Wednesday, November 16, 2011

100 Word Challenge: Close To The Borderline

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge would be the very first to tell you that there 'sno business like online literary flash fiction challenge business.


The word is "Snow" and this story is called "Close to the Borderline".

When I stopped paying the cable bill, we went down to two channels, the only two that were tolerable to watch through the snow and interference you got when using the antenna.

"You know what, Daddy? We learned in class that fuzzy stuff on the TV screen is actually particles from outer space!"

My daughter bounced on my secondhand couch. I tried to adjust the set. The macaroni from the food pantry was boiling. At least the power was still on.

"What are you going to have for dinner, Daddy?," she asked me.

What you don't finish, I thought.

"Photograph": Indie Ink Writing Challenge

I had hired him out of a mix of two things. I had hoped I was wrong, but I secretly knew I was right. I had been getting cash back when I shopped for groceries, $20 here, $40 there, until I had assembled the amount he wanted. He looked at the picture of John on our mantelpiece, taken the money, and promised results within a week. I was stunned when he called me 3 days later and asked when it would be convenient to come over. I left Ethan at my mother's for the morning, and then had him at our dining room table shortly after 10AM on a Thursday.

He was carrying a plain manila envelope, a small black laptop case, and a sad, hangdog expression. His hair was thinning, but still handsomely salt and pepper, and his face looked rugged, like he had just had his picture taken for an ad for a rugged SUV or a line of work clothes. He refused coffee, but took a powdered donut that I had placed on a dinner plate on the table. When he bit the donut, a spot of white sugar appeared on his black dress shirt. That's why I tried not to eat those- they made everything messy.

I had showered and changed, but I had to leave my hair wet, a brown sodden mess down my back, leaving a faint wet patch on the back of my sweater. I had no makeup, but my bare toes were painted, and I sat next to him, legs crossed at the knee, smiling for reasons that were unclear to me. Was I flirting? Or was it just so unusual to have a strange man in my house I defaulted into teenage mode, bashful and giggly?

I looked into his smoky blue eyes. He looked away, at the clock above the kitchen sink that had birds instead of numbers, at the gleaming German refrigerator, at the dishes I had hurriedly done, still dripping water as they air dried. He looked out through the glass door that led into the back yard, the bottom third smudged with fingerprints I hadn't cleaned. He had only murmured "no thanks," when I offered him the coffee, and "sure," when I proffered the donuts. Otherwise he hadn't spoken.

I didn't know what to say, but he appeared content to just eat the donut and stare into my back yard. Someone had to say something. I looked down at my bare foot, swinging in the air, making tiny little circles. I really should have put shoes on. Would that have seemed like I was trying to hard to impress him? I remembered reading once that a woman showing a bare foot was a form of nonverbal flirtation, so maybe that wasn't right. I wanted to seem casual, but also proper. I could see the bones and tendons of my foot as I flexed it. I always used to take pride in how thin my feet were, but now they look skeletal, insubstantial, like they can't support my weight.

He was drumming his fingers on the rough surface of the envelope. I sipped my coffee. It was lukewarm and bitter, despite the sugar I had added.

"Do you want me to just tell you," he said evenly in his low voice, "or should I show you? What I found out?"

"You can tell me," I said. "Then show me."

"He is," he said.

In my head, I had decided some time ago that he was, so hearing this stranger say the words wasn't totally surprising. But it was still an out of body experience, where you are observing your own reactions. I thought about what a character in a book or a TV show would do- hurl my coffee cup against the wall or onto the floor, cry, collapse onto the floor. But I didn't do any of those things. I stared at him like he had just told me my total at the supermarket or offered to sell me a vacuum cleaner. He was looking down at the folder. He looked sad. I wondered how many times he had to say those words.

"There's proof in here," he said slowly. "You can have it. I keep a copy in case you need them again. There's video, too. I can email that, or you can watch it on my laptop."

He took a bite of donut, chewing and swallowing it, not looking at me. He cleared his throat. I felt like I was watching a scene in a movie.

"You don't have to look at it. I would advise you not to. At least not right now. Just hire an attorney and give them to him or her. I can give you some names."

"Do you know who it is?," I said. It didn't matter. But it felt like something I should know. "The woman?," I said, uselessly.

"I don't know her name," he said. "He picked her up at Memorial Hospital, when she finished work. She was wearing scrubs, so I assume she worked there."

I looked at his hands. One still had a few white flecks of donut sugar on them. They were a man's hands, with little cuts and scars and calluses. Someone who worked for a living. Maybe he did woodworking in his spare time or something. Or maybe the scars were from punching out criminals and such, like in the movies. They looked dry, like he needed someone to massage them and rub them with moisturizer.

"I need to see," I said. I wasn't sure why I said that. I knew. I hired him because I knew, and he just told me that he had confirmed it. I watched him as he unfastened the brass catch and slid a picture out of the envelope. There were others behind it. It was printed on the same kind of fancy photo paper I had just used to print a picture of Ethan my sister in law posted on Facebook.

