The Rooms of Mrs. Howarth
The Dickens Literary Review, First Prize Winner
It would be quite effortless to go to his store tomorrow and confront him. Harry would be standing by the register as always, pinkish hands flat against the counter as if steadying himself amidst the sea of stationary supplies. No, Harry, I’d say. I’m not here to buy another manila envelope! He’d blink behind those circular glasses, white moustache quivering--the same expression as when I disrobed for him the first time. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t. Maybe I’d slam my fist against the counter, declare myself a free woman, one with dignity, one who has no need to sneak around Best Westerns!
But would he let me go that easily?
It would be quite effortless to pick up the telephone and call his wife, Teresa Fernandez Stone, and say in a clear voice: My name is Glenda Howarth, and I am your husband’s lover. Harry says his wife’s a great cook. That’s all he’s ever said, and after a year, I realize that’s all he’s going to say. Too often I drive by their pale blue house, crouched close to Jefferson Street as if about to lunge into the whoosh of cars. The house isn’t attractive, just as Harry isn’t, with his rumpled shirts and razor burn. But Harry’s other life resides there, one I’m excluded from, one I’d love to enter--just once--instead of scampering about its edges, a dirty secret.
About a month ago, on one of my drive-bys, I actually saw Teresa, pruning a leggy rose bush in the corner of the yard. I parked my car across the street. She wore a turquoise shirt and white, too-tight pants. Polyester. Nothing I would ever dream of wearing. Her long, dark hair had waterfalls of gray. She worked slowly, tenderly, clipping the spent blooms. Suddenly, I remembered lying in bed at the Best Western with Harry months before, when he’d told me how they met. How he’d spied her from across the high school gym during the spring dance. How he liked the way her hair fell down her back, and how she ducked her face when smiling. How after drinking twelve cups of terribly sweet punch, he finally found the courage to ask her to dance. And when he did, she smiled straight at him--did not duck or turn away--and he felt she’d been waiting for him all along.
I spied on her from my car, looking for something I couldn’t name. Perhaps I was looking for the high school girl Harry described. Or some sign that Harry loved her, or that she was thinking of him in that moment. Whatever it was, I couldn’t find it. I started my Toyota, that familiar ache in my chest, a terrible hunger I didn’t know how to feed. Then, the oddest thing happened. She looked up. There was plenty of street noise, but she somehow heard my car. I could always read my students by looking into their eyes--if they were bitter, calm, exacting, playful, beaten at night. Their eyes told me what I needed to know. But I couldn’t look into Teresa’s. I couldn’t. In spite of my hunger. She remained a blur in my peripheral vision, and remains there still.
It would be quite effortless to pack my bags, sell my house, and move to the coast. I have no one here who particularly cares. Frank passed away ten years ago. My former students don’t keep in touch. My sister lives in Santa Barbara, my brother, Fresno. I could set up a romantic bed and breakfast, and play hostess to couples, circling the edge of their lives for a few days. It’s not a situation I’m unfamiliar with.
Tonight, I pull out my wrinkled town map, find the intersection of Jefferson and Cedar, and slide my fingernail just a centimeter north, to the location of that blue house. Were they sleeping side-by-side in the darkness? Or was Harry watching the news? Was the carpet stained? What did they eat for dinner?
Mrs. Howarth? A young person’s voice, calling on me. I whip around, expecting to find one of my former students standing in my kitchen, hand politely raised. But I only confront the odd shine of the pewter candlesticks on the counter. Why haven’t I placed candles in them? They look dwarfed and strange and useless. I blink hard, trying to make out the dimensions of my half-lit kitchen. My own house is unfamiliar.
On especially effusive moments, I called my tenth graders my wildflowers. They’d blush, or giggle, or roll their eyes. But that’s what they were to me. How they fought to get into my classes! What chaos at the registrar’s office! It wasn’t in the syllabus (that some teachers begged to see) or in the books we read. It was because I loved them. Quite simple, really. But as I told my students time and time again (especially when reading Charles Dickens): Keep it simple; simplicity resonates the truth. Even after a year, I still feel myself clicking down the high school’s shiny hallways, heart full, sure of my place in the world.
Two weeks before retirement, I walked into the principal’s office, and there stood a white-haired man, hands folded in front of his pleated pants. He blushed like an insubordinate student about to get his come-uppance.
"You look like you’ve been up to no good,” I said.
His body let go of itself. “Selling school supplies, actually.” He extended his hand. “Harry Stone.”
