Long Past Time

With the news of his ex-mother-in-law’s death, a man faces disturbing questions about his failed marriage to a woman who had always seemed a stranger.

Failed marriage

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In his dreams Rice Norris is purchasing pianos. It’s been two nights in a row, and Rice doesn’t even know how to play. He never plunked through “Chopsticks” as a kid or sat through a single lesson, but as of this morning, early, before the alarm, he has a baby grand and an upright, and he’s out $500. The grand he acquired at an auction. It took only one bid. The upright he bought from a friend, a woman he hasn’t seen for years.

The auction dream came this morning, reminding him of yesterday’s. He’d not thought of it in 24 hours, but then the gavel clacked. The man at the podium said, “Sold,” and Rice realized, as if it had slipped his mind, that he’d just bought a piano. It was in his living room, forcing the sofa and chairs and the coffee table to the walls. What he really needed was a lamp, or how would he ever read music?

He opened his eyes — quickly, as if hearing his name — and stared straight at his alarm clock. It made no sense at first. It looked like a small geometry problem, a white disc displaying an angle. One leg was shorter than the other. The hands were black lines poking into space.

He felt his dreams scumbling back where they came from. They dissolved. He remembered that they’d been there, and then they were gone.

It felt like being tricked.

Rice Norris is a big man. People he’s just met — men, anyway — feel comfortable calling him Big Guy. A panhandler to whom he gave a quarter twice a day used to sing, “Big Guy, my man,” and snap his fingers three times before opening his yellowed palm for the coin Rice pressed there with one finger, like pushing a button. This brought a quick “I thank you,” and a spin like a back-up singer’s. Rice always smiled because for 50 cents a day he received this one moment of good cheer. It was an act, of course, but an act someone bothered to put on. “Big Guy, my man” sounded affectionate. It wasn’t a total stranger asking permission to acknowledge his size.

The panhandler’s been gone for two or three years. Rice isn’t sure when he noticed the man’s absence. It just occurred to him as he waited on a light. It’s five blocks to the cheap lot where he parks his car. En route is a strip joint where he sees women rougher than he’ll ever be strolling in for work. The older ones are bored. Unruly customers are the least of their worries. The hardness is in the rest of their lives. The men entering at this hour are the middle-management guys sneaking out early or construction workers or Little League coaches stopping on their way home. It’s still daylight, because Rice himself gets off at four. He walks past and tries to peer in if the door is swinging, but it’s dark inside even without the bouncer blocking the view. The wall thumps as Rice passes. He can’t imagine holding a clear thought in the midst of that noise. He assumes that lights are flashing, too. It seems like a guaranteed headache.

The younger women coming in, some walking, some unloaded at the curb from beat-up cars or creaking pickups, look as hurried and uncomfortable making their entrances as he thinks he’d be as a customer. He watches their fear and distaste and their anger and keeps walking.

It used to be that 30 paces down he would hear “Big Guy, my man,” and he would grin, but he doesn’t anymore. One day he realized he’d got all the way to the light without a reason to stop thinking about the thin girl with the big, big breasts and the purple knot the size of a grapefruit on her face. And he’d been doing it for days, maybe even a month, without anyone, afterward, calling his name.

It is a pleasant day, a bit overcast with no real threat of rain. Rice is relaxed making the walk to work. At this hour much of the city is awake but not quite stirring. Lights are on, and there is traffic, but the buses aren’t filled and office buildings still look dormant. Only a few necessary personnel and the early bird workaholics are at their desks. Other people are pouring down coffee at restaurants or buying papers from the twins at the newsstand or, like Rice, breathing the cool morning air and admiring the fact of another sunrise.

Or not. He knows there are people stewing in miseries that make them wish they were dead. Or simply gone. His ex-wife picked that approach. She left town. Flat out disappeared, but for a year or two he used to see her. She puttered around the city. He’d see her at movies with a man he didn’t know, a different man every time who never seemed her type, but then neither did she. Her hair stuck out like fins or curled close to her scalp, and her clothes looked borrowed from people she’d never met. He couldn’t imagine that woman on his arm, or what she ever saw in him. They were strangers who’d somehow fooled themselves for being young. Life was supposed to work that way. This was when you did all that.

