FICTION: The Dutiful Wife by Stephen D. Rogers

Jennifer opened the oven and winced at the blast of hot air that bruised her face. She could still fix this.

With mitted hand, Jennifer pulled out the rack, coated the crisping meat several times with the baster, and scraped the rack into place before slamming the oven door closed.

An hour and a half late, and still no word from him.

Jennifer lowered the temperature — again — and turned to the clock hanging above the kitchen table.

“The rush home from the hush-hush job.” That’s what Dave called his commute from Brandon Digital, 128 to Route 9, with no small sense of irony. “The future of the country rests in my hands, and still I sit waiting for an accident to be cleared.”

Her husband could easily be stuck in traffic, America’s Technology Highway always busy, and miserable this time of year thanks to the setting sun.

Or maybe after Dave called her to say he was leaving the office, he could have been snagged by his boss, something that required action before work shut down for the weekend.

The smells emanating from the oven made Jennifer’s stomach growl. She tightened her apron and distracted herself by trying to decode the sounds coming from the back yard.

The kids seemed to be getting along well, anyway, apparently rejuvenated by their earlier supper of macaroni and cheese. At least she didn’t have to deal with them fighting on top of everything else.

Not that she wouldn’t mind being too busy to think.

Dave could have had a breakthrough. A setback. He might have been struck by an insight as he spun the combination on his briefcase.

Jennifer straightened the two place settings, the tapered candle that stood between them.

Fridays, she and her husband ate together and alone, allowing them to focus on each other rather than the children and the complications they brought to the table.

Kate complaining about the twins. The twins complaining about Kate. The twins bickering in their secret language that no one else could understand.

Or something besides work could have delayed Dave.

Jennifer felt her teeth clench, and she forced herself to relax, working her jaw muscles as though chewing things over.

Perhaps her husband had a date. A floozy would explain so much: the whispered telephone calls, the increase in late nights, the odd moments of tension.

Jennifer washed her hands in warm sudsy water to calm herself. Dried them on her apron. Straightened a wrinkle.

She kept herself trim. She swallowed the diet pills, ate the appetite-suppressant chews, scrubbed her own floors. She lifted loads of laundry up and down the stairs of their brand new colonial. She chased after Kate and the twins.

She worked so hard at being the dutiful wife and mother, and this was how Dave thanked her.

After testing the top of the potatoes sitting on the stove, Jennifer returned them to the oven. Lowered the temperature five more degrees.

Dave was out there pursuing some young skirt while she struggled to salvage his dinner, a dinner he probably wouldn’t even want by the time he arrived home, but would be ready for him anyway just in case he did.

As the grandfather clock in the den chimed eight, the telephone rang.

“Hey, honey.” Dave sounded worn down by his day. “Getting out of here didn’t exactly go as planned since Greg saw me and demanded an update. Exciting stuff, but on a Friday evening? I hope I didn’t ruin dinner.”

He hadn’t even left yet? “I’ll cook you something else when you get in.”

“Sorry about leaving you in the lurch like that. A crazy day. We had another breakthrough in a week full of breakthroughs, and I am just wiped out. Maybe I’ll stop at The Grille on the way home, have a quick bite, save you the trouble.”

“I’ll tell the children not to expect you.” She almost continued, “And I’ll cut out the heart of the roast beef for myself, assuming it’s still edible.”

“Love you honey.”

“I love you, too.”

Jennifer hung up the phone, covered her face with her apron, and wept.

* * *

The next morning, after Dave left to bring the trash to the dump, Jennifer opened their closet and went through the suit he’d worn the previous day.

In the right-hand pocket of his jacket, she found matches from The Grill, two ripped from the cardboard. Except for the occasional pipe, Dave didn’t smoke.

She returned the matches to his pocket and shut the closet doors. Why had she hung the mirror there?

Jennifer looked away.

At least he hadn’t lied about stopping for a bite. A nibble, he’d told her, and she now pictured him leaning close in to some woman as he lit her cigarette, and nibbling on her ear.

Jennifer burned.

Of course the girl wore her hair short, some cute bob that exposed her neck, because Dave wanted Jennifer to keep her hair long. So what if she found it inconvenient? He liked how it framed her face.

Hid it, more likely.

Jennifer reopened the closet and continued going through his suits.

As pocket after pocket produced nothing, Jennifer recognized she’d already advanced to the stage where such an outcome could be viewed negatively. If there was nothing to find, it was only because Dave had made sure there would be nothing to find, as if evidence of no wrong-doing constituted damning proof.

