Unless the Lord had given me help,
I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death.
FROM THE BEGINNING, my husband and I centered our marriage on work. In the weeks before the ceremony, we lay awake late at night, whispering about our future, our twin careers as university professors. The moonlight spilling into my husband’s apartment softened his angular jaw and white T-shirt. His eyes were wide and brown and honest.
“No matter where we get jobs,” he said, “I’ll teach Tuesday/Thursday; you’ll teach Monday/Wednesday/Friday.”
I nodded. “One of us will always be home for the kids.”
He smiled and brushed my hair away from my face. “When we go to faculty parties—”
“Yes—” I nodded again, my enthusiasm completing his sentence, “—there’ll always be someone in the room we can talk to.” Which was a blessing for two people as shy as we were.
“On Saturdays,” he said, “we’ll go to the library together.”
“It’s a deal,” I said. Then I wrapped his arm around my shoulder, snuggled into the curve of his hip, and slept soundly all night.
The V&S Variety anchors the corner of Seventh and Main in Ouray, Colorado. Petunias and moss rose flourish in wooden planters along the storefront outside. The windows display camera supplies, wedding gifts, T-shirts, and summer toys like scooters, swim mattresses, and Frisbees. Inside, there’s an antique cash register and candy case. A swamp cooler rattles in the back, and the wooden floors creak beneath your feet like brittle bones. I love the smell of the floor polish and the way the doors groan when you open them to step inside.
The summer I run away from my husband to live and write in Colorado, I take a job as a cashier at this five-and-dime for several reasons. First, I’ve learned pretty quickly that if I want to scavenge for local stories to write about, I’d better look and act like the natives, who are suspicious of folks with unfamiliar faces, especially strangers loafing in the middle of the afternoon. Second, I need money to pay for my cabin’s rent and don’t think it’s fair for my and my husband’s joint account to support my hiatus from marriage. Third, the V&S Variety reminds me of the general store run by Ike Godsey on Walton’s Mountain or maybe the one owned by Mr. Oleson in Walnut Grove. It reminds me of childhood.
I suppose that chores and homework are meant to train children in the ways of adult labor, but when I was young, work seemed easy and ripe with rewards. My mother asked me to dust the furniture; my father asked me to rake leaves. I earned two dollars for dusting, one dollar for each trash bag I filled with dead foliage. My grandmother asked me to set the table, and then as payment she baked buttery cinnamon-honey buns for my breakfast. My Sunday school teacher asked me to help with vacation Bible school. My compensation: she recruited another volunteer, the cute sophomore, David Dorcus—whose unfortunate last name none of the kids noticed because it was attached to him. I spent every day for a week staring at David’s dark curls, his smile bright as a marquee, and, oh, the tan that darkened his face so he looked not like a boy, but what I thought was like a man. I think he actually spoke to me: hello or something equally utilitarian. But I considered those five days with David Dorcus remuneration from God himself.
For school, I completed my homework every evening while watching television—Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and, later, Happy Days. I’m sure my mother would have put a stop to my multitasking if it hadn’t been that I earned remarkable grades—a reward, a trophy for my college applications. Really, though, I was so nerdy that I enjoyed mathematical equations, English themes, biology experiments, cartography assignments. When the ideas and numbers clicked on the page—In conclusion, I wrote in the final paragraph of my papers; or x = 27, I scratched at the tail of my calculations—that was the payment I most enjoyed. I thought I could decipher any poem, solve any equation, crack any conundrum that came my way.
After high-school graduation, I took summer jobs to earn petty cash for college. I never complained about work because I was smart enough to avoid fast-food gigs—flipping burgers and serving tacos to drunks at the late-night drive-thru. Instead, I applied for what I imagined were adult occupations: every day, I woke and dressed in heels and a skirt—woman clothes. I scheduled appointments and prepared payroll at an employment agency; I answered phones and filed blueprints at a simulated-airplane manufacturing plant; I shelved volumes and checked inventory at a book outlet. I never called in sick. I was always on time. My salary: a little more than minimum wage and the privilege of spending my summer income on pizza, new clothes, gasoline, and movie tickets, while my parents funded my tuition and room and board.
The owners of the V&S are married, happy, and proud to have a son grown and in college whose tuition they gladly pay. The wife, Dee, reminds me of Tinker Bell, tiny and mischievous. Her strawberry hair is wispy like a fairy’s. Her voice blossoms into laughter that’s impossible to resist, and locals frequent the store so they can buzz around her. The husband, Glynn, reminds me of Mr. Magoo with a British accent—quirky, but cultured, too. I could listen to him talk all day and never grow bored with the song of it. “Good night, love,” he says when my shift ends. Sometimes it’s catching, and I find myself trying to talk like him.
