Vernon pulls out his cell, thumbs the speed dial, listens through the rings. He knows she’s there, knows she’s looking at her own cell right now, at the caller id, trying to decide: should she take it, should she take it?
Vernon, of course, wants her to. The sweet taste of victory depends on it. Same time, he finds himself thinking: I were her, I’d let it ring.
And for a second or two it seems Melanie’s leaning that way. But on the seventh ring she picks up.
“Vern,” she says. “Honey.”
A slight hesitation on the honey, Vernon notices, but he gives her extra points anyway, for including the word when she doesn’t have to.
“Hey, babe,” he says. “How’s it going?”
He likes her inflection on the okay, as if things really are okay. Come to think of it, from her side of things they probably are, but not in the way she’s pretending to get across.
“Where you at?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.
“Didn’t you get my text?”
“About going shopping?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I did,” Vernon says, sounding as breezy as possible. “What I mean is, what store are you at?”
“Oh. Well, uh, right now I’m just walking through the mall. Looking for sales.”
Vernon follows Melanie with his binoculars as she slides open the glass door of the fifth floor apartment and steps out onto the balcony.
“You know me and sales,” she adds.
Vernon chuckles knowingly. “Yes, I sure do. Find anything nice yet?”
“Sure. A couple things.”
“Like what?” Vernon asks in a tone he hopes sounds bright and inquisitive.
Cell phone to her ear, Melanie begins pacing the small wedge of balcony not taken up by the glass deck table and the mission-control-sized barbecue grill. “Oh, you know,” she says, “the usual things–dresses, shirts, shoes…. You know.”
“What kind of shoes?” he asks, playing the part of the supportive husband who champions his wife’s interests.
From out of the shadow of the overhead balcony she emerges into the late afternoon sunlight. She’s put her hair up, Vernon notices, the way she used to put it up when they went to someplace fancy. And she’s wearing a dress he’s never seen before, a white number with pastel stripes that reminds him of a dress she wore ages ago when they first started going together. And for an instant she smiles the kind of smile that drove him crazy enough to propose to her–a smile that, along with the do and the dress, is now clearly not meant for him.
As for the shoes he’s asking about, he couldn’t care less.
“Vern, since when have you taken an interest in my shoes?”
“Hey, I love your shoes. But what I’m really interested in is your shirts.”
It just comes out. Vernon certainly didn’t plan on saying this. But now that he thinks about it, it’s a nice touch, the playfully suggestive remark on the part of the amorous spouse.
Too bad his amorous spouse doesn’t think likewise. Even through his binoculars he can see her roll her eyes as she attempts her idea of a gentle reproach. “Oh, Vern.”
“Hey, babe, you know me. I can’t help it. So what kind of shirts did you buy?”
“Actually, I’m…uh…still looking.”
“Haven’t bought anything yet,” she says from the porch railing.
Vernon nods to himself. Hey, at least that part’s honest. That’s a step up.
Thought I’d go out and pick up some nice things for our new home.
Back in a couple hours.
How long ago was it when Vernon found that Post-It on the dining room table? Two and a half years? An eon? It was early in their marriage, put it that way, though he can no longer even place that date. It’s buried deep in his brain somewhere along with all those dates thrown at him in high school history. His wedding date versus the firing on Fort Sumter? All the same to him now.
But he still remembers that note, and how reading the words “new home” had brought to mind an image of a solid foundation, a rock, the two of them growing old together in the wonderful bungalow they’d just closed on. And he remembers hoping that in writing those words, Melanie must have felt the same way.
But then there were the other words on that Post-It–the “couple hours”, the “nice things”–and unfortunately Vernon remembers those, too–the “couple hours” that stretched until way past two in the morning and the “nice things” that turned out to be nothing when Melanie finally stepped through the front door.
Now, tracking Melanie’s every move from a parking garage three blocks away, Vernon says, “Hey, it’s still early, babe. What say I drive out there to the mall and meet you somewhere for dinner? Wouldn’t that be a kick? You name the place.”
“Dinner?” Melanie says–a bit nervously it seems to him, but maybe he’s just imagining it.
“Nothing fancy. Something quick. And afterward you can go on with your shopping.”
“Vernon, you shouldn’t…uh…I mean, you don’t have to drive all this way.”
