He pulled up to the house in his Cadillac. He parked it on the street and checked the carport to make sure she wasn’t home. He caressed the car as he left it, filled with pride that it was his, reveling in the fact that while she would have fought against its purchase, she no longer had that power. He glanced at the house, showing the years of neglect, the after effects of his departure. He felt no remorse, no sense of responsibility. If he felt anything, it was a sense of disgust at how easily she’d let the house fall into a state of disrepair. She lived there, not he, it was not his job to clean the siding, lay the mulch, rake the leaves. He thought about how grateful she should feel that he was taking care of the lawn. He hadn’t lived there for 2 years, he lived with someone else, he took care of her house now. He almost turned and left, as he recalled with disgust how little gratitude she felt towards him and the work he put into mowing the lawn. Shouldn’t she thank him? As he pondered leaving, he remembered that he had just repaired the tractor, his beloved tractor, and now was his chance to ride it again.
He trudged down the hill to the shed he’d built years before. He was relieved that he had taken his tractor to be repaired. Taking care of the acre of land, filled with steep hills and odd terrain, had been extremely difficult and time consuming with the push mower and, while he had the right to refuse to do it, this might signal his new girl of what was in store for her. Taking care of the lawn was the right move to make. It was the visual he relied on to make sure everyone around him saw him for the great guy and doting father and spouse he claimed to be. Now, with the tractor repaired, he easily took care of the acre of bumps and hills and unusable land while planning his next moves. His life was a game of chess, and he never lost. He always called checkmate, and now was no different. He had an hour now, all by himself riding his tractor, lost in his thoughts, planning his next move.
As he approached the shed he couldn’t help but recall the time he had spent building it. He admired his workmanship. She had been on bedrest with their 3rd child, and building the shed was the perfect excuse to ignore her. Of course he couldn’t be expected to work, build the shed they so desperately needed, AND take care of her. It was a ridiculous thought, and he was pleased to have created this project to divert her attention from how little he thought about her. It was a well built shed, designed to be moveable. At least that’s what he told her when she expressed doubt about its placement. She wanted it to behind the carport, where they would both have access to it. She was too sick to make the trek down the back hill to the edge of the woods, so a shed in that place was beyond her reach. As with most of what he had done during their marriage, he had planned this ahead of time, and he had won, placing it down the back hill at the edge of the woods. Of course he had prevailed -he was the one doing the work, it was to be His shed and she had no right to comment on its placement. Rather than negotiate, he told her it would be moveable, so if the location proved untenable, he’d move it. This was a lie, and he chuckled to himself at her gullibility. He had shown her how he built it on cinder blocks, with a solid floor that could easily be chained to a pickup truck and pulled up the back hill if necessary. He wondered if she understood how ludicrous a claim this had been, then decided it was a waste of valuable time, pondering such inconsequential issues when there was so much more he needed to think about.
He started up the tractor and rode it down the ramp through the double doors he had carefully designed for just this purpose. Again, he admired his ability to spin a story, explaining away the necessity of double doors without revealing his plan to purchase the tractor. He had learned how to get his way over the years, and he knew a time would present itself in which she had no energy to deny him what he longed for. When it was time, she’d given up her arguments of the excessive amount of time he’d spend on the tractor, the dangerousness of the landscape, the money necessary to purchase and maintain it. As always, he won, and despite her years of protest, he had his tractor. He set off, relieved that he would be done the lawn quickly, with little damage to his clothes, and just the right amount of sweat to test his new girl’s devotion to him by pulling her close when he returned home, making sure she accepted him in any state he presented himself, testing her to make sure she felt no disgust at his odor.
He thought back to the 3 years before, when he had finally admitted how terrifying it was to drive that tractor down the steep back hill. She was lying in her hospital bed, ready to be wheeled off to surgery, and he got there just in time. Right before she was taken away he sat on the edge of the bed and, in his best Cary Grant voice said “I have to confess something”. After enjoying the puzzled and terrified look on her face he said “you were right; I never should have bought that tractor. Every time I drive it down that back hill I’m convinced it will flip over and I’ll be killed underneath it”. She laughed. That had been his purpose; to make her laugh, to show others he could make her laugh, to prove to those watching that he was the loving husband, always there for his wife, willing to admit his mistakes, sending her off to surgery with a smile on her face. As with all of his plans, he was successful. As she was wheeled away, she did smile. Those around him also smiled, and they admired his suave and loving approach towards her; his willingness to admit his mistakes, to prove he was a reasonable man. Once out of sight, he walked away, knowing he had hours to kill before he’d have to be back to talk to the surgeon.
