FICTION: The Next Closest Thing by Tricia Theis

What hair Hal had left was dark and cropped. His shorts were cut from a pair of worn out Levis and hung low on his hips. White strands dangled where they’d been cut and stuck to the sweat on his thighs. His chest sunk in at his sternum giving him an attenuated look that belied his strength. He slung a mustard yellow t-shirt over his shoulder and used it to wipe the sweat from his face and brow as he mowed the lawn so the straight lines overlapped. He was particular in his yard work.

Marion stood in the TV room ironing her uniform. The television was tuned to professional bowling and the tumbling pins punctuated the silence of the room. She spritzed the white slacks with distilled water, the iron sizzling as she pressed them to form creases. Squishing her toes into the orange shag rug, she looked up during the commercials to watch her husband through the curtains.

The straight lines Hal plowed into the grass maddened her. She knew the simmering anger in her gut was misplaced. The iron heavy in her hand, she made a silent vow to fuck him. Their sex life, compared especially to that of her girlfriends and their husbands, was active. She chose not to acknowledge why. Any guilt she felt about it she pushed away when she gabbed with her friends over coffee. Instead she smiled—her lips like coy commas. She secretly felt superior to her friends who insisted they needed half a bottle of merlot to even consider having sex with their husbands.

*****

Hal maneuvered the lawn mower around the horseshoe pits avoiding the dirt he’d piled when excavating the hole for the swimming pool. Carved into the sloping yard, the hole was twenty-four feet across. He dug the ditch so the water would be five feet down in the middle and four around the sides. One night before he had a chance to fill the bottom of the hole with sand and put in the blue liner, he found his wife swooping a metal detector across the dirt by the light of the moon.

He watched her from the back porch as she swung her blue metallic machine to and fro, stooping to dig with a trowel when the machine beeped in her ears. Moths tormented the yellow light near his head. The large puffy headphones on his wife’s ears reminded him of Minnie Mouse. It amused and aroused him.

The night he found her in the hole he lay on the bed with his eyes closed when she snuck back into their bedroom. The clock face glowed orange. Two fifteen. Her body was cool when she brushed her breasts against him in an effort, he knew, to rouse him. They made love on top of their brown polyester bedspread. Plastic threads where the quilting had come undone got tangled in Hal’s toes. The fan rotated lazily and unbalanced above them, filling the room with a rhythmic hum. He stifled his grunts as he thrust up into her, grabbing her ass as she straddled him. Sex for Hal was not just physical, but came from a desire to know his wife; to understand her.  He wanted his wife to suck him up inside her.

Marion rode him. When she was done, she unceremoniously rolled off and turned away, the musk of them filling the room. He curled around her and put his hand on her hip. He tried to talk, but she mumbled something about waking up early the next day. She petted him like a dog on the hand in thanks for the screw and cocooned into herself under a thin tan sheet. She fell asleep before Hal had the chance to wipe himself off.

Marion always came when she had sex with her husband. Hal faked it sometimes. He held back—the anticipation of orgasm somehow more agonizingly sweet than ejaculation.

Marion found she loved her husband when suspended there in that deep and too-brief blissful state. At the very least, she appreciated the security he offered. His salary; their house; their daughter; their safe suburban lifestyle she could hide in.

*****

Hal and Marion lived in a tidy rancher on a dead end street. Unlike the other houses in the circle, theirs was tucked back a short distance from the road. Hal, who worked as a lineman for the phone company, had lined their winding driveway with telephone poles. After cutting them into shorter logs he buried them vertically deep into the dirt and cemented them at varying heights to create a border for his garden. He’d collected the poles one by one, and piled them near the house in a neat pyramid until he had enough to work with. He yelled at the neighborhood kids when they climbed on them playing King of the Mountain. He worried they would slip and the poles would roll onto them.

It was painstaking work putting in the border. It took the better part of a summer. When he was done, he painted three discarded buoys he’d found at the marina in red and white stripes. He hung them from a nail on the tallest post out near the street with their house number tacked below.

