MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
September 3, 1995Madison, Wisconsin
Her life would be so much easier if she’d never gotten married.
It was a terrible thing to think, but the truth is never nice. That’s something her mother always said, that there are pretty lies and ugly truths. And the truth is that her life would be easier without Matt. Oh, she loved him, she couldn’t deny that. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Love’s got teeth, it’s got claws, and once it hitches you to a person it’s so tough to rip yourself free. Marriage, she thought, might just be a crock of shit.
And while she might complain about her husband, and sometimes she actively hated him, he was still better than every other man she’d ever dated. And maybe that was love. The body’s chemical reaction to finding a person who irritates you less than everyone else.
Janice thought all these things even though it had only been a year since she walked down the long linoleum-floored hallway of the Windsor Creek Community Rec Center, clutching a thin handful of wilted roses as she entered the small, windowless activity room they’d rented for two hours. Janice’s mother was the only one who took pictures of the wedding, even though she’d had her reservations about the whole thing, said she didn’t trust Matt, he didn’t seem like a good guy, but she’d still snapped pics on one of those disposable cameras you could buy at the drugstore and drop off to be developed once they’re all used up. Only one picture came out good enough to frame. In it, Matt and Janice are standing together, holding hands, and there are a few signs taped up on the wall behind them—notices about kids at the pool needing to be accompanied by an adult and wiping down the exercise equipment after use—and a cheap office clock, the hands stuck at 12:05 for the rest of eternity. Janice is looking at Matt in the photo, her veil puffing out around her shoulders like a cloud, and she’s smiling. Happy. Matt’s smiling, too, but he’s not looking at his bride. His face is turned away from her, his eyes are almost closed, as if she isn’t there at all.
A handful of people had attended the ceremony, and it didn’t last long since the pastor had a funeral booked right after and had to leave, and when Janice had heard that she’d almost canceled the whole thing. She thought it was a bad omen to have the pastor marry them and then rush off to bury someone else, but they’d already put a nonrefundable deposit down on the room and had paid for the sheet cake from Aldi, and she couldn’t walk away from that kind of money. And a year after her wedding, when her mouth is full of blood and her eyes are burning from the gasoline fumes and she can’t stop shaking from the pain, Janice will remember the old saying—money makes the world go round—and she’ll think that if she’d only been able to wash her hands of that lousy two hundred dollars her whole life would’ve been so much different.
You see, just about one year into her marriage to Matthew Evans and less than twelve hours from this moment, Janice will be dead.
It was almost two in the morning and she should be at work, the graveyard shift at the old folks’ home where she worked the front desk, answering incoming calls and helping out with any resident emergencies. Her boss had asked her not to call it the graveyard shift. Morbid, Jesse called it. Most of these people have one foot in the grave already, we don’t need to remind them of it. Jesse wouldn’t look at her when he spoke, but only down at his hands. He was a strange guy, retired army, in his thirties and still living with his Irish mother, walked everywhere because he didn’t own a car. But he was a nice guy, too. Shy, quiet. I should’ve married a man like you, she said once, jokingly, and Jesse hadn’t said anything, just went outside to smoke one of his filterless cigarettes. She watched him through a window, saw him take a few puffs and then grind the butt out on the trunk of an oak.
“I’ll be a little late today,” she’d told Jesse earlier when she called the home. He’d answered on the second ring, although there’d been a long pause between him picking up the receiver and the sound of his voice, as if the movement had happened in slow motion. But that was Jesse for you. He moved like he was wading through a vat of warm molasses. Some people thought he was a few eggs short of a dozen, but he was just thoughtful. “I have some personal business to deal with.”
“Is this about that husband of yours?”
“Who’s going to cover for you?”
“Can’t you do it?” Janice had asked. “Jesse, this is important. I just need an hour. Maybe two.”
He sighed, and she’d known then he would cover for her.
“Ms. Ruby’s already been asking for you,” he said. “I know you’re sneaking her food in the middle of the night. She’s not supposed to eat outside of mealtimes.”
“It’s toast,” Janice said. “And it’s not so much that she’s hungry. She’s lonely, needs someone to talk to.”
And now a part of her wished she’d just gone to work, strolled in right on time and punched the clock. She’d probably be in the home’s kitchen right now, dropping white bread into the toaster and fishing a small plate out of the cabinets to take to Ms. Ruby of room 217, who called the front desk nearly every night complaining that she was hungry and couldn’t she just have a slice of toast, sourdough bread, light on the butter?
“Is there some sort of trouble?” Jesse had asked. “Anything I can help with?”
“It’s no big deal,” she’d said lightly. But it was a big deal, it was always a big deal if the man you’ve been married to for only a year was sleeping with another woman behind your back. Woman? Maybe it was women, she didn’t know. What she did know, or at least suspect: he did it while she was at work, earning money to support his ass while he was in school, because he’d said it was too much for him to hold a job and go to college, so she was the one who worked twelve-hour shifts at the Magnolia Senior Citizen Home so Matt could stay home and spend his free time studying, even though she was trying to finish her degree, too. She had a job, she went to class, she cooked and cleaned and kept their lives in order while her husband spent most of his time sleeping and flipping through books and complaining about his life. That was one thing she’d come to learn about marriage with Matt—she got the short end of the stick, if she got any of the stick at all. “I’ll see you later tonight.”
