Mark Morganstern graduated from the City University of New York, with an MA in English/Creative Writing. He studied with Edna O’Brien, Maureen Howard and Jonathan Wordsworth. His fiction has appeared in Prima Materia,The Crescent City Review, Piedmont Literary Review, New Southern Literary Messenger, Hunger Magazine, Espresso Tilt, Mothering Magazine, and other journals, and was anthologized in Tribute to Orpheus II. He received an honorable mention for his story, “Tomorrow’s Special,” published in the Chronogram 11/06 Fiction Contest issue, selected by guest judge, Valerie Martin.
Gil promised himself after Marsha left that he would never run out of mayonnaise again. Under her culinary reign he’d been forced to hide small bottles of the stuff in the garage for his occasional egg salad or ham and cheese sandwiches. Marsha considered mayonnaise to be a carcinogen. Even as she packed the Prius with her luggage, yoga mat, exercise ball, lotions and conditioners, Gil slipped miserably through the back kitchen door and headed for the ShopRite. If Marsha had seen him pull out of the driveway, she might have been annoyed, or perhaps—after all of the bitterness and anger, and finally, the decision—she might have felt grief-stricken. It didn’t matter though. As Gil often reminded Penny, their terrier, “Some things can’t be fixed.” Given the circumstances, he tried to stroll leisurely through the cool aisles hoping to avoid any well-meaning but curious neighbors. When he reached the condiment shelves he placed two sixty-four ounce containers of Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise in his shopping cart. Though he didn’t consider himself a consumer in the true sense of the word, he appreciated the outsized packaging and the bounty the store offered at discounted prices. He spotted the Hellmann’s Ketchup, sweetened only with honey. He’d never noticed it before and was intrigued. Mustard was a no-brainer. They were selling packs of six forty-eight ounce jars of Grey Poupon, which seemed excessive. Fortunately someone, perhaps another victim of some marital calamity, had opened them up and taken just three jars. He placed the other three in his cart and moved on. It was an early and unusually warm spring, so he’d decided to grill out on the deck most evenings now that Marsha wouldn’t be there to manage their meals. Penny the terrier would be the recipient of choice bits of steak and barbequed chicken to assuage her bereavement over the absence of her mistress. He doubted that Penny would miss her mainstay meal: Fromm Gold Nutritionals Adult 33, at $67.90 per bag. He’d observed her eating the bits many times. She’d always pause and glance to either side of her bowl and then look up at her mistress to see if there was perhaps something else on the menu. He imagined her thinking, “This is what you want me to eat? This stuff, right?” An additional perk for Gil was that he’d be able to enjoy his Pinot Grigio on the rocks, something Marsha could barely tolerate. It “just isn’t done,” she’d say. She often chided him about his dining preferences (he cut his meat, and vegetables, and even pizza into small bite-pieced pieces with a serrated knife—he liked them small). “People don’t do that,” she’d chide him. So what did people do? He read Google News every morning and saw that people did monstrous things, often for no good reason at all. He just liked ice in his wine. After they’d settled on the date of her departure, he’d ordered a set of two Cubette Mini Ice Cube Trays from Amazon. Half inch cubettes; they froze faster and chilled more evenly. Gil realized as he drifted through the aisles, taking in the aroma of fresh baked bread and rolls, colorful displays of cubed cheese samples and artisan crackers, and kitchen gadgets, that he was just beating out time. Giving Marsha the last few minutes perhaps to walk through the house they’d shared for decades, the bedroom…the Ediline Wood Sleigh Bed. The bathroom with the acrylic slipper clawfoot tub with imperial feet and chrome deck mount. He’d gotten that for her for their fourth anniversary and she’d luxuriated in up until…when? He couldn’t remember. She used to like him to read the Times Regional News to her while she bathed. For a few years the bathroom had become their den, with comfortable chairs, books and newspapers, and the Bose tuned in to the classical station. She seemed most in her element in the tub, his water queen. He used to hold the towel up and wrap it regally around her. Sometimes, to his pleasure, she’d let it slide off her sturdy shoulders. But how long ago was that, at least a decade, maybe longer? He flipped over a box of Squoodles, squash noodles, and scanned the ingredients. He couldn’t imagine what sauce would taste good with them. It would probably require a stick of butter and lots of salt. Instead, he took two packages of Martelli’s Spaghetti Pasta. He vaguely remembered having it once on a trip they’d taken to Tuscany. Even Marsha had enjoyed it with the wonderful garden-fresh marinara prepared at the table. He thought suddenly, if she were lingering in the house it wouldn’t be decorous to return home too soon with bags of groceries that suggested he was planning a cookout or a picnic—a celebration of sorts. There was nothing to celebrate. He paused by the lobster tank and rested his palm against the thick cold glass, and watched as they scuttled over one another with banded claws trying to find a comfortable place as they waited. He’d read in National Geographic that their claws were banded not just to protect the consumers’ thumbs, but to protect them from each other. The article explained that lobsters were feisty, dominant creatures and would harm their own kind if