ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NORTHERN MICHIGAN JOURNAL
It all began sometime in late July, on one of those nights so hot and humid and still that the only thing that differentiates it from the day is the fact that it’s dark. We had had one of my favorite meals, chili so hot it makes you weep with cornbread so moist you barely need to dunk it in your bowl.
“It’s too damn hot for chili and besides, it makes you restless,” she had complained even as she browned the beef.
“A little more cayenne,” I pleaded. “Makes you sweat.”
It did make me sweat as I lay there in a moist dark too hot for any fan to dispel, and restless too. For hours I drifted in and out of sleep till finally it became too much and I padded out to the kitchen. I thought maybe a cold sandwich and then I’d head down to the lake for a swim.
I munched the turkey, cheddar and mustard without much pleasure and wandered out into the backyard. I found her there, standing silent in the corner by the rose bushes and staring at the sky.
“Too hot to sleep?” I asked. She just gave me a long look and went back inside.
It was a month or two later that I started to suspect. Dinner had been brocolli casserole with Waldorf salad. Leftovers again, but I’ve always said that I’d rather have her leftovers than any other woman’s first attempt.
I put the kids to bed and stayed up reading a fishing book. I’ve never been a fishermen, but it seems like there’s something about fishing that makes a man a hell of a good writer. She came in late, much later than expected. I asked her how things had gone and she replied in that distracted way she does when she’s thinking about something other than the matter at hand. She’d decided to go for a long walk on the beach and lost track of time, she said, but a pinching at the corner of her eyes told me that there was something more.
I found out what that something more was in early October. I don’t know the exact date but it was sometime around the second week because the sugar maples that day had been that impossible shade of orange you only find around the peak of the color season. We had just finished our harvest dinner, with carrots, sweet potatos, onions and string beans from our garden surrounding a plump pheasant I’d somehow managed to bring down.
The kids were at Grandma’s and I was looking forward to a night of quiet passion in front of the fire as I poured us each a second glass of wine. When you’ve got small children, those rare evenings with just the two of you are more precious than gold. I found her, not in front of the fireplace watching the flames but seated on the couch with her face cradled in both hands and shoulders shaking.
“What’s wrong, Honey?” I said.
“Just hold me,” she replied.
Those who know me well name me a thoughtful man. Perhaps a trifle slow to get an idea, but just as slow to let it go. I worried that idea like our dog worries a soup bone and slowly, late in many nights, the story emerged.
She’d seen the lights that summer. First in her dreams and then that night in the yard. They made her feel restless and sleep became harder and harder for her. One night she’d been driving and the lights followed. She’d wanted to get home and was terribly scared but another part of her took over and told her to face up to whatever this was.
She pulled the car to an empty street end by the lake, got out and waited. The lights had gone and so had all the kids who watch the sunset, smoke cigarettes and drink their parents’ beer. Her fear had left her, she said, leaving a kind of peace so she went down to the shoreline and took off her shoes. As she slowly walked in the hard sand at the water’s edge, past dark houses so expensive that you can’t even afford one if you live here, the lights came back.
Some people see saucers and some little gray men with big black eyes. Not her. It was, she said, just lights. They came closer and closer, reflecting in the calm water and filling her with wonder until they finally went away and left her feeling somehow emptied.
She took to driving late, inventing new organizations to join and forgetting about cleaning or laundry for days at a time. I hadn’t noticed, I said. “I know,” she replied with a tiny smile.
She finally left me just before Thanksgiving and no one else’s turkey will ever be as moist, no mashed potatos ever so light, no pumpkin pie ever good enough. I begged her not to go and, failing that, to take me and the kids along with her. She had only smiled in that small and sad way and said that the community she was going to in Arizona wouldn’t be a good place for the kids.
“Besides,” she murmured, patting my cheek fondly, “Everyone there eats a carefully balanced macrobiotic diet that wouldn’t agree with you.”
I ended up having to take a job tending bar four nights a week at the Hungry Sparrow. The folks there know me and let me take off suddenly when the kids need something and besides, they have the best food in town.
Early winter evenings when I don’t work are the hardest. I miss seeing her face there in the light over the sink, smelling her as she leans across me to set a steaming platter upon the table and holding her as we stand together washing up the dishes. My own cooking is getting better and the kids are healthy and growing, but dinnertime is a just pale shadow of what it once was.
-by andrew l mcfarlane