Robert E. Donohue writes short stories and novels. After forty years in international business he quit to focus full time on writing. He received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire in 2009 and is currently at work on a novel. His stories have appeared in Dual Coast Magazine and Down In The Dirt Magazine. Robert lives with his spouse and their extended family in Bolton, MA.
Summer nights, Marcie Grant looked forward to unwinding from work and escaping household chores. She loved picnic dinners at Cove Beach Municipal Park, especially gossiping with Lynne, her best friend, and watching the boats return home from a day on the Long Island Sound. Her cares seemed a long-distance from the park atmosphere: the green marsh grasses rustling in the breeze, the fresh air off the water, and the shrieks of children on see-saws and jungle gyms nearby. On evenings like this, her work responsibilities drifted away; she savored the company of friends and the balm of a carefully selected summer wine.
Marcie’s job as a nurse practitioner in Bridgeport Hospital’s Post-Op Care Center was fulfilling but stressful. Her income went straight to the mortgage of the house in the tony suburban town where she and Adam chose to settle.
Adam called from the golf club to say that he would join her at home shortly. He would change clothes, and they could leave for the cove together.
Marcie and Adam had argued that morning. They had argued daily for a month, or so. Had it been that long? The lessening she always felt after each argument was dreadful. This morning they had fought about which of them would meet the Town Assessor later that week. Adam had insisted the brass would be traveling the Mid-Atlantic States for the full week and that he needed to join them. She thought, How is it he never plans? How is it I don’t insist upon it? I never know where he’ll be―or when―and he rarely bothers to tell me.
Shortly after Marcie and Adam arrived at the park, her friend Éva drove into the parking lot with Lynne and her husband, Gary Hathorne. The group had met weekly for picnics during the summer for the past five years. Only the numbers had changed due to Éva’s recent divorce, from her husband, Roger.
Together they prepared the table for their picnic dinner. Lynne and Éva helped with the table cover. After Marcie arranged five place settings, she stood—hands on hips—satisfied with the look of the table.
Adam carried food and cooking utensils from the car. He placed a variety of salads on the picnic table. Gary set a cooler, with bottles of wine and beer, near the spot where Marcie assumed he’d sit. He uncorked several bottles of wine and set them about. She saw Adam fill one of the park braziers with charcoal, strike a match, and stare wide-eyed as the flames rose. She noticed him gaze at Éva. He looked away as Éva turned toward him.
The women chatted as they worked. Éva spoke of finding a better-paying job in another town.
“I just couldn’t afford living here any longer. I must have looked at twenty places. The rents were absurd. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said.
“Norwalk is close enough,” Lynne replied. “You’re in easy visiting distance for us. Besides, there’s not one of us who’s pleased with her salary.”
Marcie nodded in agreement as Lynne continued. “As the patriarchy crumbles that may change, but for now it’s a gender cross we all bear. By the way, dear, I think your place is lovely.”
Éva laughed and high-fived her.
“You go, girls,” Marcie said.
She briefly wondered what life would be like if she and Adam separated. Would she remain close to Lynne? How would she get by financially?
The odor of charcoal lighter fluid irritated her nostrils. Band music drifted from the weekend entertainment vendors on the opposite end of the park.
Lynne suggested, “Let’s walk down and see if they’ve scheduled fireworks tonight.”
“Sure,” Marcie said. “I’d like to see who’s performing at the bandstand, too.”
Marcie watched the sun ease into what she imagined was another world to the west. As she shielded her eyes, she called to Adam, “We’re off to check the park directory for fireworks. Back soon.”
As they walked, Marcie spoke of her patients. She made light of situations that were often anything but buoyant. She told a story of a man with gout who bothered the nurse station constantly, insisting someone attend his tiniest need. Staff referred to him as “Buzzer Bill.” Her friends laughed. With this nickname in mind, she said, she giggled whenever she entered his room to check his chart.
She felt guilty making fun, betraying him in a way. Then she realized the moniker lifted her spirits. Plus it allowed the staff to deal more kindly with his discomfort and more expansively with his demands.
