The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Adam o’fal­lon price

Fred and Michael Kourik, fa­ther and son, are watch­ing Thanks­giv­ing Day foot­ball when the tele­phone rings. The ring is shrill, alarm­like. Michael straight­ens on the sofa and Fred shifts side­ways in the puffed leather of his rocker-re­cliner, and for a mo­ment both men re­gard the phone where it sits, on the end ta­ble be­tween them. It is a pe­cu­liar shade of creamy light blue with the slight­est hint of green— close to seafoam but not quite—an in­sti­tu­tional color that brings to mind wait­ing-room forms and hos­pi­tal walls. It’s a big, heavy ro­tary, prob­a­bly pur­chased by Fred in the early seven­ties, and although its ex­act prove­nance has been long since for­got­ten, its prom­i­nent place in Michael’s child­hood has not. Un­til he was twelve, it was the only phone in the house, and he can clearly re­mem­ber the agony of wait­ing to use it (to or­ga­nize sleep­overs or vi­cious neigh­bor­hood games of foot­ball) as his older sis­ter droned on and on. As a teenager, he gaped pus­tu­lantly at it while over and over di­al­ing six of some for­got­ten crush’s num­bers, only to jam the plas­tic re­ceiver but­tons down on the sev­enth spin. And when he was twenty, home for Christ­mas, he re­ceived the news that his grand­fa­ther had died on it. A cord­less has long since been in­stalled in the kitchen, on which Michael’s mother, Bar­bara, han­dles all house­hold com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but this tele­phone—re­tired with its owner, its ringer usu­ally si­lenced—re­tains its place on the end ta­ble. At this point, its role is mostly to serve as a totem of Fred’s foibles: his cheap­ness (thrift, ac­cord­ing to him) and ob­sti­nacy (his iron vow never to so much as try a cell phone is a small mas­ter­piece of petu­lant fo­gey­dom). There is also hu­mor to be had in its po­si­tion much of the day, inches from the el­bow of a man who re­lies en­tirely on his wife for com­pany and who hasn’t made or re­ceived a phone call in pos­si­bly fif­teen years. A sim­i­lar comic dis­so­nance, Michael’s wife, Emily, re­cently noted, might be achieved by plac­ing an AK-47 by the el­bow of the Dalai Lama. Now, as the phone rings again and Fred thumbs mute on the TV re­mote, Michael thinks of Emily, who left the house hours ago to see a movie with Bar­bara. This is a hol­i­day tra­di­tion: af­ter an early din­ner, Fred and Michael set­tle in the liv­ing room to watch hours of foot­ball, beers grow­ing warm be­side them, and Barb and Emily go to a movie, ide­ally one star­ring San­dra Bul­lock, but in any case the more dimwit­ted and ridicu­lous the bet­ter, in Michael’s es­ti­ma­tion. Michael’s sis­ter usu­ally joins them, but this

year she is preg­nant and has elected to stay home for the hol­i­days. This year, Barb and Emily—the girls, as Fred al­ways calls them, to what Michael has be­fore ob­served as mild ir­ri­ta­tion on his wife’s part—have gone to see Les Misérables. Go­ing to see Les Misérables on Thanks­giv­ing Day sounds to Michael like the very def­i­ni­tion of hell on earth, an opin­ion he made the mis­take of shar­ing with Emily ear­lier. This pro­voked an in­tense, whis­pery ar­gu­ment in the guest room, dur­ing which she asked him if it was en­tirely nec­es­sary for him to be a com­plete ass­hole at all times, to which he said that he was jok­ing and that she needed to lighten up, to which she said that maybe she would lighten up if he wasn’t al­ways be­ing an ass­hole, and also that if he thought sit­ting in a packed the­ater next to his mother for three hours was her idea of a good time, he didn’t know her very well. To which he had no re­sponse, or no re­sponse that wouldn’t re­sult in a cat­a­strophic fight. But what he’d wanted to say was that, no, lately he didn’t feel like he knew her very well. Lately—dur­ing the last year—they have been fight­ing with in­creas­ing fre­quency and vigor. They’ve al­ways ar­gued, but where the ar­gu­ments used to be some­how sweet, un­der­girded by love, they are now loudly con­temp­tu­ous, with a mu­tual as­sump­tion of bad faith. The ran­cor has be­come more or less con­stant, and their life to­gether now feels like one end­less bat­tle with truces bro­kered only when to­tal de­struc­tion looms. They re­peat­edly ap­proach this point, but di­vorce is too huge, too hor­ri­ble, and so they pull back from the brink, promis­ing to be bet­ter, to be dif­fer­ent than they are and can­not help but be. The drive down yes­ter­day was wretch­edly typ­i­cal: three hours of heavy si­lence fol­low­ing ten min­utes of yelling. About what? Ear­lier, dur­ing the Texas-bay­lor game, he at­tempted to piece it back to­gether, but it was im­pos­si­ble. Their quar­rels have a dreamy Escherian logic that re­sists re­con­struc­tion. Some­thing to do with how lit­tle they visit her fam­ily, though her fam­ily lives twelve hours away, in Bos­ton, and is, re­gard­less of where they live, com­pletely in­tol­er­a­ble. Or had it started ear­lier, with Emily sens­ing his ir­ri­ta­tion at her mak­ing them late? (She had ne­glected, as usual, to pack her bag un­til just be­fore they left, run­ning back in­side twice for her heavy jacket, her phone charger.) Or was he be­ing obliv­i­ous to some­thing that had passed be­tween them the night—or week or month— be­fore? There’s no telling. Like the Hun­dred Years’ War, which he teaches in his AP Euro­pean His­tory class, no mat­ter how far back you trace the blood­shed, there’s al­ways an an­tecedent. That said, one in­ci­dent stands out in his mind. In Septem­ber, on a Sun­day, they’d clashed well into the night, and he was mov­ing to the sofa to try to catch a few hours of sleep. He said some­thing fatu­ously con­cil­ia­tory—some­thing