One afternoon I watch him wrestle a gas grill, trying to wrench it together. He threw the packaging away and doesn’t have the picture or instructions for comparison. When he snaps the legs on wrong, the grill cants to the left at a forty-five degree angle.
He says, “I’m not very handy.”
I say, “It’d be handier if it came assembled. That’s what handy means.”
Dee darts around the store, unpacking shipments, decorating windows, hanging wares from the ceiling when she runs out of room on the shelves, while Glynn tends to the cameras, places orders when the stock runs low, and reviews the register readings and daily deposits. Sometimes Dee manages the store while Glynn golfs or goes to lunch with friends. On other days, Glynn manages the store while Dee hikes or visits the acupuncturist in town. If one of them is running late, the other covers, and neither complains. Together at night, when they go for drinks with friends at the Buen Tiempo or peel off their shoes and stretch onto the sofa to watch TV or read a good book, they won’t have any regrets. Their partnership isn’t about obedience to job descriptions, but rather the freedom to lean against one another or to stand up straight and walk away.
As if to demonstrate how hard you must work at a successful marriage, the church my husband and I attended was always hosting marriage enrichment seminars and couples retreats—weekend classes where a man and wife could dust off their marriage, clean out the closets of old grudges, wash the windows of perspective to get a clearer view, rearrange the clutter of habits so it felt like they’d moved into a new home.
I’m not saying these workshops didn’t or couldn’t help. I’m guessing, though, that they did a lot to refresh the marriages that were already tidy, the ones where the husband and wife had equal energy, equal power, and could balance a conversation without anger, heavy as wet rags or jugs of bleach, pinning down one side of the scales. If you can’t speak to your spouse at home without igniting tempers, my personal experience is that the two of you will lie in public, donning smiley faces like Sunday suits whenever a therapist or congregation or friends are watching.
When I earned a PhD at the age of twenty-seven, my parents were proud that they had taught their daughter to work hard. They believed the reward for a job well done was a happy soul. And I—well, I was pretty damn proud of myself, too, so arrogant, or maybe so naïve, that I still expected life to pay me for my efforts. And it seemed to: five months before I finished my doctorate, I secured a tenure-track job, a rare find, at a research university that would eventually fund a lecture series I organized as well as a literary journal I edited. Then, five years later—and only one year after we wed, as if our premarital plans had been consecrated—my husband received an appointment as a lecturer at the same university.
Suddenly, we both seemed inexplicably angry. All of our conversations—in our car, in our living room, in the grocery store—boiled into screaming matches. Maybe I was selfish and had problems sharing what I thought was the bounty of my hard work. Maybe I worried that I’d lose my identity with only one floor separating our offices. And maybe my status as an assistant professor versus his as a lecturer hardly seemed like the equal partnership he had agreed to. At home, it must have been so easy, even natural, for him to misread my actions. Was I challenging his authority when I bought Crest instead of the generic toothpaste he preferred? Was I boasting about my professional clout when I read dissertations while we watched television or complained about faculty meetings he wasn’t privy to? I’m sure it would be difficult for any husband to act as man of the house—the career his childhood had trained him for—when his wife was making decent money and voting on departmental issues and he wasn’t.
What I didn’t understand then but can now is that my husband started coaching me because it seemed like the only way to designate who was the leader and who needed guidance. He must have been desperate to demonstrate his worth to me.
The first week of class, when we headed for a faculty party, his lessons began: “Watch what you say,” he reminded me. “Your behavior reflects on both of us now.”
My own insecurities—my desire to impress department bigwigs, to prove I could manage my own affairs and, therefore, deserved tenure—made me want to tell my husband that I wasn’t a tiny, simple monkey he could dress in Swiss getup. I wasn’t going to dance and clang my cymbals on cue; he wasn’t the man, parading the streets, in charge of the grinder organ.
At that point, though, I decided to cage my tongue, stop all the yelling. Anger was the rickety ladder we had climbed to our dead-end marriage, and I hoped that if I were a gentler wife, the labor of love would feel less like a circus gig—a chimp’s job with deplorable living conditions—and more like an industrious hobby or brisk sport—say, gardening or cross-country skiing. Eventually, my efforts to appease would flower into beds of dahlias and lilies or ascend into a clearing, a view of the mountains, the panorama of sky.
So we hosted our own parties, attended dinners and lectures, holding hands and smiling, always smiling.