Rice was startled by their sex. She’d turn quick and strong and impatient. He was too slow. He was sleepwalking, she said. She’d slap at him. He felt dead still inside his stinging flesh. She wrenched him closer or jammed herself against him, and he knelt or lay or stood baffled by her strength. She was right, it seemed. He was sleepwalking, or maybe she was and he was the one awake watching a person in a trance. She ground through love like a routine made up that very moment. Her teeth clenched in concentration, and she shuddered to a stop. Rice was equipment she gripped and set aside, and by morning he found bruises the size of coins, some debt he sensed he owed her.

Melissa took that life with her when she left, for which Rice now is grateful. It is a relief it took a while to recognize.

He isn’t sure what he wanted then, but it might have been as simple as love.

For Melissa, that was one item only on a list which itself changed almost daily. Rice knows a list is not the best conception. It’s too methodical. In those days nothing happened point by point, but he used to find sheets of paper with her plans for the day or sometimes the next two hours: laundry, lunch, bathroom, Rice.

There he was, something else to do.

She never wrote them in his sight, but he found the lists so often he thought they were intended as code. Behind the cinnamon or the deodorant or balled up beneath the couch were scraps with her handwriting. He should find them, perhaps, and know the secrets of her heart.

Except he would throw them away, and they were never mentioned.

She was talking to herself. It didn’t matter if he overheard.

Rice remembers his marriage as if he’s been told about it. The anecdotes aren’t quite his own. Moments are vivid. Whole years have vanished.

He was thin. He lost weight without thinking. His job was physical. He delivered furniture and installed it. Days and days he spent in office buildings without lunch. Secretaries heated soup and nibbled crackers. He assembled credenzas and desks. When he got home he was exhausted but didn’t care to eat. It was too much work. A beer wasn’t bad, but that was it. He’d fall asleep and in the morning pour most of it down the sink.

The mirror showed a stick man in coveralls. The fabric hung off his ribs. In wind it pulled like a sail.

His face was someone else’s, someone tired, with shadows cupped beneath his eyes.

“Hey, Big Guy.”

Every morning it is the same. Lonnie, who has not bought a new tie in 15 years, throws a few feints and shadow punches. Some of them graze Rice’s arm. Lonnie has come up from circulation for his fifth cup of coffee. Rice is picking powdered sugar doughnuts and a cup of yogurt. The doughnuts will go in his mouth whole, and the yogurt will last him till lunch.

Both men spend a lot of time on the phone. Lonnie takes irate calls from customers whose papers have not landed on the porch. The most angry customers are his responsibility, the ones who will not be placated by assurances from underlings. If need be, Lonnie will drive a paper to the address, but his crews are good. He trains them himself, and even during the paperboy murders most deliveries were on time. He is proud of that accomplishment and has management’s letter of commendation framed on his cork panel wall. It’s beside the fading city map stuck with pins and above the green steel file cabinets. Lonnie seems to glance at it often and always smiles before he speaks. And then again after.

Rice typed the obits on the paperboys, but in cases like that he knows virtually nobody reads the notices. The stories are splashed all over page one. People watch them on TV. He hardly needed the mortuaries’ calls. They provided confirmation more than data. The public record machine did its work.

Rice is a relay switch. News comes in. He shunts it out.

Lonnie makes sure it arrives at front steps, paper boxes, stores, and gas stations to the western border and beyond. Satellite printers outstate have made his job easier but less satisfying. His excitement in bad weather was a kind of joy. Rice listened to stories of trucks swallowed by snowdrifts and kept expecting Lonnie to say he’d hired dog sleds. Lonnie himself might be crying “Mush!” Nowadays trucks radiate from two or three hubs. They don’t have to snake across the state from the loading docks downstairs, so Lonnie’s frenzy for logistics is exercised in organizing events.

