Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Not Enough to Fall 

 

 

Getting things done in the apartments was difficult four times a year, a seasonal job, so being busy like he was in mid-summer saddened Henry Rudolph. During a stretch of sunny weather perfect for morning golf, three of the four tenants had moved out, and his wife Emma was upset at how it looked. “Henry,” she said, “nobody with eyes in their head will take these rooms.”

“Now, now,” Rudolph said.

“Anybody’d think it’s roaches emptied these rooms. Or rats.” Rudolph waited for his wife to finish. “You’ll see, Henry. You’ll see who we get, all those rooms empty at the same time like it was a disease we had here.”

“There’s still Shafer downstairs.”

“Shafer drinks. Whoever comes will sure enough be the kind who checks the garbage and finds out why Shafer doesn’t mind staying when the world goes empty all around him.” Never once had Rudolph seen prospective tenants rooting through the garbage, but he didn’t say anything. He knew the White Satin gin bottles were there if somebody like Emma took a mind to looking for them. “Instead of mooning around over missing eighteen holes,” she went on, “you tell me who’s going to take those rooms. We’re going to have problems, and paying good money to walk on somebody else’s well-kept lawn will be the first thing to go.”

“Now, now,” Rudolph said, but he thought she might be right, even if nobody checked the garbage. He hadn’t been worrying about anything except having to go in and clean those three places all in a row, two of them upstairs where the early August heat would bend him double even before lunch.

Emma had the books to keep, but she loved filling in the numbers for expenses and incomes. Sometimes she took down an old ledger and looked at it like she was holding a photo album. “Look here,” she’d say, “remember when we installed that furnace in the back of the garage so we could rent the upstairs? And here’s how much the shingles cost when you ended up on that roof with a thunderstorm rolling in. I can still see you scuttling up there like a crab.”

Still, in the afternoon he checked all of the appliances to make sure they wouldn’t embarrass Emma in front of would-be renters. He flushed toilets and listened for trouble in the water. He tried all of the lights and replaced one bulb in a bedroom, imagining it guaranteed a deposit by the end of the week.

Outside, Emma was hanging wash in the yard between their house and the one converted into four apartments. She insisted on hanging laundry, relying on the dryer only in winter when it was snowing or so cold the clothes would freeze.

She wouldn’t sneak in and check up on him until the basket was empty. ”The wrinkles will set,” she’d said a thousand times, and Rudolph was happy for that as he lay down on the bed where Mrs. Hench the widow had been sleeping four days ago. All of these sixty year-old women with dead husbands. One after the other they boarded here for six months, a year, and then packed up and left for Florida or one of those villages where old women swarmed. He was fifty-six, and his golf league had lost half a foursome just this summer. These survivors, not much older than Emma, made him shudder.

 

That evening a woman who looked to be his age and her mother put down a deposit. “It’s a hop,” Emma said after they’d driven off. “Now we need the step and the jump to get over this.”

Rudolph wondered how their men had died. “They don’t look like drinkers,” he said.

“No, they don’t. Sure enough they don’t look like drinkers, which we have enough of already. Thank God nothing sprung in the pipes when the old lady flushed.”

Rudolph thought their luck was holding the next day when a couple who were getting married that weekend put down money to hold the upstairs north until they got back from their honeymoon. They hadn’t seemed to notice how hot the bedroom was, tucked under the roof so the slant made even children hunch over if they stood near the window to get some air. The new wife was slim-hipped and firm-breasted, and he hoped there would be days left in late summer when she sunbathed. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Emma said. “Kids like those two don’t know anything about taking care of a place.”

The kids were back in a week. Not much of a honeymoon, Rudolph thought, when they told him they’d been to Lake Erie. “Who’d want to go to Lake Erie anymore?” he asked Emma while they watched the newlyweds haul boxes. He didn’t see a set of clubs going up the stairs, but he’d played thirty-six holes the day before to celebrate the rentals, and he’d managed two rounds in the mid-80s and a pair of double cheeseburgers without calling up chest pains in the night.

