A Reliable WifeA Novel
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2009 Robert Goolrick
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-56512-596-4
It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o'clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.
If you had been there you would not have noticed. You would not have noticed your own stillness in this thin slice of time. But, if you had been there and you had, in some unfathomable way, recorded the stillness, taken a negative of it as the glass plate receives the light, to be developed later, you would have known, when the thought, the recollection was finally developed, that this was the moment it began. The clock ticked. The hour struck. Everything moved again. The train was late.
It was not snowing yet, but it would be soon, a blizzard, by the smell of it. The land lay covered already in trampled snow. The land here flew away from your eyes, gone into the black horizon without leaving one detail inside the eye. Stubble through the snow, sharp as razors. Crows picking at nothing. Black river, frigid oil.
Nothing says hell has to be fire, thought Ralph Truitt, standing in his sober clothes on the platform of the tiny train station in the frozen middle of frozen nowhere. Hell could be like this. It could be darker every minute. It could be cold enough to sear the skin from your bones.
Standing in the center of the crowd, his solitude was enormous. He felt that in all the vast and frozen space in which he lived his life-every hand needy, every heart wanting something from him-everybody had a reason to be and a place to land. Everybody but him. For him there was nothing. In all the cold and bitter world, there was not a single place for him to sit down.
Ralph Truitt checked his silver watch. Yes, the train was late. The eyes around him were staring silently; they knew. He had counted on the train being on time today. To the minute, he had told them. He had ordered punctuality the way another man might order a steak cooked to his liking. Now he stood like a fool with everybody watching. And he was a fool. He had failed at even this small thing. It would come to nothing, this last small spark of hope.
He was a man used to getting what he wanted. Since his first staggering losses twenty years before, his wife, his children, his heart's best hopes and his last lavish fantasies, he had come to see the implacability of his own expectations as the only defense against the terrors he felt. It worked pretty well most of the time. He was relentless, and the people of the town respected that, feared it even. Now the train was late.
Around him on the platform the people of his town walked and watched and waited, trying to look casual, as though their waiting had some purpose other than watching Ralph Truitt wait for a train that was late. They exchanged little jokes. They laughed. They spoke quietly, out of respect for what they knew to be Ralph Truitt's failure. The train was late. They felt the snow in the air. They knew the blizzard would soon begin. Just as there was a day every spring when the women of the town, as though by some secret signal, appeared in their summer dresses before the first heat was felt, there was as well a day when winter showed the knife before the first laceration. This was the day-October 17, 1907. Four o'clock and almost dark.
They all, each one, kept one eye on the weather and one eye on Ralph. Waiting, they watched Ralph wait, exchanging glances every time Ralph checked his silver watch. The train was late.
Serve him right, some thought, mostly the men. Some, mostly the women, thought kinder thoughts. Maybe, they thought, after all these years.
Ralph knew they talked about him, knew their feelings for him, complicated as they were, were spoken aloud the moment he had passed, tipping his hat with the civility he struggled so hard to show the world day after day. He could see it in their eyes. He had seen it every day of his life. The chatter of deference, the inevitable snicker at what they all knew of his past. Sometimes there was a whispered kindness because there was something about Ralph, even still, that could stir a sympathetic heart.
The trick, Ralph knew, is not to give in. Not to hunch your shoulders in the cold or stamp your feet or blow warm breath into cold palms. The trick is to relax into the cold, accept that it had come and would stay a long time. To lean into it, as you might lean into a warm spring wind. The trick was to become part of it, so that you didn't end a backbreaking day in the cold with rigid, aching shoulders and red hands.
Some things you escape, he thought. Most things you don't, certainly not the cold. You don't escape the things, mostly bad, that just happen to you. The loss of love. The disappointment. The terrible whip of tragedy.
So Ralph stood implacable, chest out, oblivious to the cold, hardened to the gossip, his eyes fixed on the train tracks wasting away into the distance. He was hopeful, amazed that he was hoping, hoping that he looked all right, not too old, or too stupid, or too unforgiving. Hoping that the turmoil of his soul, his hopeless solitude was, for just this hour before the snow fell and shut them all in, invisible.
He had meant to be a good man, and he was not a bad man. He had taught himself not to want, after his first wanting and losing. Now he wanted something, and his desire startled and enraged him.
Dressing in his house before he came to the train station, Ralph had caught sight of his face in one of the mirrors. The sight had shocked him. Shocking to see what grief and condescension had done to his face. So many years of hatred and rage and regret.