The merchandise in the V&S towers from floor to ceiling. Near the door, two big coolers hum, chilling sodas, bottled coffees, and water. Pop Rocks, all-year suckers, tube bubblegum, pistachios, seeds, crackers, and chocolate bars clutter the candy aisle. Located near the checkout, the treats prey on impulse shoppers, and little kids aren’t brave enough to shoplift so close to the clerk who guards the money. Corkscrews, clothespins, Velcro, flashlight bulbs, TV antennas, and headphones hang from pegs in the household department. In men’s and women’s clothing, swimsuits, shorts, thermal underwear, flip-flops, hiking boots, hats, mittens, and gloves spill from the racks. My favorite section is school supplies. Locals come in, hunting for a pen, a quick purchase, and I find them, twenty minutes later, stalled in the school aisle, scratching their heads, considering the forty different types of pens we carry.
During my shift, I watch the couples shopping together, looking at the trinket jewelry or the hiking equipment. Most of them smile and nudge one another, two shy people in a strange town, encouraging each other to relax, make the most of their vacation, buy memorabilia. Sometimes they get lost in the store. And I love the fact that while these travelers would never hunt aloud for their partners or spouses in a city Wal-Mart, they feel comfortable doing so here.
“Mike?” a woman calls, as she pokes her head around the automotive aisle. “Are you there?”
“Honey?” a man wandering the aisles beckons. If he doesn’t get an answer soon, he’ll ask me if I’ve seen his wife—the town is so cozy, I must know everyone, even the strangers, right? This always makes me smile, makes me happy to be in Ouray.
Occasionally a pair will enter the store with scowls on their faces: they don’t like their hotel; the nearest Wal-Mart is forty-five minutes away; the grocery store is closed on Sunday; where can they buy some milk for Chrissake? They’re rude to me, slamming their hands on the counter and demanding to know why I live in such an ass-backward town.
“Look,” I say, “we’ve got steering-wheel fluid, eyeglass repair kits, fly paper, sleds like Orson Welles’ Rosebud, bag balm, poker chips—anything you could possibly want.”
“Except milk,” the wife says, her face pinched tight as a lemon.
I nod. “Except milk. The grocer opens at eight am.”
And their anger coaxes them into being cruel to one another, too. The woman mocks her husband’s bald head; the man yells at his wife for slowpoking. I cringe when these couples come into the store. They’re way too familiar.
When a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet was coming to campus as part of the lecture series I managed, my husband accompanied me to the grocery store for supplies. I hated food stores, found them dull and crowded with strangers, and was grateful for his company. I didn’t realize he intended on supervising my purchases. As I shopped, he rolled the cart alongside me, glancing over my list and making comments about the menu I’d planned for the writer’s reception.
“You’re making two desserts? From scratch?”
I nodded. “Chocolate-covered pretzels and some baklava. Don’t you think that’s good?”
He shrugged. “It’s extravagant. Is that a synonym for good?”
We had stopped in the paper aisle, hunting napkins and plates and cups.
“Are you buying plates?” he asked. “We have plenty at home.”
By this point, I had learned to disguise my personal opinions by camouflaging everything I said as a question, as if the obvious facts weren’t stout enough to warrant periods. Maybe my voice, tipped upward and hinting at doubt, would make my husband feel sturdier. If I relied on his judgment, our conversations might not escalate into fights. Of course, if I’d acted like I had trustworthy opinions, he might have stopped questioning me.
“Ours have poinsettias on them?” I offered. “They’re green and red?”
He stared at me. “So? These new ones cost three dollars.”
“So,” I said, “it’s March?”
He chucked the package of plates in our basket. “Fine,” he said. “I guess we’re paying for the poet’s dinner, too.”
“As good hosts, we should, right?”
“I’ll skip the dinner,” he said. “It will only cost more.”
Perhaps, we can see now, my husband grew increasingly distraught over his role as a lecturer—a job that hardly paid his worth, that, in fact, paid him less than half what I was paid to teach the same number of classes. Our budget was tight, and we used my paycheck to fund his doctoral tuition. We didn’t have money to take vacations. We had little cash to buy new clothes. Perhaps he thought that every dollar spent only reminded me how little he contributed to our checking account.
“All the spouses will be there,” I said. “You should come.”
He said nothing in answer, but instead scanned the shelves for the cheapest napkins.
Here’s something I learned about marriage from a PhD candidate—a former nun—working under my direction: When the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians that marriage is symbolic of Christ’s relationship to the church, he not only grants marriage a spiritual significance, one that I knew weighted marriage with the heft of a sacrament man could not dissolve, but—and here’s the light bulb that flipped on—he also equates it with grace, a gift from God that we cannot earn through works. We may dress our marriages in good deeds—household chores, fidelity, restrained voices, obedience—but marriage is not justified by the habits of law.