possible. It went on to say that humans share a common evolutionary ancestor with lobsters. Both species exist in hierarchies fueled somehow by serotonin, a curious fact. They, the lobsters, pissed in each others faces as a form of recognition—odor signaling. Gil mused that he and Marsha had become crusty adversarial creatures, faulting each other over trifles, an old battling couple, clawing and snipping at each other’s self-esteem, pissing on each other’s shaken confidence, causing each of them to question if they were even good people anymore. And in the last year, the therapist sessions he so resented. How many times had he said, “Sarah is a nice young woman, but it offends me to my core to pay her to profit off of our misery.” And he refused to discuss any of the sexual complaints Marsha still harbored from their earlier years, true or exaggerated, as viewed through the long lens of time. And certainly she wouldn’t mention that she’d once allowed him to take her from behind while she was in the Downward-Facing Dog pose. Perhaps she’d forgotten that episode. But Gil remembered that pleasure distinctly. It happened while Penny the terrier was at the groomers. In the end, the therapeutic counseling service, Mediate Don’t Litigate, saved him a bundle. Marsha had been right about that, and reasonable. But at one of their last meals together, when they tried to talk, have a respectful exit meeting as it were, she suddenly turned against celery as if it were laced with Novichok. Gil loved celery, no longer as a natural alternative to Viagra, but for its flavor. He liked to soak it in ice water with a tablespoon of Himalayan Pink Salt. He rationalized that the excessive amount of salt wouldn’t do him any harm because celery was also good for high blood pressure. And Dr. Goa had prescribed Zestoretic with LH1 anyway. Every six months he dutifully reported to his cardiologist who’d take his blood pressure, listen to his heart, examine his ankles and nod approval. “Stay on the Zestoretic, once a day. Stop at the desk…six months.” He’d stopped asking how long he’d have to be on the drug. Dr. Goa, an ironic guy, answered one time, “For the duration.” Gil would retreat to the parking lot and bite into an Extra Dark Pretzel Split, shot with diamond-like salt crystals, darker, crunchier, and bolder because of the “split” baking process. He’d chew thoughtfully and think, “For the duration.” He stood in front of the snack assortments for a full five minutes, not really considering the reduced-salt, whole wheat pretzels. His phone vibrated: On way to Berkshires…now. Marsha had told him that she’d planned a three day yoga retreat at Kripalu. He knew that, but she was just extending a courtesy, even after he’d avoided her departure, which he now regretted. It was rude. But what was he to do? The marriage was over, cooked. It wouldn’t have changed anything if he’d waited. He realized that he just didn’t want to be the one left standing there when she drove away, a discarded figure in her rearview mirror, the other half of their failure. After her yoga intensive, Marsha planned to drive to her sister’s goat dairy farm in Boulder. This was a bit of an undertaking for her as she had always preferred that Gil do the long distance driving, but this was her plan, her release into her new world. It was what she needed to do to initiate the next phase of her life—to get on with it. Marsha had shared that in their last session with Sarah. Gil suspected that Sarah thought that theirs was a successful outcome. A conclusion he did not agree with in the least. It was the dissolution of a long-term marriage, not a victory. There was no clear winner. And what did Sarah know about them anyway? She was just a young professional plying her trade for cash. He realized that was a harsh thought. But it riled him. What did therapy accomplish anyway? Getting on with one’s life seemed to him just a pop psychology concept. He couldn’t think of a single person he knew who’d gotten on with their life. It was just something people said to give the illusion that that’s what was happening… Getting on, getting older, and getting dead. And he thought he’d detected a muted self-satisfaction emanating from the therapist’s face. Or perhaps it was just a slightly pensive expression reflecting on the fact that the checks he wrote out to her each week were about to stop. The last check was already filled in, so he could just hand it over and make a quick departure at the end of the session. He had to avoid the obligatory warm feelings, thank-you’s, and hugs. He’d leave that to Marsha and Sarah. It would have pushed him over the edge. The goat thing, what was it? He recalled that Marsha had said if she enjoyed it out in Boulder she might join her sister’s Go Go Goat Dairy Farm crew for a few months. Try something new. The one time he’d skipped off to the Jamaican place in town, he’d tried the curried goat and liked it, especially with their house jerk sauce, “Ya Mon.” He bought a bottle of it and stored it in the tool drawer in the garage with the rest of his stash. At one point he thought about cataloguing all the restaurants where he’d taken meals alone in the last year and a half. He’d call the file The Solitary Diner. But after brief consideration he decided it would be a sad commentary on their faded relationship. Where the hell had it gone, anyway? There were products in the ShopRite that had been available for more years than most marriages last. The Sunshine Oyster Crackers Gil liked with his tomato soup had been on the shelves since the 1800’s. Marriage, it seemed, didn’t have that long of a shelf life. He avoided the checkout line for a few more minutes, as he detested the perky cashier