about how to­mor­row was a new day, and ev­ery­thing would be all right— and as he left the room, he caught Emily’s hon­est re­ac­tion in the mir­ror. It was a look of unadul­ter­ated dis­gust, thank­fully dif­fi­cult to pic­ture af­ter the fact, but so pure and pow­er­ful that it burned a sort of emo­tional af­ter­im­age into his brain. Her face was con­torted with scorn, and her eyes shone with the same black wrath he imag­ines when read­ing about, say, Ro­man cen­tu­ri­ons slaugh­ter­ing tribes­men at Hadrian’s Wall. From time to time, he feels her mak­ing that face next to him, be­hind him, and he shud­ders. Maybe they just shouldn’t be to­gether; surely he shouldn’t in­spire any­one to look the way she did that night. He dreams of start­ing over with Emily, and with other women. Other women oc­cupy, crowd, his mind. For in­stance, a new teacher at his school named Ms. Sharpe—han­nah—a small, quiet crea­ture with pen­ciled eye­brows and a pen­chant for cor­duroy jumpers; the most unas­sum­ing, unerotic pres­ence imag­in­able, but still the ob­ject of his sud­denly dif­fuse and ra­di­ant de­sire. He scans the cafe­te­ria for her as he eats and reads his Twelve Cae­sars, hop­ing for a glance at her mod­est form as she shep­herds in her home­room. He finds rea­sons to walk by her desk dur­ing break and breathes in deeply as he passes, as though he can steal her essence into him­self like some wicked, jeal­ous djinn. It doesn’t help to know that this is just a re­sponse to his mar­i­tal dis­cord—the un­like­li­ness of Han­nah Sharpe as the per­son to whom his fan­tasies have at­tached them­selves only un­der­scores how dire the sit­u­a­tion has be­come. The one thing that seems to ease his mind is read­ing about how other peo­ple have sal­vaged their re­la­tion­ships. Time and again, hus­bandly tes­ti­mo­ni­als and self-help man­u­als stress the im­por­tance of not con­sid­er­ing di­vorce as an op­tion. One e-book he sur­rep­ti­tiously bought, en­ti­tled Real Wife, Real Life, ad­vises the reader to put aside his fan­tasies and “wake up ev­ery day fully com­mit­ted to mak­ing the life you have cho­sen the best life pos­si­ble.” Stop imag­in­ing, it says. Good ad­vice, prob­a­bly, but he has found it dif­fi­cult to fol­low. He finds him­self imag­in­ing now—has been imag­in­ing for some time—that his wife and mother have been in a car ac­ci­dent. They have been gone six hours, and out­side it is rain­ing and dark. He and his fa­ther have al­ready had a cou­ple of terse con­ver­sa­tions about what was keep­ing the girls so long, and the three text mes­sages he’s sent have re­ceived no re­ply. He and his fa­ther agreed that in all like­li­hood the two o’clock show­ing was booked up, so they bought tick­ets to the four-thirty, went for mar­gar­i­tas at Fire­bird Grille in the in­terim, and then for­got to call be­fore the movie started. This is the most likely ex­pla­na­tion, yet some­thing un­pleas­ant has hung in the air be­tween Michael and Fred since they last talked about it, which was at

the be­gin­ning of the Lsu-arkansas game when the score was only seven–zip. Since then, LSU has scored six touch­downs, and Michael has ad­mit­ted to him­self what this un­spo­ken bad thing is, which is that they both know that nei­ther Barb nor Emily would ever for­get to call if they were go­ing to be three hours late. They are both un­fail­ingly con­sid­er­ate of oth­ers (hence, Michael thinks with re­morse, Emily vol­un­teer­ing to go to the movies in the first place). It is con­ceiv­able that one of them might have had a rare mo­ment of thought­less­ness—emily, es­pe­cially, since she is pissed at him—but not both at the same time, and not on Thanks­giv­ing. He knows this, and he knows his fa­ther does too, and the shared de­cep­tion leaves a bad, stale taste in Michael’s mouth like the warm Bud­weiser he keeps sip­ping at. They have watched three quar­ters of this foot­ball game in a silent con­test to see who will break and state the ob­vi­ous first—that some­thing might be, even likely is, wrong—but now the phone is ring­ing. His fa­ther lifts the re­ceiver, and Michael imag­ines three things, more or less si­mul­ta­ne­ously: his mother’s car up­side down in a smok­ing ditch off the in­ner belt­way; the fringe of Han­nah’s fine, brown hair down her back like a re­mote cliff wall, un­spoiled by hu­man touch; and Emily’s face loom­ing in the mir­ror with the prom­ise of another year spent locked in help­less com­bat—and some part of him­self he will never for­give be­cause he will never ad­mit he had the thought in the first place, hopes it’s the hos­pi­tal or the po­lice call­ing.

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