"Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
Claude Reiger, sixty-eight, sat behind his morning paper at the breakfast table consciously trying to shut out the annoying noise which threatened his concentration while reading the highlights of yesterday's Braves-Cubs game.
"Blah, blah, blah, blah....Claude!"
He grimaced, but refused to look from behind the paper barrier. He fished for his spoon and took a bite of bran flakes. Then he rattled the pages a bit to shoo away the distraction.
A hand from nowhere, grabbed the middle of the sports page and pulled it away from his face. "I said, what do you think, Claude?"
He looked over the top of his reading glasses. "Christ, woman, can't you let me read in peace? Is it asking too much to be left alone with my cereal and my paper? Or must I listen to your incessant yammering?"
"Yammering! Claude, you and I haven't had a conversation in this house in I don't know how long. Until I retired, I was able to talk with folks at work, but now that I'm stuck at home with you...well, I'm about to go out of my mind."
"Well, you're not alone on that. Sounds like a female thing to me. Are you out of your hormone pills?" He straightened out his paper. "Why don't you give the doctor a call and let me finish reading?"
Vi pushed her chair away from the table and left the room without another sound. Claude breathed a sigh of relief. It had taken him years, but he had become a master at shutting her up.
Twenty minutes later, he again sensed a presence behind his paper. He tried to ignore it, but found himself forced to look up. "Now what is it?" he asked impatiently.
Vi stood in the kitchen doorway clutching her purse to her chest. "I've packed your bags. I want you out today. I phoned Sue and Allen and they say you're welcome to stay in their guest room until you make other arrangements." She began fishing at the bottom of her purse for something. "Claude, I can't stand living like this any longer. I feel like a widow. You're either behind that newspaper or underneath that old heap you work on out in the garage. I refuse to spend the rest of my life with someone who doesn't even acknowledge me. So, once you've finished your paper, I'd recommend you get your things together and go on over to the kids'. Sue left a key to the front door under the big flower pot." She pulled her keys from her bag. "Well, I won't keep you from your reading."
Claude looked at Vi, but saw a stranger. Did she really say what he thought he'd heard? Impossible. He had to give her doctor a call. He'd spent forty-two years dealing with her hormones, PMS, post-partum depressions, and menopause. Just when he thought all of the mood swings were behind him - this. It was then he heard the engine of the Olds. He made it to the living room window just in time to see the car pull away.
Four days he'd spent with the kids, waiting for Vi to call to admit she'd been wrong. On Thursday, he went by the house. The Olds wasn't in the driveway. He decided to go inside to grab a couple of things he'd forgotten. Vi wouldn't mind. He went to the side door and tried to insert his key into the lock. It didn't fit. He looked to be certain he had the right one. It seemed to be. He tried again. "Aw, hell!" he muttered and walked around to the front of the house. He tried his key in the front door with the same result. "I'm hardly out of the house and she's changed the locks! Trying to keep me....ME....out of the place that's been my home for twenty-seven years! Well, this is where I draw the line. I've done all a man can do to put up with this craziness, but no more. A man ought to be able to take his things out of his own house!"
He thrashed his way through the gardenia bushes to the dining room window that never locked. He used his key to pry off the screen and raised the window. It took a lot of effort to hoist his two-hundred and thirty pound frame up to the sill, but after several tries, he managed to get his upper body through. It was then he realized that his belt had caught on one of the hooks for the Christmas lights and he couldn't move any farther. It was also then that he heard the sound of a familiar car turning into the drive. The engine shut off and the car door opened and shut. He could hear Vi walking around from the side of the house. "Why, Claude, how nice of you to greet me with your better half! To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"I came to get some things, but I couldn't get in the goddamn door. I wasn't about to wait all day for you to get back."
"Well," Vi said, pulling his belt free from the hook, "It's a good thing I came back so soon or you may have suffered permanent damage from blood deprivation to your legs"
"Oh, crap," he said, dropping to the ground, "I wouldn't have had to resort to this if you hadn't changed the locks."
"You never know who might try to get in. A girl has to keep herself safe." Vi walked back to retrieve her purse and the mail from the hood of the car, then unlocked the side door. Stepping inside, Claude noticed she had changed the kitchen curtains. Instead of the little mushrooms that covered the windows for the past three years, she had hung red and white strawberry patterned curtains. He tried to get a look into the dining room to see what else she might have changed. Vi laid her purse on the countertop. "Now what were those things you needed?"
"Eh...well, dammit, I forget."
"Well, when you remember, you can give me a call and I'll bring them over when I see Sue this weekend."
"So, where were you anyway? You're never out of the house on Thursday mornings. Are you sick or something?"
"No, I registered to take a couple of classes at the community college. I'm going to take a class in water color painting and another in early childhood education. I thought maybe I could volunteer to work at the community day care."
"Jeez, Vi, have you lost your mind? Drawing, painting, why you can't even draw money out of the bank. As for "early childhood education," didn't you learn enough by raising your own? All our kids turned out okay without you having to be educated for it. Why, look at Sue. This is just a lot of foolishness."
"Well, the registrar didn't think so. She was quite happy to take someone with my life experience."
"Hell, yeah! They'll take any damn fool willing to shell out cash. I can't talk about it any more; my stomach is burning and my chest is tightening up. Are the antacids still in the cabinet, or have you changed them around, too?"
Vi reached above the sink and handed him the bottle. "Well, thank goodness you don't have to. Now, I'm sure you have lots of important things to do. Don't let me waste your time. And you can keep the bottle of Tums. I haven't needed them lately." She opened the side door in an invitation for him to leave. Claude threw a couple of chalky tablets into his mouth and, before he knew it, he was back on the sidewalk.
