by Rhonda Krehbiel

The doorbell rang at 3:23 pm. The mailman was right on schedule. I had calculated a 20 minute window between 3:10 and 3:30 that the mailman arrives to deliver my package. I don’t like it when they’re late. When I got the package from my front porch, I noticed that the paint on the steps was starting to peel. I wondered if Dale’s sells paint, and if they do, when I called I could order some. A soft pale blue, like the steps of our house on the beach in New Jersey. It was small and quaint and I always leapt right over the middle step when going in. Maybe Greg could paint them that weekend. My mother always told me that a husband’s greatest asset is his handiwork, so I guess it’s about time I take advantage of that.

I sat the package on my kitchen table but didn’t open it. I didn’t need to. I knew what was inside. Five days ago I called Dale’s Wholesale, like I do every day, and ordered a pair of fitted linen slacks: size four, style #274, eggshell white, $54.99. They reminded me of the pants I wore on my third date with Joseph. We went to a little diner for milkshakes and then took a walk on the boardwalk. He held my hand and I felt like I was floating. But that was years ago, and my thighs now make me laugh at even the suggestion of a size four.

My fingers brushed across the label. White, unremarkable. But it was remarkable because he might’ve touched it. I reminded myself not to call him Joseph, but god, oh god he could be. He is the operator on the ordering line of Dale’s Wholesale. But no, that’s silly. Why would a phone operator ever touch any of the outgoing packages? Still, there is a chance. I’ve never been one to give up on chances easily. I traced the “D” of “Dale’s” with my pointer finger as I thought about his voice. It’s beautiful and relaxed, with an unmistakable North Jersey accent. The accent of my hometown. There’s a rasp that suggests a smoking habit. Joseph smoked Marlboros, he said they made him feel most like a man. I wonder if he smokes Marlboros, too. Greg has never touched a cigarette in his life, he says it’s a stupid, disgusting habit.

I should move the package. Last time I left a box out where Greg could see, he opened it without my knowing. And that night, when he fell into bed beside me, he smelled like pine. He’d washed with the shampoo I’d bought, Mountain Blue, Joseph’s favorite. Dale’s was carrying it for a limited time only: #654, snowy pine scent, $7.99. Joseph hated what he called “froo froo” scents and would only wash his brown hair with the Mountain Blue. I always thought that was kind of funny because there were no mountains anywhere around us, but that’s what Joseph liked. The night that Greg used his shampoo I had horrible nightmares. Each fat, ugly snore betrayed the fact that it wasn’t Joseph beside me. I was sleeping next to an imposter.

Since then, I have been very careful to keep my packages out of his sight. I grabbed the pants and took them down to the basement. Greg has let me claim the spare room in our basement as my sewing room. I can’t sew; my mother tried to teach me once in my 20’s. She thought it would help me get a husband. I don’t think my father married her for her ability to mend socks, but no one was going to marry me for my ability to balance cocktails on my chest so I humored her and gave sewing a shot. But my fingers felt too fat and clumsy to thread the needle and my string always got tangled into the machine in an ugly matted knot. My mother gave up trying to pass down her skill, but let me keep the machine. I don’t know why Greg married me.

One summer ago, after Greg stuck his grubby fingers in my package, I unpacked the thing and sat it up on a card table in the spare room. That afternoon, when my package arrived from Dale’s: shoe polish, #512, coal dust black, $9.99, I placed it in the corner of the little room. Then, I began the process of moving all of the packages from their hiding places to the room. From the trunk of my car, under the old porch, the back of the cupboards. It took me three trips to bring down the packages from under the bed alone. I’m glad I finally got to move those. Sometimes I would lie awake, listening to Greg snore, imagining that with each snore, his side of the bed sunk lower with the weight of his huge body; sagging the bed frame and crushing the packages below.

