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"Ashes, Ashes," short story excerpt

Monday 5/9/22

“I’m not putting myself through the hell that is you,” a wife informed her husband.

“Any longer, you mean,” he said, having received confirmation he wouldn’t be going inside.

“What are you trying to say?”

“You’re not putting yourself through the hell that is me any longer. Because presumably there was a time when I wasn’t hell, because who would choose to go through hell if they didn’t have to? And if you did, you’d only have yourself to blame.”

“This is what’s called being an asshole.”

“No, this is called culpability. We could get one thing right. It’s allowed.”

“You’re not allowed,” she said, feeling like a priggish child who couldn’t think of anything better because her heart was beating too hard.

He made the by-now familiar response that existed between various forms of responses, because nothing was natural anymore and there wasn’t a face he could find that would fit, or words that belonged in his mouth. Part snort, part calibrated whistle to the universe for mercy.

“Stop laughing at me,” she said, starting to laugh herself, or worrying that she was—that there wasn’t sufficient separation in her types of sounds. “Don’t be laughing at me.” She fought back a “please.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” he responded, trying to make the statement sound as honest as possible so that she could hear it as true.

He had an odd desire to comfort her. Or not so odd. Only odd insofar as there was no way he could act upon it. Speaking in Cantonese would have been more viable and she’d never heard him say a word in any other language save that one happy summer when, for reasons unclear to himself, he kept calling water “agua,” perhaps on account of all of the early morning father-daughter tennis matches at the court across from the rented beach house and the Spanish guy they often passed and said hello to on their way there with his bright tube socks, lacquered hair, and general sheen of being someone well-hydrated.

“I’ve signed the papers,” he said, pulling them out of a pocket he didn’t even know he had, which had gone otherwise unused in his entire history of pockets. His career in pockets. A longtime player in the old pocket game. They struck him as heroic. And they wished for precious little credit—to be patched at most, these keepers and stewards of so much importance. The keys to enter the home. The wallet boasting of the proof of one’s existence. The photo of the little girl who’d never grow old.

He tried to imagine what she’d look like at thirty-eight. He did that a lot. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe because his wife had been that age herself for eleven months, and he’d reach it in four, if he did.

“I’m sorry it has to be like this,” he continued, because none of the other words had been enough or were even words. They were gestures. Carriers. Syllabic pockets. For nosegays and posies, yes, once; beachcomber days and razor clams; and other items, now.

He patted the official pocket in his jacket from which the papers had come. One of those pockets of the lining, over the breast—unglimpsed, but they work all the same, and can be used without a person meaning to use them, apparently. There was something hard inside—like a nut, or a seed. A breath mint for a kiss, but who packs just the one, minus the tin? He’d do a more thorough investigation later on his own. He used to keep a supply of candies on his person so that he could pass them to the girl in the photos, as they shared a love of a sweet on the sly in stolen moments that felt more of the Robin Hood variety of purloining, than a dishonorable breaking of rules. He couldn’t handle finding one of those right now. Not even a snapped off piece that had continued on, on its own, wondering why it didn’t get to go where it was meant to, and when would its time come? That would be worse. She may have eaten what no longer remained of it. He considered commenting on the yard, the state of the lawn, a handy man he’d heard good things about, with a reputation for honesty. He was tempted to say the word “rectitude.” But he gave voice to none of it, and tried to wipe away any trace of their inward expression from his eyes, through which he was now having a hard time seeing anyway.


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