by Jack Smith
Tom Cole had imagined a better life. He had imagined a better job, a better house, a better marriage. But now, he realized, this was not to be.He was in a hotel on the eleventh floor in a city five hundred miles from home, having returned to the place of his youth, his college days. This felt right to him, a place of refuge he needed. He listened for his cell phone to ring. That ring, if there should be a ring: it would be the only thing that could break into his solitary, remote space—a call from his wife on his cell phone. She was the only one who knew his cell phone number. He doubted she'd call, not after that terrible fight. She might call tomorrow to find out about him. But it would not be a pleasant call, and nothing would be accomplished by it.
He lay on the bed watching CNN. It was one in the morning. About noon, the previous day, he had gotten on the road to drive the five hundred miles and had rolled into this hotel, just off the interstate, only an hour ago. And now he was relaxing after a hot shower, listening for his cell phone to ring.
He worked the fight over in his mind, once again, but he'd been over the specific details so many times, analyzing them carefully, as he drove those five hundred miles, and so there was little point in going over them again. There was, he'd discovered, a kind of five-stage structure to their heated argument: her vicious attack on him; his carefully argued rebuttal; her near muteness with sporadic innuendos; his second rebuttal; and then the horrific finale—that which disturbed him the most, which made him realize this wasn't something they could ever recover from: her picking up things, at random, in the living room and hurling them at him, her screams, her insistence that he just leave. Just leave, she screamed. Please, just get out of my life.
And so he'd left, holding his right eye where the book had landed. Wondering if he didn't need to check into the emergency room of the hospital. But in the rearview mirror of his Jeep Cherokee, he saw that he was cut but would be okay. Already there was purple swelling, but he didn't need medical attention.
He again checked his cell phone. Most likely it would be a text message. After that kind of argument gone nuclear, it would be difficult to engage in talk. Surely, then, it would be a text message. And it wouldn't come until tomorrow morning. That stood to reason. So all he had to do was watch CNN until he got sleepy, and then get under the covers, go to sleep and in the morning check his messages. Get breakfast, some strong coffee, which he always found medicinal, and try to arrange a new start—which he didn't want to think about at this particular moment. Right now, just lie here. Do not think. That made the most sense. It made him feel better to have arranged a kind of plan.
He awoke when it was still dark and checked the alarm clock. It was 5:43. This wasn't surprising. This was close to when he normally got up—at 6:15. This morning, a Monday, he wouldn't be going in to work. He would call in, tell them he was sick—with the flu, which would give him the whole week off, if he played his cards right, to calculate his next move. The details of the phone call could be worked out later, around nine, once he was more prepared to talk on the phone. Right now he would lie here in the dark for another ten minutes or so. With the drapes pulled, he felt cloaked in the darkness, secure in his own little fortress. Once he got up and going, he'd head down to the continental breakfast, which, if he remembered correctly, was from six until eight-thirty. Once he had plenty of coffee in him, he could think better. Plan. Analyze where he was. Right now, he would just lie here. No reason to think.
Except he did. I am Tom Cole, he thought. I am forty years old, with a job, a house, and a wife. And all of these are going down the drain. Cutbacks at my job: that demotion, a salary cut of twenty thousand. This led to that second mortgage on the house, a house I did not want to begin with; I gave in to her on the style, the location, the price. And now, as though the cancer is spreading, I'm losing her. But, he thought, to be honest with myself, I've been losing her for a long time. There were certain insurmountable things. And yet there was always the hope. Now, there is no hope.
Being in this town, this city of his pleasureful youth, felt so right. And being cocooned in this room felt good. He could speak out loud here—if he so chose—about everything troubling him, and no one would hear him. No one correct him. He had no responsibilities at all, other than to pay his hotel bill.
He got up, showered, shaved, dressed—and stood at the door, just before leaving the room, to check his messages. None. And so it was truly over. There was no reason to believe that if she hadn't written by now that she would write later.
He went down to breakfast.
He sat there reading the paper, thinking how indifferently the world pushed on while he had his own serious problems. And yet he had to admit that he had trouble being much interested in anyone else's problems, especially those that were out of his range of involvement in the world: war, earthquakes, floods, house fires-all the daily casualties.
