Mary Kate Varnau received her MFA from Southern Illinois University. Her first published story appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Redivider. She has another forthcoming in Glimmer Train; it was awarded second place in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers.
They didn’t have a honeymoon. They moved into a blue two-bedroom on Western, sight unseen, the first two months’ rent a wedding gift from her parents. They pulled up to the house on a bright day, the baby sleeping in her arms. They didn’t have help with the furniture, so Marianne was obliged to spread a blanket on the lime green linoleum. She set Danny on the ground. He kicked his legs and they curled back up to his chest. She turned around and felt the pang of leaving him alone for the first time, like a body splitting apart, her heart in the kitchen.
They didn’t have much to carry in. They brought a mattress with no box spring, a single armchair, and a cast iron crib — a family heirloom on his side, a terrifying thing. She told him it looked like a baby prison. He said, “Sounds about right,” wiping the sweat off his forehead. They muscled the metal box into the living room — chipped off a good chunk of the casing doing it — and as the little clawed feet clicked onto the ground, that’s when Marianne decided that she would not speak for the rest of the day.
She and Danny went on a long walk — as long as her arms could stand it.
She came back to find Bill sitting in the armchair, sipping a can of Rheingold, reading the Farmer’s Almanac. She expected a question. An I was worried. You’ve been gone for such a long time. An hour at least. But her pause in the doorframe resulted only in Bill’s attention. He looked around, confused. “You want to sit?” he said, getting up.
She made a throaty sound. Shook her head. Bill went back to his reading.
An hour later, he went on a grocery run. He did not consult her. He came back with two pounds of ground chuck, a package of bacon, some white bread, butter, a gallon of milk, a jar of pickles, and a hunk of cheese from the deli. He fried them up three patty melts for dinner — two for himself, one for her — again, without asking. They ate cross-legged on the floor with the window open, the lace curtains billowing above them. The very second the last bite entered his mouth, he got up, put the cheese and bread away, and left the cast iron frying pan with its bits of blackened meat sitting on top of the stove. He would always leave it this way, she realized. With the stray crumbs of charred food just hanging around, collecting dust, waiting for pancake batter to be poured on top of them.
Bill drove over to Andy’s house. Andy was Marianne’s cousin and Bill’s best friend, the person who introduced them and who felt somewhat responsible, she thought, for their situation. He’d taken it upon himself to collect a few “housewarmers” from friends and family. Marianne didn’t know what that meant. Some old tablecloths maybe. A set of knives. But Bill returned in the early evening, grinning like a kid, smelling significantly of beer, and carrying an old tube television. After that, he brought in another armchair, a metal frame for their bed, a box spring, and a card table with three folding chairs, chattering all the while about where these treasures came from.
Marianne held to her promise of silence. She nodded, occasionally, holding the baby. She refused him even the gratification of a smile.
She made supper. They ate it. She put the baby to bed. She took another walk that night. She left without his knowing, and when she came back, the TV was on. It was M*A*S*H, a show she despised for its secret sadness. A show that masqueraded as a comedic romp, that lured you into complacency with catty coworkers and secret love affairs, and then cut you to the bone with tragedy. A show where there’s someone tripping on a banana one minute and dying the next.
Marianne sat in the new armchair.
Bill muted the TV during the commercial break. He unfolded the Sunday paper.
Marianne stared at the moving images. A mop commercial. One for perfume, with the silhouettes of a man and a woman in the shower. A whole day had gone by. Their first day married. An entire day of silence, and he didn’t even notice.
“We ought to work on getting a couch,” Bill said without looking up from the Tribune, “so we can sit together.”
Marianne started to cry.
Bill lowered the paper.
He didn’t ask her what was the matter. He said, “Come here.” When she didn’t move, he said it again. He raised his left arm.
Marianne stood up. She went over to him. She sat on his lap, put her head against the neckline of his T-shirt. She cried a little. When she calmed down, he unmuted the television. They watched three episodes, Bill gently rocking them.
. . .
Marianne woke up during the blackest part of the night, and she didn’t know where she was. There were strange smells and a little orange light distant through a window and the bulky shapes of furniture she didn’t know and the texture of a blanket she didn’t know, and the dimmest outline of a person, snoring. She was sitting up now, which meant that she’d been sleeping on her back, a position she never slept in, and she realized all at once that she was married, that this was her husband, that he had carried her to bed.
