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January 30, 2023

The Least He Could Do

By Salma Ruth

Gert's decision

Today she will confess her sin, and she will know his response. And she doesn't care one way or the other. Maybe he will take the longest, sharpest knife from the kitchen to slit her throat -- maybe in a dramatic argument -- maybe while she sleeps in her corner of their enormous and lonely bed. Maybe he will pack his things and leave. Or throw her things out onto the snow. Maybe he will confess something too, and they will go on as always, their unhappy stasis.

Whatever the result, she doesn't care, and her lack of caring has come after years of deeply caring. Not caring feels new: a fascinating, bizarre sensation. It has come upon her peacefully -- her first feeling of peace in a very long time. It is so peaceful, in fact, that she can't recognize it: she thinks it some new form of agitation. She leaves her stuffy house and walks outside for a few minutes in an effort to accept the feeling as genuine and hers.

Peace. Not caring.

She never would have expected these feelings to accompany one another, but they do. She might deny the feelings inside the house, where ghosts and old customs inhabit the space with her, but outside, on this crisp Minnesota morning, with a cold wind blowing her pajamas, she can only see this truth: that she no longer cares what her husband will do or say at her confession, and that not caring has led her to peace. For the first time in years, her resolve is palpable and undeniable. She will tell him today. Maybe this morning while he dips chocolate donuts into his coffee.

This enormous bed

Dave believes in mornings. He is scornful of late-risers -- lazy people who don't deserve to see the morning's beauty or hear its waking sounds. By dawn, he has already risen from his corner of the bed, has already looked askance at Gert. She snores in the early mornings, a distraction that irritates him. He would like to hear nothing but the birds calling him to join them outside.

Dave bought the bed three years ago on Gert's birthday. As she does with every birthday, Gert resents Dave's gift. She had no desire for a large bed, one that would create an even greater distance between them. Their small bedroom can't be expected to accommodate it, and they can only manage by removing all other furniture. The loss of two dressers means the closet is cluttered and crowded, and Gert can no longer walk around the room. Each night, she crawls to her corner, feeling fat and defeated.

What a large and cumbersome monstrosity, this bed. At night, she sleeps alone, so far away from her husband that she hardly knows whether he is there or not. When she does laundry she dumps all the clean clothes together in a huge pile and throws clothes by type into the nooks and baskets of the small closet. Sometimes she hangs her church clothes onto hangers and shoves them in tight spaces. Laundry is such a hassle with no room to move around, and she can't be bothered with so much housework.

Dave of the forest

Dave has always been a man of the forest. It is the only place he feels truly at home. He knows the forest and what to expect there.

By the time he has poured his first cup, Dave can hear Gert in the bathroom upstairs. He calls gruffly to rouse the children, and he already knows what will happen: Clay will come bounding down the stairs in a few minutes, fully dressed, while Rose will lag far behind him. Some days he invites Clay to join his morning walk, on the provision that Clay observe the rule of absolute silence. Clay already knows well the rule of silence, and he is dutiful about it, which is why he is invited at all. Rose would never observe the rule, and Dave knows this without having to test her.

Dave would never miss this morning hunt with his hounds. When Gert insisted on a family vacation to visit her aunt in Florida and take Rose and Clay to amusement parks, Dave was offended by her request. It served to confirm his ongoing complaint that Gert doesn't respect the needs of the hounds. How would they hunt without him? How would they eat? Gert is selfish and demanding at all times, but this request for a vacation went beyond the limit. He knew then that he could never count on her if he were ever too sick to care for the hounds. She would not know the first thing to do for them, though she lives side-by-side with them every day of her life. She wouldn't understand even their simplest attempts to communicate.

The hounds eat whatever Dave provides them of the innards from the rabbits they hunt. Dave and the hounds eat sparingly, and it is primarily hunger that impels them to their tasks each morning. Dave and the hounds are a team, and Dave has adapted to their methods of hunting. He knows they, and by extension he, are part of an ancient tradition of hunting and gathering food. The hounds work as a team, sharing information through their sounds and movements; they rub their scents as markers along the trail. Dave trusts the hounds more than any human. He knows if they wander off it is for the good of the group, and if they bark, for the same good.

There are forty hounds, give or take a few. Rose always names them, and she wishes her father would remember the names and use them. But Dave knows the hounds neither care about their names nor regard them, and his concern for the hounds only extends to their immediate needs as hunters, not as pets. Any attempt at domestication offends and upsets Dave, who feels that animals are animals and not objects for people's entertainment. He wishes that Gert would make Rose understand.

Gert can hear their barking, far away in the woods. She knows that Dave is gone, off in his own world of rabbits and hounds. She envies his morning routine -- so purposeful and brisk: a world of his own creation. Every morning he leaves Gert and the stuffy indoor world she inhabits. He goes someplace else -- some place that Gert knows nothing about, where she can neither enter nor feel welcome. Gert envies the forest, the dogs, even the hunted rabbits for the knowledge they have of her husband. She envies them for this fact: that she herself has never been pursued by her husband, not even for a moment, while each morning he pursues these others. His desire, she knows, is for them, not her.

