In coat and gloves, Emily edged towards the Skunk Dell, apple slivers in one hand, a small container of chunky peanut butter and a plastic knife in the other. It was light out, but not very much so under the fog. By the side of the log that the skunks always traversed, she dropped the apples and then used the plastic knife to dab blobs of peanut butter onto selected pieces. A hearty feast for such cold weather. Her feet were freezing inside her leather shoes; she had no interest whatsoever in sitting on that cold rock by the side of the dell to wait to see if her skunk-children would happen by. She brushed the fragments of apple off her gloves, wiping them on the nearby Douglas fir, and headed back to her unwelcoming house.
When she'd signed on to her computer in the dark of the winter morning, the weather service informed her that it was twenty-nine degrees outside. She'd gone to her fish immediately, in pajamas and slippers, to make certain their pond was all right. There were crystals of ice around the edges of the water plants that rose above the surface, but the lighted thermometer in the water assured her that though the koi might be torpid, they were not threatened.
Since all the heat in the big house went upstairs, after making a breakfast of eggs and toast, Emily had retreated to her office to warm up and watch the day begin. How do I view the events of the days before this one? Do I just count them as gone, and no longer important? Or do I look at what I've experienced and change the direction of my life? The humiliation and shock were real; they weren't figments of her imagination to make her life interesting and special. She wasn't one to scream and cry and shout denunciations at the smallest slight; she'd never been in a fight in the schoolyards, or a bitter argument with a close friend. Mark's prevarications and omissions were not fantasies, not emotional dramas to perk up her life.
Because of her aversion to argument or rancor there were people in her life from whom she distanced herself: her high school friend Betsy who had started smoking pot in ninth grade and later traded marijuana in for cocaine; the college boyfriend who suggested that he would be her tutor for math if she would have sex with him; the witty, pretty, and charming KC Carson from the Psych Department, who attended every summer faculty barbecue at the Fatzer house and whom Mark hated with an unholy passion. But it was KC who was perverse and ungodly, so Emily didn't talk to her or look at her when she saw her, and that was proper etiquette. According to Mark. Emily herself wouldn't have known KC was a lesbian initially if Mark hadn't told her, with many curses and insinuations. Emily was not one to confront, she just backed away, wishing things were different.
But should she now change her life, and its direction? She had no idea how to go about doing something like that. Was she supposed to divorce Mark and demand atrociously expensive alimony? Didn't that mean she should talk to their lawyer soon? And then what, sell off her fish and move to a commune or a small town in the Midwest that she could afford to live in? Did she have any friends with whom she could move in until she could make her way?
That thought had struck her with the force of a slapped face. No, she didn't. All her relationships had been subservient to her position of Wife to Mark. And few, if any, of her relationships in friendship had been willing to accept Mark as a necessary furnishing in her life. The book club friends from the library all circled about her, paying admiring lip service, but not willing to invite her over for a cup of tea and some cookies. The woman who loved Barbara Kingsolver's novels and who worked as a cashier at Cost Plus would not offer to make tea for the wife of a Department Head at the University, oh, no, Emily would not be expected to grace her humble abode. The lady who liked Maeve Binchy and who gave dance lessons in the garage of her rental home wouldn't, either. Or the mother of three children under age nine who was married to a bank teller (she loved Crichton and Cussler) and lived in a trailer park on the south side of town near the cheese factory. Mark told her she was too good for them when she voiced her sadness about being excluded from their Pampered Chef parties and their lunch-and-shopping forays to Wal-Mart.
The thoughts returned again while she was walking down the long hill from the forest gate. Who wasn't she too good for? The ones who recognized that she was just an everyday girl from the foothills and that she wasn't good enough, clever enough, fast enough to keep company with them? Like Marcella Henderson and her coterie? Emily looked up at the heavy fog that was freezing on the leaves of the pyracantha beside the back patio and shivered. I'm not too good for skunks, though Mark wouldn't think so.
She left her damp shoes by the inside of the kitchen door and shoved her house slippers on her feet over the slightly damp socks. By the time she got to the closet to hang up her coat, she'd decided to build a fire in the fireplace. At least there would be someplace she could perch and feel warm.
She thought of Middi's kitchen, where the heat of her house rose up, so that people could sit around the kitchen table and feel cozy while they looked out over the ocean, sipping coffee in the mornings, or having soup for lunch. Gathering some kindling from the bin beside the wood stack, some small pieces of split wood, and a wafer of fire-starter, Emily prodded her musing about being "good enough" like someone compulsively exploring a painful cavity in a tooth with their tongue. Not too good for skunks, but Mark wouldn't think so. Or fish. Mark would think I'm too good for the fish if it wasn't for how much I like them. He tolerates my hobby, but I should really be above all that. What the hell does that mean? Does that mean his "You're too good for" was just an excuse to snub?
Mark would have been repelled by her thinking of the forest vermin as her "skunk-children." Never would she have thought of telling him about them or referring to them in any way as her offspring. I don't tell him about my journal, my skunks, my computer. I only tell him things that are "safe" -- but "safe" from what? From his displeasure, his disagreement? I'm his "yes man." I've just realized that, how fucking stupid have I been? Did her father look at her choices in her life and say to Middi, "My daughter, the yes-man?" Was that what all their acquaintances thought about her? Surely not.
Yet unless there was some kind of incredible cosmic coincidence and mistaken actions, the little Yes-man (Yes-woman) still needed to continue with her preparations for the probable selling of the house and settling dispersal of the furnishings.
