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April 15, 2024

The Least He Could Do, Part Two

By Salma Ruth

The only love story in the entire story

More than anything, Dave would like to become irrelevant. He would like to fade into nothingness, where nobody would remember him nor think of him at all. He knows there are other people who have achieved this state of oblivion. Sometimes he thinks that he could do it if he really wanted to, and he wonders what is holding him back. At those moments he thinks again of Jenny and his past desire -- to be everything to her. There was a time when he wanted, more than anything else, to be relevant. And Jenny wouldn't let him.

All the love clichés are in the story of Dave and Jenny: their initials carved in a tree, painted in an attic, chiseled in a bathroom stall. The tree and the attic were Dave; the bathroom stall was Jenny. The sad clichés are here too: the lost and tormented lover, the desolation and pain of unrequited love.

When Dave first loved Jenny, he would leave small gifts on her front porch like a quiet and faithful cat. He would hide near the porch for hours, waiting to see her face or hear her voice. Often he would hear her sister call into the house, "Jenny, your boyfriend left flowers again." He would grin and run.

He loved Jenny like a hunter -- circling her, attuned to her sight and sound. Patient, waiting for the right moment. Stealthy, setting the right traps. One day he left a ring and a note, simply "Marry me Jenny," and he waited. They couldn't see him but they knew he was there -- so close they could smell his musky scent. "Yes!" Jenny shouted to the cold morning air, and then he emerged, grinning, from the hydrangea bush. He took her in his arms in a clumsy embrace before stumbling down the road to his mother. These were Dave's happiest days -- the anticipation of the event, the happiness of his mother and of Jenny.

The wedding created a miracle. Quiet Dave changed: he began to speak freely and fluidly. He gave up his solitary activities. In these days, all his hunting and fishing became metaphor: hunting for Jenny's favorite foods, fishing for Jenny's thoughts and opinions.

When it was only the two of them, Jenny would sing at the stove, they would eat together, clean the kitchen. But then the child came, and Jenny's deep blurring depression; Dave began to feel as if the three of them lived underwater. His attempts to move or communicate mediated by a thick membrane through which he could see Jenny, but he couldn't be certain that she could see him. Dave became himself angry, and he knew he would never forgive God for this cruel joke against him.

Once Dave and Jenny put their small baby in his dark blue stroller and set off on a walk around the block. Neither Dave nor Jenny ever imagined walking around with a stroller, but after a few weeks of being trapped together with the fits and cries of the baby, they went to cheer themselves and bring peace to their restless child. Dave had thought the stroller a silly purchase with its tiny, impractical wheels, but now he came to appreciate his mother's gift. Perhaps the walks helped Jenny's mood, but it wasn't enough. She was sinking, and he couldn't pull her up.

When Dave finally tells his mother of Jenny's inability to rise from the couch and live, the mother takes Dave and his child to her home. Then she advises Jenny's father, and Jenny returns to her childhood bedroom in a hazy, eternal stupor. Dave's mom isn't always cheerful and pleasant, but she is particularly good at seeing the big picture. She knows when her children are in danger, and she doesn't want anyone to suffer unnecessarily.

Where there was once a family of three, there is now a disintegrated mess. First Jenny falls apart in a blur, then Dave in a puddle of guilt. Rory grows up quiet and subdued.

And Dave has never stopped loving her -- even now -- and his love is nothing to Jenny, not a secret power to help her -- nothing. Dave's love has never diminished; if anything, it has increased in his tormented thoughts, in the pain of separation. Jenny is someone Dave can never see clearly, and he is never at rest. He knows he will die with the same questions on his mind: what could I have done to save us? Why didn't I try harder? What if I had done this? Or that?

What Rory does

How Rory survives his days and his nights is unknown to everyone but Rory. He has no memory of his parents as they once were, before their separation, before him. Rory's parents have always been the same to Rory: his father silent, more attached to his dogs than to any person; his mother silent, ghost-like, always gazing at windows. Rory only knows two people well, and he knows these two people better than they know him: one is his father's mother, and the other is his mother's father. Sometimes he wishes these two lonely souls would just move into the same house and love each other as they love him. But there is some sort of propriety that assures this will never happen.

