After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area, . His short stories and poems have appeared in Full of Crow, Potluck, Dirty Chai,The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Brief Wilderness, Poydras Review, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.with a story forthcoming in Midway Journal.
CLUES TO HER DISCONTENT
Kramer spent the weekend cleaning the house, making sure everything was in its proper place, not because he cared greatly for order, but because Bobbie did and he wanted her to return to an orderly home from her trip back in time. He even purchased red and white carnations and placed them in a cut-glass vase on the round kitchen table. Their effect was invigorating and he made a mental note to make it a weekly habit. The round, soft shapes and intense colors added energy to the room. Bobbie’s interest in flowers and plants suddenly made sense to him.
Separation from Bobbie due to his business trips was a normal occurrence, but this was the first time he was the one left behind. He wrestled with anxiety and confusion, not to mention a measure of astonishment when she informed him she’d purchased just one plane ticket to Chicago.
“It’d be a complete bore for you and you know it,” she explained easily as though she were doing him a favor.
It was true he’d been dreading her tenth high school reunion but thought he’d been successful covering his sentiments and was completely taken aback by her decision to attend alone. Experiencing difficulty swallowing, he choked, “Are you sure?’
Either completely missing his flustered reaction or choosing to ignore it, she shrugged. “Of course. You don’t know a soul. No one knows you.”
They married after dating just three months. Aside from being the most passionate period of his life, it was by far the longest romantic relationship in which he’d been involved. Ashamed of his sheltered existence, he kept it to himself and never built enough nerve to ask about her past, in hopes it had been just as uneventful. As he watched her pack her suitcase, taking careful notice of every particle of clothing, especially the choice of lingerie and whether or not she packed her diaphragm, (which she didn’t), he was faced with the existence of her past and it frightened him. He had never experienced jealousy but her obvious slight was a warning signal he couldn’t ignore. Another possible reason to leave him behind, at least in his own mind, was just as alarming, and that was the fact he might just embarrass her. Tall and lanky, his looks could at best be described as plain. Balding with eyes as tiny as a bird’s and a long narrow nose set above paper thin lips. Bobbie was the first woman who had ever looked twice at him.
He chose to mope without verbally expressing his disappointment in hopes she would recognize his discomfort, feel guilty and change her mind. He pouted. He slouched. He sighed anxiously. Nothing seemed to distract her focus. She drove off without even a glance in the rearview mirror while he jogged after the car waving and calling her name.
Bobbie couldn’t look into the rearview mirror because she feared even a peek of her devious smile might give it away. Twenty minutes after leaving the house she pulled into the Comfort Inn off Interstate 95 and checked in to a room for $69 a night. She paid cash.
“And how many nights will you be with us?” asked the rotund desk clerk, peering over his Number 2 reading glasses with a hint of curiosity.
“I’ll do two nights to begin with. If I want to stay longer, will it be a problem?” She knew it wouldn’t but it sounded good. She liked projecting the image of a carefree woman, not tied down by any particular anchor.
He stood up straight, his bulbous belly smashing against the desk as he scrolled the computer screen. “Looks okay. Room 166 is around the corner to your left.”
A week shy of their second anniversary he awaited her return from the reunion with the exhilaration and curiosity of a newlywed. Her absence had rekindled his passion and the anxiousness was so strong he found it impossible to sit still. The emotional peak he rode was a great leap from the numb aura he felt before her departure. He recognized the rut they occupied but had done little to change it because it was an atmosphere in which he found comfort. Why did he feel so needy in her absence when he experienced what bordered on tedium in her presence? His existence had become so routine and self-absorbed he wasn’t even aware nor really cared how she felt. In her absence he suddenly lacked confidence in their relationship. He searched for clues of her discontent, anything he might have done to drive her to attend the reunion alone. His emotions bounced back and forth between his own jealousy and her possible humiliation at having him as a husband. Both feelings made him nauseous.
Finally it was Sunday, the day of her return. On the verge of exploding, he paced apprehensively in front of the living room picture window, unable to contain his exhilaration. He roamed the house, inspecting and grading his cleaning effort. In the living room the tables wore the lustrous sheen of lemon oil. The sweet scent of pine deodorizer, used in the special compartment of the vacuum cleaner, hung in the air as he admired the even knap of the blue shag carpet. He now understood her need for order as he fell to his hands and knees to perk up the trampled pile in the path he created by pacing. He would never take her for granted again. From this point forward he vowed to be her partner, her helper in chores around the house, one who shares his feelings and above all, listens.