girls. They always chatted him up, and if he’d forgotten an item a young runner would race back with winged feet and return with it, smiling brilliantly. “Hello, I’m Laney. I hope you enjoyed your ShopRite experience today.” Since when had grocery shopping become an experience? He jabbed his debit card into the slot too quickly and had to do it over again. “Well, someone likes mayonnaise. Did you know that the third one was free?” He figured that the two containers totaling one hundred and twenty ounces would last him over four months. As much as he enjoyed mayonnaise, he didn’t need one hundred and ninety two ounces, which would last half a year—that was assuming he consumed an ounce of mayonnaise every day. Dr. Goa would frown upon that kind of regimen. “No, miss, it’s fine. Thank you.” Slightly anxious, needing the quiet intimacy of his car, he bumped the door guard with his basket, banging it hard before it opened automatically. He’d read online about Coles Grocery Stores in Australia. They’d instituted a special one-hour quiet shopping program designed for people with autism. It reduced noises, distractions, and store lighting by fifty percent. The cash registers and scanners were turned down to their lowest levels. And there were no animated store personal popping up at you with trays of sliced pepperoni samples to try. No questions asked, no one in your face. Their staff had received training to be quiet and subdued in their movements. The only problem was that he wouldn’t be travelling to Australia to grocery shop. Anonymous, quiet shopping—a desperately needed innovation, he thought. If it came to the states he’d be a loyal customer. On the way home he stopped at Half Empty / Half Full to pick up the case of Pinot Grigio he’d ordered. Joyce always included a complimentary bottle of the week, usually a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc from Oregon or Washington State. Gil noticed after a few times that she’d tied a yellow ribbon to the bottle neck. It was a nice touch. It also occurred to him that she’d stopped asking him how Marsha was some time ago. It was a small town and people gossiped. Joyce was recovering from breast cancer and a disastrous end to her marriage. Pete, her husband, had decamped just seven months earlier. He’d cashed in a large share of their investments, a substantial savings account, and most of their fine art collection, which included three works by George Inness and Frederic Edwin Church, valued at over two hundred thousand each. The private detectives had thus far been unable to locate him. It was as if he’d vanished. Compared to Gil and Marsha it was a horrible situation. At least they’d had a process, some finality, and therapy, for what it was worth. He truly felt sorry for Joyce. And everyone in their small suburb knew the story. Despite all that, Joyce gave the appearance of someone who’d been relieved of an ugly and most unpleasant burden. She was upbeat, especially when she talked about wine. And she was solicitous to the point that Gil wondered if she might be interested in serving his other needs beyond his wine preferences. He couldn’t imagine why she would be. And he couldn’t imagine what his needs were anyway. It was too soon. Wouldn’t she still be reeling from the shock of Pete’s treachery? But she kept the shop going and was doing better than when Pete was involved in the business. People were supportive and she seemed to be rebuilding her life. Joyce praised Gil on his choice of wine. The Pinot Grigio he’d selected was a Santa Margherita from Italy. She described it as bone-dry, and a wonderful flavor of golden delicious apple. There was also an aroma of honeysuckle, if you sniffed mindfully. The mention of honeysuckle caught Gil off guard and a strong reaction twittered through his chest and stomach, bringing a powerful memory of honeysuckle and Marsha. Suddenly, though dreading it, he was anxious to get home to his empty house. The sooner he faced it the better. Penny would need walking as she’d had a few accidents lately, urinating on the carpet. And he needed to settle himself on the deck and have a drink. He hoped that the deck would be a place of refuge for him in this new and difficult season. He’d ordered some comfortable chairs and a propane gas grill, the first one he’d ever owned. Marsha thought gas tanks were a fire hazard and the smoke from grilling meat was toxic. He slid his debit card out to pay. The wine went for thirteen dollars a bottle and would have cost about two hundred and twenty plus tax for the case. But she only charged him eleven dollars and fifty cents per bottle. He understood then that her interest in him was not just limited to retail. She’d looked at him earnestly and asked him how he was doing. He couldn’t tell her that Marsha had left just about an hour and a half before. But he felt that she deserved a reply. “I’m doing...” he mumbled, “I’ll know more how I’m doing in the next few days.” When he signed the receipt, she placed her hand over his and said, “Take care of yourself.” The shock of her hand on his caused the words to catch in his throat. His voice was husky, “You too.” I’m shaking, he thought as he sat in the car. I’m actually shaking. Can’t have this. He needed desperately to get home, and it occurred to him that the new grill hadn’t arrived yet and he didn’t have any charcoal or lighter fluid for the old dented Weber. He’d have to make one last stop at Bernie’s Hardware. He couldn’t face the ShopRite again. “I see you’re having a cookout,” or “Are you going to set the world on fire? Hahaha.” He felt exhaustion seeping into his body. It had suddenly become a marathon and he just wanted to get home, but if he didn’t stick to his