The bride, it turned out, had a slight limp from a car accident she’d been in with her husband the winter before. Somebody else might have missed noticing, but Emma picked it out right away. “You rent, you pay attention,” she said.

“It’s when we decided to get married,” the husband said when Rudolph asked about the accident. “Carol was in the hospital with her leg crushed, and we saw it was a sign.”

Emma nodded. “I don’t follow you,” Rudolph said.

“We were meant to share things.” Rudolph thought for a moment that even Emma had missed something in the way this man talked. “The big moments,” the husband went on. “Birth. Marriage. Near death.”

Rudolph remembered when he had spent a whole week reading stories about the big moments. His family, the summer he was eleven, had driven to Michigan. Most of the time they had stayed with his uncle, who had a closet full of outdoor magazines. The one with the big moments in it was called True. Each issue had a story called “Drama in the First Person.” All week Rudolph had told his father how men survived grizzly attacks and snake bites, crawling through the wilderness in an unerring way to civilization and medicine. His father had poured him Cokes and sent him back to the magazines.

The story Rudolph remembered best was the one written by a man who had survived an attack of army ants. Deep in the jungle the man had broken his leg and was lying in a hammock waiting for help. He noticed two scout ants and threw his boots at them. He didn’t need the boots. He wanted to crush the ants so they couldn’t report his position with a dance or vibrating feelers. He was lucky enough to squash one of them, and with only one going back to the army, there was a chance some natural enemy would take care of that reconnaissance.

Even as a boy, Rudolph had known there wasn’t a chance that ant would get eaten on the way back. There would be millions of hungry ants on their way in a matter of hours. Why else would the story be in the magazine? In another paragraph he’d gotten to the good part. The ants showed up on schedule. They ate everything the man tossed their way and kept coming until they were all over the hammock ropes. There was nothing for the man to do but heave himself off the hammock, hit the ant-covered floor, broken leg and all, and roll for it, tumbling over and over through a thousand ant bites until he reached the river and sank everything but his nose. The ants didn’t care. There were plenty of other things to eat, and they’d no sooner devoured their way back into the jungle than the man’s friend showed up with help. “This really happened,” it said at the very end. All of the stories had that for their last sentence. Rudolph hadn’t been able to get enough of them.

Now Rudolph wanted to warn this new husband about longevity, but he couldn’t figure out how to phrase it. The other apartment was still empty. They weren’t out of the woods yet.

 

In another day Rudolph had to admit Emma was right. Neither of the newlyweds could take care of anything in the apartment. Already they’d called about little things: Turning on the stove. Hooking up the tv. When people get married for the first time, Rudolph thought, they must choose someone with identical blind spots. He tried to remember what his first wife hadn’t known. Instead he heard Emma talking about what she’d found when she checked the apartment after the newlyweds had driven off for a few hours.

“”They’re worse than children,” she said. “They’re babies. The boy knows from nothing about what we’re lending him upstairs.”

“They went to college,” Rudolph tried. He remembered how the bride had looked getting into the car, the length of her skirt, the cut of her sleeveless blouse. “They know something.”

“The dishes are piled up like a cockroach trap,” Emma said. “College must teach you forgetting.”

“Maybe they’ll be ok.”

“You better keep yourself handy. Shafer the drinker is better than this.”

Rudolph walked up the drive to the mailbox. The only letter was inside a window envelope, so he knew it was a bill. Blue Cross/Blue Shield it said on the invoice. It was addressed to THE ESTATE OF HENRY RUDOLPH:

 

Charges: $487.50    Not Covered     Code #O   Pay: $487.50

 

Rudolph remembered the routine tests he had taken at the hospital in June. He checked at the bottom of the page to find out why the claim hadn’t been covered. Reason for non-coverage, it said. He found letter O: Claimant is deceased. The last line on the page said, “If you want to have your claim reviewed by our staff, you have 30 days to file an appeal.”