He had a nice, firm shake, and even though I had plans to go to Ireland over the summer with the Retired School Teachers Association, that would only be two weeks, and what was I going to do the rest of my time?
Now, I have two lives. One, a retired school teacher who lives on the good block of Kingsford Avenue, who bakes cookies for her neighbors at Christmas time, volunteers at the library, cooks a mean butternut squash casserole -- always requested at church functions -- and yes, I attend the Presbyterian church. Not to pray for forgiveness, but for some peace of mind. In my other life, I dream of another woman’s house in a dingy neighborhood, stare at a map late at night, hear voices, sneak to a motel once a week--a woman no one knows, not even Harry--who also prays for peace of mind.
It would be quite effortless to stay at home this Wednesday night, simply not show at our regular room at the Best Western. Wednesdays are Harry’s bowling nights in a league to which he never belonged. But it gives us a few good hours.
Last week, he appeared in the doorway holding a gigantic bowl of chili. Had he brought me dinner for some God forsaken reason? No. Teresa cooked it for an illusory pot-luck that Harry had thought added more truth to the lie we were living. The scent of cumin and cayenne pepper drifted into the room. My mouth watered, and I demanded he dump the chili. Right this instant, right this second, right now. I’d become that school teacher again who definitively and assertively declares she will not tolerate any more nonsense. I would not have something created by his wife in the same room during my three hours. A woman has her limits. Harry told me to wait, and clutching the bowl to his chest, fled.
After a precious half hour, he flew into the room panting. I thought he’d collapse or vomit, and involuntarily stood, reaching for him, but staying out of reach. He frightened me, gasping for air, clutching his plaid shirt; I wasn’t sure what he’d do, or what he was capable of.
He’d tossed the chili into the scuffed dumpster behind Denny’s. “But the bowl!” he said. “Teresa’s favorite bowl, her mother’s bowl--it slipped from my hands. I could hardly go in there to get it, Glenda. What on earth am I going to tell her?”
I was unable to find one word of reassurance. All I could do was picture him throwing out that chili, dumping his wife’s good feeling and kindness into some foul-smelling dumpster, and it broke my heart. I was doing it, too.
“Tell her it was stolen,” I said.
A painting hung next to the bed. Two oak trees squatting behind a low running river, the sky a murky gray, like the sole of an overused shoe. It wouldn’t in a million years pass for art. All these Wednesdays, the painting had been hanging there, and I’d never noticed it. Not once.
“Have you ever seen this before?” I asked, pointing to it.
Harry settled himself next to me, quite recovered now. He’s an agile fifty-nine. Still in good shape. He glanced at the painting, rubbed my thigh. “No, I haven’t.”
It would be quite effortless to call him at the store, tell him I couldn’t do it anymore. The bowl, the bowl, why couldn’t I get Teresa’s bowl out of my head? Or that mouth-watering chili? She’d put bits of onion and tomato--or was it red pepper? Probably roasted red pepper, the dish had such a savory, smoked fragrance.
Nothing about Harry has been effortless. Not the whispering phone calls to his store, not hiding our cars at the furthest corner of the Best Western parking lot, not driving by his house peeking into his windows like a criminal. Harry and I are both childless, you see. I’m sure that if either of us had a baby to fuss over, or a teenager to groan about, or a grandchild to coddle, we wouldn’t need to create secret lives for ourselves. There isn’t a word for a woman who loses a child. My son came into the world silent, a stillborn. Frank and I buried him in our garden, and he lies there still, at the base of the plum tree. Also fruitless. The deep purple canopy has quadrupled in size these past thirty years, as if my son’s spirit has taken to living there instead. Would he have had Frank’s hands? My curly hair? Would he have played short-stop in little league? Would he have understood Charles Dickens? We never named him, decided to wait until he showed himself to us. Now the flat headstone simply reads “Our Son.” Simplicity resonates the truth. And I think of my students again, how they expressed all that was good in the world, all that could have been mine--and was mine, year after year, every class a collection of beautiful paintings, placed in another room in the imaginary house I was living. But I don’t live there anymore; I’m not sure where I live.
I rush into my office, wanting to get away from this truth, the cold hardness of it. On the floor lies a pile of thirty seven manila envelopes I’ve bought at Harry’s store over the past year. I’ve bought each envelope individually, just so I could see Harry for a few moments, look into his blue eyes and feel that quiver in my heart reminding me I’m alive. Now, those thirty-seven moments lie there in a heap, collecting dust. I didn’t want to throw them out before. But now, it’s clear they’re messing up a perfectly nice room with rosebud wallpaper and Venetian blinds.