Their yard was large. Hal could work there for hours while Marion smoked cigarettes and played solitaire before her nightshift at the hospital.

Outside Hal felt like he could breathe. He dug holes. Moved dirt.

Evenings while Marion worked, their daughter Jenny shrieked with her friends shouting UNO or GO FISH! They argued, it seemed to Hal, over everything and nothing. He retreated to the back yard and tossed a tennis ball as far as he could across the lawn for their excitable dog. Over and over again as the sky grew dusky, he threw it until he could barely see it hidden in the grass—almost but not quite phosphorescent.

*****

Years passed in this manner.

Hal raked leaves in autumn with the same precision he mowed the grass. Unfolding a cream-colored drop cloth squarely across the lawn, he piled it with leaves.

When it was full, Hal called Jenny from her game of Kick-the-Can and she came running from her hiding spot. The two of them carried the leaves into the way back of the yard—The Back Forty, as he called it—and dumped the leaves beneath the silver maples.

“Wait a minute,” he said before his daughter could run back to her game. He finished raking the pile out flat and purposefully explaining that it would help it to compost.

“Take that side.”

He employed his daughter in the folding of the tarp so he could stash it neatly in the garage. He straightened and tucked it like it was an American flag intended for presentation to the widow of a veteran at a funeral, then finally sent his daughter back to her game.

****

Marion took a job as a nurse at the local Jai-Alai arena. When she wasn’t at the E.R., she worked in a small but well-equipped nursing station upstairs from the courts tending to injured athletes.

Watching the Yankees game in the evenings when she worked, Hal taught his daughter to stand and put her hand over her heart during the National Anthem. He snacked on sardines and crackers, but when he offered some to Jenny, she turned up her nose.

When Jenny asked when her mother would be home, Hal launched into a detailed explanation of Jai Alai, telling her that at one hundred miles per hour, it was the fastest sport with a ball. “Injuries can be much worse than what an athlete might incur in a baseball game.”

Hal jokingly called it Jay-Alay, but he didn’t hide the pride in his voice when he told his daughter, “Your mother is doing important work.”

He knew Marion worked hard, even if he felt an impotent kind of jealousy towards the athletes whose bruises she poulticed.

*****

Jenny grew up. Marion left her job at the hospital to help one doctor open a walk-in medical clinic.

Her resignation caused a rift between Marion and some of the other nurses who told her she was making a mistake. That she was giving up something secure and she’d be sorry. Marion knew that Jenny, at twelve, was old enough now to stay home alone after school for a few hours. She followed the lead of Dr. Tunkle despite her friends’ objections, though the doctor who funded the endeavor with two of his colleagues would prove to benefit most from it.

On the weekends before it opened, Marion and Jenny helped paint the exam rooms pale shades of salmon and green. “Sweat equity,” the doctor called it, and told Jenny to call him Uncle Tunkle.

Jenny liked the doctor. He helped her hold the brush when edging the windows, and showed her how to run the bristles along the lip of the can to wipe off the excess paint. He showed her how to spackle holes and drill new ones. He was as exacting as her father, but when he held her hand on the end of the drill while mounting the x-ray light box, it didn’t bother her to feel his breath behind her ear.

After a long day of prepping the new facility while waiting for her mother who was chatting with the other nurses, Jenny sat in the break room eating a Kit Kat bar. Uncle Tunkle practiced tapping her knees with his reflex hammer. He had folded Jenny’s Bermuda shorts above her knee exposing the blonde hairs there that her mother had told her she didn’t need to shave.

When Marion came in to gather her daughter, the doctor spun around in his chair. Jenny noticed the look on his face. A rush of something kind of like heat and kind of like shame, but also power surged through her.

*****

When the walk-in opened, Marion worked a lot. Urgent care was far more successful than the nurses at the ER had predicted and some of them applied for jobs.

