"Helen"


He tried to see through the curtains, tried to see the light he knew was kept on the other side, and listened to Helen whisper into the telephone on the kitchen wall. He sat on the sofa in the front room and chain-smoked, every now and again curling his socked toes in the rust-colored shag. He could turn on the TV, watch a soap opera or whatever else was on, but it was all the way across the room, and he figured it was enough to sit here in the dark and listen to her conspire, to sit here and not quite hear the words.

He could make out fragments of sentences, unfinished notes—“I can’t talk now,” he thought she said, and then, “I’ll try.” Or perhaps Helen said none of those things, and it was all a terrible mistake. He thought it might be wise to turn on the TV after all, but it was still all the way across the room, and hadn’t gotten any closer.

“I can’t stop,” he heard, and then a garbled sound, something between a giggle and a sob, something probably neither, probably both.

He had called in sick at the shop, but “sick” wasn’t the word. He had mostly just sat with the blackness, smoking and thinking. Sometimes not even that. At first Helen sat with him, tried to touch him. Then she would disappear. He would close his eyes with her being somewhere in space and time, and open them to her somewhere else. Once he opened his eyes and she was naked in the doorway, her hair done and draped over one shoulder, eyebrow arched like fishing line. The curve of her hips caught the light from the hallway. You could start a war with just a shake of your ass, he thought, but didn’t say. He closed his eyes. Smoked.

She yelled, and he couldn’t make out the words, just as if she were whispering. She screamed about how she wasn’t sorry—how dare you, she kept repeating, each time lower, hoarser, like she was digging the bottom of some small tin. How dare you. Her small breasts jiggled indifferently before her. She cursed him for the verdict in his silence, blamed him for blaming others for all that was wrong. “Everyone gets what they deserve,” Helen seethed, and then stopped, shocked by the admission, shocked by what it might mean. She sat down abruptly, clumsily, stared out the translucent curtains. He lit another cigarette, tasting the tobacco on his raw tongue. After some time, Helen took one without asking, lit it and smoked while walking absently about the room, dropping ashes on the carpet until she was almost gone, a beautiful, sad ghost on the edge of his smoke rings.

He had been keeping this vigil for three days not to prove a point, not to punish his young wife, but simply because he was incapable of anything else. He knew he was no longer the alpha, that he had lost the confidence of his pride. He knew it when he saw the strange, olive-skinned man come out of his house, out of his bed, deflating the fantasy of this marriage.

Helen’s ghost flashed before him, a dark, purposeful swoosh across the carpet, a faint scent of drugstore hair dye. She was going prematurely gray, but never spoke of it; he would sometimes wake up to find reddish stains on their pillows; they were always gone by the time he got home from work.

The bedroom door closed gently; they were past the point of slamming. He looked briefly down the sliver of the hall he could see, a cut of light between the door and the floor highlighting how dark his space had become. It was almost winter, and the nights came early; what little respite that came from the day was quickly waning, the inside and outside reaching equilibrium, the point where atrophy begins. He felt as if he was drifting in space, weightless, timeless. He lit another cigarette.

He could hear Helen rustling in the bedroom, the metallic squawk of sliding hangers, the broad thud of boxes being moved. He stared at his hands, barely visible. He thought he should do something, and let the thought pass.

She opened the bedroom door and used the room’s light to guide her out into the hall, out into the living room and out to the front door. She was wearing tight jeans and a summery, loose blouse, despite the sharp chill in the air. “I’m going to get cigarettes,” she said, a cliché, the profile of her face in the shadows—sharp, devastating—anything but.

“You should bring a jacket.” He was surprised by the creak of his own voice.

Helen paused at the door, her slender hand on the jamb. She was looking outside. “I’ll get you some, too,” she said. She pushed opened the storm door and he could hear that it had begun to rain.

He had once lived on a street just like this one, a house just like this one, a few blocks away. He thought of those days, his father sitting on the front stoop in an undershirt after work, drinking Canadian Club, an army of kids running through streets and yards like madmen. He thought of the long summer days, and the nights that tried in vain to cool the world off. He thought of the night Mr. Jacoby died.

The Jacoby family lived across the street for as long as he could remember. Mr. Jacoby owned a little hardware store up in the strip of stores that ran parallel to the highway, past the Catholic school. He had two daughters, spread apart in age; one was a few years older than him, just out of reach of ever really crossing paths. The younger was several grades behind him, too young to be of any consequence to him or any of the other boys.

It was the summer of ’63; he was eleven, almost twelve, and a bunch of neighborhood kids had stayed out catching fireflies and playing kick-the-can; empty boasts and honest laughter punctuated the petty victories of boys trying to grow into their size.

An unholy racket coming from the Jacoby house silenced the idyllic chaos—heavy pans crashed, drowning out the high-pitched tin clamor of the little can in the street. Mr. Jacoby was yelling, which in itself was not noteworthy among the open windows of summer. Sometimes, arguments would break out in different houses at the same time, and the cacophony would begin to merge in your brain, as if they were harmonizing with each other, a drunken, frustrated sort of evening music. Hell, even his own father, when he tied a good one on, had the pipes to make the shutters rattle.

Usually, t