There is so little, he thought, one can manage outside of one's own life. One is so circumscribed by one's own troubles, and it's simply too much to ask that you be interested in others' troubles. At least on a global scale. He had often thought this, especially since his demotion, that excruciating salary loss, and the second mortgage on the house. He had way more than enough to handle. He couldn't think beyond that. Just get through today, he so often told himself. The troubles with his wife had started years ago, but they escalated dramatically the last five years, and then they really spiked when the job problems came—and the finances went south. She wanted him to keep his position, his salary, his benefits, not take the duck head, but he had urged her to see that they weren't listening to him, not at all. And the only option he had was another job, which meant relocation. No, she said. No. They're downsizing there, but you're the one who's getting the brunt of it. She claimed he could do something about his position there at the company if he would just assert himself more. That he was letting others, less qualified but more assertive, cut him out. She acted like he was to blame for what happened to his job. She shut him up when he tried to defend himself. You are always making excuses, she shouted. For once in your life, please act like a man.
He could not believe how callous that was—not to understand how powerless he was in that cut-throat place. But then he knew she was going through her own emotional problems, and he would just try to ride it out.
Then he needed that leg operation and had no medical insurance. And that meant taking his inheritance money as a down payment on the bill. She agreed that he needed that operation to correct his limp, but she didn't think he had to lose his insurance. Did everyone lose their insurance? she asked him, point blank. Wasn't this just another example of his being cut out because he wasn't more forceful in his bearing at that place? And when it came down to it, wasn't what they wanted at that place—a more forceful man? A man who knew how to plan and then execute? Didn't you tell me yourself that you're oh so weak in the execution part—at those sales meetings? Isn't that true? Those big manly men dominating the thing, you hiding in your little, lonesome self? Just killing us! She shook her head, and began to cry. I can't do it all by myself, she said. I just can't do it all.
He couldn't take much more of this. She was eating herself alive and him with her. He didn't have the strength for it.
There were, if he'd analyzed this right, about three stages to their marital deterioration over the years: first, that siege of bitterness over her inability to have children; second, that siege of bitterness over his infidelity; and finally, the siege that began a couple years back when the downsizing at his company started. He had also made this assessment: one siege did not simply end, followed by another. One siege became absorbed by the next one, like bad karma. There was a kind of enamel layer of hatred laid down in her heart against him. And he could feel it in himself too—for her.
He could call her. Or he could text her. But this would probably only work to his disadvantage somehow. It was her turn to come to him.
He was on the eleventh floor returning to his room, after breakfast, when his cell phone rang.
It was Sarah. He saw her name on the screen.
Should he answer? He went ahead and did so.
"Where are you?"
He waited a few moments before answering. "Me? I'm away. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?" He felt quite justified in saying this, only reminding her of what she'd said.
"No," she said, in a voice that was dry, barely audible, and had a tinge of sarcasm to it, in the lilt of her voice.
"No?" he said. "What did you want then?"
Silence on her end now. This silence was so long that he checked to see if the call had been dropped. He could imagine this happening, and then what? She'd think he had ended the call.
Finally, she came back: "I may have said that, but read between the lines, Tom. Can't you?"
"No," he said. "I can't." He came to his room, 1127.
"Look," she said. "I don't want a separation, a divorce, or anything of that kind. That's too much. It would be too hard on both of us, emotionally, financially, and in practically every way I can think of."
He stepped into his room, shut the door, the cell phone clutched in his hand.
"That's right," he said.
"Then," she said, "let's be reasonable. We can see this as an arrangement of a kind. You come back, wherever you are, and let's go ahead and do what we do, and we'll put it aside. We'll put it all behind us."
He sat down on the bed, the cell phone against his ear. "I don't know," he said after a few long moments. It felt so comfortable to be in this room, alone like this, and he didn't think right now he could just leave and drive those five hundred miles all the way back home. How could he do that?
"You don't want to try," she said. "Is that what you're saying?"
Something in him felt utterly lethargic, perhaps due to a lack of sleep, but he had trouble formulating a plan that made any sense. "I guess," he said. "I guess I do."
"That's all," he said, "right now, that I can say. I don't know otherwise. After that fight we had. After you threw those things at me."
"Oh, hell, Tom, grow up. Married couples have fights. They go at it like cats and dogs. But you have to put that behind you and move on with your life. Don't you?"
