by Evelyn Walsh
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The night of the robbery Ruth had gone to bed early with The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. She was stunned by this coincidence; it was her opening line in class the next day. “We were robbed last night, and guess what I was reading.” The kids hooted and crowed in jolly disbelief, or rather the kids who had actually read the story fell about laughing and the others quickly caught on. Ruth laughed along with them. She supposed she should be more upset. Everyone else was upset: her neighbors, her colleagues, the children limping downstairs, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Only the patrol cop who came in to survey the damage seemed indifferent. Leading him to the scene of the crime, Ruth stood by feeling useless, finally venturing: “We haven’t touched anything. Do you want to dust for fingerprints?” He shot her a look of shock and disbelief, as if she had said something in very bad taste. He didn’t even answer. The children stood off to the side, mouths open, pajamas festooned with cartoon characters. They carried on after he left, putting up more of a fight over school than usual. “But we’ve been robbed,” they keened. “We all have to go to school,” Ruth said, with her very best effort to project calm and reason. “I have to get to work.” She cajoled and threatened them into the car, and noted that the kids never even mentioned Henry.
On the way the sky darkened and released a tremendous volume of rain. At the first red light, Ruth twisted around to smile at her son and daughter, belted side by side into the back seat. Jenny held a book but gazed out the window. Chris twitched and shifted beside her. Ruth drove on until they reached the school lot, which was packed. “Do you see an umbrella back there?” she asked. No response. Ruth groped under the car seats, fingers raking through grit and sticky old coins. She gave up and circled the lot, hoping someone would pull out close by. Chris broke his trance to protest: “We’re going to get wet. This is the worst day ever!” Ruth grimaced, but made her voice cheerful: “We’re going to run between the raindrops,” she said, pulling into a spot at the far end of the lot. She got out and motioned to the children, who unfolded their bodies from the seats in agonizing slow motion, dropping things out of their backpacks and muttering about the rain. Pulling the back door open, a plastic bag over her head, Ruth stamped her foot. “Mommy is getting soaked. Let’s go!”
They made their way across the parking lot, the children bursting into speed halfway to the door. Ruth lurched behind them, intent on avoiding the most treacherous puddles. Jenny and Chris waited for her just inside the entrance, their little figures forlorn and uncertain. Ruth put her arms around their shoulders and steered them toward the front desk, rainwater streaming in their wake. Leaning over the office manager’s desk, Ruth made a face: “We were robbed last night. The kids are kind of upset.” “Oh my God!” Mrs Murphy exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “That’s the third time this week. Were you home?”
Ruth nodded, and Mrs Murphy crossed herself. “You didn’t hear anything?” Ruth shook her head. “Thank God.” She looked over at the children, then leaned across the desk and hissed: “Half the time they come back, you know.” Ruth glanced at the kids; they were listening. Mrs Murphy was still shaking her head. “Henry still gone? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Thank God you’re all right.” Ruth nodded again. Half the time they come back. Thanks a lot, Mrs Murphy. She followed the children to their classrooms. Jenny was in the lead, face wan and grim, bent beneath her enormous backpack. Ruth followed Chris into the first-grade classroom and motioned apologetically to the teacher. “Chris is upset; we were robbed last night.”
“Oh my God! Were you home?”
Ruth shook her head. The exchange, Ruth was learning, played out according to a script that did not diminish her sense of disassociation. Vigorous nodding, raised eyebrows, exclamations of shock and concern, speculation as to the identity of the culprits and the likelihood of a repeat offense. A roar went up behind her, and she turned to see Chris seated on top of his desk, surrounded by other kids. “They had a gun, my mother saw it!” he cried.
Ruth turned back to the teacher and whispered: “We didn’t see anyone. I have no idea if they had a gun.” The teacher shrugged her weary shoulders. There was nothing new under the sun. Ruth left first grade to peer into Jenny’s class. Those kids were all seated, and the teacher was obviously in mid-lesson. Ruth was already late. Glancing at her watch, she decided there wasn’t even enough time to call Henry.