“Hey, Big Guy,” he says. “I haven’t seen your picnic memo.”

“I keep forgetting to fill it out,” Rice says. He thinks it’s in the trash. It’s probably already shredded.

“Lots of fun,” says Lonnie. “You won’t want to miss it.”

“I probably will,” says Rice.

“I’m not counting you out till I see it on paper,” says Lonnie. His paper cup of coffee is shaking in his hand. Rice steps back, just in case, as Lonnie says, “There’s that new girl in advertising. She’s signed up for volleyball.”

Rice picks up a plastic spoon and a napkin. Lonnie is always telling him about women. Rice wishes he could make clear his lack of interest, but he thinks Lonnie would never understand. At best, he’d misinterpret. So Rice says, “I’ll think about it.”

“There you go, Big Guy.” He reaches up to punch at Rice’s shoulder and happens to see his watch. “Duty calls,” he says. “Send in that memo.”

“Volleyball,” says Rice.

“In a bikini, I bet.” Lonnie smiles with his mouth wide open, letting Rice see his lumpy teeth, and then he scurries back downstairs.

And Lonnie, somehow, stays married. His 20th anniversary was just a year or two ago. Rice remembers the hoopla. Lonnie’s wife sent a singing telegram, and Rice watched Lonnie hug the woman in her little red cap and scarlet skirt as if an engagement had been announced. She managed to position a balloon between them. It made a useful buffer. Rice caught her eye and winked. She actually winked back and let Lonnie go as the lunchroom joined in. “Happy anniversary to you,” people sang and draped him with crepe paper ribbons.

On Lonnie’s desk are pictures of his wife. The expression on her face never changes. Candid shots and posed photos alike show the same crooked smile that might just as easily be taken for a sneer or a grimace. They’re such perfect replicas they look like icons. Rice imagines her washing dishes, lying in bed, even staring out the window with that steady gaze and suspects that Lonnie doesn’t see it at all. It’s as if they view two separate people. Rice hasn’t even spoken to her, but he is sure she’d recognize him as sympathetic. They both would roll their eyes at Lonnie and cluck together at his antics. They would share a deep silence, the stillness of people long accustomed to holding their tongues.

Rice sits at his desk, hooks on his headpiece, and begins taking calls. The day starts slowly, with a couple of dead letters. These are messages in memoriam, Item 3 of the Deaths and Funerals section. The first is so long that he eats two doughnuts without having to speak. His typing is fast, and Belle, the woman whose voice fills his head, reads a message that sounds like a Christmas letter. Her husband is dead three years ago today, and Rice thinks that if there’s an afterlife the man must already know this stuff. Surely the departed are not reading the paper to catch up on the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren. Belle runs through a list of colleges and trophies and a wrap-up on the weather, so much like that sadly remembered day, then mentions shed tears and the reunion to come, when they will be a complete and happy family once again and forever. It sounds like she’s bringing potato salad. Rice reads the message back, correcting spellings on the screen, and promises the notice will appear in four days.

She hangs up happy, and he takes another call. It’s routine. Then a funeral home calls with the death of a banker, a once big name retired 25 years. He takes the information and calls it over to news side. They will want to run a squib.

The next call is Del Hehnke of Hehnke & Sons.

“We’ve got an ugly one,” he says. “Attorney’s wife. Suicide. Socially prominent. She’s made his life a mess.”

“How about the living room?”

“Very neat and tidy. Pills and liquor, nothing quicker. Didn’t even need to pump her stomach. She was already gone. He came home and found her.”

“Sounds like she meant it,” Rice says.

“She had the doses right. It wasn’t a cry for help. And get this,” says Del, “he’s insisting on an open casket. Suicides, usually, that’s the last thing they want.”

“Keeping up appearances,” says Rice.

“I think very much so. His ‘in lieu of flowers’ is the American Lung Association. I don’t think it’s fooling anybody. He’s hovering around, very fussy. I came up here just to hide.”