Jennifer dipped her hand into another pocket.

A ragged edge.

Jennifer removed a folded scrap of paper from suit pants and paused. She couldn’t unread words once read. Couldn’t unknow a truth once learned, not something of this magnitude.

Once she leapt from suspicion to certainty, she would be stuck there, alone and unable to leap back.

She could take the children to her mother’s.

Jennifer carefully unfolded the slip of paper. Next Tuesday’s date. 7pm. Starlight Motel.

Jennifer sunk onto the end of the bed.

One evening at mahjong, Alice had confided how she and Frank attended a key party, just that one time. Alice confessed to being turned on by the sight of the husbands placing their house keys in a large glass bowl, the tingling sensation in her fingers as she fished through the keys to withdraw one that would determine with whom she’d spent the next few hours.

While Jennifer had shuddered at the very idea, perhaps she should have repeated the tale to Dave. After all, Alice might have gone along with the plan only in order to save her own marriage.

Drawing herself up, Jennifer inhaled from the diaphragm, the way she’d been taught at yoga.

Yoga. Something she had consented to try for the sake of her marriage after Dave mentioned reading that inner peace could do her good.

Apparently he’d found his own path.

Jennifer stared at herself in the full-length mirror. What was wrong with her that Dave started to look elsewhere?

Kate came charging through the bedroom door, slamming it shut behind her. “Mom, the twins won’t stop following me.”

“Don’t let your brothers know it bothers you.” Sensing Kate’s dissatisfaction with that plan, Jennifer continued, “Tell you what. I’ll bring the twins down to the basement and get them involved in a project. If I do that, they’ll leave you alone.”

“When’s Dad going to be back?”

“Why? Has he been gone long?” Jennifer regulated her tone so that Kate wouldn’t think anything wrong. “Maybe your father had to run an errand on his way back from the dump.”

“He said he’d bring me to the store.” Kate’s indignation propelled her into the room. “He promised.”

“I’m sure your father will do whatever he said.”

Kate leaned into her crossed arms. “You always defend him.”

“That’s how marriage works. How a family works. You defend your own.” Even if those you defended had betrayed you. “It’s like with the twins. No matter how much they bother you, if someone attacked them, you’d leap to their defense.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

Biting back a chuckle, Jennifer held out her arms and enveloped her daughter, drawing her close, breathing in the fruity smell of her shampoo. “I love you, honey.”

“I’m not having children, not if they could turn out like the twins. And I’m not getting married, either. I already have too many boys in my life. I can’t take any more of them.”

Jennifer stared out over her daughter’s head. “You’ll be surprised what you can do.”

* * *

The Starlight Motel had been built in the 50s, and from the look of things, the peeling paint and the rusted railings, the place had been falling in disrepair ever since.

Jennifer sat hunched behind the steering wheel, her back cramping from how she twisted to maintain her view of the entrance to the parking lot. She’d tucked the car into the tree-covered far corner more than an hour ago, hoping that if she arrived early enough, she could somehow stop the meeting from taking place.

How could Dave do this to Kate and the twins? How could he do it to her?

The problem with Dave was that he didn’t know how much work went on behind the scenes, didn’t realize that laundry didn’t wash and put itself away, that food didn’t magically appear in the refrigerator and stove, that lights and water and heat only happened because Jennifer made them happen.

Take Jennifer out of the equation, and all of a sudden going to work every day wouldn’t be quite so simple.

Dave brought home a paycheck. He managed his own dry cleaning, although now she had to wonder if he had an ulterior motive beyond getting a discount by going to the place near work, if he wanted to ensure she wouldn’t find something left in a pocket.

The Starlight Motel.

The office was housed in a building designed to mimic a Swiss chalet, complete with the steep sloping roof, the effect lessoned somewhat by the flashing neon “Open” and “Vacancy” signs.

The rooms trailed off to the right, packed closely together and stacked on top of each other, but all with external doors, allowing her to see which one Dave entered.

And with whom.

Jennifer looked down at the hands folded in her lap. What did it matter, really, whom he was seeing? That he was seeing anyone was significant enough. That he was betraying her trust.

After a quick shake of her head, Jennifer returned to her surveillance. In the spy movies, what she was doing seemed glamorous. The seedy made exotic. And in the movies, the person being watched was killed or blackmailed or followed.

Today, all that would happen was a family would be destroyed. Children would lose their father, and Jennifer would lose her mate.

She felt her eyes well up. The sad truth was, Jennifer fully expected to see her husband pull into the parking lot. It was if he already had done this thing, and she was only replaying the sequence of events in her mind.

