Anne Leigh Parrish Writer

The solstice was tomorrow, and the twilight stretched on and on. Even if you stood and watched it closely, gauging the gradual loss of color from the sky, you never saw the final coming of night. The day just disappeared. Timothy had lived in upstate New York all his life and hated summer. As a child, he suffered terribly from sunburn and mosquito bites and would sweat so much that his skin never felt dry. There was more truth in cold than in heat, more honor in darkness than in light. He never told anyone he felt that way. He couldn’t imagine how it would ever come up. It was his secret, one that set him apart. Grief did that, he thought. It made us who we are.

Timothy lifted his head and glanced out the living room window. Sure enough, the light was gone.

Sam washed the dishes. Something was on her mind. She was quiet during dinner, asking only if he liked her meatloaf. He always did, but this one was particularly good. She cooked well, though her repertoire was limited. Meatloaf showed up once a week. So did pork chops, and tuna noodle casserole.

Timothy went into the kitchen and asked if she needed help.

She turned off the faucet. Drops of water fell from her fingertips onto the braided rug at her feet.

“You know, I really do want a baby,” she said.

She hadn’t brought it up since Christmas Eve when they came home from dinner at his mother’s. Before that, it was around Halloween. Given her habit of raising the issue near a holiday, she was early. Independence Day was two weeks off.

“I know. And you know how I feel about that,” he said.

“I think we need to talk about it.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“We’ve been together for three years. We’re not jumping into anything here.”

He took a chair at the table where they ate only an hour before. She dried her hands and sat, too. He met her eye because she hated it when he didn’t. He ran his hand through his hair. It was beginning to thin. He was only thirty-four. He saw himself in ten years, bald and soft in the middle.

“I know children aren’t convenient,” Sam said. “But that’s not why you have them.”

“Then why?”

“Because your heart is full of love.”

“You know I love you.”

“Yes. And I also know you would love a baby.”

“You need more than love to be a good father.”

“True. And you have those things. You just don’t want to think so.”

Timothy’s sister, Angie, just had a pregnancy scare, and that’s why Sam was thinking about children again. Like Timothy, Angie didn’t want any. As to her boyfriend, Matt, Timothy didn’t know. They didn’t talk about it. Angie was thirty-five now; Sam was thirty-two. Timothy’s mother said women had to listen to their biological clocks. In his mother’s case, her clock was set early. She had her first baby when she was nineteen.

“It’s not a good idea,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because it’s not.”

“You’re just scared,” she said.

“I just think we should wait.”

“For what?”

“Something better.”

“You always say that.”

“I like being just the two of us.”

Sam’s eyes welled, but she didn’t cry. She stared at the floor. She installed the black-and-white tiles herself a few months ago, a home improvement project that took much longer than she expected. She stuck with it though, working into the night for most of the week.

She went into the bedroom and closed the door.

Timothy returned to the living room, sat on the couch, and picked up the book he was reading about the Incas. The chapter he just began was on the practice of sacrificing humans to ward off earthquakes and floods. Quite often, the victims were children. The irony of that wasn’t lost on him.

He closed the book and put it on the coffee table. He stood and went down the narrow hall to their bedroom. The door was ajar. He hadn’t heard it open. Sam wasn’t a quiet person. She sighed and hummed and cleared her throat as she went around the house. She wasn’t light on her feet, either. She was tall, almost as tall as he was. He stood just under six feet. She used to be heavy and put herself on a strict low-carb diet the year before, the results of which were amazing, but she was still a commanding presence, and here she opened the door in total silence.

“Babe?” he said. He leaned into the room. She sat on the bed with her back to him, facing the black window where the branch of an oak tree scraped the glass. Her shoulders rose and fell. She wore a T-shirt that was now too big. He thought of the pleasant evening they would have had if she hadn’t dumped her baby demands on him. Was it really because Angie had been late?

He entered the room.

