Phyllis Green’s stories have been published in Epiphany, Parting Gifts, Prick of the Spindle, The Blue Lake Review, Bluestem, The Sheepshead Review, Paper Darts, The Examined Life: Literary Journal of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and a drama in Mason’s Road. She will have an upcoming story in Hospital Drive, the journal of the University of Virginia School Of Medicine. She is a Pushcart prize nominee.
He Always Wanted To Live By The Sea
Neva had a well-paying job as an office manager for a group of sixteen engineers. She loved working and ran her office like a train station of old - with respect for the customers, efficiency for her bosses, camaraderie with her staff, and a surprising sense of humor. And everything that needed to be done was done on time. Edgar was a house husband. He did dishes, scrubbed floors, vacuumed, made beds, dusted, and took care of the baby, Raymond, a boy of 9 months, when he wasn’t writing - for Edgar was a writer first, and a husband and father and house cleaner second.
Edgar wrote poetry and there wasn’t much money in poetry; in fact there wasn’t any money there, but Neva liked keeping Edgar in a manner that he was accustomed to and so it worked out for them both. The only house thing Edgar did not do was cook and so Neva came home from the office, changed into navy blue lounge wear, put a jaunty red scarf around her neck, and prepared dinner every night.
When they first moved into this apartment of 1800 square feet on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Edgar noticed the gray carpet had not been lain by a good carpet layer. An obvious line cut right through the middle of the living room where two pieces should have seamlessly met. “Shoddy,” Edgar remarked. Neva said it didn’t bother her, but Edgar saw it every time he entered the room.
One Tuesday Edgar was vacuuming. He was facing west and his back was to the east when, as he pulled the vacuum backwards over the line in the carpet, the east part of him - half of his body - wasn’t there. His front half was visible but his backside was missing. This frightened him, so he quickly moved west until his body was whole and visible again. He turned off the vacuum and slumped down on the gray sofa and leaned against a turquoise pillow and closed his gray-green eyes and thought perhaps he should write a poem about his missing half, but nothing poetic came to him. So he shrugged, got up, and put the vacuum away.
The next week he decided to experiment. He got out the cumbersome vacuum, turned it on, and pushed it over the line east to west and nothing happened. He was whole, and there, the entire time. So he turned around facing west and as he crossed the line, pulling backwards on the vacuum, his butt, and then his heels, disappeared. Then his back and legs were gone. He gingerly peeked eastward and saw the most beautiful sea, and a beach filled with yellow chairs, peach umbrellas, tiny white sand pipers at the water’s foamy edge, and seagulls flying white against the summery-blue sky.
He gasped, because he had always wanted to live by the sea. But he made himself face forward and pushed the vacuum ahead of him and he found himself, all of him, back in the living room on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh. It was time for Raymond to get up from his nap. Edgar changed Raymond’s diaper, dressed him in a blue and white sun suit, put him in a stroller with his “baba” and pushed him to the green grassy park a block away. As he gently seated Raymond on the baby swing he thought about the sea as dark as blueberries and the gray-green tide washing over pink and tan and white seashells and he smiled, as if he knew a secret.
Neva loved to shop for clothes. She wore chic black pant suits with silk white blouses and black high heels. She smelled of Hanae Mori haute couture, carried a Gucci handbag (one of seventeen purses--all expensive), and wore her blond hair in a French twist. Her hands possessed long fingers and well kept nails that viciously grinded into Edgar’s back with desire. She dressed her face in Lancôme makeup and wore simple jewelry, diamond stud earrings and an emerald and diamond wedding band. Edgar liked having a fashionista for a wife. Edgar dressed like the poet he was—baggy linen tan pants, white shirt open at the neck, brown hair always in need of a cut, scruffy jaw and chin always in need of a shave, and dark brown sandals covering bare blue-veined feet. It helped that he was lanky and handsome with a bewildering smirk and eyes that seemed to wink at approaching females. Edgar and Neva looked good together and they knew it.