Yep, she’s nervous, all right.
“Why–why don’t you go get something close by? You always wanted to try out that new burger place.”
“Mmm…that does sound good.”
“There you go,” she says.
She’s smiling again, and he can detect a glint of relief in her eyes.
He can’t see the guy’s face, though. His back is to him as he works the grill. And even when the guy turns to face Melanie it’s difficult to gauge his expression, but Vernon imagines he’s smiling right back at her. And who wouldn’t?
Vernon allows her a second or two of comfort and security before announcing, “Hey, babe, you know what? To hell with the burger joint. I can always do that. As you say, it’s close by. A food court at a mall sounds so much better right now.”
“Yeah, I know. A bit of a drive, but I’ll be careful.”
He takes advantage of her loss for words by adding, with a teasing lilt, “Who knows? Maybe I’ll do a little shopping myself while I’m there. I’ve been known to do that once or twice.”
He sees her smile invert itself, watches her as she shrugs helplessly to her beau at the grill, who shrugs in the same way right back. He sympathizes, apparently.
“You know what, honey?” she says at last. “I’m–I’m really not all that hungry.”
The guy sets a plate of barbecued ribs down on the deck table alongside a bowl of what looks like potato salad. Melanie slides a chair back and takes a seat. Mr. Ribs does likewise. Vernon can both see the sliding and hear it.
“What was that?” he asks.
“What was what?”
“Thought I heard something. Chairs scraping or something.”
“Oh? Oh, well, because I’m right here next to a café. An outdoor café. I…uh…just stepped outside to get some fresh air. In fact, now that I’m here I think I’ll just drop in and grab a quick bite–an apple or small salad or whatever. I’m not that hungry, like I said, but you know, just to tide me over. So why don’t I call you–”
“Don’t move a muscle, babe. Don’t touch a single lettuce leaf. I’m coming to join you. I’m heading out the door as we speak.”
Though he’s been expecting, maybe even hoping for this kind of outburst at some point, it still startles him. It even seems to take her by surprise as she utters a corrective cough and tries again. “I mean….”
She casts a desperate glance in Sir Ribs’s direction, and Vernon shifts his binoculars to see what kind of guidance he has to offer. Taking in his full profile now, Vernon can definitely understand what she sees in him. Sturdy build, smart dresser. Not a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy, but more chinos and rolled-up shirt-sleeves. Graying at the temples but not flabbing out anywhere. Solid nose and chin.
And the strong silent type, because as far as Vernon can tell, he isn’t saying a word, not even now in her hour of need. But that silence seems to be enough as far as Melanie is concerned. Just looking at him must have settled her down, because now, in a more composed tone, she says over the phone, “Please, honey, you know how sometimes you like to go out and do things on your own? Well, that’s all I want to do. Just spend an evening by myself shopping at my leisure. You understand, don’t you?”
“Uh, sure,” Vernon says.
“Good. So how about us doing the restaurant scene some other time? Next week–or actually the week after would work better for me. Make it the end of the week. Friday or Saturday. Or Sunday. How’s Sunday sound? Honey?”
“Yeah, sure. Fine,” Vernon says with a pinch of disappointment and a dash of understanding. “I’d like that.”
“Good. I’d like that, too. So I’ll see you when I get home. Okay?”
“I love you,” Vernon says.
“I love you, too,” Melanie says, as if reading the line.
“No, I mean I really, really, really love you.”
Melanie holds her phone at arm’s length and shakes her head in frustration at the man across the table as he dishes out a generous portion of ribs onto her plate.
“I love you too,” she says, bringing the phone up to her mouth like a walkie-talkie. “Now I really have to–”
“You mean that, babe?” Vernon asks, trying to sound as if he cares one way or the other.
He knows how anxious she must be to eat dinner alone with her latest man, how impatient she must be for the dessert afterward. Her appetite takes on many forms, after all. What would this be since that Night of the Disappearing Nice Things For The Home? Number Eighteen? Number Thirty-seven? Number Three thousand four hundred and ninety-six? He’s lost count.
“Yes, Vernon,” she says. “I mean it. And I’ll see you in a couple hours. Bye-bye now.”
“A couple hours? Two hours?”