On the way to work Ruth found herself laughing out loud about the Housebreaker coincidence. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill was – by Cheever standards – a fairly cheerful story. Desperation giving way to a sort of redemption. Ruth decided that the coincidence was a good omen. Maybe she could fashion an essay out of it, a little freelance piece to publish somewhere respectable, a novelty entry on her curriculum vitae. Idling at a red light, she dialed the department secretary on her cell phone: “I’m running a little late. We were robbed last night.”
“Oh my God! Were you home?”
Somehow Ruth got to the classroom on time, entering with a sense of wellbeing that bordered on euphoria and seemed at odds with the robbery. She made her little joke (“guess what I was reading”), and the room burst into mirth. There was something poignant in the way the kids in her class liked to affect an air of knowing wisdom about everything, whether it was the plight of the Syrian refugees or the aftermath of a home invasion. Ruth doubted they could fathom what it meant to know criminals had entered the home where your children lived, to mourn possessions you couldn’t replace, all the while facing the possibility of another break-in. The school was cushy, and most of these kids were funded by their parents. Old money, new money, immigrants made good. There was a lot of eye rolling from the other faculty about their naiveté and sense of entitlement. But Ruth tended to defend her students. You couldn’t reproach them for growing up in Wilton and not North Philly, she said. Nobody controls how and where we are born. Besides, she was fond of the kids—their artlessness, all the ways that their very youth was itself a sort of beauty.
After class, Ruth hesitated at her office door, suddenly aware she was famished. She had skipped breakfast. Part of her wanted to call Henry and get it over with, and part of her was reluctant to do so on an empty stomach, a light head. Another part, mean and small, was reveling in the prospect of how Henry might take the news. She was hoping he would be shocked and guilt-stricken. She could not concentrate on what Laura Montana, a senior prone to fits of longwinded apologies, was saying about her overdue essay. Ruth put her hand up and said, “I’m so sorry Laura, I have a meeting. I’ll be back for office hours.” She was anxious to meet her friend Zoe in the student-run café. Ruth felt an overwhelming need to let herself go, to vent a little bit. She smiled at her student and hustled off. Zoe was already there when Ruth arrived at the café. She threw herself into the opposite seat with a sigh of relief.
“Sheez,” Zoe said.
“You already heard.”
Zoe nodded. “What did Henry say?”
Ruth shook her head. “I haven’t told him yet.” There was, she realized, a perverse kind of pleasure in keeping the robbery from Henry, anticipating his shock and dismay. Perhaps some long-overdue remorse. She knew better than to say anything like that to Zoe. Judging from the look on her face, Zoe already knew.
“It won’t bring him back, hon,” she said, shaking her head so that her headscarf fluttered. Zoe favored vibrant colors and patterns that would have made Ruth look like an overdressed, premenopausal parrot.
Ruth felt the corners of her mouth pulling down. “I think I’m past that,” she said. Zoe handed her a tissue. “Throwing good money after bad,” she said gently.
“I know,” Ruth snuffled. She composed herself. "I can't let go of the idea—of cleaving to someone for— " she faltered. The beauty of marriage was plain to Ruth even as hers failed, but she could not find words to put to this belief.
“For the relief of unbearable urges?” Zoe asked. She winked.
Ruth laughed. “Yes, kind of. Don’t you think there’s a kind of beauty in constancy? In tending to someone, come what may— ” she trailed off. Zoe, ten years older than Ruth, looked thoughtful. “I’m wired differently than you, hon,” she murmured.
Ruth sighed. “I’m starving,” she said, and headed for the lunch line. Returning with a sandwich, she resumed where they’d left off. “The truth is that at the end Henry wasn’t very interested in my unbearable urges,”she said. It was a relief to tell Zoe this. Ruth had a whole storehouse of humiliating things regarding the dissolution of her marriage, and revelation was not without its comforts. At the same time she felt it was to pace herself on the details. What was tantalizing in increments would be dull and contemptible in excess. She’d alienate everyone and have nothing left to present at the crucial moment.
Zoe whistled. “Was he medicated?”