plan, cook out, treat Penny, drink wine, sink into the new chair, it would be worse. It would be…unknown. He would be set adrift. He practiced his lie in the car. He’d tell Bernie that he was making a quick stop and had to be at the airport in half an hour to pick up Marsha who was flying back from her sister’s in Boulder. That was plausible because Westchester Airport was a short drive away, and Bernie wouldn’t want Gil to be late. But he was a talker, a pontificator on all things barbeque. He sold his own line of products which were displayed on the front counter. You couldn’t leave his store with a Dewalt Cordless 20v Max drill without taking a bottle of his Smoked Chicken Palace Glaze or Bernie’s Kamikaze Rib Dipping Sauce with a Hint of Vodka. Gil felt like his legs were about to give out, but he hustled in and grabbed a bag of Cowboy Charcoal and some odorless lighter fluid. When he got back to the counter, Bernie was there beaming as usual. He winked, “Cookin’ out, huh?” Gil hated it when he winked. People didn’t wink anymore, or did they? Why should they? Quickly he recited his prepared lie and Bernie rang him out. “Whaddaya making?” This was the cue Bernie usually gave. Without answering, Gil grabbed a bottle of Bernie’s Ginger-Mango Steak Plasma. “Nice choice. Remember, don’t marinate it. Put it on while it’s still sizzling on your plate.” It worked; Gil was back in the car and just four blocks from the house. He felt momentarily panicked that somehow he wouldn’t get there, he wouldn’t make it home. Some unseen force would stop him. This is silly. I’ll be fine… just a period of adjustment. He parked the car in the garage and waited until the door had closed firmly behind him. He needed to shut something out so it wouldn’t follow him into the house, though he didn’t know what it was. He dropped the bags on the kitchen table, and went back for the case of wine, which he almost dropped as it seemed much heavier than when he’d carried it out of Joyce’s shop. He whistled for Penny to come. Usually she was right there waiting to be fussed over. He grabbed the leash off the hook in the pantry and went into the living room. He called her a few times then went to the bottom of the stairs. My God, he thought, she took the dog with her? He heard whimpering and bounded up the stairs. Penny was lying on Marsha’s side of the bed. She’d peed all over the blankets and sheets. He lifted her front paws, placed her on his lap, and stroked her head gently. “Poor girl. I took too long. Poor girl. My fault.” He felt something wet on his hand…tears? He knew that dogs whimpered or whined, but they didn’t produce tears. They were his. He lowered his face and rested it in her fur and cried. He didn’t remember the last time he’d cried. Maybe it was in college when his brother had unexpectedly died. He let it out. “Marsha…I’m sorry…so sorry.” He acknowledged to himself that much of it had been his fault. He’d just stopped trying. “So sorry.” Penny lay still in his lap as he cried, willing to receive her master’s grief. When he finally sat up, he glanced out the window. The sky had darkened. Perhaps it would rain and ruin his plans. A pang of fear jabbed at him. He had to avoid being set adrift. He stroked Penny a few more times then he led her downstairs and out into the backyard. He couldn’t take her out on the street and face any neighborly small talk or questions. It was a Saturday and some of them must have witnessed Marsha packing the car and leaving. He avoided the firethorn bushes, which he despised; he had already instructed the gardener to remove them. He led Penny to the rockery where she urinated for a good twenty seconds. “Poor girl, you really had to go.” While he was walking around the yard he devised a clean-up plan, but it would have to wait until the next morning. He didn’t have the energy to climb the stairs again. He’d strip the bed and put it all in the washer. He’d lean the mattress against the open window to dry it out. If it was soaked through, and ruined, he’d drag it out to the garage and put it on the curb for the next combustible trash day. He desperately needed a glass of wine. Gil led Penny back up to the deck and settled her into one of the new chairs he’d bought. She seemed comfortable, but kept her eyes on him. He returned to the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of Pinot. He hadn’t had a chance to put it in the refrigerator, so he dropped some Cubette Mini Ice Cubes into the glass. As advertised, it chilled quickly. He took out some boneless chicken thighs from the freezer and slid them into the microwave to thaw. Boneless meant that he wouldn’t have to worry about Penny getting any sharp bones stuck in her throat. He practically collapsed into the chair next to her, exhaustion claiming his body. He inhaled the late afternoon air and took a full sip of the wine. It was cold and refreshing. Just as Joyce had said, bone-dry, and a wonderful flavor of golden delicious apple. And there was, he suddenly noticed, a faint aroma of honeysuckle. Again some static shot through his chest and stomach at the memory of honeysuckle. He placed the glass under his nose and took in the aroma. Honeysuckle…he’d met Marsha just after the honeysuckle had bloomed next to the commuter train station parking lot. He’d watched her walk to the end of the lot and press her face into the bushes. Though completely out of character, he followed her and asked if she’d perhaps lost her keys, which he knew was a bit of a come-on, but believable given her behavior. Fortunately, it was a somewhat more gentle time, and she didn’t automatically mace him or scream obscenities until a cop or some other rescuer came running. She told him she was smelling the