Friday, November 7, 2014

The Frenzied Mosaic of a Thousand Deaths (or How Howard Met his Demise)

Here is a piece of fiction I've had written for a very long time (since 2003) that I'm finally publishing.  This is my first piece of fiction that I have shared on this blog.  I hope you enjoy it and I welcome feedback!


She closed the door as gently as she could, her heart beating louder than the bare whisper of metal clicking.

"5:30, Eunice. " And louder, "5:30."

Howard's eyes stared forward, focused on the newspaper, although his rigid voice attested to his intense dismay.  Her arrival was two minutes later than customary and thus unacceptable.

"Sorry, Howard.  I got caught in traffic..." Her voice trailed off as she hurriedly slipped off her white nurse's shoes and padded softly toward the closet to hang her jacket and pocketbook. "The girls...doing homework?" She glanced at the clock.  5:02.  Of course they were.  What a stupid question, Eunice. She berated herself.

He did not reply.  His ignored her question  to express that it was beneath him to be concerned with the domestic responsibility. 

Her own stupidity at even asking astounded her.  She blamed it on her nerves for being late.  She knew the routine.  Until 5:15 they would toil at the kitchen table, at which time they would close their books, deposit them into their matching blue L.L. Bean bookbags, and hang them on the prescribed hooks in the closet.  Noiselessly they would wash their faces, and by 5:20 they would be setting the table: Four bone white Corelle plates, four glasses (right side of plate), resting on four meticulously folded and pristine napkins would be four forks and four knives (left side of plate, knife blade facing the plate, then the fork), and four spoons to the right of the plate.

Two ice cubes in each glass, filled to within an inch of the brim (only with spring water, never with tap).  There was never a reason to err as Howard had marked a line on each glass with a permanent marker to ensure compliance.

"Howie..." Eunice  started in her sweetest, good-wife voice, "...dinner won't take long.  I pre-made it this morning.  It will only need to heat through and then it will be ready."

She waited quietly for some reply.  A short head nod, a grunt, a look in her direction.  Nothing.  Her palms began to perspire.  She stood for a thirty second spell that felt more like a lifetime prison sentence.

Howard slowly, with production, closed the paper, folding it neatly and crisply in half.  He placed it on the table beside him then pushed his glasses up as he turned to her.

"Fine, Eunice."  The clock read 5:05.

Howard placed his feet in his leather slippers, then, using both hands, pushed himself up out of the recliner. "I'll have my cigar now," and exited the room,  her cue to be about her wifely assignment.

In the kitchen, the only sound was pencils scratching.  She entered like a floating phantom, nodding a silent hello, and sharing a commiserate glance with the girls.     Outside the kitchen's door, Howard was smoking his cigar, right handed.  He had removed his glasses and placed them in his right breast pocket beside a pair of black felt pens.  He was staring into the kitchen, almost like he was waiting to catch her making a childish mistake.

Fourteen years ago the girls were born.  Eunice and Howard joyfully received the news that they would be blessed with not one, but two healthy girls. To Howard's dismay, they emerged with flaming red shocks of hair.

Eunice sighed, opened the refrigerator, and removed the aluminum foiled Shepard's Pie.

Before the girls' arrival, she'd noticed a quirk here, some paranoia occasionally.  Every once in a while, Howard expressed some interesting whimsies, which had intrigued Eunice at the time.  It was the 70s then and his crazy ideas and eccentricities were the cornerstone of the 60s culture.   She attributed any bizarre behavior to the drugs he'd done at one time.

But fourteen years ago, when the red-headed twins were born, so was a new Howard.  

Eunice clicked the dial on the stove to 325.  And, without preheating, slid the dish into the oven.  It was 5:11. Dinner would be lukewarm or late.  Either way was unacceptable.

Before the twins, before Howard, Eunice was enrolled in pre-law at Georgetown University.  She had burned her bra, read Kate Millet's book "Sexual Politics" and cheered wildly in '73 when the Supreme Court finally gave women the right to choose with Roe vs Wade.

Men were not just attracted to her physically, although she was easy to look at: hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and dirty blonde hair, a curvaceous bottom half and a waist that dipped in tightly. Her voice, deep and sultry like Lena Horn, easily melted a man's will power.  But, she wasn't much interested in men or their will power, despite how they may have felt about her.  While she stayed committed to her feminist views, men chased her.  One by one they approached, intoxicated by the idea that he may be the one to win her, stifle her independence, bend her to his will.  Eventually, the endless phone calls and stares, the appropriate and inappropriately vulgar proposals, unnecessary catcalls, and pinches on her bottom in both bars and crowded elevators, well, eventually she determined to elevate her social circle.  That was when she received the happy notice that she'd been accepted into Georgetown.  She met Howard her first semester.  He was her professor.  Mathematics, not Law.  It had been a compulsory class.

