“Singletary was fired.” I report from the folded newspaper to my husband with his mouth full of Cheerios. He just nods. Probably already saw it on Sports Center. Or just expected it after eight seasons of our beloved 49ers not making it to the playoffs. “Those are for the kids,” I tell him, eyes on his giant soup bowl overflowing with honey, nutty, Os. He taps his heart, because his cheeks are still too full to answer me. He always stuffs his mouth. After 25 years together, I know he means he is still a kid at heart, not that the cereal is supposed to be good for his heart. Even though he should be concerned. Six years my senior, he doesn’t act it – going out on the quads and jet skis with the kids like he is still in his twenties.
It was the heart attack that did it. Shortly after his forty-fifth birthday, he collapsed while replacing a carburetor for a friend’s 1964 Impala. After the cardiologist put in a stent, he told my husband that he would not survive to see our youngest graduate high school unless he changed his beef-eating, cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking habits. Now that daughter is in middle school, our other daughter plays varsity softball, and both of their brothers are away at college. They come home on breaks to play with Dad. He only drinks beer on the weekends now, when barbecuing chicken breasts instead of steak or when the boys come home to party. Keeps him young, he says.
It is like I have five kids. Now I’m getting close to 45, and while I don’t smoke, drink beer – just a glass of wine with dinner – or care to eat beef in any form (I prefer fish), the stress of our finances and my job may put me in the grave long before my adrenaline-junkie husband’s body ever thinks about giving up.
“Stupid move,” he says. I look around to see what he’s talking about. He kisses my forehead and taps my paper. Putting his bowl in the sink, he repeats, “Stupid move.”
I watch him watching the girls outside playing catch with our overweight chocolate lab. The little one pitches – not bad for an eleven year old – and the dog runs toward home plate. When the older one connects – and she always connects no matter how bad the pitch, which is why we are counting on a scholarship – the dog skids in a lopsided circle and chases the ball into the outfield. My husband laid out that regulation field in the dirt lot behind our house twelve years ago, when the older daughter hit her first T-ball. He saw her form, strength, and passion that no other four-year-old had.
“I think it’s about time. They pay him too much not to win games.” I pick up stray crumbs from the toast or cookies or whatever breakfast he gave the girls that morning. I know it wasn’t cereal because his is the only dirty bowl and spoon. I hold their three used glasses with one hand – experience waiting tables is handy for a mother/wife whose kids/husband can’t pick up their own dishes – and join him at the sink window. “They’ve gotta do something or we’ll be doomed for another decade.” I leave their sticky juice for him to rinse, and I drop the collected crumbs into the trash on my way to the bathroom to finish reading the sports section.
“Not his fault,” he calls to my back as I close the door.
“Nothing ever is,” I mutter as I turn on the fan light. Its overly loud growl mutes anything else he might say.
We met at a 49er game when tickets were still affordable, tailgating a requirement. He was working at his dad’s auto body shop in Hayward, and I was an art history student at San Francisco State. It was the beginning of the end for our team but that didn’t stop me and my girlfriends from layering plastic over our warmest sweatshirts and grilling hot dogs on the red hibachi we found at a garage sale. We had to use a brick to prop up the broken leg but it was better than depending on guys at school who would always expect some sexual favor in return for “lighting our fire” or “cooking our meat” which they said with gross intonations followed by high-fives and laughter.
I had not noticed the two truck loads of men because I was so busy stirring sauerkraut to go on the wieners, until a red and yellow Nerf ball came bouncing my direction after impact with the crippled grill.
“Not his fault,” a voice yelled from behind the wide man who would become my husband at the end of the next season.
“Of course not.” I yelled back, not able to see around the man’s chest and arms. With his puffy jacket on, I couldn’t see the lean muscle of a working man and assumed he was a stupid frat boy from some other university. He just grinned as I dropped their football onto my left toe and punted it over his head towards the sound of the voice. He didn’t even say sorry, just gave me a thumbs up. I put on an oven mitt and righted the grill, glad I hadn’t put the dogs on yet or we’d be tasting asphalt.
My girlfriends raised eyebrows at me to ask if he was cute; I made a face like who cares. Forgot about football man and concentrated on cheering my team to victory. They lost. To the Seahawks. 26-24. Missed a field goal in the last 36 seconds.
“They could have used you out there today; might have been able to get that W.” The voice behind me as I approached my car wasn’t so much startling as unexpected. “Coming back next Sunday?”
