She would leave her husband . . . if she could find him.
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They Almost Always Come Home
By Cynthia Ruchti
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Cynthia Ruchti
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom the window [she] looked out. Through the window she watched for his return, saying, "Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why don't we hear the sound of chariot wheels?" -Judges 5:28 NLT
Do dead people wear shoes? In the casket, I mean. Seems a waste. Then again, no outfit is complete without the shoes.
My thoughts pound up the stairs, down the hall, and into the master bedroom closet. Greg's gray suit is clean, I think. White shirt, although that won't allow much color contrast and won't do a thing for Greg's skin tones. His red tie with the silver threads? Good choice.
Shoes or no shoes? I should know this. I've stroked the porcelain-cold cheeks of several embalmed loved ones. My father and grandfather. Two grandmothers-one too young to die. One too old not to.
The Baxter Street Mortuary will not touch my husband's body should the need arise. They got Lacey's hair and facial expression all wrong.
I rise from the couch and part the sheers on the front window one more time. Still quiet. No lights on the street. No Jeep pulling into our driveway. I'll give him one more hour, then I'm heading for bed. With or without him.
Shoes? Yes or no? I'm familiar with the casket protocol for children. But for adults?
Grandma Clarendon hadn't worn shoes for twelve years or more when she died. She preferred open-toed terrycloth slippers. Day and night. Home. Uptown. Church. Seems to me she took comfort to the extreme. Or maybe she figured God ought to be grateful she showed up in His house at all, given her distaste for His indiscriminate dispersal of the Death Angel among her friends and siblings.
"Ain't a lick of pride in outliving your brothers and sisters, Libby." She said it often enough that I can pull off a believable impression. Nobody at the local comedy club need fear me as competition, but the cousins get a kick out of it at family reunions.
Leaning on the tile and cast-iron coffee table, I crane everything in me to look at the wall clock in the entry. Almost four in the morning? I haven't even decided who will sing special music at Greg's memorial service. Don't most women plan their husband's funeral if he's more than a few minutes late?
In the past, before this hour, I'm mentally two weeks beyond the service, trying to decide whether to keep the house or move to a condo downtown.
He's never been this late before. And he's never been alone in the wilderness. A lightning bolt of something-fear? anticipation? pain?-ripples my skin and exits through the soles of my feet.
The funeral plans no longer seem a semimorbid way to occupy my mind while I wait for the lights of his Jeep. Not pointless imaginings but preparation.
That sounds like a thought I should command to flee in the name of Jesus or some other holy incantation. But it stares at me with narrowed eyes as if to say, "I dare you."
Greg will give me grief over this when he gets home. "You worry too much, Libby. So I was a little late." He'll pinch my love handles, which I won't find endearing. "Okay, a lot late. Sometimes the wind whips up the waves on the larger lakes. We voyageurs have two choices-risk swamping the canoe so we can get home to our precious wives or find a sheltered spot on an island and stay put until the wind dies down."
I never liked how he used the word precious in that context. I should tell him so. I should tell him a lot of things. And I will.
If he ever comes home.
* * *
With sleep-deprived eyes, I trace the last ticks of the second hand. Seven o'clock. Too early to call Frank? Not likely.
I reach to punch the MEM 2 key sequence on the phone. Miss the first time. Try again.
One ring. Two. Three. If the answering machine kicks in-
"Frank's Franks. Frankly the best in all of Franklin County. Frank speaking. How can I help you?"
I bite back a retort. How does a retired grocery manager get away with that much corny? Consistently. One thing is still normal.
"Frank, it's Libby. I hate to call this early but-"
"Early?" he snorts. "Been up since four-thirty."
Figures. Spitting image of his son.
"Biked five miles," he says. "Had breakfast at the truck stop. Watered those blasted hostas of your mother-in-law's that just won't die. Believe me, I've done everything in my power to help them along toward that end."
I don't have the time or inclination to defend Pauline's hostas. "I called for a reason, Frank."
"Sorry. What's up?"
I'm breathing too rapidly. Little flashes of electricity hem my field of vision. "Have you heard from Greg?"
"He's back, right?"
"Not yet. I'm probably worried for nothing."
He expels a breath that I feel in the earpiece. "When did you expect him? Yesterday?"
"He planned to get back on Friday, but said Saturday at the latest. He hates to miss church now that he's into helping with the sound system."
"Might have had to take a wind day. Or two."
Why does it irritate me that he's playing the logic card? "I thought of that."
