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There was a bronze plate and a bronze star fastened into the face of the wood. It was an Officer of the Month plaque. As she ran her hand over it, the stain and metal were cold and clung lightly to her fingertips like the surface tension of standing water.
The name on the plaque was not her husband’s. She replaced the block of wood exactly as it was.
Spending the afternoon behind dragged-out photo albums or old shaky home videos is a useless endeavor; she cannot face that alien earlier happiness, and she knows there is nothing to be gained from wayside memory.
It came down to one moment, all stacked together and weighed. There had been the moment before it, such a nondescript moment in the ranks of moments, and then just after, there was the moment, and she had known then in all finality that her husband had nothing left for her in his heart.
The crib in the garage. There were only two sides to it, and the sanded pine had turned grey. Something had always come up, there was always something to do, and now it would always remain unfinished. He had bought the tools the day she told him that the baby was a boy, back in Nevada, and he came home and the sounds of building had echoed out over the neighborhood. He had bought stencils of posing lions and juggling clowns to etch into the headboard on either side of a beaming sun. Five weeks later, the car flipped end over end, and they lost what they were meant to lose.
For some reason, they had brought the unfinished crib when they moved; she had seen him in his heavy bandages packing it into the back of the van and did not have it in her to say anything. They kept the crib in the new garage, and she was beginning to think it would always be there, in the garage of every house she ever tried to escape to.
The moment happened this morning:
It was early enough for the world to be a different color as she eased the garage door up along its track, and a steady needling of rain blew in from the East. From its corner the grey wood of the unfinished crib glimmered in a dank blue light. Wednesday, and the trash truck would be by very soon.
She dragged the grey wooden frame squeaking on its two wheels all the way to the curb. The rain had a mean cut to it, and it was a cold rain for June, so she ran back to the house. But she did not reach the cave of the garage before she saw her husband standing weightily just inside, watching her. She stopped just a few feet short of shelter.
The mood of his face was lost through morning shadows and a curtain of rain, but he was not coming toward her. She had been too flushed to speak; he raised his arm and pointed out to the curb. Then he turned back toward the interior doorway.
It was the first and only time that she had ever brought herself to yell at him. A curse flew from her mouth, and then her husband’s name.
As he spun to face her, it ended between them. She saw the crooked, ruddy burn of his eyes flash through a gap in the rain, his shoulders square away from hers while the bones of his arm jerked, she saw the hand brush the denim at his right hip, saw the hand discover no holster, no gun, saw the hand lightly lower back down. The whole motion might have meant nothing at all had he been anyone but her husband. Had he been anything but a policeman. He left her in the rain and went inside.
Oh God Oh God Oh God, she writes on a scrim of yellow legal paper, because she does not have a diary. Mutilated, Em, you are being mutilated
She throws the scrawling pen across the kitchen. It spins on the linoleum and disappears underneath the refrigerator. Eventually, she crumples the scrap of paper around the burner and lights the gas stove.
She feels as though she must be metal; she is cold and electric with these decisions. He is away, but will be back soon. Blood sogs dark stains through the crotch of her sweatpants. The pain is an asp in her body. Her vision comes in snapshots:
The design of wrinkles in the tarp she has spread out in the hall. The specific contour of the gouged gape she tears into the drywall with the claw of a hammer. The vertical bodies of studs, the bones of her house behind that wound. The easy plastic of the ammo shop bag dusted in flour, the static bulge of the weapon. The serious weight of the weapon.
Plastering up the hole is difficult work, but at the end her eyes are dry and cold and she lets herself blink a few times. The paint is old and has gotten a little darker in the can, and it doesn’t exactly blend with the wall, but it will have to do. Gathering up the tarp and tools, she then opens the east and west windows of the house, hoping that her project will dry before her husband returns.
The car does come. It is just after three in the morning, and she hears the patrol car coast in from the top of the hill, and the headlights shine over the trees in her view. She steps into the other room and turns off a table lamp and starts opening the rest of the windows. Then the wheels crunch slowly over the gravel in the driveway. The car rolls to a stop and remains there, idling. Through the blowing curtains, she can detect the foul smell that the car seems to drag with it, the harbor smell of the river and docks of the city. And soon the engine is killed and his feet grind the gravel as he steps out. The sound, like the crunch of seashells, as he walks to the front steps. She stands in the dark living room and watches the door open; he wanders through and it almost closes behind him.
He is not in his uniform, though he wore it when he left, fourteen hours prior. His hands are raised and appear ready to catch something if it were suddenly thrown at him.
Then her husband sees her standing in the other room. His posture sets and she can feel the brass rings of his shipwreck eyes lock with hers even through the dark. His face is shadow. He is all a standing shadow.
“Hello, Ben,” she says, as softly as she can and still be heard. The walls lean in more closely, the air humid and still.
Ben does not answer.
“I’ve missed you, Ben. Welcome home.”
The sound of skin stretching over itself rasps through the enclosed walls as his silhouette clenches and relaxes its fists again and again. She can hear nasal breathing out of rhythm with her own.