The following Sunday, he took a walk which, coincidentally, led him to his old neighborhood. He walked back in forth in front of his house at least twenty-five times. Kids riding their bikes were beginning to give him funny looks. Finally, he decided to turn up the front walk. He rang the doorbell. Nothing. He leaned backwards and craned his neck to see over the gardenia bushes. The Olds was in the driveway. He rang again. This time, he heard the tip-tap of Vi's heels across the wood floor. The door opened, but only enough for her to stick her head out. She'd done herself up. Her silver hair was curled and she had rouged her cheeks. Her dress, from what he could see of it, looked new. "I came over to visit, Vi. Can I come inside?"
"You should have phoned. It's not a good time right now."
"C'mon, Vi, stop playing and let me into my own house." He pushed the door open. There, on the flowered sofa in the living room, sat Arthur Wilson, in a suit, no less. Vi's face went red.
"So this is what it's all about, is it? You can't wait to get me out of the house, so you can move your new boyfriend in! Art, I won't forget this!"
"Claude, stop acting a fool. Art is only a friend. Why don't you give me a call later?"
"Jeez, Vi, you're my wife. What are you trying to do, cut my heart out? Here, I'll help you." With that, he pulled the small pen knife that he used to tighten the screws in his eyeglasses out of his pocket, opened the blade, and jabbed himself three times in the wide expanse of his abdomen.
"Claude, you have finally gone over the edge," Vi said with a disgusted look on her face and shut the door in his face.
He looked down at his abdomen. Aside from three small cuts in the front of his shirt, it was difficult to tell that anything had happened. There was little, if any, blood. Still, he might have damaged something. Vi needed to call a doctor. He rang the bell again. No answer. He knocked. He could hear conversation inside the house, but there was definitely no movement towards the door. He turned and walked to the nearest payphone to call the paramedics.
At the emergency room, a young intern swabbed his wounds out with alcohol and sent him home. He said it would be a waste of good sutures to attempt to stitch anything. The intern asked how it happened and Claude was sure he turned away to hide a smile as Claude recounted the story of his recent marital problems. How could one man laugh at another's agony? He resolve he would never be treated at this hospital again, regardless of the problem. He would die first.
As he left, Claude asked the nurse to give his wife a call to let her know he was okay. She dialed. "Mrs. Reiger, this is Mrs. Alexander from Community Memorial. I am calling to let you know that your husband was treated in our emergency room this afternoon for stab wounds."
"From a pen knife?"
"Well, let me check his chart. Yes, I believe you are correct."
"I could have done more damage with my fingernail."
"Well, Ma'am, nonetheless..."
"Just tell him to give me a call when he's feeling better." The line went dead.
"I can't believe she would let me die alone."
"Dad, that's hardly the case. You're barely hurt at all." Sue handed her father two aspirins and glass of water. The morning after his visit to the emergency room, he lay on her den sofa clutching his abdomen. The alcohol the intern had used to flush his wounds yesterday had hurt worse than the punctures themselves.
"Forty-two years you live with someone and you think you know them inside and out, as well as you can know another human being. And then they up and do something like this to you. She's turned cold, I tell you. She hung up on the nurse before she even knew if I would live or die."
Sue suppressed a smile of her own. To be honest, she could sympathize with her mother. As far back as she could remember, her dad had never been one to talk much - to her mother or anyone in the family. Supper conversation were led by her mother, who insisted that Sue and her brothers each share something about their day. Most evenings, her dad sat behind his evening paper, his total contribution to the conversation being a disinterested grunt after a question had been posed to him a second or third time.
"She did just retire two months ago. That's quite a transition. Why don't you plan a trip for the two of you; just to get away and talk. That might work."
"Damn woman's probably spent my whole retirement savings on classes at the community college and those aging Romeos she has over at the house every evening. Probably isn't enough left for a trip to the laundromat."
"Well, think about it anyway. Things aren't going to get any better until you two work them out. She told the hospital nurse for you to call when you felt better. Why don't you do what she said? I have to get to work now. Do you need anything else before I go?"
"No, I'm okay. All of this sounds like a bunch of goddamned crap if you ask me."
She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. "Well, think about it. I'll see you this evening."
Tuesday evening, the air was warm, but not unpleasant, as Claude walked over to "Vi's" house. He'd visited Don's Barber Shop that morning for a haircut and Sue had picked up one of his suits from Vi last evening and taken it to the cleaners. He even walked to Food Lion this morning to pick out a bunch of carnations. Vi greeted him at the door and had prepared his favorite dinner of baked potatoes and roast beef.
After dinner, they sat outside on the porch swing. The night was beginning to cool off and Vi shivered. He put his arm around her. The air was filled with the fragrance of gardenias. He remembered how, when he and Vi first dated, she used to wear a gardenia bobby-pinned in her hair. He remembered how good she smelled when he kissed her. Sometimes at the end of the evening, she would take the flower from her hair and put it in his shirt pocket. Driving home, he could imagine her still there with him. But, that was years ago.
"Vi, I'm sorry for all I put you through. I know you want more from me and I promise I'll try to give it to you. Now, can we forget all this nonsense and move me back in?"
"I can't let you do that. Claude, we can't be anything to one another until we start to be friends. Somewhere through the years, we stopped being that to one another. Do you remember, before we married, I once told you that you were my best friend?" Her eyes glistened with tears. Suddenly, Claude felt something stir within him that he hadn't felt in years. He wanted to pull Vi to him and kiss her hard on the mouth. Instead, he hugged her a little closer.
"I won't compromise on this. We'll have to start over from the beginning."
"Well, then," said Claude, "would you consider a date this Friday night?"
Vi reached over the railing, pulled a gardenia off a nearby bush and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Then, she rose from the swing and walked to the front door. Opening it, she turned to him, smiled and said, "I'm sure I'll be able to work out something on my calendar." She blew him a kiss and then she was gone.