Read an Excerpt
IT WAS A SATURDAY MORNING and I was up early and on the
front porch, getting ready to slice a tomato and eat it. The dog
was looking up at me like he wanted some and I reminded
him, “You don’t like tomatoes.”
I had heard nothing from Mary all morning. I concluded
she must be sleeping in, so when she finally came downstairs
and stepped out on the porch, I thought it would be good fun to
provoke her a little. I told her she ought not to lie in bed so late,
because it made her eyes puffy as though she had been crying.
“I wasn’t lying in bed,” she said. “I was packing.”
“I’m moving out, Don,” she said.
I had not expected this. I knew there were certain aspects of
things that she was not happy about, but I did not know we had
reached an emergency stage. I said, “Mary, wait and let’s talk
about this.” She shook her head no and said she had already
thought it through and wasn’t changing her mind. I said indignantly,
“But I haven’t thought it through.”
“You don’t have to think it through,” she said. “I’m leaving,
and that’s it.”
I studied her face, trying to understand what was happening,
and my indignation began to wilt when I noticed how her
jaw jutted, as I had seen it do many times before when she had
made up her mind to get through some chore that she was
dreading. Two things occurred to me: one that she was serious,
and two that I loved her more than I knew what to do with.
I began to fall apart and believe that she was right and must
go. Here was Mary, my wife of seven years, an attractive person
with her sharp, serious eyes, and as smart as anybody, and
tough, and at times humorous, and simply admirable in all
respects. In contrast, here I was, a person of ordinary talents, at
present unemployed, and not especially ambitious to improve,
and really not mindful of anything in the world on that morning
outside of my tomato that I had been planning to eat, and
my knife that I had planned to slice it with. I had found the
knife to be slightly dull, and so my whetstone was there too on
the table like an emblem of my inability to get on with things.
I told Mary that she was completely right and something
had to change. She deserved better, and I was the one at fault.
Whatever would make her happy was what we needed to do
next, I said. Looking back, I would call this a moment of pure
selflessness on my part, except that it was only a moment,
which makes me question its purity.
Mary sat down with me at the table. It was a former cable
spool and she had polyurethaned the top of it. She pulled off
her glasses and wiped them with the paper towel that my
tomato had been resting on. Without her glasses she looks very
“I want you to be happy,” I said.
“So do I.”
“I won’t be happy if you’re not happy,” I said. “I love you,
and so therefore I want whatever is best for you.”
She considered that and smiled. She put her glasses back on.
She said, “But that’s not really true, Don.”
I said, “Well I want it to be true, and I intend for it to be
true in the future. If you’re not happy, I’m not happy. That’s
“I’m seeing a lawyer on Monday,” she said.
“A lawyer? What for?”
There was more staring at each other now.
I said, “Look. I thought you were talking about moving out
temporarily. That’s what you just said, I think. Monday’s a little
abrupt to be seeing a lawyer, Mary.”
She didn’t speak. I stood up. I looked at the top of her head
by the part in her hair, where there was a small stubbly spot. I
had dropped a blob of SeamerMate in her hair when she was
helping me with the gutter, and it’d had to be cut out with scissors.
It was a small thing that would not have been very noticeable,
had you not known where it was and had you not been
standing directly over her head. There were so many reasons
why I loved her! I reached to touch the stubbly spot, and she
got up and went into the house.
“Monday is too soon to see a lawyer!” I said.
I followed her upstairs and saw her open bag on the bed
with her clothes folded in it. It was only her overnight bag. She
stood at the clothes rack by the wall. Her hanging clothes were
on this rack made of pipe because we were remodeling, and I
had torn out the closets upstairs. She pulled out a suit of hers
and said, “Where is the hanging bag?”
“I don’t know where it is,” I said. “Somewhere.”
She spun around and knocked her bare foot on the corner of
a computer that was sitting in the floor beside the bed. The
computer had not been plugged in for a couple of years. It was
an old desktop computer from when they were still making all
the cases out of metal. Mary swore and picked up her foot, and
I took the suit from her.
