David wakes moments before the alarm clicks on. He pats Tessa’s side of the bed, hoping to
find it occupied. He’s disappointed. He’s not surprised: For the past three
hundred and forty-seven days, he’s looked for his wife on the other side of the
bed. Of course, despite the gossip at
the office, he doesn’t actually believe she is coming back to him—to them.
But in that tiny sliver of space between dreams and reality, lives
hope. He settles easily into this hope
every morning before forcing himself to wake.
Now, he blinks into the darkness, listening to the morning headlines on
NPR, hoping to catch the Phillies score before Teddy comes in, demanding
Three alarm fire at an apartment building. Armed robbery on South Street. He needs to get these kids out of the city.
David sighs and pulled back the covers. Teddy crawls into Tessa’s side of the
bed. David draws him close, wrapping his
left arm over Teddy’s tiny body, nuzzling his hair with his chin. “You need a haircut.”
“I like it,” Teddy murmurs.
David has meant to get Teddy’s hair cut for the past several
weeks. But somehow, he never seems to
have enough time. Besides, if it keeps
the kid happy, David reasons, let him keep it long. Until the principal calls, he will let it
go. He closes his eyes; tells himself just five more minutes. He feels himself drift away; allows him mind
to drift back into that tiny sliver of space.
“I’m hungry, Daddy.”
David blinks his eyes back open. “OK.” He
rises and stretches; pulls socks, tee shirt, boxers from his dresser. He turns down the volume on the radio Tessa
bought him for his thirty-sixth birthday.
“Catch the score for me, Ted, OK?”
Teddy rolls over and looks at David. “OK, Daddy.”
David’s heard that nosy woman next door—Susan something-or-other—yammering
on about how children need both parents. He’s heard her saying that a father doesn’t
notice the things a mother does. But David
has noticed all right: Since his mother left in the dead of night, without so much
as a goodbye note, Teddy has changed.
He’s become careful and withdrawn.
He watches his father like a hawk.
David suspects he fears his father will suddenly disappear, too. “I’m not leaving you, buddy.”
“I know, Daddy.”
Teddy’s big brown eyes are wide and unblinking.
David nods; swallows the lump in his throat and goes into
the bathroom, carefully shutting the door behind him; leaning against it for a
moment to gather himself together again.
He turns on the shower; hangs his pajamas from the hook Tessa had installed
on the back of the door three weeks before she disappeared.
“Yeah, Ted.” David
pauses at the entrance to the shower.
“Thanks, buddy.” David smiles and shuts the shower door behind
him. Maybe today will be a good day.
* * *
“Got my clothes picked out?”
David emerges from the bathroom toweling off his hair.
Teddy hands him a white button down shirt, wrinkled in the
back, because David had had no time to iron it properly. “Blue or brown suit, Daddy?”
David pretends to give the choice weight and
consideration. “Blue, I think.”
And Teddy laughs.
“You always wear the blue one on Monday.”
David smiles. It is good
to see Teddy laugh; good to see his son slowly repairing the damage done to
“Go jump on your sisters, Ted. And then get yourself dressed.”
David buttons his cuffs, listening for the indignant yells;
the subsequent giggles; the opening and closing of drawers and closets that will
tell him that preparations for the day are underway.
He heads to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. He feels slightly queasy, as if the milk they’d
used in last night’s dinner had been sour.
Or maybe it had just been dinner itself; Katie’s selection. David hates macaroni and cheese. Hates packaged food of any sort. Kate gets a kick out of it, though: heating
the milk, adding the contents of the foil package, watching the chemicals swirl
around, an ever-increasing vortex of orange as she stirs with the giant wooden
spoon. Now, it sits heavy and thick in
his stomach. He needs to start making
proper meals for the kids, he knows this too.
At first, when Tessa had disappeared, the neighbor ladies showed up on
the front porch bearing mournful, sympathetic looks and tuna-noodle
casseroles. But eventually the donations
slowed before stopping altogether.