Once he did come into view and confirmed her worst fears, what next? What did she do with the knowledge she’d so painfully gathered? How did she mend and repair, or did she leave their life together broken?

Kate and the twins were with Jennifer’s parents. She could simply join them there, deal with Dave from a distance.

Alternatively, and perhaps less finally, she could return to their empty home and confront Dave when he walked through the door.

While she didn’t imagine he could sufficiently explain himself, she couldn’t fix what she didn’t understand.

Her insides spasmed as she ran through the possibilities.

Dave’s car pulled in the lot.

Even from this distance, Jennifer recognized her husband behind the wheel, and her stomach flipped.

Although she’d expected to see him, Jennifer still felt dumbstruck.

Dave parked and entered the chalet without so much as a furtive glance over his shoulder.

How dare he not even feel guilty. How dare he.

She wasn’t going to talk to Dave on the telephone or confront him at home. No, she was going to bang on the motel room door until he answered.

And then she would stand there in the open doorway even if she did cause a public display until he answered for what he’d done. No way was she letting him off the hook. Not now.

Jennifer willed him to speed through the registration process so she wouldn’t have time to reconsider. She’d played the dutiful wife, and look what the effort had brought her, an unfaithful husband.

“Damn him.”

If Dave didn’t agree to move out, Jennifer’s parents would take them in until the lawyers resolved the situation. Jennifer didn’t care if every single person in the neighborhood learned what he’d done.

Everybody at Brandon Digital, as well. They should know exactly what type of person they’d hired, what kind of conniving liar they’d entrusted with their secrets.

Jennifer’s anger flared and cooled to a simmer before it flared again as she waited for him to emerge from the office to head for a room. And waited. And waited.

Suddenly unable to wait any longer, Jennifer left her vehicle and marched towards the office.

Why should she sit in the car staring at a building while he rested on a couch reading magazines until his lover appeared? She was done accommodating. Things were going to change. They were going to change right now.

Jennifer stormed into the chalet. The two couches and three chairs circling low tables were empty, as was the registration counter. Music to the left drew her attention, and Jennifer drifted that way, rounding a potted palm tree to see Dave sitting at a bar with a glass of beer in front of him.

She stopped.

A half-emptied glass lingered to his right.

Apparently they met here first for drinks, perhaps to get in the mood, to muffle whatever conscience might remain.

The sound of a door opening. Closing. A woman wearing an almond-green pantsuit joined Dave at the bar, bumping his shoulder as she climbed onto the stool.

She wore her hair short.

Jennifer strode towards her husband.

Dave must have caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye because he spun on the bar stool, his face blanching.

After speaking quickly to the other woman, Dave slid off his seat and intercepted Jennifer, holding out his hand but not touching. “Hon.”

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

Dave leaned forward to whisper, “This isn’t the time.”

Jennifer saw the woman watching them in the mirror. Oddly enough, she reminded Jennifer of their old babysitter, Gail. “Just when exactly were you planning to tell me?”

“Let’s go over there so we can talk.” He led her behind the palm. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing, and I would except that I already know about your girlfriend.”

Dave glanced towards the bar. “It’s more complicated than that.”

“The children are with my parents. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to join them.”

“This isn’t what you think.”

“How do you know what I think?”

“I know how it looks.” Dave took a deep breath. “I’ll explain everything when I get home.”

“You’ll try to explain. Now.”

Dave stared into Jennifer’s eyes. “I am not having an affair.”

“You expect me to believe that.”

“But I’m not. The woman at the bar, she’s a colleague.”

“Is that what they call them now?”

Dave’s shoulders slumped, and he stepped into the still-empty registration area. “I need to be quick. The woman at the bar, I give her information about my research.”

Jennifer laughed. “You’re a spy. That’s what you’re telling me? You’re not having an affair, you’re just playing James Bond?”

Dave rubbed his face. “She approached me about the work we were doing at Brandon. She knew there’d been breakthroughs. This was five, six months ago. They just wanted to know the general direction we were taking. They set up an account, a college fund for Kate.”

“Don’t you dare bring Kate into this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Who’s this they? One of your competitors?”

Dave paused. “The Russians, I think.”

“You think?” They were at war with the Russians.

“Okay, I’m fairly certain.”

“You’re spying for the Russians? Since when are you political?”

“I’m not. But they were willing to pay top money for me to confirm their theories. And then for information that wasn’t proprietary.” Dave leaned back to check the bar, and then he moved Jennifer closer to the couches, lowering his voice. “But then they wanted more. They wanted details, plans, schematics. We’re at the cutting edge of these new technologies. You’ve heard me talk about the work I’m doing.”

