“If you loved me, you would fight with me – you would at least argue with me – you wouldn’t just sit and stare,” my late wife Vanessa would say. “Don’t you care enough to argue – to raise your voice? What kind of man doesn’t have a strong point of view? Or any point of view? I’ll tell you,” she would say. “A man with no love in his soul. A man with no soul. That’s who. That’s who you are.”
Before that period of our life Vanessa would say to me, “Stop fighting with me all the time. Can’t you ever go along? Why does everything have to be a debate with you? If you loved me, really loved me, you would let me have my way once in a while instead of fighting me at every turn.”
Neither approach worked with Vanessa. I tried to change – I did change; but what good did it do? I was wrong no matter which way I turned and on August fourteenth everything began to change. Once the change began to happen it couldn’t be undone. I didn’t know it then, nor did Vanessa. On August fourteenth I began building my fence.
I was sitting in our living room on my lounger being berated by Vanessa for whatever, when off in the distance, through the living room window I saw a stack of white pickets piled high in large neat piles. As her voice droned on I visualized myself walking across the yard to the pile taking a picket and returning it to the living room. Vanessa was continuing her harangue when I came back, and just before I sat down in my lounger I looked at Vanessa, picked up a hammer that happened to be lying on the floor, and hammered in my first picket between us. And all of a sudden her voice was not quite as grating.
The next time Vanessa got on my case was in the supermarket. I walked away and found the pickets section, selected another and turned to face Vanessa. I hammered it in next to the first picket.
I had not planned it this way, but somehow I knew that once the picket fence was complete, our marriage would be over. Oddly enough, I never thought about the picket fence or visualized it unless Vanessa was bothering me. And then on a two picket day I could see the pickets in the horizon of my peripheral vision taking shape as a fence from my right. The pickets proceeded from right to left like the Kaddish. One day there were a few lonesome pickets and then they became the makings of a fence. I was fencing Vanessa out of my life or vice versa.
We had our ups and downs and at one point we went through a very rough period that brought the fence midway. This was followed by a long, quiet, loving time when no pickets were added; but make no mistake about it – I never considered removing any. These good times were just temporary – I knew.
Even though I never thought about the fence at other times, whenever I saw Vanessa, the white picket fence was between us in some stage of construction.
For a while I feared that I was turning into my brother. He was keeping a loose-leaf notebook on stupid, irritating, and annoying things that his wife did. Once the notebook was filled he planned to leave her. “A man should only have to take so much in his life,” my brother said, “and I have decided that my allotment is this loose-leaf”.
He carried with him at all times a small pocket sized spiral and each evening he would sit in his lounger with a glass of Old Overholt and transfer his daily notes into the loose-leaf. Often his wife was right in the room with him, knitting or watching tv, and if she happened to say something stupid, irritating, or annoying my brother would shake his head and add it to his list. Sometimes he only wrote a sentence and at other times he wrote pages. He often offered to let me read his loose-leaf so as to gain my sympathy for his plight, but I told him I’d wait for the end and read it as a novel.
My brother’s wife – she was stupid. She should have let him finish the book and divorce her so she could get on with a more normal life. She would sneak into his desk and add blank pages to the loose-leaf every so often. She should have been ripping them out instead.
My brother was critical and compulsive and very vindictive and I tried to relate his Loose-leaf Notebook to my White Picket Fence. I came to the conclusion that there was no association whatsoever. My brother was off the wall. And I, like his wife, was the victim.
Incredible as it may seem, my brother made no secret of his journal. He told anyone and everyone who would listen, never understanding what a bad light it shed on him. I told no one of my fence.
One day I came home late from work, bursting with good news about business, but Vanessa would hear none of it. She was irate and from the top of the stairs threw my clothes over the railing and into the hallway. With each toss a picket went up.
And that night I finished my fence.
The next day Vanessa was dead.
