By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
From her short story collection, A Small Thing to Want
The next morning, Franny spent too much time explaining to Mrs. Poughkeepsie what had happened to her eye. Franny had peeked from behind the curtains to make sure no one was coming down the lane before running in her robe to fetch the newspaper at the end of the driveway, but Mrs. Poughkeepsie appeared out of nowhere, ambling toward Franny and pointing at her with the tip of her black umbrella. Franny proceeded to string sentences together into a rope that lengthened yet tightened, going on and on about how last night Hank’s dog had to pee so Franny put its leash on and went outside and thought she had a good grip but then the dog tugged her too fast into the front yard—“It must have really had to go,” she heard herself saying, her voice high and nasally—and the yard was dark and she banged into a branch on the old oak tree and, “oh, if only Hank had cut that one branch down,” then she regretted saying that, even involving Hank, “but he has been so busy with his new job,” she added, “working so hard, such a good provider, my Hank,” and Mrs. Poughkeepsie smiled and nodded, as all the neighbors did when Franny spoke about Hank, for they had been giving the newlyweds jams and jellies and sweet bread, so many rolls and loaves that Franny at first tried to keep up eating them, but Hank told her that was ridiculous, so Franny eventually wrapped them in foil and pushed them into the back of the freezer to forget them. Franny went on too long to Mrs. Poughkeepsie about how this morning Hank had helped her put ice on her eye, and it was true, he had touched it with one finger to see how bad it was, brushed her hair back from her face with the other hand while she sat on the closed toilet seat. She didn’t tell Mrs. Poughkeepsie that last part, or that he had run out of words by then, how quiet he was, like the calm surface of water after it has swallowed something, how eventually he handed the bag of ice to her and mumbled he must go to work, even though it was only seven o’clock, an hour earlier than when he usually left. He had bent down to kiss her cheek and then paused, patting her on the top of the head instead.
“I’ve gotta go, Mrs. Poughkeepsie,” Franny heard herself saying. “So much to do!” Though she could not think of what.
“No one loves you as much as I do, Francine,” Hank had said before leaving. “You should know that by now. No one.”
The dog was barking now, lunging against the storm door.
* * *
When Lily called at quarter ’til eleven, as she often did while her students were at lunch in the cafeteria, Franny thought of Hank and wasn’t going to answer, but she couldn’t help herself. For the next few minutes, she went on too long about how she must have had too much coffee, her hands were shaking.
“Shaking?” Lily asked with a mouthful of bologna sandwich. Lily always took a bologna sandwich to work, just as she had done in school.
“I didn’t mean that much,” Franny said. She felt nauseous.
The dog was sitting at Franny’s feet, gazing up at her while she held on to the phone. The dog whimpered, always wanting something, but Franny never knew what. Through the receiver, Franny could hear teenagers shouting and laughing, and the clattering of trays on tables, for Lily always used the pay phone in the hallway closest to the cafeteria so she could keep an eye on them, even though she wasn’t on lunch duty except for Mondays.
(Franny pictured Lily’s tanned face, her wispy row of brown bangs, the freckles on her cheeks like constellations—the exact way Lily looked last summer after the week she and Franny had spent alone at the cabin on Songbird Pond.)
“You sure you don’t have the flu?” Lily asked. The girls had been nearly inseparable for seventeen years, since first grade when they rode the school bus together and big Bo Benson had pinched Franny, and Lily clocked him on the shoulder with her plaid metal lunch box. Bo Benson had died last year in Vietnam. Who was next?
“I’m fine,” Franny said.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“It was a long night.”
“What was so long about it? The fact of his existence?”
Lily had never approved of Hank, so Franny told Lily about the dog, but this time she tripped over a fallen branch, and Hank helped her with her eye that night, did not wait until the morning when his hands were steady.
“So your tripping is what made it a long night?” Lily asked.
Franny didn’t know how to answer.
“Was the fall that bad?” Lily was now asking. “Did it leave a mark?” “Not really,” she said, touching her eye the way Hank had (but it was Lily’s hand she felt, soft and certain). Franny shooed the dog away.
“Can’t Hank take you to the doctor? What good is being married to him if he can’t even do that?”
“Hank said it’s nothing.”
The dog was licking its paws, and Franny swatted it to make it stop.
* * *
At twelve o’clock, Franny didn’t want to walk the dog around the block, as Hank had instructed her to do when they first married, as she always did now. She let the dog out the back door, and it sprinted around the rose bushes, galloped toward the fence, peed on Franny’s geraniums and then began digging up her bearded irises, tearing open the lawn. “Stop, stop!” Franny waved her arms wildly at the door. She clamped a hand over her mouth, startled by the loudness of her own voice. What if the neighbors heard? Hank always said to hush.
