Nectarines

- Conor MacGowan

Every other Friday I have a half day of work. Today should be a full day, but when I get to the office I’m told we’re getting out at noon. I’ll be working two full Fridays in a row to make up for it, but I don’t let my wife, Danielle, know that I’ll be home early. She never works Fridays. I leave work and drive through the happening city neighborhood where we lived five years ago, in our late-twenties. It’s July, girls are in shorts and some don’t wear bras. I decide against the air conditioning, roll the windows down and get on the highway. There’s no traffic at this time so I speed. The thumping wind, high sun and smell of hot asphalt make it as if I have a pleasant, far off destination. I try to hold onto the sensation but I’m soon in the suburbs.

Houses meant for families lie comfortably under a canopy of trees and schools and parks where children play are around every corner. The drone of the city is gone, you can hear wind on the leaves, and the air is so thick with life I sneeze. We moved here so Nathan, our son, would have this world to grow up in. I roll up the windows, trap myself in the stale air of the car and sweat until I get home.

Danielle’s car isn’t in the driveway. She drinks more than I see and I wonder how drunk she drives. I park and sit in the car for a minute. Moisture collects under my shirt and on my forehead, and I imagine toxins seeping out of my body. It becomes hard to breathe. I finish old arguments in my head and when I open the door the eighty five degree air is cool.

I can’t find my house keys. They’re not in my pockets or the car. I trace my steps to the door, look under the doormat for a spare and check under rocks and pots. I do the same by the back door.

I call Danielle. She doesn’t answer and I send a text, asking what she’s doing.

Above the back patio are several windows I’ve had to climb through before. I can’t tell if they’re locked. Balancing on a metal patio chair, I take off one of the screens and push up at the window. It won’t budge. They can be hard to open even from the inside, so I try harder. Green, slit eyes come to stare at me through glass. The chair slides and I fall, hurting my ankle.

I hoist myself up into the chair, wipe little rocks out of my palms and make sure I can still move my foot. The cat watches me through the window and my phone vibrates. Danielle says she was in the garden, what do I want?

Attempting to turn the backyard into a peaceful sanctuary was my idea. I can sometimes convince Danielle to work on it with me during the weekends, but usually we end up drunk and irritated in the heat before anything is accomplished. It looks like shit. The large maple tree is the only nice thing about the yard and we had nothing to do with that. Near half of its leaves haven’t come in this year. It still shades the patio, but I assume it’s dying.

I decide to try the neighbors. The ones we sometimes still talk to, not the ones with the teenage kids. Roger and Kathy are in their sixties, their children grew up and left before we moved in, and now they’re retired. They’ve perfected the home and nurtured their backyard into something out of a magazine – so lush they’ve had to move onto the front of the house. I limp up a walkway lined by short bushes, pat a concrete statue of a dog on the head and ring the doorbell. A moment later the door cracks and a white haired man looks at me. “Alan, how are you?”

“Alright, Roger. Well, not exactly.” I say and he frowns and nods. “Can’t find my keys.”

“Well, that’s no good.” He’s taller than me and stands a step higher. The belly he had when I met him is as good as gone and I’ve grown one of my own.

“I have no idea where they went.” I pat my pockets as if to convince him. “Do you know if Danielle ever gave you two a copy of our keys back when. If she ever gave you a copy, just in case.”

“Just in case something like this happened.”

“Exactly.”

“One second.” He turns and yells into the house, “Hey, Kath!”

He waits ten seconds, “Kath!”

There’s a voice from somewhere in the house.

“Will ya just come in here!”

There’s more murmuring as Roger stares at the ground, rubbing the back of his neck. A short woman with grey rooted hair appears at the other end of a hall covered in flower wallpaper.

“What is it?” She sees me but acts like she doesn’t.

“Alan is here.” Roger pushes the door wide open. It’s like a bed and breakfast inside. All the subtle, antiquated details are there, but something about it feels fake.

“Oh, Hi, Alan.” Kathy waves. I put a hand up and smile back without teeth.

“He lost his house keys, was wondering if he or the missus ever gave us a copy, just in case.”

“Oh,” She puts her hand to her mouth, “I’m not sure. Let me go check.” She leaves and now I know they don’t have the keys. I’ll have to wait anyway.

“How’re you two holding up?” He says.

“Alright.”

“The wife okay?”

“It’s hard, you know.”

“I can’t imagine.”

