Exit Stage Left
by Katrina Johnston
“Beware the Ides of March.”
Our anniversary falls in early springtime—March 15th. Last year was our sixth. We invoked the Ides like a talisman phrase, tossing the quotation almost as high as we had previously done for our anniversaries one through five. Sheldon jabbed me in the ribs and called me “Sweet Marie.” I poked him back and we exploded with hilarity. But that was the last time we shared the joyful ironies. It’s Sheldon’s fault. He’s changed.
I guess I’ve changed too. I feel it, but I don’t know exactly how or why. I’m not as social as I used to be. I got laid-off from the medical clinic after Thanksgiving, but I always wanted to be a stay-at-home, so it can’t be that. The loss of my income is no big issue. I’m aware my confidence is slipping, but only marginally. I’m unsure what to do. I could sign up for a course of enlightenment or I could upgrade a number of computer skills at the community centre. Except I don’t really want to. I’ve gained a bit of weight. Big deal! Other friends? Don’t know where they’ve gone. I can’t remember much about my life before I met and married Sheldon. He says it’s all my fault.
Our seventh anniversary has arrived this morning without a breath of fanfare.
“Shel, you want tea or coffee with breakfast?”
“I’m going,” he said.
If I shaved my head and danced the Lindy Hop, Sheldon wouldn’t notice. I don’t think he’d care. And I started crying over nothing in particular while I scraped the batter for french toast into the garbage disposal.
Now, I’m here, all alone. My enthusiasm dwindles, but I am reluctant to accept as totally wasted my lengthy quest through the card aisle of London Drugs. I grab a pen and print UN, altering the mushy sentiment: UN-Congratulations and UN-Happy Anniversary with UN-love, Marie. I shove the Hallmark into a lavender envelope. A raucous pair of crows scolds from outside the window. I listen for a while. Crows are known to be intelligent and monogamous. I rip the envelope into jagged pieces.
Four months ago, Sheldon signed up with a local theatre troupe, the Classico Players. He thinks he’s an amazing talent, that he’s adept in the portrayal of diverse characters and emotional angst. Technically, he’s in the cast, but I’ve kept silent about his acting aspirations. He never invites me to view either the rehearsals or the final productions, citing his own lame excuses. He says that he performs more naturally and more believably when I’m not lurking.
They’re an amateur group on Williams Street. Sheldon starred in one minor role in a modest tragedy, but his usual job is the sets. He paints the flats—mostly black—and comes home reeking of oil-based paints and horrid glues. He’s not destined for the magic of the footlights, and it’s all so silly. I don’t say this out loud to him. No matter what, he still doesn’t invite me.
We never do anything as a couple anymore. We barely talk.
Today, I am planning an ambitious roast beef dinner with side dishes of green beans and yellow sweet potatoes. The kitchen timer pings at 2:15 p.m., the worst time of day, and the cravings begin. I don’t expect Sheldon to return for a while and it’s an even longer spell before he might crawl upstairs to snore. He occupies the guest room. I’ve camped out in the master bedroom. Why did the separate bedrooms happen? I don’t recall. That’s normal, isn’t it?
I season the roast and wrap it tightly with string, tying greasy random knots. Then I wash my hands and settle by the window. The crows continue squawking.
The sides of my head start to ache. I have an awful taste inside my mouth, like I’ve binge-eaten an oversized bag of salt and vinegar chips, but I didn’t. The four walls oppress. The daylight chides. I should be outside, shopping, meeting friends and doing everything.
He surprises me by returning just after 3:45 p.m. He steps inside the front porch, balancing his six-foot frame like a pendulum teetering between a pair of aluminum crutches. He’s not bearing weight with his right foot.
While I clear away the kitchen debris he gimps inside. He’s wearing an aura of self-pity, faking injury from when we argued yesterday. He’s bandaged up his right leg from knee to ankle and claims it’s painful. Sheldon expresses great concern about the ligaments of his tibia or fibia or whatever the hell the damn lower leg bone is called. He swings beyond me into the living room.
“Maybe I should have this knee immobilized,” he says, “with one of those inflatable casts.” He’s sounding-off and projecting his stagy voice. “Perhaps I should consider a diagnostic CT along with a follow-up series of appointments with a physiotherapist.” He manages a hang-dog expression while he positions the tips of the crutches to go upstairs. He ka-thumps slowly, one step, then the next and another, swinging up towards the master bedroom. I wait before I follow him, and I stand at the entrance to the bedroom watching like an observer waiting in the wings.
“Honest, I didn’t do anything,” I tell him.
He whacks the crutches around, stops, leans like a camera tripod focused on the closet. He growls his impression of Alec Baldwin. “Must throw a few things together,” he says in a gravelly whisper. He arcs one crutch like a classroom pointer before he thumps it down again.
“I can’t remember much from yesterday,” I say. “But it surely wasn’t as lethal as you’re making out.” I’m worried that Sheldon might discover my upstairs stash: a sixer stuffed behind the rows of boxes at the back of the closet and a bottle of white Fronterra, half empty, under the dresser, and a fifth of gin in the bathroom cabinet behind the towers of TP rolls. He’s busy thumping around and over-emoting. Sheldon lets his armpits sag onto the crutches and he leans forward to withdraw shirts and pants on hangers. “Shit,” he says when a long-sleeved shirt snarls over the hanger. He wrangles his gray suitcase and starts tossing clothes.