Things so often went his way that he left the hospital with a slight grin, confident, as her Doctor had said, that it would be time to “prepare for the worst”. This would be the ultimate checkmate, made even better because it required no work on his part. She would die, and he’d have the life he’d so often dreamed of: her life insurance, his freedom. He couldn’t have planned it better, and he knew that if others understood his disgust towards her, they might view this as a stroke of good luck. In his mind, this was simply nothing less than what he deserved, what was so obviously due him.
He spent the morning with his girlfriend. When he told her he had to go to get the surgeon’s report, he put just the right emphasis on each word, proving to her that he was a doting, reliable, long suffering husband, forced to stand by his sick wife’s side because of his religious convictions, his steadfast nature. Driving back to the hospital that day he marveled at how readily women believed him, how easy it was to convince them he was something he was not. He also hoped the news would be bad. He couldn’t imagine any other scenario, having been assured that her cancer was bad, that she had little chance of long term survival. He was giddy with hope.
On this spring day, as he relived these memories, he noticed that the ground was still damp from the morning dew, and he slipped a bit as he walked down the hill. It occurred to him that it might be foolish to choose this time of day to mow the lawn, but he had plans for the rest of the day. The world was his; he was the Golden Child, and what he wanted he always got; things always went his way. He drove the tractor up the least steep part of the back hill and quickly took care of the front of the house. Honestly, he thought, I should just do this part and go back to my new girl’s house, my new home. It was outrageous that he even had to do this in the first place, why should he have to do the back also. No one saw the back yard, except the woman and children who lived in the house, the ones who had held him back from becoming who he was destined to be. As he surveyed the back though, he knew it had to be done. He hadn’t done it in weeks, while he waited for the tractor’s repair, and the grass was close to 2 feet high; it had to be done. He begrudgingly started down the back hill, beginning on the less steep section, and he once again lost himself in thought.
He was so close to where he wanted to be. He had moved in with his new girl. She had a beautiful house with an inground pool and outdoor kitchen, a space in which he could be the King. It was the perfect place to impress the important people in the community, the perfect place to show off his genius around food while pretending that the accolades meant nothing to him. He was finally in the right neighborhood, with the right people, the ones who could further his career, fulfill his desire for recognition and glory. He was with a girl who added to his income; in fact, paid for their many vacations, giving in to his every whim and fancy. It was hard to imagine how things could be better. Yes, he could be divorced and rid of his wife, that would be better, but there was no rush. He had plenty of time, and he had no desire to marry the new girl, so the longer the divorce took the better. He had them both where he wanted them. His wife was captive, unable to move, unable to take control of her life, still under his thumb. His new girl was smitten. He had groomed her well. She was 100% committed to him. She believed every word he said. He even threw in some totally outrageous claims, testing her commitment prior to his moving in. She had bought everything he said, believed everything he claimed to be.
She was already beginning to crumble under the weight of his thoughtfully designed accusations, the accusations that would cement them together, the glue that would keep her under his thumb. He thought about the next accusation he’d make. Would he go after her fear of abandonment, stating that his next business venture might have to be in a different state, unless their finances loosened up; i.e. unless she gave in to his latest outrageous purchase. Perhaps he’d activate her fear of being fat, a simple suggestion that her jeans seemed tighter than usual, maybe she needed to go shopping. Or maybe he’d address her terror at the thought that she was not the beloved party girl she sought to be. He would suggest that her last party might not have been well received, and perhaps the next one would be better if he did the cooking; not that she was a bad cook, of course. Any of these would do, it would depend on the circumstances which one he’d use.
These thoughts of glory, so within his reach he could taste them, were all he could think of as he drove into the steep part of the yard. He was so distracted with his fantasy that he failed to notice the tires slipping on the wet grass. He was so engrossed in the fantasy of him finally getting all he deserved he wasn’t really aware when the wheels of the tractor lifted from the ground. He was in mid-air before he understood that his worst fear had come to fruition; the tractor was flipping and he had mere seconds before he was underneath of it. He made a frantic effort to eject himself from the seat but it was too late. As the tractor landed on top of him, he thought this must be a dream. It had been a lie, his story of fear that this could happen. He had only told her that to prove he was a great guy, he admitted his mistakes, he could cheer her up before surgery. He hadn’t actually believed it could happen; it couldn’t actually happen. All of these thoughts ran through his mind as the tractor flipped over, trapping him beneath, its engine revving up with nowhere to go, only the ability to further settle onto his chest, his groin, his upper thighs. It had to be a dream, he thought. This could not be his end. This would not be his end.