“Yes. Yes. Maybe three. Now I need to go, all right? Now goodbye, honey.”
Even Vernon is getting a bit tired of this. “See ya, babe.”
She clicks off. He watches her set the cell down on the table, brushing her forehead with the back of her hand in pronounced relief. The man reaches under his chair and produces a bottle of wine. Melanie nods her approval as he extracts the cork.
Vernon remembers the first time he followed her.
Once again she’d informed him of some seemingly reasonable activity that would keep her out and about at all hours, but this time Vernon was right behind her. Or at least two or three cars behind.
She led him, without her knowing, to a farm on the outskirts of town. He couldn’t very well eat her dust as she turned up the private dirt road, so he pulled off onto the shoulder of the rural highway and sneaked a look through the trees, wishing he’d brought a pair of binoculars. But even with his naked eye, he could detect naked lust. It was a wonder Melanie and Farmer John didn’t instantly rip off their clothes and literally roll in the hay right there in the maw of the steaming barn.
Still, back at home and hours later, Vernon kept quiet on the matter. Strife and conflict would only make things worse, he felt.
That’s just the way he was.
At work, for instance, whenever pay raises were considered, he never once fought for an increase. Still doesn’t. No sense in casting himself in a negative light with management by seeming to grovel or complain. If he’s deserving, he’ll get a raise. If not, oh well. Better luck next year.
And even after following Melanie in the ensuing months to other men at other places, to the point of standing outside their motel rooms with his ear to the door, he chose to stay mum, hoping that these dalliances, to put them mildly, were nothing more than a series of emergency flares that would burn themselves out.
But when it became apparent that these flares would be lighting the way along an endless road, he still kept his mouth shut, but at least he began to think of ways to deal with it, even if they didn’t involve a lot of sitting down and talking.
Now, focusing his binoculars, he allows Melanie plenty of time to indulge in those scrumptious-looking ribs and in the white-shirted eye candy across the table. After all, no need to deny her this special meal.
He then rings her up once again.
“Vernon,” she says, again on the seventh ring. No honey this time, though. In its place, an abrupt, “What is it?”
“Took you a while to answer,” he says.
“Yes, well, the mall’s a bit crowded. I didn’t hear the phone.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Noisy here, isn’t it?”
Hesitation. “You–you’re at the mall?”
“In the flesh, my darling,” Vernon says cheerfully. “I couldn’t wait to see you. Thought I’d surprise you after all.”
“Oh. Well. You’re right. This is a surprise.”
“In fact, I believe I see you. Yes, there you are. I think. Wave your hand.”
“Wave my hand?” She gapes wide-eyed at her eating partner, pleading with various desperate gestures for his assistance.
“Yes, Mel, so I can be sure it’s you. You’re a ways away.”
“It–it can’t be. I mean I’m inside a store right now.”
“Just a store. I didn’t look at the name.”
“What kind of store? Clothing? Cosmetics?”
“A store, Vern. I’m in a store. Okay?”
“Well, you must have walked right back out again without knowing it, because I see you!”
“I told you, I–”
“I’m waving at you. Don’t you see me?”
No reason she should. He’s a quarter of a mile away.
“I’m positive it’s you,” he says. “Wave to me.”
Visibly exasperated, Melanie swirls her free hand in the air a few times before slapping it back on the table. “There. I’m waving. Now please–”
“It is you, sweetheart! It is you!”
“No it isn’t, Vernon. You obviously see someone else.”
“Mel, first of all, why would they be waving at my request? But more to the point, I ought to know my own wife, especially when she’s waving to me.”
“But I’m not–”
“I mean you were waving,” Vernon says, “until you put your hand down on the table just now. By the way, that is potato salad, isn’t it?”
Silence. Golden silence.
Melanie’s reaction is pure textbook. The staring at the back of her hand to see if she really did put it down. The perceptible grinding of the gears. The wary turn of her head toward the view from the balcony. The slow rising off her chair and stepping toward the railing. The cautious surveying of the surrounding neighborhood.
It’s as if Vernon had handed her a list of instructions and she’d followed them to the letter.
“I’m pretty hard to spot,” Vernon says. “But if you look a little to your right you might see me at the top of the parking garage a few blocks away.”