“You need another line of work, Del.”

“I inherited this. It’s cushy.”

“The lap of luxury,” says Rice. “What’s the drill?”

“Okay, ready? Ross, Alice, 67 years,” and Del Hehnke recites at a speed perfect for typing.

Rice Norris hesitates, then continues without saying a word because he knows most of these facts and does not need to check spellings for people to whom he used to be related.

Melissa still goes by Ross, and she’s living in Kentucky, a place he can’t imagine. It’s as good as the end of the world. It cancels her somehow. He already can’t remember her face. He remembers three freckles on her collarbone and that her eyes are blue, but that’s a fact, something memorized even then so he could answer questions from clerks who thought it cute a man went shopping for his wife. He could rattle off sizes and favorite colors, anything to keep the salesladies charmed, but now he can’t recall her voice or face or even her sense of humor.

Instead he sees her mother standing in the kitchen with sherry in a glass, for my nerves, she always said, just one for my nerves. It was well-past midnight, and she was pouring one for him. Melissa was upstairs, asleep, or throwing up, the truth be known, from alcohol this time. It was too early for the food. He didn’t know yet he’d find candy bars and cookies in every corner of the house. He was with her mother, the two of them the only upright adults in a house with the dishwasher running to be ready by breakfast and a single light glowing over the kitchen sink. Rice remembers seeing his reflection on the window’s black glass. He was a wraith made of light. Alice handed him a glass and topped off her own, and she asked him, “What makes you think you’re going to be happy married to my daughter?”

She was sloshed and staring at him with all the pity he had ever seen. She wanted him to run away that night not for Melissa’s sake but his own. He didn’t, of course, but seeing now the facts of her death typed on a screen and his own face faint against the glass, Rices realizes it is Alice he misses from that marriage. She is the only soul.

The one he must imagine dead.

He should have spoken to her when it ended, but he felt he’d lost the privilege. He wasn’t entitled to the confidence.

They never spoke another word, and now their silence is the one fact left.

Hutton Ross enjoyed the nickname Hut. Rice believed from the start he’d conferred it on himself. It made him feel like one of the boys, or let him act like one, if he wanted, if it might be an advantage. Rice hated his crushing handshake the first time they met, that and the smirk on his face, which dared the world to be worth his time. And some aspects were, if they confirmed his good taste and largess and expansiveness and wit. Anything less was pending. He was reserving judgment.

That was his message to the world, especially those close enough to hear it often. Those for whom his beneficence was expected to be expected, as a gift, as the grace he granted. Or might.

There were the usual talks. Rice’s family, Rice’s plans, Rice’s prospects, which ought to have been good. Advertising, PR, that sort of thing. The future was vague, but he had an idea. Trucks and furniture weren’t his whole goal for life. He thought working his way through college showed gumption.

Somehow it didn’t register with Hut. He’d ask a question and look distracted, as if hearing someone summarize a movie he couldn’t find less interesting.

Only one remark brought him into the room. Rice sneezed and complained about the ragweed.

“Hay fever!” Hut bellowed and came in from the kitchen. A glass of bourbon clinked in his hand. He wore a madras shirt and khaki pants, and his hair was combed straight back and stiff. It was three in the afternoon. “Hay fever,” he repeated. “That’s a hell of a note to stir into the gene pool. Mel?” he said.

Melissa pointed Rice toward a trash can for the Kleenex he’d just used. “Yes, Daddy?” she said.

“Mel, I thought you were better trained. I thought you were screening these boys.”

“Some things just slip through, Daddy.” She waggled her eyebrows and Rice felt himself blush.

Hut’s hand without the glass rubbed and scratched against his stomach. “Slipping in’s one thing,” he said. “I’m more worried what follows in its wake.” He sipped his bourbon and started moving. “But time will tell. It’s theoretically possible to hit the jackpot. Sometimes you must remind yourself. Eh?”

And from the next room he said, “Achoo.”

“Hutton,” Alice said, but under her breath.

