Joseph Koren was a young married man who lived in a small, rented house in the High Point Terrace district of Memphis. His wife, Ella, was beautiful and daily exhibited little enigmatic facets that he lay thinking about in bed at night like a kid playing some kind of fantasy game: she was impulsive and quick eyed and fierce, and had mood swings; her temperamental nature and sharp wit fascinated him. He admired her dark skin and the luster of her black hair, her deep-brown eyes, the soft curves at the corner of her mouth, the sound of her voice. Sometimes he would find himself watching her sleep, appreciating the lines of her body and the way her thumb curled into her fist, which rested on the pillow.
He had spent so much time alone growing up, just him and his mother in a small apartment near the university, where she worked until the year he entered the police academy. That year, his mother passed away, like a sort of unspoken expression concerning her feelings about his wanting to join the police force. Because he was shy and clumsy with people, her going seemed like some final declaration, a judgment whose coming had always been expected. When he met Ella, who at the time was a temp in the courthouse offices, it was his nervous shyness and his quiet humor that charmed her. Now he was often filled with a sense of near disbelief at his own good fortune. He felt lucky, and he liked the way the others, his shift mates in the precinct and everyone he knew and worked with, followed her with their gaze, the way they looked at him and envied him this shining girl. Sometimes, when he watched her sleep, she would suddenly open her eyes and look at him as if she did not recognize him. “Don’t do that,” she would say. “It’s creepy.”
“I can’t help it. I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Well, stop it.”
Today, they had a small disagreeable exchange before she got into the shower, and she gave him a sour look as she turned to put the water on. He closed the bathroom door quietly and went to look out the picture window in the living room. Mimosa Avenue shone peacefully there, almost blurry in the sun’s brilliance. It looked like one of those big paintings in the Brooks Museum: brightness spilling through newly full trees, soft fresh blossoms everywhere. He was taking two days off before being on for twenty-six, and he was about to embark on his daily morning walk—four miles around the Galloway Golf Club. Citywide celebrations for Memphis in May were gearing up, and police presence would of course have to be increased and maintained. He did not mind being asked to pull the extra days; it was all right. Twenty-six straight days. There would be a nice ten-day break at the end of it all. Still, this morning he wondered if she was irritable because of the extra work. He did like it, and he liked his colleagues, who all knew with whom he spent his nights; and for a man with his strong aesthetic sense, there could be no other city in the world quite so beautiful as Memphis in spring.
Well, she would feel fresh after the shower, and the prettiness of the day would win her back. He felt that he understood her, and it was pleasant to think about the slow brightening of her mood as the morning progressed.
She would be herself again by the time he returned from his walk.
He had put on his floppy sweatshirt with the cutaway sleeves, jeans, and sneakers, and tucked his service revolver in his belt—not secure as regulations called for, but comfortable according to the dictates of habit.
First, though, he would make breakfast.
She came in after her shower and went straight to the refrigerator. Always the same routine in the mornings. Coffee and orange juice. There was something endearing about it. He had made the coffee and poured the orange juice, but this morning she poured milk without saying anything and took her place at the table. He set the bowl of scrambled eggs down, and a plate with two buttered English muffins and four strips of microwaved bacon. He was a cop who could do things in the home, and people had always said he would be a wonderful family man.
She ate half a muffin, half of one strip of bacon, and very little of the eggs. He was hungry, and he took the rest. They didn’t say anything, drinking the coffee and watching Comedy Central without quite taking it in. He saw a place in her still-wet hair where it was disarranged in such a way as to show part of her scalp. Her demeanor seemed more than the normal morning grumpiness, and so he poured a second cup of the coffee. She tapped the edge of the table with her fingers.
Finally, he said, “Good coffee?”
“Come on. You can tell me if you don’t like it.”
“Let’s just get through the morning, Joseph,” she said. “Okay?”
