By: Todd Mercer
“I’m telling you James, that poor woman over there endured the whole winter by herself. The worst one since ’78, and her man left her to it. At least since November, I saw her packing those twin babies over the snow-bank, keeping the wood stove burning.”
“And now the husband—whatshisname—is finally back?”
“Where was he, do you think?”
“Couldn’t say since I’ve never spoken to them. They keep to themselves.”
“He might have had to travel for his work.”
“I don’t think so. You hear a few things. It’s probably smart to keep an eye on that guy.”
So that’s what they did, kept an eye. One morning, Lacey June called James over to the kitchen window.
“There.” The couple across the road were pulling grocery bags from their car.
“Take a good look at that man.”
“The one carrying groceries?”
“Yeah, well he isn’t her husband.”
James looked again. “Of course it is. Who else would he be?
“He left her in a lurch, so she up and got a new man.”
“No way, honey. See how tall he is?”
“That’s just a similarity.”
“The man limps on the same leg as he did last year. Coincidence?”
“His eyes are blue. They were brown before.”
“His eyes?? They’re a hundred yards away, at least. How could you know that?”
Lacey June appears sheepish as she opens the spice cabinet and pulls out a pair of binoculars. “I’m telling you, the resemblance is strong, but that’s a different man.
She was not an insomniac until lately, but now she can’t relax enough to drop off.
Dan had been consistently kind since he returned. So happy with the babies crawling all over him, and he was taking tasks off her around the house.
She decided to believe him when he told her that crazy story of where the hell he got waylaid to on the way to the supermarket last fall. She willed herself not to doubt it or check it out, but it didn’t work entirely, because she was laying there wide awake this late. She couldn’t trust him.
Her man, who let her shovel out the driveway every day of the longest winter, while the babies cried indoors. For whatever reason. He said he didn’t have a choice.
Other nights she was frustrated that those doubts were pushing them into new problems. Different problems than what happened in the last town, when he was getting those threatening phone calls.
Dan needed to take his pills daily-then he functioned fine. He told her while she was big pregnant that he was still taking his prescription. A lie. He wasn’t so psychologically pulled together by the time she realized he was lying about medicating. Maybe the only important thing he ever lied about. If the story was true, that is. Dan was so steady, all the way back to undergrad when she met him, absolutely dependable and a straight-up communicator for years before the weird complications.
Did he used to use the verbal tic-phrase, “I know, right?” in conversation? It’s funny that she can’t be sure if he had a beard or didn’t when he disappeared. Dan might have one or not have one, as he’d get bored with one look then bored with the other.
There are ways a woman knows with her eyes closed that her man is her man. Even in that regard, Dan was Dan for all the good and bad tied together that entails, but only to the threshold of a nagging instinct. He may have been not Dan but ever so brilliantly close.
That’s what six months separation does, it takes your certainty.
I know she’s awake, but this isn’t the time. Don’t even know how to talk about it anyway.
The lady across the road monitors our every move. Why doesn’t she step over and introduce herself? Almost a year here since we moved in, but no one speaks to us. We probably made a mistake.
They must have heard what happened before. There wasn’t a blessed thing that could have prevented that, I’ve said it a million times. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Nobody lets anyone else start over. They know, that’s it.
I needed to tell her something when I came back from—from there. You can’t say: “I have no memory of the winter.” You can’t say that someone took you away or that you made a temporary friend of the devil to survive. Or that you can dream to where you don’t know when you’re in the dream. Something happened to me, something in the concrete world happened. I hope there wasn’t surgery. Nothing sticks unless I write it down.
I had to give her a reason. Maybe that was actually the reason.
It’s murky water, thinking straight. No more phone calls for me, ever. Positive thoughts only. Focus on nothing but the breathe in, the breathe out.
These babies are beautiful, my babies.
You’re so wonderful to me. For whatever it was, I’m sorry. You’ve got to know I am. Sure wish you could sleep.
I’m not going to run away again, or go off my medicine. I’m going to be Dan, it’s decided. Who in his right mind wouldn’t want to be Dan? Look at this guy’s life. Should be and is, it’s done.
Todd Mercer was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in Fiction and Poetry in 2019, and Best of the Net in Poetry in 2018. His collection Ingenue was published in Autumn of 2020 by Celery City Press. Recent work appears in The Museum of Americana, Eunoia Review and Star 82 Review.