Bonnie struggled a little with guilt but not enough to keep her from eating pizza and drinking a few beers, and certainly not enough to keep her awake at night – there was something about the muted blue-gray haze the television emitted in her dark room that lulled her to sleep both nights.
“Hope to see you soon,” the same desk clerk chirped as he handed her the receipt.
She nodded without a word as she crumpled the receipt on the way out the door and flipped it into a garbage can.
Kramer burst into euphoric song when he spotted her car approaching. His bliss was of such magnitude he knew he’d remember it the rest of his life and paused in mid-stride to drink in its power.
Bobbie was short and stocky with a face too long for her body and a nose that fit the face, but as she emerged slowly from the car she appeared like a super-model to Kramer.
All morning the dry heat had been overbearing. The leaves on the trees hung limply like tears. The desert-like climate had scorched the landscape, washing out all color and brilliance, but as soon as she approached a dazzling radiance simmered through the twisting waves of heat and engulfed her in a surrealistic ambience. He leaped the three steps from his porch expecting to sweep her into his arms and transporting her effortlessly up the stairs to the bed where they would devour each other as they had in the early stages of their relationship. Their curiosity had been childlike, each new territory a mystery. That was before the inevitable adult insentience arrived. It hadn’t even been two years.
Kramer’s smile stretched to its ultimate tensile, giving him an awkward appearance of agony instead of the ecstasy he felt. As he reached for an embrace she sidestepped him agilely and gave him a peck on the cheek as light as a butterfly’s wing. Her quickness left him grasping at thin air and he tripped awkwardly into the car. The impact stunned him and by the time he turned she was entering the house.
“Inside,” she called back.
In the seconds it took him to get into the house he manufactured visions of her dancing with an old boyfriend, maybe someone who had left her during high school and now wanted her back. Or, maybe it was a man for whom she’d always pined and could now possess. Their dance quickly jumped to the bedroom and he shook his head in an attempt to exorcise the painful image.
Fitfully glancing about, he yelled, “Where are you?”
He took the stairs two at a time, abruptly abolishing the image during the climb. Maybe it was a game she was playing. She was waiting for him in bed. She had missed him and shared his hunger. When he burst into the room and saw the untouched bed his jaw dropped with his hopes.
“Where?” His voice cracked.
“In the bathroom,” she called over the echo of the toilet flushing. When she emerged, zipping up her pants, she frowned. “Where’s my suitcase?”
He shrugged holding out his empty hands.
“I left it in the backseat of the car,” she explained, walking to her dresser.
“I’ll get it later,” he promised, taking a step toward her.
“I need it now.” She was pulling underwear out of the top drawer.
“I’m going to Fantasy World. It came to me on the flight back”
She checked her watch in between trips from the dresser and the bed where she was stacking clean clothes. “I don’t have a lot of time. My plane leaves in three hours.”
He gurgled. Queasiness spread in his gut which caused a slurred fizzle, like the sound of air escaping a balloon. His hands were hanging out helplessly in front of him.
His throat closed on the way to the car. His cheeks blossomed into swollen pouches and for a moment he feared suffocation. Finally his tongue took command and thrust itself through his lips, allowing a long gasp to escape.
“Fantasy World! God, not again!” he cried incredulously as he yanked the suitcase from the backseat. “What is it with Fantasy World? It’s just some low-rate Disney!”
He lugged the suitcase upstairs. She had already changed into a bright blue flowered dress. He wanted to beg her not to go, in fact thought about forbidding the trip but couldn’t. That would make matters worse. It was obvious she’d made up her mind and he felt powerless to change it.
She’d always wanted to go to Fantasy World, so much so that she’d admitted early on in their relationship that if she could choose any place in the world for her honeymoon it would be there. She hadn’t brought it up in a year, but in the beginning she talked about it all the time. Kramer, who could think of nothing so dull, took the strategy of ignoring her and thought it finally worked.
He found it hard to stand straight, wavering back and forth. His throat was raspy and his eyes watered.
“Are you going alone?” he whispered.
She shot him a glare with eyes hard as steel, but said nothing.
The look started waves of panic washing over him. Fearing collapse, he grabbed the dresser with the grip of a drowning person reaching for a lifeline. Sweat sopped his shirt.