If you follow my husband’s father to an art museum, he’ll explain pointillism, the color wheel, how egg yolks cast a thick sheen on tempera paintings, or what the fragmentation in Picasso’s work suggests about his psyche. If you fix your sprinkler system, he’ll tell you which PVC pipes you need and how to plumb your system more securely. He also bakes the sweetest bread; barbecues the juiciest brisket; boils the plumpest dumplings; repairs electrical problems; builds add-ons; and paints moving, original canvasses when he has time. He does. I admit.
But here’s what I remember:
It was a year before our marriage. My soon-to-be husband had moved to Oklahoma to enter a PhD program in film studies, and I was visiting him there. His parents, anxious for their son’s attempts to establish an artistic career, traveled to Stillwater for the weekend, too. We gave his parents a tour of the historic campus, the nearby lakes and state parks, and the dwarflike airport where the ground crew shook your hand when you debarked as if congratulating you for surviving the flight. For dinner, we took his parents to Hideaway Pizza, a joint famous for baking beer into their dough and sauce. Inside the restaurant, we studied the collage shellacked on the wall: magazine pictures from the sixties and seventies, scenes from Woodstock, Laugh-In, American Bandstand. We smiled at the wait staff with their bed-head and ’do rags. Rings and studs pierced their bodies, and their baggy pants and torn T-shirts hung from their hips and shoulders. They were hippies wandering around like old souls who wouldn’t die already.
My husband’s father, dressed in a short-sleeved button-down with a tank undershirt and necktie, looked like an antique, too, something from the clean fifties. His head was round and shiny as an astronaut’s helmet. He was Charlie Brown, all grown up but still dissatisfied. He lifted his Coca-Cola, saluting his son. “To a nice city. May you be happy and successful here. May you remember what’s important and what isn’t.”
While his sentences sounded staged as champagne toasts, it was what he said next that irritated me the most. He sipped from his straw and then looked directly at me. “This is how it should be. Him in this city with his movies; you back home with your writing. I hope you’ll enjoy these things before the marriage, because novels, screenplays, paintings—these fall by the wayside.” He tucked his chin, peered over his glasses, and studied my expression. He saw I didn’t believe what he was preaching. “Take me,” he offered, as if a personal example might trigger my conversion. “I couldn’t paint because I was busy taking care of a family.”
He paused, and during that moment I thought, Who has time to paint when you’re busy repairing rusted pipes, building garages, complaining no one you could pay to do these things would do them like you wanted?
My husband’s mother, meanwhile, leaned over her salad, forking lettuce and stuffing it into her mouth. When she glanced up, she wore a stiff smile.
“’Course, I wanted to make the sacrifice. You have to remember what’s important.” My father-in-law’s eyes were glassy as a sleepwalker’s, as if his heart had wandered somewhere else but he meant to drag it back and be satisfied with his whereabouts, though he didn’t recognize the place and couldn’t figure how he had hiked there.
It wasn’t just him. In the months before our wedding, I heard the same warning from three different people, all older men. “You’ll never write the great American novel now. You can kiss that good-bye.” It left me wondering if the world wasn’t filled with senior husbands, like his dad, who were so frightened by their wives’ equal opportunities that they abandoned their own dreams to assume all chores, desperate to preserve male privilege and limit the leftover options for women. They felt powerful but not happy, and they weren’t sure what had gone awry. They thought it was someone else’s fault, certainly not theirs. And so they blamed their families even as they cared for them.
In the evenings, after their dinner, my husband’s parents sat on the couch and watched documentaries with lessons to learn or movies with happily-ever-after stories meant to persuade like propaganda. In the closing hour of the day, when time seemed to die without the reassurance of light tomorrow, his father told his mother that his muse had grown tired from doing little favors for her. She wanted the new sprinkler system, the new laundry room, a rejuvenated kitchen, a limo service to the local library where she worked. He propped her feet in his lap and rubbed them as he accused her. Did he mean to grind his words like hard stones into the bellies of her feet? And when she walked through her haven of books during the day, did she limp from the blame?
On the afternoon that I cleaned house, preparing for the party honoring the prize-winning poet, my husband did his laundry and dusted the wooden blinds in our living room. As I was putting away the vacuum, my husband stopped me before I could shut the closet door.
“Did you sweep under the bed?”
I stared at him.
“How about behind the piano?”
Instead of arguing that our visitors would sit in chairs, not crouch in the crannies behind or under our furniture, I hooked up the hose again and kicked on the vacuum.
When he asked to see the writer’s itinerary, I posted it on our refrigerator.
“Have you allowed enough time for dinner?” he asked.
