March short story competition winner


Joan Skura

What do you say to the husband of almost thirty years when he shows up on your doorstep, bags in hand, after a four-year absence? Come in? How have you been? What are you doing here?

All of the above, it turns out.

Overhead, the last blue fades to black as Ted hauls his suitcases from the little red Honda.

“That’s the lot. Oh, you’ll laugh at this.” He settles himself on the couch.“Plane gets into Toronto ; I pick up my bags and head out to get a taxi. The guy’s got my stuff in the back and I’m about to ask him to take me to the old house, when I remember you sold the house and bought that condo. So I—”

“Ted, what are you doing here?”

“I’m getting to it.” He holds both palms up. “Where was I? Oh yes, so I’m giving him that address, when it dawns on me you won’t be there either. It’s July—cottage time. I say, ‘Sorry, man. I just realized my wife is up north. I’d better rent a car.’ Well, he looked pissed off at having to haul the bags out again, but he didn’t refuse the five bucks I gave him for his trouble. Anyway, I rented the car and here I am.”

“And you didn’t think to let me know you were coming. Not even an e-mail?”

“You used to like surprises.”

“I used to, until you gave me the surprise of my life four years ago. And just to clarify, Ted, we sold the house. It was in both names. You got your half of the proceeds. I bought the condo because it’s easier for me to manage on my own.”

Why am I explaining this to him—again?

“You look great, Helen,” he says, his eyes taking in all of me. “You’ve done something different with your hair. I like the spiky look. And that colour suits you.”

“I’ve stopped doing something with it. It’s all me—grey, silver, whatever you care to call it.” God, he looks good himself; a little greyer, but still the same tall, lean frame, that appealing mouth.

“Um…I was about to make some hot chocolate and have an early night. My illustrator is coming around ten in the morning with some sketches. Have you eaten?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. Stopped at that burger place on the highway. Man, has it grown—and the prices. But, if you have anything stronger than hot chocolate, I wouldn’t say no.”

“There’s some Riesling, or Mr. Spinelli’s vino rosso. You remember him? He brings me some, every year, ‘for the writer’s soul’.”

“Is old Spinelli still down the road? He must be a hundred, by now. I’ll have the Riesling. Join me?”

“He’s seventy-three and he’s been a good friend. Keeps an eye on the place when I’m not here. The wine is all yours. But why are you back?”

He follows me into the kitchen, says nothing as I pour a glass of wine and hand itto him. Our fingers touch momentarily. I dump some milk into a saucepan and set it on the stove.

“Actually, I was hoping it could be sort of an extended stay. And you’re right, I should have told you. Thing is, I was having problems with my e-mail, which is why you haven’t heard from me lately. Okay, I could have called, but…”

“How long do you mean by ‘extended’?” Steam rises from the milk.“My time isn’t entirely my own. I have deadlines to meet.”

“Maybe a couple of months—three at the most?” Back in the living room, he moves over on the couch to make room for me. I choose the wing chair instead.“And you don’t have to cater to me. I can stay here when you go back to the city. This old couch will make a fine bed,” he says, patting the cushions.

“Ted, please get to the point.”

“Okay, I told you I invested in a friend’s gallery in Burnaby, around the beginning of last year. And it seemed to be going fine. I was on the island and didn’t get over to the mainland very often. Jake said everything was great and he was showcasing my work and I should just keep on doing what I did best. So I kept producing and he kept showcasing, or so I thought, until one day I called and his phone had been disconnected. The place had gone belly up, he filed for bankruptcy and I’m left with zero.”

He downs what’s left in his glass and goes for a refill. “Well, I was in a bit of a fog after that. Thought about going back to Toronto, but somehow I just couldn’t get moving. You and I were still e-mailing occasionally and I knew you were doing okay with your book. So I decided to tough it out and say nothing.”

He looks at me, as if waiting for something. I sip my hot chocolate.

“Then, that summer, a bunch of seniors bought a property down the coast from me and started a sort of commune. God only knows why. Not exactly down-at-the-heel types, either. Maybe they figured they’d missed out on the hippie experience while they made corporate hay. Their kids and grandkids came over on weekends.

Anyway, they knew I was a painter and a former teacher and they asked me to give art lessons to the children. Well, I needed something to hang on to, so before I knew it, we had an adult class going, too. They didn’t mind paying. Hell, they’re loaded. And I think they got something out of it. Therapy, maybe. And one or two had real talent.” He leans forward, hands clasped.

“There’s one old guy, Sam. He’s quite gifted—has a real flair for bringing out the essence of a subject. He did the most amazing watercolour of my cabin and gave it to me, as a gift. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized he’d forgotten to sign it.” He slumps back on the couch and looks at me. I don’t think I want to hear this.

