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Milkman

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In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The sharp smell of the whiskey mingled with the scent of the kitchen as he inhaled the distinctive odor and looked out at the hand-built mahogany bed covered in a blue quilt, a whimsical pattern stitched into the fabric, meandering along an unknown trail. The whiskey burned its way down his throat as he took in the smooth mahogany side table, the lamp with the red lampshade, and his well-worn sheepskin slippers—an anniversary present from quite a few years back—sitting on top of the freshly mowed grass as if they had just fallen from someone’s bedroom in the sky. Except it wasn’t just anyone’s bedroom, it was his—his pillows, his alarm clock which had woken him up everyday for the past twenty years, and his wedding ring resting in the drawer of the side table, the place where he put it when he slept. Even his half-finished crossword puzzle was there with an uncapped pen, where he had left it the day before; he could never finish the Saturday crossword, and Sunday was absolutely out of the question.

***

Seven down. Thirty-two across. Once he got started, he fell into a rhythm, moving along until he hit a roadblock. He would try to work around the rough patch until it could no longer be ignored, the images of blank squares burning into the back of his eyes, consuming his mind. During the week, these temporary struggles were just that, temporary. Even though he had attempted the crossword every day for the past twenty years, he repeatedly failed to vanquish his foe, the cursed Saturday puzzle. The bright white spaces taunted him throughout the day, challenging him to fill them in with a smudge of black pen, a scratch of graphite. Commitment, he thought, commitment is key. She would say, don’t you want to take a break, you’ve been at that for hours. He would say, just one minute, and that minute would turn into hours before he knew it. Despite his persistence, no matter how hard he thought or how many random facts he read, he could not do it. Every Saturday morning he would think that day might finally be the day, and every Saturday night he would go to sleep disappointed.
***



He was reminded of his shortcomings. He was reminded of last night. It was the night he thought he might actually finish the Saturday crossword, but did not have the chance. It was the night she found out. The event had happened so long ago he had almost forgotten, but just when it seemed the memory might disappear, it came back like a mosquito—only a faint buzz to begin, but as the small pest approached, the buzz seemed all consuming only to suddenly disappear, never knowing when it might appear again. Each time he was reminded of it, he felt as if he were reliving the moment. He tried to focus on the way the light came in through the window at dusk, the way the walls of the house shuttered gently while the wind whipped around it, the way the air smelled slightly sweet and tangy, anything to try not to actually remember it.

***

They met at the grocery store on a Saturday night. He was looking for milk, a late-night run to satisfy his craving for a bowl of Cheerios. He had snuck quietly out of the house, his sheepskin slippers murmuring quietly against the hardwood floor, so she wouldn’t notice; she always disapproved when he did things like this. The neon light from the OPEN sign softly poured through the window near the refrigerated items, illuminating the cartons of 12 cage free grade AA large brown eggs, the malleable red wax of the Babybel cheese, and the smiling cow on the organic 1% low fat milk. She, too, was looking for milk at midnight when she walked into what she thought was a wall, but she felt heat coming from the solid object behind her. When she turned around, she saw the fluorescent lights overhead casting an eerie glow over the man’s face, turning his skin an unnatural yellow and highlighting the few gray hairs in his otherwise dark head of hair. She said, sorry, I don’t know how I could have my driver’s license when I can’t even walk. He looked at his left hand; his ring was still sitting in his side table. Then he smiled—not in an overly friendly way, but in that way when there is no response that comes to mind, the gears turn endlessly but no words come out, no sentences are formed. She smiled back.
***



His eyelids were fluttering, struggling to stay open, when she came home from a girls’ night out. The door slammed in her wake, the sound waves echoing off the walls and reverberating inside of him. His eyes flew open, but he did not move. His breathing stayed slow and steady. He knew before she even said anything; he had known this day would come eventually. She entered the bedroom, her cheeks pink with the glow of alcohol. In a calm measured tone, perhaps too calmly, she said, maybe it would be better if you left. I don’t think there is a place for you here. He didn’t make any excuses. He just left.
When he returned the next day to collect his belongings, his bedroom was no longer in the room, but in the yard. He knew she would be at work, so he walked into the kitchen. The familiar smell comforted him, and he felt the sudden urge to kneel down and kiss the floor as one would do in a holy place. Instead, he sat down at the kitchen table he had built when they first married and poured himself a glass of whiskey. He struggled to understand why the bedroom was so prominently displayed on the front yard. As he sipped the drink, her words came back to him. They’re bound to find out anyway, why not put it on display? They can walk by with their children to show them the example, the example of what not to do. This was what she yelled at him as he walked out the door. He didn’t respond. He didn’t know how.

