Winner of the 1991 Arrowhead Regional Arts Fiction Competition
It was a Wednesday when the bill arrived. Cassie Hedberg’s birthday was the following Monday, so it wasn’t too difficult to put one and one together.
The envelope from Montgomery Ward was addressed to Carl, but thinking it junk mail, she dutifully checked its contents before throwing it. The bill for $523.87 startled her, and it crossed her mind to call Ward’s to correct their error. Then she remembered her upcoming birthday and a glowing liquid warmth pulsed through her veins.
Twice she picked up the phone to call one of her friends to tell them of Carl’s thoughtfulness, to brag up her man. Each time she left off dialing and decided it would be best to wait.
Thursday she began mentally re-arranging the furniture. The old TV would go down to the den; the new one would fit nicely here in the corner. Carl was never good at concealing things from her, and she laughed now about the time four years ago when she caught him cheating, how flustered and ashamed he’d been, how easily she saw through all his pretexts, and how fortunate she was to have brought him back home. That was a hard year, her hardest since the year Thad was born while Lisa was still in diapers.
She was walking with an extra spring in her step. When friends called — it seemed like everyone was calling that day — her spunk and cheer uplifted them.
“You win a lottery or something?” Donna Trumbull asked.
“Why’s that?” Cassie pretended not to notice the melodic sing-song sound of her voice.
“My, aren’t we happy as a lark today,” Gloria said when she heard Cassie’s lively trill.
Around 1:00 she turned on one of the soap operas she followed sporadically and for the first time in months Cassie was not annoyed by the poor reception she’d always endured with this television set. She especially hated when people walked around in certain parts of the room how the color would fade, the set belching fuzzy static sounds.
At 6:00, Carl called Cassie to apologize for being late, but said he’d be home by 7:00 and that she should go ahead and eat. And for the first time in months she didn’t mind his long hours or his busy schedule.
Friday, too, was a nice day. A light rain fell in the afternoon, but the farmers need it, Cassie thought, and the weekend promised nice weather. Around 4:00 that afternoon, the phone rang. It was Carl. “What do you say we get a sitter tonight and go to a movie?"
“Is there anything playing? I don’t think I want to see Dick Tracy,” Cassie answered.
“We’ll find something,” Carl said, and Cassie said she’d try to find a sitter.
She had always hated the way Carl never planned anything ahead and lived life on the fly. It’s hard enough with plenty of notice to find sitters on Fridays, but this annoyance, too, diminished when she thought of the new TV and the possibilities of romance returning to their flat, listless relationship.
At 6:00, Carl phoned again. “Sorry. I’m a little behind. I’ve been breaking my ass to fix a busted gear on this new unit. I’ll be home in twenty.” It was 6:40 when he came through the door, the house smelling aromatic from Cassie’s homemade stew.
Cassie rushed through the agenda as she ladled the stew into his bowl. “We’ve all eaten. The sitter will be here at seven. Movie starts at seven-twenty. I’ll go get dressed.”
Before seating himself, Carl unbuttoned his shirt, gave his wife a peck on the cheek and fixed himself a drink. While he was finishing his dinner the sitter arrived, 10 minutes early. Cassie showed the girl around while he washed and changed upstairs.
“What movie are we seeing?” Carl asked as they pulled out of the drive. Cassie said the one she wanted to see was at Cinema Five, but if he didn’t want to see that one, there were two other movies that looked interesting.
Afterwards they went to Bridgeman’s for ice cream.
“We should do this more often,” Cassie said.
She was surprised when he didn’t add, “I just hate spending the money.” His traditional tightfistedness with money had often made her wish she’d started earlier with a career. Because Carl was bringing home the bacon, Carl always had final say about how it was sliced.
They talked about the movie and about the kids and about how busy their lives seemed. They didn’t talk about birthdays or how frustrated Cassie was that he seemed lost in his own thoughts, not hearing a word she was saying.
After the sitter had gone, they prepared for bed. Although Carl’s distractedness at Bridgeman’s had bothered her, she chose to overlook it. She gave herself to him with a passion she hadn’t yielded in ages. He purred, she laughed and they held each other tight.