I checked the schedule. Dinner was slated from 5:00 to 7:30 pm. “Two and a half hours?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess you know what you’re doing.”
The lecture series was a big responsibility—a public one. I half expected to fail at it. Combined with my own doubts, my husband’s words twisted inside me like the knots that sometimes kink your conscience. Already, I knew I would worry through dinner, flagging down the waiter every time there was a lull in his trips to our table: we didn’t have time for chitchat or dessert; we needed our check, pronto. Meanwhile, I’d picture my husband grabbing a fast-food burger and waiting at the auditorium, tapping his watch, counting every second, every dime.
That night, when I stayed up till three in the morning baking for the reception, my husband went to bed at ten, and I was grateful to hear him snoring. Awake and in the kitchen, he played Chef Emeril, drilling me with orders: you’re using the wrong knife, don’t use that platter, rosemary won’t taste good in that, bam, bam, bam.
If you want to understand female victims of spousal abuse, know that research shows that these women hold several beliefs in common: 1) men are the heads of their households; 2) marriage is forever and divorce is a sin; 3) mothers hold their families together. These are the convictions that keep abused women from leaving their husbands despite all the humiliation or the fists and broken bones.
Each year, on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, during lecture series on marriage, in Sunday school classes for both young and senior couples, the ministers and elders in the church that I attended encouraged our congregation to maintain a similar faith in marital commitment—a sanctity I myself believe in, because it’s biblical. At the same time, no one addressed the possibility of physical or emotional abuse inside marriage. None of us tacked the hotline for the local women’s shelter on the church bulletin board. None of us suggested we should counsel victims or even guard against battery in Christian relationships.
When you combine the blame for a failed marriage and, therefore, for failed motherhood with an austere silence—even if the reticence stems from a desire to avoid graphic topics in a house of worship or from a sincere faith that God would never allow a Christian husband to turn on his wife—you can bury a woman who’s in trouble inside a sealed tomb without hope of resurrection.
Behind the counter at the V&S Variety, there are photographs of Dee and Glynn in Halloween costumes. In one, she’s dressed as Morticia from The Addams Family; he’s George Washington. In another, she’s a flower child, and he’s a mustachioed gunslinger. They smile in the pictures like kids who’ve hit the trick-or-treat jackpot.
My husband and I never attended a costume party. On Halloween, he hid in the bedroom and refused to answer the front door when children knocked. He didn’t hear their laughter or my delight. When I encouraged him to join me, he said his mother took care of the door-to-door goblins when he was younger. Every year, when the revelers held open their pumpkin sacks so I could drop in the booty, or when a small child cried because she was frightened by an older kid dressed like a mummy, or even when one spoiled marauder said, “Is this all you got?” I worried that I would never relive my childhood days: my dad, outfitted in black cape, Dracula fangs, and a ghoulish laugh, answering the door; and my mother, in hippie or hillbilly gear, taking pictures. I thought I would never send a Halloween card to my own child—the way my parents had—with the return address from Ghosts, Witches, and Goblins, and twenty bucks tucked inside. I knew I would never have kids of my own.
By that time, my husband was busy applying for a permanent position at our university. When I asked about children, he said it wasn’t fair that I wanted him to become a father before he had the same job security that I did. Then he complained about the office hours I kept. He said I wasn’t trained to mother well. Echoing his father, he said I didn’t understand the sacrifice such labor would entail. From his perspective, my career focused my energy on tasks outside our family, and in lots of ways, he was right: time at work helped me dodge the dark evenings in our home.
One afternoon in Colorado, Dee lets me dress a window. It’s kind of like decorating for a kid’s party. I gather T-shirts, fleeces, shorts, and knapsacks for the mannequins to wear. I hang chains in the windows so I can attach more totes, then I set up a display of bottles, thermoses, and other hiking gear. Changing the clothes on the mannequins feels like dressing small children. They can’t get their arms through the sleeves without assistance. All afternoon, while I work on the window, I think about kids’ laundry, PTA meetings, baseball practice, band concerts. I think about changing diapers, warming bottles, sponging down tiny elbows and necks.
When the guests had abandoned the reception and I’d driven the poet to her hotel and was back home and washing dishes, my husband leaned against the kitchen counter and said he was embarrassed for me:
“It was awkward, your taking sole credit for the baklava.”
At the party, the guests had raved about my dessert, and I was pleased because it took time and care, layering the fragile sheets of phyllo dough, feathering on the butter, dusting each stratum with sugar and walnuts. As she savored the baklava, the famous poet moaned as if having an orgasm in my kitchen. The next day, in the faculty lounge, my friends would laugh about this Joy of Sex moment. But right then, in the quiet of a house so empty that it surely frightened my husband, it must have seemed to him that flattery could teach a woman she could traverse the social scene safely—without a chaperone.