Rudolph looked back at the address: THE ESTATE OF HENRY RUDOLPH. He could show it to Emma. “You see this?” he could say. He stuffed the envelope in his pocket and decided to take care of it himself. It wouldn’t take much to prove to somebody he wasn’t dead.

Emma had wandered off as if she knew the mail wasn’t for her. “Where to?” Rudolph thought of calling, but she had already stopped halfway between him and a set of surveyors who were working at the edge of their property one hundred yards away. For the past year he and Emma had been going to all of the township and state meetings about the new thruway and its enormous interchange that swung out in shallow parabolas that would nearly reach their land. They had four different proposal maps in the house, but all of them, despite revisions, had the interchange right near their property line. They stopped going after the night Emma, as soon as they were out the door, told him, “Every lawyer and politician checked his watch before we’d been there half an hour. Two tried to be discreet, you know, rubbing a sleeve along the table and doing the downcast eyes, but they were easy to spot. They were like schoolboys waiting for recess. They might as well have been on Mars.”

“It didn’t matter, Emma,” he’d said. “People didn’t bring hope; they brought anger.”

“They were ignored twice over then. Nothing but men up there and not one of them as patient as a pee-nervous dog at a closed door. You could hear the whining their brains were making.”

Rudolph walked toward her. He knew what had stirred Emma up. As if the state had made another change, the surveyors looked like they were working closer to their land than the latest map had shown. Or maybe, he thought, having those men in the field with their equipment made it look as if their property had shrunk. When Rudolph came up alongside of his wife, Emma didn’t turn around. “We’ll make them keep the trees out there,” he said.

“The ideas you have, Henry,” Emma said. “Those trees aren’t ours.”

Rudolph turned away. From where he was standing he could see his neighbors, Frank Rollo and his wife, working in their garden. Beans and tomatoes. A few rows of corn. Squash vines that snaked into their driveway by this time of year. The new highway would get even closer to them. The Schofields, who lived in the house beyond the Rollo’s, would have theirs torn down. “They won’t miss that house of theirs,” Emma had said after the second meeting with the state had told them just where that interchange would reach. “They don’t use the land for anything but a lawn.”

“A house is yours no matter what else,” he’d said.

“They’ll be happy to be moving. Mark my word. People like that don’t even look out their windows except to see if it’s raining.”

Now, Rudolph looked again at the trees and then at the surveyors. “The trees are dead already. They just don’t know enough to fall down,” Emma said.

The next day Rudolph told the new bride about the highway.

“That’s so sad,” she said at once. She stood with one foot on the step up into the apartment, and her skirt rode up her thigh in a way that made Rudolph want to talk about the details of the interchange. He tried to imagine this young woman becoming an expert on household maintenance, giving her husband orders to fix and replace. He thought she might be pregnant, that their last-minute rental had come because their wedding had been thrown together within a few weeks. He’d married Emma when they were both past forty and children weren’t part of it; his first wife had told him, the second day of their marriage, that she never wanted to have a child.

“You think I’m crazy?” she’d said. “You ever look at what having kids does to a woman’s body?”

 

 

Two hours later, while Rudolph was finishing the grass, he saw the apartment window upstairs go bright, and he was off the riding mower before it stopped rolling. He’d seen fire through a window before; he knew the newlyweds had misused their kitchen and were turning it into ashes. He saw Emma starting down the stairs of the house. “See?” she yelled. “See?”

The newlyweds were on the landing, both of them coughing with their eyes squeezed shut. Black smoke trailed after them, and Rudolph wanted to ask if they’d been playing with matches.

Inside, the smoke reminded him he had only a minute or two to solve this problem. He turned into the kitchen and saw Shafer pouring salt into a pan of flames that sat in the middle of the floor. The fire, still confined to the pan, rose nearly face high, looking to Rudolph like something Moses would have followed, but he wasn’t going anywhere, not for another half minute when his lungs would explode. Already, Shafer was backing away, feeling behind him for the door and finding Rudolph’s leg.