Ruth rolled her eyes. “You’re so predictable.”
“Zoe. It wasn’t about mechanics.”
Zoe shook her head. “At your age, you should be dating.”
“Who’s going to date this?” Ruth gestured at her body.
Zoe clucked. “You’re young. Good looking. And fun.”
Ruth snorted. She made flailing motions at her chin, pulled the flesh back over her cheekbones.
“That’ll bring the boys around,” Zoe said. “You should be more— ” she stopped, smiling over Ruth’s shoulder. “Michael! How are you?”
Ruth started and twisted around in her chair. Michael, who taught composition and a single seminar in postmodern fiction, had materialized just behind her. “Have you got room?” he asked.
Zoe jumped up so readily that Ruth blushed. “Of course!” she chirped. “I was just leaving, anyway.” Michael smiled and drifted off toward the coffee counter.
“There you go,” Zoe said, leaning over to pat Ruth’s hand. “I can tell he likes you.” Ruth felt her face growing hot. It was typical of Zoe to do something that mortified and bolstered her at the same time. “Call me later,” Zoe ordered, and bustled off. Returning with his coffee, Michael settled into Zoe’s side of the booth. “I heard you were robbed,” he said, and his long legs grazed Ruth’s knees under the table. “How’d the kids take it?”
“They were upset until we got to school,” Ruth said. “But they got a big reception. Evidently it’s very glamorous to be robbed. At least in the grade-school set.”
Michael laughed. “What about you?”
“I’m supposed to be upset.”
“But you’re not.”
Michael lowered his voice. “Are you scared? Do you want me to come over?” Ruth hesitated.
“I had a good time last weekend,” he said.
“So did I.”
“You have the kids tonight?”
“Okay,” he said. “Just call if you get worried.”
“Okay,” Ruth said.
After lunch, Ruth headed back to her office. There wasn’t much time left to call Henry before carpool. She closed the office door and dialed the number. Henry picked up almost immediately. “Well,” Ruth said, struck by the harshness of her own voice – toneless, staccato bursts of information – “those people who’ve been working the neighborhood. They robbed us last night. We were all sleeping.” She tried mightily to resist a grim sense of satisfaction.
Henry’s shock was audible over the phone. He was more shaken than she expected. “You’re kidding,” he said. “What did the kids— ”
Ruth interrupted him. “They were upset but they got a big reception this morning . Evidently robbery is very glamorous in grade school.”
“Why didn’t you call?” Barely thirty seconds, and Henry was on the attack. Ruth tensed. “We had to get to school. I was teaching this morning.” In a way she agreed: she should have called right away, asked him to come over and reassure the children. But Henry had left; it fell to her to manage. The kids had to get to school, Ruth had to get to work. Their lives couldn’t revolve around him—he had left. Ruth tried to formulate a response that, while honest and fair, would touch on all this, wouldn’t send them hurtling down the path of new grievances to go with all the old ones. But she couldn’t let go of the certainty that Henry would take in half a sentence and strike, hurling the words back in her face. In the hostile silence that followed, Ruth heard scuffling outside her door. “It’s office hours,” she said. “We’ll call back after school.” She hung up without waiting for a response, conscious of her own rudeness, of taking on a behavior that she loathed in Henry. She put her hands to her face, as if to wipe away the bitterness there, and crossed the room to open the door.
Michael was standing outside, looking a little sheepish. Ruth laughed in pleasure and relief. “I thought you were one of my students,” she said. Michael ambled into her office and shut the door behind him. He leaned against the desk, folding his arms. “Listen, I’m not trying to beat a dead horse. But getting robbed ... ”
She made a face. “I know.”
“So call me if you decide you want company. ”
He nodded. “I don’t care what time it is.”