I sat the pants on the shortest pile of dusty brown packages. I traced down the stack. I know what’s in each box. I feel the memories all over again each time my finger brushes against the cardboard. The red pumps I wore on Joseph and I’s first Valentine's Day, the wind chime that sang in the sea breeze, the leather flask he kept his whiskey in. I can spend hours down here, this is my space. This is Joseph’s and my space.

That afternoon, sunk between the towers, I felt particularly at peace. It was like I had built myself a fort. When I was a little girl I used to make blanket castles in my room. I would tie one end of my quilt to the end of my bedposts and the other I would tuck behind the dresser. And there I would sit. I could read my books or color, but mostly I just sat. There's something comforting about having a ceiling so close to you, having walls around you, your limits set and the space only there to occupy you. I could just sit.

But, like always, the feeling came back. The overwhelming surge of ache. The ache that happens when you feel okay and then suddenly you are hit with a reminder and it all comes back at once. The ache lies dormant but it always comes back. Every day, sometimes for hours, sometimes in passing.

It’s a punch to the gut and a slap in the face and oh my god it hurts. Like every day, sitting in my new fort, the fist landed, my cheek burned.

I needed to call. I needed to call Dale’s.

I reach for the stack of catalogs I keep on top of the card table, threatening to fall over on the stupid machine. I quickly thumbed through the pages. Looking for something familiar, something to calm me down. My heart was beating faster because nothing is recognizable. I see table cloths and china sets and coat racks but none of the are that same red check pattern or the same rose print with the crack in the sugar bowl or made of the same cherry wood.

Then I slowed, because on page 22, there was a child’s t-ball bat. It looked so small there on the page, like a toothpick. Joseph always wanted to have a boy. He said he would teach him to play sports, none of that pansy nonsense like tennis or golf. He would raise a boy to know how to hit. He said he would be able to hit a ball like his daddy could, it would teach him to be strong and powerful. I wonder if that little boy had existed, would he grow up like his daddy. Would he have the same hazel eyes? Would he only chew cinnamon gum and would he laugh quietly into his shirt neck? And would he look at life like a baseball hurtling towards him, ready to hit every obstacle with the force of a home run--leaving bruises.

I needed to order the bat, to hear his voice. I walked upstairs to the wall phone in the kitchen, careful to bring the catalog with me so to make sure I said the order correctly. Little Slugger Training Bat, #968, $34.99. I leaned against the counter, my hips digging into the harsh edge, reminding me just how soft I’ve gotten. I dialed the number I know by heart and waited for that tone that tells me he is about to speak.

“Hello and thank you for calling Dale’s Wholesale. Would you like to place an order”

Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can imagine he’s in the room with me.

I fumbled. I’m always fumbling. “Could I place an order for the, um, the Little Slugger Training Bat? Uh, it’s #968 . . . please?”

I call Dale’s every day and still the words feel like rocks in my mouth. Fat and unnatural- harsh. Joseph always told me that it was a blessing I had such pretty lips because the words that came out of them could be garbage.

“Of course ma’am. That’ll be $34.99. Can I get your credit card number?” he said, like he said every day. I wonder if he ever wrote them down, the credit card numbers. People’s whole lives were in 16 digits and he gets to hear them all the time. Joseph always had these wild get-rich-quick schemes. He would love to have a list of lives just like he might have.

Dammit. I had forgotten to grab my card before I called, I’d been in too much of a rush. Luckily it was right where it always was, in my old handbag, sitting limp on the counter. I know my credit card number by heart, but the only way I can say it slow and steady is by reading it off. It has to be perfect for him.

I gave him the number, taking my time, saying each one carefully so he could have the correct information. When I finished, I listened intently for what he was going to say next, it was my favorite part. But on the other end of the phone was silence, I heard nothing.

I felt that maybe I gave him the wrong number. Had I mixed up the order? Had I not spoken at all?

Still, silence.

“M’am could you repeat the number again for me please?”

This was not the, “Thank you for shopping with us! Have a nice day” I was used to. The only way I had nice days was because he wished it for me. His voice took the ache away and I could notice the new blooming tulips in the yard and I could laugh at the daytime talk shows. I panicked.

