[Story] Lucky Woman, By Elizabeth Ellen | Harper's Magazine

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[Story]

Lucky Woman

“Bedroom, Dream Catchers Sleep Lab, Dripping Springs, Texas,” by Tema Stauffer. Courtesy the artist and Tracey Morgan Gallery, Asheville, North Carolina

[Story]

Lucky Woman

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The saleswoman was waiting for them as they entered the store. She had severely dyed hair and a clipboard clutched tightly to her chest. Josh thought it was possibly her first day. He stood a little back, behind his wife, and silent. She was still his wife for another week, maybe two. It’d been her idea to come here after their meeting at Denny’s. They were just supposed to meet for lunch. Now here they were, still together, shopping.

“How did you hear about us?” the saleswoman said. She had a toothy grin, a lot of gum visible.

“Radio ad,” his wife answered. His wife was wearing her leopard-print skirt. It was what you call a conversation piece. That’s what she’d told him at Denny’s. “Every time I wear it, someone comments on it,” she’d said. “People from all walks of life. A man on a bike in the Target parking lot even. I don’t get it; it’s just an inexpensive cotton skirt. It’s like wearing a pair of jeans.” In another story she told him at Denny’s, she’d said she didn’t understand a man at the Elks club in her hometown saying of her, “Here comes Miss Ohio!”

“At first I thought it was a compliment. But then, very quickly, after thirty seconds or so, I thought, no, it’s an insult. He’s insulting me.”

She’d had her usual Fit Slam in front of her: egg white omelet with spinach and cherry tomatoes, a dry English muffin, turkey bacon, and a bowl of fruit. He’d ordered a breaded chicken sandwich with bacon. Fries and mayo. He wasn’t sure what to make of her stories. She’d waited until July, until he was all the way across the country in Portland visiting his family, to tell him she’d gone to see an attorney. That was all there was to it, she’d said over the phone, other than for him to sign some papers. She added this last part rather nonchalantly. Earlier in the phone call, she’d been sobbing. Right when he’d answered. She had barely been able to get the words out at first. He’d been about to go for a run with Bret, his college buddy, the guy he was staying with. Then, very quickly, he had realized Bret was going to have to go without him. He wasn’t going to be running anywhere that day.

At first he thought he might not sign. “If you won’t sign,” his wife had said after a few days went by, “we’ll have to hire one of those men who serve papers, like in a movie from the Nineties.” He couldn’t remember what movie she was talking about, though he didn’t doubt there was one. For two weeks he imagined a man in a dark suit and sunglasses hiding behind every building and bush, waiting to jump out at him. But after a while it seemed like this wasn’t going to happen. Eventually, he opened the email from his wife’s attorney, printed the papers, and signed and scanned them. Then his wife seemed happy.

What brings you in?” the saleswoman said, the clipboard still at her chest, her grin still gummy. She looked to be in her fifties. A late career, maybe. Maybe a divorce.

“Mattresses,” his wife said, walking toward the beds on the right side of the store. To the left were various configurations of mismatched furniture: big pleather sofas with trays and cup holders in the arms. Enormous wooden coffee tables. Brass lamps. Everything looked a decade or two out of fashion, as though it could have been used on the set of a working-class sitcom from Josh’s youth. He imagined sitting on one of the sofas, placing a beer in the cup holder, watching a football game on TV while his sitcom wife was in the kitchen, cooking him dinner, making sarcastic comments as he watched. It didn’t feel much different than dreaming.

“Remember? This used to be a Toys ‘R’ Us,” his wife had said as they pulled into the parking lot. “But young people aren’t having babies anymore—at least that’s what I read somewhere—and they closed all the stores.”

He did have some vague memory of coming here with her when it was still a Toys “R” Us, though he could no longer remember why. There had been a very brief window when they thought of having kids, and then the window had closed and they hadn’t thought about it since.

“Now you could meet a younger woman, have a whole new family of your own,” his wife had said. It was supposed to be some sort of a pep talk, he gathered, this business about a younger woman, a new family, babies. His wife’s son was grown now, though he’d been young when they met: in second or third grade, he couldn’t remember. His wife was nine years older than he was, though no one thought so. Most people thought she was younger. But that didn’t change the biology of the situation. “It’s so unfair that Alec Baldwin can have a whole ’nother family in his fifties, pop out five new babies with a wife twenty years younger, just like that,” she’d said, snapping her fingers, on more than one occasion. It was like she was working out a stand-up routine. “You can be just like Alec Baldwin now,” she’d told him in the car, more of her strange pep talk, even though he knew she resented Alec Baldwin and his younger, yoga pants–wearing wife.

“Are you a stomach sleeper, a side sleeper, or back?” the saleswoman asked his wife. They were both tagging along after her, the saleswoman and then Josh.

“I don’t know, all three?” his wife said.

“Well, what do you start out on?” the saleswoman asked.

“I don’t know—stomach?” his wife said.

“So you like it firm then,” the saleswoman said.

