Mid-afternoon sunlight filtered into the Hayfords’ living room, throwing long, thin shadows across the carpet and softly illuminating objects in the room: the bookshelf, creased spines of mysteries and romances lined up beside photo albums, auto repair manuals; the plaid couch, matching crocheted doilies on each arm; the wood laminate china cabinet, glass doors protecting the shelves of plates, cups and saucers inherited from parents, aunts, a great uncle; and the padded rocking chair where Maureen sat, her body still except for her slowly pushing legs and tense, restless hands – which moved between fluttering about her lap and twisting the gold cross around her neck until the chain went taut – as she watched the light touch the objects around her.
Maureen looked from her and Gerry’s wedding photo on the wall to the cold, quiet street out the window, and then at the half-table that was pushed up against the aging wallpaper facing her, willing the cordless phone sitting on the smooth wooden surface to ring. The table was one of the only things Maureen still had from her childhood home – her grandfather had made the table for her mother, carving the edges to look like the elegant, lacy trim that the bank manager and mayor had ordered for their homes – and she kept it nice by polishing the hardwood surfaces, hammering in a new nail when one of the legs got loose. The table being older than herself comforted Maureen, let her believe that if a tiny little table could withstand the world for that long, then so could she.
Gerry had said he would call her the night before – he was hauling the rig cross-country in five days, and she hated when he’d try to get ahead of schedule by not sleeping, so she made him promise to call when he stopped each night – but as she sat up waiting on the third night, twisting and tugging on the cross hanging from her neck, the phone never rang. She had tried calling him around eleven thirty, an hour after he usually turned in, but his pay-as-you-go cell phone hadn’t even rung. Not unusual, she had thought while replacing the receiver, he turns it off while driving so he won’t be bothered – he’ll probably turn it on in a minute. After half an hour in the rocking chair, her sore knee began to loosen up a little and Maureen dozed off only to wake up seconds later, frantic that she had missed him. Once she saw the red LED zero on the answering machine, she got herself a glass of water and laid down in the bed.
But today, rocking slowly forward and back, her index finger rubbing the small freckled indent between her clavicles, she was worried, because the last time he’d taken this long to call, he’d been with another woman the night before, one of the lot lizards that stalk through truck stops. Maureen had never figured out if it was guilt or fear that she would somehow know – as if her feminine senses told her all his secrets – that had kept him from calling that time, but now that he still hadn’t called, she was just sure that it had happened again. She had spent the last hour racking her mind, mumbling to herself as she tried to recollect some clue in their recent lifestyle that would or even could allude to him considering such a thing – perhaps something he had said he’d do but didn’t, a mysterious tension when saying “I love you,” or maybe a foul remark she had tossed out in anger – but there was literally nothing that she could come up with. Still, though, if it happened once, it could happen again. “Bastard,” she said to the empty room as her fingertips moved against her chin, her lips. Her stomach felt suddenly hollow as she thought of the tearful look he had given her when he had confessed months later, sobbingly telling her it was the only time and that it would never happen again, and that really, he hadn’t even enjoyed it. She glanced up as she heard the wheeze and rumble of an old pickup truck turning the corner outside, then looked back to the phone. Nothing. That just has to be it, she thought, because he always calls when I ask him to.
She tried to come up with excuses for him: that maybe his pay-as-you-go cell phone had died, though he had a charger in the rig, or maybe had run out of minutes; that the pay phones at the stop where he spent the night had all been out of order; that the rig had broken down last night in the middle of nowhere and he had been trying desperately to call her, but was in a place with no reception – “And,” she said dreamily, as if only half-focused on the words, “in this cold, it’d be too dangerous to walk anywhere to try to call.”
