Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
by Mark Clevenger
Bruce got dressed for his ex-lover's wedding. First he put on socks and underwear. Then he added shirt, pants, shoes, tie and coat. His vision was half as good as it once was, and he was careful not to miss a button or get skin caught in metal. These were the small failings that set him off, that got his breathing out of whack. When it happened--and it happened more than he wanted to admit--Carol forced an inhaler into his mouth to keep his lungs from shutting down--to keep him from turning blue. He thanked god for Carol's strength; she had saved his life on more than one occasion.
Carol was on the other side of their bed, dressing in pink chiffon quickly and without effort. She checked her watch and kept them on schedule. "Let's get a move on, Slow Poke," she teased. "I'm getting' you to the church on time, Mister." She wasn't slowed by having to think about buttons and zippers like Bruce did. She wasn't distracted by the mechanical precision of zipper teeth linking. She just buttoned and zipped.
They moved in front of the dresser mirror and stood with their arms around each other. "You look wonderful, Love," she whispered, and meant it. Bruce never believed her when she complimented his looks. There was the black eye patch, of course, and underneath the jagged hole where his right eye should have been. His cheek, even after several months and many operations, was disfigured--streaked deeply with purple and red scars.
Bruce remembered little of the accident. He recalled walking across the construction site, hard hat on his head and blueprints under his arm. He remembered hearing a cable snap, looking up the see steel girders tipping. When he woke up in the hospital, hooked to a respirator, Carol was sitting in a chair next to his bed. She was barely able to look at the mess of his face through her tears.
Now, in the bedroom, Bruce asked her, "Have I told you today how lucky I am to have you?"
Carol said she could stay like that, arms around each other, forever, but that they should be going. "We want good seats, don't we? I'm not settling for a rear-pew experience." Carol knew this wedding was important. Sarah, the bride-to-be, was Bruce's college girlfriend, his first love. She lived nearby, and she and Bruce had kept in touch through the years--more often since his accident. Carol accepted, reluctantly, that Sarah would always be part of Bruce's life.
Carol backed the car out of the garage and Bruce climbed in the passenger side. Carol had done all the driving since the accident. "Remember," Carol told him, "this is not a permanent restriction." Bruce knew she was right. His physical therapist and his rehabilitation counselor had been pleased with Bruce's progress. Though they worried about the breathing, they saw that, too, as a temporary condition.
During his stay in the hospital, when he was forced to keep his head still, Bruce rediscovered his love for reading. He had double-majored in architecture and American literature in college, but it had been years since he read for pleasure. It was an adjustment learning to scan the pages with one eye instead of two. Still, he got good at it quickly. He had Carol bring him novels, essays, plays, story collections. Sometimes he read so much that the night nurse physically took the book from his hands and snapped off the light above his bed. When he was released and came home, he continued reading like crazy. Books were stacked hip-high next to his bed and he believed that eventually he would get to every one of them.
He read and enjoyed more pieces than he could put names to, but one little story stood out for him above all the rest. It was a story by Audrey Jackson, an unknown writer, which appeared in an anthology of stories about families. In the story, a father took his wife and twin boys to the beach. The father had evidently suffered a nervous breakdown of some sort, and the beach visit was his first outing since his recovery. He helped his wife unfold beach chairs and set food on a blanket. He watched his twins run their orange sand pails to the water. The father ate a salami sandwich and drank Pepsi from a can. He was happy. Bruce remembered the boys in the story calling out, "Daddy, play with us!" The father joined his sons at the water line and helped them build a sandcastle.
The boys used their hands to dig a moat around the perimeter. Bruce thought the story's detail was terrific. He recalled the father sitting back and watching as his sons used gull feathers and pieces of shells to decorate the castle walls. One of the boys draped a string of seaweed along the moat. "Barbed wire," he told his father.
