While Emily slurped wantonly at her ramen noodles, she thought about human character and the unbelievable capacity for wrongdoing that people have. Mark had called her when he got to the airport, griping as always about traffic and parking, but still upbeat and eager about the trip. "I didn't realize how much I wanted to see my parents," he'd told her. "I worry about them a lot."
That was simply not true. Emily was the one who kept track of his parents' and brothers' (and sisters-in-laws' and nephews' and nieces') birthdays and anniversaries and maintained cards and Christmas letter contacts. Left on his own, Mark would probably only wonder about the rest of the family in terms of who was going to get what in the wills. Listening to him chatter about how he missed them was annoying her no end. He was going to Michigan to interview for a job, not because he'd been infected with nostalgia on New Year's Eve. Marl Bloch is probably the one who got infected. "What?" she said to Mark, realizing that she hadn't heard what he'd just said. "I missed that."
"I have to go pick up my tickets, Emily. I'll call you when I get to my father's house."
"Okay, be careful in the snow."
"How'd you know it was snowing there?" Mark asked.
Emily had felt a stab of panic. She'd looked Battle Creek's weather up on the forbidden computer. "Isn't it always snowing there in January?" she asked in reply, hoping that sounded plausible.
"I'll be careful. Bye."
You lying sneak. Why can't you just tell me the truth?
Certainly she had her secrets, the skunks and the computer and her surreptitious examination of her husband's rooms, but those were born of boredom turning to wonder, of frustration turning to determination, of fear turning to anger. But she had never cheated on Mark, never even considered fiddling around with another man. Now whether he had actually ever slept around with Marcella Henderson or not, he kept secretly in his office a playful picture of a woman who would actually be so evil as to screw a man not her husband while her husband was practically in the next room. And not even use a bed! How could she be such a hog? How could her husband be interested in a person who was that much of a hog? How could the man with whom Emily had spent twenty-eight years be running off to Michigan without her?
For Mark to be this far along in the process of obtaining a new position, he had to have sent out queries weeks ago, if not months. All the applications, replies, phone calls must have been made and received at his office at the university. While they had gone over guest lists for New Year's, and while they had picked out Christmas gifts for their parents, he had carried along the silent partner of his surreptitious intent to fly to Michigan, to Kalamazoo, to Western Michigan University and God knows where else. Any way she looked at it, this seemed to Emily to be one big hateful cruel giant damnable monumental deception. What was the motive in spending so much time in preparing a lie? Why not just say over breakfast, "I'm dumping you, Emily, and going to Michigan to find employment." Why expend all that energy?
Obviously the Michigan thing was not a move born out of conflict; she and Mark never really fought, as Emily hated shouting and arguments, and had become an expert in defusing Mark's temper and in acquiescing before a disagreement escalated into regions in which she would be required to submit to more than she was able to stomach. He wasn't fleeing from a household paralyzed by an avalanche of recriminations and bitter words. He didn't need to mount an offensive entailing deployment of armies and armament. There did not seem to be any point in the amount of preparation he had to have made for this ruse.
And what about this Edith Weber who had suckered Mark into buying those stupid dwarves? Had she been duped by someone else or had she concocted an incredible fraud, and if she was a crook, what a tremendous amount of brain power she had put into her crime! She would have had to falsify somehow the letter of authenticity, con a notary into validating the letter. Had she made up the genealogy of the family from whom she claimed she'd inherited the collection, or had she found out about the family and just adopted it as her own in order to defraud the bidders on the online auction?
Middi had cautioned (through Nathan, through Emily) that eBay fraud was often perpetrated by planted bidders who drove the selling price of an item up and up and made the artifact seem legitimate and overly desirable, but Mark had been unwilling to accept her advice, and Edith Weber had been smoothly pathetic and ready with answers to any question Mark had for her. Had Weber and Mark just focused their intellect and effort on working out the problems of poverty and ignorance for one city in the world, wouldn't they have solved them, rather than waste such talent in their lies?
And now there was poor Emily, having her simple but tasty all-carb lunch (the lucky little woman) marveling at the wickedness in the world but at an almost complete loss as to how to go about dealing with it. She'd left the sheltered life of Nathan Storm's daughter to take on the sheltered life of young Dr. Fatzer's wife. The skills she had needed to make her way in her life she pretty much already had: how to be obedient and patient with her husband, how to make him feel as though he was a lucky man; how to be a gracious hostess and make visitors feel welcome and appreciated, and present herself as a modest and sensible professor's wife; how to cook and clean (or oversee cleaning done by others), how to balance a checkbook and keep track of all the bills. That was it. She had never had to look a person in the eyes and wonder if they were lying to her to rob her or cover up adultery. She never had to wonder if guests were invading private areas of her house or stealing the silverware. She'd never had to play detective and spy. These things were not things she wanted to have to learn, but here they were, practically sitting at the lunch table with her, begging for food.
The time had come for Emily Angela Storm Fatzer to shake up her brain cells and figure out how to survive on her own.
