My wife quit smoking again when she got hired full time at the community college. After that we didn’t go to the Pub anymore. She couldn’t watch strangers light up, and she didn’t want to run into her comp students playing pool. We took to drinking our evenings on our back deck, where she would rest her legs high on the railing and inhale the night air.
“This is what smokers crave as much as nicotine,” Mae said, holding the breath in deep. “Their lungs fully engaged. Fresh air works just as good.”
The sulfured air in our Wisconsin paper mill town never smelled especially fresh to me, having grown up in place where the sky was thick with saltwater. I never said, though. I would wait her out, and eventually, as it got dark, she’d circle around to my side of the table and lean in for a sip off my smoke.
After we stopped going to the bar, our cocktail hours became somewhat formal. We dug out wedding gifts, a crystal ice bucket etched with mulberry leaves, pewter-rimmed martini glasses, two silver tankards engraved on the bottom with the Chinese characters for fertility and harmony. A set of twelve claret-tinted old-fashioned glasses. We’d carry everything we needed for the night’s menu outside on a serving tray, olives or cut limes ready in small ceramic dishes to maintain the illusion of this being an event, us drinking. We never had anybody over.
We had never socialized at the Pub either, but we still made sure to place ourselves in earshot of somebody’s conversation. While I gauged the generosity of the bartender’s pour, Mae would find us a booth near the dart board so we could catch the words that would jump-start our stories the next morning. We learned people’s vocabularies. “Good dart,” they’d say, and we’d jot down these new phrasings, crisp and working class. And when the language was less sharp, we wrote even more of it down. A note on my desk right now, scribbled on yellow paper, says, “Girl spills pitcher: I’m trying so hard not to be drunk.”
We often sketched the same notes on our pads of paper, but we had a deal. Anything we picked up — any word, any phrase or plot — was fair game until the story we used it in was accepted somewhere. Until it was perfect bound. Theoretically, we could even steal from each other’s works in progress, but neither of us really envied how the other built sentences. Hers were cursive, loopy. By then end of one of her paragraphs, I sometimes couldn’t breathe.
After we started drinking at home, we had nobody to crib dialogue from. We would try to listen for neighborhood chatter, but the parents around us all yelled at their children in common ways, and neither of us wanted to write that story. Once, Mae even bought a baby monitor, just to catch the cordless phone conversation of the people in the houses next door. But the pharmacist on one side of us rarely got calls except from his techs at work, and the pharmacist on the other side only complained to her mother about her engineer husband, about how much he worked. This, even though neither of them ever got home before seven, and I swear it was Mae who taught their six-year-old son how to laugh.
Jacob would leave his sitter in his yard and come over to our deck. “What’d you do in school?” Mae would ask, and usually he didn’t remember, but one day he said, “Made lists.” She perked up, and I knew she was hoping this was something she would get to use, that she was ready to duck into the kitchen and write some brilliant child-speak on the magnetized pad on the fridge. And she did, the day Jacob’s class made lists. “Two lists,” Jacob said. “Things you put in soup, and things that you don’t put in soup.” She wrote that down, and for a while afterwards she considered writing a story called “Not in the Soup.” But I don’t think it ever panned out, and look, here I’m the one who’s putting the moment down on paper.
She asked Jacob then what doesn’t go in soup. Steak, he told her. Salad and ice cream, chicken nuggets. But she said, “Why not?” Why not chicken nugget soup? Jacob shrugged, but he knew already from his folks that we weren’t to be trusted, two grown people who spent afternoons at home, nearly always barefoot. Smokers, at the time. “What about a washing machine,” Mae said. “Now that’d be bad soup.” Jacob only nodded, but when Mae offered pop bottle soup or toilet paper soup and laughed to show him she was teasing him, he tried the gesture on as well. His mouth was too wide, the ha ha ha starting in his throat rather than his belly.