The weekend was hectic, as usual. On Saturday, Carl wanted to go fishing, but grumpily agreed to finish painting the garage. It was fall and good painting days were numbered. Cassie drove Thad to Little League practice and Lisa to dance lessons, then picked up some groceries, picked up Thad, scrambled home put the groceries away, got the ice cream into the freezer, fixed a quick salad and sandwiches, then rushed to fetch Lisa, returning straight home to remove the shirts from the dryer. Hectic as it was, she was whistling the whole while.
Twice Carl became bothered with her that afternoon for one reason or another, but instead of Cassie reacting with her normal hostility, she overlooked his insults and even managed to project warmth and charm, which she held in check to some degree lest she appear too out of character.
Around 4:00 her sister Val called.
“I’m afraid I’m giving myself away,” Cassie confided. “The way he’s been acting I’d normally be climbing the walls, but I find myself almost oblivious. I don’t know. He’s a pain sometimes, but he can be a sweetheart, too.”
“Last week you were talking divorce. What’s gotten into you.”
“I guess this is something I’ve always wanted… for Carl to care again, to do something special without my begging for it,” Cassie said.
“Maybe he just feels guilty about something,” Val said. “Men are like that sometimes.”
“And women aren’t?” Cassie said, laughing. She was not interested in having her bubble burst yet and turned the insinuation into a joke.
Her sister backed off and let Cassie, ever the optimist, cling to her hopes.
Cassie not only had hopes, she had fears, at this moment the largest being that she may have tipped her hand that she knew about the anticipated gift. To compensate, she decided to get stewed about his being late for dinner that night, which he always was anyways. When he came into the kitchen at suppertime, she was standing with her hands on her hips, a convincing outrage scrawled across her face.
One glance told Carl the story. Without a word, he slapped off the radio and stalked red-faced back out to the garage, slamming two doors along the way. An hour later he returned to the house to say he was going out with some friends.
“Aren’t you going to have something to eat?” Cassie said.
“I’ll grab a bite somewhere. Don’t worry ‘bout it.”
“I’m not worried about it,” she snapped. “Just seems like you should eat something, that’s all.”
Carl cursed under his breath as he left the room.
The Sunset Lounge was crowded, but unusually subdued for a Saturday night. At the table where Carl sat with Ben Hinklow and Arnie Barnes, two buddies from work, the subject of women was active in everyone’s minds and spilled easily from their mouths.
“Man, has my wife been acting weird the last few days,” Carl finally said when his turn came to speak.
“Women can be like that sometimes,” Ben agreed. “You can’t figure ’em out and it don’t matter much whether its ten years or thirty.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know. Cassie’s really weird like she knows something. Know what I mean?” Carl tapped his fingers in a rolling rhythm, his head tilted to the side and lips compressed in a semi-disgusted expression.
“Knows about…?” Arnie asked, cocking his head to one side, not knowing whether Ben knew or not.
“You mean-” Ben knew, but didn’t know whether Arnie knew, so he didn’t say anything more.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Carl said, “She’s just been acting so bizarre.”
“Women are always acting bizarre. What’s bizarre about that?” Ben said. “That’s what it’s like to be a woman. My daughter’s hardly 14. She’s gets weird sometimes, you know. Then the wife says ‘It’s that time of month,’ and you know, that’s just what it must be.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a little paranoid, I don’t know.” Ben and Arnie each nodded indicating they understood. Ben then said, as if required whenever the mystery of Woman was discussed in any measure of solemnity, “Women! Hell, you can’t live with ‘em-”
And as if mandated, Arnie cut him off. “And you can’t live without ‘em.”
Carl rose to find a restroom.
“Hey, where ya goin’ man?” Ben said, grabbing his arm.
“I’ll be right back,” said Carl. On the way back from the restroom he saw a pay phone. After checking his watch to make sure it wasn’t too late, he slid his hand down into the pocket of his jeans to find a quarter. Carl picked up the receiver, slid the quarter into the slot, and listened to the clicks, the dial tone and then the rings at the other end of the line, counting them one by one, till at last he knew there would be no answer. He hung up and returned to his friends who were in the midst of some heated bickering. “How late you guys planning to stay?”