What Rose thinks

Once Dave hit a cat with the car, and it really wasn't his fault. Gert knew this. She herself saw the cat, as if suicidal, running toward the front passenger tire of the car, aiming for death. Everyone witnessed this forlorn cat's last act -- Dave, Rose, Clay, Gert -- and no one blamed Dave for killing it. But still, Rose cried for the cat's death, mourning excessively for days and asking about the cat's potential for heaven. Gert wanted to say that the cat would go to hell for suicide, a concept she liked to encourage with her children, but Dave just became more angry: "Cats don't have an afterlife, Gert. They are simply cats. They die, their bodies decompose, and they become part of the soil. That's it. Don't encourage these ridiculous notions." But Rose remains hysterical and inconsolable. The death, and her father's culpability, haunt her day and night. Gert defends Rose with her mantra: "The least you can do is show some concern for your daughter's feelings."

Rose wakes each morning resentfully and hardly greets the day. She languishes in her bed, hoping to annoy her mother while staying just under the threshold of annoying her father. Long ago she stopped asking to join her father's morning walk, but it aches her to be unwanted. When Dave invites Clay, she feels daggers inside of her. One day, she knows, these daggers will fly out and cut her brother into bits.

Mornings impose themselves upon Rose, making her lethargic. She much prefers the afternoons, when she performs experiments of thought control against her mother. First she will refuse to obey the timer at the piano, lingering for two hours over the keys, stubbornly refusing to touch them, while her mother pleads for fifteen solid minutes of practice. At dinner, she will eat slowly, putting her fork down between delicate bites, chewing endlessly.

For Clay, fifteen minutes of practice takes fifteen minutes. Food is something to eat. Getting ready for bed is a matter of changing clothes and brushing his teeth. But for Rose each of these moments is laden with symbolism and opportunity. Each action holds the potential to attract or repel. For Rose, home is a laboratory; as precisely as any other scientist, she conducts tests of her mother's temper.

Rose was sweet, once. She was. People liked her. She was cute, even pretty. Before Clay was born, her mother would cling to her, as if afraid Rose would drop on the floor and shatter to a million pieces, or that she would run away until she couldn't be found. In those days, Rose was often summoned to her mother's lap. In times of affection or times of punishment, Rose had to sit on her mother's lap. If she over-exerted herself or strayed too far, she was called to her mother's lap. One day Rose refused her mother, and Gert became so upset, weeping hysterically, that Rose acquiesced just to quell her mother's strange response.

Since Clay, everything has changed. Now her mother speaks in scornful tones and resentments. Now Rose believes that her mother is lying about being her mother. Sometimes she fears being left alone to fend for herself; sometimes she worries she will be her mother's captive forever.

What Clay knows

Clay is happy and loveable, everyone's favorite child. People often wonder how Clay happened to be born into that family, with the sour wife, the taciturn husband, the whiny girl. How did this bright and sensitive child end up there? Did he choose this family out of compassion? Was he cursed by some misdeed in another life?

Clay is only seven years old, but he already knows what he is worth: a lot. And he already knows that his older sister is irrelevant. Clay knows without a single doubt that he is the favorite child of his parents and all of his grandparents as well. Just look at any of their refrigerator doors or their cell phone screens: pictures of Clay with his charming smile, sometimes with his sister in the background, and sometimes without her. The clues aren't really subtle at all, and Rose recognizes them too. Clay can make people smile just by smiling himself. His requests are few and readily met, and people are always asking about his comfort. Would he like this thing or that? Would he like something to eat or drink? Would he prefer this or that toy to play with? Does he like toy vehicles better or building blocks?

Clay knows Rose is irrelevant, and this is why he is kind to her. It is like the sympathy of a hunter toward a wounded animal. Why would he want to hurt her any further? She is damaged, frail, and small. He seeks ways to help Rose, to direct her from painful traps and release her when she falls unwittingly into one, but Rose is rarely gracious, and she doesn't understand his efforts. Clay doesn't mind, just as he wouldn't mind helping a bleeding rabbit.

Gert is a hunter, too

Dave is a hunter, but Gert likes to hunt, too. She likes to hunt for collectibles, things that come from her heritage, from the old country as her grandparents always called it. Someday she would like to go there, to the old country. She would like to see it and meet her distant cousins. Maybe when the children are older. Maybe she will take Rose or Clay.

This trip to the old country is like an elusive dream. But her collections are a sort of substitute. She imagines the colorful kitchens of the old country. She wonders if the old country is still attached to its old ways, as she is, or if they have forgotten their traditions, as her sister Julie claims. She would like to go there and see for herself.

Dave helps Gert to collect antiques and folk art that she likes. The house is small and crowded, but Dave doesn't mind. He feels that his life is outside, and the house is only a shelter for the television and the bed. Sometimes he imagines life without the many things that Gert has brought inside. In these free and unburdened fantasies, he is alone in the woods, just the dogs and the trees.

