Eric Mann sat on the hardwood floor, legs crossed, bearing down, an elbow jabbed into each knee, hovering over the telephone. The constricted muscles in his chest stifled his breathing and churned up a caustic pool at the back of his throat. He waited. After a time, Eric reached for the glass of bourbon on the floor beside him, his fourth since he'd dialed the number.
I'll call you right back, his wife, Cynthia Mann, had said. He waited.
I promise, she'd said. And now, crouched like a predatory alley cat, he waited.
And without blinking watched the phone that didn't ring.
Eric woke when his wife eased into bed beside him. The clock said two-thirty. She had not called. He lay silent, motionless. Eyes open in the dark room. He lay waiting.
She wore that smell.
Then he heard her deep, slow, satisfied breathing.
As he stared into the darkness, her voice wormed inside his head: "If the situation were reversed-if I were a man," she liked saying, "we wouldn't be having this conversation." And she was right. There was no arguing The Waving Girl's success. The restaurant's Savannah-themed interior and long waiting lines had attracted food critics at The Washington Post and Southern Living. A franchise deal was in the works, she said, a sure thing, she said, only months away. She was an insider, management, ground floor. "Never turn your back on a sure thing," she'd said with that inflection he recognized as Carl's, the bartender. A new life. An irresistible opportunity, she called it.
She reeked of fish, liquor, cigarettes and foreign sweat.
While she slept, his oscillating physical need for her and disgust for himself turned again, as always, to self-loathing. Yet on those nights when she would reach for him-when it pleased her and served the convenience of her will-he always and thankfully responded. They both knew these things, and the knowing made him hate his neediness-and his wife as he lay awake beside her. She could smell his want. And in her qualified giving and pernicious withholding and in her every act of calculated indifference, she said to him, I can leave you. I am going to leave you.
Eric pushed back the covers. He couldn't stop the endless dadaistic footage inside his head or diffuse the power that she exercised over him, even as she slept. He reached for the stair rail in the dark. It was the least and the most he could do.
Standing before the kitchen window, he felt the dull, receding tide of bourbon, the vagueness of his presence. Behind him on the floor beside the breakfast table, her bra and panties lay in a heap. The purse and jacket, which would smell of barbecue smoke and grouper, would be somewhere in the living room, skirt and blouse in a crumpled pile in front of the toilet. Even after she'd called him a nag, he'd continued picking up her things. But not anymore. Now he left them where they fell, sometimes for weeks. The whole house had that smell. He turned to look again at the panties and bra. Then turned back to the window.
Across the street the neighbors had put up a pilgrim cutout, a bale of hay, and a pumpkin. Thanksgiving was two days away.
Eric dozed past the 7:00 alarm. He quickly showered. No time for coffee. He stuffed a tie into his jacket pocket while taking the stairs two steps at a time. He didn't see his briefcase. He locked up on his way out and hurried down the cement walkway toward the garage. Maybe he'd left the briefcase in the Honda. He glanced up at their bedroom window and felt for his keys.
When Cynthia first took The Waving Girl job, he kissed her every morning on his way out, even as she slept. Eric seldom passed up an opportunity to remind her of those kisses, of his goodness, of his sacrifices. Months later, after the kisses stopped, he would glance over as he backed from the garage to see her standing naked at the kitchen window, arm raised to catch his attention, to at least say good-bye. Now, when he looked, there was no one there.
The acrid smell of damp autumn leaves reminded him of squirrel hunting when he was a kid, of sweat and the taste of a month-long bloody nose his last college football season. His briefcase was not in the Honda. He pulled the trunk shut, turned and rested back against the car. It took a minute for him to put two and two together.
Yes, that was a trampoline in the neighbor's yard. Yes, that was his wife's open purse on the trampoline in the neighbor's yard, its contents spewing out. Farther back near the fence, his open briefcase. He felt the nausea rising and the taste of metal at the back of his throat.
He slammed the backdoor so hard that she was calling to him, depriving him of shouting her name, of demanding that she rise this very second, that she report downstairs this instant.
Holding the rail as she wiped the sleep from her eyes, Cynthia moved cautiously down the steps.
"Call 9-1-1," he shouted. Then he was in the next room.