“Season tickets,” was all I said. Somehow he and some friends managed to park near us every game that season. And that first sentence was the longest one he ever uttered.
I graduated the following May and we went to every game the next season together. I was still in charge of cooking hot dogs but he bought me a bigger, more stable grill as a graduation gift. All these years, I’ve kept it in the garage, too sentimental to give it away. It still works but both boys went to colleges without teams and don’t share our passion for football. We haven’t been to a 49er game in years. After the second boy, ticket prices were ridiculous and we moved to this isolated desert town where my husband’s cousin opened a full service garage. They do engine work, body and upholstery repairs. People come from other small towns nearby because their work is so good. They take their best body designs to car shows all over California, Arizona, and Nevada. I never go. Don’t care about cars. Too busy with kids.
A crash of glass interrupts my bathroom business. Sounds like my truck. I drop the paper in a puddle of water by the tub – got to check that leak – and I am forced to flush earlier than I’d planned. I wash my hands and walk outside barefoot, still drying with a blue towel.
“Not his fault,” my oldest daughter yells. “I shouldn’t have pitched so hard.” The fouled ball has gone through the rear window of our neighbor’s car, not my truck.
I just shake my head as he inspects the damage. I can see him chatting with the neighbor who laughs it off and bats her lashes at him. She is an attractive woman in her late fifties with a reputation for wooing younger men. She’s lived in front of us ever since her husband died, but wasn’t even interested in my husband until he lost weight and stopped drinking. She thought that liquor was sinful. Ironic considering her sexual reputation. But in a small town that could all be lies, jealousy milled into a fine powder and sprinkled on the food supply like fresh ground pepper. I have never noticed real evidence of promiscuity, no strange cars or late night sneaky returns home. So unless she does it while I am at work, in broad daylight, I have no reason to believe the malicious gossip.
I walk back towards the house, looking at my watch. “Shit! Almost ten.” I kiss the girls goodbye and wave at my husband who is still at the neighbor’s doorstep waiting for a key so he can take her car to his shop – the girls can go with him and eat lunch there.
Even during winter break, I open the museum for a few hours each day. I advertise in the local paper about special holiday hours and make themed exhibits. I spend a little extra on ads in neighboring community circulars to try and attract travelers’ business. So far the only profitable gimmick was the Women of the Desert Valley Cookin’ Up A Storm collection of recipes submitted by women from churches in the area. With a few small business owners buying half page ads, the cost of printing them was covered, so all of the sales are clear profit. I still have at least two boxes I need to get rid of before they became dated. I should get one of the boys to make me one of those online accounts so I can expand my sales potential. Already, an idea for a holiday special edition is brewing in my head. Those business classes at the community college are paying off.
When we first moved here, I couldn’t see how my degree and gallery experience would ever be needed in any job, so while raising the two boys, I took night classes in accounting and marketing, thinking they would be helpful to the new car business venture, but the cousin had old-fashioned ideas about the role of women – he was stuck in the 1950s. I soon learned most men and women here were. Lucky for me the town historian passed away. I sold myself to the city council as qualified to run the non-profit museum.
I busy myself with the mail, then dust and straighten the three permanent exhibits. Outside the front of the museum, I hear the clatter of metal and a child crying. I rush towards it in case anyone is hurt.
“Not his fault,” a mother in fake fur sings out as she watches her young boy pick up the bag of pots and pans he’s just refilled. “I make him carry too much. Making our donation to the Goodwill. You work there?” She motions to the museum with her head.
I extend my hand. “Jeanette Richter.
She leans away from me. “Nails still tacky.” She wiggles her bright pink acrylic fingertips. “Nice to meet you.” She wiggles them again over her shoulder and follows her son to the donation center and thrift store at the end of the block. Only then did I notice her three-inch spiked-heel boots and terribly short fuchsia skirt. I look down at my jeans and white canvas sneakers. Much more practical and comfortable.
The phone rings inside so I prop open the front door and run back to get it, still blinking back the almost neon brightness of the woman’s skirt and nails. “Hello? Oh, Desert Valley Historical Society and Museum. How may I help you?” Calls come in so rarely, I don’t know why I developed such an elaborate greeting, but one of the keys to growing a business is a professional presence. The same must apply to maintaining a non-profit.
“Mom, we’re hungry,” whines the voice on the other end. “Why didn’t you take us with you?” The house phone clatters to the counter as one daughter wrestles it from another.
“Yeah, mom. There’s no more bread here for us to make ourselves sandwiches like dad said.”