I put my hand on her shoulder to steady her, and with my
other hand I hung her suit back on the end of the rack. “You
can leave this here for the time being,” I said.
“My foot is bleeding,” she said, and she went downstairs.
I looked at her bag on the bed, and something happened. I
became alarmed and also distracted. It was panic. I picked
through the clothes in the bag to see what all she was taking
with her, and I wondered if she had a damned boyfriend. I
went downstairs to the bathroom, where she was getting a
Band-Aid. I said, “Have you got a boyfriend?”
“Let me move out, and you stay here in the house,” I said.
“You can forget that idea,” she said. “This house is making
She went to throw the Band-Aid wrapper away, but the
wastebasket was crammed full. She shook the wrapper at me
and then flung it. It fluttered sideways into the tub.
“I’m fed up!” she said.
“If the house is the problem, we can fix that,” I said.
“Get out of the doorway, please!”
“Look here,” I said. I ran up the stairs and into the bedroom,
and in one move I lifted the computer, monitor, and keyboard
in a stack from the carpet. I carried them downstairs.
This wasn’t an easy feat.
“Look, I’m throwing this out,” I said. I got the door open
and carried the computer outside, and I set it in the back of my
truck. Then I went back inside the house, looking for more.
“I wish you had thrown that computer out a long time ago,”
“I know it,” I said. I ran upstairs and started the vacuum.
Mary came up and told me to stop vacuuming. I pretended
not to hear her. She went back down the stairs, and I unpacked
her bag and put her clothes back in the dresser while the vacuum
I paused to consider the carpet. It was striped in shades of
purple, blue, and magenta. It wasn’t a nice choice, and it had
not been professionally installed. It had come with the house.
Also, I noticed, the bed sagged, and the headboard did not line
up with the windowsill because of a slope in the floor. One
pane in the bottom sash of the window was cracked and had
been repaired by me some time ago with a yellowish piece of
strapping tape. It occurred to me that if I honestly wanted to
be kind to my wife, I would encourage her to spend a few
nights in a nice motel room.
That troubled me, because I did want to be kind. But what I
wanted even more than that was for her to not leave me, ever.
And I had the feeling, the more I paused and considered my
surroundings, that if she once made the break and left this
house, it would be very hard to ever talk her back into it. The
house had many problems, entirely apart from the people who
lived in it. Outside of the house it was a big world, and a person
with my wife’s merits would soon find new challenges and
ways to spend time with more interesting people than myself.
I would be left alone in the house then, with the carpet and
I vacuumed. I tidied all the boxes of our stuff as well as possible
-- they were boxes that had not been unpacked in two
years -- and I gathered some scraps of lumber that had been
lying about upstairs. After calling a warning, I tossed them
from the window into the grass. I had been meaning to do this
I ran back down the stairs and past Mary, who was sitting
on the sofa in her silent Indian Chief mode, holding the cat. I
ran out the front door and moved all the lumber from where it
had landed in the yard to the barn across the road. I was careful
not to block the lawn mowers, but otherwise I was just
adding junk to the pile that already included sheets of roof
metal and parts of broken farm implements from before our
time. It was a hazard but now was not the time to worry about
it. I strode back into the house and washed the dishes. I got a
headache. We were out of aspirin, so I took a beer from the
fridge and drank it at the sink, though it was earlier in the day
than I would normally have a beer. It was about ten, I guess.
I heard Mary on the stairs, and then I heard her walking
above me and then walking back and stepping down the stairs
again. She came into the kitchen. “Where are my clothes?” she
said. “What did you do with the clothes that were in my bag?”
“I put them away,” I said. “I thought you were staying
“I never said I was staying.”
“Well, stay, and I’ll go.”
“No, I’m going,” she said. She ran back upstairs, and I heard
her pulling open dresser drawers.
I went out to my truck and left.