And now here she was, crouched on a curb across the street from their rental house, half-hidden behind the bumper of some neighbor’s car. Two hours she’d been there, her ass mostly asleep from the sidewalk and the muscles in her legs prickly and stiff, watching. Waiting for something to happen. And there’d been nothing except the steady glow of lights in the window. No signs of movement. She’d kissed Matt good-bye, laid her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him close, lightly touched her lips to his, and then let him go like not a damn thing was wrong—she should’ve majored in theater, she thought—and left, got behind the wheel of the old Chevette they shared—the shit-vette is what Janice liked to call it when it would crap out, usually at the most inconvenient times and only when she was behind the wheel—and drove away like she was heading into work, but instead she’d just parked on the next block over and walked back to a spot she’d already picked out. And for the last two hours there’d been nothing but the chirp of crickets from a nearby bush and the hum of the streetlights and the irritating rub of the moist, sweaty waistband of her pants against the small of her back, and Janice had started to think that maybe she was just crazy, that Matt wasn’t cheating after all, that she’d imagined the smell of unfamiliar perfume on her pillow and the tangle of blond hairs she’d hooked out of the shower drain. And the strange phone calls, let’s not forget those, the sound of light breathing coming through the receiver and then the vicious click in her ear—but maybe it was nothing, people dialed the wrong number all the time—
A car pulled to a stop in front of their house, idling for a moment before the headlights flickered out and the puttering engine shut off. It was red and small, cute, and it was a woman who climbed out from behind the wheel, just as cute and small as her car. She was wearing a romper, for god’s sake, thin blue cotton with white flowers scattered over the fabric. It was something a toddler would wear. And this woman, whoever she was, took a few steps toward the house—she’d parked so she was blocking the driveway, Janice noticed, and that, maybe even more than the fact that this woman was here to have sex with her husband while wearing a child’s clothes, infuriated her—and Matt flung open the front door, came down the steps in that light, quick way he had, his arms hanging loosely at his sides so his hands flopped around his hips, like he was in midconvulsion. She’d always thought it was a ridiculous way for anyone to come down stairs, especially a man like Matt, who normally moved with such ease, but she’d always felt guilty for thinking it, because she loved him, and when you love a person you make all the excuses for them. You see past everything that’s wrong and foolish and stupid and make it work.
But now, watching Matt pull the girl close and kiss her, right on the mouth, one of his hands snaking around her back and roughly squeezing one of her ass cheeks before leading her inside the house, Janice realized she was done making it work.
* * *
Once they went inside the house, she walked to the shit-vette and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, trying to catch her breath. She felt sick to her stomach, and actually opened the car door and leaned out, retching weakly onto the pavement, although nothing would come up except a bit of yellow, foul fluid and saliva.
“You knew what he was doing,” she said. The sound of her own voice startled her, and she jerked away, rapping her knuckles against the steering wheel hard enough that she gasped out loud from the pain and clutched her hand to her chest. “Quit acting surprised, you knew what was going on this whole time.”
Yes, but it was one thing to suspect what Matt had been doing, and another to actually know. And now that she knew for sure—no denying it, Matt was a douchebag supreme, an unfaithful POS—what was she going to do? Because she couldn’t ignore this now. If she didn’t do anything, if she kept on pretending things were normal and let Matt do whatever he wanted, didn’t that make her guilty, too? Couldn’t you even say she was aiding and abetting Matt’s cheating, that she was just as much a part of his indiscretions as he was?
Or maybe that was just stupid, because women ignored this sort of crap all the time. They looked the other way. Turned the other cheek. Pretended like nothing was happening. And maybe in five or ten years this would all be normal, Matt with other women would just be another thing—not unlike the way he got his socks stuck in moist little balls when he peeled them off his feet, or the spiky hairs he left all over the bathroom sink after he’d shaved. Just one more thing about him she’d have to accept.
But here was the question: Could she accept this?
Or, the better question: Was she willing to accept it?
The image of the gun Matt kept hidden in the table near their front door swam to the surface of her mind. She hadn’t given it much thought, but she was thinking about it now, wasn’t she? You’d better believe it. Matt had called it a Saturday night special, as if giving it some cutesy name made it easier to accept, because he’d seen the fear on her face when he brought it home and the way she didn’t want to hold it. We don’t have a dog, so we need a gun. That’d been Matt’s argument, and she’d gone along with it. Easier just to let him keep it than to argue, even though she was against guns. Guns hurt people, she argued. They killed people. She’d always been against gun violence, but he wouldn’t listen. Better to be safe, he said, and it’d sat in that drawer in the months since then, until she’d practically forgotten the snub nose and the dull, metallic gleam of it.
But now. Now she couldn’t get the image of it out of her head.
So here’s the thing: she could accept his cheating, just like she’d accepted so many other things, but a year would become five years and that would turn to ten which would turn to twenty, and then she’d be middle-aged. At forty-five would she be willing to accept she’d spent so long with a man who was a cheater? But it wouldn’t just be the cheating at that point, she thought. In twenty-some years she’d have a laundry list of reasons to hate Matt, and him sticking his dick wherever he wanted would just be the cherry on the top of it all, and how would she feel then?
She’d probably want to kill him.
She imagined getting out of the car and driving over to their house now and going inside—it wouldn’t take long—pulling open the drawer in that table and picking up the gun. She’d never actually held it, but she could imagine the weight of it in her palm, the oily, smooth metal under her fingers.
She imagined pulling the trigger.
“So what are you going to do?” she said. She caught a look at herself in the rearview mirror and found she couldn’t look away. Her face was ashen and drawn, her eyes sunken into her skull. It was the way she looked when she was sick. A man had once told her she had eyes that were amber colored in a certain light, beautiful, nearly gold—but there was nothing beautiful about them now, she thought. They were the eyes of a crazy person. A lunatic.
“What are we going to do?” she said, looking right into the mirror. Square into her troubled gaze. She’d always talked to her reflection like this, as if it was a friend in the mirror instead of herself, as if she were two instead of only one. “Right now. What are we going to do, right now?”
Copyright © 2018 by JoAnn Chaney.