She’d be home soon. She’d help him.
She woke around 3AM with stomach cramps. She was up most of the night after that. After her son left for school she cancelled her yoga class, threw on some clothes, popped a cough drop in her mouth in case someone came near, and left for the grocery store. She had 3 items on her list, and hoped to find them quickly. The pepsi and gluten free crackers were right where she thought, the soup a bit harder. She found the one and only can of gluten free chicken noodle soup and went through the self checkout, on her way back home in 10 minutes.
She saw the white car parked in the street but though nothing of it. There were often random cars parked on the street, and even if she had thought to look twice, she was too tired to do so. She heated the soup and poured her pepsi. She remembered a few weeks before when her son had brought her breakfast on a plastic tray, and she looked for that tray. It was a vivid reminder of better times. It had been a wedding gift, and it bore her ex’s name. She often thought to throw it away and now she was glad she hadn’t. When the soup bubbled, she poured half of it into a bowl, added it to the tray, turned off the burner and dragged herself back to her bed. She broke up some crackers and tossed them in the soup, then took a sip of the pepsi. Pepsi always soothed her stomach, a fact she never understood. Pepsi cleans rust, yet soothed her stomach. It was a mystery. She took a spoonful of cracker and soup, and blew on it. She hesitated. The soup could help or it could hurt; was it worth the risk? She thought about her stomach and decided that it needed food to quell it’s writhing, and she took the first bite. It was ok, so she settled in, one sip of soda, one spoonful of soup. Within 15 minutes she felt better. It had been a long night and now, with her settled stomach, sleep was within her grasp. As she placed the tray off her bed and turned out the lights, she heard the distant sound of tractors. The neighborhood was a cacophony of maintenance work all summer long, and she was used to it. She drifted off to sleep to the sound of summer noises.
She slept for 3 hours and woke feeling better. She noticed the noise in the neighborhood had subsided. It was not unusual for the work crews to be done by noon, and, as comfortable as she was with the noise, she was equally accustomed to the silence. She got up to use the bathroom. The bathroom shade was drawn and she left it that way. Often when ill the sunlight hurt her eyes, so she kept the house dark. When done in the bathroom she gathered her tray and walked down the stairs, carefully looking at each stair as she went, aware that the feeling in her feet was gone, one more gift from the cancer she’d recently fought. As she entered the kitchen she noted the white car on the street, but thought little of it. The street was a pass-through for the neighborhood next to hers, so it was not unusual for a strange car to park outside her front windows.
She had been homebound so often, often her only connection to the world was the view out the front windows. She would sit and watch the cars drive by, imagining the relentless, yet fulfilling lives of the people inside. Often she imagined she was driving one of those cars; a car filled with children going different places at different times, a competent, successful woman, getting each child where they needed to be, while earning her pay. There had been a time that she was that woman. It was so long ago, it no longer counted.
As she reheated the rest of her soup and poured more pepsi she glanced at the white car. There was something she should remember about a white car, but it didn’t come to her. Her memory never fully recovered after chemo, and she’d long ago stopped torturing herself, trying to grasp memories that just weren’t there. She scanned her memory to make sure it wasn’t connected to her children or any other people she loved. None were connected to a white car. She turned away, reloaded her tray and trudged back upstairs. After eating she dozed again.
She awoke with the white car weighing on her mind. It was mid afternoon by now and, out of curiosity, she got out of bed and peeked out her bedroom window, sure that the car would be gone. She was surprised that it was still there. She pulled up the shade and stood looking at it. A white car. A new white car. A clean, new, white car. Why did it resonate with her? What was she missing? She was missing something, of that she was sure. She glanced at her clock and saw that it was 2:30 in the afternoon. Her son would be home in a hour and she had to get ready for him. She’d brush her teeth, throw on some clothes, pull open the shades so the house looked bright and cheery, and settle onto her desk chair; all an illusion for him, assuring him she was okay, he was okay, they were okay. Some days she actually believed it. Today was not one of those days.
