|She Writes Press
|5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
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Mallie had waited as long as she could. Larry was late, as usual. The spindly hands on the wall clock pointed to 6:25. She had to start dinner. Troy and David — it was Troy's twelfth birthday — and three sleepover friends were bolting in and out of the kitchen, grabbing half-empty bags of crackers, pretzels and cookies from the food cabinet, moaning that they might starve to death within minutes.
"Back outside, boys," Mallie said, her anxiety mounting — Larry had promised to be home by five. Where was he? Her suspicions, lying just beneath the surface, were rising.
Within minutes, the scrunch of gravel in the driveway told her that her husband was home. From the kitchen window — one of those rare Memphis evenings in November warm enough to allow an open window — she watched Troy and David jump on their father like monkey babies, Larry half-hugging, half-boxing his two sons, then high-fiving Troy's friends. She sighed and lit the gas under the frying pan.
"Hey, Mallie," Larry called to her from the doorway, dropping his leather briefcase with a familiar thump on the wooden floor. "Sorry to be late." A simple apology. None of his usual preemptive explanations. He walked around the butcher block in the center of the square room and kissed the back of her head. "How about a drink?" he said.
She turned around, holding the spatula between them. Their eyes met for a second. "No thanks," she said, her voice flat, as if it should be obvious to him that she had no time for drinking.
He walked over to the cabinet above the refrigerator and pulled out the scotch bottle. "Well, I need one," he said, as if talking to himself as well as to her. He filled his glass three-quarters full — no jigger — then added a little soda water and ice. Without further words, drink in hand, he left the kitchen.
Both her hands were occupied filling the boys' dinner plates when the phone rang. She wished Larry would answer it, but she knew that would never happen. He was already sitting in his comfortable, dark leather chair in the library, his scotch and soda on the table beside him, his newspaper and magazines spread over the ottoman in front of him, the television in the corner set on "CBS News with Walter Cronkite." It was the mid-seventies. Larry would never turn off "Uncle Walter" — the name everyone called the trusted news anchor — to get up and answer the phone. After four rings, Mallie put the plate down on the counter and picked up the receiver in the kitchen.
"Hello?" she said, tucking the phone between her shoulder and her ear. Who would call at the dinner hour?
"Mallie?" A low, deliberate, woman's voice spoke her name and sent chills through her whole body. "Is this Mallie Vose?" the voice repeated.
Mallie gripped the receiver in her hand, squinting her eyes, trying to picture someone from the sound of her voice. "Who is this?" she asked. "Who do you want to speak to?"
"I want you to know I won't embarrass you when I see you on the street," the woman said. She enunciated each word as if speaking to a child. Then she made a choking sound. "I'm not a bad person. I never meant to hurt you."
"Wait a minute," Mallie said. She tried to sound authoritative. She didn't feel authoritative. Thoughts — questions — were whirling around in her brain. One thing she knew for sure: the call was about Larry. She knew that much.
"Larry!" she yelled, covering the receiver with her left hand.
"Who's that, Mom?" Troy asked.
"It's a call for your father." Mallie gestured her son toward the breakfast room, where the other boys had started eating, then closed the glass-paneled door behind him.
"Larry!" she called out again, louder.
Seconds later, Larry walked into the kitchen. "What's up?" he asked, his tie hanging loose, his sleeves rolled up, a look of innocent curiosity on his face. "Are you okay?"
"This call's for you," Mallie said, her voice indignant as she held the receiver out to him. He turned his back to her and cradled the phone under his chin. Taking a few steps away from her, he whispered something into the receiver before he said, loudly enough for his wife to hear, "We'll discuss this at the office." He brushed past Mallie and hung up the receiver, shrugging his shoulders, as if to say the call had been a mere nuisance to him and none of her concern. "Sorry about that," he said. "It was nothing."
Larry walked back to the library, leaving Mallie standing alone in the kitchen. For several minutes she felt paralyzed, her nerve center jammed with accusatory voices. Stop pretending you didn't know! For months you've known Larry was involved with another woman. Face it! You knew! Mallie leaned against a kitchen cabinet, listening to the boys chatter in the breakfast room. She could not stop the chatter in her head. Who was that woman? The voice was not at all familiar. She shook her head, as if trying to slough off the past, all the women who had come and gone in Larry's life, all the situations he had explained away as "nothing." Whoever the woman was, whatever she meant by "not embarrassing her" — such a strange thing to say — Mallie would have to deal with it later. She had a birthday cake to deal with — and a messy kitchen. She had promised Troy before his friends arrived that there would be no candles and no birthday singing. He was too old for that. "Just the cake, Mom," he pleaded. "Promise?" She began tidying up the kitchen while the boys finished their hamburgers.
