Over, over, done and over. Finished. Jon Kepilkowski scratched his scalp with his fingernails. He'd shampooed, rinsed, and repeated, scrubbed under his arms and between his toes, soaped every surface, brushed under his nails, squirted into his ears. The water gushing from the showerhead was cooling. Reluctantly, he twisted the tap shut and worked himself over roughly with a towel.
From the bedroom window he watched his wife as she knelt in the dirt, her face obscured by her hat, her hands busy beneath a clump of pink flowers he couldn't name. He'd known her for twenty years, longer even if you counted the first two years of high school when it wasn't so much that he'd been afraid to say "Hello" to her, but more that she'd been so far out of his league that it hadn't occurred to him that opening his mouth and emitting speech in her direction was even an option. He'd not, he recalled, even uttered "Excuse me" the time he'd accidentally bumped her with his lunch tray, the contact between the orange plastic and the green wool of her sweater so intimate, so electric it had instantly closed his throat and jump-started his heart. He'd pretended at the time, he confessed years later, though she had no memory of the incident, that he'd not even noticed the collision had occurred. When she turned with a slight, involuntary gasp to see who'd jabbed her in the ribs, he'd turned in the same direction, as if obliviously searching the line behind him for a friend.
This morning she'd have been up for hours already, taking advantage of the early coolness. He wished he could see her expression under the brim of the hat. As always in these past few months, whenever he'd been apart from her for a few hours, anxiety began to collect around the edges of his consciousness. Between the moment the night before when she'd shoved her book onto the nightstand, maneuvering it among the detritus--the glasses of dusty water, the uncapped tube of ChapStick, the broken earring, the hair clip, the crumpled Kleenex--between that moment and this, had she found him out? What face would she show him when she looked his way?
Impulsively, he twisted the latch and slid the window up with a little too much vigor. The sash banged against the frame. "Gin!"
She turned, tilting her head back, squinting up at him with her hooded eyes, then drew back suddenly, feigning shock. "Hey! There's a naked man in my house! Get out, naked man! Get away from my window!" She kept her voice low, for him, alone.
He sighed, safe. "Maybe you'd like to come up?"
She laughed and turned back to the pink flowers.
He hadn't meant it as a joke. His relief had triggered desire, and he was vaguely, if, he acknowledged, unreasonably, irritated by her response.
He dressed in long shorts and a white T-shirt and Velcroed on the sort of shoes useful for splashing across shallow rivers. Since he'd started working at the agency, he'd decided that the button-down shirts and khakis he'd favored at the start of his career made him look like a little boy playing dress up and had abandoned that costume for one less earnest, one definitely but not too aggressively cool, as much to remind himself of who he was, or was trying to be, as to signal this to others. It wasn't a dull style, but nor was it, he recognized with some disappointment, the least surprising. He'd let his hair grow and curl midway down his neck, wore the jeans the world liked to see on an art director and, on summer workdays, European sandals that would have made his father sneer.
He retrieved the laptop he'd pushed under the bed the night before. One message from Kyle, his brother. Seven work-related messages, beginning with one from Kaiser, sent at four a.m., just before that lunatic had gone to bed, no doubt. Three from Freddi. He felt his pulse quicken. Better to have left the machine cold. Even now it was not too late to let it sleep, snap the cover down, slide the thing into its case ready to transport into work on Monday.
He carried it into the second bedroom, which functioned as his office, and gently shut the door. He fingered the Return key for a few seconds, savoring the anticipation. The first from Freddi was some copy ideas for Ballast Bank, some serious, some silly; none, he saw immediately, workable. The second read: "I hate weekends." The third: "I can almost sense you here beside me on the bed, your warm largeness, your flipper-like feet, your brown-sugar eyes. You are the bittersweet chocolate to which I press my tongue. I send you kisses for your lips and elsewhere. Good night."
He closed his eyes, allowed himself to swell with the thought of her. She resembled a fox, with her pale brown eyes that tended to amber; her small, very white teeth; her smooth, reddish hair; her tight, muscular body. He found the whole combination of sharpness and softness immensely attractive. But it was the way she looked at him that pushed him over the edge; her gaze told him that the two of them were the only ones in on it, whatever it was, the joke, the plan, the skinny. She had chosen him and he'd basked in it, rolled in it, lapped it up. She was like sugar, like nicotine; the more he got, the more he wanted. No, it wasn't over, done, finished. He craved her.
"My lips miss you," he typed, and then paused. "Elsewhere misses you, too." He paused again, absently pulling one of the antique fountain pens from the jarful he kept on his desk. He played with it, capping and uncapping it, rolling its smooth Bakelite case between his fingers. He couldn't think without something in his hands. And then, too, he always felt a little self-conscious writing to her. Words were her thing, not his.
