Friday
Apr132012

My Only Wife

By Jac Jemc


 

Dzanc Books
April 2012
978-1936873685


 

My wife cracked eggs.

She usually slept later than I did. My wife worked afternoons to evenings most of the time, and I worked days.

She would wake and watch me get ready, still tangled in the sheets, her smooth morning arms stretching to start feeling the day.

But on mornings after we had gone out together, she woke early, afflicted by some sort of reverse hangover.

I would hear her in the kitchen and get out of bed. I'd sit at the table and watch her take the carton of eggs from the fridge, maybe make some small talk about the night before. But as she squeezed open the Styrofoam carton and took an egg between two long fingers, she would hold an index finger to her lips to quiet me. It was a delicate and distinct process. Two fingers and a thumb on the egg now, she tapped it twice on the side of the frying pan and brought the other hand down to spread the shell and empty it of its yolk.

My wife would set the shell aside on a paper towel and fry up the eggs, scoop them onto a plate, and sit beside me at the table.

My wife didn't eat eggs. She liked the sound of the crack. She liked to make me breakfast, but it was rare for her to cook much otherwise.

 

My wife making me these eggs seemed one of the acts that I thought proved how true and generous she was, that she would make me eggs when she didn't even like them. I would deny myself the truth of how much I knew she loved the sound of them cracking. I convinced myself it was all for my benefit. I told myself that she made us quiet down before she cracked the eggs to amuse me.

It took me so long to realize very little was done for my benefit.

We would sit as the sun shined brightly through the window, and the way the light hit the left side of her face, I began to see wrinkles, deep furrows forming beside her mouth, the crinkles aside her eyes I admired so lovingly remaining after she smiled. Her forehead was striped with pencil thin creases. Those long fingers I had watched perform their egg-cracking ritual, now fidgeting with a pajama drawstring, were growing bony and form-fitting.

One morning, when I was still avidly testing what I could get away with, two months of married life under my belt, I said, "Tell me a story." And for some reason she granted me my wish.

She raised her eyebrows and those pinstripes thickened above. I never asked my wife for stories. I thought they were something she wanted for herself, but that morning I felt greedy.

"You want me to tell you a story?" my wife said.

"Please. I've nothing else to do today."

"I only know true stories," she offered, unsure.

"No true stories. I want a story that's never existed, even in theory." I felt myself getting excited. I was limiting her. "I want a child's bedtime story right now—in the morning."

My wife smiled, energized and nervous. "I don't know if I can."

"One never does." I shook my head, challenging, playful.

My wife held her breath, staring at me.

My wife swallowed.

My wife inhaled and began, as if part of her knew this time would come. She was always prepared. I ate my eggs.

"Once there was a warehouse room that was empty. It had hardwood floors and three steel pillars lining the center of the vast space. The room had four white walls. On the fourth wall, there were four windows. There were many pipes and a radiator, one tiny radiator to heat the entire area. That warehouse wanted nothing more in the world than to be filled with useless objects: with soundless phonographs and tick-less clocks. That room wanted spout-less teapots and halves of saucers, typewriters with irreplaceable ribbons and cracked vases. The room longed to be lined with punched through canvases and oatmeal box cameras. It wanted newspapers too brittle to be opened and read and jars upon jars of keys with no locks. The room wanted objects that were both less and more than they once were. The room was hungry to be filled and silent with clarity. The room stared out its windows at a bleak urban landscape.

"A man began to visit early in the morning. He brought with him a card table and a folding chair. He brought a ladder and a fine-tipped permanent marker. The man brought his jacket and his boots. On his first visit the man began a ritual. The man paced back and forth through the space. He would start at the door and walk along the wall of windows. When he reached the opposite wall he would take one step over and walk in the opposite direction. He would zigzag his way around the entire room in this manner, plowing the floor with his careful, beside themselves, strides. When he reached the opposite corner of the room he took out his marker and removed the cap. He would draw something tiny on the wall, in an area of about four square inches. Each day he would fill another square with something. Some days it was a gentle little face. Some days a tiny country scene would unfold in the square. Some days he would write a small account of something or other. He would work his way across the wall this way and when he finished a line he moved up and began another. When he could no longer reach he paced his way around the room carrying the ladder.

"On a Sunday he used up his first marker and placed it on the ground in front of where it had run out of ink. He did not finish the picture that day. He left it partially complete on the wall next to a white space and an intricate Spanish-looking design. The next day he began with another marker.

"On another Sunday he finished this wall entirely, and on Monday he began the next wall. The back wall was lined with pens now.

"Each day after the man paced and then drew, he sat at his table and looked at the walls. He set a timer and sat for one hour along the windowed wall, too far away to see any of the individual pictures. He sat, sometimes silent, sometimes humming. During this time the room thanked him for coming each day to help fill it up.

"At night the warehouse was alone. Moonlight shined in, flooding the floor, but never reached the walls.

"The room felt fancy and wild, armored with the drawings the man had covered it with. In a few years the man finished the room. One early morning he brought a camera in as well and took several rolls of film. He tried to get a picture of every section of the four walls, even the portions surrounding the windows. He left once with the table and chair. He returned. He left once with the ladder. He returned. He left once with the camera, his jacket, his boots. Before shutting the door behind him, he set the last, unfinished marker on the ground, outside the span of the door swing. The man shut the door behind him and didn't bother to lock it.

"The room was full. It was painted with pictures and littered with pens. The room was quieter now, with no one to thank, but still content. The room felt still and stagnant. It waited for someone to come and discover the pictures, for someone to appreciate how the room had grown.

"It wasn't too long before a younger man realized the warehouse room was unlocked though, and snuck in. He looked at the walls for hours and brought a girl and a flashlight back with him the next night. The boy's plan worked and the girl fell in love with the boy. Well, really she fell in love with the room, but she loved the boy for showing it to her. The room could tell it was itself that the girl loved, but was happy to help the boy. They came back every night for a week and then the boy invited some other friends to the warehouse. These other friends were too concerned with themselves to recognize the beauty of the room. They made fun of the room and of the boy so that they could feel they were the focus of attention. They couldn't understand why anyone would want to cover a room in tiny pictures like this and leave it unlocked and unprotected. The other kids said that the artist mustn't have cared much. The other kids returned on their own later that night with cartons of rotten eggs, and hurled them at the walls. The crack of the eggs on the walls was deafening. The room smelled awful. The drawings ran in some places, drooping down the walls. In others they turned jaundiced glossy, dribbling yolk, smattered with eggshell bits. The kids left, hooting and hollering, the empty egg cartons confusing the order of the pens on the ground.

"The next day the boy and the girl swung the door open and were overwhelmed by the stench. They took deep breaths outside, and peeked in at the damage. They looked at each other and tears matched tears in each of their eyes. They found clean spots on the walls and kissed the room.

"The boy and the girl walked out hand in hand. They looked back at the building when they were about a block away and kept walking. The room was lonely, but content, because it was still quite full, and all the more beautiful with the addition of the eggshells."

My wife looked down now. It felt like she was finished with the story, but I wasn't sure. "That was heartbreaking. Thank you."

She took my plate with her aging hands. "Good," she whispered.

My wife made me breakfast and told me a story. I was sure she was as generous as wives could be. She exhausted herself.