The first bad sign was that he didn't look happy to see her.
He opened the door shirtless, in a faded pair of Wranglers and socks. He glared at her without speaking. His bloodshot eyes darted between her two, and the muscles in his jaw flexed and relaxed under stubble like gray sandpaper. He hooked one thumb in his jeans pocket. With the fingers of his other hand he scratched the stubble on his jaw until his voice, quiet but strong, poured from his dry lips, lapped at her face, washed over her slowly like the coming of a tide and made her forget the look in his eyes: "Now what're you doing here, honey?"
Jacob and Mary Lou had been dating for six months. She was twenty-nine, a fifth grade teacher. He was twenty-five. He lived with his mother in a two-bedroom house off Mockingbird at Greenville. He had been working as a busboy at Café Brazil and taking classes at UTD, one or two at a time, a degree in business always in sight but never impending. And then suddenly, without warning Mary Lou, he had enlisted in the army. He was to leave for basic training that night.
She and Jacob had already said their goodbyes—tear-filled pledges of constancy on one side, tired reassurances on the other. But now she stood on his doorstep in her favorite outfit: a black, knee-length skirt and three-quarter sleeve polo, clingy at the breasts and hips, the whole ensemble sexy and slimming. She hefted a picnic basket in her right hand. It was two o'clock, p.m., on the dot.
The second bad sign was that he didn't immediately ask her in.
"Is your mom home?" she asked in response to his What're you doing here, honey. Compared to his voice, she thought, hers sounded loud, and frustratingly plaintive.
He shook his head. "Had stuff to do. Get her hair done and things. Groceries. Shouldn't you be at school?"
It was August, and the school year had just begun. She held the heavy basket out to him. "This is for you," she said. "For us."
"You just come to drop that off?"
"No silly," she said. "I thought we could spend the afternoon together."
He leaned against the door frame.
"I took the day off," she said.
"You can do that?"
"I just thought we'd spend the afternoon together," she said.
"You shouldn't have done that," he said. "I've got to clean still. Finish packing." He must have been cleaning already. He smelled of Lysol, dust and sweat. Some dust had settled in the lawn of thick brown hair he already wore in a military flattop. Beads of sweat nested in the circle of hair on his chest.
"I'll clean. You eat," she said. "I made all your favorites. Chicken wings, mashed potatoes, broccoli with cheese, garlic bread. I made some meatballs and gravy. Some macaroni and cheese. Chocolate cake, cherry pie. There's some beer, vanilla soda. A bottle of wine."
"Well then. So you can just take off like that."
"Well, you have to be sick," she said. She left off the clause about a death in the family, though Jacob wasn't technically family, and there hadn't been a death.
"You sick?" he said.
She smiled slightly. "Stomach flu."
"How about that," he said.
"I just thought we could spend the afternoon together," she said. "It's a special day."
"It's not, though,” he said. “It's not. Yesterday was special. It was our special day, at the lake. That was the point. To say goodbye. To make it easy."
"The lake was nice."
"But?" he said.
"Good grief, Jacob, aren't you going to ask me in?" she said. "I want to get married before you go."
His eyes went blank. His jaw muscles clenched, and for a second she wished she hadn't come. Her arm ached under the weight of the basket. She shifted it into her other hand. Her clothes sucked against her thighs, her ribcage, her arms, and she felt fat. But then again, there came that voice, Jacob's voice. It buoyed her up like a tiny lifeboat on a deep, dark sea: "Married, huh? I see. Well why didn't you say so in the first place, honey? Come on inside now. Give that to me."
To Mary Lou, the inside of the house where Jacob lived with his mother was already spotlessly clean -- the thin carpets vacuumed, the television dusted, the chipped plates stacked on a dishtowel by the sink, drying. This was usually the case. Jacob tended to procrastinate in most other matters, but he was a self-proclaimed neat freak and always kept the house as dust-free as possible. He didn't like clutter, he said. It got in the way.
She followed him inside and shut the door while he set the picnic basket on the kitchen table. She watched him yank the lid open and poke around inside. He grabbed a beer and opened it. He took a long slug, put the beer down and started pulling canisters from the basket. He pried the Tupperware lid off the macaroni and cheese and inhaled deeply.
"Sure smells good," he said. "I'm not gonna get stomach flu eating this am I?"
Mary Lou bit her thumbnail. "You haven't eaten lunch yet?"
"You're in luck," he said, still digging in the basket. "I have not."
"But I thought," she said. "Wait a minute."
"What else we got?" he said. "I forgot what you said. Is this cherry pie? Lordy-dee, girl."
"Chocolate cake, wine. How we supposed to eat all this? Are these?" He tore the cellophane off the plate of wings.
"I kept thinking of things you liked," she said. "But Jacob? Didn't you hear what I said?"
"Of course I heard you," he said. "Meatballs?"