“What’s your hurry, Carl?”
Carl seated himself as the waitress brought the next pitcher of beer.
Sunday was no better. From Carl’s reactions, Cassie could do no right. She didn’t like it but wouldn’t say anything. He didn’t like being unreasonably irritable either, but he also didn’t like the idea of being the cause of a bad atmosphere and kept trying to blame Cassie for his bad temper.
Most of the day they managed to avoid having to speak to each other directly. Three children in the house makes that an easier achievement. They both knew intuitively that any effort to begin a discussion would soon be diverted to disagreeably chilly terrain.
The evening proved to be more hopeful. The fear of hostilities having diminished somewhat, they decided to rent a movie so as to keep the need for any real personal communication at a minimum. They did not voice it this way exactly, but they knew each other well enough to know that if one suggested a movie, the other would agree.
“Would you like to maybe rent a movie tonight?” Carl said off-handedly. Thad and Lisa looked up, first to dad and then to mom to see her response. After exhaling deeply, Cassie took the cue.
“Is there anything we’d like to see?”
“Batman!” Thad asserted.
Carl pretended not to hear. “No, you pick something this time,” Carl said, speaking directly to his wife. He didn’t really care. He simply wanted their discord to go away. “In fact, why don’t I do the dishes and you run pick something up.”
Cassie paused, amazed, stood up and walked to the counter where she kept her purse. “I’ll be back in ten minutes,” she said, smiling genuinely.
When she returned, Carl was still a bit sulky, but that hard edge which he’d carried all day had softened. “Do you like musicals?”
“How long have we been married? What did you get?”
“Just kidding. These two wanted to see Honey I Shrunk the Kids.”
“I wanted to see Batman.” Thad whined.
“Well, Lisa wanted — “
“I don’t care, really,” Thad said, and they went into the living room.
Carl didn’t care either.
Monday. Cassie’ birthday. Carl was gone with the dawn, like those vampires of old who disappear with the break of day. It was impossible for Cassie to sleep in, of course, and she immediately went down to make coffee after hearing his pickup pull out the drive.
“What are you doing up, Mom?”
After exploring for a minute — in the living room, then the kitchen and all the closets, yawning and bleary-eyed, pushing back the curtain of sleep — she began wondering the same thing. How could she explain that she was looking for, expecting, something special; like maybe a banner? a card? a signal of remembrance? That it was her birthday.
Hasn’t your dad told you it’s my birthday? Are you playing a game with me? Is this charade going to last all day? She was quickly in a frump.
“Mom, can Rick come over today?”
“Why don’t you go to Rick’s house?”
“Rick’s mother is kind of mean sometimes.”
“That’s not very nice,” she said carefully. She was glad her kids’ friends didn’t feel that way about her. “Your friends can come over, but only if you play out in the yard today”
Noon. No special calls. No flowers. No mention of anything from anyone.
Two o’clock. Call from sister Val. “Did you see As the World Turns?”
“This old TV set is practically — “
“Oh, Happy Birthday!”
“Hey, what’s up?” Val had already expected the worst; never did trust Carl; called him Carl the Cad when Cassie first met him years earlier.
Cassie was confused. “I don’t know.” She wanted to tell Val she’d been crying. “I feel like such a heel. Here it’s my birthday, and Carl’s probably surprising me with this nice present and I’m all peeved because I think he’s forgotten. It’s like I have this dread he’s forgotten my birthday and I can’t explain this damned receipt from Montgomery Wards.”
“Give it time, sweets. He’s probably trying to build some excitement for you.” Val’s attempt to sound sincere was taken at face value. Cassie was looking for even the least shred of comfort and Val was not about to dish out her own unpalatable interpretation of Carl’s actions.
“Thanks, Sis.” Cassie said, and then, “Thad’s outside crying about something. Gotta run.”
Five o’clock, Carl walks into the kitchen, sees Cassie leaning on the counter, staring out the window; she hesitates, then turns and studies him. Come over here you big sweet lovable jerk, she wants to say, but the words don’t come; she’s holding out limp hands, but it’s only a half-hearted gesture of invitation, and he fails to notice its significance, peeling off his shoes and kicking them into a corner. “What’s up, hon? No dinner tonight?”