After David brought the first of the dirty plates in to the kitchen, she gave him the chocolate cake to carry into the breakfast room. She followed him, handing Troy the silver cake knife. No candles, only a small etched football and a goal post that said "Happy Birthday" in yellow icing. Troy smiled. He was proud of being the quarterback on the Holy Trinity lower school football team.
"Dibs on first piece," David said. His voice — the youngest of the group by nearly two years — still bore the pre-adolescent high pitch.
"Not a chance, Bozo," Troy said. The other boys laughed. David rolled his eyes. He was accustomed to being dressed down by his older brother.
Mallie went back to the kitchen, taking the rest of the empty plates with her and piling them together on the counter. She stood in front of the sink, watching the blackened, greasy beef particles from the old iron skillet swirl over the white porcelain surface and flush down the drain. She banged the aluminum Tater Tot pan with the scrub brush, then looked up and checked the clock. Seven thirty. It seemed that the boys would never finish the birthday cake. She shook her head attempting to quell the sound of the woman's voice, the strange things she said and to clear her mind of Larry's cavalier attitude that once again dismissed the call as "nothing." It made her feel as if she were nothing. If it had not been Troy's birthday and if his friends had not been there, Mallie would have accused Larry instantly. No, she would never have accused him in front of her sons — even without friends there. But now she knew what she had to do.CHAPTER 2
After Mallie put the last plate in the dishwasher and was certain that the boys were settled in the basement playroom, she took a deep breath and marched into the library. The television was still on. Larry was reading Time magazine, his feet on the ottoman in front of him. He did not hear her — or chose to ignore her. She snapped off the TV and stopped a few feet in front of him.
"I need to talk to you," she said. "Now."
The "now" declaration was unlike her. Through the years of intermittent threatening incidents involving other women, all of which Larry explained away, or at least dismissed as inconsequential, Mallie had listened with the passivity of someone waiting — wanting — to be proven wrong. The way he looked at her whenever she accused him, his brow furrowed in earnestness, his gray-green eyes intent upon her, his gentle voice, the way he called her "darling, my dearest," the soft way he touched her face, as if she were his most prized possession — all of it always convinced her that there was no one more important in his life. Since her childhood Mallie had believed that her marriage would be the centerpiece of her life. Like her mother, she would do whatever was necessary to be a good wife. She would tolerate any difficulties that might arise with her husband. That night in the kitchen, from the moment Larry turned his back to her and whispered into the phone, she had had enough. She took another deep breath. "I need to know what's going on. Who was that woman?"
Larry put the magazine down. "What?" he said. This time his brow was furrowed into a defiant groove. "What are you talking about?"
Still standing over him, Mallie said, "I don't know who that woman on the phone was, but you've been lying to me, Larry."
Without hesitation, as if he had been poised for her attack, he looked straight at her and began a litany of explanations. "Okay. Her name's Julie Mason. She's in public relations. I'm in sales. We work together. There's nothing to it, Mallie. It's business. I don't know why she called here. She wasn't making any sense."
"I don't believe you." Mallie stood her ground in front of him, her arms wrapped tight around her body. She felt detached from herself, as if another person inside her was finally shaking loose and demanding to speak. "You can either tell me the truth, or you can keep on lying — and it's over." To her surprise, she heard herself threatening him, telling him that their marriage might be over.
Larry sat immobile, upright in his chair, wide-eyed like a child who never dreamed he would be caught.
The phone rang again. "You answer it," Mallie said. She took two steps back to allow Larry to take his feet off the ottoman and rise from his chair. For few seconds they stared at each other, an unspoken dare between them.
On the fifth ring he stood up, walked past her and around the corner of the library into the telephone alcove. Mallie sat on the small sofa across from Larry's chair. Her breath was shallow, her body tight. She felt certain the caller was the same woman. She couldn't hear what Larry was saying. After several minutes he came back into the library and stood against the doorway.
"That was Karen," he said. "She's a friend of Julie's." His voice 6 was low and faltering as if he were in a confessional booth. "She's called an ambulance. Julie's taken an overdose of something — Valium, Karen thinks."
Mallie stared at him, unable to speak.
"Julie's barely conscious. Karen wants me to meet them at the hospital."
Mallie dropped her head and closed her eyes. Oh my God. An overdose. The hospital. Suicide. Nothing could have prepared her for all that. She felt heat, terror rising in her chest. No words would come, nothing.
After a few seconds of silence, Larry took a step toward her. In a pleading voice he said, "Mallie, will you go with me?"