"A kiss on your heart," he typed, inspired, "and one lower down, much lower." It was a line Napoleon had used in a letter to Josephine. He'd heard it on a PBS documentary last night. "You are so . . ." he began.
Ginny, long-legged and stealthy, despite her large bones, stood in the doorway in her garden uniform, the sleeves of one of his discarded T-shirts rolled up to her shoulders, the elastic waistband of her shorts supplemented with a safety pin, her dark hair springing free from its noose.
His heart exploded--the blast of adrenaline actually pained him--and his hand trembled as he reached to close the window of his message. Easy. Not guiltily fast. Stupid to have closed the door and shut out the sound of her bare feet on the carpeted stairs.
The cover made a tiny metallic click as it kissed the keyboard.
"More orders from headquarters, huh?"
He knew it was a point of pride with her not to allow herself to be suspicious; she would not be one of those women who worried about holding on to her husband.
"Your mother said I'd better keep my eye on you," she'd said just last month, as they drove through the blackness after an evening at Kyle and Paula's. "Like you were some caged bird ready to fly the coop the moment I turned my back on the door." She'd looked out the window as she spoke, her head tipped back, as though she were searching the night sky for a bird that had indeed flown.
"My mother," he'd said, his tone implying a roll of the eyes.
He could sense that she had turned her face toward him, though he'd kept his own eyes firmly on the ever-receding tunnel of light on the highway ahead.
"Does she know something I don't?" she asked.
It occurred to him to confess. Not to the whole of his crime but to a small degree of it. He might say he was worried that Freddi was attracted to him. It would be like opening a valve just a fraction, not so much that it would all escape but enough to gradually relieve the pressure. It would mean the end, of course, of late nights "working," of long lunches during which he could honestly say, "I'm with Freddi," without fear of arousing suspicion. It would mean the end of it all. It was a safe way out. He turned and, while his heart throbbed hard enough to choke him, looked at her full-on for two entire seconds, enough time to kill them both, if something unexpected had appeared on the highway. But, finally, he faced forward again. "Of course not."
"I suppose people who've behaved badly themselves tend to be suspicious of everyone else."
"Probably." He wished he could close his eyes to block out the shame.
"Well," she said, smiling, "you'd better never force me to use my wiles."
He laughed. She had always been the most guileless person he'd ever known. It was one of the things he loved best about her.
A near miss, he'd thought at the time. And he had resolved all the way home that it was finished with Freddi, that he'd learned his lesson. He made love to his wife that night with a fierce exuberance released by a nearly clear conscience. The lying was over, he'd assured himself. He loved Ginny. The thought of losing her had filled him with a dark and breathless panic the whole night through.
But by Monday, a bright, cheerful, cloudless day, the panic had seemed far away, a small, irretrievable flutter in the distance. At work Freddi had leaned over him and laughed at something he'd said, and her skin had exuded a scent he wished he could breathe forever.
And now here he was, trapped in his study with the evidence under his fingers and Ginny's large frame blocking the door. How had he gotten ink on his hands? "Just gonna wash up quick, and then I'm ready." He stood up, raising his eyebrows at her expectantly.
"Ready?" She cocked her head, pushing a damp curl behind her ear. Her finger left a smudge along her cheek.
"To go to Summerfest." He frowned. "What we're doing today."
She clapped both hands on the top of her head and made the face he used laughingly to call "the Lucy." An expression he now thought of privately as "the fuckup."
"What?" He sounded impatient, but what he felt was desperate. He'd conceived of this plan, this revisiting of a scene from their youth, a time when they'd been, it seemed to him now, simply, vigorously happy, because he urgently needed to see her again as he once had, to remind himself of the pull of her, of the way the very thought of her had once possessed him, so that he turned always toward her, helplessly, like a flower on its stalk in the presence of the sun. He wanted to remember how it had felt to be certain that he must have her, her and no other, that only her promise to be with him forever could keep him breathing. Although, of course, he no longer felt this way with any immediacy, until recently, until Freddi, he'd nevertheless been sure that he was still connected to those early impulses, as if by a long, unbreakable, ever-unwinding thread. If he couldn't relive them, he could still see their colors and textures at the inception of all, good and bad, that had come since. Now, though, he was unmoored. Pursuing Freddi, a bright flash in the thickets, he'd let the thread slip from his grasp and he couldn't seem to grab hold of it again.
"Summerfest!" she exclaimed. The surprise on her face made him want to hit something. "Are you sure we were going today?"
He never needed to say anything in these situations. She would play the idea out, letting it loop and twist, until she snagged something solid. "I remember talking about it, but I thought we'd settled on Sunday. Or maybe that we hadn't really decided." She closed her eyes, pressed her palm on her forehead, and exhaled. "Oh, I should have written it down. Maybe I even did write it down. Probably I did. But you know I never check my calendar on the weekends." She opened her eyes, facing the facts. "Shoot, I screwed it up, didn't I? I'm sorry, Jon. I completely forgot."