You’re just putting me on, right, big guy? “You don’t have to play with me, Carl. I already know. I just can’t stand having to wait any longer and — “
“Know about what?” Carl pulled back his head a notch as if peering through the lower lenses of a pair of bifocals, his chin jutting out, lips parted slightly.
“You know,” she said hopefully.
“Hey, really, I’m lost. I mean I am toe-tally in the dark. So where’s the eats? You gonna starve the kids, too, or what?”
“I’ll pick something up at MacDonald’s while you take a shower.”
“Like what’s the occasion?” Then he covered his face with his hand and mumbled, “Oh shit.”
“I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry. Today’s your birthday! Where do you want to go eat. God, I don’t know where my head is at sometimes.”
It was a tradition of theirs to take each other out to eat on their birthdays. Cassie turned away and looked out the window again. For what seemed like a very long time she watched her son romping in the back yard with a soccer ball. Carl stood motionless in the middle of the kitchen. He knew Cassie well enough to know this wasn’t a time to leave. She’s unpredictable, that’s certain. He was stupid to be so forgetful; that was certain, too.
Without speaking, Cassie grabs her purse and shoves her hand into the middle of it, feeling around for a thin piece of paper which she has kept folded in her checkbook. She pivots to face her husband and holds out the bill. “Do you know anything about this?”
“Hey, cool your jets,” Carl says, stepping forward to examine the paper she is holding out to him. He sees the Montgomery Wards logo on the bottom and says, “It looks like a bill.”
“Know what it’s for?”
Carl scrunches up his face to read it, shrugs. “How should I know?”
“It’s on our account. I didn’t buy it.” She makes the I emphatic.
“Why would I go out and buy a color TV? We’ve already got one.”
“I just thought — “
“Honest, Cassie, I really don’t know what this is about. I’ll call the store tomorrow. I’m sure it’s some kind of mistake.” Trying to smooth things over he says, “Let’s try that new place, what’s it called? Finnegan’s?”
Cassie muttered, “Sure, Finnegan’s” through clenched teeth, and they both went through the motions of letting the mix-up be nothing more than that.
If you had been seated in Cassie Hedberg’s kitchen the morning after her birthday, this is the phone conversation you would have heard: “Hello, this is Cassie Hedberg. I was wondering — yes, I can hold… Hello, this is Cassie Hedberg. I was wondering if I could talk to someone in customer service… Thank you…. Yes?… Hedberg…. H-E-D-B-E-R-G… Right….
“I’m inquiring about a bill we received here sometime last week for a color television set… Just a second…. Here it is; our account number is four-five-five-zero-zero-dash-two-seven-four-five-two…. Right… No, that’s four five two… Yes, that’s right. My husband’s name is Carl…. What’s that? Do you know when it was delivered?…. It was a birthday present, but I believe there’s been a mix-up. Do you have the address it was delivered to?… Just a second, let me get a pencil. O.K., yes, one-seventeen Johnson Street… Is there a record of who signed for it? ….No, that’s O.K. I guess this should be fine. You’ve been a big help…. Yes, thank you. I think we can take care of it.”
Val showed up at ten-thirty to watch the kids. Cassie hopped in the Dodge and sped off to make a service call.
Johnson Street is a mixed neighborhood of newer houses and run-down homes that have been parsed into apartments. For this reason, Cassie could not anticipate what awaited her at the aforementioned address until she reached the dirt-brown house bearing the signature one-one-seven in faded black numerals above the door.
Cassie killed the engine, but didn’t leave the car. Instead, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, opened them slightly and stared at the small chapped hands, barren of all but a thin gold wedding band that was near to wearing through, that were now gripping the car’s steering wheel in the 10 and two positions. She thought of her husband, wondered what he was doing at that moment.
Finally, Cassie emerged from the car, walked back and opened the trunk. A light breeze tugged at the loose sleeves of her robin’s egg blue blouse. Out from the trunk she lifted an orange tackle box containing the set of tools she usually stored at home under the sink. Slowly, at first, and then with increasing determination she strode up the walk to the two steps that put her on the front landing. She pushed the doorbell button and waited.
