People will say that i left my wife and i suppose, as a factual matter, I did, but where was the intentionality? I had no thought of deserting her. It was a series of odd circumstances that put me in the garage attic with all the junk furniture and the raccoon droppings-which is how I began to leave her, all unknowing, of course- whereas I could have walked in the door as I had done every evening after work in the fourteen years and two children of our marriage. Diana would think of her last sight of me, that same morning, when she pulled up to the station and slammed on the brakes, and I got out of the car and, before closing the door, leaned in with a cryptic smile to say good-bye-she would think that I had left her from that moment. In fact, I was ready to let bygones be bygones and, in another fact, I came home the very same evening with every expectation of entering the house that I, we, had bought for the raising of our children. And, to be absolutely honest, I remember I was feeling that kind of blood stir you get in anticipation of sex, because marital arguments had that effect on me.
Of course, the deep change of heart can come over anyone, and I don't see why, like everything else, it wouldn't be in character. After having lived dutifully by the rules, couldn't a man shaken out of his routine and distracted by a noise in his backyard veer away from one door and into another as the first step in the transformation of his life? And look what I was transformed into-hardly something to satisfy a judgment of normal male perfidy.
I will say here that at this moment I love Diana more truthfully than ever in our lives together, including the day of our wedding, when she was so incredibly beautiful in white lace with the sun coming down through the stained glass and setting a rainbow choker on her throat.
On the particular evening I speak of-this thing with the 5:38, when the last car, where I happened to be sitting, did not move off with the rest of the train? Even given the sorry state of the railroads in this country, tell me when that has happened. Every seat taken, and we sat there in the sudden dark and turned to one another for an explanation, as the rest of the train disappeared into the tunnel. It was the bare, fluorescent-lit concrete platform outside that added to the suggestion of imprisonment. Someone laughed, but in a moment several passengers were up and banging on the doors and windows until a man in a uniform came down the ramp and peered in at us with his hands cupped at his temples.
And then when I do get home, an hour and a half later, I am nearly blinded by the headlights of all the SUVs and taxis waiting at the station: under an unnaturally black sky is this lateral plane of illumination, because, as it turns out, we have a power outage in town.
Well, it was an entirely unrelated mishap. I knew that, but when you're tired after a long day and trying to get home there's a kind of Doppler effect in the mind, and you think that these disconnects are the trajectory of a collapsing civilization.
I set out on my walk home. Once the procession of commuter pickups with their flaring headlights had passed, everything was silent and dark-the groomed shops on the main street, the courthouse, the gas stations trimmed with hedges, the Gothic prep school behind the lake. Then I was out of the town center and walking the winding residential streets. My neighborhood was an old section of town, the houses large, mostly Victorian, with dormers and wraparound porches and separate garages that had once been stables. Each house was set off on a knoll or well back from the street, with stands of lean trees dividing the properties-just the sort of old establishment solidity that suited me. But now the entire neighborhood seemed to brim with an exaggerated presence. I was conscious of the arbitrariness of place. Why here rather than somewhere else? A very unsettling, disoriented feeling.
A flickering candle or the bobbing beam of a flashlight in each window made me think of homes as supplying families with the means of living furtive lives. There was no moon, and under the low cloud cover a brisk unseasonable wind ruffled the old Norwegian maples that lined the street and dropped a fine rain of spring buds on my shoulders and in my hair. I felt this shower as a kind of derision.
All right, with thoughts like these any man would hurry to his home and hearth. I quickened my pace and would surely have turned up the path and mounted the steps to my porch had I not looked through the driveway gate and seen what I thought was a moving shadow near the garage. So I turned in that direction, my footsteps loud enough on the gravel to scare away whatever it was I had seen, for I supposed it was some animal.
We lived with animal life. I don't mean just dogs and cats. Deer and rabbits regularly dined on the garden flowers, we had Canada geese, here and there a skunk, the occasional red fox-this time it turned out to be a raccoon. A large one. I have never liked this animal, with its prehensile paws. More than the ape, it has always seemed to me a relative. I lifted my litigation bag as if to throw it and the creature ran behind the garage.
I went after it; I didn't want it on my property. At the foot of the outdoor stairs leading to the garage attic, it reared, hissing and showing its teeth and waving its forelegs at me. Raccoons are susceptible to rabies and this one looked mad, its eyes glowing, and saliva, like liquid glue, hanging from both sides of its jaw. I picked up a rock and that was enough-the creature ran off into the stand of bamboo that bordered the backyard of our neighbor, Dr. Sondervan, who was a psychiatrist, and a known authority on Down syndrome and other genetic misfortunes.
And then, of course, upstairs in the attic space over the garage, where we stored every imaginable thing, three raccoon cubs were in residence, and so that was what all the fuss was about. I didn't know how this raccoon family had gotten in there. I saw their eyes first, their several eyes. They whimpered and jumped about on the piled furniture, little ball-like humps in the darkness, until I finally managed to shoo them out the door and down the steps to where their mother would presumably reclaim them.
I turned on my cell phone to get at least some small light.
The attic was jammed with rolled-up rugs and bric-a-brac and boxes of college papers, my wife's inherited hope chest, old stereo equipment, a broken-down bureau, discarded board games, her late father's golf clubs, folded-up cribs, and so on. We were a family rich in history, though still young. I felt ridiculously righteous, as if I had fought a battle and reclaimed my kingdom from invaders. But then melancholy took over; there was enough of the past stuffed in here to sadden me, as relics of the past, including photographs, always sadden me.
