S H O R T S T O R Y
THE QUESTION REMAINED
b y e r i k s h e l d o n ~ c o n c o r d, c a l i f o r n i a
"I HAVE a question for you," said Taylor's wife at breakfast one morning.
"Let's have it," he replied.
She reached across the table and handed it to him.
In Taylor's life he had been given only a handful of such questions. He himself had asked only one. His fiancée accepted, and they moved into their first apartment, where they conceived and lost their one child. When he later asked her to marry him, he did so with only his voice.
The question lay for a while in a bowl of polished stones on his work desk. He had put it there hoping that the colorful stones would camouflage it. They did not.
"Taylor, look at this," the women would say, plucking the heavy ovoid from the bowl. They could not seem to leave it alone. Every-colored with whorls and bursts, like an agate fighting an outbreak of turquoise, the question stood out no matter where he put it. The skirt-suited women found more excuses to stop at his desk. Each day they picked up the bauble and marveled at it, gathering in a group around it as though the question were a baby, and they could determine its future with enough speculation.
"Who gave this to you?" each woman asked once.
Making a show of not working, Taylor waited coldly for her to leave.
The men, except for the juniors of a romantic cast, acknowledged the question with sidelong looks at the bowl. Most of them wore golden rings on their hands, and darker half-rings under their eyes. Life was difficult, and they felt it was so because of questions.
Taylor was of the same mind as these other men. He didn't care to know the matter of the question, which would automatically entail answering it. He would contentedly leave it in the bowl of stones for all his life if he could, let it be buried, though he suspected his wife would not allow that. In fact, the questions themselves did not usually allow that. A forgotten matter as big as a question had a way of re-arising, the way certain illnesses did, again and again, once you caught them.
Taylor came to work each day and opened his spread-sheet, reading the memos which magically accrued in his tray overnight. Now, this was a miracle. He checked his memos at the end of each day. He checked upon arriving each morning. No one arrived more than five minutes before he did, yet as each day began, his in-tray was overflowing with paper. When were they written? What did their authors do all day? Such minor mysteries kept Taylor occupied. Year after year he gnomed away at his spread-sheet, checking and double-checking his figures. The women stopped coming so regularly, and only when a new one was hired did interest in the question renew. Then its beauty, its mystery, its fractal perfection of colors were trotted out to be admired all over again. Finally, Taylor quit the company and moved to another where he was allowed to manage the whole finance department.
This created the problem of what to do with the question. Fed up with the intrigued women of his former office, he had no desire to bring the question into the new one. He didn't dare bring it home. There would never be any hiding it from his wife.
Yet he could not keep it on his person, nor could he throw it away. After time it would turn up, as questions did. The sight of it, unanswered, would utterly destroy Taylor's wife. Thus there were two choices: lock it away or answer it.
He chose to lock it away. At a different bank from the one where he kept his money, Taylor rented a safe-deposit box. There he placed the question in a white paper box of the kind manufactured for earrings.
Along with the question went the bowl of stones. It was a needless oddity, inappropriate for a department manager, who could fairly be expected not to display such inane trinkets on his desk. The polished stones and the sea-green bowl lived out their days on an end-table next to the sofa.
Taylor settled in at his new company. His wife, on disability due to an anxiety disorder, occupied herself at home and with friends. She did enough to keep herself busy, attending book club discussions, Italian lessons, other semi-intellectual things. She kept good house and did all the cooking. Excepting their lack of religion and children, Taylor and his wife were the most traditional couple they knew.
Except for the question.
Taylor stopped at the bank on his way home now and again, to peer at the question in its white paper box, to lift it out and flex his fingers across its smoothness, to heft its weight. And then to return it, bundled up in its box, box locked in box, the key on his ring, unknowable from a dozen others.
In doing this, he knew that he was destroying his wife just as surely as if he had handed her the question unanswered. A real question arrowed straight from the core of a life. In one sense it was a life, expressed as an interrogative. It could never be boxed finally, and for all the embraces and tender words that still passed between them, the question remained.
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