Taking a long glance around the room, she announced, “I’m ready,” and shut the suitcase. The clicks of the latches were like bullets to his heart.
He watched helplessly as she left the room. As soon as he gained his composure he chased her outside and stood by the car. Before throwing it into reverse, she paused to throw him another cold stare, then backed out of the driveway and drove away.
It was dusk before he made his way inside. Shadows danced across the living room as he fell listlessly on the couch. His temples throbbed and every muscle in his body ached.
“You didn’t have to check out, you know,” the desk clerk informed her as he pulled up her information on the computer, shaking his head which caused his belly to jiggle under a white shirt so stretched out it seemed transparent.
“Well, I really did,” she began as she counted out the cash.
“And that would be a why?”
She looked at him with a smirk. His brow was covered with sweat and she noticed large yellow circular stains extending from the wet pits of his white shirt. He’d probably enjoy it, might make his day and she would have liked that, but held off, at least for now. It was probably better kept a secret. “I might tell you someday.”
“When you check out and come back the same day next time?”
She laughed, took her key and picked up her suitcase.
He called to her as she walked down the hall. “Notice I gave you a different room.” Muttering beneath his breath, “Different trip and different room. Makes sense. Oh and there is free beer in the lobby tonight.”
The hollow gongs of the grandfather clock woke Kramer. He’d drifted off on the couch, but couldn’t recall sleeping, though he had vague recollections of harrowing visits from anonymous men and wondered if they were from Bobbie’s past. He couldn’t focus on any particular details but judging from his general feeling of faintness figured they couldn’t have been too positive.
He struggled to his feet and stumbled to the hall mirror with the agony of a man with a fierce hangover. His face was ghostly pale and his thinning hair reached into a maze of cowlicks. Large, dark circles dragged his eyes to his hollow cheeks and the lines of a frown were chiseled deeply around his mouth.
Their wedding photo stared up at him from the hall table. They’d been married at the courthouse. He wore a black suit and looked mournful. Wasn’t it a happy event? He never looked good in pictures. Bobbie appeared impatient, but then, at that particular time she thought they were going to Fantasy World on their honeymoon.
“Are you really sure you want to go there?” he complained as they descended the wide steps outside the courthouse.
“Absolutely!” she screamed with glee, actually leaping down the last few stairs.
He’d never seen her so happy. Why hadn’t he given in to her request?
“Do you think its romantic enough?”
“We can find romance anywhere.”
“But, at Fantasy World?”
He held fast. He refused to go and she spent the first night of their marriage on the couch. She wouldn’t climb into their bed until he promised to take her there on their first anniversary. When that date was approaching he conveniently scheduled a business trip. She stopped mentioning it.
Bobbie got into her pajamas in Room 172. It may have been a different room number but it was the same room. The same two double beds with dark floral patterned bedspreads stretching to dark oak veneer headboards; the television sat on the same matching oak veneer dresser.
She reached into her suitcase, rummaging beneath her clothes and pulled out a tattered doll, dressed in a deep tan uniform wearing a pith helmet. “Well Ranger Rick, we’re awfully close. Princess Anne will be pleased don’t you think?” She leaned the doll on the first double bed’s pillow. “Shall we ask her?” Acknowledging an answer only she could hear, she walked back to the suitcase and pulled out Princess Anne. Dressed in a threadbare pink gown that had been repaired on both sides; the shabby attempt obvious in the uneven raised stitches. A tarnished silver crown sat askew on her golden blonde tresses. “Damn pleased, she says.” Bobbie placed her gingerly next to Ranger Rick
Shattered when Kramer avoided the trip on their first anniversary, Bobbie began struggling with the marriage. His obvious slight meant he didn’t care enough about her to want to experience and share what excited her, so what did that say about their relationship? She’d never loved another man, never really even dated anyone more than twice and when he called her for the third date she was shocked but pleased. The fact that a man with his obvious experience showed an interest was befuddling and she wasn’t about to question it.
“Thirsty are ya?” The desk clerk was balancing precariously on a thin-spindled wood chair, belly rubbing the small round table on which his bottle of beer stood.
“Have to admit I am,” she chuckled, pulling her robe tight around her throat.
He pushed the chair away from the table, struggled to stand and waddled to the cooler. They were the only ones in the lobby. Hauling it across the room he set it down on the floor next to them with a groan.