Marcie wanted to know more of Éva’s divorce story. She wanted to hear of the bits in Éva’s marriage to Roger that hadn’t fit and how she had managed to leave him. Maybe this wasn’t the time or the place, but she felt she had to know.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked Éva, tentatively.
Marcie could see that Lynne was watching and listening. Her brow was furrowed. Lynne stared at her and raised her eyebrows, folding her arms at her chest.
“When’s the South Norwalk Arts Festival?” Lynne asked abruptly.
Marcie got the message. “Yeah. We should go together. Just us. No men,” she said. The words hadn’t left her lips when her stomach soured. Too much probing, she thought.
“Third weekend in August,” Éva said. “I’ll be out of town. Going to Maine for the month.”
“Well, maybe next year then,” Lynne quickly added.
They crossed the crushed seashell parking lot and followed the dry scrub grass path to the park directory board. Lynne read aloud the names of the bands scheduled to perform, and they decided that none seemed interesting enough to stay late at the park this night.
Éva said, “I’d like to stretch my legs a bit longer. Mind if we walk along the beach for a few minutes before we return to the men?”
“You won’t have to twist my arm,” Lynne said.
“Sure,” Marcie added.
As they continued along the shoreline, the weather took a turn. Out over the Sound, thick cumulus clouds gathered and took on troubling shades of gray. Marcie seemed to be the first to notice.
She pointed. “Check out that weather. Probably won’t come ashore from the look of it, but best we get back to the boys,” she said.
They re-crossed the parking lot. As they approached Adam and Gary, the clouds thickened further. Marcie felt the excitement. Just before they reached the men, she raced ahead, waving her arms. “There’s a thunderstorm coming,” she shouted.
The weather mass crept east across the sky, parallel to the land. Black clouds, with hues of light gray and violet streaming from their edges, covered the horizon. Showers bounced like hail off boulders in the nearby shallows. Neither rain nor hail reached shore. Marcie stood, facing the storm. She felt the excitement dissipate as the threat passed, and an odd sadness followed.
Adam was busy at the brazier poking and turning the steaks.
“Did you uncork the wine?” she asked him.
“Yes I did. The bottles are on the table.”
Gary glanced at Adam. He reached for a bottle and filled glasses for Éva and Lynne. Éva sat, her hands on her lap. Adam stood at the grill. The others settled at the table and began passing salads, pasta, and cheeses.
“Éva, dig in. You could use some heft, girl. Someone pass the coleslaw. Everybody have what they need?” Marcie said.
Marcie noticed Adam look Éva’s way; Éva glanced at him and quickly looked at the table fare.
Across the river, a sail caught Marcie’s eye. The small craft seemed to struggle in the doldrums. It soon caught wind and headed upriver.
Adam doled rib-eye steaks to outstretched plates. He held Lynne’s before her for a moment before placing it gently down. A smile spread across his face.
“I’ll bet they’re not dining this expensively at the shelter tonight,” he said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Lynne asked.
His smile disappeared. “Forget it,” he said.
“Are you talking about the homeless?” she said.
Adam stabbed at a thick steak on the grill and wrenched it from the grating.
“The way we treat them perpetuates their failures. It’s enabling. We’ll be feeding generations of those people,” he said.
Marcie tugged at Éva’s belt loop, smiled, and pointed to the bread basket.
“Marcie, how do you tolerate him?” Lynne asked.
“He’ll change when he finds himself living at a shelter,” Marcie said.
Lynne said, “Consider yourself warned, mister. No dallying at the office, or your woman will have you living with those whom you so disdain.”
Her voice rose above nearby chatter. Marcie saw that people stared.
A flock of ducks swept over, landing in the trough of a swell on the river. They immediately struggled to gain flight again, threatened by an oncoming cruiser.
Marcie watched as Éva got up, abandoned her plate, and walked toward Lynne’s car. She took a cigarette from an enameled box and faced the harbor. The others remained, focused on dinner.
Lynne whispered, “Christ! What’s wrong with me? She’s not done with the divorce, emotionally . . . Roger’s secretary . . . I’m an idiot.”