honeysuckle, her favorite aroma. She did it every spring. She also pointed out that it was native honeysuckle, not an invasive species. Then she invited him to smell it as well. He was taken with her that she’d do something so uncommon, not just rush to her car and drive away like the other commuters, as if they were escaping some natural disaster. And from that moment on he’d associated her with that fragrance…honeysuckle, for decades. Right up until… After their meeting, he’d ordered several bars of honeysuckle soap from the New York Botanical Garden store and carried them in his briefcase until he’d hopefully run into her again. It was a full, frustrating two months before it happened. He spotted her ahead of him boarding and he hurried onto the train car and managed to sit next to her just as a woman passenger paused to scan the aisle for a better location. He squeezed in behind her and weathered a long dirty look. Marsha seemed distracted and he didn’t think she’d remembered him from the flower-sniffing experience two months prior. He tried making small talk, but she seemed content to stare out the window. He took advantage of her staring off and slipped a bar of the soap into her handbag. He’d written his name and phone number on it. He got off in Dobbs Ferry, but not before he was able to scan her ticket: Irvington. He started spending his weekends in Irvington, hoping he might run into her at the farmer’s market, or the scenic riverside park. He wandered through the antique stores and the Stop & Shop. Early on, as a bachelor, he’d been a fan of Indian cuisine and had experimented preparing many types of curry. He was surprised at the choice of Indian condiments and products the store carried even before the foodie revolution of the 80s. He started shopping there regularly. It was on one of these forays into Irvington, where he was buying peach chutney and walnuts when his cell phone rang. It was her suggesting that they meet at the tea shop on Main Street sometime. He said that he just happened to be in Irvington and suggested they meet in fifteen minutes. He was too nervous to ask her name, and blurted, “I’m Gil,” which she knew because he’d scribbled it on the wrapper of the bar of soap. This is like a movie, he thought, as he sat there waiting for her. He stood when she arrived and they began an hour and half animated conversation that included honeysuckle. She said that she loved the soap he’d slipped into her handbag and had bathed with it that morning. Surprisingly, she extended her hand and allowed him to sniff the underside of her wrist. It’s settled, he thought. An hour later they were in his apartment making love. He considered his good fortune beyond anything he could have imagined. And she seemed to agree. They pressed their faces close. “Yes?” he’d asked, “Are we…?” “Yes,” she’d answered. “We are.” “Yes,” he’d said, “But how?” “Shhh…” and she’d kissed him. It was better than a movie. It was real. And it stayed real for years…until… Gil sat up suddenly, startled, his heart pounding. He’d been thinking and dozing; he couldn’t tell if he’d been dreaming or remembering their beginning, the sweet time, the time of honeysuckle. Somehow he’d drunk three quarters of the bottle of wine. Penny was sitting up in her seat staring at him. An oppressive spring humidity had settled into the air. He stood and moved unsteadily to the Weber and prepared the fire. He couldn’t make her wait any longer. The barbecued chicken would assure the dog that all would be well, that there would be good treats coming from her master. There would be…stability. He scratched Penny under her neck where she liked it, “Just a few minutes, girl,” he promised. He poured out the remaining wine into his glass and shuffled into the kitchen. He placed the thawed chicken thighs in a bowl and doused it with the Yeri Yeri Teriyaki Marinade Sauce, one of the approved products, in part because it was packaged in a BPA-free bottle. Salad, need salad. He opened the fridge and pulled out a bag of mixed greens from the drawer and was pleased to find tucked underneath it a bottle of Ken’s Country French Dressing he’d secreted in there a while back, an unapproved product. “An entire meal,” he muttered “…not quite.” He grabbed a bag of Cascadian Farms Crinkle Cut French Fries and threw them into the microwave. The fries would provide an opportunity to try out the Hellmann’s Ketchup, sweetened only with honey, though he was a bit skeptical and in retrospect would have got the Heinz Ketchup 114-ounce bottle on sale. He opened another bottle of Pinot and filled his glass. There were still more than enough Cubette Mini Ice Cubes to chill the wine. Even if he ran out, there were regular ice cubes in the freezer he could smash with a hammer. By the time he began grilling the chicken it was almost nine PM. He lit the tiki torches on each corner of the patio. He could have switched the floodlights on, but that would have been overwhelming; he didn’t want to be on display. He needed the softness of the flames against the darkness that had ballooned in the sky, except for one remaining crimson streak of light, a jagged sword slicing the night in half. He found himself fixated on it with varying degrees of awe and discomfort. A complete division, a final separation, he thought. Penny began whining again and he brought her back down on the lawn to pee, thinking perhaps he should take her to the vet and have her bladder checked out. As they returned to the steps a huge plume of flame and smoke shot up from the grill, blowing the top off. Penny leapt back and pulled the leash out of his hand, then ran whimpering into the bushes. Pieces of flaming chicken shot up about three feet into the