There had been recent intervals of missed signals between them, but he thought of it as being in the nature of things, part of the ebb and flow of marriage between two strong-willed people. After all, they were still relatively new: a little more than two years. Just now, gazing across the table at that place in her hair, he had the urge to needle her, tease her out of her gloominess. “Well, yeah, we should try and make it through if we can. And hope nobody dies.”
“I don’t feel like talking,” she said. “Let’s just leave it there, please.”
“Hey. Am I in trouble?” He saw the same sour look she had given him earlier when she turned on the shower water. “Ella?”
She said, “This morning—first thing in the morning—you have to hand me all that crap about the bathroom trash can.”
“Well, Jesus. It’s not like we’re old people. You’re so—fussy. Christ. You act like you’re fifty years old.”
“I simply asked—again—that when you’re sitting on the toilet and have to blow your nose with the toilet paper, you put the toilet paper into the toilet instead of the trash can. Come on. It’s a small bathroom to begin with, and it’s no fun to clean—”
“I’m the one who cleans it.”
“Well, I’m the one who cleaned it this morning when I got up and there was dirty toilet paper all over the floor because the trash can was overflowing with it. It’s so simple and easy just to drop the thing in the toilet instead of the trash can. Right?”
She began clearing the dishes away with a briskness that annoyed him. Deciding simply to go on with his walk and let things settle a little, he put the coffee cup down, rose, and moved to the door. “Come on. This isn’t worth ruining a nice day.”
“If you wouldn’t nag me about it,” she said from the kitchen sink. “You’re like an old lady. My mother’s less fussy than you are.”
“I’ll be back in a little bit.” He forced a smile. “Okay? I didn’t mean to upset you. I fixed you a nice breakfast, right? Even though you didn’t want it. But hey, it’s spring, right? Life’s good. Come on.”
“You keep harping on it.”
“Well, I’m happy. Life is good. We should be celebrating all the time.”
“I’m talking about the other thing.”
“The toilet paper?”
“Well, but you keep doing it.”
“Don’t raise your voice to me.”
“I didn’t raise my voice,” he said. Then, raising his voice, he went on: “THIS IS RAISING MY VOICE.”
She opened the dishwasher and put something in it, then slammed it shut, and there was the muffled sound inside it of glass breaking.
“Whoa,” he said. “Come on. I’m just kidding you.”
“You love me.”
“Oh, baby. More all the time.”
“You love me so much.”
“Beyond normal,” she said. “It’s—it’s idolatry.”
He bowed. “My goddess.”
“It’s not normal. I need you to back up.”
“Hey. It’s such a pretty day.”
“Yes, it’s such a pretty day.”
“Let’s not have a single gloomy minute.”
“I was glad about the twenty-six straight days.”
“Do you see now? I felt happy about it. Relieved.”
“I don’t think I—”
“I felt relieved about the time without you here.”
“Look, I—you know I—” She seemed to let down. “God. It’s no use.”
“No, it’s—there’s no sense trying anymore. I just can’t do it anymore.”
“I said I can’t—you heard me. I can’t do it anymore. I’m dying.”
“It’s not working for me, Joseph. I’m sorry.” She sat down and began to cry.
He walked over and sat across from her.
She was wiping her eyes, not looking at him. Perhaps a full minute went by. “There isn’t anyone else, either. Okay?”
“I’m saying—Jesus Christ! Are you hearing me? I can’t be here anymore. I have to go. I’m going. I’m leaving.”
What came out of him then must have sounded like scoffing. “Over an argument about toilet paper?” He took a breath and steadied himself. “Hey.”
“Oh, God. Not that. Everything.” She sighed. It sounded like relief. “Just—just—everything. I’ve kept it to myself.”
“Kept what to yourself.”
“This. This. I—I think—I think we made a mistake, okay? I’m not happy here.”
“Well, you could’ve fooled me. Two years. What the hell.”
“Can you just try to understand? It’s—I don’t feel anything anymore. It started a long time ago.”
“Really. Ages, huh. The first month?”
“All those times you yelled and dug your nails in my back when we were down on the Gulf that week?”
She gasped into one folded hand.