“I’ll go,” Marcie said. She wrinkled her brow, never taking her eyes off her husband.
“Let her be. She’s a big girl. It’s ok to feel like shit sometimes,” Adam said.
Marcie continued to stare at him. The others returned to the food. She left the table and approached Éva, placing her hand on her friend’s arm. Éva smiled and tossed her head back, releasing billows of smoke. Marcie was struck by her graceful neck and lustrous hair. Odd someone that pretty should know such pain, she thought.
“Fine. Just needed a smoke.”
When Marcie and Éva returned to the table, Marcie handed Éva a bowl of strawberries.
Adam and Gary were arguing.
“You’re asking why he should behave with more decorum?” Gary said.
“That’s right. I am,” Adam said.
“Because he’s President,” Gary said.
“Jack Kennedy had the Secret Service deliver prostitutes to him. Johnson chased interns.” Adam said.
“Still, he’s a husband and a father,” Éva interrupted.
Adam’s voice lowered. “People deal with things like this. Everyone’s got themselves in a twist over something that’s none of their business.”
“That’s too easy,” Éva said.
“When you cheat, or lie, someone suffers. Should we ignore what’s happening, or look the other way as people are hurt? Where’s the compassion?” she added.
“The President’s wife is a grown woman. I’ll accept the boy is off limits, but how do you know she was wronged? They may have an arrangement.”
“What? What the hell . . .” Gary said.
Marcie felt frantic to stop the argument. Adam had gone too far. She held her hand, palm up, to end it. The bench pinched the backs of her thighs. She stood and busied herself with empty plates and table debris.
“Listen,” Gary continued, “ I don’t know where you’re headed, buddy, but I think Éva owns the high ground and you’re off base. His wife and kid have been hurt. He’s the cause. If there’s any twisting going on, it’s your doing.”
“We know that the guy roams,” Adam said. “He’s always roamed. Let’s say he does because he has to. I don’t know what’s going on inside their bedroom, do you? Suggestion: mind your own business.”
Lynne said, “What would this country be like if everyone thought like you?”
“Less noisy and less litigious,” Adam said.
“That’s absurd and mean,” Éva said. “There’s no evidence his wife was aware.”
“She’s complicit, or stupid. The guy’s been in the tabloids for decades. Does this all the time.”
“You’re pathetic,” Éva replied. Her eyes seemed wild.
Marcie watched, speechless. She took a cigarette from Éva and lit up. She tapped her fingers on the table repeatedly, certain Adam knew details of Éva’s divorce and afraid he would not stop until he’d brought her friend to tears.
“What’s pathetic is pretense,” Adam said. “Did you ever refuse Roger?”
Éva drew back from the table. Marcie felt a sickening grip at her throat. She wanted to tear into Adam, but she feared more of a scene. She stared at the lolling sailboat masts in the marina and wondered how this all came about.
Christ, why doesn’t he lighten up? she thought. Éva’s forty-three and lost just about everything because of that pig of a husband.
She dropped the cigarette inside a soda can.
Lynne took hold of Éva’s hand and signaled Gary. Lynne, Éva, and Gary packed the Hathorne car in silence and were away in a blur.
Marcie and Adam sat alone.
“We’re leaving!” she said.
They loaded the car. He started the engine and backed onto the parking lot. Riding in silence, Marcie placed her hands to her face. My God, she thought.
They rounded a bend near the water’s edge. Waves crested against the shore, sending spray across the road. Odors of decayed marine life at wooden pilings and cooking oils from Café Camille filled the car. Adam rubbed his neck. He mumbled something she could not hear as he scanned the radio channels.
“I’d like quiet,” she said.
The radio clicked off.
“You alright?” he asked.
“What happened back there?”
A gull flew past the windshield, a mussel in its beak. Mollusk meat twisted in the wind. The bird pitched perpendicular and soared over the water.
“You mean with Gary?”