air as if they were being juggled. The entire grill was fully engulfed in flames, both inside and out. The black finish blistered and glowed red. Grease and sparks were spreading over the deck. Gil observed the spectacle dumbfounded. The next explosion caused the bottom of the kettle to drop out on to the wheels and the deck. He saw what appeared to be a molten square box and he thought he detected an aroma of rotten eggs, which seemed strange. He ran and grabbed the hose and began to douse the flames. At first it caused the fire to roar up again, but it gradually died down. He hoped none of the neighbors had noticed the smoke and called the volunteer fire department. When it felt safe enough, though still smoking, he rested the nozzle inside the kettle and let the water soak through. How could it have happened? Charcoal grills didn’t just blow up. He could hear Penny whimpering, but the yard, which abutted his neighbor’s massive stockade fence, was pitch black. The daunting fence, which exceeded town code, was the result of an altercation Gil had had with the neighbors some years earlier. The Kossovers never really accepted Gil and Marsha as somehow being worthy to ascend to the elite neighborhood. Penny, as a playful pup, had scampered over to the Kossover’s patio and peed on their herb garden. Lenny Kossover chased her back to Gil’s yard with a rake and threatened to kill her if she did it again. Gil apologized, but made the mistake of suggesting that Lenny was overreacting. Lenny offered to show Gil his Springfield XD Mod 2 (9mm) handgun, which he would use next time to send Penny to “dog shit heaven.” So much for neighborly potlucks. The next day, a crew arrived and dug deep holes for the towering fence posts. Gil could have reported the code violation to the town enforcement officer, but the fence provided a benefit; it would keep Lenny off of Gil’s property as well. Gil climbed the steps, keeping an eye on the grill in case it erupted again and reluctantly switched on the floodlights. A good half of the deck was trashed with glowing charcoal debris, burn holes, blackened chicken thighs, mixing in the water he’d sprayed on the fire. A plume of black smoke hovered about ten feet above the deck. The new chair closest to the grill was ruined, the cushions singed. He sighed miserably as he viewed the site. It reminded him, though on a much smaller scale, of terrorist attacks he’d seen on the news. “Penny. Penny. Come here, girl,” he called. She continued to whimper. From the sound he determined she’d crawled under the firethorn bush, which had filled in early due to the excessive warmth of the season. He got on his hands and knees and scanned the ground along the fence. He thought he could make out her ID tag glinting in the floodlights. But the light seemed to be coming from behind her, shining through the fence panels. He realized with dread that Lenny Kossover must have heard the explosion and come out to investigate. Judging from the movement of the flashlight beam, Lenny was working his way along the fence looking for a place where he could see into Gil’s yard. Thank God for the fence, Gil thought. Lenny, unhinged and full of venom, might have just shot him and the dog without thinking. And of course, as was Lenny’s practice, he’d report any untoward activity in the neighborhood, especially against Gil. “Come here, girl. Penny, come!” he whispered. She continued to whimper. The explosion had thoroughly spooked her. “Goddammit, I’m not crawling under there.” He began pushing himself under the bushes. The stiff branches bore many sharp thorns and he immediately felt them tearing his shirt open and sticking into his skin. “Goddammit, Penny!” He hated the idea of thorn bushes, but Marsha loved the small, showy white flowers that bloomed later in the season. They reminded her of ocean foam and waves. The branches were thick and dense, but he continued working his way toward the dog. One branch caught upon another, then released, snapping against his forehead. It stung sharply and he felt warm droplets of blood forming. “You can sleep here, goddammit,” he growled. But he was close enough to grab her leash and drag her out in a more painful exit than was his entrance. Lenny had worked his way to the end of the property without gaining the surveillance he’d hoped for. “What the hell’s going on over there?” He yelled. Gil lay on his back trying to control his heaving breath so Lenny wouldn’t hear him. It gave him some comfort that Lenny was denied access to the scene because he’d built the damn fence in the first place. Penny licked the blood from his forehead. He felt his shirt dampen with thorn punctures. “God…damn…it.” As he lay there a pearlescent cloud slipped by and revealed a three quarter moon with a cold ivory tint. In the craters and dark shadows he saw what resembled the face of a woman with something on her head, a basket of fruit perhaps. “Perfect,” he muttered. “Fucking perfect.” It seemed to take all of his strength to get himself and the dog back up onto the deck. He took the ruined pillow from the chair, turned it upside down and commanded her to sit on it, then tied her leash to his chair. She immediately lunged for the chicken thighs and scarfed down the one closest to her. “Chew it for God sake. Wait, I’ll cut some up for you.” He stood in the kitchen looking around, slightly disoriented. He got a plate, a fork, a serrated knife, and another glass of wine, filled almost to the brim. “Bachelor party,” he slurred as he returned to the deck. He turned off the floodlights and dropped into his chair. He noticed something glinting on top of the fence. He squinted at it but couldn’t make anything out. It occurred to him that Lenny