Howard did not have glasses then, nor did he have pocket pens.

Howard was only moderately attractive, at best.  But Eunice found as the semester passed he was witty and intellectually stimulated her.  And, for the first time in her life, she was dumbfounded that there was a man who was not sexually overt with her.  Never did he steal a glance at her chest.  Not once did she catch his eyes on her bottom.

She pursued him.  The more he insisted it was inappropriate, the more she pressed.  With the class ending and only a final remaining, two months after her first offer, he finally agreed to meet her for dinner.

They held hands with only a chaste kiss here and there for months.  Eunice began to go wild, waiting for him to make more remarkable advances.

After five months, during a routine evening "good night" kiss, Howard slipped his tongue between her lips and Eunice's legs began to tremble.  She felt herself willing to follow him anywhere, he was a knight in shining armor.  She was willing to toss aside any previous notion of careers and success to be taken to the edge of this climactic precipice, where she wanted to fling herself into his passionate embrace.

She was enchanted by him and while he continued to maintain a distance, he slowly and steadily made advances, butterfly kisses on her neck, flowers delivered for no reason, a gentle tug on her hair while kissing, later pushing her and holding her against the steel door during a lingering kiss, before turning abruptly and leaving.

It drove her crazy.  That and his brilliant mind.  Over coffee he would quote Kafka and Locke.    He admired Descartes philosophy on dualism and heralded it as part of his own: insisting they ignore the weaknesses of the human body and focus instead on the innate power of the mind.

One day, inexplicably, while sitting alone in a cafe drinking a black coffee, she suddenly realized it.  Her bra burning days were over.  She was in love with Howard.

On their eight month anniversary he unexpectedly arrived at her one bedroom apartment (of which he disapproved.  A single woman, living alone?  How dangerous and inappropriate).  In his hand he carried 8 white roses.  Not red.  Red roses were for love, Eunice knew, and Howard had not once professed his, although Eunice had many times since her black coffee revelation.  It was then she agreed to be his wife.

The sound of textbooks closing disrupted Eunice's memory.  5:15.  She started the dishes, while the girls tread to the bathroom to clean up.

They made love for the first time after the wedding.  It was not the jaw dropping experience Eunice had hoped for.  But she was practical and realistic.  She knew it wasn't always earth shattering.  But after repeated monotonous encounters, she soon realized that sex was routine for Howard.  Routine became the word that described Howard's life.

At first it was nothing to even notice.  Wake up at 5:30 am and shower.  Breakfast at 6:00.  Cheerios.  Without fail.  And strawberries, cut into four chunks.  Never sliced.  Two pieces of toast with peanut butter, cut in half.  She quickly learned to satisfy these needs ("Wipe the peanut butter off the knife onto the bread, Eunice, not on the lid").  At 6:30, after he left for work, she showered and went to classes.  Until he decided law was not a profession suited for the mother of his future children.  Nursing.  Nursing was acceptable for Howard.  And so she had accommodated him.

And then, she began to notice more.  Every Tuesday and Thursday he called his mother and they spoke for exactly an hour.  On Sunday, she called at 4 pm and they spoke for two hours.   Eunice always gave him privacy and slipped into the bedroom to wait it out. In the beginning, she'd thought he'd made the calls so frequently just because she was halfway across the country, in North Dakota.  It was kind of endearing that he cared that much.

But after months, she couldn't understand what they had to speak about for four hours a week.  Then, unable to withhold her curiosity, she eavesdropped on a Sunday conversation and was astounded at his demeanor and monotone voice during his calls, "Yes, mother.  Of course, dear.  I'll be sure to do that.  I took my pill at 6:30.  Yes, Eunice makes me breakfast every day... No, mother, I would never watch that.  It's not appropriate for me.  Of course I will say a prayer for you... " and so on and so on with more, "Yes, mothers" and  "No, mothers" and then at the end, she nearly gasped at the repetition of, "I love you mother," and then "I love you too, mother." She turned quickly, afraid she would get caught listening and tiptoed back to their room.  A single tear had rolled down her cheek.  Howard had still not expressed his love to her.

And that was how it went, until the twins came along.

5:20.  The girls entered the kitchen, one behind the other.  One withdrew plates from the cupboard near Eunice's head, the other retrieved a white linen table cloth from the upper drawer in the oak sideboard.

In the living room, Howard's voice was low, a murmur.  Wednesday.  Talking to his mother.  He had started speaking to her every day recently, but only for ten to fifteen minutes outside of his Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday routine.