“Yes, that’s what I want: I want firm,” his wife said.

“What about you?” the saleswoman said. Suddenly, she was looking at him. “What do you like?”

He started to say something, then changed his mind.

“It doesn’t matter. Whatever she likes,” he said, gesturing toward his wife, her leopard-print skirt.

“Ohhh, you’re a lucky woman!” the saleswoman said, more gums—equine, really. His wife smiled, first at the saleswoman, then at him. She had her hand on a mattress, was pressing on it, testing it, before she sat down. She kept smiling at him. He was unsure what the smiling meant, how to interpret it. He’d been wrong before.

“Go ahead and lay down on it the way you would at home,” the saleswoman said. “Lay on your stomach.”

His wife shook her head.

“I don’t want to lie on my stomach,” his wife said. Instead, she lay—arms at her sides, heels together—on her back.

“How does it feel?” the saleswoman asked.

“Good. It feels firm,” his wife said.

“You try it now,” the saleswoman said to Josh.

He went and sat on the opposite side of the bed. He couldn’t remember the last time he and his wife had been in bed together. She barely moved when he sat down. The mattress was firm, indeed.

“Nice, huh?” the saleswoman said. It was unclear to whom she was speaking. There were so many ways it was nice. He was trying not to get reacquainted with any of them.

“What type of mattress do you have?” his wife asked, turning toward him.

“This kind, this brand,” he said. “But a step down, a step less firm.”

“And you like it?” his wife said.

“Yeah, I like it a lot,” he said.

He could feel the saleswoman’s eyes on them. He realized neither of them was wearing a wedding ring. His was in a zippered compartment of his suitcase. He was afraid to ask his wife what she’d done with hers. He remembered the story of how she’d flung her first one into the ocean when she realized that marriage was over. She’d been driving over a bridge in California. Or was it Florida? It might have been Michigan. Not that it mattered now.

“So, what do you think?” the saleswoman asked.

“I like it,” his wife said, sitting up. “This is the one I want.”

“Okay,” the saleswoman said. “It comes with the box spring, of course.”

“Oh, I don’t need the box spring,” his wife said.

“Are you sure? It’s free. It comes with it,” the saleswoman said.

“My bed’s one of those platform types,” his wife said, and he realized she meant their bed, his bed, the one she no longer slept in. It had drawers underneath. He kept his socks in the drawers on his side. He’d always been a little afraid to open the drawers on his wife’s side. “Oh, then you don’t need a box spring,” the saleswoman said, agreeing.

“But he might,” his wife said, nodding toward Josh. “Do you have bed frames too? He might need a bed frame.”

“Yeah, I might as well take the box spring,” Josh said. “If it’s free.”

“Yes, of course,” the saleswoman said. “We have several bed frames back here, and most of them are currently on sale.”

They followed the saleswoman to the back of the store, where four or five beds in a row were made up to look like they were in someone’s home.

“This one reminds me of the frame I had with my waterbed years ago,” Josh said, pointing to one with a mirrored headboard and wood someone had painted blue.

You had a waterbed?” his wife said. “I didn’t know you had a waterbed. Sounds kinky.”

“I was in high school,” Josh said.

“Oh, what about this one? This one looks like you,” his wife said, pointing to the most minimal option. The wood was brown, wood colored. It didn’t have any mirrors or drawers.

“Yeah, I like that one,” Josh said.

“And it’s on sale for two hundred today,” the saleswoman said. She had been standing a little to the side and now she stepped forward.

“We’ll take this bed frame too,” his wife said. His wife was used to making decisions. She had her credit card ready.

“And these will all be going to the same address?” the saleswoman asked.

“No, two different addresses,” his wife said. “The mattress to one and the bed frame and box spring to another.”

“Hmm. If you have them both sent to one address, the delivery is free,” the saleswoman said, chewing the end of her pen.

“We could maybe do that,” his wife said.

“I’ll have the U-Haul twenty-four hours,” Josh said.

“Okay, let me get my computer,” the saleswoman said.

While the saleswoman was gone, they walked around the store, looking at furniture and talking.

“She can’t figure us out,” his wife said, sitting on one of the pleather couches, fingering the cup holder.

“Yeah, she must have thought one thing when we walked in the store and something else now,” he said.

“Who knows what she thinks,” his wife said, kicking out the footrest.

“It’s unclear,” he said.

“Good,” his wife said. “Give her something to talk about.”

Josh didn’t bother mentioning how things felt unclear to him, too. Instead, he remained standing, leaning a little on a large lamp as he’d seen men in old black-and-white films lean on lampposts.

“Do you need a lamp?” his wife asked. She was sort of squinting at him now, as though trying to figure something out.

“No, I’m just leaning,” Josh said.

“I see,” his wife said. She’d stopped squinting.