She turns in that direction, shielding her eyes from the sun. At one point she looks directly at him–right into his binoculars, it seems–but it’s clear she doesn’t realize it.
“You need a pair of binocs like mine,” Vernon says. “Maybe you should go shopping sometime.”
Could be the brightness of the sun, but it seems her face has suddenly drained of color. “You–you’re really here?” she says, the fact finally sinking in.
“Who’s the hunk?”
“You’re spying on me?”
“I wouldn’t call it spying if the two of you are out there in the open, practically on stage. But he sure looks like a dreamboat, whoever he is. Whatever happened to that pig farmer from way back?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Forget it. That was a long time ago. Let’s talk about the present, the chef with the pecs. Maybe you should buy him one of those aprons with the funny sayings.”
“Oh, God. Oh, God.”
“Now where have I heard that before? Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. Now I remember. Pine Tree Motel, just outside of town.”
She staggers backward as if a blast of wind had swept through the railing. The gallant Mr. Ribs rushes over and eases her into her chair. She reaches back to pat his hand. He nods, gives her shoulder a quick rub, then returns to his seat.
Phone back to her ear, she glares in Vernon’s general direction. “Just go back home, okay? We’ll talk about this later.”
“No, now’s a good time. Where’d you pick this loser up? What is he–number one million, three hundred thousand, five hundred and seventy-four?”
“All right,” she says. “You want to talk about this now? He picked me up. At the gym, earlier today. That’s right, Vern. He asked me to give him a tour of the city, and I was more than happy to. Afterward, he took me back here to his place. You still there, Vernon? You still want to talk?”
He catches her defiant smirk as she arms herself with a deep breath and continues. “He’s got something you don’t seem to have. What are they called? Oh, yes, balls.”
Whoa. Now that hurt. “What the heck do you mean by that?”
“You can’t even get up the nerve to ask your boss for a raise. How’s that for an example?” She turns to her man and flashes him a wink. A promise of things to come, perhaps?
“I make enough,” he says.
“Enough,” Melanie snorts. “I see. Enough is always good enough for you, isn’t it?”
“Sometimes it’s more than enough.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. Because I still have enough left over after the damage.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m out of bars, Mel. So long.”
“Wait a minute! Vernon! Vernon!”
He clicks off but keeps looking through the binoculars. Melanie stares straight at him, anxiety in her eyes, a silent Vernon! Vernon! on her lips. He remembers those lips, vaguely, but mostly what he tastes is victory.
But then, above the steady whoosh of traffic over on the interstate and above the sounds inhabiting the smaller streets beneath him, he hears her voice, ever so faintly, and he suddenly recalls a day on their honeymoon when, in a fluttering, striped summer dress, she beckoned him from a distant rock, calling his name.
A fleeting memory, but just like that, all thoughts of victory vanish. In their place, a single question: “What have I done?”
He presses the speed dial again, wishing it were faster.
Through his binoculars he sees her glancing at the display. “Yes, it’s me,” he pleads. “Answer it, Melanie. Please answer!”
In a corner of Vernon’s circular field of vision, the man at the table glances at his watch, then slides his chair back, stands up, and slowly approaches her.
She puts the phone to her ear but says nothing.
“Melanie? Listen to me. I need you to put him on the line. Right now. Melanie?”
“Vernon? Why would you want to talk–”
Maybe it’s the raising of her eyebrows, or the slight dropping of her jaw, or the way she turns to the man as he gently plucks the phone from her fingers and drops it in his shirt pocket, but somehow Vernon can tell that she now understands.
“No! No, listen!” Vernon shouts. “Pick it up! We need to talk. Do you hear me?”
Gripping her shoulder with what looks like more force than necessary, the man guides Melanie back into the apartment. As he turns to shut the sliding door, he glances up in Vernon’s direction and flashes a thumbs up.
BIO: Martin (Marty) Zeigler is a retired software developer who now spends a good deal of his time writing. His short fiction (primarily mystery, humor, and science fiction) appears in various small-press anthologies and journals. His two most recent stories can be found in Isotropic Fiction (Issue 9) and in Grift Magazine (Issue 2). In addition to writing, Marty enjoys dabbling on the piano and taking long walks around his home city of Portland, Oregon.