Jacob would visit afternoons, but despite some funky verb tense errors, the kid didn’t really make the kind of comments either of us were looking for. I missed the bar, the loose wordplay of the regulars. So mostly we were quiet, out on the deck. We’d already wasted all our best lines to the air around each other in the first of our ten years together. Mae might come home from school with what passed for gossip in academia, but on the sentence level, we just weren’t bringing in new material anymore. Sometimes, when we did talk, we would fight just for the dialogue. The bottle of gin would get emptier and we’d say nasty things to each other to imagine them laid out, Times New Roman, within quotation marks.
I had a rule about no crying in my stories, but still I’d notice when Mae did. I’d consider just what adjectives could describe the darker blue her eyes got when wet or the way if she did say anything she’d look at her fingernails rather than my face. She’d cry and I’d think about how point of view matters, that you really need to pull back and get out of a character’s head to avoid being sentimental. It was the same every time, her crying, so I’m not sure why I’ve never gotten it right on paper. My solution has been to write up to the moment just before some character starts to well up and then end the scene.
When she was pregnant, she didn’t stop crying. Everything set her off. Mae’s mom had died a few years ago, of breast cancer, and it was after the funeral that Mae said maybe we should have a baby. It didn’t take long after she said it for her to be pregnant, like she’d made it happen just in the suggestion. But for the time while she was still carrying it, she changed. She stopped writing and smoking and going to the grocery store, and she said, how could we do this now, when the baby would have no grandmother? We saw a news story about a man who locked his three-month-old in the backseat of his car and went into work on a hot August day, the baby’s temperature reaching probably 108 degrees before it died.
“His wife will never forgive him,” she said. I should have changed the channel as soon as I realized what the story was.
“He didn’t know the kid was there,” I said. According to the reporter, the man’s wife had put the baby in the car seat and the four-year-old daughter was buckled in front. The father dropped the girl at preschool but he hadn’t remembered the baby needed to go to daycare that day and didn’t even realize it was there. The car seat faced backwards and the baby was sleeping.
“Still,” she said. “It’s a lot to trust somebody with.”
Mae miscarried not long after and she went back on the pill. She wrote a story about a zookeeper, a woman, who mothers an orphaned baby ocelot. The woman kidnaps the cat and takes it home. She loses her job and the cat dies anyway, even though she feeds it with a bottle and makes it a little nest of pillows right next to her own twin-sized bed.
Though Mae never wrote directly about us, she’d had a few small successes with her stories. She’d published pieces about previous heartbreaks and minor childhood traumas in journals with names like Northbound Journey and Singing Shores. As a result, when the college added an introductory creative writing course to their curriculum, she went from adjunct to full time, as long as she agreed to still keep two sections of oral interpersonal communication and take on report writing for criminal justice corrections majors when she was needed. It was all those future wardens she didn’t want to run into at the Pub.
I finally got to go back there when Mae’s father and his new wife came to town for a visit. Mae was teaching a night class when their flight got in, so it was up to me to pick them up and entertain them till she got home. I offered them dinner at the new Thai place, but they said they’d eaten on the plane, bag lunches they’d picked from a cooler on the walk down the jetway, and maybe we should just get a drink.
The Forty-Niners were on the big screen. Dean was Wisconsin born, a Packer fan even now that he and Linda lived in Orlando. I ordered us a pitcher and got us peanuts and napkins.
“That your team?” Dean asked me once we’d settled in the booth. I’d grown up near San Francisco, and while I didn’t have any loyalties, I had been to a few games as a kid.
“Suppose,” I said, though their uniforms looked different to me, more burgundy when I remembered them red. “More than anybody else.” Dean looked at Linda, and then so did I.
Linda made necklaces and earrings out of old house keys and sold them at craft fairs. But now she was working with shells, she said, and pastel or metallic sand. She decorated mirrors.
“Helen lived in San Francisco for a while,” Dean said.