She made Jenny a key to the house. On the days she went in early, she left cold

spaghetti in a bowl on the counter and a note that read, “Soup’s on!”

Jenny often forgot the key. On those days, she’d get it from the neighbor. One time, finding the neighbor’s door unlocked, she let herself in. She meant to grab the key from its hook in the kitchen, but when she heard a sound coming from down the hallway—a sort of huff-huffing—she followed it.

She tiptoed down the hall and peered around the door to the room. A woman sat atop her neighbor on the bed. Her hands lay flat against his chest and her tanned breasts swayed pendulously as she bounced on him. Jenny stared and the woman let out a little yelp when she saw her. Jenny’s mouth guppied, but no words came out. She ran. The woman whisper-yelled, “A little girl, goddammit!”

Jenny hid in her garage until evening looking at the old issues of National Geographic her father kept in a trunk. Someone had defaced them by writing dirty words in thought bubbles above the heads of the naked tribeswomen breastfeeding their babies, and men holding spears with their peckers wrapped in leaves.

When she got inside that night she was starving. She opened the jar of peanut butter and ran her finger through it, forming a big dollop. She grabbed a jar of rainbow sprinkles from the Lazy Susan and poured them onto the brown goo. She sucked her finger and did it again and again. Sitting in a chair from the kitchen table, she tucked herself into the corner of the room where a small television sat on the formica counter and watched Wheel of Fortune through the rolling static on the screen.

*****

Marion started to limp. Months of testing pointed to an autoimmune disorder. Hal attempted to coddle her, but Marion wouldn’t have it. At work one evening, Dr. Tunkle chided her when he saw her limping in the hallway.

“Keep up or keep out, Marion.”

He was looking over his glasses at an x-ray of a pair of lungs on the light box.

Marion was holding a tray tube rack full of blood vials. She turned toward the doctor and took a breath.

“Excuse me, Doctor?”

The doctor swiveled in his chair. The other nurses stopped what they were doing. Her friend Betsy undid the tourniquet on a patient’s arm with a rubber snap, and pressed a cotton ball there to stem the pinprick of blood. She never took her eyes of Marion.

“Is there a problem with my performance on this job, Dr. Tunkle?”

Betsy whispered, “Marion, no.”

“As a matter of fact there is, Marion.”

Marion carried the blood vials to the doctor doing nothing to conceal her limp. She looked the doctor up and down. He flinched when she reached a hand towards his face. She touched his bow tie running the back of her pointer finger across the ribbon of it with her nail. She spoke quietly.

“Your fucking tie is pretentious, Doctor.”

The doctor didn’t budge.

“And your bedside manner is atrocious.”

Marion briefly considered throwing the blood vials at the doctor, but ultimately she didn’t want to create more work for the nurses who were her friends, or make the patients come back to have their blood re-drawn. She thought about one little girl who had Down syndrome. She had fought and yelled when Marion drew her blood, snot sliding down her smooth round face, her mother tense and apologetic. She didn’t want to do that to those people in particular.

Marion whispered into the doctor’s ear.

“First do no harm.”

She thrust the tray at him making sure the doctor grabbed onto it before she let go. She ripped the blue rubber gloves from her hands and threw them at the doctor’s feet. They made an unsatisfying thwap when they hit the floor.

“Thank you for the opportunity, Doctor. I quit.”

She turned and went to the break room to gather her things. Betsy followed. Together the women gathered frozen diet meals from the freezer. Marion handed off the boxes of Girl Scout cookies she had ordered from one of the nurse’s daughters.

“Give these to the other girls.”

Betsy hugged her.

“He’s an asshole, Marion. And after all you’ve done for him.”

Betsy pulled back with her hands on Marion’s arms, tilted her head and sighed. Marion raised her shoulders in a shrug and smiled resolutely at her friend.