Gert has all the family heirlooms from her ancestors. Julie has not been around to claim them, and Gert is always around. Oval portraits of her great-grandparents hang in the living room. These photographs have never left their beveled frames in the many years of their existence.

Once Gert hears of a man who is selling hundreds of rosemal dishes -- plates, bowls, and platters. Gert is in a panic to get them. She imagines competing with other buyers and having to outbid them. In the car Gert worries aloud, urging Dave to drive quickly. These are Dave's shining moments as a husband, when he hears his wife's desires and does the most he possibly can to fulfill them. Deep down, he's pretty sure this old man won't find a buyer for his dishes except for Gert, but she wants them. And she wants to feel that her acquisition of the dishes is special -- that she has won some sort of contest, scored some sort of deal.

Dave understands this, and he doesn't mind helping her. This is Gert's way of hunting -- he sees it this way -- and his support for her hunting expeditions extends naturally from his own sympathy for other hunters. He knows her hunting isn't the same as his -- yet he feels this sympathy with her just the same.

Dave doesn't mind going to auctions with Gert sometimes. If the auction advertises materials for updating the garage or the kennels, Dave is happy to go. Once they bought a truckload of railroad ties to prevent the dogs from digging under their kennel, and often they buy second-hand parts for machinery or for fixing things around the house. If Gert goes alone, Dave doesn't mind following her later to help load the heavy purchases into his truck.

It is Gert's passion for auction sales that has led her to betray her husband, and it is this sale that will be the setting for her confession. Of course the confession centers upon Ric, who happens to be at an auction to buy a very unique and valuable guitar when Gert finds him there.

It isn't what happens between them that creates a need for her confession, but rather what Gert feels inside of her when she sees Ric. Very little actually happens on this day: there is a chance reunion, some flirtatious and happy chatter, a little ice cream. But Gert cannot deny reality: Ric makes Gert feel young and pretty. She desires him; and though she cannot act upon this desire, she feels it. And this feeling disturbs her.

It is Ric's first auction, so he is walking around lost with his bidding number and the newspaper ad, looking for the guitar and wondering how to buy it. Gert knows exactly what to do: "First, and most importantly, you have to believe that this is your guitar, and you are going to buy it. Everyone in the crowd has to believe it, too -- that you will ultimately win. They may bid against you, but it will be half-hearted bidding, just to make sure you don't get too great of a deal. The only problem is if someone else is determined to get it, too."

Ric considers this wisdom, and he already knows his rival: "Someone else in this crowd is here for the same guitar, Gert; I know it. He's in Slippery Sister, and he can only be here for one thing. I'm pretty sure he's not here for that quilt you want." Ric and Gert laugh, but she sees the seriousness of the situation.

"Then you have to position yourself toward the front of the crowd. We'll make a triangle between you, the auctioneer, and the guitar. You have to have strong eye contact with the auctioneer, and get as close to the guitar as possible. Touch it if you can. Last time I was in a bidding war like this, it was for my daughter's bedroom set. I put my hand on the dresser through the bidding, and I let the auctioneer know it was mine. When the other guy would bid, I would look at him as if he were a piece of dirt under my fingernails, then back to the auctioneer as if we were best friends. You have to play the game, Ric, and you will get it."

Gert forgets all about the Dala horses and the quilt that she wants, and she focuses all her attention on helping Ric. When it comes time to bid on the guitar, Ric and Gert find the best position between the auctioneer and the guitar, and they are happy to see Slim Jim way over, on the opposite side of the crowd. The auctioneer knows the value of the guitar, that is obvious, and he starts the bidding very high at $1000. Gert understands this high number as a marker, the auctioneer simply raising expectations, but Ric's hand flinches as if he is about to bid. Gert pushes his hand down firmly. "Not yet," she whispers. Slim Jim looks around, uncertain of himself. He had hoped to get the guitar for a bargain.

No one bids for a few minutes, while Slim Jim and Ric both hold their breath and wait. Then the auctioneer cuts his price in half, and Slim holds up his card, confident he will take the guitar on the first bid. Gert shakes her head slowly toward Ric. "Wait until the final call," she says. As the auctioneer counts down, she nods toward Ric. "$510," she whispers, and Ric holds up his card, saying "$510" in a loud, clear voice.

From this moment on, Ric plays the part of the authoritative buyer, and Gert feeds him numbers. Soon Ric is clowning with the auctioneer, who knows exactly where the guitar will eventually end up. Slim starts to lose his grip around the $650 mark, but he bids until $750. Finally Ric takes the guitar with a booming $755, and the crowd is pleased to see him take the guitar in his arms and hug it before he passes it back to the clerk. Gert has to show Ric where to pay and how to claim the guitar, and after the drama, Ric is anxious to thank Gert for her help. "Let me treat you to ice cream. Like the old days, except that I pay." In the old days, Ric was always poor and Gert paid for everything, in spite of the fact that she was poor too. "Okay," she says, "I'm going to order something really expensive." Ric laughs, and he puts his arm around her shoulders. "Anything you want, Gert. I'm really glad to see you."



Part One of Three

Article © Salma Ruth. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-09-24
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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