“Right,” I said, though I didn’t remember knowing this about Mae’s mom. “Great town.”
Linda said the mirrors were symbolic, that you looked in them and you saw yourself like you were when you were in Florida. Not the everyday yourself, but the yourself you were in paradise, even after you were home. She was probably only five, seven years older than Mae and me, but she was wearing a faded denim blouse, unbuttoned to show her t-shirt: a bluebird nesting in pink, trumpety flowers that shot up from the ground in spears.
I said that was smart.
“Mae probably doesn’t know that,” Dean said.
“She’d understand,” I said. She’d understand symbolism. She’d even know how to be nicer about it, more appreciative of Linda’s art. She could make her community college students feel like they were something special.
“In fact,” Dean said, “forget I told you.”
I promised I would. We watched the game for a bit, and when Linda excused herself to the bathroom, I topped off her glass before filling mine and Dean’s. At the tape, a girl stood ready to throw. Her dart looked disconnected from her fingertips, balanced there by magnets. I meant to point her out, to say to watch this one, because I remembered this girl from before. She had to be six feet tall, and she could hit a triple-20 three times in a row, first turn, so the other team could never catch up.
But Dean didn’t look up to notice. When Linda came back, we finished our pitcher and went home to wait for Mae.
In the morning, we found a note on the kitchen counter. Dean and Linda had walked downtown to get bagels. Mae had tidied the kitchen the night before, and we put on coffee for when they came back. “Be nice to Linda,” Mae said to me.
“I am nice,” I said.
“Can’t you smile at her?” She was unloading the dishwasher. “Dad’s happy with her, and she’s a good person.”
I said I didn’t think she wasn’t. What Dean had said the night before about Mae’s mom living in San Francisco came back into my head and I was about to ask her about it, but Mae had ideas, things I could ask Linda about. I was going to tell her I could manage, but that’s when Dean and Linda came home.
That afternoon, the four of us drove the half hour from Green Bay north to Peshtigo, where Mae had grown up. It was a tiny city, one that prided itself on having survived a giant fire in 1871. The forests around the city had burned for miles, but the event was overshadowed by Chicago’s great fire on the very same day. The town’s worst moment hadn’t made headlines, even though thousands of people had died.
Helen had run a little dress shop there. She’d done all right for a while in the 70s, but by the time the prom girls from nearby reached her place, they were almost all the way to the bright lights of Green Bay’s brand new malls, and fewer and fewer of them stopped at Helen’s. She slowly lost the shop.
Mae and Linda wanted to walk around the town, to see the Victorian Mae’s dad had put so much work into, the high school where he had taught biology and physical science, Linda’s old apartment above the bingo shop.
Dean didn’t need to reminisce. Florida was heaven, he insisted. All sunshine, and fishing better than he’d ever known on Wisconsin’s small lakes. He and I went to Schussler’s Supper Club while the women walked the town. They said they would meet us for dinner before the ride back home.
We sat at the bar. I lit a cigarette and offered him one but he shook his head. He asked if they’d walked in on a fight between me and Mae that morning.
“No,” I said. “That wasn’t a fight.” She had been a little sulky at me, but he probably didn’t know how she could be in a real fight. Though maybe he did, having lived with her as a teenager. She was still like that, how I imagine teenage girls are when they’re mad. Like they revel in being upset about something. Like they want so bad for you to say something to make them cry.
“Mae can need a lot,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. Although Mae could handle things. She could talk to people at parties full of strangers, and she read the newspaper every day, and she had a good sense of direction. I didn’t know if she really had the talent to be a writer like she said she wanted, but she worked hard.
“It’s probably part of what I was talking about the other night,” he said. “Her mom.”
I don’t know why he told me this story when he did. I never asked, and it didn’t need to be told. I’d been with Mae since grad school, for a decade, and I could calm her down or give her a bad day, depending, just like she could do for me. It’s not like she needed explaining, so I’m not sure why he thought I should know.