With his grandmother, Rory plays endless games of gin rummy, the rules always in flux depending on what Rory wants: should we play to pick up the whole pile, or just off the top? This is his grandmother's first question. The next: should we play to 300 or 500? Rory almost always wants to play the whole pile to 500, the longest version of the game. Whenever Rory wins, his grandmother posts the new score sheet on her refrigerator. She never posts his report cards, mercifully, just these winning scores of gin rummy.

At his grandfather's shop, Rory learns how cars run, why they break down, how to diagnose problems and fix them. But he lacks his grandfather's passion for cars. He isn't good at remembering the fine points and details, and he doesn't enjoy grit and grime as some of the workers do. The work reminds Rory of his father: always driving, driving, and going nowhere.

Rory becomes an adult all of a sudden, as if by accident. He isn't ready, but suddenly his grandparents have expectations. His grandfather offers Rory a job at the shop; his grandmother wants him to enlist in the army. To prevent these pressures from overwhelming him, Rory enrolls in community college classes. He doesn't know what classes to take or what counts for what ... Nothing really interests him. He takes classes that he hears about from classmates, but he can't seem to finish the assignments. He jots a few ideas on paper, turns in essays without hope.

Rory rides his bike to school, since the campus isn't far. It is the only time of day he feels good, even if the wind is bitter and biting.

Gert and the rock star

Dave would almost certainly laugh at the idea of Ric. He would question his wife's taste. In Dave's view, Ric would be an idiot and a hoodlum; he would use these same descriptors that Gert's father had used back then.

Ric has always kept his hair long. He still does. His hair keeps him young. He could have cut it at 15, but now he can't. He would be admitting to something, something about himself and his lifestyle being at odds with society. He isn't at odds with anyone. He is happy, and his hair is long.

Ric was a real rock star in high school, obsessed by his guitar. At night, he fell asleep with his instrument, cradling her gently next to him, and he woke with new fingerings from his dreams. Leaving her behind for school was only a physical separation; he carried her in his head, working out new chords and melodies instead of the formulas of science, math, and language.

When Ric decided to drop the K from the end of his name, Gert decided to change her name to Geri. She wanted to spell Geri with a little heart over the I, but as much as she tried to convince people, the more they insisted on the ugly nickname of Gert. The sound of Gert, like dirt, always made Gert feel low and poor, not like Julie, a name that starts in a pretty little pout, rolls around the tongue, and ends in a smile. Gert. Dirt. Hurt. Inert. The name cuts into the air like a blunt and impotent knife.

Ric never asked Gert to sing with his band though she hinted desperately. He knew what she wanted, but he wouldn't give it. For Ric, music was his only constant, the only permanent aspect of his life, and he couldn't mix the temporal with the eternal. He knew Gert would take too much if he started to give, and therefore he gave her nothing. The less he gave to her, the more she desired, the more she knelt to worship him.

The least Ric could have done would have been to let Gert sing with the band. It wasn't a lot to ask, and Gert's choir director always said that Gert had a nice voice. Gert never really understood Ric -- why he was sometimes cruel towards her. It's not as if his band ever had any great gigs anyway -- just trashy bars where the teenagers would lie about their age to get in. The music was only meant to provide background noise for people getting drunk. Still, Gert would have enjoyed singing with the band, and Ric could have indulged her a little.

An accident, out of his control

Dave knows his cement truck perfectly well, and the truck responds to his demands.

When it is winter, and the trucks are grounded, the drivers go home to collect unemployment. The company doesn't mind paying its share of unemployment to the best drivers, just to assure that they will return once the land thaws. But in late autumn, they become nasty and mean-spirited. They don't want to retain all the drivers on the winter roll, so they look for ways to dispose of their weaker members.