As usual, I wasn’t attuned to his fear, only my own. “I made the baklava,” I said. “Who should share the credit?”
He kicked at the kitchen tile like a child shuffling his feet, nervous but stubborn. “We’re married,” he said.
I stared at him. “You slept while I baked?”
“It’s important that we’re a team. I’m trying to get a real job here.”
I was tired. The writer’s visit had been difficult. In the months before the reading, when I called to verify flight numbers and times, she didn’t remember who I was. She lost her airline ticket and wanted another. I worried that soon she’d forget she was a poet. Upon her arrival, I discovered her ankle had been rebuilt. She limped—painfully—from the airport to the reading to the reception.
Chatting during the autographs, listening to stories about all the famous male poets who had pledged love to her, one of my colleagues melted. His face softened into a smile; his laughter relaxed into a flirty twitter. “Oh, you must have been a beauty—” he said, glass-eyed and stricken, “—in your day.”
But some silly man relegating her better years to the past, long gone, didn’t stop this diva’s performance. “I still am,” she answered. Her voice curled in the air like smoke—raspy and seductive.
Between conversations at the party, she read—no, she performed—poetry from a daybook of early American verse that she’d found while antiquing. After snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, she hobbled into our bathroom, rifled through our cabinets, and borrowed my manicure kit, without asking, just like an old girlfriend. She said, “You don’t mind.” I noted her use of a period—her confidence that her assumptions were facts—and smiled. Happy, too, she filed and painted her nails before the party broke up.
Her flight left in the morning at six am. It was midnight, I’d gotten three hours of sleep the night before, and I wasn’t interested much in whether or not my husband resented my ability to bake baklava without him. I only remembered how I’d begged him to stop giving me directions. It was humiliating, and I didn’t need a trail of breadcrumbs to guide me through this world. So what if the dinner ran late? What if the microphone didn’t work? What if the reception was too extravagant or not bountiful enough? What if someone complimented me in front of him? So what? Everyone left smiling. The reading had been a success. The poet had a fresh manicure and a big paycheck.
And finally—with soapy water to my elbows and a junk heap of dishes to wash—finally I understood it wasn’t the poet who had made me jumpy all day or even my senior colleagues; it was my husband. So when he asked, “May I give you a suggestion? May I tell you how we might make the next party better?” I asked, before pondering the consequences, “Could I stop you?” Though I employed the dutiful question mark, my voice stomped on the word stop and didn’t let up on the word you.
It must have caught my husband off-guard—this wife, snapping and sarcastic, though she’d been conciliatory for years. It must have frightened him: just when my silence had assured him we were getting along….
My husband’s face clamped shut like a locked safe. His eyes appeared to spin in his head. I’d seen this expression before. He was locking the combination to his mouth, and he wouldn’t crack it open again until I apologized. “That was rude,” he said. And he stalked into the bedroom.
That time, my husband didn’t speak to me for seventy-two hours. I came home in the evenings. I asked about his day. He was silent. I asked what he wanted for dinner. He was silent. We ate on our own. He camped in the living room, watching sports, the volume blaring; I was banished to the bedroom where I watched Ally McBeal and graded papers. In bed, he buried himself under the covers, his back stacked against me, and killed the lamp.
On the morning of the fourth day, I apologized because I couldn’t live in silence any longer. He dressed his face in a condescending expression—chin tucked, eyebrows arched, and his mouth tilted into the smirk of a victor. “You shouldn’t talk to me that way,” he said, “but I appreciate and accept your apology.”
I’ve known lots of women with great faith: they trust their friends and God enough to ask for help when they need it. And they expect results. Through prayer circles, they’ve changed the outcome of cancer diagnoses, the odds that a premature baby will come off a ventilator and breathe on its own, or the probability that a family will survive a financial crisis.
When it came to my own problems, I locked myself inside a deadly silence. To stave off conflict, to feign loyalty and obedience, I’d learned to keep quiet around my husband, and eventually I withdrew from friends because I didn’t know how to explain why I always seemed so wounded when there weren’t any bruises. Worse yet, I stopped going to church, because my failure as a wife was an embarrassment I hoped no one would notice. When you’re surrounded by marriages solid as rock, your own failure can feel like a sin so heinous you can’t confess it. On Sundays, my husband and I donned crisp suits and pretty dresses. Dolled up like that and sitting in a pew, all reverent, a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other, how could we ever tell anyone that our appearance was nothing more than a lie? Our prayer concern—the trouble we had birthed and kept hidden—was hardly as noble as a sick child or the threat of empty cupboards and starving bellies.