"Jacob. I said I want to get married. I want to marry you."
He looked up from the basket. He wiped his hands on his thighs, balled his knotty fingers into fists and rubbed those on his thighs, too. He ran his hand through his hair. "Okay," he said.
"It's not like I haven't thought about it, Mary Lou. It's not like I don't love you."
"I love you, too," she said. "But I didn't get a chance to tell you what I was thinking. See, I thought I'd bring all this food. I thought you'd already have eaten, so we could go downtown, to the courthouse, get married and all. Then we'd come back and celebrate. With dinner. It'd be like our reception, sort of, only just you and me. And your mother too, I guess. If she comes home in time."
"If she comes home in time," he said. "I don't think she will, though."
He sat down at the table, reached for his beer and took another long slug. He rubbed the stubble on his jaw. Birds chirped outside, and cars passed by on the street. Somewhere in the neighborhood, a lawnmower rumbled to life. "We could do that," he said. "I mean, wait to eat. But I'm just thinking, won't all this stuff get cold? I mean the hot stuff, the chicken and things, and the beer'll get warm. Why don't we just eat first? Get married later this afternoon?"
"I don't know,” she said. “We'll really get married, though?"
"Of course," he said. "Of course we will. Sure. It's not like I haven't thought about it. I think about a lot of things, honey. Listen. We'll eat all this food you cooked, and then we'll pile in the car and go on down to the courthouse."
"Of course really. Now why don't you get some plates from the kitchen," he said, "and we'll get on with this."
She set her fork down a few minutes after three o'clock in the afternoon. She hadn't eaten much: a chicken wing, a golden glob of macaroni and three meatballs. She hadn't even touched the desserts. The forkful of cherry pie Jacob had coaxed her to swallow had made her feel sick. He ate voraciously, stuffing food into his mouth, picking meat from the wings with his fingers. He was going for a second slice of pie when Mary Lou cleared her throat.
"Jacob?" she said. "You think maybe we should go ahead and go?"
He shifted the pie to his plate with a dinner knife and his fingertips. "I haven't finished my pie yet, honey."
She played with the cuff of her shirt, unbuttoned it and buttoned it back up. "I just don't want it to get too late, you know?"
Jacob grunted. "Too late?" The pie in his mouth slurred his words.
"You know," she said. But she studied the blank look on his face, the serious way he sat with his forearms on the table, leaning back in his chair, knees spread, and wondered if he could have forgotten. If -- and this she could hardly think -- he wanted to forget. "Jacob," she said, and she hoped her teaching voice wouldn't come through too strongly, "what are we doing today?"
He dropped his fork on his plate, let out a long sigh. "Now how could you say that, Mary Lou? What, you think I've forgotten? Forgotten you? I told you I loved you, didn't I?"
"Well act like you believe it then. I'd just like to finish up my pie, maybe clean a little more, and then we'll go, okay? Don't you want me to enjoy this? You spent all that time making it for lord's sake."
"Of course I want you to enjoy it," she said. She swallowed hard, the spit in her mouth suddenly abundant, salty. "It's just," she said. "Aren't there, you know, things you have to do? I mean papers to fill out? Don't you have to get a license?"
"Something like that," he said. "Probably."
"But what if you have to get them ahead of time? Jacob," she said. She rested her hand on his knee. "What if we're too late? What if you have to get it days ahead of time? I think I heard something like that, but I totally forgot." She inhaled sharply but stopped there, worried she would cry, unwilling to say the things she had been thinking for some time: What if you go away and never come back? What if something happens to you? What if I never get married? What if I'm always alone?
"Shh. Stop that now. Just stop that." He swallowed his last bite of pie, wiped his mouth with his wrist. He took Mary Lou by the hand, rubbed his thumb back and forth over her knuckles. "You gotta trust me, honey, alright? Everything will be fine. Whatever papers we have to get, we'll get them, okay? But first I have to clean a little bit. Pack up some things. I can't leave a mess for Momma, now, can I?"
She shook her head, sniffed. She wiped her eyes with her fingers. He let go of her hand and stood, and she stood with him. She wrapped her arms around his neck. She was several inches taller than he was; she could see over his shoulder down his back, where pimples dotted the skin in scabby constellations. For the past six months, dating a guy—a man—so much younger than she was had made Mary Lou feel young. But now seeing his acne made her feel old, tired. Forty-nine. Fifty-nine. Sixty-nine. Nothing less than thirty, not with legs this heavy, this itchy under black hose. She had been standing all day. And she'd hardly slept the night before, thinking what she would say: Let's get married. Marry me. Will you marry me? Be my husband. And convincing herself: Why wait, if you love each other? Now she longed to slip out of her shoes, to peel those pantyhose off and climb barefoot into bed. To rest a little while. She yawned.
"Could I lie down while you clean?" she asked him. "Would you mind?"