“Work you apparently sold to the Russians.”

“I couldn’t refuse. They had that account hanging over my head. They had documents that only I could have given them.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” Jennifer sank into the nearest couch. She’d steeled herself to deal with infidelity, with another woman. But this, her husband a spy?

“It’s all true.” Dave joined her. “And I don’t believe it either, the way things have spun out of control. But really, all I’ve done is given them a boost in their research. Nobody else in the country is achieving what we’re achieving. We’re months ahead of everybody. Years ahead of the Russians.”

“At least you were ahead.” Jennifer wondered whether the similarity between his control and their old babysitter was coincidence, whether even Gail might have been a plant.

Dave nodded. “I’ve closed the information gap, I’m sorry to say. But what they’re telling me to do now…. They want me to slow things down at work.”

“Russia’s our enemy.”

Her husband appeared on the verge of tears. “They tell me I have to … sabotage our progress. That simply giving them information is no longer enough.”

“What did you tell her? Your control?”

Dave ran a hand through his hair as he shifted. “There’s nothing I can tell her. I agree to do what they want, or they expose me and what I’ve done. They’ll ruin us. I’ll certainly be fired. If the company’s not worried about the negative publicity, they’ll probably call the FBI. I could go to jail.”

“Dave, what were you thinking?”

“I don’t know. Honestly, Jennifer, I just don’t know. In the beginning, what they were asking for, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. And the money … I couldn’t turn down the money, so much for doing so little.”

Jennifer placed a hand on his leg. “Or so you thought.”

“Right. I was three kinds of idiot. I never should have gotten involved. But knowing that, admitting that, does nothing to change the situation.”

“Admitting it to yourself, maybe. Admitting to me what you’ve done, that changes everything. After all, I deal with Kate and the twins on a daily basis.”

“I don’t understand.”

Jennifer raised a hand so she could think. “You don’t need to understand.” They could survive this. All she needed was to develop a workable solution.

“Okay, Dave, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to return to your control and tell her there’s a family crisis. I knew to find you here because I’m familiar with what you’re doing for them.”

“They instructed –”

“I’m sure they told you not to tell anyone, not even your wife, but you did tell me because you knew there was no way you could hide the truth from me. You needed my support.”

“Okay. I can do that.”

“Then you request another meeting so that you can continue the discussion. You have questions about what’s expected from you, and you don’t want to screw up. Tell her you need to go now.”

* * *

Jennifer stirred the beef stroganoff, half listening to the children playing upstairs. Not together, but at least they were playing and not fighting.

Dave should be home any minute.

Assuming the Russians hadn’t decided to punish the spy who had turned and was now feeding them bad and misleading information.

Jennifer opened the oven to check the rolls.

No plan was perfect. Dave could make a mistake in his new role as double agent. Someone at Brandon could talk. The FBI could change their minds and decide to make an example of her husband.

No plan was perfect, but at least they had one, thanks to her experience with Kate and the twins. Jennifer had long ago learned that a peace could always be negotiated. Or at least engineered.

Jennifer poured the egg noodles into the colander.

The children hated beef stroganoff, which was just fine by her, as they’d be less likely to interrupt Jennifer and Dave as the couple bonded over dinner. As they shared a bottle of red wine. As they recapped the week’s highlights and disappointments and breakthroughs.

Dave’s work continued to progress, not that he told the Russians, but Jennifer couldn’t wait to hear whether he’d managed to get past the problem that had plagued him for days.

He would, eventually. Thanks to Jennifer, Brandon Digital got to keep their top man. Just as the FBI got a line on how the Russians ran industrial spies.

And the Russians, they got to continue receiving inside information on developing technologies. While of course they couldn’t trust anything Dave told them, they now also met with Jennifer, Jennifer who relayed everything she’d learned from her husband.

Over dinner. During commercials. In bed.

Nadia said Jennifer was proving more valuable than Dave himself had been, which hadn’t come as too much a surprise, as her brilliant husband was in fact three shades of idiot.

He never even questioned why the Russians didn’t doubt his supposed reversals.

Jennifer opened the wine, giving the burgundy time to breath, and placed the bottle on the table.

As she’d told Kate more than once, you defend your own, whatever it takes.

After all, the twins deserved to go to college, too.

#

BIO: Stephen D. Rogers is the author of Shot to Death and more <>
than 900 shorter works. His website, www.StephenDRogers.com,
includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely
information.

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