Sue and Frank
Some people keep on smiling, even as their dreams are shattered. Other people never quite pick up the pieces. Finding your way between those two extremes might be the toughest choice of all.
"What do you mean you lost your wedding ring?" said Sue Davidson to her husband Frank. Their car idled beside the arrivals curb at terminal B of Newark Airport. Two minutes before, Frank had emerged from the sliding doors, tossed his tidy suit bag into the back seat of their Accord, piled into the front and announced without so much as a prologue that he had lost his wedding ring somewhere in Washington, D.C. sometime during the last four days. Now he sat looking across at his wife, the thin angular lines of his red face heightened by the crisp folds of his London Fog raincoat. The bustle and excitement of travel which he brought into the car was at odds with Susan's mood.
"Yeah, it was the damnedest thing. Right in the middle of my big meeting with Thompson, I looked down and it was gone." He held his left hand up, fingers outstretched in a number five gesture. Sure enough, there was no ring, though Sue fancied she could make out the indentation in the skin of his finger as though he had just now taken it off.
"I can't believe it!" she said.
"Well, you don't have to look like that. I didn't mean to lose it." Frank had adopted the managerial tone he had acquired through years of supervising large office staffs.
"It's just that, well, I just can't believe you didn't notice something."
"Honey, do you, ah, think we could get going? I'm kind of tired and I'd like a shower before bed."
Sue jammed the gear shift into drive and lurched away from the curb. Instinctively, Frank glanced over his left shoulder to check the traffic. Fine, thought Sue, he goes away for four days on a business trip -- which seemed to be getting more frequent all the time -- and now he was going to shower for thirty minutes and then pile into bed with a report or some fat, slick trade magazine. No doubt about it, an hour after they got home he'd be snoring away. Never mind what she might want once in a while.
"Strange as it sounds," he said, "I didn't notice it until I was in that meeting with Thompson. I said 'Jesus, I've lost my wedding ring!' and she said -- "
"She?" said Sue.
"Yeah. Thompson. Janet Thompson from our Washington office. I'm sure I've told you about her before."
"Oh, well," she muttered. "I guess you did." Big fluffy snowflakes had started to fall, turning to water the instant they hit the windshield just in time to be swept away by the wipers. Sue felt her mind become clouded and jumbled. Her emotions swarmed and crowded together like an angry, volatile mob. Certainly she felt no jealousy about Frank's meeting with this Thompson. (Was it some new business convention to refer to female colleagues by their last names? It sounded so efficient and powerful.) He worked with women every day. No, what really galled her was the thought of this other woman, well- dressed, confident, successful, knowing something intimate about their marriage while Sue whistled away in her fool's paradise. She could imagine the show of sympathy and concern this hard-nosed, corporate-climbing career woman had displayed while to herself she laughed at the pathetic wife, off somewhere blissfully ignorant, powerless, forgotten.
Frank kept on blathering: "She said, 'Well, you have to find it, that's all there is to it.' "
"How kind of her," said Sue.
"I thought so," said Frank.
"So we got the check right away and -- "
"What, were you at lunch?"
"Dinner," said Frank. "And I went straight back to my room and searched high and low. I even went back to the bar where I had stopped for a cocktail that evening, and also the hotel restaurant. Nada. Of course, my room had been cleaned by then. I figured that if housekeeping had gotten hold of it, good luck ever seeing that ring again."
Good old Frank. When his pal Stan got caught cheating the IRS and went to that country club prison upstate, Frank had been really pissed. But when it came to hired help, they weren't to be trusted. To hear Frank, you'd think the blue collar of the world were just waiting to steal the dirt out from under your fingernails, though there'd be slim pickings from Frank in that department.
"So that's it?" said Sue as they pulled onto the northbound turnpike. The snow was coming down harder and cars had begun to slow down. The landscape had begun to take on a steely gray aspect, and the mirror-like slickness of the pavement reflected the red tail lights of thousands of commuters headed home.
"What else can I say, honey? You know how much that ring meant to me. I wouldn't have lost it for the world."
He had dropped the managerial tone now and fallen back on his old standby Mr. Charm voice that he had always used to such advantage, especially with Sue. Frank could charm piss out of a snake when he wanted to.
"But you did lose it. I just can't believe it."
"What do you want me to do?" said Frank. "I'm sorry, okay? I lost the ring. I didn't want to lose it. It just happened. I'll get another, I promise."
Case closed. Debit recorded in the unrecoverable loss column. Dead letter file. Sue opened her mouth, then closed it again. What more could she say?
"Good thing we'll be home before the snow gets bad," said Frank with forced cheerfulness. "I hate to drive in the snow."
"You're not driving, Frank. I am," said Sue flatly. They rode in silence the rest of the way home.
Lately, Sue had acquired the habit of waking in the middle of the night and wandering around the house poking into this and that, doing nothing in particular. She told herself that she delighted in the pleasant perversity of being awake when the rest of the world slept, but the truth was she felt more comfortable and secure in the wee hours. Sue found herself increasingly overwhelmed with the small things in life. She felt that she literally had to hold on for dear life as the Earth careened through space. When the world was quiet and still and asleep, at those times and those times alone, Sue felt like she was in control of something, that the progress of time was slowed down to a speed she could manage.
Also, the big modern house that Frank had insisted on buying over her objections seemed cold to the point of being alien during the day. (She would have preferred something more Victorian that she could decorate with baskets of potpourri, stencilled wall paper and lots of duck decoys and antiques.) But at night the house seemed softer and more comfortable.
She poured a glass of red wine and wandered into the study and looked until she found the photo album that had the pictures of her wedding. She took this into the living room, set her wine on the glass coffee table and burrowed down into the deep cushions of their sectional sofa.
