by Roger Poppen
Roger Poppen took up creative writing after retiring as a professor of behavior analysis. He has published one novel, Mister Lucky, and several shorter works in online and print magazines, including Flashquake, Insolent Rudder, Long Story Short, Skyline, and Ducts. More of his work may be seen at http://mypage.siu.edu/drrock/.
"This new guy we hired, he really bugs me," Alicia said to her husband at breakfast.
Ralph looked up from his newspaper and turned down the volume of Morning Edition on the radio. "What?"
"This new guy, Tom. He's driving me nuts."
"How so?" Ralph sipped his coffee, wiped his mustache with a forefinger.
"He's so, I don't know, military. He's retired Air Force, you know. It's like he wants orders. 'What's the priority?' he says when I give him some things to do. What do I know the priority is? Just do them."
"I can see how that could be a problem," Ralph said.
"Well, what should I tell him?"
Ralph took another sip, another swipe at his mustache. A few hairs from his nostrils merged with the mustache. Alicia had to remind him constantly to trim the hair in his nose and ears. And his eyebrows — he was getting to the age where his eyebrows sprouted like tentacles. With a beard and mustache, he didn't have to examine his face in a shaving mirror every morning. Mushrooms could grow on his forehead overnight and he wouldn't notice.
Ralph said, "Why not give him the job of coming up with a checklist for deciding priorities. You've always done things intuitively, based on knowing people personally. Let him come up with a bureaucratic system. His military background should be good for that."
Alicia rose to fetch more coffee. "I suppose I could give it a try," she said.
Ralph turned up the radio volume and folded the newspaper to the crossword puzzle.
Another time, Alicia said, "This guy, Tom, is always bragging how fit he is. It's irritating."
"Like what?" Ralph asked.
"You know, what his 10K time is — he runs every day, rain or shine. How many push-ups he can do. What am I, his mother? Supposed to give him a gold star or something? What do I care that he can still meet military fitness requirements?"
Tom did have a nice tan. And his stomach was flat, she could see, where his shirt tucked neatly into his sharply creased trousers. Ralph was in good shape — for a college professor in his fifties. He rode his bicycle to his office in the History Department, weather permitting, and three times a week he went in early to swim at the university pool. But with his growing paunch and pointy man-tits on his chalky white chest, he was no athlete.
"Maybe he thinks of you as his commanding officer," said Ralph. "Or maybe he's trying to impress you with his manliness."
She looked sharply at her husband. He wore his usual bland expression, not like he was teasing or concerned about a rival. Just analyzing the situation in his usual rational way.
Alicia began skipping lunch and going to the university fitness center to walk around the indoor track. Then she got a locker for exercise clothes and started using the weight machines, showering afterward. She had worked out a little after Zach was born, but that was fourteen years ago. It was time she started taking better care of herself.
One day, she asked Tom about exercises for upper arms, the loose part that hangs down when you hold your arm out straight. Tom went on and on, like he was the world's greatest fitness guru. Alicia regretted asking. She nodded and said, "I'll try that," when he paused.
His know-it-all attitude was irritating, but she didn't mention it to Ralph this time. In the course of his explanations, Tom had squeezed her upper arms and shoulders, had taken her wrist and flexed her arm back and forth. Except for Ralph and her doctor, she could not recall the last time a man had touched her. Not that Tom's touch had been sensual or anything, but its uniqueness startled her.
When spring came, Alicia had to buy new clothes a size smaller, her skirts a little shorter, her slacks a little tighter. Ralph sometimes said she looked nice and even noticed, without prompting, when she had her hair restyled.
She continued to complain about Tom because he really could be aggravating. "He's like a little boy. We're ordering new equipment and he's all pouty because I won't get him the biggest, fastest computer, with all the bells and whistles."
Ralph murmured something sympathetic but seemed to tune out her office talk.
By now, of course, she'd gotten involved with Tom. The first time, it had just happened. They were working together on some new installations in the wire closet, a small, locked space where all the computer connections were housed. It had been insane: standing up, sweating, bumping into equipment tables. Her legs trembled for hours afterward. She had phoned Ralph and told him there were problems with the servers and she had to work late. Could he get dinner for Zach and make sure he did his homework? No problem.
When school let out for summer, they went to the ocean shore for two weeks. Alicia always had been the social planner, finding interesting places to visit, activities for Zach, restaurants to try. This time, her heart wasn't in it. Zach was old enough to fend for himself and Ralph was content to broil in a beach chair with a book. She found herself wondering what Tom was doing.
