By: Jean Rover
“Madge says I’m boring,” Chuck confided to Max. “I think she’s going to leave me.” The old dog looked up with his one good eye. The other was swollen and sightless, destroyed by a cataract and glaucoma. His furry body drooped, still submissive after Madge had scolded him.
Madge had spent most of the morning mopping the kitchen floor and vacuuming like a soldier on a mission, until she discovered the wet spot on the living room rug. “I told you to put the dog outside,” she roared at Chuck from the kitchen. “Is that too much to ask? I have to make the potato salad . . . and take a shower.”
She’d invited the Hackleys over for a Fourth of July potluck out on the deck. Chuck wasn’t looking forward to the Hackleys. Oh, Pete was okay, but Ruth and Madge constantly tried to one-up each other. That always put Madge on edge, and she was already out there teetering. Their besting used to be about the kids, clothes, or cars, but after they retired, it was travel.
Chuck bent down and scratched Max’s ears. The Hackleys were travel whores—always off to some place. All you had to say was pass the salt, and they’d tell you every detail of their trip to Ireland where Pete got hooked on potato pancakes, or the time Ruth got stuck in a sauna in Finland. After they discovered cruising, it got worse.
Once the Hackleys visited, they’d reciprocate with a dinner invitation. Chuck shuddered at the thought because he’d have to sit through a boring slide show of their endless travel photos. Now that Pete had learned how to hook his iPhone up to the TV, there’d be zillions of shots of him with his big, hairy stomach hanging over a pair of ugly, flowered shorts and more of Ruth standing next to him smiling, totally unaware of her cottage cheese thighs sticking out of a bulging swimsuit.
“Shit,” Chuck muttered. “Why do people have to define themselves by where they go?”
Max didn’t look up.
“You asked ‘em how they are, they tell you where they went.”
“Harumph. Those Hackleys travel thousands of miles just to eat and shop.” He patted Max’s head. “There are two things in life anyone can do, ol’ boy. One is travel and the other is get married.”
Chuck was perfectly content with his routine—playing golf, having coffee downtown with the guys, puttering in the garage, browsing at the hardware store, or whiling away the afternoon lounging with Max, reading sports magazines and murder mystery paperbacks.
He surveyed the wet spot on the rug.
Max hung his head.
“I’ll clean it up,” he called from the living room. “Do we have some Nature’s Miracle?”
He barely finished his question when a red and white container flew through the air and bounced off the wall landing next to Max with a thump. A few seconds later, the raging Madge tossed a roll of paper towels.
“This house smells like a monkey’s cage!” she bellowed. “And, there’s dog hair everywhere.”
Chuck said nothing. Max just cowered and shook.
The weather wasn’t helping either. It rained in the morning, and the still chilly day coupled with a threatening gray sky meant the potluck would move to their small dining room. Several miniature American flags, originally intended for the deck, found a home in the chipped philodendron pot. A festive streamer of tiny red, white, and blue stars wound its way around the large dining room window.
Chuck led Max outside to the backyard and put him in his kennel. Max flopped down waiting, while Chuck grabbed the garden hose and filled his water dish. “There you go, ol’ boy.” It seemed like yesterday when he brought the squirming, golden lab puppy home to fill their empty nest. Now suffering from arthritis, Max’s old body just wanted to sleep.
“At least out here, you won’t be trapped around the table with those mind-numbing bores.” Chuck’s shoulders slumped. He’d hoped to busy himself barbecuing chicken breasts over the grill, but because of the weather, Madge decided to oven roast them instead. Now, with his plan foiled, there was no way to escape the Hackleys, not even for a few minutes.
Back inside, Chuck sopped up pee with a thick layer of paper towels and poured the cleaning fluid on the wet spot.
“I know it’s hard,” Madge yelled from the kitchen. “But you just have to face it. Max is up there, and … and I think it’s time.” She slammed a cupboard door.
Chuck, ignored Madge’s comment about Max, covered the spot with a fresh layer of paper towels, and pressed down with his full weight. His thoughts shifted to his haunting discovery. He’d been checking the sent mail file on the computer to make sure he’d included Clyde in his e-mail message about their Thursday golf game. That’s when he spotted it—a message from Madge to Robert, her old college boyfriend. It said she’d found his web page while surfing the Internet and got to thinking about old times. After two children and a long teaching career, she’d finally retired. She didn’t mention Chuck. She said she was going to be in San Francisco, and she’d love to meet him for lunch … to catch up. Chuck read it several times slowly. He felt like he’d been hit in the stomach with the head of a 3-iron.