“Grease fire!” he yelled, as if the flames were amplified, and then Shafer was past him and out of there, leaving Rudolph to find a potholder and the lid. In a couple of seconds he ducked and stuffed the lid on the pan, snuffing the flames like an acolyte, standing back, while his lungs complained, to see if disaster would resurrect itself somehow.

Finally, his body told him to take it on faith, and he sidestepped to the landing and air. “What’re you leaving the fire for?” Emma said, looking behind him at the smoke.

“Can’t breathe in there,” Shafer said. The newlyweds, Rudolph noticed, were gone.

“Can’t do anything in a burned out shell,” Emma said.

Shafer coughed. “Can’t do nothing suffocated.”

Rudolph worked on getting enough oxygen to speak, but Emma started toward the kitchen with her hand over her mouth. He used the minute before she’d be back to evaluate Shafer. It wasn’t like him to argue.

“Salt didn’t work worth a damn,” Shafer said, holding up the girl-in-the-rain package.

Rudolph shrugged, but he couldn’t smell gin. “Fire’s out,” he said to Emma as she shoved past him.

“Delayed reaction?” Shafer said. He stared at the girl on the package as if he saw something marvelous previously hidden in her.

“Smothered it. Just waiting for the smoke to clear some.”

“Your missus went ahead and took some of it away inside her,” Shafer said, and Rudolph calculated he was maybe half-way drunk.

They followed her downstairs. The newlyweds were there. So were the other new tenants, the woman and her mother. The old woman was holding her purse. “You got it out?” she said.

“Uh-huh.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Still got some damage.”

“That’s what insurance is for,” Shafer said, and the old woman stared at Shafer as if he reminded her why she might have hated her dead husband.

“Insurance doesn’t help us come back to life,” she said.

“When it rains, it pours,” Shafer said, retreating, but Rudolph thought of the invoice in his pocket, and he wanted to walk away from this woman and Emma, who wasn’t saying anything about wading into the smoke when she didn’t have to.

“We’re sorry,” the new bride said. “It was an accident.” She was wearing white shorts now, and everything about their length and tight fit made Rudolph want to forgive her.

“Some elbow grease will take care of it,” Rudolph said. “A few dollars for the floor tile.”

“You mean where I put the pan?” the husband said.

“Most likely it’s ruined under there.”

“That hot?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Better the floor than the drapes or something.”

Emma snorted. “I was trying to make French fries,” the new bride said. “The potatoes are all still sitting up there.”

The husband looked grim, like he was trying to think of something else he might have done correctly. “You’d a tipped that pan,” Rudolph said, “you’d had big problems though.”

The husband frowned while he pondered the size of those problems. “Carol learned to cook in microwave school,” he said. “She thinks every meal takes five minutes or less.”

“All you can do is laugh,” Carol said. “The house is still standing.”

Emma’s head came up, but the husband had already gripped his wife’s left forearm, turning her. “No thanks to your fucked up effort,” he said.

“Oh my,” the old woman whispered, clutching her purse, but Rudolph brushed by her, hiking toward the house before he hated everybody who lived within fifty yards of him. He realized he was winded before he reached the porch. He put the fingers of his right hand on his left wrist and counted while fifteen seconds swept by on his watch. Twenty-seven. He multiplied by four. How long was it supposed to take to recover?

He heard a car door slam and knew it was the husband driving off in a spray of gravel. In another minute Emma stepped into the yard. He tried his pulse again. Twenty-four.

“You did good, Henry,” Emma said before she reached the porch, “but you should have slapped that feisty twerp.” She paused and glanced at the way he was still holding his wrist.

“Which one?” Rudolph said.

Emma snorted again “They’ve gotta pay, Henry. You’ve gotta make them pay right away or they’ll bolt.”