I DROVE TO THE LOCAL DUMP. This was in Washington
County, Tennessee, and we didn’t have garbage pickup on our
I backed my truck up to a bin and climbed into the bed to
get the computer. I could have lifted the pieces out from the
ground, but it was my intention to throw the computer into
the bin from the greatest height possible. Then I noticed that
the next bin down was almost empty and had a large clear
spot on the floor of it, which would make for a good smash
when the computer hit. So I got out of the truck bed and
back in the cab and pulled up alongside the next bin. These
were twenty-five-foot garbage bins that were hauled in and
out on tractor-trailers.
There was an attendant, a man employed by Washington
County to police the dumping. When I saw him start my way I
got mad, because I had a history with this man. Once he had
refused to let me throw out some concrete reinforcing wire
there. I ended up making it into tomato cages, which was more
trouble than it was worth. Anyway, he came over with his long
mop handle that he always carried and poked it into the back
of my truck and said, “What’s the matter with that?”
“It’s old,” I said.
“Don’t it work?”
“I don’t know. It hasn’t been plugged in in two years.” I was
standing in the bed of my truck again, and I lifted the computer,
which as I said had a metal case and was rather heavy,
over my head as though I was Mighty Joe Young.
“Wait, wait, wait,” the attendant said, and he rapped with
his mop handle on the top of the bed wall of my truck.
I said, “Watch my truck, will you, bud?”
He stepped back and looked at my truck, which was a white
Toyota and more or less beat all to hell. It was a work truck. He
said, “Reckon I scratched the paint?”
I set the computer down and said, “Look, it’s my truck.” My
face got hot.
He tilted his head at the computer and said, “Tell me, how
could a man know if that thing works?”
“First he’d have to give a damn,” I said. “But I don’t, and
this is my computer, and so therefore I’m going to smash it
“No, you’re not,” he said. “I’ll take it, and I’ll see can I get
some use out of it.” He leaned into the back of the truck,
picked up the keyboard, and turned it over.
I said, “I pay property taxes in this county.”
“Help me carry this over to the office, please,” he said. “I’m
afraid I might drop it.”
It was a pretty day out. It was sunny, but not too sunny --
some white fluffy clouds were moving briskly so that the sun
got broken up now and then. Even a miserable mood can be
partly dispelled if the weather is pleasant. This is frustrating,
because sometimes a person doesn’t want his bad mood to go
away. Past the five-foot chain-link fence that enclosed the
dump, I noticed two silver guinea fowl standing in some high
grass, looking. Their heads were light blue.
I sat down on the wall of the truck bed to have a few
breaths. The man asked me where the cables were at for the
computer, and I told him they were at my house in a shoe box.
He would need to have them from me, he said, and also any
software that went with the computer. I told him that was
going to be a problem, because I would not be going back to
my house for a while.
He said, “That’s all right, bring them when you come by
“I’m not coming by tomorrow,” I said. “I’ve temporarily
left my wife. I’m not going back to the house.”
He looked up into my eyes now, I guess for the first time
since he’d walked over. His eyes were smudgy and didn’t quite
point the same direction. He said, “What’s the address?”
It’s strange that I got so hot about this man not letting me
smash the computer, since the whole reason I had kept it in the
floor at the house for two years was that I was reluctant to
throw out something that had once been expensive and might
conceivably still be useful to someone somewhere. This would
be an example of my own stupidity. At any rate, I did not tell
him the address to our house, but I did climb down from the
bed and carry the computer across the gravel to his office,
which was a small trailer on blocks by the fence, containing a
recliner, a desk, a swag lamp, and a refrigerator. I set the computer
on the desk where he told me to, and then when we were
back outside in the sun he said, “If you want to smash something,
smash some of them aluminum cans.”
He had a barrel of cans that he had picked out of the
garbage. We walked over and he tipped the barrel and shook
some cans out onto the gravel. I started to jump on one of them
and he said, “Hold it, fellow,” and set a few of them upright in
a row on a pad of smooth concrete. Then he backed up and
I mashed them flat one at a time. There was moderate satisfaction
in it. It wasn’t the same as smashing something that
isn’t meant to be smashed. After twenty-five or thirty cans, my
foot began to hurt in the arch, and I quit. We put the flat cans
into another barrel and I took my leave.