As she brushed her teeth she opened the shade and peered out the window. Her bathroom window looked out over the roof covering half of the deck. She glanced to her left and felt her anger boil. To the left were the wood beams he placed in lieu of a full roof. The plan had been to grow vines that would eventually cover those beams. He had done all of this in the year before her cancer diagnosis, during the time he did the exact opposite of what she had wanted. She wished she had played his game, told him the opposite of what she wanted, so she got her way, but she was never able to admit what was happening. She chose to believe that they were engaged in a rational discussion, a negotiation, a merging of two minds, both minds adding strength to their decisions. Deep down, she knew this was not the case, but she always hoped. She loved the idea of the beams covered with vines, but she begged him to use the plastic beams to match the deck railing. Plastic meant annual power washing with no other maintenance. He disagreed, saying wood was the way to go. She pointed out that wood required maintenance, that he would be out there in 3 or 4 years sanding it and repainting. Even as she said it she knew she had sealed the deal: wood it would be. She had called into question his manliness, his ability to maintain his home, provide for his family. That was his interpretation. As she looked at the beams, in desperate need of sanding and repainting, her anger grew, reaching her throat, causing her to gag. She turned away, finished brushing her teeth, and left the bathroom. She focused on breathing as she changed her clothes. As yoga taught her, breathe in for 4, out for 6, in for 4 out for 6. By the time she was dressed she felt calm again.
Her next chore was opening the shades in the bedrooms. The front bedroom was 1st and as she opened the shades she noted again the white car. She thought it was the same one that had been there that morning, but she wasn’t certain. The image of the car sat in her brain, nagging at her as she opened the blinds in the other two bedrooms. Her last stop was the hallway bathroom. She remembered the renovation, the tile pattern she had so perfectly designed, the wainscoting she had picked out, the dual sink and granite counter top, the lighting fixtures and mirrors and finally, the paint color that pulled it all together. It was a beautiful bathroom, and she hated the thought of having to repaint it before she sold the house. As she walked over to the window she remembered the accolades he had received for the work he had done. It was praise he deserved; he’d done a nice job, but she resented the absence of praise towards her. His brawn out-trumped her brain every time, a fact she resented with each project, a fact she never let go, a fact he chided her for. She pulled open the shade, knowing that if she looked her first sight would be those crumbling wood beams. Some mornings she didn’t look, but this morning she did. Perhaps she was testing her breathing, wondering if her calmness could carry her from room to room, prevent the rage that built in her gut. It took a moment for her to register what she was looking at. On the ground, under the tree, at the steepest part of the hill, was his tractor. Except it wasn’t his tractor; something was different. Instead of seeing the leather seat and shiny red hood covering the motor, she was looking at tires. All four tires stuck up in the air, perfectly still under the shade of the tree.
The sight reminded her of the day of her surgery. He had not been there while she was “prepped”. He had work to do, her reminded her. The world did not center around her, and he couldn’t just take off whenever she wanted him to, he said. He showed up at the last minute, right before they wheeled her off to the operating room. He sat on the corner of the bed and looked her right in the eye, something he rarely did anymore. He said “I have a confession to make”. Beneath her sedation she remembered thinking he must be kidding; he was going to take this moment, the moment right before the most terrifying surgery of her life, to admit he was cheating bastard? She thought to protest, to stop him before he could relieve himself of his guilt, and the words formed in her head and were almost at her lips when he spoke again. “You were right. I never should have bought that tractor. Every time I drive it down that steep part of the back hill I’m terrified it will flip over and kill me”. Her sigh of relief was quickly followed by a little giggle, then pride at the fact that she had been right, and he was admitting it. The thrill was gone before she reached the operating room, and as she slipped into unconsciousness she thought again: what a bastard. Once again he’d put on a show, made her laugh, made those around her laugh and think “what a great guy, admitting his mistakes”. Only she and he knew who he really was, how carefully he crafted those sentences, how thoughtfully he had chosen each word, each one designed to prove himself a thoughtful, loving, steadfast husband, always there, always willing to admit his mistakes. Her last thought was how lovely it might be to see him writhing in pain under the overturned tractor.
All of this she remembered as she stared at the four tires, trying to understand what she was seeing. It all came together. His fear of the hill, the hill the tractor was now settled on. The white car, the new Cadillac he had just purchased for he and his new girlfriend. The sound of the mowers in the early morning, followed just as quickly by silence, silence she now understood that came too soon. She stared in disbelief, seeing his crumpled legs sticking out of one end, his head out of the other. In shock, she noticed the sea of red, partially dry blood, surrounding his body, filling the space beneath him and the ground. In her final glance she saw his arms, free from the tractor, pulsating between the color of flesh and black, a sight as mysterious as the white car had been a few moments before.
The horror of the scene before her slowly sank in. His worst fear had actually came true. She frantically searched for her phone. Her cell phone, her only contact with the outside world since she had shut off their phone service in her effort to survive financially, was always missing. She remembered placing it on the tray when she’d brought up the remainder of her soup, and she raced back to her bedroom to retrieve it.