In Bruce's favorite part of the story, the father stood up and said he would race his boys back to the blanket. He pumped his arms, pretending to sprint, and then let his sons win at the finish line. He picked up his Pepsi, took a drink, and that's when it happened. He felt a bug bouncing in his mouth--a stinger in his tongue. The father waved his arms wildly. "My tongue!" he shouted. His sons thought he was playing. They stood and mimicked him. "My tongue, my tongue," they shouted. The wife dropped her sandwich in a panic. "Shut up, boys," she snapped. She fished a pair of tweezers from her purse and plucked the stinger from her husband's tongue. She put ice cubes in a baggy and held it on the wound. "It'll stop the swelling," she told him. "Everything will be okay."
Bruce had shared this story with Sarah and she was equally struck by the action. One late evening they discussed over the phone why the believed the story was successful.
"It's the bee sting," he told her. He was sitting at the kitchen table, cradling the receiver on his shoulder and peeling an apple with a knife. Carol came in to get a drink of water from the refrigerator and mouthed, "Sarah?" When Bruce nodded she faked a smile and left the kitchen. He tried to grab her hand as she walked by but she sidestepped his reach.
"The bee sting represents the moment in his life when everything changes," he told Sarah. "Even if his tongue doesn't swell like a balloon, even if he is okay, the way he perceives the world will never be the same."
"No, that's not it," Sarah had said. "It's what his wife says after the sting that's important." Bruce could hear glass clinking in the background and he knew she was mixing herself a gin and tonic. "Everything will be okay?" she said. "Bullshit everything will be okay." Sarah had had her share of heartbreak and Bruce knew where the conversation was headed. She paused a moment--a pull from her drink. "Bad things happen, and the people who say they love you make them worse. The panicky wife, the ice, the promise she can't keep--they're all disillusionment metaphors."
Bruce had had to admit she had a good point. In the story, the ice didn't work. The father's tongue began swelling, filling his mouth so that his speech was impaired. "Thtop thtaring!" the father yelled at his boys. The trembling wife told the boys to get their pails. "We need to get that looked at" she told her husband.
"Thowwy," he told her. "I didn' mean to yell." He helped her fold the chairs and blanket and re-pack the cooler. He told her to take the twins to the car, that he would follow. He stood, watching the three of them labor through dry sand. Suddenly, he felt confused and angry. Who were these people and what had they done to his mouth? Why were they provoking him? He looked down at the cooler. He couldn't remember his name.
Carol let the car warm up in the driveway. Bruce fastened his seatbelt. Then he turned and set Sarah's silver-wrapped gift in the back seat. It was a set of purple bath towels. Carol had driven him to Macy's to buy the gift. When he picked it out she asked, "You're sure that's what you want?" He did. He ran his hand across the soft cotton and imagined Sarah drying herself after a bath. First one leg, then the other. He bought the towels. Carol didn't speak to him on the way home.
Years earlier, when Carol and Bruce started seeing each other, he told her that Sarah and he had once loved each other very much, that they had thought of getting married. Their relationship was so new, they were so polite with each other, that Carol pretended to be braver and more confident than she was. "It means a lot that you're honest about this," she had told him. "Besides, she's the past and I'm the present."
"Right," he told her.
As months went by, and Carol saw how often Bruce and Sarah spoke on the phone, she became less understanding. He was certain that one night Carol picked up the hallway phone and hear Sarah say, "Bruce, sometimes I feel like you are my only family."
"I feel exactly the same way," he had said, and then he heard the hallway receiver being replaced. He was furious. When he finished talking with Sarah he slammed the phone down and went into the bedroom. "Were you listening to my conversation?" he demanded.
Carol looked startled. "What?"
"Were you listening, on the phone?"
"No," she said. "Of course not."
"I heard you."
"I don't eavesdrop on you, Bruce. I have better things to do."
Bruce had found himself clenching and unclenching his fists. He had never hit another person, but in that moment the possibility seemed real. He went back out to the kitchen, poured himself a drink, and took it into the living room. He sat on the couch, in the dark, holding his drink in his lap and feeling alone.