. . .
A week later, Bill’s sister Trudy paid a visit. She brought a bag of ham sandwiches and a single Snickers bar. After lunch, they cut it into thirds. They promised they would save the final piece for Bill, who didn’t get off work until seven. But then Marianne put on a pot of coffee, and they got to talking, and Trudy unceremoniously tore the chunk in half, caramel licking apart, bowing over her fingers.
Marianne never had a sister. She was the first of seven children, all boys after her. Hers was the kind of house that felt lonesome even with nine people living in its three bedrooms. Her father was always gone — he spent half his time in the fields, half his time at a factory job in town — and her mother was always home. Home and busy. Her brothers were baling hay or playing football or out in the haylofts doing God knows what, probably gambling their chores over cards. Marianne never knew. She lived in that house eighteen years, two days, and she couldn’t have told you where everybody was gone off to, what her fourth youngest brother’s favorite color was. And here was Trudy, sixteen, with a part down the middle of her head. Here was Trudy, sitting at the kitchen table while Marianne did the dishes, asking questions, waiting for answers, and giving 100% of her attention to the effort. It was unnerving, almost, to be attended to like this. One minute Trudy’d like to know why Marianne’s boobs were pointy like that. “Like a ‘50s housewife,” she said, looking around the room. “Well, I guess you kind of are a ‘50s housewife.” The next, she’d move on to her mother’s latest antics: She was clucking at the dog. Like a chicken. She went for a walk in her slippers. “I found her reading in the public library.”
“What’s strange about that?”
“Apart from the fact of my mother, reading? Well, they called me to come get her because she was sitting with her skirt in her mouth, chewing at the hemline. A big old ring of spit soaked through the fabric.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
“I know.” Trudy flicked a breadcrumb to the floor.
“Did she stop when you showed up?”
“Nope, just smiled at me, mouth full.”
“And then what happened?”
“What do you mean what happened? She asked if I wanted a bite, and so we sat down and ate together like a family.”
“You’re terrible,” Marianne said, when in fact she thought Trudy wonderful. Wonderful and sad. To be talking about your mother like that. To have to tell your mother it’s time to go now, take that skirt out of your mouth now.
This was only the second time she’d ever talked to Trudy. They’d met at the wedding, if you could call it a wedding. And now, just a few days later, they were family and they felt like family, and it was Trudy who made that so. She had such an open way about her. Such an unassuming way. A complete freedom to say and do because there was no one to care, in her world, about little offenses. She would braid her hair while they talked, go look in the mirror, say, “my God, you wretched creature,” then she’d tear the braid apart and do it again, with all the same lumps and bulges.
Marianne let her talk all day, until she was sick of it. Until she’d heard every complaint about life and boys and Trudy’s mother and Trudy’s part-time job, and the baby was crying, and Bill came home for his supper. Marianne’s back hurt. She hardly knew these people.
Trudy, mistaking Marianne’s mood, said something. They were walking toward the door. Bill was in the bathroom, cleaning up. Trudy put her hand on Marianne’s forearm. She said, “I know he might seem cold sometimes, but it’s not because he doesn’t care.”
The bathroom door opened. It shone a light into the darkening living room.
Trudy said her goodbyes. And when she left, Marianne felt the full hollowing force of her absence. Trudy was gone, and she was alone. She was alone with Bill.
They sat down to two plates of pork chops and buttered sweet corn.
Marianne asked him about his day.
Bill said it was fine. That Camber, his boss, was in a bad mood.
In the bedroom, the baby gurgled. He sighed. The sheets crackled and went quiet.
“Trudy spent the whole day over here,” she said. “We talked quite a bit. Well, Trudy talked.”
That got a smile out of him.
“We talked about your mother,” Marianne said. “I guess Trudy found her—”
Bill cleared his throat. Asked Marianne to pass the salt.
He took a bite. “Corn’s getting worse every year,” he said. “On account of this damn rain.”
Bill cleaned his plate. Marianne washed up.
While Bill was tinkering in the garage, Marianne stood in front of the bathroom mirror. She scrubbed her face, twice. She looked down at her nightgown, the taut places where her belly hit the fabric. The vestiges of her pregnancy. The thing that brought them together. “You’ll look like a woman again,” she said aloud. And she picked at the clogged pores of her chin and nose and forehead with a violence that left her skin singing.
