In Love, a short story by Joan Spilman


In the morning, she goes out and pulls up the pansies. They smirk from the bottom of a garbage can. She wants her backyard uncluttered and maintenance free instead. She wants concrete and wonders why she hasn’t thought of it before. She runs to the kitchen table and spends the rest of the morning sketching and drawing up plans. Only the sound of the mail dropping into the mailbox interrupts her; the tread of his steps on the wooden porch lets her know the mailman has gone. Susan doesn’t know why she doesn’t want to see him. They’ve talked of so many things, but now she feels tongue-tied. Still, she’s anxious for the mail. She goes to the door and stands sideways, snaking out her arm and brings back a hand full of mail. Scores of coupons from the Saver-X flutter down; there is a flood of political flyers, and a check from Bull.

Susan smiles, scanning the amount. He’s been most generous this time. She puts the check neatly under the fruit bowl next to her sketchpad. She picks up her sunglasses and goes to lie outside. She’s aware when the mailman passes on the other side fo the street, but she doesn’t throw her hand up. She’s comfortable with the distance; there is time. Soon after he leaves, Susan decides she can’t stand to be in the sun any longer. It is hot, and besides, until she is surrounded by concrete, she won’t be satisfied.

She goes to the bank and deposits most of the money. She keeps out just enough for groceries and a dress she’s seen. Not a dress exactly but a blouse and skirt made of crepe de chine. It’s bright red with tiny pearl buttons. She has decided to buy it so she can say goodbye to her lover. She wants him to see her looking bright and brave. She thought about getting a white dress, but decided that would be too wan. She wants a vibrant color, just to let him know that life will go on. She buys the dress without trying it on. The salesclerk, a young girl as petite as she, says, “This isn’t a gift. It’s for you.” When Susan nods yes, the clerk says, “I could tell.”

At home home, she tries it on before the mirror. It looks so good, certainly her color is red, that now she has the courage to go to the Mammoth Caves and look him up. Susan won’t need a guide to take her; she can find Bart by herself. By now his mother or girlfriend will be gone, and she will follow him silently, stealthily, until he nears the exit. Then, she will dodge into a shortcut no one else knows about and head him off. She’ll be waiting at the end of the tunnel. Some light will filter in but not enough to make her squint. Susan has deliberately chosen to meet him at the exit. Even though she’s come this far, she wants him to know he can leave anytime.

She carefully studies her surrounding. She peers at the signs: EXIT, LADIES, GENTS. As he comes through, he will see a figure slouching. A fashionable figure with an air of concentration just spent. Personally, Bart is exhausted. Susan will be wearing a hat. Though he can barely walk, he swill stop, intrigued by the mysterious figure who seems to be unaware of his presence until she hears a sound, perhaps a pebble crunching and turns quickly. In the half-light, her hair grown to her knees and tumbling, Susan will appear transformed. Her stiletto heels are weapons; her dress shoots flames. Poor Bart. The essence of woman stands before him, and the shock sends him to his knees. Susan, unaware that she is a goddess, looks around. What’s that sound? An insect? Vermin? Though she meets his gaze by accident, compassion won’t allow her to leave. Who is this poor man, so tired, so broken? Slowly, horribly, she recognizes Bart. She can only guess at his suffering, the contained hours of grief. He is in love. He is in love with her, and he has done wrong. Will she forgive him? She opens her legs and swallows him up.

The next day Susan doesn’t dig in her garden. Men in trucks have come with shovels, troughs, and bags of cement. She is happy with this activity. She’s always wanted a patio, a barbecue and a fire pit. When the mailman comes, they discuss the elm tree. It’s still standing, looking miserable, in a sea of cement. They both agree that the right thing to do, the only sensible thing to do, is to put it out of its misery.

“When?” The friendly mailman has turned into Don the tree trimmer again.

Susan blinks. She is reminded of Bull and Seattle. All the money he’s sent. When? She nearly tells him to let it stand, but . . . Susan sighs. The only right thing to do, the only sensible thing is to do as they planned.

“Soon,” she says, but she hasn’t thought any further. Soon is something neither one of them can plan. The tree will fall when the time comes. She shrugs her shoulders and the strap of her halter slips. A muscle in Don’s throat cords; he looks straight ahead. CRASH! A man in tan overalls has just dropped his end of the concrete wood burning fire pit. It split right in two.

“Don’t worry,” said Don, the mailman. “I’ll fix it. I’ve got special cement glue.”

Susan doesn’t mean to, but she tingles. He leaves her staring at the broken fire pit, but she knows he’s staring at her, too.

It is the every of every other night, and Bull calls. She tells him she loves him right from the start. There is a pause, but he doesn’t ask her to come to Seattle. He asks about her flowers, instead. ‘You’re never going to believe this,” she says. “But I’ve planted concrete.”

She tells him about the patio, the barbecue and the broken fire pit. Then she tells him what’s really on her mind — a swimming pool. Bull sighs, but he won’t deny her. She’s the only wife he’s got.

“Sounds good to me,” he tells her, and really, he might enjoy a heated pool after Seattle. Yes, she can do what she wants. There is, however, one difference. This time he must apply for a loan.

That night, Susan sits on the couch and watches television. During the commercials, she looks at her body instead. All this yard work has certainly changed her. Her arms are shapely; her buttocks are firm. She’s brown, but she’d like to get darker and decides that after the pool is built, she’ll put up a tall wood fence so she can lie naked in the sun. Not totally naked. She’ll put band aids on her nipples to prevent them from looking like prunes. In the winter, she’ll go to a tanning booth, and she’ll look terrific. Maybe she’ll go to the boutique and buy a blue jersey she noticed hanging next to the crepe de chine. As for her lover? She has forgotten about him.

The phone rings and her heart pounds. Who could be calling? Unbidden, she sees a picture of her lover slipping off from his mother in the dark. She walks quickly to the phone across the braided rug. It’s Mildred. Mildred! Susan is glad she’s called. She tells her all that’s being done. She describes the patio and the fire pit and the hard brown muscles of the men as they work in the sun. She talks with such certainty that Mildred gets confused and believes that everything has already been done. “No, no,” Susan laughs. It seems she’s always laughing at Mildred. “When you get here, you’ll realize your error. It’s a mess. Come to lunch.”

Click goes one end of the line. Click goes the other. Susan stands and stretches. She’s admiring her firm body when she hears another ring. Not the phone but the doorbell. She wonders who it could be. It can’t possible be Mildred. No, she smiles, remembering. It is the mailman with his glue gun.

It is her lover. She opens the door and stands frozen, adamant, alarmed. Bart waits, watching. He sees the emotions playing across her face. He closes it behind him. Finally, not so much because she’s angry but to break the ice, she throws a book at him.

“I was afraid this would happen,” he says, but he’s a nimble lover and dodges it. Bart takes her in his arms. They kiss.

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