This morning I returned to "The Installation" from back in 2021 and have been revising it for what will be its inclusion in The Solution to the World's Problems: Surprising Tales of Relentless Joy. This is from it:
My husband is gone all day on Sunday. The words, the term, make her feel guilty. My husband. But she continues. He will be at his brother’s. They will watch football. The children are on a ski trip to Stowe with the family of their friends. The house is empty. We would have the day. I know I am asking a lot.
The idea was the man’s, but now he thinks he’s a fool who deserves punishment. He cannot see the other man. He certainly cannot see the girls. Twins. It will be hard enough to see her. He tries to determine if an afternoon will be enough, given that his experience with this kind of thing is limited and he’ll be working on his own. If he can spare time in the economical sense. He has a lot of jobs to get to. If he can spare himself in the emotional one.
The chair has been returned to his possession. He has it again, having uninstalled it from the home of the woman who’d been using it now that she had died.
And we just got it, the husband of the newly dead woman had said as the electric chair came free from the wall and the man doing the work tried to stop it from scratching the wood of the stair. She couldn’t have had more than a few rides.
He made it sound like he was talking about an amusement park that charged full admission and then shut down fifteen minutes after entry.
But that’s the heart for you, the older, now widowed man had added. You never know when it’s going to go, which may or may not have been a joke in the gallows humor style, a statement regarding cause of death, or indication that he wished to die himself and this was how he told his handyman.
I’ll take the chair back, the younger man had said, I’ll refund what you paid.
He felt crushed and concerned for this other person. He didn’t know what would become of him. What could. Where did he go now? What was next? He might live for another ten, twenty years. It was hard to tell how old he might have been.
He had extras of everything from his work. Vanities, toilets. Electric chairs were different. This was his first spare of the sort. But he also had an idea as he returned the chair to the back of his work van and then entered the house again to disassemble its track from the wall.
Of course they’re yours, a different woman had told him. A living woman. A living woman with the majority of her life still in front of her.
She says the of course with a pain that is still raw—uninfected, but perpetually fresh—and will remain raw. We were wrong. We went too far.
He knows that she doesn’t mean physically. Not exactly. But rather something else. He doesn’t think she believes her last statement. He doesn’t believe it. Which makes everything harder.
They’d met for coffee at a supermarket kiosk. A coffee station with a generic name. Food & Drink. One dyspeptic-looking employee at a counter and three tables with a total of five chairs. Hot dogs, for some reason, turning on a heater that makes the meat—if this is meat—look like cylindrical scabs.
The supermarket seems to say, hey, this is a separate place from real life, you’re not really sitting down for coffee and that thing you’re calling lunch at a proper cafe, this isn’t an official, heavy talk. It’s life on the fly. Maybe you’ll get through it a bit easier here. You can try.
You have to live your life he’d said to her, trying to be frank and unselfish while believing that he was probably faking it, because this wasn’t how he really felt. There are requirements.
They leave it there. They part. He thinks about shaking her hand, but he knows they won’t touch.
And that is all until he reaches back out. However long it has been. The year that feels like five. The sliding scale. Forever the sliding scale when not that long is always far too long at that.
He has the chair. He doesn’t tell her about the woman who’d only gotten a few rides’ worth of use out of it. The chair will only end up sitting in his storage unit, he says instead.
She understands how hard this is for him because she knows how hard it is for her. Everything she had felt, and continued to feel, reasserts itself. Swells. Grows. She professes gratitude. He acts as if there’s nothing to be grateful for. This is due course.
In further due course, the day for the doing of the job takes shape. The woman’s husband is at his brother’s. All afternoon and into the evening. Full slate of games to watch. She has the house to herself. And to this other man. This man from before. This man of overlap. But no. She can’t think of him that way. She doesn’t. It’s not right. She’s overtaken by paradox. Everything is real. And yet, at the same time, not enough is.
Long ago she told her husband as he watched football another time that she was going to the clinic for the big procedure. Downplayed what that meant. The chance for a child. Children. Made it sound like a tooth cleaning so as not to jinx the chances. Left him in their home to watch his game, which struck her as ironic even then.
The process takes time, she said. I’ll just be sitting there after. It’s better that I go alone. What foresight they had had to freeze what could be frozen.
Then coming home after and taking a seat beside her husband on the couch, but not too close, in case she smelled differently, on account of where she’d really been and what she’d really been doing. With whom. And why. All of the parts of the why.
And now the man she had known and the man she had loved—the other man she had loved—comes to this house that is not his on a Sunday where there is no one else but this woman.
He imagines children he is not able to see—allowed doesn’t seem like the right word, but it’d still fit—as they make their way down slopes with what he figured was blue-hued snow like he’d seen at Stowe himself. Mount Mansfield. His kids who weren’t his kids whipping around bends, sending up a cloaking spray of white and blue and blue and white. Perhaps in the same bends where he’d been. All of the furrows of what was really a slanted field.