He pulls four bowls from the cabinet, grabs a box of cereal
and shakes some into each bowl. He
sloshes on the milk and sets out three gummy bear vitamins on silver
spoons. Their reflections are distorted,
as they lie nestled in their concave beds of silver; they’re larger than they
really are. Their colors are more
vibrant against a background of silver.
He considers himself in the remaining spoon; gazing at his
“Hey, Dad.” Kate flounces into the kitchen, backpack
slung over one shoulder. She picks up a
vitamin and puts in her mouth. Picks up
her spoon and begins eating.
David heads down the hall.
“Hurry up, guys. Bus is coming in
They eat hurriedly, David signing permission forms and
homework as he shovels food into his mouth; the girls quizzing each other on
their spelling words. Teddy looks up,
spoon held halfway to his mouth. “Bus!”
he says and everyone jumps into action, carrying their bowls to the sink and
heading out the front door.
David watches them board.
He waves until the bus disappears.
Then he gets on his own bus bound for Center City.
At four thirty, the queasy feeling finds its way into his
stomach again. The children are going
home to an empty house. They are doing
homework alone. Likely, they’re making
more macaroni and cheese. He wonders about the stove; wonders if they’ll
forget to turn it off the way they did last week.
At five o’clock, he leaves the office; feels the eyes of the
other partner wannabes on him; feels them shaking their heads in disgust,
disbelief, perhaps a bit of jealousy. He
doesn’t know. Doesn’t care, really. He finds a seat on the bus, picks up a
discarded Inquirer and begins to read.
This has become his routine.
This has become his reality.
Key in hand, he
pauses at the front door. Sniffs. Does he smell gas?
He looks up. Susan
something-or-other leans on the black railing of her front porch. “Hello.”
“Kids all alone in there?”
“I didn’t see anyone come in with them.”
“Thanks for your concern, Susan. But we’re fine.” He slides the key into the lock, turns it to
the right and enters. “Guys?”
“Daddy!” Teddy runs
down the hallway. There’s a smudge of
chocolate on his upper lip. David wipes
it away. “You guys been making cocoa
David gathers Teddy up in his arms and carries him to the
kitchen. The girls are sitting at the
kitchen table, doing math homework. The
remains of microwave cocoa litter the kitchen counter: white packets torn
across the top, droplets of milk, powdery chocolate. But they are safe.
They are safe.
He deposits Teddy in a chair and rolls up his sleeves. “What should we do for dinner?”
“Spaghetti and meatballs,” Kate says.
“No. You picked
yesterday.” Yvonne frowns at her
“Pizza!” Teddy echoes.
He pulls a pizza from the freezer and sets it on the counter.
David nods, and begins the breakfast dishes, scrubbing away the
shriveled O’s clinging to the sides of the bowl; the dried up milk in the
center of the spoons the hollow place in his heart.
Precisely eighteen days later, at seven o’clock in the
morning, the doorbell rings. David sits
up quickly, his heart racing. He doesn’t
pat the empty side of the bed. He goes down
the hall, hoping.
He opens the door.
His mother bustles in.
Kisses him on the cheek. “Happy
“Mom? When did you
“Flew in this morning.”
“It’s not a good time, Mom.
You know it’s…”
“Yes, yes. I
know. The bitch left one year ago. On your birthday. Without saying goodbye. Her problem.
Not ours. You taking the children
to church this morning?”
“David. They need
some stability in their lives.” She ties
on an apron and begins pulling items from the fridge: eggs, butter, milk. She opens the carton and sniffs. “Where do you keep your vanilla?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m baking you a cake.
Not every day you turn thirty-nine.”
David rubs the sleep from his eyes. Tries to understand what his mother is doing
standing in his kitchen.
“We don’t have
time for cake.”
“Nonsense. Just because Tessa decided to leave, doesn’t
mean you have to change your life around.”
“Let’s order a cake, then.
You must be tired.”
“And fill your children’s little bellies with that
shit? No.” She shakes her head. “There is always time to do things right.” She measures cocoa powder, flour, salt.