“I was going to take it back and have him do it, but …”He looks away, frowning. “I put my own name on it, took it over to Burnaby and sold it to another dealer.”

I finish my drink and take the mug to the kitchen. I really don’t want to hear any more.

“I know. I know. It was a lousy thing to do.” He joins me in the kitchen.“Say something, Helen.”

“What do you want me to say? You sold his work as your own. That’s called fraud.”

“Yeah; and there’s more. You might as well hear it all. After that, I copied one of Sam’s landscapes and another by Vivienne, a very talented lady. I took those over to the dealer, too.”

“And? Sighing, he sits down on the couch again. “Well, it was all so easy, you know? And I figured I was in the clear. Even thought about doing it again with another student’s work. Told myself, hell, I lost everything to that bastard, Jake. I’m desperate and these folks are rolling in it. Then, a couple of months later, Sam comes to me, furious, and says his daughter happened to drop into the dealer’s and recognized her dad’s work. Of course, it came out about Vivienne’s, too, and that’s when it all hit the fan.”

“My God, you’re on the run.” I lean against the kitchen doorway, staring at a total stranger.

“You got it. They’re going to file suit. It’s a sizeable sum. I have my teacher’s pension—nothing more. You can see my difficulty.”

“Are you asking me for help?”

He clears his throat. “I know what you’re thinking. I walked out four years ago, without any warning. But I didn’t walk out on you, Helen. It was just…my life…my career…it all felt like so much crap. Yet, in all this time, you’ve never suggested divorce. I figure that must mean something.”

“Maybe it wasn’t entirely without warning. You were depressed about not getting that principalship and I begged you to get help. You refused, vehemently. Running off to the edge of the country—thatwas the surprise.”

“But no divorce?” he persists.

“For a long time, I was in a fog of my own. Couldn’t think about anything concrete. And maybe I thought things might change. You might…be yourself, again.” Is there any point, now, in telling him all the things I felt—the confusion, self-doubt, rage?

“Eventually, I accepted it and threw myself into writing. I’ve been too busy doing that to think about us. Are you saying you want to try again?”

“Uh…no; that’s not what I had in mind.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to go back to Puffin Island and clear things with those people. Life made sense there, before I scuttled it. And even if they’re still pissed at me, I’ll handle it. I’d like us to sell the cottage, Helen. What do you say?”

So, that’s it. Sell the cottage, take his cut and disappear. Again. Never mind that this is my refuge, the place that nourishes me in every season, all moods. And I’m to be his refuge in any future crisis. After all, we’re still married.

“Helen? What do you say?”

“I can’t talk about this now, Ted. I’m going to bed. You’ll find pillows and everything you need in the bathroom closet. Goodnight.”

Light filters through the stand of birch in the back yard as I open my eyes. What is it that I have to do today? Oh yes, June’s coming with the sketches. We’ll spend the morning making final choices, then go into town for lunch. Lovely. But something else. Oh God—Ted.

I open my bedroom door a sliver. He’s still asleep. Good; I’ll shower first, then wake him. Eyes closed, I let the lukewarm water cascade over me, cleansing, reassuring. Clear. Oh, so clear.

Lots to do today. No idling. Yes, the pale blue linen shirt and matching pants. A touch of that day-glo foundation on the cheeks, a hint of rose-pink on the lips. Not bad; not bad at all.

I pour coffee and sit down across the table from him.

“Man, these eggs are delicious. Always said you made the best scrambled eggs, Helen. You mentioned an illustrator coming this morning. Guess you’re working on a children’s story?”

“That’s right. It’s something I’ve been itching to do. And now that I’ve met my other commitments, I’m ready. But this isn’t really what you want to talk about, is it?”

He hesitates, his eyes wary. Lord, they’re so blue! Oh, and how we used to tease each other about which of us had the bluer. I clear my throat.

“I’ve decided. I’m not going to sell this place, Ted. It means too much to me. So here’s the plan. I’ll arrange for an appraisal and buy out your half, less the expenses I’ve met, solo, these last four years. The property will be in my name alone and you’ll have no further interest. You can square things with those folks. I’ll call my lawyer today and, while I’m about it, tell her to begin divorce proceedings. Might as well do it up right, don’t you think?”

He pauses, then continues spreading marmalade on his toast.

“We’re in agreement, then.” I finish my coffee. I like this new decisiveness. It looks well on me. Four years of limbo is plenty.

“It’s so…final.”

“It is. You’ll understand, Ted, that I must ask you to leave today. Maybe find a place in town. They have lots of B & B’s, reasonably priced.” I begin clearing away the breakfast things. Is this really me?

“The property thing shouldn’t take long and you can get back to your life, once you have the funds. The other matter will happen, in due course.”

The blue eyes cloud over, momentarily, then he nods. I start washing the dishes.