Dean said Mae’s mom had left him, left them both, after Mae was born. They’d brought Mae home from the hospital, and she nursed the baby, and he thought everything was going well, but one day only a few weeks later she just left. She packed a suitcase and told him she was going when he walked in the door after work. He never did know why exactly.
“Mae doesn’t know this?” I asked. “How could she not know?”
He said they’d decided together not to tell her. It couldn’t be good for a little girl, they’d figured, to know her mother had left her. Dean had done what he could, relying on his own mother to help him with the baby while he was at work, and his smarter female students to baby-sit when he needed someone at night. Helen came back when Mae was two and a half, three, and after that, he said, she took up motherhood as if she’d been doing it from the beginning. Helen tried all the shop’s flower girl dresses on Mae and took her picture every time, so their scrapbook looked going to weddings was Mae’s job as a kid.
Mae and her mom had been close. Helen used to call our place a couple times a week. We’d done all our holidays up in Peshtigo with them until she died. Mae was an only child, but so was I. We’d never considered that might have been a matter of fear on the part of either of our parents.
“Mae’s good,” I told him. I guess he knew this, that she was fine, but he seemed to be apologizing for what wasn’t his fault. I thought how this would make a good story, a woman who grew up without a mother but didn’t know, but I kept my notebook in my pocket.
When Mae and Linda came back to get us, we moved to a table. We ordered dinner and Mae smiled at me when I asked Linda to tell us again the story of when she met Dean, how he’d called her in for a second parent-teacher conference even though her son was doing just fine in his class. Mae said their old house had been sided since we’d last driven through. It was a minty green color now, and she talked like she was angry about that, but still I think she was glad we’d come up to see what had changed.
Back home that night, I begged off the movie we’d rented and worked in my office upstairs. I sketched out a new story. At first, I wondered about just whose story this would be. It could be the dad, young and left alone with a baby. Or the mom. But I had no idea how to articulate that character’s panic, and besides, it seemed like you’d want to keep the story centered on the kid and what she loses in her mother’s absence.
I wasn’t sure just what effect such an event would really have. But in my story, little Mae, though I called her Anna, grows up scared that people will leave her. This isn’t really conscious to her, but she clings to things. She loves what she loves so much that she can’t let anything go. In fact, even when Anna’s boyfriend starts hitting her, she sticks around. She forgives him and she keeps the baby she’s pregnant with and she co-signs on his motorcycle loan. The story was still working itself out, but I wasn’t worried. It was good material.
Dean and Linda left a couple days later and then it was just Mae and me in the house again. I could smoke inside, and we tried to find a place to hang the shell mirror Linda had left us. We put it in the guest bathroom downstairs. Sometimes, even now, I look at it and try to figure out what I would look like in Florida. If I would be a different person if I was someplace else.
It was getting colder outside, and snowing every once in a while, so we were on the deck less often. We’d see Jacob next door through the window. He’d wave at Mae when she was leaving for work, and sometimes he’d play outside, all bundled up like a marshmallow. Mae’s term was a tough one for her. One of her students was a jerk. He’d say rotten things out loud, like “She’s talking again,” when she tried to explain an assignment.
I told her there were bad classes and she just had to get through it. I’d make her some dinner and let her tell me about her day.
When Jacob’s mom next door found a lump in her breast, we heard about it through the baby monitor. We knew before she’d told her husband. Her name was Elaine, we learned, because her mom would say it over and over into the phone. “What else would you say,” Mae said, “to your grown daughter who is sick?” This mother’s child might die and what else would she say, except the very first word she probably said to her when she was born, the name she’d given her.
Mae wanted to go over there then. She wanted to be someone Elaine could talk to, but we hadn’t been good about getting to know them before. Mae wanted to tell her about her own mom’s cancer. They had this connection, but she didn’t know how to let Elaine know, without admitting how we’d found out. She couldn’t go over there and say, I know you’re worried. Your son might be left without a mother, she could say, and I lost my mother and I lost a baby. Mae and this woman, they slept within feet of each other every night. “Knock down the walls,” Mae said, “and I could toss an orange from my bed to hers and she’d catch it.”
