By mid-morning, it was so hot her breath felt as if it were being drawn back into her. She took the tin washbasin out to the front yard, filled it with cold water, and shampooed her hair. If she turned her head, she could watch her reflection in the kitchen window as she leaned over the tub. Her hips seemed so wide in that position, tapering down from the wraparound skirt to legs that were girl-like. She watched her hair turn from yellow to brown with the wetness.
Around noon, with her hair now sticking to the back of her neck with perspiration, she heard the screen door slam once, then again. It was odd for him to come home in the middle of the day.
She went to the kitchen but he was already gone. This was the way he did things. She looked at the kitchen table for a box, some sign of the gift she was sure he would sneak in and leave her just as he had every anniversary. She heard his truck backing down the dirt drive. There was no chance she’d catch up with him.
This time of day, the sun came in through the slatted windows and settled on the yellow linoleum in stripes. Now she saw it. There lay her gift, basking in the sunlight. A gray-green lizard the size of a shoe. It stood so still she thought it was fake. A joke he had played on her, like the time he told her he was fixing the kitchen faucet and put a gag faucet where the real one had been. She remembered how she ducked and screamed, thinking she would be splashed with water when the new faucet came off in her hands.
But this was not plastic. He had tied a long piece of thick string from one of the lizard’s ankles to the kitchen table. Around the neck was a thin yellow crinkly ribbon that she had seen him pull out of the junk drawer the day before. She had suspected it was to wrap her gift. The ribbon was tied sideways around the animal’s neck in a bow. The lizard squinted as it turned its head slowly to look around the room. Its bulgy, liquid eyes scared her. She moved and the thin plates of skin on its back stood up. Now it turned its head swiftly and the scales rippled as if it were shivering.
She heard herself sigh, rubbed her hands on her skirt, and walked toward the white pine cupboards, making a full circle around the lizard’s body. It watched her. She found an aluminum pie pan under the sink and grabbed the pitcher of cold water from the refrigerator. She put the pan on the floor, poured the water in, and inched it over to the animal with a broom, backing away quickly and waiting to see if it would drink. The lizard sat on its squat legs and narrowed its lids into slits like cat’s-eye marbles. It appeared to be asleep.
Throughout the day, she kept going to the kitchen to check on it, afraid it might get loose in the house. In the late afternoon, she stood a distance away and threw a leaf of Bibb lettuce by the pie pan. She didn’t want anything to do with it, but she didn’t want it to starve. The creature, startled, was set into motion, skittering back and forth, first in one direction, then another, yanking itself back again and again by the string. For a while, she took a seat across from it, leaning forward. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she said.
She finished cleaning the house and had no choice now but to come back to the kitchen. She had to clear out everything to wash the floor, which meant moving the tables and chairs and putting it somewhere. Outside was where she wanted it. She could tell him it escaped, ran away. But that wouldn’t be honest and if they had promised each other anything when they married, it was honesty. Letting his gift run away, or rather, pushing his gift out the door, wouldn’t be a white lie. It would be flat-out deception.
She moved the chairs into the hallway and tried to untie the string, cursing him for making a knot she couldn’t undo. She went to the junk drawer, took out the scissors and, grasping the string, clipped it quickly and led the lizard toward the kitchen door, then the porch, like a dog on a leash. When she opened the screen door, the lizard tried to run back inside, as if it were afraid of the outdoors. She pulled it along, but it planted all four paws firmly on the floor. Its nails made a pitiful sound on the linoleum, then became stuck on the doorjamb. She gave a tug and over it rolled, like a child’s toy truck. Another tug, and it was up again and furious and ran towards her. It followed her the whole length of the porch until she scooted over the banister and tied it to one of the posts. She walked around to the back of the house and let herself in.
What a gift, she thought. Her present for him was wrapped and put away in a bedroom drawer days before he suggested they skip gifts this year. She had bought him a new jacket and white shirt. She undid the ribbon to look at them, then replaced the clothes and surrounded them with tissue paper. They looked so nice she took the shirt out again and held it up to her cheek. It felt so crisp and cool.
When the day had cooled, she bathed and changed into a fresh cotton dress and lifted her hair away from her neck to pin it up.
“What’s it doing out there?” he said when he came home. “Don’t you like it?”
On the table, she had put a candle and the gift box in navy blue paper and the good dishes, but he didn’t look at those.
“What’s it doing?” she said absently, for she had taken him to mean that the thing was doing something interesting or different and that she should go and look.
