By Daniel Webre
It was a cool, crisp Sunday—a rarity for South Louisiana in September. Marilyn sat in the front room of the purple duplex she rented by herself. She had asked the landlord to unstick the windows—in the kitchen at the very least—after the crew he’d hired had painted them all shut. That was last April and nothing more had come of the matter. So today with the humidity gone from the air, she’d pried one open herself using the only tool she owned—a flat-blade screwdriver. At first she felt distressed by the gouges she’d left in the window’s wooden frame. But then she thought of the pudgy landlord and his dismissive attitude toward her, how he’d even been so bold as to insinuate hot flashes, though she was still too young for menopause, and she began to feel justified, indignant even, that he had pressured her into taking such a brash action.
She pulled a striped chair closer to the open window, happy she’d chosen this particular window rather than a smaller one above the kitchen sink. But despite the cool air brushing the back of her neck, each time she tried refocusing on the novel she was holding, her mind drifted back to Billy. Billy had said that he might call this weekend. Marilyn replayed the skillful way she’d handled late Friday afternoon, timing perfectly a trip to the front desk of their employer—Barker and Burgess, Attorneys-at-Law—with the adjourning of his three o’clock meeting.
“Thank goodness it’s Friday,” Marilyn said, blushing, staring at her new Egyptian-style sandals. She felt ashamed she could never think of anything clever to say around him.
She watched with discomfort as Billy seemed to examine the part combed through the middle of her auburn-colored hair. She wondered if the flakes had come back, if her gray roots were exposed. “Indeed,” Billy said. Sometimes, Marilyn believed, for a man so eloquent, he wasn’t quite sure how to handle these encounters in the hallway either—maybe that was something else she liked about him.
When he had first joined the firm, six months ago, their meetings had been merely coincidental, and Billy always paused to speak, never making her feel like she was just a paralegal and he a big shot lawyer. But Marilyn was nearing forty and decided she was getting too old to leave things to chance, hence the timing of her trip to the front desk. Billy hadn’t been making it easy for her, either. Lately, he worked unbelievably hard and only left his office for the strictest necessities.
“The weather should be fine this weekend,” Marilyn said. She hesitated, waiting to see how he would react. When she saw he hadn’t moved, even seemed a bit shy around her, she took a deep breath, steadied her composure, and said with confidence, “We should do something.”
Billy grimaced. Was that a grimace? Marilyn worried he’d been pushing himself too hard lately and she could feel his pain. “Ah, so right . . .” he replied. “One should never waste a beautiful day.” He smiled, straightened the stack of folders he carried out from the meeting, and excused himself, though not before saying something about being in touch.
Now it was two o’clock on Sunday and Marilyn still hadn’t heard from him. She was getting angry with herself for not giving him her phone number again, but surely he still had it from last time, when they’d exchanged numbers at the firm’s picnic in July.
Marilyn considered calling Billy herself to see what he was up to, maybe just a text message, but she didn’t think she could bear the thought of him not responding. After all, she’d played it cool on Friday, not wanting to seem too desperate. Now, however, she regretted not being more direct. Should do something was not quite the same as Let’s, and now the weekend was almost gone.
It was clouding up outside when Marilyn decided to call Stacey instead.
“Forget that jerk, Marilyn. I don’t know what you see in him anyway.”
“I don’t know, Stace. I just thought there might be something there. I guess not.”
“Now you’re talking . . .”
“Stacey, what do you say we take a drive somewhere? Wasting the whole weekend’s kind of depressing, you know?”
“Nah, not today. I’d better not. I’m kind of settled in at home. But call me later, okay?”
Marilyn paused before telling Stacey goodbye. She wondered if she was trying to avoid her. She couldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to play therapist anymore. But it wasn’t like Stacey had it all figured out either. She’d been dating the same guy six years and still no talk of a ring.
Marilyn thought about calling Billy. She checked her e-mail in case he’d tried contacting her that way. She found advertisements for kitchenware, and one from the local animal shelter asking her to adopt a cat. Marilyn wondered where she and Billy would have gone had he better understood her intentions. She pictured jazz in the park, maybe a movie (a beautiful day had only been a pretext anyway), but instead she decided to get in the car and start driving. Maybe something would occur to her once she got out of the house and was free on the open road.
In half an hour, she found herself on the interstate, then on the turn-off for the Sunshine Bridge. This was sugar country and fields of tall green cane reached up on either side as she sped along. In the distance, the smoke and metal stacks of the chemical plants let her know she was approaching the Mississippi River. Then she rounded a bend and saw the iron expanse of the bridge.
She thought she might soar up and over, let the wind scour her skin through open windows the way the river ate away at the banks below. But just before the final approach, her thoughts swerved toward a quaint restaurant nestled between a bauxite plant and a grain elevator, not much further down River Road.
She had last gone there three years ago with a boy named Jeff Barnett. He had been thirty-five at the time and so had she. But she could never quite help herself from thinking of Jeff Barnett as a boy. She had met him through a church group and had been charmed at first by his shy manners. “A real gentleman” was how she’d described him to Stacey after their first date, but soon she grew impatient with him, even irritated by his timidity.
“He’s so bland,” she told Stacey the day after their date at Shaw’s on the River Road. “I mean, he does everything right on one level, but it’s all wrong in just about every way that counts.”
Marilyn wondered if she’d been hasty in her judgment as the grassy slope of levee streamed past her empty passenger side and the crumbling houses of a stunted river community flashed by on the left.
When she pulled up to Shaw’s, it was still early, not quite four. There were two vehicles—a red Super Duty pickup truck and a rusting black sedan—in an otherwise empty gravel lot. Marilyn slowed and turned in, hoping they were open Sundays despite the light crowd. She pulled in next to the sedan and walked toward the main door of the restaurant. The side patio where she’d sat with Jeff that time was empty of people. The wrought iron chairs were chained and stacked away from the tables. She watched the blades of the ceiling fans rotate slowly, renewing her hope. But then she realized this motion was only some trick of the wind.
Despite the graying skies, the day remained bright, and Marilyn did not think there was a threat of rain. A single bare bulb shone needlessly against a heavy door, illuminating little more than itself. She pulled the metal handle, but the door was bolted shut and wouldn’t budge. She noticed a small sign on the brickwork next to the door and read the words, “Sunday Closed.”
Marilyn turned her back to the door and slouched against it. She wondered what those other two vehicles were doing in the lot today when the restaurant wouldn’t even be open. She decided that the rusted sedan could no longer start, and that the owner of the truck must have been too drunk to drive. Then she thought about these same people finding other ways home—maybe right this moment lazing away a pretty Sunday in a bed that was not their own. She wondered how long these people had been searching for this moment, and if what they’d found bore much resemblance to what they’d really wanted.
Marilyn thought about Billy again but decided there was no longer any point in this. Jeff . . . Billy . . . What did it matter anyway? Maybe it was better to be alone. She looked at the sky where mats of clouds were forming and breaking up again into tatters. A patchwork sky, more faded than blue, seemed to question what she was doing here, and for this she had no ready answers. It had been a beautiful day. She was not wrong about that after all. And wasn’t this a welcome relief from those harsh fluorescent lights and that awful stale air that would be awaiting her tomorrow at the office? Cars and trucks zoomed past on River Road, showing no signs of stopping. Marilyn slouched a little lower against the door, unable to imagine a reason why they’d want to.