Tom put his head in Marie’s office. “Recalled to life,” he announced.
His wife looked up from her desk. He didn’t recognize her. This happened all the time now. He kept expecting to see a young woman. The only color in Marie’s face was the red around her eyes and a rawness on the tip of her nose. Her blond hair had darkened in a prelude to its turning gray. She was thirty-two. It was too soon for her to be old. He knew that what he was looking at was anger and exhaustion. But he blamed her.
“What’s that?” The sound of his voice registered with her, but never the words. Whenever he spoke to her she heard an irritating noise.
“Kate McDowell called.”
“It appears that my years of exile are over. She wants to meet with me. About running for mayor.”
“And I’m supposed to react to this how?”
Tom kept his temper, although he was sick and tired of waiting for her to forgive him. Once a week she exploded. Something minor he’d done or forgotten to do, something he’d said or left unsaid would set her off and she’d threaten to divorce him. Then things would return to normal and they wouldn’t talk for days. Tom had decided that she was too scared to follow-through on her threats. She was afraid of what it would be like trying to raise the kids on her own. There were times when he cursed her for her cowardice. One drawback of returning to politics suddenly occurred to him. There could be no divorce now. At least not until after November.
“You’re to be glad. I’ll be out of the house at night.”
“I don’t want you out of the house at night.”
“You never complained before.”
“It was different before.”
“Because you trusted me.”
“Because you deserved it.”
“I don’t deserve to be trusted now?”
“No, you don’t. But that’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I meant, you deserved to be on the City Council. I never complained because I thought you were doing the job you had earned the right to do.”
“So what are you saying? I don’t deserve to be mayor? Why? It’s where I was headed. It’s what you said you wanted for me. What’s different now? I cheated? I cheated on you. One time. I make one mistake—”
“One! One mistake! I make one mistake so now you’re taking back everything you ever said? You used to talk about what a great job I’d do, how good I’d be for the city. Now all that’s changed because I was unfaithful to you? One time. That’s incredibly petty of you.”
Marie said nothing. She turned her head away. He read the hurt in the set of her mouth even if she wouldn’t let him see it in her eyes.
“You know how I’d like you to react?” he said, “I’d like you to react by being happy for me. This is the first step toward getting my life back. A life, by the way, I might never have lost if you hadn’t been so vindictive. If you had come out to campaign for me I might have won again. I needed you. You were supposed to be my campaign manager. I lost by two hundred and fifty votes. Half of those were probably people who said to themselves, Well, if his wife won’t support him, why should I? The other half could have been made up for by people who stayed home, people who voted for me before, people you’d have gone out and dragged to the polling booth by the hair the last time. You lost that election as much as I did. I’m warning you now. If you don’t work for me on this one, that’s it. I’m fed up. I’m sick to death of your perverse little persecution complex. I’m not going to stay married to you just so you can continue to play at being a martyr while all the time you’re really sticking around to punish me. I mean it.”
What could she say? He was big and tall and handsome and still young. She was small and pale and afraid. She had never been that pretty, and even before she’d gotten so shy and skinny and dry she’d been almost hopeless in bed. She put her face in her hands and started to cry.
“That won’t work,” Tom said. “If I thought you had a heart I might be moved. But it’s an act, and I won’t fall for it.”
He turned to leave, and she did just what he expected her to do. She picked up the nearest thing she could lay her hands on and threw it at him. Her telephone flew toward the back of his head and would have clocked him good if the cord had been longer. But the cord snapped taut, and the phone stopped in mid-flight and jerked back at her like a dog that had run to end of its leash. Tom slammed her door and then slammed his own and could still hear her screaming after him.
---from A Penance for Tom Mallory, a short story by Lance Mannion.
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