***

Her parents had divorced when she was a young child. Her only memories of them together consisted of their arguments; each voice strained to be heard over the other, doors slammed, and then it suddenly stopped, a long unbearable silence. In that silence, much remained unsaid and unexplained, but she understood. When she spent time with her friends’ families, she saw the way their parents gazed lovingly at each other and could carry on a conversation without raising their voices. She saw the way they didn’t have to say anything, but knew exactly what the other meant. Their silences were unlike the ones she knew; they were comfortable instead of unbearable. She spent her childhood being shuttled back and forth between the two houses. She had two bedrooms, two kitchens, two bathrooms, two of everything, except two parents. She spent half the week with her mother, and half with her father; she had half a family. Each parent sent her a different message, and in turn told her a different side of the same story. Her mother cursed her father; her father loved her mother. He told her of a time when they were in love, a time when no one else mattered, a time when it just was. She desperately wanted to side with her father, but deep down she knew that he had committed an unforgivable offense. She never wanted to be like her parents when she grew up.
***



The weeks went by. He no longer lived in the house, the shell a building becomes when it is no longer a home. The bedroom suite stayed in the yard. When it rained, the sheets were drenched and water ran in rivulets down the carefully crafted wood. When it was sunny, the sheets dried and stiffened with the starch and the wood began to show signs of hairline cracks. A blossom of green mold grew across the side tables, working its way towards the top. The crossword had long since blown away and the pen had rolled off the table, resting on the ground next to the bed, the cap lost to the mud and grass. Small animals nibbled holes in the quilt, which was no longer a beautiful blue, but the color of muddied water. The red lampshade was torn by the wind, pulled one direction and then the other, until it no longer resembled the role it played in its former life. The rain came again and washed away the dirt, but the memories remained. The wedding ring stayed in the drawer. The only thing missing was the sheepskin slippers.
She watched from inside the house as people walked by, some staring openly, others glancing discretely at the furniture. When people saw her staring back, they looked quickly away, pretending not to have been looking, and continued on the way. Her eyes followed their path as they walked away, wondering what they thought when they saw it. One time she chased after someone, her feet carrying her before she even knew what was happening. She yelled out to them, aren’t you curious to know what happened, it could happen to you too. It happened to me. Her voice wavered at the end, and she collapsed to the ground, her body convulsing as she tried to stop the flood of tears. When she returned inside, she climbed under her old duvet cover, polka dotted with random stains, which was spread on the couch in the living room, her new bed in her new bedroom. The familiar blanket enveloped her body in a hug, and she tried to slow her erratic breathing, to slow her irregular heartbeat. The springs in the much-loved, but old couch dug into her back each night, leaving cricks and kinks. But she knew she could never sleep in that bed again.
He stayed nearby; he could not force himself to leave completely—he still loved her, but she did not love him. Thoughts of her consumed his day; he found he rarely had time for anything else, not even the crossword. When he went to the store to get milk, he heard rumors about himself, whispered in hushed tones. They would say, there he goes, that’s the one, didn’t you hear? His cheeks flushed and he self-consciously lowered his head. One day he thought he saw her—the other one. He didn’t know whether he wanted to approach her or run as far away as possible; the two thoughts battled in his mind until he walked away. He wondered what he would say, did you hear, are you sorry, I am.
Soon it seemed as if the whole town knew, as if they were the ones involved, as if they actually understood, but they weren’t and they didn’t. He knew she told her friends, but she didn’t have. Many of them walked past the bedroom set everyday, the furniture slowly decaying, becoming part of the yard. She would not, could not, forget it and move on. She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time she quit trying.



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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

wetblanket said...
Jul. 21 at 11:40 pm:
Hey, I'm glad there's someone else who likes Carver and finds him inspiring. He's definitely a master of the short story. But I'm going to have to give you an unfavorable review for stealing his lines. Sorry to be so upfront, but do you know anything about plagiarism? You can't just use someone elses line(s) as your own. This is shameful. I'm reporting you, Carver fan or not. 
 
JOran replied...
Jul. 22 at 9:41 am :
The definition of plagiarism is an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author. I clearly gave Carver the credit for those lines, and in no way claimed them as my own. Do you know anything about plagiarism?
 
JOran replied...
Jul. 22 at 9:45 am :
Next time, learn what plagiarism is before you accuse someone of it.
 
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