Her contrition always disarmed him. He reached forward and put his hand on her shoulder. Her skin retained the warmth of the sun that had been baking it. "No big deal. We can go in an hour. Take your time."
"But I've scheduled two meetings for today."
"I can't cancel at the last minute. And one's with Nora. You know how impossible it is to schedule with her, now that she's got Prince Rodney."
He wanted to remind her that she was canceling with him at the last minute. "So we're not going."
"Well, how about tomorrow? Couldn't we go tomorrow instead? Is there some band you wanted to see tonight? Did you get tickets?"
No, he hadn't gotten tickets and he didn't care particularly about the bands. In fact, tomorrow might even be better in that Kyle had said something about showing up there today and listening to Kyle go on about paintball and Paula talk about the new drapes in the family room was close to the last thing he wanted for this outing. There was no good reason they couldn't change their plans to Sunday, except that he didn't want to. He'd planned on today; he'd ascribed redemptive powers to today; today was it.
"I don't like this, Ginny. Why should Nora and your work come before me? You're taking me for granted." God, he sounded like a women's magazine.
She stared at him, triumph lighting her face. "You're kidding, right? Mr. I've-Got-to-Stay-at-the-Office-Until-Two-a.m. Mr. I've-Got-to-Take-This-Call-It's-Kaiser." Her tone was light, singsongy, mocking. Never show anger when sarcasm would do, that was her weapon. It made him clench his fists. "Mr. Freddi-and-I-Have-to-Work-Today-You-Go-to-Your-Parents'-Alone."
His blood seemed all to run to his head, leaving his body cold. That had been two weeks ago, a family picnic. And they had been late with the McTeague concepting. They had! He couldn't keep his eyes on her any longer. He looked away. There on the desk was the laptop, its secrets crouching under the lid, ready to spring into the light.
Before he could respond, she raised her hand. "No, listen, it's my fault," she said, shaking her head. "I wasn't paying enough attention. I'll go call Nora and these other people. Maybe Sunday will work just as well for them." She turned and started down the stairs. This, too, was her weapon, striking like a snake and then slipping away before they could have it out. He wanted to reach for her, to grab her by the shoulders and hold her there, to beg for her help in fixing this whole mess, but he managed only to follow her to the top of the stairs, where he stood and watched her make her way down.
Stairs, especially going down, were the most difficult for her to negotiate. On flat surfaces, her limp was almost imperceptible, but stepping down she had to lean hard on the rail and her left foot fell onto each tread with a stomp, while her right, the one that belonged to the leg that was now ever so slightly shorter than the other, made no sound at all.
Usually he didn’t even notice; he was so accustomed to her gait. Today, though, the sound, the way she jerked her head and shoulder, reminded and reminded him of what he would always owe her, especially when it was beginning to seem that what he had done in an impulsive moment twenty years ago may have cost them a family.
She was looking up at him from the bottom of the stairs, and he could tell that she had changed her mind again. “You know what, Jon?”
He hated it when she used that self-righteous tone.
“I’m not going to rearrange my appointments. Maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled them, but I did. You know, I have a job and it’s just as important to me as your job is to you.”
“I know your job is important–”
“We can go to Summerfest tomorrow.”
He came down the stairs then, descending into her hard gaze and meeting it with his own. Halfway down, he felt a twinge, a sort of sizzle deep within his ankle, the remains of a basketball injury he’d sustained, what, six months ago? The older he got, the longer these things took to heal.
“You know what, Ginny?” he said, as he passed her, his voice dishonestly pleasant. “You do whatever you want.” It was a relief to feel angry with her, not guilty, not anxious, not sad, just angry.
He kept walking, down the hall, through the kitchen, through the door that led to the garage.
“Where are you going?” she demanded. “Jon! Where are you going?”
But he let her question roll off him. He didn’t know the answer anyway.
He backed out of the garage fast and stomped on the accelerator as soon as he hit the street. Next door, the Murphys, raking little mounds of cut grass into city-approved brown-paper lawn-clipping bags, turned to watch him go by, narrowing their eyes. For years, he had tried his best with them. He’d waved and greeted, tossed their newspaper from the sidewalk to the stoop, once re-boxed their recycling when the wind had scuttled it, but they never smiled at him. Fuck them.
“Fuck you and you, too,” he said, staring back at them through the side window.
What was this world-music shit? He leaned on the tuner, letting it gallop up and down the stations. Anything, anything, but this.
The Murphys liked Ginny. Even though she laughed when he mocked them in private, checking over her shoulder to be sure the windows were shut tight. Everyone liked Ginny.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwarz. Copyright © 2008 by Christina Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.