An Excerpt (in 2600 words) from
The Story Collection, So They Say
By Jack Andrew Urquhart ©2011
Rex Fordham lifted the ice pack his wife Marcia had given him and examined his leg. The swelling and inflammation across the shinbone had begun to abate, the purples and reds fading to lavenders and pale yellows.
It looked better than when he’d first come home, much less serious than his initial assessment earlier in the afternoon—just after his confrontation with Lee. Who would’ve thought anything so untoward could transpire between adults in a professional environment, or that a shoe flung from across the room would do so much damage. Rex could almost read the tread patterns where the Vibram sole had found its mark. Why hadn’t he seen it coming, he wondered? Really, the whole thing was so damned pointless, such an incredible lapse, not to mention bad timing, what with the family’s summer excursion to the mountains only a day away. Rex remembered the shock of the blow when it struck, the long, stunning silence after Lee slammed out of the office.
He remembered thinking about Marcia, too, and how pointless it would be, trying to keep her out of the loop. He’d imagined his wife at home, moving efficiently from room-to-room, making last minute calls to the construction crews hired for repairs and updates to their house at Prospect, Marcia finishing up the packing for their trip to the mountain—their first extended stay in three years.
Three trunks had been lined up in the family room for a week. Naturally Alec’s would be the most full, and Marcia, ever on top of things, would’ve catalogued every one of their son’s possessions.
She would also, Rex knew, realize that something was amiss the moment she laid eyes on him. The mark on his leg was too obvious and the bruise made him favor his right leg when he walked. Besides, Lee, his business partner of several years, had made it clear that this latest welling of anger was no passing fancy. Rex remembered Lee’s parting words exactly.
“I’ll bet you hardly felt that!”
There had been little beads of spittle at the corners of Lee’s mouth, the drops flying in every direction, like random punctuation points.
“How many years is it we’ve been playing at this, playing at business, at everything? And me carrying the load the whole fucking time. Well, it’s too much!”
There seemed no reason to doubt Lee’s veracity, which meant Marcia had to know.
Rex did his best to explain.
“I guess—I guess today was the day for going over the edge,” he’d said to his wife as she rolled up his pant leg to inspect the damage.
A small sigh was Marcia’s only reaction. Practically inaudible. Then, almost immediately, she was up scurrying about, taking charge, and scouring the house for remedies. Rex wasn’t even sure that she was within earshot during the remainder of his attempt to explain what happened.
“It’s been building toward this I think since last month,” he had called to her.
That had been all there was to it—at least, so far.
After finding the ice pack and relocating him onto the sofa, Marcia had flown off again in that calm, purposeful way of hers. Rex could hear her going through the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bath. He imagined her intentness, the way her fingers would be flying over every item on the shelves. There was nothing for him to do but wait for the other shoe to drop. Outside, he could hear a thunderstorm building, an occasional ominous rumbling rolling down off the foothills over their Denver neighborhood.
“I can’t imagine you could’ve done anything to warrant such an outburst,” Marcia said hurrying back into the room. Rex saw that she had found the Ace bandage. “That wouldn’t be like you at all,” she said kneeling to wrap the ice pack in place.
Rex studied the fine lines that moved and flexed around his wife’s eyes and mouth, the ones he relied on as a barometer of her mood. She’d actually changed very little in fifteen years; she was still the same lightly freckled, slim, smallish woman with a gnarl of mahogany-colored hair as untarnished as ever, her pale eyes so unmistakably green that the rarity of coloration could startle. At forty, Marcia was also as energetic as ever, forever moving from one task to another. Darting through a room she appeared to skim the surface of things, righting matters in passing, re-centering a lamp on the table, pinching a dead leaf from the ficus tree in the corner—attending to detail as if she were on auto-pilot.
Rex had met her in the early days of his career when he’d been a struggling architect trying to establish himself. She was an employee in her father’s real estate development office.
It was Marcia’s father, Joel King, who’d given him his first break.
“Big things in store for you, sonny,” his future father-in-law—another displaced southerner still oozing his Louisiana drawl—had said back in those early days.
“Office buildin’s, planned commun-ties, shoppin’ malls. Just listen good to me, Mister Man.”