"Odd, though." His voice turns a corner.
"What do you mean?"
Through the receiver, I hear that grunt thing he does when he gets into or out of a chair. "I had one eye on the Weather Channel most of last week," he says.
What did you do with the other eye, Frank? The Weather Channel? Early retirement has turned him into a weather spectator. "And?"
"Says winds have been calm throughout the Quetico. It's a good thing too. Tinder-dry in Canada right now. One spark plus a stiff wind and you've got major forest fire potential. They've posted a ban on open campfires. Cook stoves only. Greg planned for that, didn't he?"
"How should I know?" Somewhere deep in my brain, I pop a blood vessel. Not my normal style-not with anyone but Greg. "Sorry, Frank. I'm ... I'm overreacting. To everything. I'm sure he'll show up any minute. Or call."
From the background comes a sound like leather complaining. "Told my boy more than once he ought to invest in a satellite phone. The man's too cheap to throw away a bent nail."
"I know." I also know I would have thrown a newsworthy fit if he'd suggested spending that kind of money on a toy for his precious wilderness trips when I'm still waiting for the family budget to allow for new kitchen countertops. As it stands, they're not butcher block. They're butcher shop. And they've been that way since we moved in, since Greg first apologized for them and said we'd replace them "one of these first days."
How many "first days" pass in twenty-three years?
His precious wilderness trips? Is that what I said? Now I'm doing it.
Frank's voice urges me back to the scene of our conversation. "Hey, Libby, have him give me a call when he gets in, will you?" His emphasis of the word when rings artificial.
"He always does, Frank." My voice is a stream of air that overpowers the words.
"I'll have him call."
The phone's silent, as is the house. I never noticed before how loud is the absence of sound.
* * *
It's official. Greg's missing. That's what the police report says: Missing Person.
I don't remember filing a police report before now. We've never had obnoxious neighbors or a break-in. Not even a stolen bike from the driveway. Yes, I know. A charmed life.
The desk sergeant is on the phone, debating with someone about who should talk to me. Is my case insignificant to them? Not worth the time? I take a step back from the scarred oak check-in desk to allow the sergeant a fraction more privacy.
With my husband gone, I have privacy to spare, I want to tell him. You can have some of mine. You're welcome.
I shift my purse to the other shoulder, as if that will help straighten my spine. Good posture seems irrelevant. Irreverent.
Everything I know about the inside of police stations I learned from Barney Fife, Barney Miller, and any number of CSIs. The perps lined up on benches along the wall, waiting to be processed, look more at ease than I feel.
The chair to which I've been directed near Officer Kentworth's desk boasts a mystery stain on the sitting-down part. Not a chair with my name on it. It's for women with viper tattoos and envelope-sized miniskirts. For guys named Vinnie who wake with horse heads in their beds. For pierced and bandanaed teens on their way to an illustrious petty-theft career.
"Please have a seat." The officer has said that line how many times before?
Officer Kentworth peers through the untidy fringe of his unibrow and takes my statement, helping fill in the blanks on the Missing Person form. All the blanks but one-Where is he? The officer notes Greg's vehicle model and license plate number and asks all kinds of questions I can't answer. Kentworth is a veteran of Canadian trips like the one from which Greg has not returned. He knows the right questions to ask.
Did he choose the Thunder Bay or International Falls crossing into Canada? What was your husband's intended destination in the Quetico Provincial Park? Where did he arrange to enter and exit the park? Did he have a guide service drop him off? Where did he plan to camp on his way out of the park? How many portages?
I should have sent Frank to file the report. He'd know. Greg probably rambled on to me about some of those things on his way out the door seventeen days ago. My brain saw no need to retain any of it. It interested him, not me.
Kentworth leans toward me, exhales tuna breath-which seems especially unique at this hour of the morning-and asks, "How've things been at home between the two of you?"
I know the answer to this question. Instead I say, "Fine. What's that got to do with-?"
"Had to ask, Mrs. Holden." He reaches across his desk and pats my hand. Rather, he patronizes my hand. "Many times, in these cases-"
Oh, just say it!
"-an unhappy husband takes advantage of an opportunity to walk away."
His smile ends at the border of his eyes. I resist the urge to smack him. I don't want to join the perps waiting to be processed. I want to go home and plow through Greg's office, searching for answers I should have known.
Greg? Walk away?
Not only is he too annoyingly faithful for that, but if anyone has a right to walk away, it's me.