I moved all of my belongings into the den and guest room and did what any good Jew would do for the dead. I stayed home from work and sat Shiva – mourning for a week. I tore my shirt, didn’t shave, wore a black arm band, and covered the mirrors with sheets. I took the pillows off the chairs so I would not be comfortable and I said the Kaddish morning and evening.
The next week, a widower, I went back to work. Nothing else changed in my life except that now when I came home from work and Vanessa talked to me I didn’t have to pay any attention because she was dead. Period. Oh, Vanessa carried on for a while – even refused to make my meals and do my laundry, but I held my ground and said nothing. After all, what good does it do to argue with the dead – especially if you couldn’t argue with them when they were alive.
Vanessa came around. It took about six months but she finally realized that I was never going to speak to her again and for me she was no longer living. She went back to cooking and cleaning for the two of us. We even went to some family functions together and never spoke. Vanessa never liked me that much anyway and was probably just sore that she hadn’t thought of it first. Divorce? Don’t ask. Divorce was out of the question.
Of course the only one in my family that said anything to me at all was my brother. “Are you nuts?” he asked. “You just can’t declare someone dead and go on living with them.” “Why not?” I asked him.
My brother looked up and asked, “Do you plan to date?”
Vanessa and I had been married for eighteen years and we, like many other couples, had fallen into a regular routine. She would lay out my clothes for me every morning while I was in the bathroom and I would wear whatever she selected. Both of us agreed that her taste was superior to mine in the world of fashion. Early on in our marriage, strictly by coincidence, she had put out argyle socks for me on a day that we had made love. Argyles had become our signal and it was always Vanessa who initiated the schedule. I had not given much thought to lovemaking since her death, so finding the argyles set out one morning kind of threw me off kilter. I didn’t know how to react or what to expect.
It wasn’t just argyles and jump in the sack night. There was a ritual – even for us. A nice meal with a glass of wine and then I would pour two glasses of wine and Vanessa would bring them to our respective nightstands while I showered. She would sip half of hers and then while she showered I would sip half of mine. After we made love we would lie next to each other, bodies touching, holding hands and sip the rest of our wine and go to sleep.
I didn’t know what to expect this argyle night. At first I thought that Vanessa had put out the argyles by mistake but Vanessa doesn’t make those kind of mistakes. I came home from work and could tell by the smells when I entered the house that it was an argyle night. Brisket and potatoes air met me at the door, and for dessert Vanessa had made her apple strudel. We drank a couple of extra glasses of wine with dinner, but even that didn’t loosen my tongue enough to talk to a dead woman. I lingered longer than usual because of my uncertainty on how to end the evening.
Force of habit had me pouring two glasses of wine afterwards and I didn’t know if they were going to her room, my room, one in each or what. Vanessa, not surprisingly, took control.
She carried the glasses to my room, formerly the guest quarters, and ran my shower. I soaped with anticipation and not wanting to seem too eager I took my time in the shower. When I came out I saw only my glass of wine on the nightstand.
Vanessa was not there. I lay on the bed for quite a while sipping my half glass of wine figuring that she was showering and getting ready. I waited for her return but after a while it became apparent that she wouldn’t be coming back. I finished my wine, fell asleep and dreamt of Vanessa and the argyles.
In the morning I dressed with the clothes that Vanessa had laid out for me. For breakfast she made corned beef hash and poached eggs, my favorites, just as she always had after an ARGYLE NIGHT. And she never even looked at me as she sipped her coffee, nor said a word.
Paul Beckman has four story collections, a novella published and a new collection, “Kiss Kiss” due out in early 2018. He’s had over 400 of his stories published in print, on line, and via audio. Paul’s from CT and runs the monthly FBomb NY flash fiction reading series at KGB. He had a micro story selected for the 2018 Norton Microfiction Anthology and was one of the winners in the 2016 Best of Small Fictions. He’s had his work published in Red Fez, Necessary Fiction, Spelk, Connotation Press, Jellyfish Review and many more fine magazines.