I said obviously Elaine had her mother to talk to, and that she probably had friends too, plus her own husband, and that it wasn’t our responsibility. But a couple of times, Mae knocked on their door. A catalog with their name had come through our mail slot, or Mae had leftover chili that we’d never be able to finish. From across the two driveways, I could see that Elaine smiled when she answered the door, but she never stepped back and made that space where Mae could’ve initiated a motion to go inside. So instead, Mae started focusing on Jacob even more, inviting him inside the house for cocoa and making sure he noticed how pretty his mom was or how much she obviously loved him. “You know that, right?” she’d said to him. “Your mom loves you.”
Meanwhile, I was working on the Anna story. It changed as I wrote. Anna’s boyfriend didn’t hit her after all, and he didn’t ride a motorcycle. But the more I tried to make the character real, the more she actually seemed like Mae. Soon enough, she was living in the Midwest, like us, in a paper mill town that smelled like rotten eggs with a dying downtown and mega-bookstores going up like crazy in the suburbs. Anna stayed pregnant though. That seemed important, that she had to figure out just what she would do when put in the same position as her own mom, who’d made the wrong choice.
Mae would ask what I was working on, but I’d never really talked about stories in progress, so it didn’t seem weird to her that I wouldn’t say. She was writing less, given all the time she spent writing recommendations for students and going to committee meetings and worrying about teaching that rough class. I tried to tell her she needed to put some of that other stuff off and do her own work, but it only made her mad.
Her dad called on Mae’s birthday, and I answered the phone. I think Dean may have been a little drunk, and he said Linda was out that night with the girls. I gave the phone to Mae and went out on the deck in the cold. We were drinking cider with rum that night, it was November and cool, but I had a beer too to cut the sweetness. I watched her through the sliding glass door.
She seemed good at first. She talked and she laughed, but then it was just her listening for a long time. Then I think she might have been crying, but there was a fog on the glass door so I couldn’t be sure.
When she hung up and came out, I could see something was wrong. She forgot to put on a coat or a sweater. I said we could go in, but she shook her head, so I went inside and grabbed her something to keep her warm.
I knew she’d tell me eventually, so I didn’t ask what Dean had said. She looked more confused than anything, and she took the cigarette from between my fingers – her first one in a long time – and didn’t give it back. Her mug was empty, and I went in and ladled her more cider and came out and held it for her to wrap her cold hands around.
She did and she said, “My dad said my mom wasn’t around when I was a baby.”
I nodded and lit a new cigarette for myself. “Why did he tell you?”
Mae finally looked at me. “What do you mean?”
I’d asked the wrong question. I wanted to say something better, but I couldn’t think of any good reason I hadn’t told her when I first learned about it.
“He said he figured I was okay to know now. That you would take care of me.”
I said of course I would. I reached out to touch her hair, but she hit my hand away.
She told me not to touch her. I backed away from her like she wanted.
She said, “He said you’d probably already told me and that he really should have let me know sooner.”
I nodded. “I didn’t think,” I started. “I knew it would make you upset.” I think this was true, but also Dean had said not to say. I hadn’t figured he’d confess about it.
Mae went quiet then. I saw it happening when she stood and picked up a candle and threw it my way, but she didn’t hit me, and even if she had, it couldn’t have hurt. She opened her mouth like she wanted to yell something and I looked over towards Jacob’s place, but it was dark.
I waited, because moments like that don’t last forever. When she was done, she sat back down.
“You already knew,” she said.
“I’m not the one who left you,” I said. I hadn’t asked Dean to tell me any of this. I finished off my beer. “It wasn’t my job to tell you.”