Had it been ten years already? Of course, she had gained some weight. How could she not? Sitting around the house all day. Oh, well she kept busy enough between volunteering at the library, church activities, and with her friends. But there was no real need to work. Frank had discouraged it, in fact, not because he didn't feel it was proper but because it screwed up their income tax bracket or something.
She never had thought she would be a housewife. She always dreaded the thought of that. When she met Frank she had just gone back to school to work on a masters in psychology, but she never finished. Before that, she worked at a number of odd jobs that never seemed to amount to anything.
She found herself wishing idly for children, but the day for that had also come and gone. She married Frank when she was in her early thirties. There was still time then, and they talked about it often, but the time never seemed to be right and year had followed year and here she was in her early forties. Technically, she could still consider the possibility, but in truth, the idea had stopped appealing to her the way it once did. If things seemed too complicated without kids, what would it be like with? Anyway, she didn't want to be sixty with a child in high school.
As she stared one by one at the pictures, a thought began to present itself. Not a new thought to her, but expressed with more clarity and force than before: it wasn't supposed to be this way. She had agreed to a different set of conditions ten years before. She had signed onto a different agenda. Frank was a business major who was going to make enough to keep them fed and clothed and spend the rest of his time playing bass with a rock and roll band that he and his friends kept trying to start. That dream lasted exactly one month and one gig and then fell to pieces when Interworld had called and recruited him straight from college.
"Still up?" said Frank from the hall door. He stood in his pajamas and robe, well-dressed even in the middle of the night. He squinted into the lighted room, his eyes adjusting to the light.
"Up again," Sue answered. She took a sip of the wine. The crystal was cold against her lips, but the wine felt round and warm as it rolled across her tongue. She expected Frank would turn and go back to bed, but instead he crossed the white pile carpet and settled beside her on the sofa. Why did he seem to be growing thinner over the years as she grew more plump? The question mystified more than annoyed her.
"I'm sorry about the ring," he said.
"Oh, it's okay. I made too much of it."
"No you didn't. It was stupid of me."
"Let's not talk about it anymore," she said. After a moment she said, "Frank?"
"Let's get in the car and drive."
He looked surprised. "Where do you want to go?"
"Nowhere in particular. Everywhere. Don't you remember when we used to talk about driving across the country? Let's do it now. We could go down south. I've never been down there. It's slower and calmer there. We won't take any interstates, just country roads. We'll stop at every general store and main street diner we come to. We'll buzz into each town, buy postcards and buzz out. We'll stay in tacky tourist courts and stop at the historical markers. We'll go to McDonald's and buy two coffees, fill up the thermos and then get refills for the road."
Sue became animated as she talked, but Frank just forced a thin half smile and said, "You're kidding, right?"
"No," said Sue, shaking her head. "I'm not."
"But, honey. I have a job. I couldn't just walk out. I have appointments. I have at least ten clients coming in this week. I'd love to take a vacation. Really. How about next summer? I'll put in a leave request now. But not on the spur of the moment."
Sue nodded and took another sip from her wine. For no good reason, she felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to ask her husband if he had slept with anyone else since they were married. She fought down the urge. Partly because she had made a promise to herself years before that she would never ask. Partly because she knew the answer would depress her no matter what it was. But mostly she realized that to even want to ask the question at all meant that some profound circumstance had changed in a way that made the answer irrelevant.
She nodded again and said, "Yeah, maybe in the summer. It's too cold now anyway."
The next morning, after Sue had dropped Frank at the station to join the other commuters who stood hunched in their long, thick clothes on the platform, their breath turning into tiny clouds in the frozen air, she went home and packed an overnight bag.
She made a pot of coffee and took it to the kitchen table. She gathered up paper and a pen and sat at the table under a heart carved in the high-backed, Dutch-style bench, the most old-fashioned furnishing in the house and her favorite place to sit. She drank coffee and wrote a note to Frank. She wrote that she was leaving and taking the car. He'd get along without it and seldom drove it anyway. She also wrote that she would probably be back, though as she did, she wondered if this were true.
She reread the note. It didn't express her feelings, but it would do. She had a second cup of coffee and wondered vaguely where she would spend the night. She didn't have much cash, but plenty of credit cards and that would hold her for a while.
Finally, she got up and rinsed her cup and put it in the drainer. She put the note on the countertop and gathered up all her bulky winter clothes that she liked so much because they were comforting and because they hid her figure. She took her old sleeping bag, too. She hadn't used it in years, but you never know when you might need a sleeping bag.
As she pulled the front door to, she saw that the mailman had been by already. Compulsively, she took the mail from the box and looked to see if anything had come for her. There was a Land's End catalog, another from Victoria's Secret (Frank had even stopped enjoying those), a bill from New Jersey Bell, an fat envelope of coupons, and a small, oddly bulky envelope from the hotel where Frank had stayed in Washington.
She didn't have to open the envelope to know what was inside. She could even feel the outline of the ring through the paper. She stood for several minutes holding the envelope, letting the significance of it flood over her. She considered her choices. The fact of the envelope and her absolute control of it filled her with an excitement that seemed out of proportion to its importance.
Finally, she jammed the envelope into the pocket of her coat. She stuffed the rest of the mail back into the mailbox and turned to lock the front door. She walked carefully down the front steps and out to the car. The snow continued to fall, and she noticed where her earlier footsteps had already been filled in by a new carpet of flakes. Pretty soon they would be invisible, as though she had never walked there at all.
She threw her things in a messy heap in the back seat and set out for the highway. She felt good as she thought about the ring in her pocket and the security it gave her -- like a tiny golden life raft.
Mark Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)
InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Mark Smith.