And here was my worst fear: wasn’t it possible that my husband’s escalating anger symbolized nothing more than the consequences of my waning faith? After all, what deity rewards the bride who tells her husband that his anger is inevitable, that nothing she can do will stop his yelling? Faith is a huddle of women guarding a cross, tending a corpse, waiting, long after everyone else has gone home, because they trust a dead man to unravel his shroud and rise from his tomb.
Bob Wilson—Dee and Glynn’s only year-round employee—runs the register and stocks the shelves, but at night he dons his western wear and herds tourists to the Outlaw Cookout near Yankee Boy Basin. Though he’s nicknamed his wife Gumby, Bob is the one who’s shaped like him: lanky arms; long, slender torso; square head. Like Gumby, he’s easygoing, too. His wife works at the insurance company in town; she cooks for the sick, the lonely; she visits her mother at the nursing home on weekends. Bob, a sixty-something-year-old man, doesn’t feel threatened by her activities. He compares her to Mother Theresa, gives her romantic cards, takes her to dinner and the movies or costume parties at the Elks Lodge.
Perhaps Bob hasn’t always been so relaxed. He used to work sixty-hour weeks for a prominent drugstore chain in California before he decided there was more to life than labor. There are remnant habits from his corporate days—he likes the coolers restocked at closing, the cigarette racks filled, the bills in the register facing the same way—but he’s less like a boss and more like a helpful mentor. When I’m stocking shelves, he explains that I should line the top ones with the expensive products. The generic brands go on the bottom. Too, customers read from left to right, so I should line up the merchandise, left to right, least expensive to most expensive.
“If you own the store,” he says, “never trust anyone but yourself with the money.”
“How do you know this?” I ask. “Are you robbing the till?”
Bob doesn’t laugh. I can’t tell if he didn’t hear my joke or if he thinks my question was a serious accusation. Later that day, when Bob returns from lunch, he teases me. “You’re so short, folks can’t see you behind the register. They think no one’s minding the store.”
I try to keep pace with the repartee. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m slow. “If I’m not careful,” I say, “the cash drawer flies open and knocks me in the head. I’ve been unconscious for the last thirty minutes.”
Bob cups his hand to his ear and tilts toward me. “Honey, speak up. I’m hard of hearing.”
During the first weeks, Bob tells me repeatedly to talk louder. He cozies up to my shoulders, lowers his ear to my mouth, and says, “What’s that?” But Bob isn’t an old man. He’s quick-witted and sly as any college frat boy, so I can’t figure why he’s deaf. Slowly, I notice he never asks the customers or Dee or Glynn to repeat themselves. He isn’t hard of hearing. I’m simply afraid to speak. My voice dwindles by the time I’m ending a sentence. It’s like my lungs empty of air. It’s like I’m afraid someone will hear me.
“Honey,” Bob asks one afternoon, “what’s made you so scaredy?”
“Talk causes trouble where I’m from. It leads to yelling.”
He drops his usual shiny demeanor. His face flattens with concern. “No one yells around here.”
I don’t want the day to turn somber. I don’t want anyone worrying about me. “You know us Texans,” I say. “We’re always expecting a shootout, a high-noon showdown.”
He pats my arm, then laughs, the moment thawed to a milder mood. “You got to speak up. I thought I was losing my hearing. I thought I had one foot in the grave.”
Afterward, I make a point of talking loudly when I’m in the store. It feels like I’m shouting. I expect people to plug their ears. I watch the door. I wait for the police to show up, ready to quell the disturbance.
After dressing another window at the V&S one weekend, I phone my husband and tell him that my job as a cashier is going smoothly. “You’d love Bob. And Glynn and Dee,” I say. “Wouldn’t it be neat if we ran a bookstore together? Or an art-house movie theater? We could show independent films instead of Hollywood blockbusters, and serve pie and coffee instead of popcorn and soda.”
There’s a moment of silence. A disconnect maybe.
“Are you there?” I ask. “Hello?”
“You don’t mind working retail?” he finally says. “I didn’t think you could handle it.”
“I’m happy,” I say. One month in Colorado, working to rebuild skills I’d forgotten, and I find myself declaring the facts, without hesitation.
“You have a PhD.”
“A doctorate doesn’t excuse me from paying bills,” I explain. “We have to cover the house payment there and my rent here.”
“This is an issue, isn’t it?” he asks. “You’re going to blame me.”
“For what?” How, I wonder, has this conversation about bookstores and theaters and fun partnerships wormed its way into an argument? How has my enthusiasm for the variety store gotten me into trouble?
