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The movie ended at 12:45 a.m., John Reynolds made another sandwich, ate it and spent a minute picking peanut butter out of his cavities. He watched the last ten minutes of Jack Parr and at one o’clock, stared at the white screen and, feeling locked out by Lucia, thought about slipping out the back door to go to Matty’s room. Then, hearing Christina’s cat on the back steps, he went to let it in and route it to the cellar. Long wary of him, the cat scrambled across the worn linoleum, slipped and skidded sideways at the top of the stairs, and soundlessly disappeared into the dark.
“Bastard cat!” John swore. He quietly closed the basement door and sat down at the kitchen table to again consider asking Lucia to go to work. Most of the women in the store were married and the personnel office was willing to try to place her if Lucia would agree, but she had a strong objection to leaving the younger children, and a mother who refused to help due to her husband’s ill health.
“How come she’ll stay with your brother’s kids whenever he asks but never for yours?” John had asked many times.
“What about your mother?” Lucia always countered. “As if she’d ever offer.”
“Okay, then hire a sitter.”
“And pay a sitter more than I could make, John?”
It was an annoyingly valid point that made him think, if only she had a skill, could type or keep books and earn enough to pay a sitter, or work retail and talk her fat mother into taking care of little Carl at her house…as if her goddamned old bastard of a husband was all that sickly. He’d wheedled and begged, tried to tell her she needed a change and that work would be good for her, but Lucia was afraid and unsure what with the mess she’d made of being a housewife.
“What’s so goddamn tough about it?” John would rave, tired and bitter over walking into bedlam at the end of his work day. Lucia never answered the angry question. She simply failed a little more each day and sought solace by watching television and attending church.
Meanwhile, they were in serious trouble, sure as hell, like other families. He’d read about it in the newspaper and heard it in the store from fellow employees, from the credit department when it turned down his time sales, and at union meetings. Some, maybe most were not as deeply in debt, but John imagined that with prices rising on the bare necessities, debt that had been manageable a year before was now getting out of hand. Not that it made him feel better to know there were millions of others with similar problems…monthly bills sorted into separate piles, those to pay and those to delay…borrowing more and adding to the balance of debt with no way to stop it. He desperately needed something tangible to fight and defeat. The union refused him a loan, the finance company left him with nothing to mortgage, and the banks wouldn’t talk to him about an installment note in exchange for cash. He had no family or friends to approach, at least not with any hope of success. He had no credit, just a sorry credit rating. He regretted the nightly fights with Lucia, hated getting after Bill, saw Christina heading the wrong way too soon, and was ashamed that he never had time to share with Pat and Carl. He couldn’t resist the television, the escape it offered, the stupid programs. He missed making love to his wife, had lost her affection to debt, worry, and the claustrophobic, box-like house.
“A fancy shack,” he muttered, “and were we ever the suckers! Love and marriage in a packing crate! Jesus!”
It was odd to think of it, but on the way to the stairs, he remembered complaining to Lucia on a night in July before a day trip to Boston with boys from the store that a guy making sixty-five hundred a year ought to be able to take in a Red Sox game once in a while without feeling guilty about it. But he had, though it was something he would never understand. Hell, there were guys pulling sixty a week with cars, houses and kids who looked better off than him.
Going up slowly, he muttered dirtier curses with each step. On the landing, holding the bedroom door knob, he repeated them before opening the door and walking to the bed with his usual hope. If Lucia was awake she was quiet about it. It was hard to tell with her covered to the ears. He leaned down and heard deep breathing. She was asleep, good reason to jostle her a little when he climbed in bed. The situation could always change, and fast.
He heard her sigh as he noisily prepared for bed. He looked around to see her watching him, eyes half-shut against the bright ceiling light. He stared at the mounded blanket, indicating with his eyes what was on his mind, smiling as he said: “Don’t worry, honey, I have a feeling about tomorrow.”
She cleared her throat and said: “Why? Did the Plummers stop by?”
“No, but they ran another ad, better than before,” he said confidently. “I’m sure we’ll get some lookers.”
She looked doubtful. John wasn’t surprised. He looked at the blanket over her breasts, at her face and the even gaze that meant yes…or no. He crawled in bed, settled beside her on his back and waited for her to move, usually away from him, like last night and the night before, and the night before that. Tonight, she lay still with the blanket pinned to her contours by her long arms. John stared at the ceiling. He had no right and no intention to try if she didn’t want him, but if it continued, he would be forced to try Matty.
Suddenly, he ached for her, wanted to turn, slide his big hands behind Lucia’s soft hips and buttocks and pull her to him. Up on his elbow, he tried to see her face in the light from the street. “Good night, Lucy,” he whispered, leaned toward her, kissed her lips, and increased the pressure of his mouth. Encouraged by a murmur of resignation, he hastily covered her with his heavy body and thrust his tongue between her lips. He couldn’t see her eyes fill with tears, but felt the tension of her body, her clenched teeth and rigid arms and legs. He eased off her mouth, she turned her face toward the inside wall and said tersely, “Good night, John.”
Scarcely able to restrain his anger, in desperate need of release to make the next few hours of sleep warm and relaxing, contented and peaceful, punished beyond what he thought he deserved, John felt his passion for her leave him. He lay flat on his back, his body limp and chilled, eyes open and staring in the dark like a prisoner facing a long, cruel term and wide awake on his first night on an unforgiving cot.
Hope for release was not to be taken seriously at all.
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