Roger and I used to drink beer on his back deck, overlooking Danielle and Kathy playing with Nathan in the little jungle below. He was my one friend in town.The difference in our ages created an unspoken teacher-student dynamic. Now he mostly just nods when we see each other and if we talk his voice is slow and flat. He ends most of his sentences with a frown and I don’t know that he’s aware of it. He can’t teach me what he doesn’t know.

“Listen,” he says, “I’m sure I’ve said this to you tens of times before, and I’m sure you’ve heard it hundreds of times from other people, but if you need anything, just ask. Not everyone else is right next door, you know?”

“I appreciate it, Roger.”

He closes the door so that his body is the only thing between it and the frame, leans toward me. “If there’s anything we can do to help Danielle, Kathy’s brother works at the church. I don’t know if either of you have any faith, but even if you don’t, they have people there to help.”

“I’ll consider it, Roger. Danielle… she’s always dealt with things in her own way.”

I hear Kathy’s voice again and Roger pushes the door back open.

“I’m sorry, Alan, I can’t find the key anywhere. I could look some more.”

“No, no, no. We probably never gave you one. My apologies for even making you look.”  I wonder what it’s like to have a timid wife, if Roger prefers it.

“Need to use the phone? Call Danielle?”

“Oh, no. I have a cell phone. Everyone has a cell phone these days, Roger.” Neither of them laugh but Kathy smiles. “I already tried calling her. She’s busy and won’t be home for a while.”

Roger frowns and nods.

“Okay, well, I’ll figure something out. Thanks again for looking. Take care.”

Kathy says goodbye. I walk away, unable hide my limp.

“Alan.” I turn around. “Think about what I said. And come by for a beer sometime this weekend, I’ll be around.”

“Thanks, Roger. Will do.” I won’t go next door again.

I sit on the patio, in the cool shade of the maple tree. Light flickers between its leaves, the sky beyond is cloudless. I close my eyes and enjoy the sun falling on and off my face, listen to the bugs and the birds.

A window on the second floor is cracked when I open my eyes. The ladder from behind the garage reaches the window, but when I try to secure the metal feet on the concrete patio, I foresee a fatal rendition of my incident with the chair

I find one other open window, on the second floor on the overgrown side of the house. Nathan’s room.

I call he ladder names as I struggle to maneuver it vertically around the corner of the house, into the weeds. It’s metal and resonates an awful noise through my skull. While I set its feet into dirt and try to get the top under the window, a sudden perspiration develops on my forehead. My vision fades, I feel the veins in my temples engorge and my stomach shrinks. I lean against the ladder and let my blood settle. The sensation passes. I climb, slowly, careful on my ankle, wanting a drink.

At the top of the ladder  I observe a world sandwiched between green trees and green grass. Among manicured homes kids play on play sets and scream and chase each other, their parents grill burgers and have affairs. I can’t see beyond a few houses and trees, but you can hear it, smell the stink.

I pull the screen off and drop it. It catches air and glides briefly before taking a dive. I open the window all the way, push a curtain to the side and climb in and over a small, blue bed. There’s a stagnant smell. The blanket comes off the bed with me. I fix it but I’ve left several footprints. They won’t wipe away.

Danielle used to say she couldn’t bring herself to step foot in this room. It was one of many phrases she’d repeat while breaking down. It all seemed natural until she stopped talking much about anything at all.

The blue walls, the dinosaurs and trucks and animals in the corner. I’m disgusted by every second I let carnal things distract me from this. I can’t remember the last time I was in the room and I wonder how long the window’s been open. The bed near the window is wet but I can’t remember the last time it rained. Maybe Danielle’s been coming in here. I could put the blanket in the wash before she gets home. Why she would care, or why I should be worried about her learning climbed in through the window, I don’t know. You get accustomed to dishonesty. I imagine what I should’ve said or done, before all of this, and how it may have changed things. Numbness dulls my ability to focus on where I am, staring at the floor.

“Never mind,” I text Danielle. I’ll see her later.

There’s nothing to drink in the fridge downstairs, I know this but check anyway. In the dark reflection of the tv screen I sit on the couch, double chinned, belly rolling over my pants.  I close my eyes and lean my head over the back of the couch. Sleep would a relief but it won’t come. A fresh, familiar scent catches my nose, but it’s source eludes me

I follow my nose to a bowl of nectarines on the kitchen counter. I grab one of the fruits, open the front door and slam it, locked, behind me. I put the screen back on the patio window but leave the ladder up. Roger is mowing his front lawn. His chest looks defined. I drive to get a sandwich, peanut butter and jelly to go, and buy twelve beers across the street. On my way home eat the nectarine and drink one of the beers. The steering wheel gets sticky with the juice of the fruit but I have no napkins so I wipe my hands on my pants.