That next morning, during a nice breakfast of pancakes and strawberries, Madge abruptly announced, “I’m going to San Francisco to see Amy.” That news caught Chuck with a big strawberry in his mouth. Before he could reply, she quickly added, “It’s a mother and daughter thing.” By the time he swallowed, she was already on her feet, taking militant strides toward the sink with her empty plate. For days afterward, Chuck mined the e-mail files looking for Robert’s response, but found nothing.
For Madge, it all started the night she fled to Amy’s bedroom to avoid Chuck’s guttural snoring, which sounded like a jackhammer on steroids. Maybe it was Amy’s school pennants hanging on the wall or the full moon shining through the oak tree outside the window that spurred her on. At any rate, a vivid image of Robert popped into Madge’s mind transporting her back to her youth. What would her life have been like if it had worked out with Robert?
She slipped out of bed and scuffled down to the den, where she plugged his name into Google. Her search produced several hits. He was a successful real estate lawyer in San Francisco and served on a prestigious city planning commission. Back at the Google site, she clicked on Images, which took her to a web page about some conference where Robert was a speaker. She pushed her red-framed reading glasses farther up on her nose and moved her face close to the computer screen to study his image. Unlike Chuck who had a belly and bald head, Robert was trim and handsome in his dark suit. His full head of dark hair grayed gracefully around the temples. Beneath her nightgown, her heart fluttered. She hastily composed an e-mail suggesting they meet. As soon as she hit the send button, she felt like a huge weight had dropped off and she was floating toward a new beginning.
Chuck continued to blot the wet spot on the rug. He remembered seeing Robert around campus a few times. He couldn’t picture him exactly, but he did remember Madge saying he’d broken her heart. Why, after all these years, would you want to see some jerk-face who did that? He pushed another paper towel down hard against the rug until no more liquid appeared.
The first time he’d met Madge back in college, he was instantly attracted to her dazzling smile and the way her brown pageboy bounced every time she turned her head. Slender and perky, she kept the conversation going no matter who they were with—something he wasn’t good at. Over the years, Madge’s waistline had gotten thicker, but she still wore her hair like that, although now it was much shorter and steel gray. After their first date, Madge seemed aloof; but he pursued her until they became a couple. All marriages had their dry spells, didn’t they?
In the kitchen, Madge, wielding a knife, swiftly removed the skins from the boiled potatoes, her thoughts shifting to Robert. To a small town girl, Robert, who sat next to her in an American lit class, was handsome with that dark curl in the center of his forehead and an easy smile. He was exciting, too, always talking about going to law school, having his own practice, and spending the summer in London. He took her to plays, to frat parties where they danced until midnight, and surprised her with a French kiss. She fell hard, like a giant redwood crashing in the forest, her heart pounding every time he came near. She was dreaming about the details of their wedding right down to the cake, when Robert ditched her for Connie somebody, that well-stacked sorority queen. Madge picked up a large skinned potato and viciously diced it, the knife clacking against her wooden cutting board.
After hunkering down in her dorm room, crying her heart out, she began stalking him, running for blocks, hoping to accidentally bump into him at the student union or the library. Nothing worked. So, when Chuck asked her to go to the game that weekend she said yes, secretly hoping to cross paths with Robert.
Madge pulled a bowl from the cupboard and whisked together mayonnaise with yellow mustard. She’d met steady, reliable Chuck at a dorm social featuring dessert and conversation. He was attentive and she felt comfortable with him, but Chuck never stoked her fire the way Robert had.
“Chuck’s a good man,” her dad had said after meeting him twice. “Sensible. Both feet planted on the ground.”
“Have you decided on your colors?” her mom had asked as she hemmed the green taffeta bridesmaid dress Madge would wear for her younger sister’s wedding. “You need to do that, you know.”
“Mom, please.” Madge clenched her hands and took a deep breath, wondering if another Robert might come along. “We’re just dating.”
Her mother bit off the end of the thread and shook out the skirt. “I’d love to make your dress.”
A dress? Was marriage about a dress? What about love? London? The world?
“You know, Madge, your Aunt Ruby could’ve gotten married lots of times, but she was too particular.” She wrinkled her nose when she said particular. “You don’t want to be too darn picky or you’ll get left.”
Aunt Ruby. That shriveled husk of a woman they always had to invite on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She reminded Madge of those corn kernels you always found at the bottom of the popcorn bowl that failed to burst into a wonderful fluffy delight.
After her sister’s wedding and after Madge’s best friend eloped, the pressure increased.
“You’re not getting any younger,” her mother insisted.
“That Chuck,” her dad said, peering at her over the sports section. “You can set your clock by him. Don’t know too many men like that.”