Melissa asked, “Anyone want ice cream?”

“Mel?” said Rice.

“He’s called me that since I was 6. Earlier, really. I think he wanted a boy.”

Rice trailed a hand down Melissa’s stomach and pressed against her abdomen. He cupped its flesh and squeezed. He felt himself tighten. “He must have been disappointed,” Rice said and kissed each perfect freckle.

“Not always,” Melissa said. Her hand caught his and stopped it. Held it. Held it still.

When he awoke her back was to him. Her fingers were guides. “Here,” she said.

Rice shifted. His hips rolled.

“Yes,” she said. “Here.” Her hand was ungiving. “Yes.”

Del Hehnke’s last words on the phone stay with Rice all morning.

“This guy must be drunk. Look, I’ve gotta go. The husband’s making noises.”

The remark so nearly echoes Alice that Rice is surprised by what he remembers, by what he’s not considered for 20 years.

“Hut’s a drunk,” she told him once. “He makes his noises. We applaud them. The show goes on.” She splashed more in both their glasses. “Cheers,” she said. “Everyone’s happy.”

Rice never saw the man in public without the calm of an emperor.

“That’s just a matter of timing,” Alice said. “Those three more drinks at home make all the difference. He’s never sloppy. He’s just insistent.” She stared at her own black ghost in the window. “He dislikes women over the age of 30. It doesn’t matter how thin you are.” She smiled. “I can fit in my wedding dress anyway. That’s one fact I do control.” She turned to Rice and said, “You are such a sweet boy. I don’t mean to ramble. It’s late or I would play some Chopin. That always puts me in a better mood.”

Rice, in the lunchroom, does not feel like eating. He watches Lonnie, who is off duty but tirelessly talking up the picnic. He flits from table to table and makes himself at home. People chat and joke back. He is goofy and earnest and absolutely dedicated to making you feel welcome. It’s surprising he doesn’t work in sales.

Rice wonders how many of the women here have spent their time throwing up.

When he first discovered Melissa, he thought she was actually sick. He’d come home later than usual but earlier than expected because half the units were missing shelves. Delivery was made with installation to follow. He got off at seven instead of nine and brought a pizza home to celebrate, a nice surprise, but Melissa was nowhere to be seen until he got to the bathroom, where she crouched in a dingy gray bra and panties over the toilet.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Are you sick?” He tried to hold her forehead and let her rest it in his hand.

She sprang away, swatting and crying No and Yes and No and scrambling into the tub. “Go away, just go away.” She sobbed and flattened her face against the cold tile wall. Pale yellow water shined on her chin, and she swiped one hand in the air as if erasing the sight of him. And so he left, and in an hour she came out and never said a word.

Some nights he woke to hear her retching. He lay in bed wanting to cry, and sometimes managing, while she turned her stomach inside out and emptied it of the smallest scrap. Or he’d hear her wolfing ice cream, half a gallon in the middle of the night, and go to throw it up. He’d hear her fingers in her throat, and it would start again, the quick, convulsive spurts, the push to finish, and her return to bed.

His pretense of sleep.

He was so thin then and hardly ever slept.

“You’re wasting away,” she told him. “Why don’t you ever eat?”

“It doesn’t occur to me,” he said. “I get too busy.”

She slapped him in the face. “You’re doing it on purpose. I hate you. I hate everything you do.”

Rice sees women hunched over salads and picking dry tuna from cans. If they are vomiting after midnight or hiding candy bars behind the mixing bowls or canisters of flour, they show no sign. But some surely are. This very newspaper tells him so. A “New Findings” story appears every several months. It’s on TV and in the magazines. It’s now a public secret life.

Back then it was quick, more furtive than sex. She was throwing up. She did it in hiding, deliberately, and eating was just as secret.

She foraged and snatched the food up to her lips. She listened like an animal chewing quickly in the dark. Every day was judged by what she had contained.

“My M.R.S. degree,” said Alice. “That was my goal in college. And I got it, too. Can I pour you another?”