“I can’t believe you’re serious,” I tell him. “I mean, you’re not actually planning on leaving me forever, on this day of all the auspicious days!” I fold my arms across my middle. “You’ll need some kind of help Shel. You always do. Who will clean up after you? Besides, I know this about you… you’re not so very brave.”
“I’m finished,” he says into the hollow emptiness of the bedroom. “I’m done.” He opens the dresser and bends awkwardly. “Yeah, I am going away. And for good. And now.”
“Where will you stay? What will you do?”
He shuffles and re-balances. I hear him whisper: “I will strive with things impossible.”
“Sheldon…? I don’t blame you if you’re ticked. Freaky accident. Could have happened anywhere. Right? I was a little upset. I didn’t intend to…”
“Tell yourself whatever blarney you need to Marie,” he says. “Find excuses in the booze. God knows you’ve been successful so far.”
“Oh heck, Sheldon!” I stretch out my hand to touch his shoulder. He twists away.
“Stop, Marie. Keep off!”
“You’re not injured! It was an accident.”
“Hogwash! Could have killed me!” He tosses socks at the open maw of the suitcase. “You’ve got a serious problem with the bottle. When you’re loaded—and that’s all the time these days Marie—you turn into a bully. I’ll learn. Takes me a while, but I will learn. See this,” he gestures toward his bandaged leg, “can’t straighten my foot. Hurts like stink.”
“Looks normal to me.”
“The damage is underneath, all bruises down to the bone. You’re an abusive drunk.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“You’re always smashed.”
“Barely touched you Shel. Besides, nothing got busted. You’re not hemorrhaging.”
“Shit, you don’t clue in Marie! Just because there’s no blood, that doesn’t give you permission to get hammered and…” He throws shirts onto the bed. “Actually, I don’t want to discuss this right now.”
“Listen, take a gander out the window.”
The lid of Sheldon’s suitcase falls closed. “For once in your life Marie, get serious. My cavalry has arrived.”
I yank the window curtain. A Ryerson County Police cruiser idles curbside along our driveway. Sheldon sighs. “My back-up bodyguard. That’s Officer Mark Callan. He’s not on a social. You should be quaking in your boots.” Sheldon bites his lower lip. “I would think you should.”
I lean my forehead against the glass. “Why the police? Are you a friggin’ chicken little? You had to call in the cops?”
“He’s taking me away—to a place.” Sheldon fiddles with the clothes. “Not the usual sequence of events, but in our circumstance warranted. A shelter for men. Swipe the smirk off your face!”
“I am not smirking.”
“You want to.”
“Sheldon—I wouldn’t. Really. See, I’m serious.” I pour sweetness into my own voice until it drips like golden honey. “I want to make things better, smooth it over.”
“You want to goof around, loud and looney, and guzzle more.”
“You used to admire my sense of humour. You used to share it.”
“You think it’s all ridiculous because I’m the husband. Yeah, and you’re only five-four and I’m the strong-looking guy. I’m supposed to be the tough. But it’s ass-backwards isn’t it?” He snorts softly. I lean close to him. I hear his breathless stagey whisper: “The die is cast.”
“See, I’ve forsaken my embarrassment,” he says. “I know who I am. I know what needs to be done here. I’m leaving.” Without looking up, he says it clear and mean. “You’re an abusive alcoholic Marie. You need piles of help.”
“That cop is helping me. You won’t be informed of the location. It’s clandestine.”
I watch as Officer Mark Callan extricates himself from the police car and starts walking towards the house.
“A restraining order kicks in today. You won’t be allowed within three hundred yards.” Sheldon stares at the floor where over the years of our marriage the fumes of blasting heat from the register have darkened the hardwood. “I’ve hired a law firm. Started the paperwork for divorce.”
The doorbell chimes. “No. Sheldon. Please!”
“Still learning how to manage these helpful walking-poles. I don’t want another tumble. You’ll have to get yourself down there and answer the bell.”
I groan. “This is our house Shel. Send him away.”
My husband’s pallor fades behind blotchy areas of red and shiny freckles. “Clear a wider space for me.” He levers rudely past, leaving me standing with my mouth open, my hands fisted. Sheldon sways near the top. I watch. He aligns the crutches and carefully maneuvers down, calling out, “Hang on, I’m coming. Jus’ a sec,” while the doorbell chimes again.
Then I listen to the echoes of another wannabe Alec Baldwin. So, I figure I have no options. Reluctantly I venture down, avoiding eye contact. They hover like a pair of black carrion-eaters.
“Need to speak with you,” the cop is saying. “Have ourselves a chat.”
I decide my best offensive strategy is speaking first and confidently. “Sheldon claims I pushed him downstairs.” I blurt this out, my voice is high and oddly pitched. “He tripped.”
“Were you intoxicated?”