* * *
I thought it would be a relief to get home again after the ordeal at the police station, which included a bizarre three-way conversation with the Canadian authorities asking me to tell them things I don't know. We won't even mention the trauma of the question, "And Mrs. Holden, just for the record, can you account for your own whereabouts since your husband left?"
Home? A relief? The answering machine light blinks like an ambulance. Mostly messages from neighbors, wondering if I've heard anything. A few friends and extended family-word is spreading-wondering if I've heard anything. Our pastor, wondering if I've heard anything.
I head for the bedroom to change clothes. The cotton sweater I wore to the station smells like tuna and handcuffs. Or is that my imagination?
Quick census. How many cells of my body don't ache? You'd think I'd find this king-sized bed and down comforter impossible to resist. But it's another symbol that something's missing. Something's wrong and has been for a long time. Moving from our old queen-sized mattress to this king represented distance rather than comfort. For me, anyway. I needed a few more inches between us. A few feet. I guess I got my wish.
I throw the sweater in the wicker hamper, which ironically does not reek of Greg's athletic socks today. On the way from the hamper to the closet, I clunk my shin on the corner of the bed frame. The bed takes up more of the room than it should. Old houses. Contractors in the 1950s couldn't envision couples in love needing that much elbow room. My shin throbs as it decides whether it wants to bruise. That corner's caught me more than once. I ought to know better. About a lot of things.
I pull open the bifold closet doors. Picking out something to wear shouldn't be this hard. But Greg's things are in here.
If he were planning to leave me, couldn't he have had the decency to tidy up after himself and clear out the closet? For the ever-popular "closure"? How long do I wait before packing up his suits and dress shirts?
One of his suit jackets is facing the wrong way on the hanger. Everyone knows buttons face left in the closet. Correcting it is life-or-death important to me at the moment. There. Order. As it should be. I smooth the collar of the jacket and stir up the scent of Aspen for Men. The boa constrictor around my throat flexes its muscles.
With its arms spread wide, the overstuffed chair in the corner mocks me. I bought it without clearing the expenditure with Greg. Mortal sin, right? He didn't holler. The man doesn't holler. He sighs and signs up for more overtime.
Maybe I'll find comfort in the kitchen. This bedroom creeps me out.
* * *
Greg has thrown us into an incident of international intrigue. Melodramatic wording, but true. We're dealing with the local authorities plus the Canadian police.
Staring out the kitchen window at the summer-rich backyard proves fruitless. It holds no answers for me. I'm alone in this. Almost.
Frank's my personal liaison with the Canadians-border patrol, Quetico Park rangers, and Ontario Provincial Police, the latter of which is blessed with an unfortunate acronym-OPP. Looks a lot like "Oops" on paper. I can't help but envision that adorable character from Due North, the Mountie transplanted into the heart and bowels of New York City. Sweetly naive as he was, he always got his man. Will these get mine?
Frank will be much better at pestering them for answers. My mother-in-law would be better still. Pestering. Pauline's gifted that way.
I'm no help. Big surprise. When I spoke with the north-of-the-border authorities, I either tripped over every word and expressed my regrets for bothering them or shouted into the phone, "Why aren't you doing something?"
They are, of course. They're trying. Analyzing tire tracks. Interviewing canoeists exiting the park. Looking for signs of a struggle. The search plane they promised is a nice touch. Under Frank's direction, they'll scan Greg's expected route to check for mayhem.
While I wait for yet another pot of coffee to brew, I brush toast crumbs-some forgotten breakfast-off the butcher shop counter into my hand. Now what? I can't think what to do with them.
The phone rings.
It's Greg's district manager again. He's the pasty-faced, chopstick-thin undertaker hovering just offstage in a lame Western movie.
No, no word from Greg yet. Yes, I'll let you know as soon as I hear something. Yes, I understand what a difficult position this has put you in, Mr. Sensitive, I mean, Mr. Stenner. Can we request a temporary leave of absence for Greg or ...? Of course, I understand. Not fair to the company, sure. Only have so much patience, uh huh. God bless you too.
Oh, and thanks for caring that my life is falling apart and my husband is either muerto or just fine but not with me and either way he's a dead man.
I slam the phone into its base station, then apologize to it.
The sweat in my palm reconstituted the bread crumbs during the call. Wastebasket. That's what one does with crumbs.
How long will it take me to figure out what to do with the crumbs of my life?
And where will I find a basket large enough for the pieces?
Excerpted from They Almost Always Come Home by Cynthia Ruchti Copyright © 2010 by Cynthia Ruchti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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