Dating had never come up in the strained, hurtful negotiations over separation. In the year leading up to Henry’s departure, Ruth had come to the conclusion that the chief lesson of middle age could be summed up by variations on the theme every dog has his day. She thought of her younger, prettier self: the distaste she had for middle age, the certainty that she would elude the indignities of midlife – both physical and spiritual – by sheer force of will. It was the same sort of magical thinking that made people deny death and overextend their credit cards. In the past year or so a veritable catalogue of midlife afflictions had descended upon Ruth all at once: a loveless marriage, troubled children, a face etched with more worry and disappointment than she could conceal. She’d given up hope of restoring her marriage with couples counseling and date nights, just as she’d accepted that Pilates and a diet rich in antioxidants would not restore her complexion or the shape of her behind. Once Henry left she’d prepared herself for the lonely fate of a mare put out to pasture. So she was astonished when Michael asked her out to dinner. The pleasure of looking up into his face, at his slow, crooked grin, the placid, hopeful way he asked her out and laughed at her jokes, was too sweet and unexpected to resist. She was hoping to find some middle ground that would let her have Michael, at least for now. She’d asked him to keep things quiet, as negotiations were stalled with Henry and the children could not tolerate any new developments—not yet, anyway.
On the way to get the kids Ruth wondered if the curious sense of wellbeing cast over the post-burglary day would hold out. How strange, she mused, that the crime had an almost euphoric effect, intensifying their daily routines and interactions as well as the interest people took in the details of their lives, their state of mind. She expected reality would hit once they were back home and alone tonight. When she pulled up to carpool, the kids clambered into the backseat with more energy and excitement than they’d shown in months. “Did the police find the robber yet?” Chris asked. Ruth was touched by the innocence of his question, his faith that justice would follow crime. She made her voice bright and cheerful:
“Do you think they’ll come back?”
“How do you know?”
“I just don’t think they will.”
So much for the positive energy: there was silence in the backseat the rest of the way. Ruth herded the kids into the house. They ran off to the scene of the crime: the family room. She followed. The chief casualty, the television, had been Henry’s last hurrah before he moved out. An oversized, overpriced flat-screen model he had installed himself with painstaking tenderness. The flat screens were the latest thing and so all the neighborhood men had been over to admire the set, comparing its scale and picture quality to their own television sets. They laughed nervously as their wives rolled their eyes and made unsubtle jokes about size and performance. Now the raw, ugly ends of wires protruded from the wall where the screen had been ripped away; bolts and screws were strewn about the floor. Ruth realized too late that she should have found a way to come back to sweep up before carpool. “You know what?” she said to the kids. “We can watch a movie on Mommy’s TV upstairs.”
Jenny brightened and said: “Can I see if Meg is next door? She wanted to see the robbery.”
“I’m going to get Kevin!” Chris shouted, running off behind his sister. Ruth felt her shoulders, the muscles of her face, release. She sank onto the couch, staring at the angry, exposed space where the television had hung. The shock of its absence was as fresh as when she came downstairs this morning to find it gone.
Moments later the children came roaring back into the room with their friends from the street. Ruth roused herself from the couch, kneeling on the floor to sweep up bits of sheetrock and wire that littered the carpet. She murmured to the children to stand back as she worked but felt relieved by their banter and enthusiasm for the morning’s drama. They were going to be all right. She remembered telling Henry she’d call back, but she couldn’t face it right now. Why should she have to take all the initiative? He had a phone. And the kids were occupied with their friends. The evening passed, and she didn’t think of Henry again until the children were in bed. She tarried upstairs, moving from room to room to perform small, quiet tasks—folding laundry, adjusting pictures gone crooked, arranging books and bric-a-brac on shelves. She hoped her presence would make the children feel safe as they drifted off to sleep.
The phone rang just after she went downstairs. Now Henry calls, she thought. Of course. She picked up the phone. “Hello?”
Not Henry. “I’m just checking,” Michael said.
Ruth felt her face warm with pleasure. “No robbers here.”
“The kids are asleep,” she said. “You could come over—if you want.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Ruth hung up and ran to the bathroom, rubbed gloss onto her lips, lined her eyes with kohl. Looking in the mirror, she hugged herself like a giddy girl. She wondered if there were any teenagers, terribly wise and mature teenagers, with any inkling that the far-off passage of middle age might have some aspects in common with adolescence. There was a knock downstairs, and she hastened to the front door. “Michael?”