In the house, before coming here, he had busied his hands with the collar button and the knot of his necktie; he did these things every morning, the fixing and adjusting, the strict attentions of a fastidious man. But until he had looked in the mirror and seen his own anxious hope, he had not imagined, at any step of this foolish enterprise, that the moment would actually come and he would not, at the last, be able to stand it. But that's what had occurred to him, looking at his collapsed face in the spidery glass. He could not stand it, this wrenching coming to life again. For all these years, he had endured the death, the hideous embarrassment. He had kept on, against every instinct in his heart. He had kept on getting up and going to town and eating and running his father's businesses and taking on the weight which he inevitably took on, no matter how he tried to avoid it, of these people's lives. He had always assumed his face sent a single signal: everything is all right. Everything is fine. Nothing is wrong.
But, this morning, in the mirror, he saw that it was impossible, that he was the only one who had ever been fooled. And he saw that he cared, that it all mattered.
These people, their children got sick. Their wives or husbands didn't love them or they did, while Ralph himself was haunted by the sexual act, the sexual lives, which lay hidden and vast beneath their clothes. Other people's lust. They touched each other. Their children died, sometimes all at once, whole families, in a single month, of diphtheria or typhoid or the flu. Their husbands or their wives went crazy in a night, in the cold, and burned their houses down for no good reason, or shot their own relatives, their own children dead. They tore their clothes off in public and urinated in the street and defecated in church, writhing with snakes. They destroyed perfectly healthy animals, burned their barns. It was in the papers every week. Every day there was some new tragedy, some new and inexplicable failure of the ordinary.
They soaked their dresses in naphtha and carelessly moved too close to a fire and exploded into flames. They drank poison. They fed poison to each other. They had daughters by their own daughters. They went to bed well and woke up insane. Ran away. Hanged themselves. Such things happened.
Through it all, Ralph thought that his face and body were unreadable, that he had turned a fair and sympathetic eye to the people and their griefs and their bizarre troubles. He went to bed trying not to think of it, but he had gotten up this morning and seen it all, the toll it had taken.
His skin was ashen. His hair was lifeless and thinner than he remembered. The corners of his mouth and his eyes turned downward, engraved with a permanent air of condescension and grief. His head tilted back from the effort of paying attention to the bodies that stood too close and spoke too loudly. These things, borne of the terrifying stillness of his heart, were visible. Everybody saw it. He had not covered up a single thing. What a fool he had been.
There was a time when he had fallen in love on every street corner. Chased so tiny a thing as a charming ribbon on a hat. A light step, the brush of a skirt's hem, a gloved hand shooing a fly from a freckled nose had once been enough, had once been all he needed to set his heart racing. Racing with joy. Racing with fair, brutal expectation. So grossly in love his body hurt. But now he had lost the habit of romance, and in his look into the mirror, he had thought with a prick of jealousy of his younger, lascivious self.
He remembered the first time he had seen the bare arm of a grown woman. He remembered the first time a woman had taken her hair down just for him, the startling rich cascade of it, the smell of soap and lavender. He remembered every piece of furniture in the room. He remembered his first kiss. He had loved it all. Once, it had been to him all there was. His body's hungers had been the entire meaning of his life.
You can live with hopelessness for only so long before you are, in fact, hopeless. He was fifty-four years old, and despair had come to Ralph as an infection, without his even knowing it. He could not pinpoint the moment at which hope had left his heart.
The townspeople nodded respectfully as they scuttled past. "Evening, Mr. Truitt." And they couldn't help it, "Train's a tad late, Mr. Truitt?" He wanted to hit them, tell them to leave, to leave him alone. Because of course they knew. There had been telegrams, wire transfers, a ticket. They knew everything.
They knew the whole history of his years from the time he was a baby. Many of them, most of them, worked for him in one way or another, in the iron foundry, logging or mining or buying and selling and tallying up the sales or the rents. He underpaid them, though he grew richer by the hour. The ones who didn't work for him were, by and large, not doing any kind of work at all beyond the hardscrabble and desperate labor that kept the witless and lazy alive in hard climates.
Some, he knew, were lazy. Some were cruel to their wives and children, unfaithful to their dull and steady husbands. The winters were too long, too hard, and nobody would be expected to last it out.