Bread. Got to add that to my grocery list. “Why didn’t you go with your dad?” I demand, a little annoyed to be disrupted, even though I’m not doing much. “You broke the window. You should be helping him. Besides, I thought you guys liked that hamburger stand next to the shop better than the taco place across the street from me.” I look out my window and notice it’s closed. Probably all week. The Diaz family must have gone away for the holidays. My own stomach protests loudly. It is almost two. “Okay girls, I’ll close up and be there in a few minutes.”
We could all go get burgers and then I could leave them there to play while I got groceries. What was he thinking leaving them at home alone?
I grab my notepad with holiday fundraising ideas and the envelope with government grant lists then turn the open sign around.
The girls and I pull up on the side of the garage next to the large open door just as our neighbor sits up from the back seat of her car and takes off her blouse. I hand my older daughter a twenty and wave her across the street.
The neighbor’s bright pink lipstick is smeared and she is too busy to notice me.
I walk inside, feet not cooperating. The static under the local radio station playing too loud tickles my ears. I smell her musky perfume over the motor oil and paint fumes. She finally sees me when I stop, inches away from her car’s hood. She reaches down to tap something I can’t see. That thing is my husband who glistens with her juices and whose eyes I no longer recognize. He says nothing. Just wipes his mouth and follows her out of the back seat.
Behind her open car door, she adjusts her skirt down and pulls her blouse closed before walking past me to the bathroom. She mumbles, “It’s not his fault.” But cuts herself off by biting her own lip and scurrying out of my sight.
He slowly zips and buttons, not looking at me and not bothering to tuck in the denim workshirt I had just washed the day before.
I stand there, blinking, not sure what to say. The rhetoric of women’s lib has long since left my lips. I am a wife and mother and this is my life now – for better or for worse.
He walks towards me, pausing for a drink from the now flat coke sitting on the shelf next to the tools. “Where are the girls?”
I cannot answer; I just point across the street, grateful for the protection of the corrugated blue metal wall. They don’t need to know this man.
“Want me to take them home?” he asks. “Or are you staying to eat with them?”
I stop mid blink and keep my eyes open, tilting my head and still unable to answer.
The neighbor chooses that moment to walk out of the bathroom with her face back to its normal beauty. Only then do I notice, close up, how old she is under the foundation and powder, eyeliner and shadow. She has reshaped her bright lips with two shades of waxy pencil – the darker on the outside but some of the lighter still bleeds into her long crevices of age.
I step towards her, ignoring my husband’s question, swallow the saliva that has built up in my mouth, and ask, “Do you have children?” I have never seen any visit or heard of any estranged. After all these years of ignoring her to avoid reputation by association, I really want to know more than her name and that she subscribes to Martha Stewart’s Living magazine which is often mis-delivered to our house by the ancient mail carrier who gets rural routes. She barely nods and holds up one finger in an awkward attempt to answer. The nail polish of her carefully manicured finger reminds me of the woman outside the museum. I hate pink. And I thought my husband did too.
“It’s not his fault,” she repeats, barely audible above the still too loud radio. I expect some lame confession about how she seduces men, about how the pink paint is an aphrodisiac. Instead she steps away from me to be closer to him and without touching him, possesses him – claims ownership of the 25 years I worked on our home, our children, our life together. She blames me.
I flash on an image of her in a 49er sweatshirt that was once his, wearing a smile that was once mine, and trying to reclaim her own child, her own happy family.
It makes me sad and relieved at the same time. “It’s not his fault?” I exit the open door calmly, as expected. The padlock is hanging open on the metal clasp. I swiftly pull the door, flop the clasp over, and padlock it shut.
Rummaging through my purse, I hear him tell her I will get over it. That I always do. I find the metal mint tin that holds one of the last cigarettes from his quit pack. I kept it to occasionally inhale fresh tobacco; kept one match for the faint scent of sulfur. I miss that husband.
She pounds on the closed door and shouts my name.
I open the valve on the propane tank adjacent to the building. Ignoring her shouts that it isn’t funny, I force a laugh loud enough for them both to hear. I walk over to the pump at the side of the shop and release a stream of gasoline between me and them. Just like I’d seen on some movie, I step away a little and light my match. I take a long drag on the cigarette and watch it burn. The match fizzles before it hits the ground, but the cherry left on the cigarette was enough to ignite the fuel and induce the propane explosion.
“It’s not his fault,” I repeat. And I walk across the street to have lunch with my daughters.