He was peering inside through the thick panes of glass that topped the old oak door. Ruth swung the door open and Michael loped in, waving a bottle. “I had this in the house,” he said.
Ruth reached past him to lock up and adjust the alarm system, then hurried to the kitchen for glasses and a corkscrew. She returned to find Michael standing by the living-room sofa, examining a framed photo from her wedding day. He looked up with his sweet, crooked smile.
“I left it out for the kids,” she said. She could hear the flatness in her voice.
“When was it?”
“Almost seventeen years ago.”
“You must have been a baby.” He put the photo down.
“I didn’t think so then. Now everyone looks like a baby to me.” She handed him the opener, confessing: “I was never good at this.” They fell into the couch, laughing. Michael opened his mouth to speak but was silenced by a thump upstairs.
They both drew back, Michael spilling wine on his shirt. “Oops,” he said.
“They don’t usually get up, once they’re down,” Ruth said. “I’ll be right back.” She put her glass down on the coffee table and made her way to the stairs. “I’m coming, Christopher!” She looked back at Michael over the bannister. He saluted her with his glass. Ruth headed up the stairs and paused at the entrance to her son’s room. She could just make him out in the dark, sitting up in his bed, dazed and mumbling. “What is it, honey?”
“I spilled some milk in my bed.”
“Milk?” She patted the sheets, his pajamas. “Oh Chris, I don’t think that’s milk.”
“Yes it is! It’s milk!”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed.”
Ruth gave in. “Okay, it’s milk. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“I don’t want a bath. I just want to go back to sleep!”
“No!” He peeled off his damp pants, agitated but still half-asleep. Ruth went to the bathroom for a damp washcloth and a towel. “There,” she said. “Make a quick potty trip and I’ll get your bed fixed up.” Chris padded away down the hall, muttering. Ruth yanked off the wet linen, laid fresh sheets on the mattress. Chris reappeared and she settled him back into his bed. “Daddy used to do this,” he mumbled. “Also throw-ups.”
“I don’t think you’re going to have throw-ups, sweetheart,” Ruth whispered, reflecting that midnight cleanups had indeed been one of Henry’s virtues. She kissed Chris again and went down the hall to look in at Jenny. Sound asleep. Coming down the stairs, she was startled to hear the alarm-rigged door chime, the way it did when someone passed in or out of the house. “Michael?” she called, heading for the kitchen. He was just around the corner, standing by the alarm panel with an uncertain air. “Uh, sorry,” he said. “I heard something outside and opened the door to check it out.’’
“What did you hear?” She could tell he didn’t want to say. “Michael?”
“I thought I heard footsteps,” he admitted. Ruth hesitated, and without further warning the alarm went into full force. “Damn,” she swore, punching at the buttons. “I can’t get it off. Sometimes it jams.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t turn it off,” Michael said.
“If someone is out there,” he shouted over the din, “you want it on, right?”
Ruth stared at him and grabbed his wrist. “Come on,” she urged, hauling him over to the staircase. The lights all over the house began to flash on and off, a system feature Ruth had always loathed. “Shit,” Michael said. There was abrupt silence, as if the system had paused to gather its strength, and then the lights went off entirely. “Oh shit,” Michael said again, and Ruth pulled him upstairs to the bedroom. “I’ve got a flashlight in here,” she said, as the siren resumed with heightened ferocity. “It’s like an air raid,” Michael said in disbelief. He tripped over the rug and landed on the bed. Ruth leaned over to grip his hands in hers:
“Michael, I’m sorry. You have to get in the closet.”
Ruth released Michael’s hands to rummage through her bedside drawer for the flashlight. Her mind racing, she rushed up the hall; checking first Jenny, then Chris. Knocked out! How could they sleep through this? She returned to Michael, still sitting on the bed, rumpled but alert.
“Do you think someone is in the house?” he asked.