“Hey,” he said. He sat down beside her on the bed.

They were reflected in the glass. They looked like ordinary people, he thought. Like any man and woman wanting to remember how much they loved each other.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay.”

She shook her head. Her red hair was thick and wavy. He wanted to gather it in his hands. For months she had wanted to cut it, and every time she said so he begged her not to.

“No, it’s not,” she said.

“I know.”

She turned and stared at him. The blue iris of her right eye was flecked with black. He looked at the flecks, waiting until he couldn’t wait anymore.

“Do you think if you had a baby I’d wake up and be someone else? And do what? Go into business, like Angie? Or apply to graduate school, like Foster?” he asked.

Sam sighed. She said once Timothy was jealous of his younger brother because he knew what he wanted and was willing to go after it. Timothy was jealous, but that wasn’t the reason. Foster was the youngest—the baby of the family—and as such had the fewest expectations laid on him. He also had no one to answer to. Foster was single.

Timothy didn’t like where his thoughts were going.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” he said.

“It’s all right. Lavinia does a good job of throwing your siblings in your face.”

Lavinia was his mother and told him the other day he was the only one of her five children who was stuck. His twin sisters had that distinction for years, but now were gaining traction in their respective careers. Marta was an actress and had one good role after another. Maggie’s paintings were on display in three galleries in New York City, where they shared an apartment. He thought they were both pampered and spoiled because despite their success they were still supported by their mother. Foster wanting to become a veterinarian gave him a big leg up, and Angie had always been golden in the achievement department. She put in ten years as a social worker before quitting to help Matt run his bar, but what made Lavinia’s remark so hard was knowing Timothy was her favorite, and his shortcomings caused her acute disappointment.

He offered to finish the dishes for Sam. She said she’d do them in a bit. He asked if she just wanted to go on sitting there for a while.

“No,” she said.

He ran his hand up and down her back. It was soft and fleshy before. Now it was firm. She used a Pilates ball she kept in the garage. The house was small, and there wasn’t anywhere else to keep it. The spare room had a sofa bed, a desk, a chair, and his computer. He kept his photography equipment in there, too. He hadn’t taken any pictures in a while. He didn’t think he was any good at it, though some people, especially his mother, who bought him the digital camera and tripod, as well as a subscription to Photoshop, said he had talent and should just apply himself. When he looked through the viewfinder at whatever he was trying to capture he was excited. Then, when he took the shot and reviewed the image, he was disappointed. Nothing in the camera’s memory looked like it did in real life. When he explained that to Sam she said he should edit the picture, or work with the variance from reality.

The wind rose and the tree branch danced. Sam sighed and stood up. She said she better get at those dishes because it was getting late.

“Wait,” he said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry. Really.”

“It’s okay.”

She left the room and he sat, listening to the tree branch.

Later, when he went into the kitchen, he found everything done. Their two mugs stood by the coffee machine, which she filled with coffee and water. In the morning all she had to do was press the “on” button.

Sam sat at the dining room table, which doubled as her workspace. She was a college student. She scribbled something in her journal. Another poem, no doubt. She wrote brilliant poems, according to her record of getting them published. She used a pencil on blank paper. She didn’t like lines because they were too confining. She lifted her head to look out the window. She couldn’t see him from where she sat. She cried and wiped her eyes with her hand. Then she got back to work.

“Hey,” he said.

“Oh, you startled me! What are you doing?”

“Just coming to see how you are.”

“I’m fine. Just finishing this up.”

“Well, this working man should head to bed.” He glanced at the cabinet where he kept a bottle of bourbon. He could use a drink.

“Okay. I’ll be in soon.”

He blew her a kiss. She didn’t see it because she went back to her page.

He got into bed and thought about Sam having a baby. He could see her as a mother. She had the right instincts. But a baby would keep them up all night. And the diapers! There were so many cons. Why couldn’t she see that? They didn’t need a baby. A baby was the last thing they needed.