A cool, dizzy feeling crept over her chest and head as she imagined Gerry walking through snowy banks on the side of a deserted road in the middle of the night, coat and scarf bundled around his hunched frame as he held his cell phone in the air, trying to get even the weakest signal to contact her. She could see the rig behind him, the hood propped up, oily rags hanging off the sides – evidence that he had tried to fix it himself, hoping desperately that someone would drive by, someone who could help. No, she thought, there couldn’t have been another woman. Not again. Her stomach groaned and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything today – hadn’t even had coffee, though she didn’t want anything anyway – as from the snowy banks of the darkened road, Maureen’s mind moved to memories more solid than the fleeting image she darkly hoped was true: the time after the second miscarriage, when Gerry had held her on the couch until she stopped crying and told her that he knew it hurt, but she had to keep fighting, that she always had to keep fighting, because that was the only way to make it to better times; the spring night when he planted an entire garden of daisies, wildflowers and geraniums while she slept, how when she woke up and looked outside, the blooms and hummingbirds in the golden morning light surprised her so much that she dropped her coffee mug onto the kitchen’s linoleum tile; and how when they were first dating – the firm strength of his hands and that bright laughter – Gerry would slip notes into her purse when she wasn’t around or paying attention, little treasures that smelled of his aftershave for her to find later on. “No,” she said firmly, surprised at the strength of her own voice in the empty living room, “not my Gerry.”
Maureen looked over at the little wooden table – shafts of sunlight gilded the legs, but the phone was wrapped in shadow – and exhaled sharply, her fingers now resting on the cross hanging around her neck. The inside of her chest had begun to burn slightly, as if a cold was coming on, the same way her lungs used to burn when she was a smoker and would cough too hard. She looked opposite the front window, toward the kitchen, past the sink that held her single dirty plate and cup from last night, and pictured the wilted wildflowers outside, the empty bird feeder lying prone on the ground. Before she could stop herself, she was imagining Gerry with another woman, some whore named Desiree or Kasandra, who looked young in that cheap way – frizzy dyed hair and skin too loose from sun exposure, chunks of slowly greening imitation silver nestled on her fingers – someone whose hands had run along the same spots on Gerry’s body that Maureen loved, those secret places that only she was supposed to know about: the strawberry birthmark at the top of his right bicep, a freckle just beneath his waistline, the scar that ran like a shooting star across his thigh. No, she thought as she felt the corners of the cross dig into the middle of her fist, drawing lines and angles into her palm, No, that can’t be it. Please, let it be anything but that, anything at all but that. She looked down at the cross and asked again, pleading with her distorted reflection to show her some sign, something to prove that Gerry would never, ever do that to her again.
As if to answer her, the cordless phone across the room lit up and chirped. Maureen jumped up and crossed the room at a quick clip, noticing that her vision seemed very sharp – more precise than it had been in years: she could see the dust motes moving around her, the tiny cracks in the porcelain teacups beyond the doors of the glass cabinet – and she thought to herself, This must be what miracles feel like. She felt her knee strain and try to slow her, but she fought against it, sure that the good Lord would sooth the pain later on, since it was – after all – her reaction to a sign from Him that made it hurt. When Maureen looked down at the caller ID and saw that the number was in fact her cousin Tina and not Gerry’s cell phone, she raised an eyebrow. Why would she call at a time like this? She probably just wants to talk about the latest thing that dirt bag Chip called her. As Maureen shook her head and turned from the phone, her knee suddenly felt swollen and her leg began to shake a little.
“Gerry, my Gerry,” she mumbled, once again scouring her memories of the past few months for any disruption in their routine, anything she’d done wrong by anyone that would make her deserve this, “Why haven’t you called?” About halfway back to her chair, she glanced at the bookcase by the door, pausing to focus on the glinting pattern on the top shelf that had caught her eye: Gerry’s family Bible. She stepped toward the wooden structure and reached out to run a finger down the fading gold letters on the leather spine, thinking back to their wedding day, when Gerry’s mother had given the book to Maureen, holding onto it even as Maureen stood with it in her hands. “It’s very old,” his mother, God rest her soul, had said. “Very old. Has the entire family line all the way back to my great-great-great-great grandfather.” His mother had pulled it from Maureen’s gloved hands and flipped open the cover to show her the hand-drawn family tree inside, the careful cursive of every first, middle and last name. “You can add your name in now,” his mother had said, closing the book slowly and handing it back to Maureen. “Just keep it nice. It’ll remind you to have faith.” His mother had leveled her hazel eyes with Maureen’s and poked the cover of the Bible, her index finger covering the “o” in holy. “Always have faith.”
Maureen stepped back from the bookshelf, her left hand tugging at the cross around her neck. She pictured Jerry rifling through the rig’s cab for his cellphone charger, an “Out of Service” sign hanging across the row of pay phones at the only truck stop for fifty miles, snow drifts and closed roads and broken brake lines, even as the phone behind her sat quiet, the little wooden table and sun-faded wallpaper the only witnesses to her curled fist and trembling leg.