The dog stopped, its ears perked. It stared at her.
“Come here,” Franny said in the loudest whisper she could muster. “Come here right now or else . . .” But she could not think what she could possibly do, and the dog resumed its digging.
* * *
Franny made too many wrong turns driving to the Piggly Wiggly at one o’clock. Hank had told her a million times how to get there— he’d admonished her just three days ago for not writing down his directions. Franny would never make it to the Piggly Wiggly if she did not straighten up, become more like the wives with bobs and hair parted down the very middle, with short skirts and stockings, with purses hanging down from their arms like anchors. She pulled over and retrieved the map from the glove box and smoothed it flat on her lap, but even then the city intersections all looked like thin crosses, row after row, and Franny stuffed the map back into the glove box and kept driving until she saw the store with its big P and W letters. As she made a left turn into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, she almost ran into another car—how could she not have seen it coming toward her in the other lane?—and she lurched into a space and was sweating now, parked so far from the store’s glass doors.
Someone rapped their knuckles on the window, and Franny jumped in her seat. “You okay?” a man asked when she rolled down her window just a crack. “Saw you nearly plow into that guy.” He was wearing a black-and-white-striped knit hat, though it was hot out, and his beard was like her father’s, long and gray and twisted at the end.
“I-I’m fine,” she said.
He leaned down, hands on his denim knees. He pointed through the glass. “You got a shiner.”
“No it’s not.” She checked herself in the rearview mirror. Her makeup had sweated off. “I bumped into a kitchen cupboard last night—it was dark, and I tripped over my husband’s dog, well, it’s our dog now, of course, I just mean I sometimes forget to remember the dog is there. I can be so clumsy.” She touched the spot; it was soft and sore. She forced herself to smile at him. “I’m fine, sir, thank you.”
He stood up, squinted into the sun, swatted a fly away. “Okay, lady.”
* * *
Franny washed and waxed all the kitchen appliances that afternoon from two to four o’clock. It was Wednesday after all. She started with the long face of the yellow refrigerator, then the matching dishwasher and, last, the companion yellow stove. Franny scrubbed its eyes out, too. Her hands, red and raw, were barely shaking now.
Franny’s mother called at quarter past four, as she often did to see what Franny was planning for dinner.“He loves my pot roast recipe,” her mother said. “Is that what you’re making?”
Franny had meant to, but she had not gone into the Piggly Wiggly after all, had not picked up a rump roast or papery onions or parsnips or hard, white potatoes. Instead, she had driven home slowly and carefully, looking for the landmarks Hank always emphasized: the Fortune Cookie, Suds & Duds, Eddie’s Pizzeria. “I’m making Salisbury steaks,” Franny said.
Her mother clucked her tongue. “Frozen dinners? Heavens.”
Franny looked down at her freshly mopped linoleum floor, saw paw prints by the door and stretched the phone cord until she could reach the spots to wipe them with a wet rag. “They’re Swansons,” Franny said. “Hank likes those. He said that’s okay.”
“But honey, you haven’t even been married a year.”
* * *
At quarter ’til five, Lily phoned again, which she almost never did, for Hank sometimes came home early, and whenever he found them talking he made it a point to use the newfangled, motor-roaring trash compactor in the kitchen, making it impossible for Franny to hear Lily. The school hallway where Lily worked must have lain vacant because Franny heard no yelling or laughing.
“Detention is over,” Lily said.
Franny swallowed. She shut her eyes.
“Are you still there?” Lily asked.
The kitchen smelled of bleach, too strong, as if nothing could ever get clean enough. “I’m here,” she whispered, sure Lily had not heard her. The dish towel hung limp over the back of a chair.
“You don’t belong with him,” Lily said. “Come home.”
* * *
(The memory broke, like stone tossed into silver water. “You don’t belong with him,” Lily had said last summer just before Franny married Hank, the same summer Lily and Franny spent their week at the cabin on Songbird Pond. Lily’s parents had purchased the two-room cabin in 1954. It had no hot water but plenty of chilly-bump cold, and a toilet that required a bucket for flushing, and a weather-beaten front door with a lock that did not work, that Lily claimed never had. Lily’s parents didn’t believe in shoulds; they let things be. The cabin was eighty-two miles from Franny’s and Lily’s hometown and just enough miles from nowhere that Franny and Lily did not hear the voice of anyone else for seven days, just the calling and answering of geese, loons, owls. If you walked fifty steps from the front porch, you came to a pond surrounded by wisps of cattail, rush, and sedge, a place that felt like nowhere else, where you could become lost or someone else or the person you were always meant to be.