might have gotten an extension ladder and was spying on him with binoculars. Fuck Lenny. He leaned over and forked up one of the chicken thighs and began cutting it into small pieces. The aroma of rotten eggs caught his attention and he shot a look at the charred, square-shaped object which seemed to be oozing a sludge-like substance. Then he remembered: Hurricane Sandy. It was back in October of 2012. While lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and Jersey bore the brunt of the storm, Westchester experienced high winds up to sixty miles or more per hour, causing extensive damage. Marsha went through the house taping large X’s on the windows while Gil secured the lawn furniture and trash cans by moving them into the garage. For some reason the Weber grill, unused because of Marsha’s concerns about toxicity, seemed less important. There was an old car battery in the garage that he hadn’t gotten around to recycling yet. It weighed about forty pounds and he placed it in the grill hoping, though he actually didn’t care, that it would help withstand the wind, keep the grill in place. The remaining chemicals in the battery were what caused the explosion and fire. The burning charcoals literally ignited the battery, hence the rotten egg smell. He cut up a chicken thigh and held it up to his nose. It just smelled burnt and he thought it was safe for Penny to eat. It was gone before he set the plate on the floor. “Poor girl, you were starving.” The microwave bell rang, but he stayed put and sipped his wine. He figured he’d have the French fries and a salad then drag himself and the dog into the guestroom to sleep. He’d deal with the deck disaster and mattress in the morning, and probably a hangover as well. Perfect way to start my new single life. He felt a vibration and glanced at the decimated grill, but it was his phone. Marsha had texted him: Can’t sleep. Twin bed uncomfortable. He stared at the screen, bewildered. What was he supposed to do? What could he answer her? He figured that the beds at Kripalu for about $230 per night would be comfortable. She’s feeling it. That’s what it is, he thought. But now what? She’d reached out for whatever reason. He took another sip of wine and noticed the deck furnishings and tiki torches were spinning slightly. He texted back: sorry. He felt now that he’d have to monitor the phone, but he just wanted to sleep. Sleep and forget, at least until the morning. Maybe he’d call Servpro or someone to help with the clean up. She texted again: Forgot a few things. This text caught in his throat. He turned to Penny, to consult with her or something, but she was passed out in barbecued chicken happiness, her head resting on her paws. “She forgot a few things,” he said to no one. He texted back: I’ll forward them to your sister’s place. When he pressed the send button a small shock wave went through his body as if he just entered a sweepstakes that could change the course of his life forever. And then came the payoff; she texted back: I’ll get them. You won’t know where to look. This got him out of his chair. It was quarter to eleven and he needed to sleep. It was too late for figuring and planning. He’d have to do that in the morning. He woke Penny, who was reluctant to move, and dragged her into the house, into the guest bedroom. It was stuffy from the warm spring night, so he started the air conditioner and pulled the chain on the ceiling fan. The whirring sound was hypnotic. He practically fell into the bed and the dog pressed in snug against him. Gil thought he was already asleep when he flicked off the light. He had a dream that night that didn’t seem at all related to the events of the day. He was back in his small hometown in the Adirondacks, fifteen years old, riding his Schwinn Black Phantom through the neighborhoods late at night. The feeling of exhilaration speeding down the hills through the dark unnoticed was liberating. He was the secret observer. No one knew he was out there. At times he felt a sense of delectable lightness, that he might command the bike to lift off the pavement above the trees and telephone lines, and fly over the town up to the mountain it was named for. He’d ride on to the dock and stare out at the flickering lights of the cottages, homes, marinas, and businesses reflecting on the aching cold water. Then he’d light up the Newport he’d snuck out of his mother’s pack and inhale deeply, enjoying the cool rush of menthol bracing his lungs. He’d exhale slowly through his nose and watch with satisfaction the vapor dissipate into the air. He knew that just about two hundred and thirty miles south of his home was a city that was so vibrant with light that it must look like a jewel embedded in the earth’s surface from space. And he knew, he’d promised himself that one day he would live and work in that city of light. He would move beyond the mandatory autumnal deer hunt with the other boys, the breakneck snowmobile races through the woods, which had claimed one of his friends’ life before high school graduation. And, he’d solemnly promised himself, he’d refuse the ascension, the expectation his father held dearly, that he would take over his John Deere franchise. He woke with a painful start. Penny had clawed his chest leaping out of the bed, and left red streaks on top of the burning pricks from the firethorn bushes. He rubbed his chest and didn’t remember undressing the night before and sleeping in his boxer shorts, the novelty ones Marsha had got him in Provincetown, imprinted with starfish, clams, crabs and snails. They reminded him of a happier time. He noticed tiny red marks on the sheet where he’d continued to bleed from the thorns. His head throbbed. Sunday hangover, he