"Number One," she wrote in her notebook. "Sell the house." For she sure as hell was not going to rattle around in this six-bedroom-three-bath barn by herself. But what about her fish? She couldn't just leave her fish for a new buyer. They were hers, she'd trained them herself, she knew their names (even if they didn't) and their habits. What if she sold the house to an idiot who wouldn't check the water temperature or who overfed them? Emily went upstairs and got her computer. Mark's gone! I can carry this thing everywhere with me! She got as far as the top of the stairs, stopped by her thought. Why do I feel like I have to sneak things around my own house? I'm fifty-three years old, for God's sake! She set the computer up on the kitchen worktable and did a search on the words "koi transportation" and came up with a whole page that described in detail how the fish could be taken from one pond to another. A bit time consuming, but the koi were valuable fish and very much worth it. It's not like the fish were counterfeits. Daddy was right. Indent, "A: Find a place of my own with a koi pond." Indent, "B: Go over house from room to room and see what has to be done to make it saleable."
In point of fact the house was in pretty good shape from stem to stern. Mark really was picky about things like loose nails or peeling paint. He always kept in mind the resale value of the house and how the condition of the house would reflect upon him to his guests. Besides all that, he's just a plain old, down home obsessive nitpicker.
She'd previously referred to his attention to detail and tiny flaws and repairs as "responsible interest" and "meticulous perception," but in her current uncharitable assessment, it was plain old pickiness. He didn't want her to grow a tomato plant on the patio for fear that the fruit might fall and stain the aggregate decking; the landscape plants were tame and easily cleaned up, readily recognized by even a neophyte homeowner. Japanese maple, fountain grass, pittosporum. A few geraniums for color, and good for those geraniums that they grew so largely and so lushly as to make the uniform and uninteresting pittosporum virtually invisible.
But no lantana, as the blossoms fall and scatter scarlet dots on the ground, and no passionflowers, as they trail wherever the vines can reach; no cherry trees with their overabundance of fruit, no eucalyptus with their shedding leaves. A ceramic pot could not be left on the north side of the house by the wood stack lest it prove a haven for snails; nails could not be driven into the wall of the garage for garden tools because they would make the painted sheetrock look rusty or maybe tacky, as though they couldn't afford coated hooks. No, she couldn't paint the walls of her room pink, the cost of repainting should they need to sell the house was too great, as white takes extra coats to cover pink.
Every piece of furniture had to have felt pads under each foot so as to not scuff the tile and hardwood floors, the walls were repainted off-white every five years whether they needed it or not, the drapes had to be neutral and marketable every hour of the day or night, all week, all year.
As a young girl Emily had fantasized about what being married would be like: starting the morning feeding children and husband at the table in the kitchen, kissing the kids and zipping their coats to send them off to school, kissing the husband and straightening his tie to send him off to work. The little wife would take her broom and sweep the whole house, take her cloth and dust all the furniture. She would tend her gardens around the foundations of her tiny flaking stucco house with its red tile roof, with fall crops of onions and turnips and spinach, and summer tomatoes and zucchini. She'd do laundry and iron her husband's and son's shirts and her daughter's dresses; she'd pick up the children's toys and put them in an open wooden toy box, the family dog following her through the house hoping for a pat or a treat. When the children came home from school, they would be ravenous after sniffing the supper cooking, and have cookies and milk to tide them over until their father came home, relieved and joyful to be home again with his family, to reunite in the kitchen once more. Then the children would scurry off to bed, and the wife would be praised for the meal and the home, and after watching some television together, the husband and wife would climb the stairs to the bedroom, cuddle beneath the blankets, and sleep together like spoons nested one against the other, dreaming of their coming days and weeks and years together.
But pale, unadorned apartments were the reality of their early married life, bare walls and carefully guarded cleaning and damage deposits. Certainly it was worth it to be able to afford this wonderful house after some years; but it wasn't a place to be swept out each day with a broom. Oh, no, a professional cleaning service rubbed down the snowy white baseboards and vacuumed the rugs and waxed the hardwood, and a gardener took care of the outside -- the outside with no tomatoes or onions. And the man of the house had no children, but paced the perimeter of the property and the outline of the house, inside and out, looking for any flaw to correct as soon as a flaw was seen.
Emily had left her fantasies far behind, and congratulated herself on finding a husband so educated and so responsible, though that was a fantasy itself, now wasn't it? She was on the verge of suggesting to herself that the man to whom she had pledged herself was a lying, cheating, self-serving, commandeering nitpicker.
Well, let's start with Dr. Nitpick's own private picking grounds. Emily put her noodle bowl in the sink, picked up her notebook, and prepared to invade Mark's office and bedroom again. She stopped as she was about to leave the kitchen. "No, you're going to have to be a witness in this," she said, opening the utensil drawer. She picked up the wooden spoon. "Come on, get with the program. We have work to do."
Fine, I'm insane. I need a wooden spoon to help me tackle difficult projects. At least Spoon works cheaply and doesn't ask fifty dollars an hour like most psychotherapists. She put the handle of the spoon in the pocket of her pants, where it clinked dully against the keys, a solid, affirmative kind of sound. Oddly comforted, Emily patted the spoon like a gunfighter making sure of his pistol. Let's go see what we can find.