“All the laughs we have, Jesus, Ella.”
Silence. Only the sniffling.
“Okay, you’re depressed. You’ve dealt with that before, right? That passes, remember?”
“No. This is different.”
“How?” He reached across the table and took hold of her wrists.
But she pulled out of his grasp. “Stop it. Please.”
He watched her try to get ahold of herself. “My mother—my—my mother offered to buy me a ticket to Chicago to visit. I’m going to take her up on it.”
He stood. “So that’s just—that? Out of the freaking blue? You’re leaving me?”
She only stared, sobbing.
He saw his own shaking hand as he reached to push the screen door open. He stepped out and turned to look at her through the screen. “Well, you know what? Turns out that I need to get away from you to keep from breaking things up in here.”
“Just go. Leave me alone. Please.”
He strode away, like a kind of falling.
At the corner he stopped and turned to look at the house. They had been so excited about it when they rented it. “Toilet paper,” he muttered. “Christ.”
But he had to admit to himself, now, that there had been signs.
No, what he had to admit was that this that had just unfolded in his rented kitchen was not as surprising as he would have thought. He had wondered if she might be getting depressed again. The year before they were married she went into “one of her tailspins,” as her father put it, and was on Zoloft for a few months. She called the trouble—which according to her father had been chronic through her teen years—her dead time, because, she said, a tremendous apathy would come over her.
Apathy. Christ. Sometimes he wanted to tell her about how it really was for him, as a boy. You’re down, he would say to her. You think you’re low. I never knew my father. He shot himself with a rifle when I was two. I grew up terrified all the time, and I thought suicide was just the way everybody died.
“Apathy,” he muttered. “Goddamn it.”
But she hadn’t been on any medication since before they were married. And for the past few weeks, as spring arrived, hadn’t there been passes when they were lighthearted, and her loveliness and their mutual desire warmed him? Warmed them both? Wasn’t that true?
Walking fast, as if about to break into a run, he slapped his fist into his own palm and then stopped and took a breath. He started back to the house, but then turned and went on, with a sensation of deep exhaustion. He was short of breath, his whole torso aching. “God,” he murmured. “Oh, Christ.”
The day shone like benevolence itself, not a cloud in the sky. It wasn’t fair.
He was aware of the revolver under the tail of his sweatshirt almost as a kind of pathology. He reached under the sweatshirt and touched it. Then stopped again, and started shaking, looking at the houses along the quiet street. The handsome lawns, the sun and shade, and the leafy trees whose shifting shades of green showed the breezes playing across them.
The walk around the golf course always took him to South Galloway Drive, a street of very large old houses with circular driveways and big wooden doors. There was one house fronted by a low white brick wall, in the wide lawn of which an enormous willow oak stood, a thing that looked like fifteen full-grown trees growing out of one massive trunk. His walk always wound to that house and then he would make his way back over to Walnut Grove and High Point Terrace.
Only yesterday morning, he had sat in the kitchen with her talking about where they might go for vacation in July. She wanted to go south, to the Gulf and New Orleans, and he wanted to go east to Alabama and Guntersville Lake. They had friends in both places, and their disagreement about which to visit was full of teasing and good nature and either place would be fine.
“I don’t care if we spend the whole week at the Department of Motor Vehicles, as long as I’m with you,” he’d said. And this had pleased her. He was sure of it. And, in that moment, seeing this, he was pleased with himself. Hadn’t he hugged her, and hadn’t she nestled at his neck?
They’d had a good life, hadn’t they?
He was thinking this, in a breath-stealing fury, coming along toward the house with the giant willow oak, when he saw a big man walk out of the sixth fairway of the golf course and trot a little to come into the road a few yards ahead of him.
“Hey,” the man said.
Koren nodded at him.
“Out walking, huh.”
“Yeah,” he answered tonelessly, without slowing his pace.
“You live around here?”
“Yes, I do.” He spoke through narrow lips.
Koren looked past him, still walking. Surely his demeanor expressed his wish to be left alone.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard Bausch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.