She drove home slowly. When Marion finally pulled into the driveway, she sat there smoking a cigarette. She could feel Hal watching her from the chair by the picture window. She picked at a scab on her upper arm. She had two of them that never healed completely because she always opened them up again with her nails.

She was surprised when Hal walked out door. He was backlit and looked especially tall and thin. He tried the passenger side door. Marion leaned over and unlocked it.

The two of them had been married coming on twenty years, but acted nervous within the confines of the Crown Vic, a car that in a grand gesture Hal bought for Marion’s last birthday, surprising even himself. He slid into the blue velour seat beside her.

“Marion. Let’s drive.”

When she pulled along the beach, Marion put the car in park and they idled there looking out at the water of Long Island Sound. They could see the lights from Port Jeff across the dark expanse. Neither spoke for a long while.

Finally, Hal reached over and put his hand on Marion’s thigh. Marion felt a flash come up from deep inside. She turned towards him. She envisioned him taking her into the spacious back seat where they wouldn’t have to talk, but when she looked at him he had tears in his eyes.

“Marion, I’m seeing someone.”

Marion’s back straightened. She felt his hand land hot, flat, and heavy on her leg, and goosebumps prickled her arms. She gagged. Alarmed, Hal pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, and held it out in front of her like a basket. Composing herself, Marion looked at her husband and pushed his hands away.

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Marion, I didn’t mean for this—“

“Stop it, Hal. I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Hal was unsure how to proceed.

She wished he had taken her into the backseat.

“Well, it’s not as if—,” she broke herself off. “It’s not as if I’ve been here for you.”

“I don’t intend to leave you, Marion. I just need to be honest. I haven’t slept with her. We haven’t even kissed. But we held hands, Marion. We’ve talked. I’ve talked with her. At the diner, on my lunch breaks. Last month when I went hunting I left a day early. I didn’t sleep with her, Marion, but we stayed up all night talking. Just—”

“Hal, please.”

“I can’t lie to you, Marion. I can’t lie.”

Marion knew exactly who it was—the mother of her daughter’s friend. She’d seen her eyeing Hal at one of Jenny’s awards ceremonies at school.

“Amy’s mother.”

Hal looked at her, the confirmation on his face.

“Well, I don’t know why you didn’t sleep with her, Hal.”

She seemed more annoyed than mad.

“I’m going to walk home.”

Marion left the keys in the ignition and got out of the car.

“I love you, Marion,” Hal called after her. “I love Jenny.”

“I know, Hal.”

Marion didn’t turn around.

Hal watched her limp away in the dark.

*****

Marion moved out. She bought a condo on the other side of town. She signed for it before it was built and had the entire first floor carpeted in a mauve-y rose that she and Jenny picked out of a big binder full of fluffy samples. She renewed her RN license so she could answer phone calls on a per diem basis for a nursing line. The people who called mainly wanted to know whether or not they needed to go to the hospital.

“I’m still a nurse,” she’d say to no one in particular.

Drinking coffee at the kitchen table she told a friend, “I just do it while sitting down.”

Jenny lay on the rug in the TV room with her feet on the couch watching back-to-back episodes of Cops.

“Best of both worlds,” her friend said.

The women clinked their coffee cups, but neither of them smiled.

*****

One weekend, when she was staying with her father, Jenny lay in the grass out beyond The Back Forty. Kenny, who had moved into the house behind them, lay on top of her, his hand down the front of her pants.

Within months of his arrival, Kenny had won over most of the eighth grade boys at school by keeping a handwritten list of girls he wanted to have sex with. The boys discussed it loudly on the school bus. Who to add; who not to; who to cross off because they were “done.”

For reasons she couldn’t quite say, she was disappointed when Kenny whispered harshly, “You’re not on the list.”

Jenny didn’t say anything. Kenny was pulling her pubic hair. Hard.

“You like that?”

She was surprised to find that she did. She pushed her groin up into him in reply.

“I can’t fuck you, beautiful. You’re my neighbor. I know your dad.”