“They’re embarrassed. They’ll clean up and they’ll feel better about things.”

“Embarrassed makes people leave. And there goes your greens fees.”

“They’ll clean up.”

“You think the good-looking ones clean up? You wish.” Even though Emma was staring, Rudolph started counting again. Twenty. Not bad, he thought.

“I’m never going to use that road when it’s made,” Emma said. “I couldn’t bear seeing my house while trucks were passing me going seventy miles per hour.”

“Ok,” he said.

 

The next morning Rudolph called the number printed on the Blue Cross invoice. “This is Henry Rudolph,” he started. Then he stopped, realizing he hadn’t thought this through at all.

“Yes?” the woman on the line said.

He needed to say something before the woman would start visualizing her version of “fool.” He blurted, “I’m not dead,” and saw her sitting up and waving at every other employee in her office.

“Pardon me?” she said.

“Look, I got a bill addressed to the estate of Henry Rudolph, and I’m Henry Rudolph, and I’m talking to you because there’s no estate here because I’m still alive.”

“I’m not sure I understand, sir.” By now the other employees would be crowding around her desk to listen to the silly jerk who was claiming to speak from the grave.

“I’m Henry Rudolph,” he started again.

“Yes?”

“I’m Henry Rudolph because I’m not dead, and I had some tests taken in the hospital, and there’s a bill here in my hand that says I’m dead, and that’s the reason why you won’t pay for the tests.”

“I’ve called up your file, sir,” the voice said.

“Good.”

“The payment due totals $487.50 and is billed to the estate of Henry Rudolph.”

“Yes.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I’m Henry Rudolph.”

“Are you the deceased’s son?”

“I’m the deceased.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, sir.”

“I’m Henry Rudolph.”

“Yes?”

“I’m alive. There’s been a mistake made. I want to have it corrected. I want you to pay the bill because it’s a valid claim for someone who is still walking and breathing and right this minute talking to you on the phone.”

“This is confusing, sir.”

“No it’s not.”

“Sir, would you like to file an appeal?”

“Yes.”

“Fine. We’ll send you the forms. You need to return them within thirty days.”

“Great.”

“I must remind you that it is unlikely your appeal will be honored. It is very difficult to dispute death.”

“I think I have a case,” Rudolph said. “I think if you send me the forms I’ll be able to set this thing right.” He gave her the address.

“Yes, sir,” she said, “the address is on the screen here, the estate of Henry Rudolph.”

When he hung up, Rudolph needed to hit golf balls. The mail would bring him the forms. He could take care of the mix-up without explaining it to Emma. She’d want to know what stupid thing he’d done to get himself marked down as dead at the hospital.

A huge cold front had dropped down from Canada. The temperature had tumbled twenty degrees in the last hour, and maybe it was still falling, so Rudolph pulled on a sweater, the one he left in the garage where he kept a burlap sack full of shag balls and an old set of irons.

The newlywed husband was standing in the opposite corner, looking along one wall, and then the other. Rudolph started to walk away with a pitching wedge just as the husband called out. “You got a bucket and a sponge maybe?” he said. “I thought I’d get to the kitchen.”

“Emma keeps those in the house.”

“Sure,” the husband said. “Women have their ways, right?”

“I expect.”

“Carol’s in a good sulk. She’s not about to help.”

“In the house,” Rudolph said.

The husband looked along the wall behind Rudolph as if he expected a bucket to materialize. “Right,” he said, but when Rudolph picked up the bag of balls, he paused. “We’ll be moving on in a few months,” he said. “I’m changing jobs.”

“So soon.”

“That’s why we wanted a furnished apartment. So we could pack up and go without much fuss.” Rudolph remembered this man’s hand on his wife’s arm, how he’d held her arm hard enough to make her go rigid, her expression changing from surprise to surrender before she caught herself in a way that made Rudolph bet there would be other men the new bride would welcome before too long. It would seem as simple as moving. His first wife had slept with two men before they were divorced, and he had never laid a hand to her.