"Just tell me one thing," Carol said when he finally came to bed. It was 3 a.m. and she had not turned off her nightstand lamp. "Given the opportunity, knowing I would never find out, would you sleep with her?"
"No," he lied. "Don't be ridiculous." His anger had subsided, but the lie, the violation, was palpable. "It didn't work out," he said. "The romance, the sexual attraction, they're history."
Carol was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Bruce?"
"I want you to remember something."
"I'm your family."
Bruce stared at the ceiling, wondering if Sarah was fixing another drink. He tried to imagine what she was wearing. Then, instinctively, he rolled over and kissed his wife. They made love, and Bruce imagined Carol could never love anyone as much as she loved him.
As they pulled into the church parking lot, Bruce looked around and saw no cars. Carol pulled to a stop, straddling two open spaces. "What the hell?" she said. She turned off the ignition, reached into her purse and pulled out the wedding invitation. She read it and looked at her watch. Her chin started to quiver. "Oh, my God," she said.
Bruce sat silently for a moment. He looked at the church through the dirty windshield. The beautiful building looked cold and ugly to him. He imagined that earlier in the day, or yesterday--he didn't care which--the church was warm and lovely and full of wedding guests. Now it was simply a functional concrete structure, heavy and inert.
"Bruce," Carol said. "Oh Jesus Christ."
"Quiet," he told her. He put his finger to her lips. "Just listen."
Carol looked terrified. Her mascara started running down her cheeks. "I didn't do this on purpose," she cried. "You have to believe me."
"I do believe you," he lied. "You've always been there for me when I've needed you." Deep in his chest Bruce felt the erratic patterns taking hold.
"Give me the inhaler," he said. She pulled it from her purse and handed it to him.
"Wait here," he told her. "I'm going in."
"I'm coming with you."
"You're not going anywhere," he told her. "Just give me a few Goddamned minutes by myself."
Bruce got out of the car and walked to the church. He pulled open the heavy wooden door, went inside, and sat in a pew at the back. Here, in what he thought of as the worst seat in the house, he imagined the ceremony. There was Sarah, walking gracefully up the aisle on her father's arm. Then she was standing at the altar, not yet aware that Bruce wasn't in the church.
He tried to breathe in, breathe out, slowly, like the physical therapist had showed him. But his lungs wouldn't cooperate. The air caught in his chest, small gasps signaling a real problem on the way. Bruce pulled the inhaler from his pocket and set it next to him on the pew. He looked up at the stained glass window above him. Afternoon sun filtered through, firing the image of the baby Jesus brilliant orange. Bruce thought Jesus was leaning, tilting, fixing his baby gaze down on him.
He knew it wasn't a charitable fantasy, especially there in the house of the Lord, but he imagined the stained glass window shattering, raining down on a pew where Carol sat. Bruce knew she would look up in horror. She would try to protect herself, perhaps holding a hymnal above her head. He saw shards of glass knock the book from her hands.
He saw the glass cut her and knew that she would be repentant. He picked up the inhaler and headed for the church exit. Gasping kicked in. On the way out, he dropped the inhaler in a brass collection plate.
Bruce reached the car, lightheaded at the driver's side. "Sweetie," he said, "move over." Carol was sobbing, staring at him with wide wet eyes. She didn't budge. "Move the fuck over," he told her. She inched toward the passenger seat and Bruce got in behind the wheel. He started the engine and put it in gear. "Carol," he gasped, "Relax." He adjusted the rear-view mirror. "I'm fine."
Bruce headed for the parking lot exit. He was thinking about the father in Audrey Jackson's story. He remembered how the father's tongue continued swelling over his lips. Bruce imagined it snaking out of the father's mouth, wrapping around him like a python, choking his air. With Carol screaming at his side, trying to grab the wheel, Bruce recalled that when the father couldn't take it any longer, when he knew something had to be done, he put his head down and charged, bull-like, the liars who insisted they were his family.
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