Eunice scrubbed the back of a pot furiously, resuming her daydream.  She remembered the time she had thought Howard would passionately embrace her and she would be taken to the edge of desire, where together they would spill over, consumed with their love for each other.

Indeed, she had come to the edge.  But it was no passionate cliff.  It was the intense monotony of the day to day, each predictable and unchanging event,  the horror of the invisible leash Howard had placed around her neck (which she felt she had voluntarily handed him) and ultimately it was the life that she had tossed aside, dreams that he has chewed and spit out, that gripped her and drove her to the edge where she found herself now, terrified and wild.

And the twins.  She bit her lip.  She was allowing him to wield it over her girls.  She clenched her fists and jaw, then relaxed them, breathing out deeply.  She plunged her hands in again, to finish off the silverware, which she had saved for last as they were her least favorite.  The spoons, forks and butter knives she scrubbed and rinsed, then reached for the steak knives which she had not placed in the water, for fear she may accidentally stab herself while reaching around blindly in the soapy water.  She did those very last, one by one, carefully sliding the cloth up and down the blade.

"Thank god for daydreams," she whispered.  Thank god, she thought, that Howard could not chain her mind.

"Excuse me, Eunice."  Howard's unexpected voice caused her to slip and slice open her hand.  She looked at the twins, who were looking down.  They knew not to speak before they were spoken to.

"I...I'm sorry Howard.  I've cut my hand on the knife?"  It was a question.  It was asking permission for a bandage. 

Howard was unconcerned with the steady drip of blood.  He cleared his throat ceremoniously, an accusation at the very least.

"5:30, Eunice.  5:30"

Eunice's heart sank.  Her hands, covered now in blood, trembled.

"Dinner is served at 5:30... What time is it, Eunice?  "  She knew that was not a question she was supposed to answer.

The clock on the oven twitched at that very moment.  5:29.  She had one minute to have dinner on the table.  Howard stood tall now, to his full height.  He towered, blocking the light from the chandelier at the table where the girls sat.  Eunice cast a longing glance their way.  She wished they would look up, look at her.  Their eyes continued to be cast downward.

She stared at her girls for a heart breaking moment,  one that stood still and was marred by the smell of blood like copper.  She saw them now, really saw them.  Their hair pulled back off their face severely, into a matronly bun at the bottom of their head.  Their mousy brown hair, dyed by Howard when the entered junior high school.  Eunice hadn't wanted it but Howard's mother had insisted he do it. She saw them now, in their drab clothes, pale skin, withdrawn mouths. 

Howard moved a step toward Eunice and with his breath hot at her ear said, "How am I supposed to wash my hands for dinner if you are bleeding into the goddamn sink?"

"One minute, Howard, I promise.  I can clean this right up."  Howard did not move, he stayed bent, watching her every movement.

With him so close and the threat of punishment imminent as a result of the tardy dinner, Eunice stifled a muffled sob of relief when the phone rang and Howard backed away.  He moved slowly, letting his hand brush her thigh menacingly as he did.

"Hello?... Yes, Of course Eunice is alright.... What?  Of course you would be worried. She certainly has not missed a day of work in five years... I will let her know you were concerned."

Her hand, wet and shaking, found the knife.  Her fingers gentle traced the smooth blade.  The girls were breathing heavily.

Howard placed the phone into its cradle on the wall.

How voice started low then built to a raging crescendo, "Euuunnnice!  5:30.  Dinner is served at 5:30 Eunice!"

Howard's hands were on his belt.  The punishment.  He unfastened the clasp.  A square piece of metal that had created so many little frames along her thighs, stomach and chest, black and blue pictures frames by red welts.

"Please, Howard,  Please.  Not in front of the girls."

He slipped it off in one quick motion.  Eunice stepped back, shifting the knife behind her.  Howard was a giant in front of her, but behind her she could see Eve standing, moving away from the table and approaching the kitchen.  She was carrying the crystal pitcher of water.

Howard lunged forward precisely at the moment Eve, behind him, dropped the pitcher, which shattered into a thousand fragments upon the tile floor.

Each fragment became a mirror, and in its reflection a frenzied human mosaic.  

Each fragment became a potential blade which became a thousand stifled memories upon a thousand jabbing thrusts. 

When the police arrested Eunice later that evening, in garbled sentences she explained she was standing too close to the edge and she slipped.  She had no choice but to jump.  They carried her away, ranting like that.

Her last glance was back, at her daughters.  Their hair was loose, wild.  Their eyes, passionate. 

Eve cleaned up the mess of shattered prisms, and later, much later, washed the blood from her hands.

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