Everything was thick with dust. A bull's-eye window at the front did not open and the windows on either side were stuck tight, as if fastened by the cobwebs that clung to their frames. The place badly needed airing. I exerted myself and moved things around and was able then to open the door fully. I stood at the top of the stairs to breathe the fresh air, which is when I noticed candlelight coming through the stand of bamboo between our property and the property behind ours, that same Dr. Sondervan's house. He boarded a number of young patients there. It was part of his experimental approach, not without controversy in his profession, to train them for domestic chores and simple tasks that required their interaction with normal people. I had stood up for Sondervan when some of the neighbors fought his petition to run his little sanatorium, though I have to say that in private it made Diana nervous, as the mother of two young girls, that mentally deficient persons were living next door. Of course, there had never been a bit of trouble.
I was tired from a long day, that was part of it, but, more likely suffering from some scattered mental state of my own, I groped around till I found the rocking chair with the torn seat that I had always meant to recane, and, in that total darkness and with the light of the candles slow to fade in my mind, I sat down and, though meaning only to rest a moment, fell asleep. And when I woke it was from the light coming through the dusty windows. I'd slept the night through.
what had brought on our latest argument was what I claimed was Diana's flirtation with someone's houseguest at a backyard cocktail party the previous weekend.
I was not flirting, she said.
You were hitting on the guy.
Only in your peculiar imagination, Wakefield.
That's what she did when we argued-she used the last name. I wasn't Howard, I was Wakefield. It was one of her feminist adaptations of the locker-room style that I detested.
You made a suggestive remark, I said, and you clicked glasses with him.
It was not a suggestive remark, Diana said. It was a retort to something he'd said that was really stupid, if you want to know. Everyone laughed but you. I apologize for feeling good on occasion, Wakefield. I'll try not to feel that way ever again.
This is not the first time you've made a suggestive remark with your husband standing right there. And then denied all knowledge of it.
Leave me alone, please. God knows you've muzzled me to the point where I've lost all confidence in myself. I don't relate to people anymore. I'm too busy wondering if I'm saying the right thing.
You were relating to him, all right.
Do you think with the kind of relationship I've had with you I'd be inclined to start another with someone else? I just want to get through each day-that is all I think about, getting through each day.
That was probably true. On the train to the city, I had to admit to myself that I'd started the argument willfully, in a contrary spirit and with some sense of its eroticism. I did not really believe what I had accused her of. I was the one who came on to people. I had attributed to her my own wandering eye. That is the basis of jealousy, is it not? A feeling that your congenital insincerity is a universal? It did annoy me, seeing her talking to another man with a glass of white wine in her hand, and her innocent friendliness, which any man could mistake for a come-on, not just me. The fellow himself was not terribly prepossessing. But it bothered me that she was talking to him almost as if I were not standing there beside her.
Diana was naturally graceful and looked younger than she was. She still moved like the dancer she had been in college, her feet pointed slightly outward, her head high, her walk more a glide than something taken step by step. Even after carrying twins, she was as petite and slender as she had been when I met her.
And now in the first light of the new day I was totally bewildered by the situation I had created for myself. I can't claim that I was thinking rationally. But I actually felt that it would be a mistake to walk into my house and explain the sequence of events that had led me to spend the night in the garage attic. Diana would have been up till all hours, pacing the floor and worrying what had happened to me. My appearance, and her sense of relief, would enrage her. Either she would think that I had been with another woman or, if she did believe my story, it would strike her as so weird as to be a kind of benchmark in our married life. After all, we had had that argument the previous day. She would perceive what I told myself could not possibly be true-that something had happened predictive of a failed marriage. And the twins, budding adolescents, who generally thought of me as someone they were unfortunate to live in the same house with, an embarrassment in front of their friends, an oddity who knew nothing about their music-their alienation would be hissingly expressive. I thought of mother and daughters as the opposing team. The home team. I concluded that for now I would rather not go through the scene I had just imagined. Maybe later, I thought, just not now. I had yet to realize my talent for dereliction.
when i came down the garage stairs and relieved myself in the stand of bamboo, the cool air of the dawn welcomed me with a soft breeze. The raccoons were nowhere to be seen. My back was stiff and I felt the first pangs of hunger, but, in fact, I had to admit that I was not at that moment unhappy. What is there about a family that is so sacrosanct, I thought, that one should have to live in it for one's whole life, however unrealized one's life was?
From the shadow of the garage, I beheld the backyard, with its Norwegian maples, the tilted white birches, the ancient apple tree whose branches touched the windows of the family room, and for the first time, it seemed, I understood the green glory of this acreage as something indifferent to human life and quite apart from the Victorian manse set upon it. The sun was not yet up and the grass was draped with a wavy net of mist, punctured here and there with glistening drops of dew. White apple blossoms had begun to appear in the old tree, and I read the pale light in the sky as the shy illumination of a world to which I had yet to be introduced.
At this point, I suppose, I could have safely unlocked the back door and scuttled about in the kitchen, confident that everyone in the house was still asleep. Instead, I raised the lid of the garbage bin and found in one of the cans my complete dinner of the night before, slammed upside down atop a plastic bag and held in a circle of perfect integrity, as if still on the plate-a grilled veal chop, half a baked potato, peel-side up, and a small mound of oiled green salad- so that I could imagine the expression on Diana's face as she had come out here, still angry from our morning argument, and rid herself of the meal gone cold that she had stupidly cooked for that husband of hers.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories
by E. L. Doctorow
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