"You take all the time you need, honey," he said. "All the time you need."
He cleaned while she snuggled deep under the covers of his bed. And while he cleaned, and while she drifted slowly toward sleep, they talked, he in his soothing southern accent, she in a drowsy monotone, of life, their life. They talked of where they'd go, who they'd meet, where they'd live.
"Dallas," he said. "Can't imagine living any place but here."
"Austin," she mumbled back. "I like the hills."
"And we have to have kids," he said. "A boy and a girl."
"Three, though," Mary Lou said. "And all girls."
"And you can still work, if you want to," he said. "I wouldn't hold you back."
She said, "I'd rather stay at home."
"Of course we'll have plenty of money then," he said. "No more busing tables."
"You'll be in business," she said. "You'll get your degree."
"You bet I will. You bet," he said. "And we'll live happily ever after."
Then Mary Lou lay quiet, with her eyes closed. She felt the air move when Jacob passed by. She buried her face in his pillow and inhaled deeply, smelling his skin on the pillowcase. The sounds of clothes folding and of Jacob shaving in the bathroom mingled with her memory of their spoken dreams and helped her put faith in them, even though a burning low in her stomach warned that it wouldn't be alright, that they wouldn't get the papers, that she might always be alone. Gradually the sounds of Jacob's movement trailed off. She heard the bedroom door open and close, and the house got quiet as the afternoon.
She awoke with a bright light in her face. The bed compressed under the weight of another person sitting on the mattress near her head. It took what felt like a long time to open her eyes. Her lids lay heavy and thick: heavy with dreams she couldn't remember. Slowly, though, they came back to her -- not the dreams of sleep, but of her waking life. Images of marriage, of a home and children flashed through her mind, snapshots from places she'd never been, of people she'd never known. And then, in the last seconds of her waking, a voice, the accent like Jacob's but higher in pitch, thick with sorrow, said, "Wake up now, honey. Wake up."
And this was the third bad sign, the last: that when she opened her eyes, Jacob's mother was there. A mousy-haired woman of late middle age whose mascara had smeared into the crevasses under her eyes. Her thighs pinned the comforter down.
"Wake up now, honey. Wake up. He's left. He's left us behind."
Mary Lou struggled to sit up, rubbed her eyes with her palms. Jacob's mother sat too close. The room seemed to undulate with artificial light, and Mary Lou blinked at it like a diver who stares up at the sun from deep under water. The bedroom's one window was dark behind its white vinyl blinds. Mary Lou's skirt had twisted in her sleep, and her hair felt funny, flattened against the sides of her face. On the floor, her shoes lay cock-eyed, her empty hose next to them in a shadowy heap.
"I just couldn't be here. I couldn't bear to see it, to see my baby go," Jacob's mother was saying. She leaned in closer and took hold of Mary Lou's hand. "You raise a boy. Mother him. He doesn't like it, but you know what he needs, what he wants. And then one day he's gone, just like that. One day he's there and then one day he's gone. And it's like you were never there."
Mary Lou wriggled her hand from the woman's damp grasp. She writhed under the comforter, trying to straighten her skirt, to focus her thoughts. The light in the room bore down on her, confused her. Jacob's mother was standing, was pulling Kleenex from her sleeve and dabbing ineffectually at her eyes.
"Oh honey I'm sorry," she was saying, "I don't know why I’m telling you all this. I'm just so…but you couldn't know. I should be quiet. I should be strong. Strong for him. You'll know when you have a boy of your own, what it's like. I am glad, though. Glad you were here, I mean. I told him to stop stringing you along, that it wasn't fair. He was a serious boy, my Jacob. Is a serious boy. He has a lot of thoughts, you know? A lot to think about. A lot changes between twenty-five and twenty-nine, you know? I told him, but you'll see. They never listen to their mothers. It's good you were here for him, though. Such a brave boy, but still. Even the bravest of them must get scared sometimes."
Mary Lou pushed back the comforter and shifted off the bed, onto her feet. The carpet felt clean, hard under her toes. She pulled her hose from the floor, stepped into the sticky bottoms of her shoes. Jacob's mother was talking again now, or her mouth was moving, but Mary Lou didn't hear. She stumbled through the bedroom door, past the kitchen table, where her picnic basket sat empty and alone. She left it there. She couldn't imagine using it again, though someday, she knew, she'd probably want it back.
Emily Bevan grew up in Dallas and earned a BA in English from Texas A&M University in 2000. Since then, she's lived in Houston, Dallas, Denver, and St. Paul, and has worked as a financial analyst, a substitute teacher, and a sales associate. She currently works at Wet Paint (www.wetpaintart.com), an independently owned art materials and framing store in St. Paul, where she lives with her husband, John. Her fiction has appeared in several online journals, including Facets, Word Riot, and The Square Table. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005, Emily Bevan. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.