“No! Éva. How could you treat her like that? You go on about a politician’s right to hurt his wife and child, knowing Roger stole Éva’s home and lied to get custody of Ashley. And you knew he slept with his secretary.”
“It was Gary’s hypocrisy. You don’t know the half of it. Tonight he’s all about the sanctity of marriage. Did you ever wonder where he goes and what he does on those so-called business trips to Thailand?”
“No, and I don’t want to. What I would like to know is why you treated Éva so cruelly.”
“Cruelly? I did not. It was Gary. He pissed me off.”
“You abused her. If he angered you, why not go after him? You chose her. Why is this always the way you guys operate?”
“What, you guys?”
“Stop it! You know what I’m saying. You’re pissed at Gary, and you take it out on a remark a vulnerable woman makes. It was ridiculous. Frankly, it felt like something else was going on—God knows what?”
“It had nothing to do with her. She joined in with Gary. I responded to his sanctimony by answering the subject she raised.”
“Oh, that’s crap and you know it is. First of all, she didn’t raise the subject. Lynne did. You went after Éva because in her current state you believed she was the easier mark.”
His fingers tapped the steering wheel.
Pastel Japanese lanterns shone from the yard behind Fox’s Beach Deli as they drove past. Marcie saw outlines of grapevines in their glow. A girl and boy, inside the store, pulled at baseball card packages. Red-white-and-blue-ribbon-festooned bicycles leaned against a pair of spindly maples near the curb.
At the Greens Farms Road, they turned. The exchange between Éva and Adam played over and over in her head. What was it about this that was more than rude—more than troubling? She felt hot discomfort—sweat—at her neck and underarms. She feared continuing her line of thought and groped for distractions. She conjured grocery lists and imagined her refrigerator calendar, with birthdays, anniversaries, and doctors’ appointments scribbled over it. She opened the glove box, removing a pile of auto service bills and notes. A receipt—hotel bill—labeled “Hagerstown Inn” caught her eye. She set it among the other papers.
“What are you after?” he asked.
She switched the vanity light on and spread the papers on her lap.
“What are you looking for?”
She didn’t know. She ignored the question. He was faced forward. She examined the papers slowly, not certain what she was after. She piled them on the owner’s manual. She slid the bulk into the glove box and looked ahead, wondering how close to home they were.
She sat back and stared out the side window at the passing dark and the distant lights in homes. Turning toward Adam, she gazed at his right cheek. Small scars she’d grown used to over the years seemed new. A cluster of black hairs sprouted from his ear. She felt a sharp ringing in her ears. A thought of possible purpose--why—came. She held it for a moment and let it pass. Adam began mumbling.
“When we get home, you call and apologize.”
He pressed a dashboard button; his seat slid nearer the steering column.
“Say that we argued before we arrived at the marina and you were still upset―you weren’t yourself. Tell her she didn’t deserve what you subjected her to.”
“I think it’s better that you call,” he said.
“Because you were the one who ripped her head off, not me. Anything I say won’t make up for what you did, and it won’t make her feel better. Good God!”
He raised his window as they turned into the driveway. She glanced to the back seat, gauging how many trips to the kitchen the food baskets and utensils would require. Skies cleared. Against the new moon dark, rhododendron leaves at the front edges of their lawn reflected the harsh glare of a halogen streetlamp. The car crept forward. She stared at Adam.
“The telephone call. The apology.”
“I’ll need time. I’m not good at that kind of thing. Besides, she’s leaving for Maryland in the morning. I’ll wait until she returns.”
Leaving for Maryland? she thought.
A bitter taste of wine and food seasonings bit the back of her tongue. Her neck muscles stiffened.
She stepped into the driveway. Her pocketbook fell to the ground, its contents spilling onto the macadam. As she gathered it all in, she dropped to one knee, and the top button of her blouse came undone.
She gazed at the early summer, stained petals of the dogwoods. She saw that a night animal had toppled the garbage can. Orange peels were strewn across the lawn. Empty plastic bags drifted past her. An aluminum bake pan, its moldy contents, like road kill, lay nearby. Her body felt liquid. She raised her head, but could not recognize home for her tears.