“You take care of my daughter,” Hut told him, but it sounded like a threat. They were shaking hands, with Rice held close. Hut’s smile was fixed for the photographers.

Melissa spent half the day in tears. Rice remembers that much. She sobbed and hugged her father at every turn. Hut drew her in. He enclosed her, pressed her head against his chest, and stood, smiling, for all the world to see.

Rice walked the wedding’s outskirts. He posed when it was called for. He shook hands and acted happy. He told about his plans. People nodded and patted his shoulder.

They murmured, “Good luck.”

He could have been anyone.

“It’s long past time she left,” said Alice. She kissed his cheek and whispered, “Oh, Rice, I hope you’re not mistaken.”

A camera flashed.

Hut Ross hugs his daughter. Hut Ross beams at Mel. He offers toasts and blessings. It is a festival.

Hut Ross presides.

In the photos Alice is not much older than Rice is now. He realizes this by doing the arithmetic. The pictures themselves are gone. Melissa took them, like evidence he has to reconstruct.

Rice wonders how he’s been remembered, what blame he’s been assigned.

If any. He may merely be a shadow. It’s been 20 years. He might be little more than recollection, an experiment that failed.

A pivot. A hinge. The device Melissa needed to think that she had left.

To believe it possible she could escape the country of that king.

Lonnie leaves the table of an admittedly beautiful woman and makes hubba-hubba faces on his way to visit Rice. That’s her, he mouths, the girl from advertising. He glows like the man responsible, as if she’s gorgeous because he’s commanded it.

Behind his back she looks not annoyed but befuddled. She catches Rice’s eye. He shoots a glance at Lonnie, and then he winks, tossing in the smallest shrug.

She does not return the favor. She stares so long at him that Rice thinks he must look like just another lug. And bigger than most, which would only make it worse. At least he is not standing. Rice offers a smile and hopes it’s not assumed to be a leer.

“Hey, Big Guy.” Lonnie scrapes a chair away from the table and drops into it. His teeth flash. “She’s the one,” he rasps. His voice is like a scratch of sandpaper. Rice tries to guess if she’s heard from across the room, but Lonnie asks, “Hey, where’s your sack of lunch?”

“I don’t bring a lunch,” Rice says.

“No, but you buy one. Curly’s burger and fries, double-decker, extra cheese, with 11 packets of ketchup. A milkshake, chocolate or vanilla, alternating every other day, a glass of water, and a fruit pie from Mr. Vend-O. Or a honey bun, if they’re out.”

“And if it’s not a Curly’s burger,” says Rice, “and so on?”

“You’ve been known to eat a corn dog.”

“Anything else?”

“That awful sweet-and-sour pork from Wong’s.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Those guys can’t cook,” says Lonnie. “That’s grape jelly or something with a little horseradish thrown in.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“Hooray. Maybe we’re making progress. So, what’s the deal?”

“What deal?”

Lonnie’s fingers walk across the table. “You’ve got a glass of water that’s full to the brim. There’s not even yogurt on your breath.”

“I’m not hungry,” Rice says.

“Next stop, you’re 95 and living with a hundred cats.”

“I’ll name them all after you.”

“I didn’t even think you liked me,” Lonnie says. “All I wanted was your picnic memo.”

“My mother-in-law died yesterday.”

Lonnie looks at Rice’s left hand and says, “I didn’t know you were ever married.”

“A long time ago.”

“Was it expected?” Lonnie asks. “Your mother-in-law?”

“Only by her, I think.” Rice imagines Alice with a glass of sherry, opening a book of études. It’s late afternoon. The light is gray. “Probably nobody else had a clue.” He doesn’t add, We should have.

“You need to take the day off, Rice. Don’t stay here a minute longer. Okay? I’ll sign you out.” Lonnie slides his chair backward, then waits. He’s braced to stand up.

“I can do that,” Rice says. “I can do that myself.”

“Come on, then. Let’s go.” Lonnie rises gently and offers Rice his hand.

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