“Um yeah okay sure um” I was fumbling again. I was always fumbling. Even though I read them off the card the words turned into rocks again and I think they broke my teeth because every one hurt.

Again, silence. I began to twist the coil of the rope with my fingers. The cord was thick and rubbery and my fingers knotted it into an ugly tangle.

“Okay ma’am. It looks like your card has been declined. Would you like to try another one?”

This was not how this was supposed to go. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how. Everything I could’ve said is garbage, and he couldn’t tell that my lips are pretty. He couldn’t see me.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Are you still there?” He said it in that beautiful North Jersey accent, but what he said was wrong. Joseph never told me he was sorry.

I felt I was slapped again, too, but that time I could feel the the indent of that class ring on my cheekbone. It was a fat and ugly ring, fat and ugly. Joseph never took it off because he said he peaked in high school. We met well after that, but he still wore that gaudy emerald thing. Sometimes he would show me how the ring would gleam in the sunlight but I never really saw it.

I didn’t know what to do so I just hung up. It seemed simpler than trying to come up with a response. It made sense to sit down so I did. I slumped into the linoleum and let my back rest against the lower cabinets. I don’t think I sat there very long but it was long enough for me to think about what to do next. What I wanted to do was nothing. The task of trying to heave my body up off the ground seemed enormous.

But finally I did get up. I waited for Greg in the living room. I put on the evening news and sat on the couch with my hands folded, picking at my cuticles. There had been a big car crash in Arkansas that killed 10 people. Among those who died was a 22 year old woman. The reporter said she was on her way to her college graduation. I thought about how sad that was; that her life ended just as it was really going to begin. I never went to college. My mother didn’t think a woman needed it and Joseph liked having me at home. So home is where I stayed. There on the couch, I cried over that girl who died. It seemed so incredibly unfair and cruel that a girl who had worked so hard to get so far could just be crushed into nothing, like she had never existed at all. It was just so sad.

Greg came home in the usual manner. Entering from the garage through the kitchen. I heard the clank of his keys as he let them fall on the counter and his short footsteps towards the fridge, undoubtedly to grab a beer.

I didn’t take my eyes from the tv when he walked in but I felt his hand grab my shoulder as he said, “Hi, honey.” He greeted me the same way every time--sometimes he would kiss me on the top of my head if it had been a particularly good day. He fell into the couch beside me and cracked open his beer. I kept my eyes focused on the ticker running across the bottom of the screen. I didn’t want to watch him slurp his beer, slumped over like a bum. It took 10 minutes and one antacid commercial later before Greg turned to look at me. However, his usual question about dinner plans was interrupted when he saw my puffy eyes.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I felt the tears start to leak out again. The worst thing to ask someone when they aren’t okay is always “Are you okay?” Greg’s faced changed and I could see a spark of panic as his eyebrows furrowed. I have never met a man who knows what to do when a woman cries in front of him. Joseph always told me that crying was sad and messy and should be avoided. He didn’t have much sympathy for criers. Greg just looked at me with confused pity. He is a simple man to read. It was genuine, and it broke my heart.

Greg inched closer to me on the couch and put his arm around me. I still hadn’t said anything, but I was crying harder. I leaned into his shoulder and buried my face. His dress shirt smelled like sweat and mustard from the sandwich I had packed him for lunch. I hate mustard. I cried harder. Greg smoothed my hair with his hands and I just sobbed into him.

“Did you find out I cancelled your card? Is that why you’re crying?” Greg finally asked. He said this with confusion--like this was the last possible outcome to the situation he predicted. This just made me cry harder. We had been sitting there for 10 minutes and I hadn’t said anything yet. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I wiped my eyes and I told him. I told him about the girl who died in the car crash and how she was only 22. I told him how sad it was that I didn’t know her name and that she was never going to graduate. What if she had someone who loved her? Greg held me and I told him how unfair it all was.