“Oh God,” she said, “it’s probably nothing but I’m going to have the cops come.” Michael nodded. Ruth felt around her pockets, pulled out her cell phone and punched in 911. The operator droned into the phone: “What is the nature and location of your emergency?”
“16 Sacramento Street. Operator, my alarm is going off. We were robbed last night while we were at home asleep. I have my kids—little kids,” she faltered, caught off guard by the potential seriousness of their situation.
“Where are you?” the operator snapped.
“Can you lock yourselves in a room?”
“Uh—yes.” The implied danger hit Ruth hard. “I’ll move the kids into my room,” she said.
“The police are on the way, but I want you to stay on the phone,” the operator said.
“Okay,” Ruth stammered. Trembling, she pressed the phone to her chest so the operator couldn’t hear her speaking to Michael over the alarm. “The police are on their way. You have to get in the closet now.” His eyes widened in silent protest. “Michael,” Ruth pleaded. “I can’t let the kids see you.”
“What do you think the police will do if they find me in your bedroom closet?”
“But the noise was downstairs.”
“They’re going to look around.”
There were halting steps down the hallway. “Mommy!” Chris was awake. Michael shook his head at Ruth but plunged into the closet. She could hear him stumbling over the debris of shoes and laundry on the floor. Lunging in after him into the dark, she aimed a kiss in his general direction and caught the side of his nose. He pulled her into a brief embrace, then gently pushed her out the door. After this, she thought, she and Michael would know the true nature of their feelings. She’d just shoved him into the closet; he might never speak to her again. The operator’s voice vibrated against her chest, tinny and remote: “Ma’am? Ma’am?”
Ruth moved the phone back to her ear: “Yes operator, I’m moving us in together.” She slammed the closet door shut just as Chris burst into the room.
“Mommy, did you turn on the alarm?”
“It’s okay,” she soothed, “probably a squirrel in the basement. Get in my bed.”
She ran into Jenny’s room, and shook her gently: “Honey, wake up, come to Mommy’s room.” Jenny, stumbling, let herself be guarded to her mother’s bed, where Chris sat, ashen-faced.
And then the alarm stopped abruptly. What a scam, Ruth thought. The alarm company never even called. Why did the system shut off? And why weren’t the lights back on? Before she could think it through, there was a pounding on the front door, loud and sudden. The phone still pressed to her cheek, Ruth cried: “Operator, someone is at the door. Is it the police?”
“Yes Ma’am. Go downstairs. The police are at your front door. I will stay on the phone with you until you speak to them.”
Ruth ordered: “Kids, stay put.” They clutched at her but Ruth hissed: “Here, take the flashlight.” She waved at them to remain on the bed, the same spot where Michael had sat just moments before. She stole down the hallway, clasping the phone to her hot cheek, feeling her way in the dark. “Okay, I’m hanging up and going downstairs to let them in,” she told the operator, creeping down the staircase and into the pitch black of the first floor. A policeman’s face was pressed against the small window atop the front door, his features kindled into relief by a flashlight held under his chin. Like a horror-movie trick, or the kind of thing kids did telling ghost stories. Ruth shuddered and composed herself, only to jump again, startled by a new movement at the edge of her vision. Hard bright balls of light bobbed in the windows on all sides of the room, casting beams of light that bounced around the walls. Ruth froze, slowly coming to understand that the house was surrounded by policemen; their torches made the spheres of light that bounced through the windows and onto the walls. Just as she reached the front door and wrenched it open, Ruth realized someone else was in the room—that just a few feet away stood a figure who was not Michael, an adult she had not admitted into her home. In the splintered instant before she recognized the figure as Henry (Henry: her husband, the father of her children), Ruth screamed. The police officer crashed into the room, his gun drawn. Ruth screamed again: “No, no, officer stop! It’s my husband!” The officer lowered his gun and raised his torch. Ruth, hands to her face, stared at Henry backed against the depths of the ancient, battered leather couch, his eyes fixed upon her.
“Why did you scream?” the officer asked. He was panting.
“I didn’t know he was here,” Ruth said, glancing back at Henry. His face was fresh and naked with hurt, and something else she couldn’t read.