She stilled. “What’s your job then?” she said. She looked like she was going to hit me. “What do you do?” She was shivering and part of me wanted to go inside and lock her out of the house. I wanted her to go away. But that wasn’t how the story should go. If she wanted to be angry at someone for leaving, I could make that happen myself.
I went in to grab the car keys, but instead I went to my office. Back out on the deck, I gave her the Anna story. “Here,” I said. “Read this.”
“You’re drunk.” She took the manuscript out of my hand, but she set it upside down on the table.
“Read it,” I told her.
“Tomorrow,” she said. She said she wouldn’t be nice about it right now.
I said I wasn’t giving it to her so she’d be nice. I lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. “I don’t write things so you’ll love me.”
She took the cigarette and flipped the pages right side up. I sat next to her to watch her read.
Mae and I had always been good editors for each other. She called me out when I was being clever, and I helped her talk through plot. Though I was never eager to read her sex scenes. Either her couples were doing things we did, which was strange to see in black and white, or they were doing something else we hadn’t. I’d wonder what was real but I never asked. Had she really been with someone who’d gotten her off, his hand between her legs, in the back row of a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? She hated theater, said there was no reason for it now that there were movies. She said it made her too aware of people speaking, and nervous for the moment when the actors would mess up. And worse, that she could always imagine plays being written. She could too easily picture the playwright, cup of coffee or bourbon and his glasses set next to his keyboard, door shut between him and his children sleeping in the next room. His wife wiping down the kitchen counters. With novels, she said, and with films, she could pretend they just appeared in the world. The mistakes were already edited out. The tracks of their composition were fainter, easier to ignore.
Mae never had trouble putting words on paper, but she didn’t have the imagination to construct a character not like herself, so the Rosencrantz story was probably true. And though I liked the sounds she made in bed, she really could be quiet, when there were people in the next room or on warm nights when it got dark and I stole up behind her as she stood at the edge of the deck, her arms reaching to span a length of the railing like she was about to dive. I could picture her, younger than I ever knew her, her hands tight around the armrests next to some guy in the back row, but it was probably a musical they were at, or some college production of Neil Simon.
Mae turned the pages. She had a pencil tucked in her ponytail, but she never reached for it. I knew the words she was reading, where she was in the story, just from the shapes of the text on the page. She had to be finding her mother in the details now, and recognizing herself there too. The winter hat she wore that made her look like a boy, the way she needed me to find her glasses for her in the morning. Her inability to be critical. How she was so accepting of slop that she could be happy teaching kids who would probably never leave their jobs at Wal-Mart.
She had to be trying to conjure a photograph of her mom and herself as a baby.
She finished, and she reached for her glass but put it back down without drinking. “Would that be the worst thing,” she said, “for you to write something so I’d love you?”
When she moved out, Mae didn’t take much of anything. She left all the dishes and the deck chairs and the blankets. She left me with the books. Her laptop and some of her clothes were gone, though, and the bathroom shelves were empty. It was like she had packed for a trip. Dean says at least we didn’t have children. It makes it easier, that there’s no custody involved in our not living together anymore. Though I guess I got Jacob from next door. He comes over, now that it’s spring again, though without Mae here we don’t talk a lot. I gave him one of my notebooks, in case he thinks of anything that might be worth remembering. The kid writes slow, and left-handed, so he doesn’t get much down. The margins are full of pictures of distorted people with big heads and stick legs and fingers. But he keeps the book just inside my sliding glass door. We sit on the deck and he puts things down in his book and I have a beer and he never asks me where Mae went. I’m not sure what I’d tell him if he did. I’ve never even gotten a postcard, not from San Francisco or Florida or wherever it is you go when you’re looking for something left behind by someone who’s abandoned you twice. But I boxed up the ice bucket and the tankards and the glasses. I swaddled each piece in bubble wrap and alternated the glasses up and down, so they fit together snug in a box. It’s here waiting for her if she ever wants it.