Marianne felt a wave of relief as Bill clicked off the bedside light.
Night was her favorite time in this new house. It wasn’t a time for talking, for being interesting, for doing well. At night, they spoke in bodies, in the flutter of an old box fan. She could rest. She could kiss him without fear — or with less fear anyway. She could look at the gleam of that silver band on her finger, rising and falling with his breath, and feel like his wife.
When morning came, she would stay in bed, pretending to be asleep, watching from slit eyes as he ran through his ritual: He came back from the bathroom, smelling like aftershave, a towel tied over his belly button. He clapped a palm of baby powder under each arm. He combed his hair — three swipes to the right, seven to the left — and then he loosed the knot of his towel. It fell away in a flourish.
Bill wasn’t the most attractive man in the world, she knew. He was about 5’9” with a smallish frame. He had strong arms and skinny legs, a bit of a paunch and two great dimples where his behind met his back. She could draw it. She would covet the twenty seconds it took to pull his shorts on. The twelve for his pants. Ten for the undershirt. He would put a hand on her shoulder and say “I’m leaving,” and she would hmm a little, rousing, turn her head for a peck on the lips, and then she’d listen as his footsteps receded, as the deadbolt slid through its chute, as the truck backed out of the drive, and always — always — she would feel better. He was gone. The house was hers, and she was herself, at least for the intervening hours.
. . .
As the fall wore on, Trudy spent more of her time at the newlyweds’. She and Marianne would sit on the carpet, playing with Danny, observing him for long periods, speculating about what kind of man he would become, what kind of lasting personality traits could be extrapolated from, say, a preoccupation with his belly button, a regular clenching and unclenching of his little fists.
Marianne noticed Trudy deflecting less. She would speak openly about the burden of caring for her mom. How impossible Bertha would make the simplest tasks, like brushing her teeth. How, as Trudy sat there, she could not say with any reasonable measure of certainty that Bertha’s toenails had been clipped in the previous six months.
Marianne’s mother, on the other hand, would drop by with the occasional casserole. She would set it on the concrete stoop or, if Marianne was there, she’d pass the dish from her gloved hands, politely declining to stay.
They saw her at mass sometimes. She sat at the front of the sanctuary. Bill still wasn’t taking the Eucharist, and Marianne’s mother made it clear — in the whites of her eyes, in the fingers laced tight, locked under her chin — what she thought of the fact that Marianne did.
Trudy was more than her friend. She was the only family left — including Bill even, maybe — who liked her.
One morning, early, Marianne and Trudy were power walking down the flattest, straightest country block in Northern Indiana, a bright sheen of snow sitting half-melted on the fields. They took turns carrying the baby. They were playing a hypothetical game, questions like, “Would you rather have twelve kids or only one?” and “Tom Selleck or David Hasselhoff?” This last one made Trudy break out in a fever of a smile.
“What?” Marianne said.
“What what? What nothing,” Trudy answered, but she couldn’t contain it.
The barest nudge and Trudy started on about a boy she met at work. Ron looked exactly like Tom Selleck, she said, “only with brown eyes and no mustache and a kind of scar on his left temple and these big hands and big eyes — and tall, tall as a sycamore — and his hair cut long in the back.”
She looked at Marianne, her breath steaming, her hair wild and her eyes wild and the moon wild and orange behind her.
. . .
“Bill,” Marianne said, folding towels. “What’ll we do about Christmas?”
The table was littered with tri-folded papers and torn envelopes. Bill sat at the center of the mess, punching numbers into an accounting calculator. Every few minutes, the printer would make a scritching sound and the roll of paper reeled out an inch. “It’s not a mouse in the garage,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean,” he said. “It’s Christmas. We’ll … bake a ham. Go out to the farm, if you like.”
“I mean about Daniel.”
“Have you seen that blue folder, the one with the rent receipts?”
“Will we have money to get him some presents?”
Bill set down his reading glasses. He blinked his eyes heavily, scrunching his nose. “He’s five months old.”
“Well,” she said, as the baby started to cry. Marianne picked him up.
“He’s too young. He won’t even know.”
“But I’ll know,” she said. She lifted Danny by the armpits to smell his diaper.
Bill was shaking his head.
“He’s our son,” Marianne said. She walked him across the room. She pretended to bite his fingers. “It’s his first Christmas on this planet.” She delivered him into the arms of his father. “And it’s your turn,” she finished.