After starting the fire in the fireplace, Emily opted to stay near so that she could frequently warm herself, as well as keep an eye on the fire. The hall closet was a good enough place to take its turn under her sorting.
The coat she had worn to visit the Skunk Dell was made of synthetic fleece, warm enough for near-freezing weather. That one is a keeper. She pushed it aside to the end of the rod in the closet. There was a lush leather jacket in there, and she pushed it up against the other. The next coat she encountered was a zip-up sweatshirt in dark navy. She hated it and never wore it except when cleaning in the garage. Emily yanked it out of the closet and threw it onto the floor. Mark had a windbreaker, a light corduroy jacket, a Port Laughton University sweatshirt, a zip-front Port Laughton letterman's jacket (letterless, of course), a leather jacket of his own, and a thick cotton pullover sweater. Mixed in with his outerwear was a hooded olive-colored cashmere sweater with fake brown fur around the hood and cuffs, a hideous Christmas present from her mother-in-law last winter. Emily tossed that on top of the zippable sweatshirt. A water-repellent dress coat was the next victim to be separated from its long-term relationship with its hanger and tossed onto the floor.
As Emily held in front of her a hooded vest, trying to decide whether or not she needed to keep a garment she liked but rarely wore, a thought occurred to her. I like this, but do I need to keep it since I rarely wear it? I hate that dress coat, even though it's very utilitarian, and it's ended up on the junk pile -- why can't I keep something I like?
She frowned and put the hooded vest back on the hanger. Why do I like this vest? And if I like it, why do I hardly ever wear it? She promised herself that she would think about that issue later, when she had her journal open on her lap and a pen in her hand. In the mean time, a red cardigan sweater, a tan blazer with pockets over each breast (a style only to be worn by women with no breast meat at all,) and a hand-knit poncho-shawl in gray, blue, and green (another Carol Fatzer presentation for her son's wife) that itched as though it were made from spun fiberglass instead of polyester sailed through the air onto the small stack of clothes. Emily pushed the clothing aside.
The five leaves of the expandable formal dining table stood neatly against the back wall of the closet. They were safely wrapped with old tablecloths to protect each from scratches. They were fine, no action needed to be taken with them. Beside them on the floor was a box with umbrellas sticking out of it. There were seven of them, collected over the years from being caught in the rain on vacations, orphans left behind by visitors, a couple of them real purchases. All but two (a large black umbrella and an equally wide red and blue one) Emily pulled out and put on the pile of jackets and sweaters.
She remembered a winter when her hair was still all brown without a trace of gray, when Mark had not yet begun grinding his teeth, a winter that was so rainy and windy that they went through four umbrellas between January and March. She remembered the last umbrella that season catching the gusty wet wind and turning itself inside out, breaking three of its ribs right outside the Slice of Life Pizza Pub. She and Mark had stuffed the broken umbrella into the big trashcan on the sidewalk and had run into the Pub, laughing so hard at their loss of umbrellas they could hardly speak. We had pepperoni and mushrooms on our pizza that evening, and glasses of white wine, and we were happy. Was it me that spoiled everything? What did I do? What didn't I do?
At the bottom of the umbrella box was a pair of slip-on men's rubbers. Emily pulled them out and glared at them, eyes half-hooded, a sudden flare of anger heating her skin. At least one of the things I didn't do was cheat on our marriage. Rubbers. Damn it. She turned her mind away again from the stuff festooning Mark's bedroom and looked at the overshoes. She could not recall Mark ever actually wearing the things for years, and there were little cracks in the soles of them, anyway. She carried them to the kitchen and jammed them into the waste can, which was packed with garbage and stuff. She pulled the bag from the can, tied the top over the old black rubbers, and took it all to the big garbage can by the side of the house. I could take my own trash out for the rest of my life. At least that's one thing I feel confident about.
Upon returning to the warmth of the house, Emily replaced the garbage bag with a new one, and found paper grocery bags in which to put the extra umbrellas and the jackets. She took them out to her car to put them in the trunk, shivering in the rising chill wind and its first drops of rain. Okay, the downstairs closet is done. I could get one more room done today, maybe one of the guest rooms.
She took her notebook to the raised hearth and sat in front of the fire. Downstairs closet, check. There was so little in the guestrooms that she decided that she could tackle both of them today, no problem, and still have time to read, or watch TV, or do a crossword puzzle, or surf the web all evening. Surf the web. Too bad I don't have access to Mark's computer at work. I bet that thing holds a lot of secrets. If I could hack into his computer, I'd probably be able to find out what the hell he was up to.
The notebook fell to the floor as she stood up. I can hack into his system! Not his computer, but I bet I know how to get some clues, unless he's being totally secretive everywhere. But the stuff from Western Michigan State was addressed to his office, not here, and there is one conduit in that office that isn't hacker-proof.
Emily scooped up her notebook and pen and went to the kitchen to make herself some lunch, and to imagine being a spy. She could write down questions to ask, misleading but not false statements to make to get her information, and yes, sad to say, some outright lies to make the information river flow from Mark's secretary, Margaret Wills.
Even as she spread chicken salad on pieces of toast, Emily was planning what to wear and what to say when she drove on a fake mercy mission to the University, to the Anthropology Department, to talk to Margaret, to get the secretary to cough up all the little secrets of Mark's aberrant behavior.