“You know Amy’s dad, and you fucked her.”

Jenny and Amy weren’t very close anymore, but one day on the bus Amy slid into the seat next to Jenny and told her, “I did it. I’m not a virgin.” She smiled triumphantly and nodded towards Kenny. “It huuuurt. I bled. He used a towel.”

Jenny stared back at Amy. Her voice was a question, “Congratulations?”

From the back of the bus the boys shouted Amy’s name followed by, “Done!”

Behind the carriage house, Kenny’s face was close to Jenny’s. She could feel the damp air from his nose when he exhaled on her cheek.

“So you want me to fuck you then. Is that it?”

Jenny shrugged. The grass was staining the back of her shirt.

A lawn mower revved to life. She knew it was her father. Kenny heard it, too.

“Daaaaa-dyyyy,” he teased.

He pulled harder at the hair between her legs. She could feel pieces of it coming off in his hand. She made a noise that could be construed as either pleasure or pain. She wasn’t sure which herself.

“That’s it,” he plunged a finger up inside her. “I can’t fuck you,” he said apologetically, “but I can do this.”

It hurt, but Jenny thrust her pelvis against his consolatory hand anyway. She was half pissed off and half turned on. Disgusted and compelled.

Kenny squeezed Jenny’s side with his free hand.

“Mmm…squishy,” he snarled.

He pressed his mouth against hers and left a strand of spittle hanging between them when he pulled away, smiling at his trick.

“Maybe I oughta’ fuck you after all.”

Jenny could hear the lawn mower grow louder and then softer again as her father pushed the machine back and forth across the yard.

“Maybe you oughta’,” she said. She felt less confident than her words, but when she saw Kenny hesitate, she realized they had given her at least a little power.

Kenny considered it.  He looked up in the direction of Jenny’s yard. When Hal pushed the lawn mower towards them they could see his bright yellow noise canceling headphones in the growing dark as his head bobbed with his steps.

Kenny rolled off of her.

“Naaaahhh. Better not.”

Jenny lay there looking at the lamp light on the back of Kenny’s garage feeling dejected and a little relieved. She could hear him unzipping his pants.

“You can watch though. If you want.”

Kenny licked his hand. She watched him as he jerked himself off. His face was distorted and ugly in the shadow from the overhead light.

When he was done they said nothing. She listened to him breathing. Eventually he spoke.

“Can I use that?”

He pointed to Jenny’s backpack. It had a pink bandana tied to one of the straps. She undid it and tossed it at him. Kenny wiped himself with it and tossed the bandana into the woods.

“I’d give it back, but—you don’t want it.”

“Thanks,” Jenny said.

The mowing stopped as abruptly and unceremoniously as it had started.

“I better go inside,” he said.

They could smell something good coming from inside his house.

“Dinner.”

Jenny nodded.

“Soup’s on,” she said.

He gave her a funny look.

She stood and adjusted her clothes, walked the path of one of her father’s perfect rows back towards her house.

“There you are!”

Jenny emerged from the darkness. Hal snatched the tennis ball from where it lay in the grass and tossed it to his daughter. Jenny caught it and tossed it back to him. He tossed it again. And so did she.

Next thing she knew, they were playing. When Hal pitched a wild throw she raced for it then tossed it underhand back to him. He pretended to wind up like a pitcher for the Yankees and threw it back again.

Hal smiled.

Jenny tried not to.

The dog didn’t know which way to run.

The air was damp and salty.

The game of toss was a kind of goodbye.

Tricia Theis

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Tricia Theis lives in the United States in Baltimore, MD, with her husband, two children, and their two dogs. When she is not reading or writing, Tricia spends her time taming chaos, driving people places, ostensibly doing laundry, definitely doing dishes, remaining active with social justice work in Baltimore, and working as a freelance writer. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Baltimore, and an Asstistant Editor for The Tishman Review.

Tricia Theis

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