes frozen on the TV screen. Another home-run for the Reds. Larkin was still hitting well.
Fireworks showered, decaying into low energies, then a nothingness. The Reds won six to one over the Cardinals. The green field drained itself of possibilities as the teams wandered off, turning their backs on the crowd. He slid the volume down, stared at the commercials.
The late night phone calls increased when the baseball season was in full swing. She could tell something was ablaze, noticing he had been unusually hungry. Nothing seemed to last inside cupboards.
Young women in tank tops and ragged shorts would come to the house, flocking in and out,
staying only long enough to feed their appetite, draining his energy. Nicole had no idea where they came from, as they were too young to have been his former students. They made her afraid, and she would retreat when she heard giggling coming from the bedroom. They seemed to be everywhere, sitting cross-legged on the couch, showing white cotton bras and slivers of soft skin, their T-shirts hanging from the back of chairs, or lying on the floor, as if setting a scene for an artistic photo.
Nicole watched them wrenching open the kitchen cupboards, snatching at chocolate-chip cookies, emptying the lemonade pitcher. She would find hair in the shower, running socks under his bed. Gum. Unexpectedly, they would dash into her bedroom, looking into the medicine cupboard, leaving the door ajar.
There were no pledges, few words. He would walk out the door, waving from the driveway. “Won’t be long.” Never returning before midnight, sometimes only for breakfast, or a late lunch, just putting food in his mouth, not even hungry. She would stand dumbfounded, finding her breath coming short, her tongue stuck in her throat, knowing he had been with that restless crowd always pulling at his elbow, those sparrow-like young girls in tight sweaters with shiny belly-buttons peeping out of their jeans, invading his house, never apologizing for messing up his papers, his sheets, using far too much toilet paper, not wearing enough makeup.
Those days she would wander aimlessly around the house bruising herself against furniture, chewing cookies, killing bugs. She would pull at the phone cord, her icy blue veins on the back of her hands arching over the age spots. She tore at her clothes, then at the flowering bushes, trampling on the buds. Surveying the devastation, she circled the koi fish pond, crouching close to the fence, waiting for the neighbor’s lawnmower’s soothing drone. Mark would return and notice the trail of debris, but he would only shrug, reverting to his usual silent sidelong stare, ignoring the broom, the pail—the warfare.
Naked. Slouching on the couch watching the sports channel, he would pull her into bed when she passed within his reach, remaining flaccid, condescending, never complaining about her presence—quietly breathing out disaster. Desperate, Nicole would cling to an old image of Mark holding her tight after her orgasm, never seeming to let her go. The phone would ring, shattering the moment, as she would hear him whisper into the mouthpiece, his eyes glued to the TV screen.
She hesitated on the doorstep, eyeing the garden with indifference, dwelling on the faded plants and dried bushes—watching blue bottle flies buzzing around a dead field mouse, ants busy, lining up for a snatch at the flesh. She watched Mark put on his walking shoes, going over to talk to a young man in khaki shorts and Birkenstocks. He had contracted the youngster, out of rehab, to do the mulching.
The young man stood there, balancing his weight from one foot to the other, looking at the sweet peas entwining through the trellis that divided the garden from the sundeck facing west. Nicole saw him nod his head, then he raised his eyes and met hers through the open French windows.
“Is he your husband?” The youngster from rehab was leaning on the rake, looking down at a pile of compost. He had traded his shorts for some faded overalls.
“I’m just visiting,” she said, staring hard at his cheekbones. “I love gardening too.”
He looked up, as if seeing her for the first time.
“Pretty blouse. White suits you,” he said.
Her tight jeans showed just enough of her belly below her small breasts.
“It’s too hot out here. Come on in. How d’you take your coffee?”
Bees hummed close to the open window. A metallic blow fly hit against the pane. She turned on the ceiling fan at a high speed.
“He comes and goes,” she said. “I should have stayed away. Who knows?” She looked straight into his eyes, holding her gaze. “You got a name?”
“Brad.” He was holding his mug with both hands, as if trying to steady it. She ignored his embarrassment, peering into his grayish-blue eyes.
“I better go now. The ivy in the back fence threatens to fall.”
The slim young man moved quickly to the sink, rinsing his mug, leaving it upside down to dry.
“Damn.” Nicole spilled the remains of her coffee, wiped the table clean. She opened the front door wide to mop the rough Indian slate floor, glancing at Brad tearing at the gooseberry bushes along the driveway. He worked relentlessly, his bare arms tanned from the harsh sun, revealing his salient bluish veins. She watched him drive away in his pickup truck, vanishing in a great cloud of dirt, taking with him strings of knotted ivy and cut offs from the gooseberry bushes. Nicole stared at the rake lying on the front lawn.
Undressing that night, she heard the telephone ring. She stood facing the bathroom mirror looking at the fine lines under the eyes, dipping her fingers into her cleansing cream, rubbing the paste on her face, wiping it clean. The face that stared back at her had a glossy, rubberized texture. She kept pulling tissues from the box and letting them drop on the floor.
The next morning, Mark still had not come home. Nicole packed her bags, called for the shuttle. She clipped the phone lines with the hedge shears, left early before the garden began to stir.
about the author
Luz Ruzende was born in Lisbon, Portugal, has studied and lived in England, and worked in Portugal as a Project Manager with the U.S. Agency for International Development. After retirement, she went back to studying literature and philosophy at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and began writing fiction. She has participated in Oxford and Cambridge summer literary programs and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.