Sometimes it is cold already in October and the ice is dangerous, but the company isn't ready to call it quits. They need to keep going in November so that they can pay their bills through the winter.

Only Dave sees the error. The other truck is heading down the hill and hits a patch of ice. He could have swerved to avoid it; in fact he should have been moving more slowly in the first place, but the truck, weighted heavily by the cement inside its churning barrel, follows the pull of gravity downwards. It may seem there is nothing Rob can do, but it's really Rob's fault for going too fast.

Rob knows he should call the office to report the accident, but Dave says no -- he knows what will happen, and he is not going to let Rob lose his job.

Rob and Dave start digging, spreading gravel and salt in the road. It is dangerous work with such heavy trucks, but they are determined to take the truck back up to level ground.

When Dave calls Gert to tell her, Gert is reminded that she is indispensable to Dave. She is the only one he would tell about this incident. Without her, Dave would probably fade into the woods and never be heard from again, and Gert will never let that happen to Dave.

Julie is a stranger in her most familiar places

Julie has been to the old country many times. She says it isn't old anymore, but Gert doesn't believe it. Julie only goes to modern cities, so she can't know what the old country is like.

Julie has always disliked her younger sister intensely, and she has never shown her a moment of kindness. From the time they were young children, the two would take turns tormenting the other. Julie has never forgiven her sister for being born, for intruding on a perfectly ordered life, for invading her room and touching her books and toys.

When Julie tries to return to the most familiar people and places of her life, that world seems cold and hostile toward her. She is never certain why this happens to her because most of the world treats her warmly. Gert takes a secret pleasure in watching Julie stumble uncertainly in the places where she should feel most comfortable. The world has always revolved around Julie, but Gert doesn't mind being a cog in Julie's perfect wheel.

Gert is disappointed at having only one sister, who has turned out to be so inconsiderate. When it comes to Julie, Gert has a long list of things that are the least she could do, none of which Julie ever does. For example, the least Julie could do is to think of her niece and nephew sometimes. She would like to have a sister who would remember the birthdays of her children with nice packages full of gifts. For a long time Julie has been absent from the world of Gert and her parents, and she has lost her sense of duty to her family.

Whenever Gert thinks of Julie, she becomes irritable. Julie's children are spoiled, and it makes Gert furious to see how her mother dotes on them and brags about them to her friends. It is as if Julie and her children walk along golden sidewalks, oblivious to everyone.

But what irritates Gert most is when Rose starts asking questions that only Julie can answer. Gert is tired of Julie always showing off, and Rose is no help. Every one of Rose's questions to Julie is a disloyal stab in Gert's back. Rose knows exactly how Gert feels about Julie, but Rose simply doesn't care about her mother's feelings. Rather, Rose lights up when Julie walks into a room, happy to see her and chatty. Gert is disgusted by the way those two go on -- as if Rose doesn't even care that Julie always ignores her birthday. She hates to see how closely Rose resembles Julie -- not only in appearance but in their thoughts. Rose's questions really anger Gert, as they make Rose seem disloyal, and worse: they make Gert seem ignorant.

Family dynamics

Dave's anger simmers low and rarely bursts, while Gert's boils high and frenzied. Dave works out his anger in his morning walks, but Gert has no such outlet. When Gert is angry, she becomes hungry, and when she is hungry she eats herself to numbness. Unlike Gert, Dave eats from the earth. He doesn't like the rich and sweet foods his wife prepares, and he only eats what he can kill or harvest. When he skins a rabbit and throws it on the stove, warm and pulsating, he thinks of Gert, her throbbing heart, and he imagines it there, sizzling in the pan. He imagines taking a large bit of it, the bitter taste.

On the way home from Thanksgiving one year, Gert is upset from witnessing Dave in conversation with her cousin. "When she asked about your work you could have given her a full answer. It's the least you could do."

"I did answer. But why does she have to nose around about my job?"

"She wasn't nosing around. She was trying to have a conversation with you. What kind of answer is 'truck'?" Gert is incensed, and Dave isn't even trying to calm her.