She resumed her laundry as Bill took Danny to the changing table in their bedroom. She took out the last piece of clothing — a pair of washer-worn briefs — and neatly folded it into quarters. “Ten dollars,” she heard him say from the other room.
“Okay,” she hollered. And then, quieter, she said, “It’s enough.” She placed her piles back into the basket. “That’ll be enough.”
After supper, Marianne rushed over to Trudy’s with some bone broth. She went to hand over the jar, to say hello to Bertha and help with the dishes, to throw in a few loads of laundry, to scrub down the bathroom maybe, despite Trudy’s protests. But more than all these daily reasons, she left home to visit Trudy because she felt powerful. She felt that something was changing between her and Bill and that she ought to get out of the house before she said something stupid or did something stupid and it all went back to normal.
She parked around back, tapped lightly at the screen door. “Tru?” she said. She let herself in.
Inside, Bertha sat sipping from a mug at the kitchen table. She wore a blue velour robe. She looked up as Marianne came in from the mudroom, saying, “Oh, it’s you.”
Marianne smiled at this unenthusiastic reception. “Hello Bertie,” Marianne said. “Do you know where Trudy is?”
Bertha penned five letters on her crossword puzzle.
Marianne leaned over to see the answer, which was “ALRMH.” All the letters, across and down, spelled out similarly nonsensical words.
Bertha said, “Why would I care about that?”
On any other day, Marianne might have been daunted. But today, she wrapped her free arm around Bertha’s shoulder. “Drink your tea, old woman,” she said and kissed her on the head — a first. She set the jar on the table. She made her way past the living room, which was all a quiet dim, a shadow of lampshade fringe, a massive black void where the piano perched on the wall. She intended to mount the stairs. She imagined Trudy up there reading or practicing her makeup. She reached for the light switch by the front door.
That’s when she saw it.
A shadow on the front steps. A looming figure, writhing. It was a monstrous big man, come to burglarize the house. This house with poor Trudy and Bertha just sitting inside, drinking tea and listening to records with their legs kicked up, out in the middle of the country, this poor country with its cracked asphalt roads and no neighbors for half a mile in any direction. These two women so small and frail. Helpless as girls.
Marianne stood with her fingernails pressed into the skin of her chest. She was frozen, long enough to make out some detail. To see that the monster had four arms. That it had two bodies. And two mouths.
It was Trudy, she realized. Trudy and her beau, kissing.
Trudy and her beau in the rain. Wearing their date clothes, their jackets wrapped over his forearm.
He was tall, just as Trudy said. He had sideburns and wavy hair combed down. It touched the top of his shirt collar.
Trudy wore a neat little gray dress that Marianne recognized from the sewing room. But she had never seen it on Trudy. She didn’t realize, before now, how impossibly tiny Trudy’s waist was. As they kissed his hands shifted — one of them settling there, a big thumb on the soft space under her sternum. It made Marianne touch her own stomach. The expanse where her waist used to be.
Just when Marianne meant to turn away, to go home and let them neck on the porch like teenagers — she would hear about these adventures tomorrow — Ron pulled back from Trudy. He stopped to look at her. At her smiling face, upturned despite the cold rain. At her mascara running.
Slowly, he lifted a hand. He brushed her cheek with his knuckles. He sunk the length of his fingers into her hairline.
And then he kissed her with such a ferocity that her whole body arced. His arms circled her. He pulled her up by the behind. He grasped at the back of her neck. He stepped to the side, and again, and again, holding the balance of her weight, her tiptoes joining the ground as they moved.
And Trudy. She was gone now, only her arms visible. They were hooked under Ron’s, her palms flat on his back. They were aimed at the sky. Like praying.
Marianne startled, realizing herself.
She looked from Trudy’s hands to her own. Her little white fingers with their chubby segments. Her bitten-down nails. Her skin cracked from the cold, from wet wipes and doing dishes. She felt that brokenness in every part of her body, in her chapped lips and her flabby belly, in her limp hair and her weakness and her total, wanton neediness.
She fumbled away, bumping into the hall table. She streaked through the dark hallway, into the kitchen, where Bertha stood drinking her bone broth, where she lowered the jar, fat glistening on her chin, before slamming it on the counter.