One month after graduation, she and Chuck married. Everyone said it was the next logical step. It was, wasn’t it?
Madge added salt and pepper to her mixture, whisking vigorously. Chuck, a history major, ended up working at an insurance company while she taught second grade. After a couple years in an apartment, they bought a tract house in the suburbs and had Amy, then John. When John started school, Madge went back to work. Chuck settled down in the underwriting department and stayed with the company for thirty-two years.
She banged the wire whisk against the bowl to shake the mayonnaise from the tines.
Chuck grabbed Madge’s hairdryer from their bathroom so he could dry the wet spot. He glanced at the tiny heart-shaped clock on the windowsill—the one he’d given her as an anniversary present. Why did she put it there, instead of on her nightstand?
Time. It fixes everything. At least that’s what Clyde had said when the two shared cheeseburgers at the club after a round of golf. Chuck’s angst poured out slowly like the thick ketchup in the Heinz bottle he held over his fries. “Madge is on my case all the time,” he’d confided, watching the red sauce puddle on his plate. “Do this. Do that. When I do, it’s never right. If I say something, she loses it.” He didn’t mention the e-mail affair. That still made his stomach lurch.
“Give it time,” Clyde had said. “When I retired, me and the wife had to adjust to each other all over again. I used to go to work while she did her thing with the kids, the house, whatever. We did that our whole lives. All of a sudden, I was in her space. Let me tell you, we drove each other crazy. Now things have settled down . . . somewhat. I go off and play golf. She joined a book group. Trust me, it gets better.”
Chuck aimed the hairdryer at the spot on the rug. Maybe he should insist on going to San Francisco with her. Maybe he should fly down there later and surprise them. He grabbed a can of Lysol and gave an imaginary Robert a quick spray. “Real men don’t have web pages,” he said to the rug.
Madge jerked the shells off the hard-boiled eggs. She decided to toss in a little chopped celery to jazz up the salad. Pete always bragged about Ruth’s cooking. Chuck just sat there like a bump on a log.
She hacked away at the celery, muttering to herself about Robert’s response to her e-mail. Wagging her head, she mimicked his voice. “How nice to hear from you. Unfortunately, I can’t meet for lunch because I have to be in Toronto for a seminar. Have a nice day. Blah, blah, blah.” The tone of his message was matter of fact . . . not even a maybe-I’ll-see-you-around sometime and absolutely no details about his personal life. She closed both eyes—such hope, such anticipation. Then pow!
She’d been in the den with Max when she read Robert’s reply. Max was always at her feet whenever she used the computer. “He did it again,” she’d blurted. “That bastard dumped me.” She slid down, threw her arms around the old dog, and cried into his neck—not only about Robert, but about everything else bottled up inside. After a few moments, she got up and hit the delete key. “Take that!” she muttered as Robert’s e-mail disappeared from the screen. She clicked on the trash file and annihilated him again. Zap!
The dinner with the Hackleys went as expected. Pete and Ruth were so tan from their latest vacation to Bora Bora they looked like two roasted turkeys. Ruth talked endlessly about the massage she’d gotten on the cruise ship, the delicious Poisson Cru salad with coconut milk, the midnight buffet complete with ice sculptures, the entertainment, the waiters with cute butts. Next, they were going to try trekking, she said, or perhaps an African safari.
“So, where have you been?” Ruth asked. She gave Madge am innocent smile.
“We’re going to travel one of these days,” Madge replied. “But it’s hard to find someone to care for Max. He’s an old dog. We could board him, but Chuck doesn’t want to do that.”
“Actually, Madge is planning a trip to San Francisco to … uh … see Amy, aren’t you dear?” Chuck studied her face, but Madge took the conversation in a different direction.
“We’ve been working on the kitchen,” she said. “Did you notice we painted the cupboards and updated the knobs?”
Chuck shifted in his chair.
Ruth’s eyes blinked; then blinked again. “That’s why we sold our house and moved into a condo. Houses, like dogs, just tie you down.”
“We took a trip to Victoria a few months ago,” Madge said. “We took the dog.”
“We’ve been there . . . several times,” Ruth countered, “before we retired. I’m talking about excitement—the lure of distant lands.”
“Beans?” Madge handed the bowl of baked beans to Pete.
Chuck could see Ruth was getting to Madge, so he jumped right in. “I take trips every day to Home Depot, Walmart, SavOn Foods.” He grinned. “You don’t have to hide your money in your underwear, and the people are happy to see you.”
Pete gave him a condescending smile.
“Travel is so broadening – ” Ruth began
“Some of us are broad enough,” Chuck laughed and patted his belly. “Right, Pete?”
