Harold traipsed up the walkway to his house and stood on the porch, staring at his own front door. Margaret wouldn’t like the tired look on his face. He wasn’t supposed to be tired. No, after a full day of dealing with bickering retirees who told Harold that he had promised them a 10% return when they only got 9.5%, he was supposed to show up with his tie in tact and his face adorned with a loving smile.

He opened the door and his wife’s face appeared, some apparition framed by the entryway. Her voice was tinny and passionate, in a small deliberate way, like kitten’s paws kneading a pillow with its claws.

“Did you bring home the tickets?”

His foot hadn’t even crossed the threshold and he could feel the wind of her voice lashing at him. He imagined it actually pushing him back out the door to stumble back along the sidewalk, adorned by grass that was too short and probably the wrong color. There had been a conversation about that more than once. Something about the right seeds that everybody but stupid people knew to get.

He felt a new wrinkle crease his face as he plastered a smile on his face.

“They were out.”

“Oh really?” She whipped out a sheet of paper she had printed on her computer, the ink still damp on the page, and rattled it in his face. “This is the seating chart Harold. See all the empty spaces? See them?”

He tried to look into her eyes but he couldn’t see past the paper rattling just inches from his nose. Seething with hot breath, she glared at him and pursed her lips in a way that asked: Why do I even try?

He reached out to lower her hand and then stepped across the threshold – actually stepped into his own house. The urge to remind her how much he paid for it every month swelled just below his throat like a great geyser of air that had to explode from his face so he could breathe again.

But he didn’t say it. Because that would lead to torrents of tribulation that he really was too tired to endure.

She was a slender woman with spindly arms and sharp features, her light brown hair tied up in a bun that reminded him of James Bond movies from the 60’s. Except she didn’t smile like the girls that Mr. Bond cavorted with in the search for world-saving information about world-ending villains. The smile just wasn’t there.

It had been, once upon a time. In those early days of heady exploration and discovery, she had actually batted her eyes from behind the rim of a Tequila Sunrise and smiled in that vague way that beckoned him forward while still enticing him with the thrill of a potential denial. He had to chase. He had to ask. She understood that about him – that he chased things down and conquered them. So, she had let him chase her down. And when she did, she had smiled that way. He remembered.

“Dammit, Harold, you know how important this is for Amelia. She’s never been and you told her this was the year she could go.”

He scratched his brow then let his hands fall to his side like two lead weights that were too heavy to hold up any longer. He could feel his shoulders sag.

“No, you said she could go this year. I said we’ll see.”

“And that always means ‘no’, doesn’t it? Can’t you, for just once in your selfish life, actually mean what you say?”

“I did mean it -“

“No, you didn’t, Harold. Or you would have tickets in your hand. Or you would have explained why you don’t want her to go before the deadline passed. Today was the last day and you just -” Her eyes narrowed and she let out a sigh. “She’s not going to be a little girl for much longer. You’ll be sorry about letting these moments pass you by. Pass us by.”

He had known better than to let the issue of tickets slide this long. Because this was all his wife saw of Amelia. It didn’t matter that she tagged along when he mowed the lawn to pick up clippings and put them in a little straw basket. It didn’t matter that they went to the soccer field on spring nights and she giggled when she kicked the ball just right, sending it scooting across the grass and past him as he heroically lunged for the ball and “missed.”

None of that mattered. It never did. Never would. All that mattered was the scrawny yelling thing in front of him had told him Amelia wanted to go to see whatever mind-numbing display posed as children’s entertainment that year. He honestly didn’t recall Amelia saying a word about it.

“I thought we might go to the lake with Cheryl and her family instead. You know, a cabin on a lake with boats and tubing.”

“We can do that any time, Harold. Don’t you understand? This was a once-in-a-lifetime showing. And she so wanted to go. All her friends are going to be there. She’s six. She doesn’t even like swimming.”

Well, that was an assumption. The truth was Margaret had never allowed their daughter to get within ten feet of water that wasn’t in a bath tub because of some guarantee from God himself that the girl would drown.

But he was too tired to contend with her. Yes, he had a double-fistful of logic grenades that would have defused the tirade for any thinking person. But when Margaret got like this, she didn’t think. She lunged. She grappled. He could easily see his wife hurling herself at him to wrap her slender fingers around his throat, her red-soaked claws choking the life out of him. Because he had dared deny her daughter the life-saving adventure of mindless stagecraft that would be forgotten by the next morning. There was no syllogistic arsenal that could contend with Amelia’s mother berating him for denying her only child of some once-in-a-lifetime experience, leaving her soul barren of the compassion necessary to avoid becoming some gang member’s concubine at the tender age of fifteen.

The truth was, Amelia didn’t like that sort of thing.

But Margaret wasn’t finished with him.

“Every time I try to get you to do anything that you don’t think of yourself, you find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen. I’m the one -“

He put up his hand. Tactical error.

“I know, you’re the one who spends all day with her. You’re the one who talks to the teachers. You’re the one who knows her. I’m just the guy who shows up every night because he pays rent for a bed and kitchen.”

The muscles in her jaw tightened. She curled her hands into tight little fists, one of them crumpling the paper, choking it to death.

She spoke in a low husky voice, some dam of air restraining an assault that would have undeniably brought an ambulance. But that, he knew, would never happen. Or at least he was pretty sure it wouldn’t. She really did need his money and he felt a wave of nausea ripple through his stomach when he wondered, in a fleeting moment of bludgeoning self-honesty, if they had come down to just that. Everything that had lured him to the chase had scampered away over the years to leave him standing in his own house to feel the hot breath of contention replace what had once been the heat of passion.

“You can’t throw that in my face every time you don’t want to deal with just how much of a self-centered, selfish, arrogant bastard you are sometimes. Jesus, she’s just a little girl who wants to go see the show with her friends. Just because you don’t like it – Can’t you understand that?”

“Doe she?”

His wife scoffed, as if he had spat on the altar during communion. “Of course she does,” she yelled. She shook her head “But, whatever, Harold. You go ahead upstairs and change. And I’ll cook you something nice so you can drag yourself to the table to spend an hour with your family. If that’s not too much trouble.” She stepped back and made an over-grandiose gesture at the staircase.

He eyed the gauche curls of the ancient wood that wound up the side of the stairs. Thick spindles sat squashed beneath a fat glistening handrail, some ornate jail of air. The entire assembly looked like something poured into place to set like concrete, forever locked to the hour struck by some ancient clock.

He judged the angle between where his hand hung and the side of her face. He imagined what it would be like to hit her. All it would take was one solid step forward, with a half-twist of his torso to ratchet up some angular momentum and then his hand swinging back and unfurling right into her jaw. He could hear the impact, see the shock in her eyes and then hear her wail while she held a hand to her reddening face as her body slid down the wall. The image gained a richness and realness each time they fought.

Chasing the image from his mind, Harold stepped back onto the porch and slammed the door hard enough to hear the satisfying sound of the frame rattling. This is what he did instead of actually hitting her. He left an imaginary rage of violence in his wake and stomped back to his car.

Somehow, Margaret was smart enough to let him leave when he had reached the point where he felt an uncontrollable urge to slam the door. She never followed him out, as if she knew he needed to calm himself down so he didn’t finally step over that line that brought reddened cheeks and flashing red lights to the curb.

The only thing he didn’t understand, truly, was why she hated him so.

©2021 Michael J Lawrence

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