The lizard stood very still, as if it might be dead. The bow was gone.
“Why’d you put it out there?” he said.
“Because it belongs out there,” she said as she closed the screen door.
From the heat, his black hair had separated into individual strands, making him look older and scraggly.
“You didn’t like it,” he said and began to follow her around the kitchen.
She retrieved his favorite pasta dish from the oven and the salad from the refrigerator and he followed right behind. Their bodies made a shadow on the yellow floor that looked like the silhouette of two shy, hesitant boxers in a ring.
“Oh, I like it,” she said. She was intent on getting the dinner ready and didn’t look at him. “I like it just fine. You didn’t pay any money for it, did you?”
His face looked tight.
She motioned toward the window with her cooking mitt. “It’s just that there’s a million of them out there, and it’s a shame to throw away good money after one.”
“I bought it, all right? Cheap. From a guy at work. I thought you’d like it. I thought you’d think it was funny.”
“I do think it’s funny. I laughed.”
“It’s really neat,” he said, trying to convince her. “It looks prehistoric or something.”
She made him sit through dinner before opening his package.
She expected him to say, I thought we agreed, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked eager, put his glass down, and said, “Well, let’s see what this is.”
He seemed stunned for a moment when he saw the clothes and then whistled low as he lifted them out of the box. He felt the material, ran his fingers down the length of the lapel, and smiled at her. “This is a good one. But what‘s it for? God knows there’s nowhere around here to wear this.” And then he laughed and said, eyes crinkling, “What have you got up your sleeve? I think you must be up to something, baby doll.”
“They’re interview clothes. You’ll need something nice to interview in if you try to get transferred back home or if you go to another company. Isn’t that why we came here? So you’d have a better job after this one? The next step up, you said.”
He went back to examining the jacket, rose half out of his chair and sat down again.
“Isn’t it?” she repeated and motioned with the back of her hand to the open bedroom door. “Try it on.”
He was standing now. He had the jacket on and went to the mirror, looking at himself this way and that, sizing up every angle.
“I told you,” he said. “I’ve got to put in a couple of years first before I’d even try to move on. You don’t just go looking for another job when you’ve hardly been here. You have to pay your dues.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I was hoping that once you were here for a while, you’d like it.”
“What’s there to like?” she said. She began biting some ragged skin on her bottom lip. She fingered the rim of her glass. She knew her voice sounded bitter but she didn’t care. “You told me about the place. Patience, you said. You’d have to be brain-dead to have this much patience. To want to live here. You’d have to be a fool.”
He stepped in front of her. “I’m a fool then,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“You’re a fast learner. Everyone has always told you that. You’ll find another job. You don’t have to stay at that place.”
“You don’t want me to blow what I have, do you? If they get wind of me applying other places it won’t look good. And if I go in there now and ask the boss for a transfer back to where I came from, they’d die laughing. There are other guys, ahead of me, willing to pay their dues.”
She thought of those other men and what they and their wives must be like to be so patient, so accepting. She found herself wondering, for the first time since they had been together, what other kinds of men she could have married. Maybe I should have waited, she thought. And then she thought, I’ve heard about this. This is how things change.
“You act as if I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he said. “They said I’d have to wait two years for a transfer. At least two years.”
“Oh, great,” she said, fingering the glass again. “I’ll be dead in two years in a place like this.”
He smiled at her. “There she is. My melodramatic sweetheart.”
He removed his jacket and draped it neatly over his chair. He stepped behind her and put his arms around her.
“Look,” he said. “Baby doll. This is nothing. We’ll laugh about this later. It’ll be a story. Like a joke about how many miles we walked to school when we were kids.”
She looked through the window to where there was a thin stream of orange light across the horizon and nothing more. Some people might think the sight was beautiful. To her it had become barren.
“Let’s eat,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
And in the end, after they had finished dinner and lain together and after she waited for the movements of his body to cause hers to shiver, she turned on her side and closed her eyes. He put his hand on her hip and said in a whisper, “Baby doll? You still awake?”
She was in the lazy space between wakefulness and sleep and, so, didn’t answer. She thought she heard the animal stumbling off the porch, down the steps, and into the night, finally free.
Before she dreamed, an image came to her of the liquid eyes. As she began to fall asleep, her body jerked, quick and hard. She felt as if she were jumping straight up into darkness.
Rumpus original art by Aubrey Nolan.