One evening, to her surprise, Ralph said, "Come on, let's go for a walk and watch the sunset." He held her hand as they strolled along the water's edge, their bare feet leaving prints that were quickly erased by the whispering sea. A salt-scented breeze blew away the heat of the day.
A small child was playing, squatting in that flexible way that toddlers have, batting at the water and squealing in delight. She wore a tiny, two-piece suit of pink ruffles that showed off her round belly, her arms and legs like little brown sausages.
"Ooh, she's adorable," exclaimed Alicia. She tugged at Ralph's arm to get him to look. "Isn't she just adorable?" She turned to the parents, sitting nearby. "She's beautiful! What's her name?"
"Eva," said the mother.
"Eva," repeated Alicia. "That's a perfect name. What a perfect child." The mother nodded and smiled. Ralph stood patiently, looking out at the horizon as if calculating the earth's curvature. The sun, a red ball, began its descent into the ocean.
Alicia took his hand and they started back toward the cottage under a glowing sky of pink and orange. "Let's have another baby," she said suddenly. "I just love little babies, their tiny fingers and toes." She caught his look, as if she'd suggested they get tattoos. "We could, you know, we really could. Women my age have babies all the time now." She was ten years younger than Ralph and it probably was, biologically speaking, possible.
They walked on a short distance, then Ralph said, "I wouldn't want to have to deal with a teen-ager when I'm seventy."
Anger bubbled up inside her like a shaken bottle of soda. "That's it, huh? End of discussion? You don't want to deal with a teen-ager!" Of course he was right. The risks, the costs, the imposition; a baby at their age was absurd. But the fact that he couldn't indulge her fantasy, couldn't let her think about a different life for even one minute, stung like a slap. She stopped, her eyes filling with tears.
"What?" he said, turning to face her. "I can't believe you're serious."
She just shook her head and waved her hand, as if brushing away a gnat. "It's okay. You go on back and check on Zach. I just want to stay out a little longer."
"Zach's fine. I'll stay with you." Ralph squinted at her in the waning light. "Do you really want to discuss having a baby?" The incredulous tone was still there.
"No, really, go on back. I'm good. I'd like to be by myself a while."
Ralph gave her a quizzical look, shrugged, and walked up the beach.
The College of Science had a lot of trouble with its computer servers that summer. Alicia frequently had to stay late in order to work out the inevitable bugs that occurred with a new system. Tom probably told his wife the same thing. Alicia often did not come home until two or three in the morning, slipping silently between the sheets, hardly interrupting Ralph's snoring. Then she would sleep past noon.
At the end of summer term, Tom and his family went on vacation. It was poor planning to let him have that particular time off, since the week before classes began was a madhouse. Faculty waited until the last minute to put their syllabi online, update lab protocols, and a thousand other things, bombarding Alicia with endless stupid questions. Her nerves were more frayed than the squid axons in the Physiology Department freezer.
The first day of fall semester, Tom returned to announce, "Rested and ready for duty." Indeed, he was tanner and leaner, his teeth shone white when he smiled, and his chin dimple winked.
"Thank God! This place is a zoo." Alicia almost cried with relief.
"What's the first priority?" Tom asked.
She shuffled through stacks of papers on her desk: computer printouts, backs of envelopes, post-it notes. "Here," she said, pulling out a legal pad. Faculty names were listed, with little scribbled notations. "Start at the top, give 'em a call and see what they still need. Check back with me at noon."
Tom returned promptly at twelve, carrying a sack of deli sandwiches and sodas. "Figured we'd have a working lunch," he said.
After they'd eaten and prioritized the tasks for the coming week, Tom pulled his chair to the side of Alicia's desk and looked at her with great solemnity. "Alicia, I think we need to talk about, you know, what we've been doing."
The food in her stomach congealed into a bowling ball. She nodded and tried to relax her face. "Sure, Tom. Let's talk."
"Well, I've been thinking. A lot. And I just don't feel that we should, you know, keep seeing each other like we have."
"Why not?" The question was out before she could stop it.
"Well, I think Emily might be a little suspicious. Nothing in particular, but, I don't know, I'm worried she might find out. Woman's intuition or something." He laughed. Alicia nodded for him to continue. "And I'm, well, I'm just not feeling right about it. It's great when we're together and all, but then afterwards — I don't know how to explain it." He shrugged and shook his head, looking like Zach trying to explain a bad grade at school.