"To the hospital?" She swung her head up to look at him. She was horrified. She could not imagine going to the hospital with him — could not imagine walking into that situation, seeing whoever that woman was and her friend.
"I need you with me," Larry said. He lowered his eyes as he spoke; his words sounded muffled. He shifted from one foot to the other, as if he were trying to hold his balance.
Mallie shook her head. She couldn't. Impossible. In a barely audible voice she said, "This is your problem, Larry."
He didn't move or speak.
The long silence between them pressed on her heart. Larry finally turned and walked toward the side door.
For hours, or what seemed like hours, Mallie sat alone in the library, a haze of helplessness and despair spreading over her. This was not the way her life was supposed to be. Every image of herself — the person she thought she was, the good girl, the good wife with the perfect loving family — all of it was coming unraveled. The wall of respect that had surrounded her family for generations was crumbling. She would be exposed. Naked. The whole world would see her — her real self. She was inadequate, a failed wife. She had a failed marriage. Her husband and her friends — even her own boys, whom she had tried so hard to protect — would know the truth. Larry had promised her he would never let it happen again. No more women. He loved her. The women meant nothing to him.
She had wanted to believe him, but during the recent months an insidious fear had jolted her awake at night, jumped up in front of her at unexpected moments during the day. His constant lateness. His business trips out of town, too often extending over the weekend. His compulsive jogging for long stretches at odd hours, sometimes at night. She shuddered. The woman's voice in her head felt like poison seeping through her veins. She tried to stop imagining the woman in the hospital, her stomach being pumped — Larry standing by her bed. Was she blonde? Young? Younger than Mallie? It was November of 1976. In April — just four months away — Mallie would be forty. People still told her she was beautiful. There had been a time when Larry told her she was beautiful. What difference did that make now? There was another woman — she had heard her voice. The woman had called her "Mallie." What if the woman died? It would serve Larry right if she died. She wondered how it was possible she could feel so little concern for a human being who had just tried to kill herself. The whole mess was Larry's fault. Billows of anger filled her mind like smoke overpowering a room. She wanted to scream in his face. How could he have done this to her? To their family? But Larry wasn't there to hear her. He had left her to go to the hospital to be with the woman. His parting plea echoed in her head. Maybe she should she have gone with him. He had said he needed her. No, for God's sake, no. Stop it, Mallie. She slumped deeper into the little sofa and closed her eyes. She must not let herself think about Larry's broken promises, or the woman, or what might happen now. There was nothing she could do about any of it. She would have to wait. She forced herself to stand up and walk steadily down to the basement.
All five boys were watching King Kong on television, sprawled 8 over the dark blue velveteen La-Z-Boy-style furniture, their gangly legs crossed on top of the round coffee table like crab legs on a platter.
"Promise me you'll go to bed by eleven thirty," Mallie said. "Will you?"
She knew they had a holiday for teachers' meetings the next day so they would want to stay up longer than usual and sleep late in the morning. They assured her with nods and mumbles, barely taking their eyes from the action on the screen.
Mallie went up to her room and ran a hot bath, as hot as she could stand it. She sank down into the water and closed her eyes. The heat surrounded her and penetrated her skin. Peace. Momentary peace. She wanted to stay there forever. As the water cooled down, Mallie looked up at her silky pink nightgown hanging on the back of the bathroom door. She thought of the advice she had read in an Ann Landers column about not wearing pajamas, about wearing a sexy nightgown that would appeal to her husband. What a joke. She wondered if Larry ever noticed her nightgowns. After brushing her teeth, she decided not to bother with the nightly moisturizer. She tucked herself under her blankets and fell into a fitful sleep. Around midnight she awoke and tiptoed down the hallway to be certain the boys had gone to bed.
At some point during the pre-dawn hours Mallie was aware that Larry was on the other side of their king size bed. She kept her back turned to him. Fleeting thoughts of what might have transpired at the hospital crossed her mind. She would find out soon enough. She willed herself back to sleep.CHAPTER 3
At the first light of day, Mallie woke to see Larry standing next to her side of the bed, dressed for work. His starched white shirt, his dark blue fleur-de-lis tie, his gray suit gave no indication of what had happened the night before. He bent his head toward her. She could see that he had tears in his eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Mallie — so sorry," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He stood looking at her, shaking his head.
Mallie watched her husband as if he were a stranger in their bedroom.
"The reason Julie called you last night was because I told her late yesterday afternoon it was over — that I wouldn't see her again." He stopped and took a breath. "I had no idea she'd call you — that she'd take those pills. She's okay. They got her in time. She's home." He choked the words. "I'm in a really bad situation. I need help."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Valeria Vose"
Copyright © 2018 Alice Bingham Gorman.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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