She thought about the phone she was holding, the used iphone she bought on ebay, just to get a new phone number, one he’d never have. She looked at it now, trying to remember how it worked. The password….what were the numbers she used to open the phone? Of course, the day he finally moved out. 0413. She punched the numbers in but, as often happened, she’d hit one wrong and was forced to try again. She took in a breath and forced herself to slow down – breathe in 4, breathe out 6 – as she punched in the code: 0413.
As she hit each number she remembered that day. She remembered them gathering the children at the dining room table. She remembered saying nothing as he announced he was leaving. Nothing would change, he said. He would continue to pay the bills, everything would be same, except he wouldn’t live there. She remembered how ludicrous that statement was, that nothing would change, that he would continue to pay the bills, that they could stay there. She had burst into tears and run from the table, into the laundry room, holding onto the edge of the sink to maintain her balance. She thought of her eldest son, following her, looking into her eyes and saying “it will be alright. It’s not your fault. We know it’s not your fault”, as they cried together.
Every moment of that day replayed through her mind, and tears clouded her eyes as she punched in those numbers: 0413. This time it worked, and the screen opened up before her. Focus, she reminded herself. Which icon to press? She cursed her brain, which used to be so focused but now seemed in a constant fog.
They used to have a house phone. It was a cordless phone, its sole purpose to make phone calls. There was no thought involved, no choices to be made; you simply picked it up and punched in the numbers: 911. Where were the numbers on this new phone? She knew precious time was slipping by, life was hanging on, perhaps by a thread, and here she stood, paralyzed with indecision over which icon to choose to find the panel which revealed the numbers. She took a breath and chose the icon she thought to be right, and the numbers appeared. She gave a sigh of relief, than remembered, as she punched in 911, that there were places in the house the phone didn’t work. She moved quickly now, back down the stairs, as fast as her damaged feet could take her, pressing the green send button as she reached the back door. As she unlocked the handle a voice said “911, what is your emergency” and she stopped.
What was her emergency? What was her emergency? What was her emergency? The question rang out in her head and she started to wonder: what was her emergency?
Her emergency had taken years to unfold. Her emergency was her life, her marriage, her children, her failing health, the heavy cloak of death staring her in the face every day, as if to mock her, saying you can have me if you want. What was HER emergency? Her emergency was this house, the one she’d so meticulously designed, cared for, furnished and decorated. Her emergency stared her in the face, every moment of every day. When she got into the old beat up car which was all he had left her, she sensed her emergency. When she got the electric bill and the water bill, when her son outgrew his shoes, when they all needed haircuts but the oil tank had just been filled and choices had to be made. Those were her emergencies. When she felt the pain in her stomach and wondered if the cancer was back, when she debated which would be better, her death or her survival, when she cried herself to sleep at night, aware she would die alone; that was her emergency.
For a moment, time stood still as she pondered that question. What was her emergency? How many times had he come running for her when she needed him? On their honeymoon, when she had fallen on the boat, her buttocks and back scraping the side of the seat, rubbed raw because she failed to see the wave before them, had he run to her? Her 1st asthma attack, so inconveniently happening right before a weekend get away he’d planned, had he run to her? That day, a few months after they opened their restaurant, the day she’d been told she would most likely die, did he run to her? Did he make note of her pain, her fear, her anguish? All of the times he’d lied to her, pretending it was she who misunderstood, she who was crazy, she who was paranoid, did he run to her, take care of her, consider her an emergency?
What was her emergency?
Breathe in 4, breathe out 6. She started to speak.
There is a man, she said, trapped under a tractor in my backyard.
Was this her emergency, they asked.
No she said. This was his emergency. Her emergency was taken care of. Her emergencies had been addressed. She was fine. She required no assistance. She was calm. She could breath, she could speak, she could walk and think and love; she had no emergency.
The emergency was his, and his alone. She gave them the address, than hung up the phone. She stood at the railing of the deck and looked down at him. She understood the odd color of his arms now; ants, marching in single file, across his arm, into the grass, back across his arm and up the tree that sat in the middle of the yard.
She thought back to the day they were married. She stood in the church, trembling, a voice in her head screaming “NO. Don’t Do It”. She remembered him standing on the altar, looking handsome in his tuxedo, holding his toddler son, also in a tuxedo, both anxiously waiting her to promise her life to them. She thought of that boy, the vows she made to never leave him. She thought of this child she’d loved, sent to live elsewhere by the man she’d married because she was too sick to take care of him, and dad was too busy.
As a tear trickled down her cheek she realized: she had no emergency.
She had never had an emergency; they had always been his. She was fine.
She pulled a chair over to the railing and sat and waited. She had only 1 need left: for his emergency to leave her. Soon, she thought. Soon enough.