Marianne drove like the dickens. She squealed into her driveway. Which was not her driveway at all, but the gravel path that led up to her family home. Her home. It was a traditional farmhouse with white siding and blue shutters. A wraparound porch. She turned off the car.
Her brothers would be asleep, she knew. Her dad would have long since gone to bed.
Marianne sat there, thinking, wondering about her own bed on the second story, whether the cream crocheted afghan still covered its foot, if there was a chance, if she might use the spare key taped under the mailbox, if she could climb the stairs quiet, if she could slip under the covers and go to sleep this one night. Eat breakfast at the kitchen table. Do her chores and go to school and help her mother make supper.
In the house, a light clicked on. A lamp in the living room. The shape of a woman walked through the space. It stopped at the front window, parted the curtains. Then it disappeared and the light went out, and Marianne let her head rest against the driver’s side window.
She sat for a long time, shivering, watching her breath fog the steering wheel.
. . .
She woke some minutes later, to a fist knocking on her head. No, not on her head. But on the window. “Marianne,” a voice said.
The zipper on his Carhartt.
She was freezing.
His fingertips on the glass.
“What are you doing?” Bill said.
She didn’t know what to say.
“It’s thirty degrees.”
He knocked again.
“Roll this down.”
She obeyed, like she promised to do so many months ago, in the courthouse, without flowers. Without her family. When Bill tried to slide his sister’s first communion ring over her knuckle but it wouldn’t fit. It was a hot day and everybody was sweating. The judge. Bill. Trudy in her flowered sundress. Marianne had come directly from the hospital. She wore one of her maternity dresses. A yellow cotton sack with a high neckline. Fabric sagging below the too-tight bust. Her breasts leaking. Her armpits leaking. And her fingers swollen up like sausages.
She rolled the window halfway down.
“What are you doing out here?” He reached into the car. He unlocked the door. He jerked the handle open, and she nearly came spilling out.
Bill squatted to catch her.
He put his hand on her shoulder. He squeezed. Almost too hard.
“What do you mean by this?” he said, and there was such a look on his face. He was angry. She had never seen him angry before.
Marianne cleared her throat. She avoided his eyes. “I want to go home,” she said. And she started to cry.
Bill stood up. He walked in a circle. When he finally said something, it was, “I cannot be responsible for this.”
Which made Marianne cry harder.
“Scoot over,” he told her. And they left the truck. He drove them home in her car, and she refused to look at him. She stared, instead, at the blanket of ice on the fields. Tonight’s rain had crystallized the snow. Everywhere you looked, there was a thick white plate of ice. It capped the silos. It dangled from cedar branches. “It’s not enough,” she said.
“What?” Bill said.
“The ten dollars,” she said, thinking about Christmas. What a quiet affair it would be. She thought about how she would stay awake that night, fretting, and how Bill would sleep the sleep of the unbothered. The seamless eight hours of a person whose biggest concern was the long-range weather forecast. Crop yield predictions for a farm he didn’t even tend anymore. She thought about how elated Trudy would be. And how in the world she would bear it, the happiness of a beloved sister, whose man looked at her in a way that Marianne knew she would never be looked at. And how she would face a whole life without that look. And how no one else seemed to notice. How even Bertha was content in her delusion, was happy enough to drink a vat of grease and call it tea. It wasn’t enough, she thought. These silent suppers and her goddamned allowance and wanting something so bad. It wasn’t enough. And she thought, for the first time, that maybe it wasn’t enough because of her.
When they got home, she turned on the shower. She undressed slowly, steam groping its way up the pink tile walls. She closed her eyes. She felt a flicker in her arm. The impression of Bill’s five fingers. The way they seized her. And with that pressure on her skin, she felt the history of their bodies together, connected like a string.
The beads of water stung when she got in, and she cried out. She hadn’t realized how cold she’d been.
“What?” Bill said, appearing in the door.
She saw how unfair it was. How unfair to herself. How unfair to Bill, who stood there bare chested, hairy, the strings of his pajama pants tied in a sloppy knot. Who didn’t know. Who was trying, even with his grouchy eyes, who wanted this tension to go away and, as such, wanted her to be happy. She saw how unfair it was and how unfair it would continue to be.
“Nothing,” she said, and she forced herself to stand in the blast of the water, needles pricking her frigid skin. She lathered an old washcloth. “Nothing,” she said again, to herself, and she washed up quickly.