(Dear Reader, have you missed any earlier scenes? Catch up with this link: Stalker)
Portland, Oregon. 1990.
What type of green fuzz is in this dusty, old, glass jam jar? I held the jar up to the morning sunbeam, coming through the basement window. I squinted, and crinkled my nose. Is it fungus? Dirt? Dried leaves?
Sunday mornings James went to visit his elderly mother. He was a good son, a good person. He never asked me to go with him; I got the treat of staying home. I didn’t mind. I didn’t know her. Sunday mornings was a good time for me to clean the house, to vacuum, do the laundry in our basement. Tend to my own needs. In private. It was my time.
What was I looking for in the basement? I don’t remember. But I was going through the workbench, picking through sawdust sprinkles on wood boxes and glass jars of loosely organized nuts and bolts. Some containers were lined up neatly, most were scattered around the wood saws and drills and clamps. James had ample equipment and tools; he was an accomplished woodworker. I saw the special jar in with the scrap wood. Out of place. That’s what caught my eye.
I had no business being in his workshop. If I needed anything, I could simply wait for him to be home in a few hours. But, I was curious. And this was my house, too, wasn’t it?
I peered more closely at the jar. It was filled with — could it be — pot? I rotated it, hoping for a more recognizable view. I hadn’t seen such a thing since parties in Patrick’s black-walled basement in the Bronx in another life, another universe. I jiggled the specimen in the sunbeam. I had never seen so much in one place. Yes, that must be it. It was pot. In my house. I wanted to weigh it — to check its legality — but I thought better of it. I put it back in its secret spot. Why was this a secret? Why did he keep this from me?
Probably, James has forgotten he even had it. He was like that: absent-minded. The jar was something left over from years ago. Probably. Or, maybe I didn’t know what I was seeing. I had never seen clumps of pot, not like this. Times had changed, apparently. I didn’t dare open this jar and sniff, to double-check. I might not remember exactly what it looked like, but I would know the smell of Central Park summer nights and dim apartments on Kingsbridge Road and the black-walled basements of not-quite-unsuspecting parents’ houses on Tenbroeck Avenue in the Bronx. Maybe I’ll just make believe I didn’t see this jar. Surely after the visit to the emergency room, he gave it up . . .
Don’t ask, don’t tell.
I went upstairs to my room for my Sunday nap. He could have the basement. I had the luxury and privacy of my own bedroom. More than enough walls in this house to go around, and keep each of us separate and safe from the other. I lay down. Turned on the television. Drifted off.
By the time James came home that afternoon, I had forgotten the jar.
If I have to watch one more episode of The Wheel of Fortune I’ll shoot myself. The children, it seemed, were not coming back to live with us: the purposeless of my days was settling in for me like an endless stretch of arctic winter. Each evening, after work, James cooked supper for him and me. Then we ate, in silence, each reading our own books or papers. Sometimes I asked him about his day. It was “fine.” Then he sat in his recliner in front of the television. Years before, each evening — we would eat supper and sip wine in bed and be together. Now, if I have to spend one more evening in front of the . . . with the children gone, surely I have something better to do than watch one more episode of . . .
I signed up for classes at the University. Many, many classes. Evenings, after work. Classes for credit. I should have done this years ago. James didn’t mind. He made it easy, he made it possible. Someone else to take care of the home front as I worked and went to class and wrote my term papers. I was grateful. I became accustomed to being out of the house more, to being in the city after dark, alone. I would soon earn my degree.
This is what I need. We are content. I could do this forever. I could be happy.
Thump. Right below my bedroom. So loud, it woke me. Sounded like a dead weight falling to the kitchen floor beneath me. The clock said 1:00 a.m. James was hosting his monthly poker night. What was the thump that sounded like a body dropping like a dead weight?
I flew down the stairs in my flannel nightgown, feeling my heart go crazy while my head stayed clear. From the bottom of the stairs, I could see down the hall — I could see that James must be on his back, on the floor by the sink: I could see his legs, nothing more yet. Just the lower part of his legs. Stretched straight out. They were still.
I headed to the kitchen: to the 1908 L-shaped gerrymandered kitchen with the irregular, narrow spaces and jagged-corner counters. Not childproof. Not drunk proof. I was at his side in an instance. He was stretched straight out on his back on the narrow wedge of linoleum in front of the sink. I bent down to him. His eyes were closed. His body perfectly still. I called his name. Nothing.
Was he alive, dammit?
. . . to be continued
Also — Stalker, the Music
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.