A dog barked back behind the house. She listened for footsteps or any kind of activity inside. Then once more she rang the doorbell.
“I’m coming!” she heard from somewhere inside. Then a clamber of feet descending a flight of stairs. The large wooden door opened six inches. Half visible and peering from the safety of within was a barefoot young girl in her teens wearing a dark brown tank top and cutoff shorts.
“Your mother home?” Cassie said, thinking the girl no more than fifteen.
“My mom lives downtown. Who you looking for?” the girl said.
Cassie was conscious of her own breathing, the air rushing through her nostrils, her mouth trying to form words, to keep calm, to maintain continuity, equilibrium. “Are there two apartments here? I’m from Montgomery Wards. There’s a color television set at 117 Johnson Street that’s needs an adjustment.”
“This is the place. The other half of the house is 115. The set works fine though.”
Cassie stepped forward, pushing her way into the house, the girl now offering no resistance.
The girl pointed and said, “It’s in here,” and together they walked through an arched opening into the living room. “It’s really nice. My boy friend gave it to me.”
“Oh, really?” Cassie said with her back to the girl, her head pounding, her face becoming hot and flushed. Cassie’s back was to the girl as she walked forward and placed the toolbox atop the TV set. Hands trembling, she unlatched and opened the lid, found the hammer and felt the weight of it in her hand.
The girl was standing back about eight feet studying her. For one split second she sensed what was coming but, disbelieving, said nothing and watched in unspeakable amazement.
With one hand sheltering her eyes, her other hand gripping the end of the handle, Cassie whipped that hammer through the air with a force she didn’t know she possessed. The screen exploded and the girl jumped.
“What the hell are you doing!!?”
Cassie slammed the set two, three, four more times, crushing the dials, breaking off bits of plastic and fake chrome, till she considered it adequately damaged.
“Good thing that wasn’t Carl’s head.”
“You know Carl?”
“Know the bastard!?? I’m married to him.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Believe what you want, kiddo. There’s only one Carl Hedberg and I swear to God…” Cassie was standing with her arm extended, emphatically punctuating her words with the extended hammer, “I-swear-to-God,” as if pounding home in the most forceful way possible the meaning of her words.
The girl turned and left the room. “I’m calling the police.”
“Go ahead. You want to see your boyfriend in jail for statutory rape? You’re barely old enough to tie your shoes.”
The girl stopped in the hallway, whirled and shouted, “Get your fat ass out of my house!”
Cassie was already heading for the door.
Later that afternoon, Carl bursts into the house. “Are you nuts or what? You smashed your own TV!”
“After that little tramp had it, I don’t want it.”
“Honest, Cass, I was just storing it there till your birthday.”
“Get out of here. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I lost track of the days, that’s all. You know how weekends are. I swear, that was your TV.”
“Is this some kind of a joke? Where did you meet this girl anyways?”
“She’s a kid sister of a buddy of mine.”
“You don’t know him.”
“Oh Carl, for crissake can’t you be straight about anything?”
“I don’t have anything to hide.”
“What’s his name? What’s his phone number? I’m sorry, I can’t believe this is really happening.”
“Shit, man, get off my case, all right? She’s just a girl I met at the tavern and she was helping me out by storing it for a couple days so I could surprise you on your birthday, all right? So it slips my mind. Come on, I’m absent-minded but I’m not an idiot.”
Cassie turns away disgusted, shaking her head. “You’re so stupid, Carl. What makes you think you can get away with a thing like this?”
“Come on, Cassie,” Carl pleads, “I wanna know why you won’t believe me. Can you tell me that?”
Cassie is staring out the window at a grassy hillside that sits partially visible just past the back end of the neighbor’s garage, holding her breath, her jaw tight, her mouth small with the tightened features of her face. Finally, she exhales through her nose, takes another deep breath and tilts her head to one side, the muscles slowly loosening, the pressure easing from behind her eyes. She rocks her head back, closes her eyes and opens them, looks again at the rolling hillside and the hills beyond, then slowly nods her head. The grass looks lush and green. Yes, the grass is very green.
copyright 1991 ed newman
Originally published at ennyman.com.