He watches her. He’s
amazed at how competent she is. “I can’t do this anymore, Mom,” he tells
“You can. Just the
way I carried on when your father died, God rest his soul.” She mixes two sticks of butter with two
creamy-yolked eggs and two cups of sugar, and just watching this, watching the
eggs chase the butter around the bowl before they succumb to the force of
motion and become one, settles David somehow.
His mother looks up from the mixer.
A stray hair has fallen from behind her ear. “You can do this, David.”
She is right. This he
knows as well. He can do this. They can do this. “Where’s your luggage?”
“Didn’t bring any.”
She turns off the mixer.
Looks him in the eye. “David, I’m
asking you to move in with me. You and
“You live three hundred miles away.”
“I’m not going to interfere, David, you know I won’t. But it would be good for the kids to have
someone there, for after school. And
once you’re ready to begin dating…”
David pulls out a chair and sits. “I will never date again.”
“You will. And it
would be good for me, too, having some young kids around me.”
David considers. His
boyhood home is situated on three wooded acres.
Teddy would have the run of the place.
And he wouldn’t be worried about the kids coming home to an empty house
after school. “My job is here.”
“There are other jobs.”
She turns on the mixer again. “Promise
me you’ll think about it.” She pours the
batter into a cake pan and slides it into the oven. “There, now.
That’s done. I’m going to wake my
She telephones when they’re at church. While his birthday cake is cooling on the kitchen
counter; while he is praying to a God he’s not so certain he believes in
anymore, she leaves a message on the machine: She wants to come over for a
visit. He deletes the message immediately,
without listening all the way through.
He sits through his birthday dinner. Opens his gifts. He blows out his candles. His birthday cake sticks in his throat. His mother pats his hand. “Why don’t you take the dog for his
walk? We’ll get these.”
He nods. Stands. He grabs the leash and the dog skitters
across the floor, tail wagging.
He heads around the corner.
The dog barks suddenly, sharply.
He looks up. She’s standing on the
“He doesn’t recognize me,” she says. Her tone sounds injured; indignant almost.
He stares. “Maybe he’s
“May I walk with you?”
She hands him a package.
“Happy birthday, David.”
He ignores it; begins walking.
“David. I…” He hears her running to catch up; feels her
hand on his arm. “Can we get a cup of
Again he shrugs, but when they reach the café, he sits at an
She smiles. “Thanks.” She slips her feet from her black pumps,
curls them beneath her. She shakes off
her jacket and he can’t help but notice her arms, tightly sculpted and tanned.
She orders an espresso.
“Decaf for me,” he tells the waiter apologetically. He feels old.
The coffee is delivered.
She takes a sip. They fall into
an uncomfortable silence. He scratches
the dog behind the ears. Waits.
“Where the hell did you go?”
He slams his first on the table.
“I didn’t have time to tell you. Didn’t have time to make it right with you
and the kids.”
He nods. Shoves his
“Can we work it out?”
“David. For better or
“Seems like you forgot.”
“Can we try?”
“I’ve been looking
for you to come through the door for one year, Tessa. I’m not looking anymore.”
“I need to see the children.”
“You have no right to see the children.”
“They’re my kids, David.”
She blinks. “Our kids.” She sets a bag on the table. “Give them these?”
He nods; throws a twenty on the table.
“Tell them I love them.
Tell them I’ll see them soon.” She stands, hands shaking, as she gathers up her purse and
her jacket. She slips her ballerina feet
back into her leather pumps.
“Goodbye, Tessa.” On the way home, he hands the bag to a homeless man pushing
a shopping cart down the sidewalk.
His mother meets him at the door. “I was worried…Where were you?”
David smiles. “Just
walking. Thinking. Can you cut me another piece of birthday cake, Mom?" And then he heads down the hallway to tuck each of his children into
For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Laura gave me this prompt: There's always time to do it right..
I gave Major Bedhead this prompt: We do not belong here.
Labels: Fiction, scriptic.org