“Why would you ever move?” the husband went on. “All this land—Shafer told me it goes way out there to the trees, and this little apartment pays your bills, I bet. A sweet deal, right? I don’t see you off to work every day.”

Rudolph hiked down the lane, shivering, and thought about driving south to see if he could catch up to summer. Maybe only fifty miles. Maybe only to West Virginia. A front stalls someplace, he thought. Eighty degrees on one side, sixty on the other. This time of year it was supposed to quit around Buffalo or Cleveland, places that caught hints of winter even in late August when the jet stream got bored. He hefted the sack, gauging how many balls he had, how long it would take to loft them all into the cleared area in the back acre. Maybe Emma, disoriented by the sudden change in temperature, would forget which job he ought to be doing. Maybe she would be so pleased by the husband begging for a bucket she’d ignore him completely.

There were the surveyors again, somehow even closer. One was in a flannel shirt and blue jeans, the other dressed the same but wearing an orange vest as if he was afraid of being shot by hunters months out of season. He looked for Emma, didn’t see her outside, and walked straight toward the men to ask about the trees.

“They’ll do whatever needs to be done with the trees,” the man wearing orange said. “There’s been a ton of meetings. You and the rest said your piece, but it’s a done deal now, and I don’t have any more say in this than you do.”

“There’s talk and then there’s you fellows standing on land I own like you can come and go as you please.”

“You’re luckier than the folks next door and all the way down to Route 19. They’re being shut down. They’re gone.”

“So you’re saying I’m the last of the Mohicans?”

“I don’t rightly know about that, but you’ll be the last house before where the world updates itself. You’ll get a good look-see.”

“Well, the earth under my feet is still mine, so I’ll get to using it,” Rudolph said, but he moved an extra ten yards away from his usual spot before he swung, aiming at a spot about one hundred yards away, getting a tight bunch going inside a ten-yard circle. After he’d hit thirty, he counted nineteen that would have ended up on his small, imaginary green.

From where he stood, the scuffed and yellowed balls looked like mushrooms. Sometimes, on a course, Rudolph would walk up to address his ball in the rough and find himself standing over one. These days, the ball, when he found it, was always farther from the green than he imagined. Deep in a bad lie ten or even twenty yards back. Tucked under a leaf five yards back. Sometimes it even sat up, and he’d wonder how he could have missed it and mistaken the mushroom for his ball. Often, now, Rudolph felt as if he was between waking and sleep, light and drifting like some large, awkward patch of seaweed.

He thought of Ben Hastings, a year younger than he was, who, last summer, was dying from a brain tumor and kept calling Rudolph to keep him company on the golf course. Hastings, the last time out, after three days of steady rain, had driven into a patch of mushrooms just off the fairway and couldn’t find his ball. The way Rudolph remembered it now, Hastings hadn’t even looked for it.

“One of these will fly,” Hastings had said, walking into the mushrooms with his seven iron. One after the other the mushrooms had disintegrated, bits of them spraying as far as where Rudolph sat in the cart. Nobody was standing on the tee behind them, so Rudolph waited. He didn’t know what to say. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t make out the ball anyplace. Hastings must have slapped at twenty mushrooms before he limped back to the cart. “What the hell, Henry?” he said. “What the hell’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Ben.”

“All these balls, and none of them is mine. I’d know mine if I hit it.”

“Sure you would, Ben.”

“You’d know your ball if you hit it, wouldn’t you?”

“Sure.”

“You wouldn’t have to bend down and dizzy yourself trying to read the name on it. You’d hit it and know.” Rudolph waited for Hastings to sort things out and finish. “If I leaned down to check the name, I’d pass out, Henry. You know that?”

“You say so, I know it.”