And Rex had been young enough to do just that—not yet twenty-three. For a long while, he’d managed to believe, managed to hold on to his optimism even through the eventual struggle of leaving his father-in-law’s firm and through the trials of establishing his own practice. But that was before Peter’s accident. Ridiculous of him to think that anything would be as it had been—not after such a loss. In fact, everything was different now. Everything except Marcia.
She’d managed to retain much of what had initially attracted him—a quality, an intangible attitude that he’d been taught to associate with security. He could thank Inez for that.
“Learn from the sorry examples you find everywhere in this hick town,” his mother had told him again and again in his youth.
“I don’t mean to be un-Christian, but let’s face it; class is something you cain’t fake. You could do worse than t’marry it, if you get the chance.”
Conjuring Inez’s irksome mannerisms was easy for Rex. How well he remembered the condescending tone his mother employed in delivering her pronouncements—her arching eyebrows, that haughty way she had of cocking her head whenever she considered others disparagingly, the pompous way she drawled certain key words—“CHRISSSS-tjun”—as if any more emphasis was necessary.
And yet, as much as Rex sometimes wanted to deny his mother, he’d seen the truth in her version of the social gospels. Growing up in the boondocks of Central Florida provided too much evidence. Money in the bank was all well and good, Inez had helped him see.
“But that by itself, don’t give you quality,” she’d insisted. “It don’t give you the dignity it takes to bear up in the face of adversity. N’that dignity is the only real security, if you ask me.”
Rex hadn’t had to think twice about Marcia’s qualities. She was everything he could possibly have hoped for—simple, understated, efficient Marcia, born with all the resources necessary to keep going in the extremities.
“Maybe Lee’s still upset about not going up to Prospect with us,” Marcia offered evenly. “When I saw him last week, he seemed a bit more high-strung than usual. Of course, a bad case of nerves doesn’t excuse his behavior today.”
Rex flinched when she pinned the ace bandage in place. His wife’s restraint was sometimes unnerving. Between them it is no secret that she does not like Lee, and that the curtailment of Lee’s intrusion on what she’d insisted be kept to a “family retreat, a family project” is a topic still warm from weeks of discussion.
“I’m sure he asked to go only because of his involvement with the blueprints,” Rex remembered explaining when the subject first came up a month earlier. “I think he thought he’d help manage the construction crews—like before.”
Marcia had had other ideas and priorities, and no investment in precedent.
“If that’s so, then he must hold your abilities in low regard. This is our house, and it’s a small job. You’ve supervised much larger projects on your own,” she’d countered breaking in on his pitch with unusual directness before he’d even gotten it rolling. “I’m sorry, but I really think it needs to be just the three of us this time. That’s because the most important construction to be done this summer is familial. I know he’s your business partner, but that relationship does not extend to …” she’d stopped herself in time saving them both the trouble of further awkwardness in the matter.
Dealing with Lee on the subject, Rex was sure, had further strained the atmosphere between them at work.
“My God, next thing you know that woman will be regulating our work schedule,” Lee had predicted, his cutting laugh leaving no doubt that he was seriously affronted. “Isn’t there anything she won’t try to control and tidy-up to her specifications?”
For at least a week Rex remained in the awkward middle ground between business partner and wife, until both fell strangely silent on the subject.
“Keep this elevated for awhile, and try not to worry,” Marcia said clipping the bandage in place over an ice pack. “A month away from each other, it could be the best thing for both of you,” she said adjusting the bandage to make sure it wouldn’t cut off the circulation. “The best thing for everyone,” she added, withdrawing her hands. “Besides, I expect Lee’s feeling terrible about the whole thing already.”
Though her generosity, it seemed to Rex, was extended without emotional investment, he felt something like relief all the same. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he didn’t call or …”
The sound of the back door slamming interrupted Marcia’s train of thought. Rex saw something like confusion, like dread—wash over her features. It showed in the way her shoulders moved back, in the look on her face when she turned toward the sound, as if she’d not really wanted to be surprised at all.
Just then, Alec—disheveled as ever, and soaking wet—strode into the room.
Rex wondered why it was that he often had a hard time looking at his son—my only surviving child, he reminded himself. Why, then, was it so…uncomfortable to be around the boy? Now that Alec had turned fourteen, the boy struck him as markedly sullen and owlish. Something about his circular face and pale myopic eyes, the sharpness of his nose, a certain predatory arrogance about the full lips. These little things irritated Rex—like the way Alec let his hair go unwashed for days, dingy to the color of oxidized copper, with that wayward, greasy forelock slipping to a point over the bridge of his nose. Even the smell of boy bothered him, so humid and dank, like fruit ripening in a swampy place. It was enough to inspire an impulse on Rex’s part to withdraw.