Madge kicked him under the table.
“Is there celery in the potato salad?” Ruth suddenly dropped her fork as if she’d been poisoned. “I never touch the stuff!” She grasped her throat. “I got sick on it when we were in France, just as we were going to that alpine village, the one with magnificent flowers and cobbled streets. Even the sight of it makes me—”
“I—I thought celery would perk it up a bit,” Madge stammered.
Ruth quarantined the mound of potatoes to the far side of her plate.
“Ruth makes a hell of a potato salad,” Pete said, “But she never puts celery in it.”
Chuck was glad when they got to dessert because that meant dinner was over and the Hackleys would be leaving soon. Ruth had brought a luscious lemon soufflé cheesecake topped with blueberries. He gobbled his portion, all the while picturing himself at the door waving goodbye.
Pete took it as a sign that he liked it. “Would you look at that, Ruth. The man just inhaled your cheesecake. Ruth makes a hell of a cheesecake.”
Madge looked mortified.
Chuck sat there like a bump on a log.
After they left, Madge sought refuge in the kitchen. While loading the dishwasher, she thought again about Robert, the jerk . . . and then about her children. They were great kids. Did Robert have children and was he a good father? She rolled her eyes. He probably was too busy, distant, and always jetting off somewhere. At least Chuck loved his children. Cared. Spent time with them. She’d give him that.
She saved a piece of chicken breast for Max, planning to surprise him with it in the morning. She felt bad about yelling at him and guilty for wanting to end his life. Max, her once loyal guardian. His scruffy, eager ways had filled the empty spots in her life. She couldn’t count the times she’d taken him for a walk, just to get out of the house. She needed to walk right now, but Max was old and had hip problems.
Maybe I should have an affair? Would Chuck even notice if I did? He gave me a silly clock for our anniversary. What ever happened to a dozen roses, dinner out, dancing, romantic sex? She threw open the kitchen window and took several deep breaths.
“You better go get Max before the fireworks start,” Madge said when Chuck brought in the last dishes from the table.
“He doesn’t hear like he used to,” he mumbled.
“Bring him in, but make damn sure he’s does his business beforehand.” Madge banged a pot. She would go to San Francisco anyway . . . to clear her head . . . to get away . . . to decide her future.
Chuck, happy to duck out, scuttled to the backyard. “Okay, big fella, the coast is clear.” Max lay still. He probably didn’t hear me, Chuck thought, so he gave him a gentle nudge. Max’s old body felt stiff and cold.
“Oh no, Max . . .” his voice broke. Get Madge, he thought. He turned, took two steps, threw his hands up, and stopped. All she cares about is her trip to San Francisco and seeing that wimpy Robert. He made a farting noise with his mouth.
Instead, he grabbed a blanket from the station wagon and carefully wrapped it around Max. He carried the lifeless dog across the lawn, and gently lifted him into the back. Tomorrow he’d take him to the vet and have him cremated.
Chuck sat on the tailgate next to Max for a long time, just watching a clump of ominous, gloomy clouds move above him, his throat choked with emotion. As it got darker, the clouds disappeared into the inky sky. He could see Madge’s silhouette against the upstairs window. His heart sank. She was sleeping in Amy’s room again.
He heard a popping noise and saw the sky light up as a colorful red flare burst into millions of tiny lights. Except for shouts and children laughing in the distance, the backyard seemed like a battlefield with whistling sounds and bright explosions. He remembered when they used to picnic in the park with the kids waiting for the fireworks to start … how little Amy squealed and ran to his protective arms; how he carried a sleepy John from the car to tuck him into bed. Now they called him Pops. They were a family. He and Madge had a history together . . . over forty years. Surely, she wasn’t going to toss that away. Maybe Clyde was right—you just had to give it some time.
The bedroom window was black, and except for an occasional bang, the night was still. Chuck slid off the tailgate and stared at the bundle in the back. Max seemed so all alone lying there. For just a second, something stirred deep in Chuck’s gut that made him want to linger; as if he just finished the final chapter in a good book but didn’t want the story to end. In the darkness tears came. He patted the blanket one last time and slammed the door shut. “Good night, fella,” he said. “Thanks for everything.”
Jean Rover’s short fiction has received awards or recognition from Writer’s Digest, Short Story America, Willamette Writers, and Oregon Writers Colony. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest Anthology. Other stories were performed at Liars’ League events in London, England and Portland, Oregon. She’s also authored a chapbook, Beneath the Boughs Unseen, featuring holiday stories about society’s invisible people and her novel manuscript, Ready or Not was a semi-finalist in Chanticleer’s Mystery and Mayhem International Book Awards contest.