“I’m teaching two remedial classes,” he says. “I’ll make fifteen hundred dollars this summer. It’s not much, but—”
“It’s great,” I say.
“You’ll hold it against me.”
I take a deep breath. I picture a glass of water. I imagine snow muffling the sounds of human life: traffic, doors slamming, a hatchet splitting wood. I think about my husband worrying that I’ve grown weary, not of his incessant directions and rules, but instead of our skimpy budget. “I’m the one living away from home,” I explain. “I’m paying my way.”
“I do the best I can.”
“You’re doing fine.”
“If I had a job like yours,” he says, “I could lounge in the hot months, too.”
Then he tells me he has to go—now. He’s busy cleaning house, watering the lawn, feeding the cats—chores I should be home to help him with instead of goofing around in a country store. He pauses, waiting. The static on the line crackles. It’s a clumsy silence, this conversation we’re having without the rattle of voices, two people so entangled in the scare of a marriage dying that we’re both afraid to speak.
There are two kinds of silence:
1) Caution, as in a mountain village baking under a ruthless sun, its firemen on alert; a dining room tidied after the feast; a home muted and stiff; the curt shoulder of disapproval; a man, tormented and scared, pondering mercy in the quiet of a garden; or a dark study, near midnight, and a wife balancing numbers, secretly deducting work expenses from her personal allowance, not the household budget;
2) Or trouble abrew, as in an unlit match; a wobbly pile of dishes, the rise of water in a sink; a womb forever vacant; two names scrawled on the dotted lines; the son of God, gasping for air, struggling not to utter the words he thinks to himself, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani; or a dim kitchen, in the sweet hours of night, and a woman tending dough, a drama that will surely rise with the baking.
Who among us can say which type of silence is more fierce? More deadly?
Who among us would be so foolish as to claim the first kind of silence could ever stop the second?
Silly as it sounds, my job as a clerk at the V&S reminds me how quickly I adapt, how I enjoy meeting people, how hard I work to please a boss. Despite my PhD, I can find enjoyment outside academia and still support myself. I feel capable stocking shelves, lifting boxes, running the register, and sending Western Union transfers. I feel comfortable meeting the locals, some of them wealthy and others living in their cars and on scraps stuffed in backpacks for the trail. I strike up conversations with tourists from Europe, Africa, Boston, Miami, New York. And while my husband might insist that my career doesn’t allow time for the profession of motherhood, I know I would be a diligent parent. I’m starting to remember just how hard I work at all assignments.
Then one Sunday morning, I find a small church in the phone book. One minute after the service starts, I sneak inside and sit in the back pew. It’s a simple auditorium: no stained glass, no ornate baptistery; the song director plays a guitar, not an organ; outside the window, the aspen leaves flutter silently along the sidewalk. I don’t sing along. It feels peaceful, this sitting, this listening, this waiting. At the end of the hour, when the preacher begins his closing prayer, I slip out the door. I’m not yet ready to speak to anyone, shake hands, give my name.
I can’t promise that I’ll go back. I can’t say I no longer harbor any anger or guilt or that I believe all dead grooms—or all doubting brides—are worth tending. I can’t say I understand the church’s role in defining Christian marriage. Even today, it bothers me to hear someone say, “The church doesn’t believe in divorce.”
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that preachers, ministers, priests should stop reminding their congregations that the Bible says Christians should not divorce. I’m not saying marriage enrichment seminars should be cancelled.
But here’s a story I hope we’ll all remember: Once upon a time, there was a woman who attended church—maybe yours. She sat in the same pew every Sunday morning and evening. She washed dishes in the fellowship hall and taught vacation Bible school. She rarely spoke because she didn’t want her husband to accuse church folks of meddling in his business, didn’t want him thinking she loved others more than him. When her husband told her it was time to go home, she may have looked wistfully at you, though she never reciprocated Sunday lunch invitations, because she wasn’t allowed to have company. As her husband steered her up the aisle, toward the door, his hand gripped her elbow. And in the car on the way home, he yelled at her, complaining that the minister insulted him, that her friend’s spouse was eyeing her body, that she shouldn’t make friends with women whose husbands roam, just what was she whispering in her friend’s ear anyway?
And another story: Once upon a time, there was an ordinary man who turned a single bread loaf into an infinite number of slices. His hands touched the sick, the blind, even the dead, and healed them. He chose his soldiers from a company of sinners. He met a woman married to many men and promised he could quench her thirst. But one grim day, in the ninth hour, even this man felt forsaken, and he cried out. And who among us cannot see that such a man understands how mercy comes when we least deserve it, how God grants leniency as he sees fit, how sometimes divorce is the same thing as grace.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.