“You didn’t know he was home?”
The officer swiveled around to jab a finger at Henry. “You’re her husband?” Henry nodded.
The cop turned on his heel and stalked over to the front door to shout something at the cops prowling around the yard. Henry folded his arms. “Who is it?” he asked Ruth.
“You were spying on me,” she said.
“We never discussed ... other people. Dating,” Henry persisted.
“No, we didn’t,” Ruth agreed, trying to keep her voice even, neutral. She failed. “You just left,” she hissed.
The cop strode back from the front door. Ruth swallowed. “Excuse me, officer,” she said in her brightest tones, the voice she used to coax the kids into making their beds and clearing the dishes. She peered at his name tag. “Officer Moran. Excuse me.” She reached behind him to jab at the alarm system and the light switch. The living room lit up: the power was back. Moran ignored Ruth and pointed at Henry. “She didn’t know you were home?”
Ruth broke in: “Officer, we were robbed last night—that’s why I didn’t want to come downstairs.”
The patrolman motioned for her to be quiet. As if on cue, there was a crash upstairs. The children were running down the hall, shrieking in high-pitched terror. Jenny was the first to reach the top of the stairs. “Mommy! Mommy,” she gasped, crying. Chris flailed behind her, his eyes glittery and strange. “There’s a man in the closet, Mommy! There’s a man in the closet!”
Officer Moran was already on the stairs, astonishingly fast and agile for such a stocky man, drawing his gun with Ruth right behind him, screaming: “Stop it—we’ve got company! A friend—a friend of the family! Officer, stop!” Moran froze at the top of the stairs and turned to stare at Ruth. The children raced around him, hurling themselves at their mother. “Officer,” she said. “This is—Michael, our friend. The children were asleep when he came—they didn’t know he was here.” The bedroom door opened and Michael ambled out, ashen-faced but steady. Ruth spoke to Jenny and Chris: “It’s our friend Michael, he came over to—to talk about school with Mommy.” Michael nodded and smiled at the children. Ruth glanced over at the officer, who yelped: “You’re both teachers?”
“Yes,” Ruth whispered. She saw that Henry had drifted from the couch to the bottom of the staircase. The officer grimaced; a muscle worked the side of his face. He jabbed a thick finger at Henry: “Sir! Do you know this man?”
Henry didn’t answer. The officer repeated himself with more force: “SIR. DO. YOU. KNOW. THIS. MAN.”
Henry nodded. “He teaches school with my wife,” he said listlessly. The officer turned back to Ruth without a word and the children rushed down the stairs to Henry.
“Daddy, he was in the closet,” Chris said. “I heard him say the F-word.” The officer came to a sudden stop at the bottom of the stairs and motioned to Michael. “You! Follow me. This way!” Ruth opened her mouth, but Michael shook his head. He smiled as he passed; his hand grazed her fingertips. He trudged behind the cop down the stairs, single file; Moran gestured at the spot that Henry had just vacated on the sofa. Michael sat where he was told to sit. “Wait here,” Moran said, and went out the door, shouting something to the policemen still gathered in the yard. Ruth returned her attention to the children. They were tugging at their father, pulling him up the stairs. “Are you coming home, Daddy?” Jenny asked. “Did you want to surprise us?”
Ruth winced and stole a glance at Henry’s face. Chris was already at her side, pulling at her sleeve: “What was Michael doing in your closet, Mommy? Is he your boyfriend now?”
His sister gave him a shove, hissing: “Mommy doesn’t have a boyfriend, she has Daddy.”
“Daddy doesn’t live here anymore, you idiot.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“No, you are.”
“Shh,” Ruth said to them, “Don’t fight. Do you know how late it is? It’s midnight. Go back to Mommy’s room. You can watch my TV.” The children took off. Ruth stood on the landing with Henry, listening to Moran hold forth below: “Sir, you put yourself in a very dangerous position tonight.” Michael’s reply was muffled. Ruth was torn; joining them, trying to explain the situation, might only make it worse. And here was Henry, looking as hurt and bereft as Christopher at his most vulnerable.