“Me?” I say. “Only had a few. One small drink before dinner. Maybe another after? I wasn’t counting, but that sounds right.”
“I see,” the officer says. “Perhaps a little more than one drink then. And Sheldon?”
“Dead, cold, sober. He’s always sober nowadays.”
“Sheldon is—I dunno—too regimented and in control. He’s all about being ambitious, social climbing. He never admits anything is his fault. Yesterday we argued. He fell. End of story.”
“I did not fall,” Sheldon says. “She did it deliberately.”
I look at Shel. His face is different now, pomegranate red and sweaty.
“She shoved me—pushed me really hard. We were having words near the steps. Marie reached out and with both hands she shoved me over the edge. I rolled to the bottom.”
“Must have been a nasty tumble,” the cop says. “Let’s see—uh huh, ten steps, and rather steep. Maybe the carpet cushioned a little bit.”
“Twelve steps, if you include the landing,” Sheldon says.
“He’s twisting the facts,” I say. “Sheldon considers himself an actor. He’s playing a role.”
“Performing has nothing to do with this. Check with Doctor Henry. He’s got the x-ray proof. I’m lucky I’ve not sustained a fracture. Lucky I’m alive. When she’s smashed, Marie gets nasty, like a wild dog. She pushed me like I was nothing but a bag of dirt.”
I want to wipe the stoic expression from Officer Callan’s square jaw. I want to grab Sheldon’s crutches and toss them away to show them both that he can stand and walk just perfectly fine.
“Has Marie assaulted you before this date? Has she caused you bodily injury on previous occasions?”
“Oh, yeah! You bet. She’s like a crazy brawler, strong and hot-tempered.”
“But, she’s no bigger than a mite.”
“Yeah, that’s true, don’t I know it. She slugged me in the stomach a while ago. Bruised my nose another time. Smacked me with the back of her hand. She always claims she’ll never let it happen, but every time she gets drunk, I’m in peril. The worst time? About two months ago she rammed my head into the hallway mirror. Yes right here. We’ve had it replaced. That’s a new one. She smashed it into shards—the mirror—I mean, not my head. I nearly blacked out.”
The police officer scribbles this information into his notebook.
“This time, she might have broken my leg, or my spine,” Sheldon says. “Or outright killed me!”
I glare at Sheldon, wishing he’d be strong for once, wishing he’d shut his big fat trap.
“Sheldon has always been a clumsy sort of person,” I say. “He tripped.”
I don’t like the way the cop nods in approval of everything that Sheldon says. Two against one. “Unfair!” I want to scream, but I feel so bleary and so tired. I could spit into their boring faces—I could, if only I dared.
The cop looks from Sheldon and then back to me. “Anything else?”
“No,” Sheldon says. “I need to get going.”
I try: “I don’t like it when… when…. Sheldon goes out without telling me. He’s a slob around the house. He’s emotionally, oh, I don’t know. He’s never here for me. It’s that stupid theatre, a bunch of losers. Spends all his time out with them. Sheldon might be, you know—he could be steaming it up with some crazy up-and-coming starlet.” I stammer this. “I don’t think he really is. No one would have him. But still. He’s got this determined acting dream. It’s like he’s married to that stupid theatre.”
I want this police officer to hear my side of the story, but I can’t articulate it clearly. “Shel won’t let me come and watch the stupid plays.”
I want to say that Sheldon ignores me until it hurts, that we never go anywhere together. He’s having so much fun. All I’ve got is this house, his laundry and his messes and more damn cooking. I’m horribly lonely and empty. I want to say all this, but I don’t.
The cop closes his notebook. “We’re done?”
“Yeah,” Sheldon sniffs. “Yeah, we’re finished.” He repositions his crutches on the hallway carpet and pivots toward the door.
I gather myself and then I yell. “Get away then. You stupid freaks! Both of you. Get out of here!”
They stand there all slack-jawed and superior, judging me like a couple of robots might, deciding that I’m a ranting child.
I feel like I’m imploding into a fissure in the earth. I stand there, hating. All I can think about is that there’s an unopened bottle of Gilbert’s in the lower kitchen cupboard and my stupid husband and his idiot bodyguard—this dumb-assed cop—are still in my face. Freeze-frame timing. Please God, make everything speed faster, not this blah, blah, blah!
When the cop eventually proffers a paper I scratch my name. I detest his further intrusion into my house when he stomps upstairs to retrieve Sheldon’s over-stuffed suitcase. Meanwhile, Sheldon, stiff as a totem, pegs himself onto the front porch.
When I slam the door behind their exodus, I creep to the window. The cop tosses the suitcase into the back seat. My husband uses both his legs while he stows the crutches and hip-hops into the passenger seat.
Fade to black. And they vanish.
I want to sleep forever and forever and forever and forever. I grab the Gilbert’s so I won’t cry. The glass bottle is cool and welcome and smooth.
The first swallow is not.
Katrina Johnston is the winner of the CBC/Canada Writes True Winter Tale. Works of short fiction may be found at several online sites and a couple of print issues. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. The goal of her fiction is to share a journey and to offer up a human exploration. Out-loud and in person, Katrina is first a storyteller, then a writer.