His mind wandered.

He thought about Sue, his co-worker at the GAP store where he worked. She had a crush on him. He liked watching her try to hide it. He hated it, too. All that pain of wanting what she wasn’t going to get.

“Why don’t we go out sometime?” she asked just the other day.

“Because you’re married.”

She threw her dark hair over her shoulder, stood up straight, and sucked in her stomach. “And if I weren’t?”

“My girlfriend wouldn’t like it.”

“The poet.”

“I only have one.”

“You look like you’d enjoy having two.”

A customer came up to the counter with five pairs of blue jeans and she turned away.

Sue wasn’t much. Just another lonely person. She lost a baby around Christmas. A few weeks before that, Timothy found her throwing up in the sink in the employee breakroom and she explained why she was sick. He didn’t need to know. It bothered him that she told him. It assumed an intimacy they didn’t have, one she wanted to create and tightened later when she told him she had a miscarriage.

But he liked flirting with her.

A lot of women found him attractive. And he could have been with anyone he wanted, and he wanted Sam.

Sam was no stunning beauty, but there was something about her that soothed his heart. She brought peace into the room when she entered it, and the peace stayed on for a while after she left.

Lavinia said he didn’t want children because he didn’t want to share Sam. She went on to add that a child expanded one’s life, and when a woman became a mother she had more love in her to go around than she did before. Lavinia wanted to be a grandmother, and that’s why she was making up all that nonsense. When Timothy was a kid, she was as mean as hell. She worked too hard, he understood that. His father had been useless, and the burden of earning money and raising children fell to her. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, he thought, because she was simply describing how she wished she felt, herself, back in the day. Sam and Lavinia hadn’t gotten along for quite a while, then one of them softened toward the other and now they were great friends.

He stirred when Sam came to bed. The cucumber scent of her face soap was comforting. She pulled the quilt up over her shoulder. It was an antique she found the year before, sewn by hand, with rings of blue and gold. They only used it in the spring and summer. It was too light to keep them warm at night in winter.

Dawn came before he was ready to wake. They neglected to lower the blind, and the east-facing window screamed with sunshine. Sam was cheerful over coffee. She looked forward to the weekend. There was a picnic planned out at the lake.

“Yeah? Who’s going?” Timothy asked.

“Matt, Angie, of course. Your mom. I think Foster’s coming. Your dad. Maybe Alma, but I think she’d rather stay home.”

Alma was Lavinia’s live-in housekeeper and close friend. After Lavinia’s second husband died, they had the house to themselves. It was a big old barn. Then Potter, Timothy’s dad, moved in the year before when his second marriage went bust. None of the children understood how their long-divorced parents could live under the same roof, but they seemed to be making a go of it. Potter was Matt’s partner, and co-owner of their bar, The Watering Hole. He also worked there.

“What are we bringing?” Timothy asked. The idea of being surrounded by familiar faces made his left temple throb.

“I don’t know. What do you want me to make?”

“Up to you. Your chicken salad is always a winner.”

“Good idea.”

Sam smiled at him. Her eyes were bright and clear. She made peace with the sorrow of yesterday evening, but then he thought not. It was merely waiting quietly in a corner of her heart.

“Curry style, right?” he asked, meaning the chicken salad.

“Of course. Though I don’t think Matt cares for it.”

“He’ll be okay.”

She nodded, looked at the paper, and said a poet from New York City was coming up to give a reading. He saw her wondering if she should attend. She went to several readings and found them hard. She loved hearing new imagery and wordplay yet sank into doubting her own abilities and aesthetic afterward.

“I could tag along if you want,” he said.

“To what? The reading? I thought you said you’d never go.”

“I’ll keep an open mind.”

He realized his mistake. But if she thought of making a segue back to the baby thing, she said nothing. Nor did she give herself away. That woman had a hell of a good poker face sometimes.

“It’s a week from Friday,” she said.