Her cheeks grew hot for a moment and then a cold weight compressed her chest. Alicia sighed. "I understand, Tom, I've been thinking a lot about the situation myself." Which was true, only she had not come to the same conclusion. "And I suppose you're right. This could only lead to trouble."
There was so much to be done at the start of another academic year, enough work for ten people, and Alicia grew more weary by the day. Tom was pleasant enough, acting as though nothing had happened between them. But his fussy nitpicking became ever more bothersome. Alicia began going to work later and later so she wouldn't have to deal with him. She would get up when Zach got home from school, fix him a snack, and drop him off for soccer practice on her way to the office, returning home after midnight. She told Ralph it was easier to get things done at night, when everyone was gone.
On the occasions when Ralph would cuddle up to her in bed, his hands were cold, his toenails scratched, his breath stank. "I'm just so tired all the time, totally exhausted," she said. Even when she slept until late afternoon, she felt fatigued the moment she opened her eyes.
Depression, the doctor said, maybe pre-menopause hormonal changes. Fortunately, there were many medications to try, drugs with names beginning with a Z or an X. "If you could get one with both an X and a Z, it should be twice as good," Ralph joked. It wasn't funny.
The College of Liberal Arts Winter Holiday Party was held off-campus in a hotel banquet room, permitting liquor to be served and Christmas decorations to be displayed. Ralph felt it was his duty to put in an appearance even though Alicia was too tired to go.
"That's terrible, Ralphie. You poor man," said Denise.
Denise was a secretary in the Foreign Languages Department. She had green eyes and short-cropped red hair that showed off dangly earrings of tiny Christmas ornaments. Very festive. They sat in a quiet corner at a small table decorated with glittery pine cones and holly leaves. Ralph was not much of a drinker but he had opted for the spiked punch. He rather enjoyed its fruity taste, the warm flush it produced, the airy feeling behind his eyes. Denise had told him something about her divorce and he had said something about his situation at home. She reached across the table and stroked his knuckles with her soft fingertips.
Ralph drove slowly through the icy dawn, trying to think of a story. Alicia should be asleep, but what if she wasn't? What if she'd stayed up all night? Even if she had gone to bed, she'd know he'd been out all night.
Okay. He'd gotten too drunk to drive and decided to get a room for the night. He never got drunk. But this time he did — the punch had sneaked up on him. That much was true, more or less. But why didn't he have someone drive him home? He didn't want any of his colleagues to know he'd overindulged. Why didn't he call? He did call but the line was busy; Zach was always on the phone and he couldn't get through. No, that was too flimsy. Then Ralph remembered, the room wasn't on his credit card. Denise had gotten it. Denise was generous, giving in so many different ways. And she'd like to see him again. Was that all she wanted, an occasional roll and tickle? Was that all he wanted? Even if he could get away with it this time, was it worth the risk?
The house was silent. He peeked into Zach's room. His son was asleep in a tangle of blankets. Ralph made a pot of coffee and started a crossword puzzle. When Zach got up, Ralph fixed his breakfast and drove him to a friend's house. When he returned, Alicia, in robe and nightgown, was sitting at the kitchen table.
Her face was stone, a fixed mask of scorn, as he told her. He'd had too much to drink, a woman was kind to him, it had been so long since he'd felt any tenderness, he was weak, he was sorry, he loved Zach, he loved her, he'd do anything to make it up, he'd never do it again, he was so sorry.
He hadn't known what to expect, but Alicia's rage was staggering. She screamed until she was hoarse, calling him the vilest names. She slapped his face, pounded his chest, and then collapsed, sobbing, on the floor.
It may have been catharsis, Ralph thought, or like shock treatment they used to employ for depression. Or maybe Alicia valued him more knowing he was, however briefly, attractive to another woman. Whatever the case, she seemed to have snapped out of it and was much sweeter towards him. He didn't tell Denise this part.
"So you actually confessed? Told her you had a one-night stand?" Denise asked.
"Yeah, she was furious," Ralph said. "But we decided to stick it out, you know, for Zach's sake." He sighed heavily. "It's rough, but what am I supposed to do?"
"Poor Ralphie," said Denise. "Come here. I'll make you feel better."
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