thought. Penny clawed frantically at the bedroom door and he rushed to let her out before she urinated on the rug. As he strode through the kitchen he saw the two large plastic jars of mayonnaise on the table, wet with condensation. He distinctly remembered putting them in the refrigerator. He touched one and it was cold, causing his blood pressure to spike but remain under control thanks to the Zestoretic 10 mg. As he stepped out on to the deck the shock took his breath away. Chief Waryas from the volunteer fire department was there with an EMT and a police officer taking notes as they watched a technician in a white jumpsuit and a helmet with a visor kneeling next to the grill, scooping up samples of the goop beneath it. Another bomb technician then slid a thin plastic plate under the debris and removed it carefully, then placed it in a steel container and closed the top and bolted it. The technicians lifted the container by the handles and carried it slowly out of the yard. Once they’d secured it in the truck they returned and wrapped the grill in a plastic sheet and removed it as well. Waryas, who Gil remembered from the gym, when he used to go there, and from the Memorial Day Parade, gave him a doleful look. “Aren’t you a bit mature to be playing with fireworks?” Gil took in the scene; the devastation looked worse in the bright early morning light, a certifiable crime scene. There were patches of burnt grass near the deck. He tried to avoid her eyes, but there was Marsha staring at him in disbelief, shock, and an intense sadness that seemed somehow mitigating. When Penny had run out onto the deck she’d leapt into Marsha’s arms and whimpered. Marsha held her protectively as if she’d been rescued from an abuser. Gil shuddered and was speechless. All that’s missing is a blood stained knife in my hand. The two empty wine bottles on the stand next to his chair didn’t help paint a picture of innocence. Nothing about it suggested that it could be explained away. But after all, it was a small town, an enclave of commuting humans with quirks and foibles, and sometimes inexplicable behavior. Waryas, assessing Gil in his sea-creature boxers, and sympathetic to Marsha’s dismay, suggested that Gil stop by the police department first thing Monday morning and explain the situation to Chief Carbone. So, it’s a police matter, Gil thought…an investigation. Well, why not? After the chief and the others departed, Marsha continued to stare steadily at him. She took in the scratch marks and prick points on his chest and legs, and his utterly confused and compromised state. Finally, she asked quietly, and in a matter of fact way, if perhaps Gil had someone in the bedroom with him. It took a few moments for the synapses to fire in his brain through the hangover and make the connections. She was asking him, incredibly, if he had sought out a companion, or even a prostitute to comfort him on the first night of her absence. Or maybe someone he’d been seeing while they were still together. She actually seemed wounded by that prospect, which in turn wounded him. When the picture was complete and flashed over his consciousness, he broke up into fits of uncontrollable laughter; he howled. “Marsha, you think…?” He couldn’t stop himself. He laughed until tears streamed down his face. The whole thing was beyond absurd, it was impossible, but it had happened. His plan for his post-marriage survival strategy had literally blown up in his face. Marsha set Penny down and the dog followed her into the yard. Penny immediately relieved herself on the hose Gil had left on the lawn after dousing the flames that had engulfed the grill. Marsha wandered through the yard aimlessly, as if reacquainting herself with it, though it hadn’t yet been twenty-four hours since her departure. The dog stayed at her heels. Gil itched terribly; he desperately needed a shower, some antibiotic cream, some Advil, and a fresh change of clothes. His humiliation was absolute, almost spectacular. But something about the way she moved through the yard touching some of the trees, kneeling to straighten out a ceramic elf in the stone work, reminded him of the beach house they’d rented in Truro many summers ago. Her routine each morning, after they’d had coffee on the porch was to walk down the sandy path to the beach and swim. He’d watched her morning after morning, her lithe, yoga-toned body swaying slightly as she walked, her long brown hair that she liked to henna catching the sun as it flipped in the bay breeze. She’d return chilled and smiling, slightly embarrassed as if she’d done a silly thing, though of course she hadn’t. He should have gone with her into the water and held her when she swam by, a captured mermaid. He’d hold the robe for her and she’d sit and sip warm coffee and shake the sand out of her hair. His…girl…the one who smelled of seaweed, salt, and…the honeysuckle soap she bathed in, the scent that would stay with him until… He felt then that he was just a pair of eyes, a camera following her around the yard, watching her touch leaves and vines as if gaining nourishment or understanding from them, in this moment that was like an affecting video from long ago, sharp and wrenching with memory. She went to the firethorn bush, turned around and glanced at the deck to see if he was still standing there. He lifted his hand to wave furtively, but just pushed his hair back. She turned and focused on the bush with its vicious thorns. She touched one and pulled her hand away quickly, then pressed the tip of her finger to her lip. He wondered if perhaps she were thinking what he was, that later in the season, the small, showy white flowers would bloom. The ones that reminded her of ocean foam and waves.