“Great.”

He stood up and put his coffee cup in the sink. Then he bent and kissed her on the cheek.

“Have a good day,” he said.

“You, too.”

His car was slow to start. It was a 1965 Mercedes Benz two-seater he bought for a song and had been pouring money into ever since. He loved driving it. The manual transmission and the soft, worn leather seats always improved his mood. The steering wheel was white and reminded him of a pearl. Sam said it left a huge carbon footprint. She drove a tiny Toyota Scion that sipped gas when she drove at all. She biked a lot, even to the store, with a backpack to carry groceries.

Fridays were good days. It had taken a long time for the former store manager to give him weekends off. Now he was the manager, a position he didn’t like but could easily handle. Back in college, he saw himself doing something exalted, in the arts or even politics. His stepfather, Chip, encouraged the latter. The three sons from his first marriage hadn’t been interested. Chip had ambitions of his own. He spoke yearningly of becoming mayor. Lavinia said she’d do her part and organize the campaign. That put an end to the idea. Lavinia was competent and practical, just the wrong person to get involved in something you’d rather go on dreaming about. Chip lost interest in Timothy’s vague plans when he got arrested for shoplifting a leather jacket. He could afford it and took it just for fun. At Lavinia’s insistence, Chip got his record expunged, which made the job he found at the GAP possible. Sam said Timothy’s love of risky behavior wasn’t healthy and spoke to a deep self-hatred. He didn’t argue with her.

The neighborhood was a wall of green. The lawns were tidy, except for a few where the grass was tall and wild. Sam mowed their yard. She enjoyed doing it. A man stood in his driveway and waved when Timothy passed by. Timothy didn’t know him, but he waved back. As he came around the corner a bicyclist rode in the center of the lane. Timothy honked. The rider veered onto the shoulder and shouted something angry. Timothy flipped her off. Then he thought of Sam and the bad drivers she complained about. A car almost hit her the year before. She could have been killed.

Timothy turned right at the next corner and circled back. The bicyclist was still riding on the shoulder, heading in the same direction she was when Timothy went by before. He slowed, reached over to roll down the passenger side window of the car, and came alongside her.

“I’m sorry about that,” he called out. The bicyclist swung her head to the left and stared at him. She stopped riding. He pulled onto the shoulder in front of her. He turned off the engine and sat a moment, watching her in the rearview mirror. He got out and stood by the car.

“I’m sorry,” he called out again.

“You’re a maniac,” the woman said. She had an accent. Something Scandinavian. He approached her and she pulled out her cell phone.

“I’m going to call the police if you don’t leave me alone,” she yelled.

Timothy held up his hand.

“Look, I’m just trying to say I’m sorry for honking at you back there.”

She stood, breathing hard. She was petite and well-muscled. Her expression was fierce. She removed her helmet, revealing a perfectly round head that had recently been shaved. He thought wearing the helmet must be uncomfortable. He approached. She dismounted and lay the bicycle on the ground after removing the water bottle from its holster and taking a long drink.

She stared at him. “I know you,” she said. Her accent was Russian, not Scandinavian.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re Teemothy Dugan. We were in class together at university.”

He thought back. He couldn’t place her.

“Geology 101,” she said, and he recalled a huge lecture hall stuffed with students. The exams had been multiple-choice. He never studied yet pulled off a B-.

“How did we know each other?” he asked.

“We didn’t. But I knew you. Everybody did.”

It was true he had a reputation then. He lived in a fraternity and partied every night. He organized elaborate pranks on rival houses that involved enlisting all the brothers who could carry a tune, lining them up below bedroom windows, and giving forth with true stage presence. A compact disc player was often used to provide the necessary instrumental background. He wasn’t resented for it. He was too good-humored for that. The pleasant demeanor was all an act. He was miserable in college, often depressed, and fearful of the future. And here the future was, just as unfulfilling as he suspected it would be. Sam floated through his mind, and he felt even worse. Whenever he talked like that, about his forebodings, her jaw squared and her gaze narrowed.