"Yes. I guess."
A silence. "But I'm not hearing you wanting to. I'm hearing you wanting to punish me instead."
He still sat on the bed. "I think," he said, "I just need a new start. I don't think I can go back to that job. I think that job and I are finished."
"Well," she said. It was a one-syllable word, but somehow he heard that lilt in it, with the same tinge of sarcasm.
"Well, what?" he said, standing up.
"Nothing. That's your call. If you think you can make it at some other job in the city, then you go ahead and do what you want. I don't think you'll find a better job, but as I say, you go ahead and make the call. It's your call to make."
"We'd have to move away. Get a fresh start somewhere else," he said. "Another city."
"No. I don't think so," she said. "You go on, if you want, but you're going by yourself."
"Well," he said, and sat down at the little table and looked out the window to the traffic on the interstate.
"Well, what?" she said.
His cell phone made several beeps. It was powering down.
"Are you there?" she asked.
"Yes, but my cell phone's about to go out."
"Well, you decide. You can call me back later. Or give me your number. Where are you?"
He didn't answer.
"Where are you?" she persisted.
He wouldn't say. He wouldn't answer that question.
"Okay," she said, "don't tell me. Maybe you're embarrassed to tell me. Maybe you're shacking up with some woman. Like before. Maybe that's it. And if it is, I'll find out. And then that will be it for the two of us. I won't put up with that again. I put up with it one time, but I won't again. I hope you're hearing me. If that's what's going on here, you might as well not bother coming home!" She was screaming.
He said, "No, no, it's not."
"Then tell me where you are!" she shouted.
He wouldn't do it. He didn't know why he wouldn't do it.
"I don't even want to know," she said. And the phone went dead.
It had been a terrible thing, that infidelity of his. It's that which ruined everything. He knew it. How it spread like a bad infection and ruined everything between them. It had happened five years ago, when he felt lonely and wasn't getting the kind of attention he wanted from her. One night he went to a bar and struck up something with a young girl ten years younger than he, and they ended up at her place in the early morning and had sex. He pushed it on her. He didn't rape her, but he did push it on her, with all his needs, his wants, his desires, his agonies that all needed fixing, ones that his wife wasn't attending to. But afterwards, after he'd gotten what he wanted, and they were getting dressed, she told him she had something to say about what just happened—she said it exactly that way: what just happened. She wasn't okay with it because he'd forced himself on her. It wasn't a physical forcing, she gave him that—but the way he'd gotten her to do something she really didn't want to do, it was practically the same. And she just bet if she'd been stronger, older, he wouldn't have done it—or been able to do it. He was a coward, she said. He pushed himself off on weak women. When he tried to defend himself, tried to explain those incredible male urges, she got angry, real angry and said she had half a mind to call the cops and report him for rape. Because he knew she didn't want to. All she wanted was to come back to her apartment to drink, dance maybe, have a good time. But him. Him. You're one sick person, she said. Sick sick sick. Get out, she screamed, or I will call the police!
If only he had not tried to defend himself. That's what drove her to that rage. But what about his wife?
He worked up his courage, sought Sarah's forgiveness, pleading with her to forgive him. And once again, against his better judgment, saw that he was defending himself, urging her to see that what he'd done wasn't merely gratuitous, that sexual indiscretion of his. He was, after all, a normal male, with his strong sexual drive, and plenty of men his age were out there doing something about it. He'd heard men at business conferences sharing stories about call girls. They'd even given him numbers. He hadn't done anything about it, though, and he really wanted her to know this to be a fact. But some of the best of the lot down there at that company had. The manly man types he'd spoken of. Football jock types. You know, he said. She could at least rest easy he hadn't done that. And never would, though he didn't mention how tempting it was.
She heard him out, with a grim mouth. Then she wanted to know: was this for her, or for him, that he was laying all this on her? He saw her point, but he didn't know what to do about it. He was sorry he'd said anything. He should have kept it to himself.
After a while she acted like she had put it all aside, only she hadn't. That's when the real vengeance came, as she began to find ways to fault him. Pick at him. Bring him down as many notches as she could. Comparisons, always, between him and others, those manly men down at the company—and others she brought to mind—to call his manhood into question. He could see that all her attacks, every one of them, were a matter of scorekeeping on her part—an agenda of punishment. He saw a clear pattern. You could graph the curve of her vengeance over the last five years, and he'd actually done it once when he was sitting at his desk doodling, utterly depressed, self-absorbed, unable to work.