He’d been fighting the feeling for some time, ever since the previous fall when Alec had surprised him at the office one afternoon, demanding money for a short-notice school outing. The incident still grated whenever Rex thought of it, Alec bursting into the drafting room that way, with never so much as a knock, with no regard for his business, the way he might’ve disturbed them. And so typical of Alec to dispense attitude with every glance and word. As if he and Lee had somehow deserved it.
“What happened to him?” Alec muttered, glowering briefly at Marcia. “Does this mean we’re not heading up to Prospect tomorrow?”
Rex found it difficult to believe that this great gangling creature had, years earlier, been a fairly happy and sometimes even affectionate little boy. Certainly this Alec wasn’t the same person who’d begged to help plant and tend an intricate mountain garden five summers ago; not the child who had romped with Peter across the meadow at Prospect even three years earlier, the two brothers trailing kite string and laughter. Rex had to search hard for any trace of that Alec. Only the freckles remained, and the pale bottle-glass eyes that were so unusually large. It wasn’t much to work with. But when he let himself, when he looked away inside, Rex could still see, still remember, could still have both his boys back again; he could see them running, roughhousing around the garden—the way it had been when they were all together.
“Of course, we’re going,” Marcia said with enough emphasis to bring Rex back. “Your father just had a little mishap at work.”
“Yeah, right. What happened? Lee drop a drafting table on him or something?”
“What’s it to you! Not your worry, is it?” Rex spat out at his son, the words out of his mouth before he could call them back. Immediately he regretted having spoken. What else could the outcome be but more of the same—the inevitable sarcasm. Alec was so quick.
“Whatever,” the boy said, his mouth twisting into a sneer. “And who said I was worried.”
“You don’t have time to worry about anything except finishing your packing,” Marcia interjected. “Better get a push on and bring down the rest of your gear. We can’t afford to get a late start tomorrow. The construction crews will be meeting us on the mountain before noon.”
She took a few steps toward him, as if she intended a hands-on emphasis. But even Marcia wasn’t that quick. Before she could get close, Alec was lurching away, stomping out of the room, rumbling under his breath just loud enough for both of them to hear.
“Oh sure. Let’s make a biiiiggg hurry. Like, I can hardly wait to start my so-called vacation.”
It ended as it always did, Rex thought. With Alec scoring the last coup, with Alec striding smugly off the field. The whole thing, like a crazy game. Almost like his recent altercation with Lee, engagements during which, despite Rex’s best intentions, the outcome remained unaccountably the same.
“What do we do now?” he said, closing his eyes against the throbbing that had somehow migrated from his leg to his temples.
Marcia allowed a beat. “Wait ten years,” she answered, and the flat, matter-of-factness of her voice made it impossible not to smile.
“What, no relief in sight till I’m…forty-eight?” Rex sighed, settling back into the sofa. It never failed; Alec had the unique ability to make Rex even more acutely aware of his exhaustion.
Marcia smiled back at him. “It’s not so bad. And I do keep something for these emergencies,” she offered. “Something that’ll help you rest up for the trip tomorrow.”
The small white tablets she dropped into the palm of his hand had tiny “V’s” punched out of their middles. “V” for vacation, “v” for victory, or was it vanquished? Rex wasn’t sure. He only knew that once swallowed, the Valium would carry him far from the battle, into a virtual brown study. And quickly.
In just a few minutes, he thought swallowing the pills, he would close his eyes and know that it was okay, know that he could handle the short-term grief. He would close his eyes and it would all be there: the garden on the crest of the hill, the meadow spread out below, a flowering carpet of wild blossoms on slender stalks above a sea of summer grasses. His little kingdom enclosed by aspen colonies, lodgepole pines, and Christmas tree spruce. It was a miracle, what modern pharmacy could accomplish: another chance to live again. For a short while, he would have them back, the twins as they’d been, Peter and Alec: both his boys streaking away across a field ablaze with colors. Colors to bruise the senses. Then he would sleep.
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