Before he died, Hastings had lived in the house next to the Schofields. By the time the new thruway was announced, he was bedridden. Nobody had told him the house he was dying in would be leveled and replaced by a swirl of concrete.

Hastings had died at home, the view from his window the same one he’d been looking at for thirty-five years, but he’d gone blind a month before his death. Henry imagined Emma blind, him telling her how everything looked, that the trees were still there at the end of the property, that the road was lined with shrubbery.

Instead of gathering the balls, Rudolph dropped the bag among them and walked across the field with his pitching wedge to where the stand of trees he imagined surviving stood. He stood among them and looked at the house. He’d read about people whose land was flooded by a new dam. How they knew there was going to be a lake where they were standing, that boats would be floating on a surface thirty feet over their heads. It was the way he’d thought of heaven as a boy, a beautiful world just above the sky until one day it was impossible.

As he walked back toward the house, he could hear Emma shouting something from the yard. She was standing under the double strands of clothesline, and even though he couldn’t make out all of her words, Rudolph knew she had a problem with how tight he’d pulled the cord, that she couldn’t reach to pin the first damp shirts to the line, using the weight of them to pull it to a comfortable level.

Rudolph liked the way she looked, the wash basket beside her, the lines over her head as if they were carrying messages somewhere else, the distance smothering her voice. “Jump up,” he said softly, but aloud.

He kept his head down even though he heard Emma yell “Henry!” He examined the mix of grass and weeds as if he’d just been hired as a greenskeeper on a neglected course. “Henry!” he heard again. He waggled the pitching wedge over his head so Emma would quiet down. He didn’t have to provoke Emma by searching for stray golf balls, and by now he’d forgotten the location of his worst shots. He saw Emma reach for the line again, her breasts lifting, her dress riding up her thighs. It was about lob wedge distance to where she struggled, looking beautiful. “Jump up,” he said, raising his voice a little.

“I saw you out there cozying up like it would make a bit of difference,” Emma said as he walked onto the front lawn.

Rudolph had used his last ten seconds of approach to think of something good to say. “I just wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth,” he tried.

Emma hissed in a breath. “Well, if you put it that way, I bet that horse thought about giving you a swift kick in the rear.”

“Now, now, there’s no need. Whether I’m a fool or not, we’re together in this.”

Emma seemed to soften, drawing close, her hand resting on his arm. “You know what I’ve thought more than once these few days? It would have been a godsend if that pretty young thing that has your tongue hanging out had burned our place to the ground. Insurance pays more than the government.”

“There’s no need to wish suffering on others.”

“So we’re told, but sometimes it brings comfort for a while.”

Rudolph frowned. She had it wrong, he thought. If there was comfort to be gained, the fire should have taken their house instead of the apartments. “There’s a blessing in a hate that’s sometimes more powerful than fear,” Emma said then, as if she could overhear his thoughts.

“Look here,” Rudolph said. “See how lucky I’ve been.”

“What now?” she said, but she took the envelope, and he reached into the basket and lifted out one of his shirts, clothes-pinning it to the line while he thought of the bride watching from that window she’d have to kneel to see from.

Emma pulled out the letter but didn’t unfold it. The bride, Rudolph thought, would soon know how to make a better choice of men, and the idea of it made him lift out a white sheet from the basket and spread it as far as his extended arms would allow, nearly losing his balance as he worked to make sure it didn’t touch the ground.

“Henry,” he heard Emma say, but he didn’t turn to see whether she was reading or watching as he folded the sheet over the line, its damp weight sagging the rope to head high. There was plenty of time, now, to fish clothespins out of the flower-embroidered cloth bag Emma had hooked to the line, and he glanced up at the apartment window as Emma began to read.

 

 

 

Gary Fincke's latest collection is The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories, from West Virginia University Press. Two of his other seven collections won national book prizes--Sorry I Worried You (Flannery O'Connor Prize, 2004) and The Killer's Dog (Elixir Press Fiction Prize, 2016).