This marriage, this relationship, worked, and so it was surprising that one evening after dinner Edgar was vacuuming up Raymond’s spilled Cheerios and the baby in his crib could be heard calling and sniffling. Neva, comfy on the sofa with a decorating magazine, Elle Decor, looked toward Edgar and said, “I think I hear the baby crying, could you be a dear and…”
Edgar, facing west, backed up the vacuum and disappeared.
He sat on a yellow beach chair under a peach umbrella and Alicia put an iced tea on the white wicker table by his chair. They both looked out to sea. He was surprised that he was attracted to Alicia because she was not young. She wore twenty silver bracelets on her tanned right arm. A white bathing suit flattered her slim body. Her hair was white like falling snow and it reached her waist. She had wrinkles on her upper arms, in her neck; her breasts had lowered like dropped pearl earrings, and no fat remained in her ass. She sat on bone. But she still had a warm throaty laugh, that slice of a smile and eyes that sparkled like mica. Edgar felt like hugging her, kissing her, but Alicia moved away from him. She smiled. “No,” she said. “You are my masseur and my chef--that is all.”
And Edgar realized that yes, he was a masseur and a former chef at the French Laundry, and he was excited to pick up local produce for tonight’s dinner. Then afterwards, he would give Alicia a massage, for he could see her old body needed soothing and oils.
And so Edgar cooked for himself and Alicia, local crab salad with homemade biscuits and strawberry tarts and lemonade. And then Alicia sang a few songs for him in her husky alto, which still sounded like her famous recordings of years ago.
Edgar swam in the ocean and napped on a striped towel on the beach. He drank margaritas and learned to play the guitar to accompany Alicia’s singing. He was content in body and soul.
One evening they decided to go out to eat at a restaurant a mile away. They sat on the open patio with martinis and listened to a local band playing that old goody, “Till the End of Time”. The tables were full and there were conversations and laughter and loud guffaws and somewhere in this chattering mix Edgar heard a young woman’s voice saying something like, “Do you think the baby is crying…” and Edgar turned to the voice which was in the west and he found himself back in his living room in Pittsburgh.
He felt unbelievably tired so he went to the bedroom and found a tall, naked, acne pocked college man with bite marks on his neck in bed with Neva. Edgar picked up the six-foot-four naked man and carried him out to Fifth Avenue and laid him on the snowy curb. Edgar shivered as the wind pierced his linen slacks and the temperature felt like 20 degrees. He went back in the apartment, stomped the snow and slush off his sandals and climbed in bed with Neva.
In the morning he went to check on baby Raymond and discovered not a baby but a boy in Raymond’s room. The boy woke up and said, “Daddy!”
“How old are you?” Edgar asked.
Raymond held up five fingers. Edgar learned Raymond went to kindergarten and so he took him there. When he got back he said to Neva, “Do you still work at Brown & Graham?”
“Of course, dear,” she answered. “Did you not sleep last night or something?”
“Maybe,” he said. “How did Raymond get to be five?”
“Time flies, as they say,” Neva answered with a delicious smile.
And so that afternoon Edgar slipped back to the sea and found Alicia but her wrinkles were gone and the white mane too and she was about thirty-five, his age, and they kissed and made love. And Alicia sang her love songs at the local joint and Edgar played the guitar and the audience clapped and wanted encores. Then they sat on yellow beach chairs under peach umbrellas and drank orangeade and ate little shrimp sandwiches that Edgar made. And they looked out to the sea and Edgar stayed until a baby cried and then he went back to Pittsburgh and attended Raymond’s high school graduation, with a proud, weeping Neva by his side.
That night Edgar did not sleep. He went to the computer and wrote a ten page poem about sand dunes and snow drifts and a boy growing up and a woman’s tears that resembled Austrian crystals, or rain. When the poem was complete he rushed back to the sea, but Alicia was gone. Or rather, she was not yet born.