“So what were you doing here?” she asked.
“I was worried. The robbery.”
“Oh.” She paused and looked over the bannister, considering everything she might say. This is the hardest part, she thought. Not knowing what to wish for or who to take with you. Here was Henry, whether drawn by love or worry, regret or hope—this she could not say. They might divorce, but they would always be tethered by their history, by the children, by the thousands of days and nights lived in this very house, days and nights spent within the spaces framed by the walls of this home, a space that persisted even as the world turned on its axis and the years passed, years that marked the failure of their marriage, leading at last to the hurt and uncertainty of this particular moment.
Officer Moran came to the foot of the stairs, barking: “Mr and Mrs Sullivan!” Ruth, who’d never taken Henry’s name, descended the steps by his side like a docile bride, blushing as Michael gazed at her from his place on the couch. Moran shot her a brief, impersonal smile. “Mrs Sullivan,” he said. “I believe I’ve seen you over at St Paul’s.”
“Yes,” Ruth replied. His tone was perfectly pleasant, but Ruth sensed rebuke in his very courtesy. She didn’t have the energy to point out she’d kept her maiden name. Moran nodded and turned to the men in a way that made it clear she was dismissed; his business was with them.
“I’ll make some coffee,” she whispered.
Moran’s voice followed her to the kitchen. “Gentlemen,” he said. “You seem reasonable— ”
Ruth stood at the kitchen sink gaping out the window. Last night she’d gone to bed with a book that conjured a land of ease and plenty, the dwelling-place of a tribe that was well-read and well-spoken, blessed by every possible advantage and yet—again and again these highly favored people managed to make a mess of things, to squander gifts and fail loved ones, so that brother turned upon brother and women faced the extinction of even their most meager hopes. Children, she thought, were continually forced to speak hard truths. Still Ruth found comfort in returning to this book with its familiar red jacket, in taking it to bed with her again and again as she had last night. By daybreak these stories had cast a spell on Ruth’s family, seeping into their lives so she could not tell what was real and what was illusion; how to interpret what anyone said or did, especially not the husband who had left, and whose aims remained as alien and inexplicable as if they had never shared a bed, or seen themselves reflected – for better or for worse – in the children they made together.
The men's voices carried on in the living room. The conversation was indistinct, but the tone was conciliatory; Ruth sensed they had reached an understanding. This part of the episode was winding down. Through the kitchen window, she could see the policemen remaining in the yard. Flashlights dimmed, they were laughing and talking among themselves. Their words were even less audible than those of the men inside, but Ruth caught the rhythm and intonation of their talk, the direction of their laughter; it was all too easy to imagine how the events of the evening would play at the station house—the raised eyebrows and merry innuendos. They would all have their parts: the cuckold and his faithless wife, the hapless children, the lover hiding in the closet. It didn't matter what had really happened, they were now players set loose in another consciousness.
The hell with them. This was her life. Who did they think they were, anyway? Ruth glared and rapped on the window. The youngest cop had red hair and freckles. He was startled by the sharp sound, and looked over at Ruth through the glass. Averting his eyes, he edged closer to an older, heavyset cop sitting on the curb and smoking. The elder man sputtered and coughed, rose to his feet. He punched the boy cop on the shoulder and ground his cigarette underfoot, brought cupped hands to his mouth:
"Moran! You coming?"
Ruth heard Moran go out the front door. She supposed that Michael and Henry were waiting for her in the next room but she stayed put, watching through the window as the patrol cars pulled away.
A native of Philadelphia, Evelyn Walsh is the winner of the 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin Prize. She has published stories in Narrative, Southward Journal, The Irish Times, The Hamilton Stone Review and Brain, Child. Over the years Evelyn has had the great good fortune to work with Rick Moody, Danielle McLaughlin and John Hawkes. In 2016, she was awarded a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Read her Seán Ó Faoláin prizewinning story 'White Rabbit' in Southword Journal.
Aurélie Bellacicco is a French food-photographer based in Montréal. View more of her work at www.aureliebellacicco.com .