She watched with amusement as he winced while twisting the bottle cap off with his thick fingers.
“Here ya go,” he huffed, the exertion causing perspiration to bead on his wide forehead.
“You must love these nights,” she commented with a sarcastic smile.
“Free beer. Chips. Can’t beat it. Course with what they pay me, it is a well-deserved perk.”
“They’re gone,” he admitted sheepishly. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
She nodded, taking a swig. “I got lonely.”
“Along with thirsty…”
“Yes.” She stared at the bottle and wondered what Kramer was doing.
“You don’t strike me as a traveling woman.”
She snorted softly and shook her head. “No. This is a scheme.” The confession was emancipating.
The clerk leaned closer, “Oh do tell. Schemes don’t happen too often in this fine establishment.” He rolled his puffy eyes.
“Has to be pretty important to spend, what, now, three nights in this dump.”
She shrugged. It was important to her.
His bushy eyebrows rose in curiosity and a smile spread across his thick lips before he downed the rest of his beer in one draw. “Well?”
Tightness gripped her chest and she raised her hands above her head in an attempt to loosen it. Another swig might help. “Are you familiar with Fantasy World?”
“Second rate Disney?”
She winced, but chose to ignore the comment. “That’s where I’m supposed to be right now.”
He curled his lips in a devious smile and nodded slowly, but remained quiet. He didn’t want to appear too intrusive for fear of chasing her away. Then he frowned. “What about earlier?”
She snorted again, cheeks blushing rosy. “My tenth year high school reunion.”
He held his meaty hands up as though he were defending himself. “I’m confused, but I’m also curious. Why Fantasy World? Why not Disney?”
She sighed deeply then took another sip. “Long story.”
“You ever get fixed on something and set your heart on it so strong you couldn’t let go?”
He rubbed his stomach. “Food mostly.”
She ignored his attempt at humor and continued. “I got my heart set on going to Fantasy World when I was a kid.”
“Not to beat a dead horse, but why Fantasy World?”
“That was the place one of my foster families went. They’d just returned when I came to stay with them and ever since I’ve wanted to go.”
He shrugged. “Then go!”
She gazed across the empty lobby. “Can’t go alone. It’s a place that families go.”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I guess.”
“They had so much fun there.”
“Your foster family?” He turned the top off another beer and then wiped his brow.
She nodded. “For weeks after my arrival I watched Kathy and Danny Boswell play with brand new Ranger Rick and Princess Anne dolls, souvenirs from Fantasy World. Though Kathy was coolly polite, she made it very clear that Princess Anne was off limits, which just made me more envious. Danny kicked me in the leg one night when he caught me playing with Ranger Rick. ‘That is not your property. Stealing will end you up in jail with your mother.’
“When no one was around I flipped through the pictures of that trip and became so adamant and consumed I just never shut up about it. Gazing at the smiling faces of the children in those pictures was euphoric. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place.”
He opened another beer and handed it to her. “Stay long with this family?” He wanted to bring up the mother in jail but was afraid that might be crossing the line.
“Just a couple of months. One day when the family was out, a caseworker came and told me to pack my things. I was going to a more permanent home. I was shocked. Angry. She waited for me downstairs while I packed my suitcase.” She smiled as she recalled racing from Kathy’s room to Danny’s.
“Okay,” he huffed as he shifted in his chair, a bit bored with the back story. “Obviously someone thinks you are at Fantasy World.”
Bobbie had said enough. Standing up she nodded and smiled, “Thanks for listening.”
He called after her, “Hope it all works out.”
Scratching the two-day growth of whiskers on his chin, Kramer gazed at the flowers that Bobbie hadn’t even noticed and wondered how he was going to manage without her.
Sick of being cooped up in the house, but hating the thought of venturing into the outside world, he wandered aimlessly into the backyard garden at dusk. He had never paid much attention when Bobbie worked there and was amazed at the order of the rows. He marveled at the size of the tomatoes and cucumbers and realized he had never praised her for anything she did, either ignoring it or taking it for granted.
“I suppose you’ll be back,” the desk clerk chuckled the next morning, his triple chin rolling like waves.
She shook her head. “Not that I didn’t enjoy my stay.”
“That’s good I guess,” he said with a quizzical frown. Then leaning across the counter, close enough for her to smell his sour odor, he whispered as he glanced about to make sure they were alone. “Can’t you let me know who the target is?”