“What’s your name?” Timothy asked.

“Svetlana.”

“Well, Svetlana, I’m sorry I honked at you. It was awfully rude.”

“Is okay. You call me sometime. We go out.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Married?”

“Yes.”

“No ring.”

“I lost it.”

“Wife must be mad.”

“You should have heard her!”

He returned to his car. Svetlana picked up her bike, mounted it, put her helmet on, and cycled off. She waved as she went by.

Timothy held the steering wheel. Why did he lie about being married? For the same reason he always lied. It sounded good. Only it didn’t.

“Being a decent guy isn’t always easy. There are temptations, choices, and unseen consequences,” his dad, Potter, once said. They were in a bar. Potter was getting smashed. Timothy was helping him. Potter’s wife, Mary Beth, had been calling him on his cell for the previous hour. Finally, Potter turned off the phone.

“But really, it all comes down to the same thing. Don’t be a jerk,” Potter said and knocked back his shot of bourbon.

Because of Svetlana, Timothy was late. Jimmy, the part-time college kid was in the back, staring at a stack of boxes that were just delivered.

“Where’s Sue?” Timothy asked.

“Beats me.”

Timothy went into his tiny office, picked up the phone,  and listened to voice mail. Sue left a message just after six that morning saying she had the flu and couldn’t come in. She sounded awful, hoarse, and congested, so he figured she was telling the truth. Timothy returned to Jimmy and asked him if he had coffee yet. Jimmy said he hadn’t. He looked hungover. Timothy took a ten out of his wallet and told him to go hit up the Starbucks in the mall. Jimmy stared at the bill in his hand.

“I’ll open the boxes and see what we got, then when you come back, you can help me unpack them,” Timothy said.

Jimmy wandered off.

Timothy thought for months about firing him and couldn’t bring himself to. He reminded him so much of himself at that age. Just a good-hearted guy who liked to have a little too much fun.

Timothy took the box cutter from the drawer and went into the storeroom. He slit the packing tape on one box and looked inside. Baby clothes. He ordered these months before, but something or other was out-of-stock and he got an apologetic phone call from someone in Central Shipping who said they’d be along soon.

He went back onto the floor to the children’s section. On a shelf were small featureless mannequins who’d been wearing last year’s rompers since spring. When Jiao came in, he’d ask her to pick out some new outfits and get them installed. Then he remembered she said she’d be a little late today because she was getting her nose pierced. Employees weren’t supposed to wear nose rings or studs, but Timothy allowed it. No one from Corporate had been in all year, and if someone did make an unannounced visit, he’d remind them Dunston was a college town, and facial piercings were as common as toast. Timothy was pretty sure Jiao was a lesbian, at least she showed no interest in him. He knew it was shallow of him to think like that, but he was used to trusting his instincts.

Sam wanted to put a diamond stud in one nostril. When she asked him what he thought, he made a face. Her expression darkened, and he said he thought it was fine. She didn’t do anything about it, but one of these days he’d come home, and there it would be. When Sam raised something and he didn’t agree, she went ahead anyway. That’s what she did when she wanted to change the bathroom wall color. She suggested a soft rose shade, and he said he preferred plain white. She painted it herself one day when he was at work. When she showed it to him, he thought it looked awful, but said she did a great job and thanked her for tackling it.

“Jesus Christ,” he said to the empty store.

Was Sam pregnant? Another fait accompli he’d have to live with? No. She raised it before and nothing happened. No shy little smile followed by, “Guess, what?” Was she still taking her pills? He didn’t know. He never saw her do it. No, wait, she got an IUD the year before because it was easier than remembering to do something every day. Did she go to the doctor and have it removed?

He told himself to calm down, but the idea had taken hold of him now, and he felt like hell. Sam might decide to get pregnant and follow through—with or without him.