Mark seemed depressed when he came home from work. The rain had started before nightfall, a thick, fine misty-looking rain, the kind you can hardly feel but soaks into your clothes as quickly as any downpour, and he went directly from the garage to his bedroom to change clothes. When he came downstairs again, he checked the pots on the stove to see what was cooking (or was he checking to make sure that Emily had been cooking what they'd agreed upon for this week's menu?) and then poured some Jack Daniels over ice cubes in a highball glass.
"Are you okay?" Emily asked him.
"Yeah, I just wasn't ready to get back to work, I guess. I don't think they should start a new semester right after the holiday. Classes could have started next Monday -- give everyone a chance to recover and get back to a normal life. As it is, you have hung-over students wanting to drop classes, so they have course cards that need to be signed off, and then the kids on the waiting list for classes are hanging around the department like a flock of mouth-breathing vultures. You have teachers who spent Christmas break carousing and not bothering to check their mail and then bitching about the schedule of classes, and every one of them wanted copies before nine o'clock." He took a swallow of the whisky and grimaced. "And Margaret was all worked up about something, twittering like a high school girl all day. I had to leave the department for a couple hours this afternoon, and when I got back, she'd misplaced the phone message book and couldn't find it. That's all I need is for the department secretary to have a nervous breakdown. She's the only one who knows where everything is."
"It'll all even out in a day or two. You always manage to get things running smoothly." Emily set the summer squash with corn on the table, and lifted the gravy boat off the warming tray while her husband put the pot roast on a cutting board, and made even half-inch slices of it.
"I don't know. There are days when I don't want to be in California with all the damn fruits and nuts. Every time you turn around, someone's protesting something or whining about being discriminated against." He pushed vegetables around on his plate with his fork. "I don't even want to think about work any more this evening. What did you do today? Everything get back to the party store all right?"
"Everything was checked in just fine. I fed my fish -- Shanghai even took a piece of food from my fingers!"
"You and those fish," he said, shaking his head. "If they could get out of that pool they'd follow you into the house."
"As long as I had some food with me," she laughed. "And I talked to Dad today." She waited to see what his reaction would be, whether he was interested in the conversation, or whether he would tell her he didn't really care what his father-in-law had to say.
"Oh, yeah? I take it that lousy hustler hasn't murdered him in his sleep yet."
"They're leaving Monday for Las Vegas, for a week or so. I was thinking of going down to visit them for a couple days before they go. Would you mind?"
"I can't believe you'd actually stay in the same house as that slut. Oh, or were you going to rent a motel room?"
"No, Santa Cruz is too expensive for that, especially on the weekend. Besides, they have plenty of room. I just haven't seen Dad since before Thanksgiving, and I wanted to make sure he looks as good as he sounds before he goes wandering off with Middi again. I could drive down there early tomorrow and avoid the worst of the traffic."
Mark pushed his plate away. He looked thoughtful, and tapped his index finger on the table. "Tomorrow, huh? Probably a good idea. I'll work late, then, and get the department squared away. Maybe I'll go to the football game Saturday and cheer for the other team. That damned Marl Bloch!" He finished the whisky. "Yeah, I think it's a good thing for you to visit your father. That way Middi can't make him forget that he does have a daughter. It's been what, six years now, and I still can't believe he married that gold-digging tramp. Your mother was such a nice woman, never raised her voice, always sweet and neat ... How long do you think you'll be staying?"
I thought I just said "a couple days." The department really must have been a mess. "Just until Sunday. I'll drive home after lunch and that will give them time to pack and take it easy. I'll be back by supper time, I would think."
"Just be careful if it's raining. The locals down there think that mountain road is supposed to be some kind of demolition derby. If there's any place on the West Coast that attracts more freaks than San Francisco, it's Santa Cruz." He ground his teeth, producing that awful muffled screech.
Emily stood up and took her dish to the sink, turning the water on so that she wouldn't hear the sound if he did it again. Gad, he's in a state. "Mark, are you all right? You hardly ate anything." And you're not throwing a fit about me going to visit Dad.
He shrugged and refilled his glass with ice cubes and some more whisky. "Just feeling low. Maybe I'm coming down with something. Em, I'm going to bed to read for a while. See you in the morning." He gave her a peck on the cheek and walked away.
Something is definitely wrong with him. Emily watched him suspiciously as he crossed the kitchen to trudge up the back stairs. Just using the kitchen stairway was unusual behavior for him. He preferred to use the stairs from the dining room, possibly because they were open and airy, and he could survey almost the entire downstairs from the landing. There was even a little ottoman there, with potted plants, a very lovely place to sit and admire the Christmas tree at holiday time. On the other hand, ever since they had bought this house, Mark had groused about the darkness of the winding back stairs. Eventually Emily came to think of the back stairs as hers, a secret way of getting from her office to the kitchen without being seen, especially if she was wickedly having a piece of cheesecake in the middle of the afternoon. Can it be that he was disillusioned by the behavior of our guests, too?
She could have gone up to his room and asked him that very question, but instead, she rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher and put the leftovers away. There was a lurking little feeling in the back of her heart that somehow, the guest list having been drawn up by her husband, the orgiastic antics of Marl and Marcella and whoever else had been crude enough to have sex in the recesses of her home were somehow his fault. She didn't want to listen to him complain that he couldn't believe that such things had happened; he worked with them every day, and almost all of them he had known for years. How could he possibly not have known that they were capable of such bestiality?
Bestiality. It's a good thing the only pets I have are my fish. And the skunks. I should have lured them into the house on New Year's Eve and had them stand guard in my upstairs rooms. It was still fairly early in the evening, but the rain did make a soporific sound. Mark had a good idea, crawling into bed with something to read. Of course what he was reading was probably his stupid Playboy magazines, which was as revolting a habit of his as grinding his teeth, but she'd married him knowing he liked the junk, and she'd never thought that getting married was an excuse for suddenly wanting to change a spouse's behaviors. At least all he's doing is looking at naked models, not chasing after other men's wives like Hairy Ass Marl Bloch.
The dishes done, Emily walked through the downstairs to make sure lights were off and nothing was out of place. She was the last one up each night to make sure Mark's domain was in perfect order, almost always the first one up to make sure that no gremlins in the night had disturbed the furniture or floor. She checked the windows and the broad hearth of the fireplace, opened the door to Mark's den to make sure nothing had been left out that shouldn't be, and then closed it again. And opened it back up. Mark's briefcase was propped against the polished cherry of his desk. He never let anything lean against the wood, he always set his briefcase on the blotter of the cabinet behind his desk. How odd. Emily picked up the briefcase and set it on the blotter where it was supposed to be, and checked the pristine finish of the side of the desk for any minute scrapes. There were none.
She shut the door to the den again, checked the lock on the front door, and returned to her secret turret stairs that led to the highest room in the castle, where a pampered princess resided in a room decorated in shades of rose, much like the room she had when she was a little girl. Emily brushed her teeth and smeared cold cream on her face. She removed her makeup and her earrings, and pulled on a voluminous flannel nightgown and white low socks to keep her toes warm. She opened the window a little to hear the sound of the rain, the blessed rain that would keep her husband indoors until she'd had some emergency surgery done on the evil gnome who had leapt into her pond to attack her beloved fish and the enchanted prince Paris. Pulling her journal from under the mattress, Emily crawled into bed, ready to make up a fantastic entry to fill the next few pages, an entry far more interesting than telling of a kitchen smelling of pot roast.