Richard Jacobs stares at the kitchen radio, its silent display showing 91.5. It’s been set to 88.3 this past month. The change doesn’t bother him much after the events of recent weeks.
There is no point in checking the house again. He’s done that every day recently, starting upstairs and working his way down, finishing in the kitchen. Everything is always the same; no sign, no change. The dry cleaning is on the couch where he left it that last day of March, undisturbed in its plastic bag.
He and Harriet began as most do, happily in love, lusting for each other. Thirty years ago that was. She wanted a big wedding with all the trimmings; fancy dress, fancy photos. The dress is in the attic, the photo album on the coffee table. He’s been going through it, studying her face for indications, hoping for something, anything to help make sense of this damn business.
Evolution, that’s the word he’s always used. Their marriage evolved. It’s a pseudonym for failure, which is the true state of affairs. There were clashes at the start; normal adjustments Harriet had called them, but adjustments never resolved. Money, chores, and responsibilities were fair game all, but it was the years of criticism and recrimination that ultimately did them in. No one would ever know why they didn’t divorce, but they might as well have for all the good they had together.
He was as good as she at the blame game, but even that was abandoned, replaced by the few words absolutely necessary for coexistence. It’s only now, since this business began, that he’ll acknowledge the chip on his shoulder. He’s damn sure she has one too, but doesn’t much care anymore.
“The Business,” as he calls it, is hard to believe, no less describe. Still sharing meals, making sporadic fruitless attempts to spend time together, life had become at best a taciturn affair. Then it started.
He didn’t even notice at first. She’d acknowledge him in the morning with words too soft to hear. He’d ask what she said and get a repetition equally as vague. Aggravated, counting it a deliberate provocation, he’d ignore her. Then one day they brushed each other in the hall and the touch was like a feather floating by. He noticed then how transparent her skin was, how she seemed almost an apparition, and wondered what she was doing to herself. She moved through the house that day, and the next, without sound, but he never mentioned it, certain he’d get another vague response.
Breakfast that first morning in April was when it happened. They’d been using separate bedrooms. Preparing the coffee, he expected a momentary appearance, but she did not come. Mornings he made coffee and she entered the kitchen when it was ready. That was the routine, every day, no matter if they were not speaking. She was a little late occasionally, if he started early or she wanted extra sleep, so a brief wait was appropriate before he checked her room. Her nightgown lay across the rumpled pillow. Her slacks, and blouse and shoes were gone.
That was a hard moment; believing she’d walked out, assuming divorce was on her mind. Mistress Freedom, long a dream, suddenly did not appeal, perhaps because the women of his dreams had no real form to comfort him.
Returning to the kitchen, he felt better, but only briefly. A dirty frying pan on the stove, empty juice glass in the sink, and a half empty coffee pot told him she was there. Then his stomach rolled and the world turned upside down. The bed check had taken two minutes, no more. Two minutes to fry eggs make toast and eat. Not possible he knew, yet she had done it, and once again without a sound. He sought her out, needing explanation, but could not find her in the house. That was the day he began calling it, “The Business.”
Her bed was disturbed each morning. Untended, the washing machine or radio would turn on. Groceries and a bottle of wine appeared in the pantry, not purchased by him. A breath of air would pass as he moved through a room, and he sometimes felt warmth nearby, as if she were beside him. Yet, she was not.
“I am losing my mind,” he thought, “Did she die and come to haunt me? What is happening?”
The business defied intelligence. If she had left him, there would be a call, a divorce notice, something to say she was alive. She was not dead. Couldn’t be. Her car sometimes departed and returned, and friends called as if they’d spoken a short time before. She wasn’t dead, hadn’t left, but what was he to think?
He called her friend Janet, to ask if she’d heard from his wife. She laughed.
“Of course. We went to lunch yesterday,” she said.
“You did? Where is she?”
“What do you mean? I dropped her off in the driveway when we got home. Didn’t she come in?”
“Uh, yes, but I don’t know where she went today,” he lied.
“She’ll tell you when she gets home. I never knew you were a worrier,” the woman laughed.
He let that go, but as later questions came, found the situation impossible to explain. He took messages for her and left notes, and found others telling him a friend had called. Janet’s car would pull into the driveway, and minutes later, pull away as if she had picked someone up.
Passing days brought more change, subtle, but riveting his attention. The morning bedcovers no longer showed the imprint of her body, soon offering only small wrinkles and then no sign of use at all. Appliances no longer startled him by running unattended, but that only made the business worse. She seemed to be in the house and yet was not. Why couldn’t he see her? Could she see him? He thought of nothing else.
Then, in early May, as he cut the lawn one day, a neighbor stopped to talk.
“Good to see you, Richard. That’s a nice thing you’re doing,” said the man.
He’d become non-committal with the neighbors by now, but the comment was puzzling. “Nice thing?” he asked.
“Yeah, coming back to do the lawn. Most guys leave the ex-wife on her own. Where are you living?”
“I- I don’t know what you mean.”
The man gave him a strange look. “Angie said you moved out. I thought she talked to Harriet yesterday. Jeez, are you all right? You look like hell.”
“I’m okay. Thanks for stopping,” he said and turned back to the lawnmower. Waiting for the man to drive away, he dashed for the house, stumbled up the steps and into the front hall.
He started with soft shouts, fearful of the neighbors, but wanting to reach her, wherever she was. “Harriet, where are you? Harriet, please answer. What are you doing, Harriet?”
Silence reigned, but he kept at it, calling softly, then in full voice, calling, calling. Nothing. He stopped often, waiting for replies, became hoarse, and turned too soft whispers, reaching out in the only way he could imagine. “Harriet, Harriet? Can you come back?” One day became two, two became three, and then they were a blur.
“Harriet, please dear, Harriet. Please come back.”
Still calling, leaving notes on tables, a message on the answering machine, he kept trying. Frightened, he wanted answers. That was what he told himself at first. This was impossible and needed explanation. That was all he wanted. But then there was more. He found an album of photos they had taken, and thumbed the pages. There she was, toasting someone at a party, and again, sitting on a beach in Bermuda. That was their tenth anniversary, that trip. Same year, the two of them dancing, smiling at the camera. He pulled that picture from the book and walked the house, showing it to her. “Look Harriet, how nice it was. We can dance again, Harriet. We can really. Please come back.” A vague whisper fluttered by instead, so soft it seemed imagined. “Harriet, did you call? Harriet?” There was a stirring then, as of a murmur from another world. Then silence.
That’s how it went, one day, followed by another, with vague echoes never formed. He too grew silent.
This morning, the radio is tuned to 91.5. Her station. Suddenly, it begins to play.
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Catherine A. MacKenzie