He went out to his car to recharge his cell phone. He sat in his five-year-old Jeep Cherokee with ninety thousand miles on it. At least it was paid for. It was probably the only thing he'd have to his name if she ended up divorcing him.
You will never change your life! He could still hear that strident shriek from her in the midst of their fight. And she shouted that if he cared for her, truly cared for her, he would do that. He would do what it took. He would not let them do what they were doing to him at that company. Pretend he was so helpless with that passive-aggressive behavior of his. And then act so smug about it. When it hurt them so much. Did he want to go utterly down the drain and take her with him? Look what it took these days to make a living. Couldn't he do more?
This might have made sense, but it was all just vengeance speaking. And she would never be able to separate out what was rational from what was irrational.
He waited for an hour, letting the May breeze blow through the open window of the Cherokee. He could go into the city and look up a couple old college buddies—if they were still around. But probably, like him, they'd gone elsewhere, or if they were still around, maybe, unlike him, they had more promising jobs and futures. He wouldn't want to mix with them. He got out, and walked toward the hotel. In the lobby, he stopped and considered. And then decided that he'd make up his mind later whether or not to reserve the room for another night.
On the eleventh floor, he approached a cleaning lady with the housekeeping cart. She was leaning on the cart, with one hand resting on it. She pointed. "I see your cell phone there. Will you call 911?" She was holding her chest.
He looked at her. Cleaning ladies generally didn't speak to you, not about personal issues, at least. This was a first. "Yes," he said. "Sure."
He punched in the numbers.
The cleaning lady stood, with both palms down on the cleaning cart, supporting herself.
He explained to the 911 person where she was, this cleaning lady here at her housekeeping cart, in the hall, eleventh floor of the Ramada Inn, off the interstate. He couldn't remember the street. He looked around. Outside Room 1120, he said.
They were on their way.
He ended his call.
"Thank you," she said. "You're very kind."
She began to clutch the cleaning cart with more of a grip. He could see that. He could come around to her and help hold her up. But something in him resisted doing that. She was fifty to sixty years old; he couldn't be sure how old. She was no one he knew or would ever know. Even if she was sick, perhaps having a heart attack, it would feel like violating her to do anything personal—unless she asked him. He didn't want to be the one to make the first move. Only she looked like she was now slumping against the cart, and any moment she might give way and collapse on the floor. And then what? He would stand there helpless. He waited to hear the ambulance siren wailing, the 911 call on its way.
She began to depend more on the cleaning cart to hold her up, and a crowd gathered, with more cleaning ladies, who slowly eased her to the floor. And then two hotel guests, men like himself, took a quick, curious look and passed on.
He went to his room, shut the door, standing with his back to it.
He could call his wife now. Or text her.
And they would go back to it, with their argument, and nothing would be solved. It was too late to make things better. And she didn't want him to. She was miserable and only wanted to wound him. He felt better in this room, out of her reach.
He sat at the table by the window, thinking that pretty soon he would call in to work claiming illness. Meanwhile he watched for the ambulance on the interstate. And surely he would be able to hear the scream of the siren and watch its red lights pulsing. They would be coming for the cleaning lady. He would remain here by himself as he figured out his next move. He needed to be alone with his thoughts for awhile, in this room. Was it enough? He had no idea. He suddenly felt the dead weight of always being yourself.
Jack Smith's short novel, Hog to Hog, recently won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and will be published by the Texas Review Press. His stories have been published in The Southern Review, North American Review, The Texas Review, Happy, In Posse Review, X-Connect, Night Train, NEO, Southern Ocean Review, B&A;: New Fiction, Savoy, Roswell Literary Review, and Word Riot, among others, with upcoming work at The Texas Review. He has published reviews in Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, Texas Review, Pleiades, X-Connect, RE:AL, and Environment magazine. He has also contributed eight articles to Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and four to The Writer. His co-authored nonfiction book entitled Killing Me Softly was published by Monthly Review Press in 2002. Besides his writing, he co-edits The Green Hills Literary Lantern, published by Truman State University.