As I turn onto my block I notice Danielle’s car pulling into our driveway. It’s still another two hours before I’m usually home. I turn around and park on the other side of the block. When my beer is done I leave the can in someone’s bushes and head around the corner with my sandwich and the rest of the beer.

Two pine trees hide the ladder from the street. I sneak through them, back along the side of the house, trudge through branches and swarms of bugs, shin deep in weeds. I duck under the windows of my own home and make sure no neighbors see me through theirs.

I climb the ladder, both the case of beer and sandwich bad cradled in one arm, and crawl through the window. The blanket comes off with me again. I take out a beer and start drinking fast. Something bangs downstairs. I take off my shoes, slip out the door with another beer, stand at the top of the staircase right outside Nathans room and listen to quick, heavy footsteps. Cabinets open and slam shut.  It sounds like she’s pacing.

On the balls of my feet I take quiet steps down the carpeted stairs. Danielle’s humming. On the first step I hold onto the railing in one hand, my beer in the other, and lean around the corner. There’s a big mirror in the dining room and I search for a good angle into the kitchen. Her humming stops, she huffs something angry and starts around to the front of the house. I spring up the stairs three steps at a time on nothing but my toes.

Our bedroom and bathroom are both at the foot of the stairs. She walks into the bedroom and a moment later she comes out topless, takes her socks off with her toes and pulls her skirt and underwear down together, and disappears into the bathroom.

The shower turns on and I tiptoe back down the stairs. Danielle struts out of the bathroom as I’m on the last few steps. If she see me as she walks past the stairs she doesn’t acknowledge it. I’m a ghost, but I’m used to it. She stands naked facing the windows that look out into our front yard, puts her legs close together, throws her arms in the air and arcs her back, stretching.  Her legs now she bends over to touch the carpet between her feet, then each set of toes, the gym class routine. She stands and then squats down, puts her arms outs in front of her and sticks her ass out, stands up and then squats back down again with a little bounce. Up and down. She turns around, ass to the window, and steps out of view.

Fragrant shower steam has wafted out from the bathroom and it’s much of a cover but I take it as an opportunity to get a better peek. Her eyes are closed. She looks pale and for the first time I notice she’d grown a little belly. The kind like I have, but much smaller. When she was just showing with Nathan, I would sit on the edge of the bed and she would come to me. I’d put my arms around her waist and my lips to the soft hair that trailed down from her belly button. She smelled best when a little dirty.

She walks by the staircase, and the invisible husband, and gets into the shower, leaving the bathroom door open. I tell myself I would’ve been cool with a lot of things, that it was her dishonestly that made me so mad.

I hurry up to Nathan’s room, open a beer and drink it fast. Two more beers in my hands, I head down the stairs while unbuttoning my shirt. The hiss of the shower resonates out of the small bathroom. Outside the door, I set the beers down and bend over to take my socks and pants off and her underwear is right in front of my face. I pick it up. Her shadow moves behind the shower curtain.  I drop the underwear and wipe my hands on my pants. I find her cellphone on our bed and look through it.

I leave the phone on her dresser, take the two beers upstairs and sit on my dead son’s bed drinking beer with my dress shirt unbuttoned. I unwrap the sandwich and lay it on wax-paper on Natha’s bed. The door is cracked. The shower turns off and I can hear all the dripping. I should’ve thrown the curtain open and shoved the underwear in her face. I get peanut butter and jelly on my hands, wipe them on my pants and drink a few more beers.

I think I hear Danielle say, “shut up,” downstairs. I put my sandwich down and get close to the cracked door

“Shut up.” She says it again. “Jesus. Okay, okay.”

Steps come up that stairs and I hide behind the door.

“Come up here.”

My chest starts to shake and a heavy pulse runs through my temples.

A pattering comes up the stairs. The cat mews and my blood slows. I sip my beer and hear the crack and peel of Danielle opening a can of food. The cat starts eating and I can smell the shower on Danielle, her clean flesh. She steps down the hall.  I can’t see her but I know she looks out the window above the patio, at the maple tree and everything that lives below and beyond it.