“I’m sure whatever you’ve conjured up in your imagination is more entertaining than reality.”
She put her suitcase into the car trunk then drove to the airport where she parked in the long-term parking lot, grabbed the suitcase and boarded the shuttle to the terminal to call a cab.
The doorbell stirred him from a dream. He was chasing Bobbie through a crowded airport, pleading shamelessly for her to stay. Her reaction was a weak smile. He had lost her in the crowd when the bell echoed again, worming its way past his wall of sleep. He opened his eyes onto her pillow. Recalling the scant traces of mascara and the rich scent of perfume he regretted washing the pillowcase. Rising up to his elbows, he noticed the chair in the corner. Normally her red robe would be strewn across it. The chair looked barren without it and he winced at the thought of it lying across some hotel chair, possibly under some man’s robe.
The doorbell rang again. Shivers ran across his skin as he struggled with the prospect of facing someone and having to explain Bobbie’s whereabouts. His stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten since her departure. Struggling to get his robe on, he finally stumbled downstairs.
“I’m coming,” he called, becoming painfully aware of the arid, sour taste in his mouth. “I’ll probably scare the person away,” he mumbled as he unlocked and opened the door.
“Phew!” Bobbie gasped. “I figured you’d gone to work.” The plan was working, since he hadn’t. “I lost my car keys.”
He glanced outside at an empty driveway as she slipped past him and padded down the hall to the kitchen. He took her suitcase in and left it by the door. Was this too a dream? He blinked hard and took a deep breath.
“Want coffee?” she asked.
He let the screen door slam and walked slowly down the hall.
“You look like you could use some.”
He caught his image in the hall mirror. His gathering of cowlicks had multiplied into a rat’s nest. He had never appeared or felt so worn out.
“Do you realize how much it costs to take a cab from the airport?”
He rubbed his eyes. She leaned casually against the sink. It was a familiar pose, one he’d seen her assume hundreds of times.
“Forty bucks. Can you believe it?” she continued. “It was all I had. I couldn’t even tip him and he peeled off when I was ringing the doorbell.”
He glanced skeptically around the kitchen, then peered fearfully back down the hall. Without the evidence of the suitcase he might be able to pass off the whole incident as a terrifying nightmare. He basked in the normality of the scene and thirstily drank in her presence, amazed at how it warmed and filled the room.
“I like the flowers. They’re pretty,” she commented motioning to the carnations.
They were drooping over the top of the vase. Like terminal patients, they were on the verge of death. “I forgot to water them. They don’t look too well. Probably won’t survive long,” he sighed, shaking his head.
“Naw! They’ll perk right up with a little care,” she claimed as she grabbed a water pitcher from beneath the sink.
He smiled. The cage of anxiety that had rendered him helpless during her absence had crumbled. After all, they were the only witnesses to the last few days but as the sour confusion and anguish seeped back, anger rose. Something told him to stand up to her and punish her for her actions. He should demand an explanation, or at least an apology. But, then, wasn’t he at least partially to blame?
Pushing off the sink, she glided by him and reached out, quickly and softly pinching his behind. It was a blind move, smooth as a point guard’s behind the back pass that completely astonishes an audience - totally unexpected and that much more exciting because it is. He followed her into the hall and watched her approach her suitcase.
“How was Fantasy World?” He flinched as soon as the words slipped out. It sounded as though someone else asked it.
She stopped but waited a moment before looking back over her shoulder. They really hadn’t made eye contact until then. Her bottom lip quivered and her vulnerability both surprised and excited him. She finally shrugged, but it wasn’t a light gesture, more like trying to lift the weight of the world from her shoulders. Slowly, one word at a time, she sighed, “Wasn’t what I expected.”
Some inner instinct advised him to attack when she was down. If he passed up the opportunity he may never have the chance to gain the upper hand again. He recalled the agony caused by her absence – the emptiness, the death-like existence, but her attendance, her admittance of disappointment started burying those feelings of angst. The fact she was back injected him with the confidence he’d been missing for days. Now she was back, did anything really have to change?
She waited for his words, his offer to join her. She was ready to let her mouth drop open and widen her eyes as she’d rehearsed in the mirror. It was the expression of a young child who receives the gift of a lifetime. The words ready to leap from her tongue were, “Really? Fantasy World together?”
And as her fingers gripped her suitcase, Ranger Rick and Princess Anne stuffed safely inside, she waited.