"She asked what I do."

"So your answer is 'Truck'? You can't say, 'I drive a cement truck'? Truck. It's not an answer to a question unless you are three years old and someone is asking you if you want to play with a car or a truck. Please, Dave, grow up and answer a question when it is put to you."

"She was nosing around. I didn't pry into her private life." Dave feels Gert will never understand him.

"Your job isn't your private life. What you do in your bathroom is private. Did she ask you about your toileting habits?"

Now the children are snickering in the back seat, and Gert realizes she has gone too far. Dave will be angry and clam up for a few days. Gert will continue to simmer about his rude behavior toward the only cousin brave enough and thoughtful enough to try to engage him in a conversation. Gert cannot understand Dave's overly sensitive rules of privacy; it seems there isn't a single aspect of Dave's life that he is willing to discuss with others.

It isn't that she is unaware of her husband's eccentricities. It is that she expects people to accept him as he is. He never hurts anyone: he's just quiet, shy, and content to be alone. What is wrong with that? Yet people rarely treat him warmly. No one tries to draw him out, talk with him, befriend him. It breaks Gert's heart to see him, always so alone within himself. And she blames Dave, too. If anyone does reach out to him, he responds in insolent monosyllables. To outsiders he seems gruff and unfriendly; if only they would only try a little harder to draw him out of his tightly-wound bunting.

Rory thinks that his father doesn't care about him, but the truth is just the opposite. Dave cares too much -- so much that he feels physical pain. There is a big empty hole inside of Dave; sometimes he imagines Rory and Jenny in the deep pit of his heart, and he wonders whether they can ever be rescued.

His first child, Rory. So much like his mother that it aches Dave to look at him: Jenny's sweet smile and green eyes, Jenny's soft, tender nature. When Gert tried to raise the boy, it was a disaster. Gert had no patience with a child not her own.

She tried her best with Rory, she did. When he lived with them, Gert went out of her way to be a good mother. But Rory was a difficult child, always whining, always asking for things that cost too much. When Rory started complaining of the wind in the trees, Gert had enough. How could she stop the wind in the trees? Why can't Dave tell his son to stop complaining so much? The least Dave could do is to give Gert a hand once in a while with the tasks of raising the child. Rory eventually faded away, staying with his grandmother for longer and longer periods of time.

Dave often feels guilty about Rory's lack of opportunities. Rory might have enjoyed a resonating violin under his chin, like Clay, or pounding out notes on the piano, like Rose. He wishes he could do something good for Rory to make up for their collective losses, but Rory doesn't really want his dad's input anymore. Gert often suggests they invite Rory to Rose and Clay's concerts or games, but Dave is adamantly opposed to this. He doesn't think Rory should serve as audience to his siblings, but more: he does not want Rory there to see all the childhood he missed.

When Rory left for his grandmother's for the last time, Gert wanted a week of vacation, and eventually she convinced Dave to travel to her aunt in Florida. But Florida was too hot and too many strangers. Dave couldn't understand the need for amusement parks, the traffic and clamor. Gert was embarrassed at Dave's sullen behavior. Gert and Dave snapped at each other and made everyone uncomfortable, and Gert was glad when the week was over. She was so angry at the airport that she told him that he could leave her if he wanted to. Deep down, she hoped he would not.

Of course he stayed, but the house was more silent than usual as Dave and Gert re-examined their priorities and desires before settling back in their routines. Gert never mentioned the idea of a vacation again, and Dave felt relieved when Gert didn't repeat her offer to separate. Dave considered the idea of moving the hounds to another location too much hassle. Besides, he didn't want to have to admit another marital failure to his mother.

The Florida argument was their worst ever, and it changed their relationship irrevocably. Not by creating new conflicts necessarily, but rather by making their underlying conflicts rise to the surface.



Part Two of Three

Article © Salma Ruth. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-10-01
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
Lydia Manx
10/04/2012
08:46:36 PM
A strong voice and well written. I am enjoying the twists and turns of lives. Thank you!
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