The picture was of a hotel room, shot from a very high angle. A large bed in the middle of the room, with a bureau, a TV, a bedside table, curtains drawn, nondecript and ordinary. The colors were off, everything in shades of orange, but there wasn't any question about what the picture showed. I thought for a minute about how he got such a picture, where they were, why he did this sort of thing for a living, then realized I probably didn't want to know. He couldn't or wouldn't tell me the answers even if I asked.

There was a man in the picture, no question it was John. He was looking away from the camera lens, but I could recognize the pattern of hair on his bald spot, the way the cords in his neck stood out when he was exerting himself, even the way the muscles looked in his legs. He was having sex with a woman I didn't recognize. She was a small, lithe little blonde. Her face was angled towards the camera, and I could see the desire etched on her face as it contorted. She was small breasted, with a flat belly and well toned, strong looking legs that were up in the air. Her toes were pointed straight, like she was a gymnast or a ballet dancer. She was attractive, I had to admit that, with a small nose and a pretty mouth.

"Are you going to confront him? I can arrange to be around if you think you'll be in some danger."

Danger? From John? I almost laughed at the thought. He couldn't even beat me at arm wrestling. I kept looking at the picture. It had all the wierd perspective problems of a camera that's not supposed to be there- his head looks enormous in the picture, his feet tiny as they gripped the carpet for purchase. I wondered what she did differently. Was she louder? Quieter? More active? More passive? Or was it just the fact that she wasn't me?

"There isn't any other way to say this, but I'm going to send you a bill for the rest of my fee. I left you a list of attorneys in the envelope, along with my business card. If I may, what people usually do is give my bill to the lawyer, and they will get it out of your husband. They roll it into the fee, something like that." His voice was calm, placid, like he had said this same thing dozens of times this week. He sounded like he was explaining car insurance or the features of a washer and dryer.

"Do you want me to be here when he gets home?"

"No, no," I said. "That won't be necessary. You'll mail me a bill, then?"

"Yes. You have my card if you need anything. If you feel threatened, in any danger at all, call the cops, then call me."

"I don't know what to say," I said. My foot was still bobbing stupidly. "Thank you seems inappropriate."

"It does," he said. "But you're welcome anyway." He stood up. "You'll call me if you need me?"

"Yes," I said. He stood up. He was tall, taller than John. He looked tired. I felt rooted to my chair.

"I'll be going, then. For what it's worth, he's a fool for running around on you," he said. He paused, then added "I'll see myself out."

I sat there, watching him go out of my kitchen, down the stairs, and out the front door, shutting it firmly behind him. I heard his car start, and I heard the tires crunch as he drove away. I still sat there, my leg bobbing up and down with no one to look at it. I wondered if I had thrown myself at him, if he would have stayed. Would have felt better, getting John back with a little tit for tat? That probably happened to him all the time. And he probably turned them down, certainly rejecting the ones with the baby weight and regret that I carry.

I looked down at the table, the three donuts he didn't eat, along with the folder and the pictures I hadn't looked at yet along with the one poisonous pornographic one that I had. I looked at her face, contorted with pleasure and need, and wondered what she was thinking. Did John tell her he was married? Did she care? Or was the need so overwhelming, so immediate and huge that she couldn't help herself? The photo wasn't clear enough for me to tell if he was using a condom or not. Was he cheating with others? Was she? The thought of him bringing disease into our bed nauseated me.

I thought for a moment about leaving the picture there without comment, waiting for him to glance at it, waiting for a reaction. I didn't want to have a screaming match with Ethan in the house, but I wanted to hurt him, I wanted to make him feel the yawning, dizzying, helpless rage of knowing you had failed someone utterly, and there was no way on Earth you could ever make it right again. Then I thought about tearing it up, burning it, destroying it, as if the picture had done the damage and not my philandering husband. If I got rid of it, it would be like it didn't exist.

I sat there, staring at the picture that had rearranged everything I knew as true. I looked at the man who stood there in front of God and his mother and me and a minister and 191 others and said words like "always" and "forever", and clearly didn't mean them, and I looked at the woman who found potbellied, anxious John so fascinating that she simply had to have him. I looked at the cheap hotel room where they did it, and I looked at the positive proof that the first part of my life was over, and a new and different part had begun. It seemed cheap and out of proportion that something so small could do so much damage.

I wanted to cry, or scream, or throw something hard against the wall to feel the satisfying, sharp sound as it shattered. I wanted to destroy things, throw his golf clubs into the street or march into his office, tear stained and hysterical, and demand that he explain why, and how, and when, and who. I looked at the evidence of his crime, tucked it back into the manila folder it had come from, and sealed it shut. I got up, found a pair of ballet flats, pulled my hair into a pony tail, grabbed my keys, tucked the folder into my purse, and left, closing the door, locking it behind me with a satisfying, final thunk.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kurt challenged me with William S. Burrough's "...and there were plenty of cameras to freeze dry this edifying spectacle for posterity and export. It's the little touches that make a future solid enough to be destroyed," and I challenged Britania with Rush's "Nowhere is the dreamer/or the misfit so alone."