The shower smell turns putrid and I wonder what’s wrong with her, if she’s rotting. I often worry I’m rotting from the inside out. She heads back downstairs and I spend an hour drinking and finishing my sandwich, eventually realizing the smell was cat food. I leave the remaining beers under the bed and put all the trash in the black plastic bag and climb back out through the window and down the ladder.

Now I know the neighborhood is grilling, I can smell burning charcoal, hear radios and children screaming. On my way to buy more beer I throw the trash out my window and on onto the lawn of a house that has balloons by the front door. The beer on my way back home is the best tasting yet.

I lean with my shoulder heavy against the front door and turn the knob so the door flings open. I slip in before it bounces off of it’s hinges and I help it slam shut with the swat of a hand. Alcohol has settled heavy in my forehead and I lean into it, follow it with my eyes half up in their sockets, headlong into the living room, and turn sharply on a heel to face the kitchen.  I’m acting drunker than I am. I stand up straight.

The kitchen is a white, stale square with one small window above the sink.  Danielle sits behind a round, plastic table. A newsman talks over the radio and I don’t think Danielle ever pays attention to what he says.  I say hello and she gives me a horse smile. She has a glass cup with an iced drink in it.

I put my case of beer on the table and take one out.  Rocking back and forth on my heels, I cheers my wife and down half my beer.

“What’d you do today?” I pull a chair out far and sit.

She taps an ice cube with her finger “Nothing to make note of.”

“No?” I lean forward with my palms on my knees,pull my shoulders back, and I’m proud of how my gut hangs. “Nothing at all?”

“Not really.”

Plates are piled in the sink and a breeze through the window brings the smell of a moldy sponge to my nose. “You were in the garden earlier?”

“Exciting stuff.” She takes a drink.

I finish mine and toss it perfectly into the garbage can. She’s not impressed. The nectarines are more fragrant than before. I stand up, open another beer and run my finger around the mouth hole,“You sure you were in the garden?  What’d you do to it?”

“I gardened it.  What’s your problem?”

“The garden is a piece of shit.”

“And it’s my fault?”

“What’d you do today?”

“You want to talk about our days?  You think there’s any breakthroughs to discuss?”

“I think I do.”

“What’d you learn today, then?”

“I learned a lot. I’ll tell you about it.  First let me hear about your day. You were out back when I called?”

“What do you want?”

“I know.  Danielle.”

“Know what?”

I can’t keep making the same mistakes. I take it back a bit.  “Danielle… I want to know about your day. How’ve you been?”

She finishes her drink, sets it down and stares at it.

“Danielle…”

Her eyelids are the only thing that move, they’re open wide and puffy

“You buy some nectarines?”  I swallow some beer. “Hello?”

People are laughing on the radio. I can tell Danielle wants me to move out of the way so she can get another drink. I stay put. “Why don’t you ever fucking talk?”

She grabs her glass. I put a finger on the inside of the rim and slide it across the table away from her. “Why can’t you just open your mouth? What good is it doing to keep this way?”

She holds her hands in her lap, her lips tighten and she looks away.

“Speak! Tell me what’s going on with you!” I pinch the bridge of my nose.“Fuck.”

“Well…” She turns to me, “Today…”

“Yes?”

“I went upstairs…” She jerks her head away. “I went up to feed the cat.”

“That’s what happened, you fed the cat?”

“I went upstairs,” her voice is shaky and her eyes squinty “and I heard him.”

“What?”

“I heard Nathan in his room.” She leans over the table, puts her palms into her eye sockets, and her shoulders quiver.

“Oh, baby.” I step toward her. She falls into me and puts her arms around my back, around my ass, and cries into my crotch.  I put my hands on her shoulders and rub her back, my beer still in one hand.

“What did you hear, Danielle?”

She can’t stop crying.

“I know, I know.  It’s okay.”

In a window I catch our reflection. I wonder if she can smell the peanut butter and jelly and nectarine on my pants.

“I wanted to go in there,” she pulls her head off me and stares forward, “I wanted to go in there, but I couldn’t.  I didn’t want to open the door and have him not be there.”

I wipe a hand over my face, remember, grab a chair and sit next to her, rub her back.

“It was so good to hear him though.  It was so good.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“It was him.  I know he was in there.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t.”

“It’s okay.”

In the evening I grill salmon.  We drink on the patio under the maple tree and eat cut up nectarines.  Roger and Kathy stay inside. I lie and tell Danielle I won’t be getting half days every other Friday anymore.  She doesn’t say anything and I think about the ladder, what I’ll say. There are still beers under the bed.