In the cabin, Lily cracked open eggs and sizzled them into sunny- side. She poured corn bread batter into an old cast-iron skillet and made the concoction rise to moist and salty-sweet. She melted chocolate and heated milk and stirred them together into cocoa meant to be sipped on a cool night, held in a cup with both hands.
Hanging on the cabin walls and lying across the bed were gingham quilts, all hand-sewn by Lily’s now-dead grandmother, Ada, who had slowly lost her eyesight and was declared blind by age thirty-two. “You don’t need eyes to understand someone’s threads and fabric edges,” Ada had told Lily, and Lily had recounted to Franny during those seven days on Songbird Pond, when they had swum until their skin turned golden, slept against each other until daylight broke through windows, and talked until silence meant more than words.
This memory and all its petals opened then closed for Franny, like something with the will to bloom despite the immediate bite of an early but expected frost.)
* * *
At quarter ’til six, Franny dragged the hard, blue Samsonite suitcase from under the bed and across the Tang-orange carpet. She opened the drawers of the highboy and lifted out her stack of underwear, careful not to muss Hank’s side of the drawer, for now they shared every single drawer instead of having separate ones. Franny closed the drawer and sat on the edge of their double bed. The dog came in and curled up beside her feet. Franny smoothed her skirt over and over. She had spent too much time explaining to her mother why she wanted to come home for a visit but had not mentioned Lily or Lily’s call, for Franny’s mother had never liked Lily, said she should be wearing dresses instead of all those pants. “Hank’s been so busy at work,” Franny had said on the phone to her mother, “so so busy, and working nights and even weekends, and it’s important he make a good impression, and he needs to focus, and I just feel like a big distraction right now, and I don’t want him worrying about me—I can be so clumsy, you know how clumsy I am, I’ve always been clumsy, and I did the stupidest thing last night, so stupid you are just gonna laugh that I even did it.”
“You’re not driving in the dark. You’ll have to wait ’til morning. Did Hank say it was okay for you to go?”
“We haven’t really—”
“Who will feed him?” her mother asked.
“I-I can leave meals for him,” Franny said.
“Oh,” her mother said. “Not more frozen dinners, I hope.”
The dog was standing on its hind legs, scratching at the bedroom door.
* * *
When Hank came home, it was past nine, and his shirt was rumpled, his tie half undone. He was not wearing his suit jacket. He held out a box of Brach’s Contessa Chocolates. “I love you so much,” he said. “You know that, right?” The box was pink and red and falling open.
“What’s this?” she asked. Her stomach turned once, twice, like a dog chasing its tail.
“What, you don’t want them?” he said.
She reached for them. “No, it’s just—”
“Because I can take them back.” He held them high.
“I want them,” she said. She reached.
He held them higher.
“Stop it,” she said. “It’s not a game.”
He lowered his arms. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. At least give me a smile.”
She offered him a perfunctory one.
“That’s better,” he said, handing over the box. “Your mother called me.”
“She did?” The room smelled of wet dog, though the dog was nowhere in sight.
“Your mother doesn’t like it when you go back. I don’t either,” he said. “You should be here.”
“I just need some time.”
“Did Lily put you up to this?”
Her hands felt moist, the box of chocolates sticky.
He rubbed his eye with his fist. “Don’t, Franny. You don’t need Lily. She doesn’t know you like I do.”
Franny didn’t know who anyone was or had ever been.“You won’t even know I’m gone,” she said.
He took the box of chocolates from her and laid them on the edge of the coffee table. He put his arms around her. “Please,” he whispered, “I need you. I’ve always needed you. I thought you needed me. Your parents think we’re perfect together. Don’t you? I promise to make you happy, but I can’t make you happy if you won’t let me. Please.”
He held her against him, his shirt smelling faintly of Lucky Strikes, her father’s favorites, and she closed her eyes and nodded into Hank’s shirt.
“Good,” he said into her hair. “Good.” He squeezed her once before letting her go.
He pulled at his tie and flung it off. He strode toward the kitchen. “Where’s my girl?” he asked. “She outside?”
This story was originally published in Prime magazine.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of four books: the newly released story collection, A Small Thing to Want... the little advice book, 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17… the memoir, The Going and Goodbye... and her forthcoming poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry.
Click here to visit Shuly’s website.