For some, normal lives turned to nightmare. They starved to death in the horrible winters. They removed themselves from society and lived alone in ramshackle huts in the woods. They were found drooling and naked and were committed to the insane asylum at Mendota where they were wrapped in icy sheets and lashed with electrical currents until they could be restored to sanity and quietude. These things happened.
Still, every day, more people went on than didn't; more people stayed than left. The ones who stayed, crazy and sane, all of them sooner or later had business with Ralph Truitt. Ralph Truitt, he, too, went on through the cold and his own terrifying loneliness.
"Snow coming hard," they said.
"Dark already," they said. Four o'clock and dark already.
"Evening, Ralph, Mr. Truitt. Going to be a big one, looks like. Said so in the almanac."
All the little things they thought up, to pass the time, to make some small but brave attempt to establish a human connection with him. Each conversation with him became something to be thought out, considered and turned this way and that long before words were ever said, and to be remembered and reported after he was gone.
Saw Mr. Truitt today, they might say to their wives, because few dared think of his name any other way. He was cordial, asking after you and the children. Remembered every one of their names.
They hated him and they needed him and they excused him. The wives would say as their husbands ranted about what a skinflint bastard he was, what a tightwad, what an arrogant son of a bitch, "Well ... you know ... he's had troubles."
Of course they knew. They all knew.
He slept alone. He would lie in the dark and he would picture them, these people. He would dream their lives in the dark.
The husbands would turn and see their wives, and desire would burn through them like an explosion. Ralph imagined their lives, their desires, kindled by no more than a muslin nightdress. Eleven children, some of them thirteen: nine dead four living, six living seven gone.
In Ralph Truitt's mind, in the dead of night, the knots of death and birth formed an insane lace, knitting the town together, in a ravishment of sexual acts and the product of these acts. All skin to skin in the dark, just underneath the heavy torturous garments in the day. Still, in his mind's eye, the husbands would race into the warmed sheets and be young again, young and in love if only for fifteen minutes in the dark, lying with wasted women who were themselves, for those few minutes, beautiful young girls again with shiny braided hair and ready laughs. Sex was all he thought about in the dark.
Most nights Ralph could stand it. But some nights he couldn't. On those nights he lay suffocating beneath the weight of the lust he imagined around him, the desires rewarded, the unspoken physical kindnesses that can occur in the dark even between people who loathe the sight of each other by daylight.
In every house, he thought with fascination, there is a different life. There is sex in every bed. He walked the streets of his town every day, seeing on every face the simple charities they had afforded one another in the dark, and he told himself that he alone among them did not need that in order to go on.
He went to their weddings and their funerals. He adjudicated their quarrels, bore their tirades. He hired them and fired them, and he never lost the picture of them groping their way through the mute darkness, hunting and finding comfort, so that when the sun came up, they could go on with their lives.
That morning, in the mirror, he had seen his face, and it was a face he didn't want to be seen. His hunger, his rapacious solitude-they were not dead. And these people around him were not blind. They must have been, all these years, as horrified as he had been that morning.
In his pocket was the letter, and in the letter was a picture of a plain woman whom he did not know, ordered like a pair of boots from Chicago, and in that picture was Ralph's whole future, and nothing else mattered. Even his shame, as he stood in the gawking crowd, waiting for an overdue train, was secondary to that, because he had set his heart on a course before he had the first idea of what the course would bring him, and because he could not, under their darting eyes, avert his gaze or turn his intention from what he had decided with his whole heart, long before he had known what it meant.
The train would come, late or not, and everything that happened before its arrival would be before, and everything that came after would be after. It was too late to stop it now. His past would be only a set of certain events that had led him to this desperate act of hope.
He was a fifty-four-year-old man whose face was shocking to him, and in a few moments even that slate would be wiped clean. He allowed himself that hope. We all want the simplest things, he thought. Despite what we may have, or the children who die, we want the simplicity of love. It was not too much to ask that he be like the others, that he, too, might have something to want.
For twenty years, not one person had said good night to him as he turned off the light and lay down to sleep. Not one person had said good morning as he opened his eyes. For twenty years, he had not been kissed by anyone whose name he knew, and yet, even now, as the snow began to fall lightly, he remembered what it felt like, the soft giving of the lips, the sweet hunger of it.
The townspeople watched him. Not that it mattered anymore. We were there, they would tell their children and their neighbors. We were there. We saw her get off the train for the first time, and she got off the train only three times. We were there. We saw him the minute he set eyes on her.