Fiction — From the May 2013 issue

Loyalty

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As much as I love her, I blame Astrid. Astrid told my wife, Corinne, that she could achieve happiness if only she’d leave me. It sounded simple. “Leave that guy, walk out that door, you’ll achieve happiness, you’ll be free.” Achieve happiness. Now there’s a phrase. Into the Ford with the busted shocks and out onto the American road, then — that was the prescription.

I stood in the driveway. It was sleeting the day she left. I had agreed not to follow her. She was so eager to go, she forgot to use the windshield wipers until she was halfway down the block. She turned the corner, the tires splashed slush, the front end dipped from the bad shocks, and she was gone.

Holding on to my son, I walked into the garage. Blank-faced, I took an inventory. Jeremy, in my arms. My rusting pickup truck. The broken rake, the bent saw, the corroded timing light still on the ledge beneath the back window with the curtains. Yes, the garage window had curtains. Don’t ask me why I put them there. More inventory: the house itself. My life. My health. My job. A case of beer. My mother, Dolores, upstairs in her room. Let them arrive here, whatever they are is my first motto, and my second is Let them stay.

Astrid thought that happiness was within poor Corinne’s grasp, and she said so, day after day. Happiness for you, she would say, is a day without Wes. You are right to say that Wes crowds you and confuses you. Any morning you wake up without that guy’s stale beer breath on you will be pure profit. Astrid was relentless on the subject of me. She and Corinne worked at the same nurses’ station, 3-F. In the quiet of the hospital night, plans were hatched. A nurse can always get a job, anyplace. Those were Astrid’s words, I have no doubt.

Corinne had been bitching about me, to me, and the topics were, I don’t know, the usual. I drank too much on weekends, my dog Scooter slobbered on the bedroom floor, my hands were always dirty from the shop — and the killer accusation: I was inattentive to her needs, whatever they were. Mostly Corinne complained about herself, her rickety soiled unrecognizable life, her confusion, her panic over our baby, her fear of being an inadequate mother, her sadness, that stuff.

But I loved her, and she left me. Then I loved Astrid, and I married her. I’m married to her now, and I still love her. She has — and I’ve got to use this word — guile. Corinne, my first wife, had none. You’d think a nurse of all people could take care of her own baby and not be bewildered. But she was. Mousy brown hair, mystified by most conversations, unable to fix a dinner you could serve to guests, she was about the most lovable thing you ever saw. I lost my heart to her helplessness time and again. I’m not saying this is admirable.

The minute Corinne was gone, Astrid showed up. I don’t recall that, prior to that day, we had so much as exchanged a moody, sparking glance. She took me into her expert arms. It was consolation and sympathy at first, I guess. I didn’t question it. In about the time it takes to change the painted background in a photographer’s studio from a woodland scene to a brick wall, she had left her boyfriend and was presenting me with casseroles and opened bottles of cold beer. I took some advantage of her, but she didn’t mind my advances. She was saying, “Wes, it seems you are the one. I am surprised.” She discounted the flaws I owned up to. My first wife lost her credibility as a character witness, and I got a spell cast on me. And then I softened. Love for Astrid like a climbing vine grew out of my heart. I don’t know how else to say it.

She was competent and assured with child rearing, calm in the face of infant tantrums. On Sunday morning, next to me, Astrid would read the travel section, pencil in hand, naming far-flung places we would go someday. In this household, confusion was dispelled. Now we had pedestals. Things like clarity and plans and pleasure and love went on top of them. What luck I’d been given, I thought. Here was all this day-in-day-out whoopee. Astrid brought all surfaces to an unlikely shine. Jeremy stopped yelling all the time and began to grow. Teeth, toddling, jabber, talk.

New toys appeared. The divorce went through without Corinne wanting any custody whatsoever or getting any. Astrid and I married, and pretty soon we had ourselves another child, a startlingly beautiful daughter. Lucy. A new path, the next stage. Corinne called Jeremy when he was grown enough to talk, but she couldn’t manage to see him, or so she said in her jumbled, haphazard way. She was too delicate, and she claimed her strings were too tightly strung for ordinary social life. Visits would put stress on her immune system. Anyway she couldn’t manage them, or so she said. Jeremy suffered from this absence, but when it became permanent, he didn’t suffer anymore because Astrid had taken over the mom chores with such competence and love. So Corinne called instead of visiting, and mostly she wrote letters. My God, those letters! Moms aren’t supposed to write letters like that. The coffee spills, the anarchy handwriting, the paragraphs without topics, the sentences without subjects and verbs. Jeremy’s letters back to Corinne were full of the news of his childhood. After a while, his letters became very halfhearted, quoting baseball statistics. He wrote them with decreasing frequency.

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’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. His poem “The Arrow by Day” appeared in the June 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Charles Baxter:

Poetry From the June 2011 issue

The arrow by day

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