He was stopping by the house so they could walk around and point out things he wanted to take and things he didn’t. His friend Luke was going to help him move the larger items the next day while his wife was at her friend Victoria’s house on the lake: the couch and ottoman, the older mattress, a bookshelf. Tomorrow was Labor Day. He tried not to remember the Labor Days they’d spent at the lake together, with her son and her son’s Boston Terrier, but he remembered them anyway. He remembered throwing her son into the water, swimming beside his wife out to an anchored dock. He remembered the Boston Terrier almost drowning, his wife begging him to jump in after it.

“I’m going to stop and get a decaf coffee on my way home,” his wife was saying. They were still in his car, driving back from the furniture store. They’d left her car at Denny’s. “Do you want to go with me or drop me back at Denny’s?”

“I’ll go with you,” he said.

They walked around the store like they used to—through all the familiar aisles—getting her coffee.

“I think I’m going to get some cookies too. Do you want any cookies?” his wife said. They were standing in front of a large case that contained many different kinds of cookies: raspberry, butterscotch, chocolate chip.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Oh, come on, what are you trying to prove?” his wife said.

He had to think. He wasn’t sure he was trying to prove anything. But that didn’t mean his wife was wrong.

“I just don’t understand why we can’t be friends,” his wife was saying. She’d been using that word all day. She kept repeating the bit about not understanding. It was hard to tell if she was being genuine or not. She kept comparing them to a famous actress and the famous actress’s ex-husband, a famous singer. “They still do stuff together,” she’d said back at Denny’s. “They’re still good friends.” He kept saying he didn’t think he wanted to be friends, but she kept insisting that they could be.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll get a couple cookies.”

“That’s more like it,” his wife said, filling a plastic bag with three or four cookies, then handing it to him.

“What about some beer?” she said after that.

“Yeah, I’ll drink a beer,” he said.

“You will?” his wife said. She seemed surprised, even though it was her idea.

“Sure,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders.

“What kind should we get?” she asked. There were stouts and IPAs and pilsners, and all of them had clever names and labels made by clever graphic designers.

“Whatever you want,” he said, which was probably the wrong thing to say. She often complained about his lack of decisiveness. Though what did it matter now?

“How about this one?” She was smiling and holding up something called Dragon’s Milk.

“Sure,” he said. What did it matter now?

Back at the house, he was holding one of the beers as they walked from room to room. His wife had poured a small amount of the beer from his bottle into an old-fashioned glass and was sipping it as they walked. There was a new Boston Terrier—two years old—and she followed them around. Originally, they had said they would share the Boston Terrier like a child, but now that seemed almost impossible. The logistics of it. Probably his wife would have her all the time. At one point Josh saw the cat sleeping on a chair in the guest room. The cat was seventeen and was going to have to be put down soon. Something else they would have to face together; he would have to dig a hole.

“What about this chair? And this lamp? And this cabinet?” His wife was pointing at pieces of furniture. She had a pen and a pad of sticky notes in her hand.

The cabinet was a liquor cabinet she’d given him for some holiday years ago, but there was no liquor in it now—just the conversational napkins someone had given him for some birthday or other. Some had Boston Terriers on them. Some had sayings about drinking that were supposed to be funny, though he’d never found them to be particularly funny.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll take all of those.”

“I got rid of all the liquor when you left for the summer,” his wife said. “I was worried I was becoming an alcoholic.”

“But you barely drink,” he said.

Around people,” his wife said. “Anyway, I guess that’s everything. I thought there was more.”

“That’s all the big stuff,” he said. “Just the towels and plates and stuff like that are left.”

“We don’t need to put sticky notes on those,” his wife said.

“No,” he said. “You just tell me what to take and I’ll take it.”

This was the second apartment he’d gotten since they married. Five years earlier it had looked as though they would get divorced, but they hadn’t. They’d lived apart for two years, and then when the old Boston Terrier died, his wife had asked him to move back in. “It’s so lonely in the house,” she’d said. Her son had left for college. It was a big house: four bedrooms, four bathrooms. She’d paid for it in cash when her grandmother died. He didn’t have any legal claim to it, her attorney had said. She’d slept upstairs in the guest room. But they’d gotten along. They’d gone to zoos and museums and restaurants. Some nights she’d drunk alone in the basement after he’d gone to bed, but that hadn’t bothered him.

“Oh, look,” his wife said. “There’s one of the triplets.”

She was looking out the side window. The glass was still in her hand. A young deer was in the yard between the house and the neighbor’s. She’d sent him pictures of the triplets when he was out in Portland. He’d sent pictures back from baseball games, him and his college buddies. They’d still gotten along like that, he and his wife.

“I can see another one out front,” he said, standing at another window.

They stood, each at their own window, watching the deer. The green metal fence was bent in the back where one of the triplets hadn’t cleared it. She’d shown him this earlier. Originally, they had planned to meet the night before to watch the game. There was a small bar near the house where townies went to drink and watch sporting events. She’d started texting him in the afternoon about her headache. She had migraines once or twice a month. Later, she’d called to yell at him for having been away all summer. Then he’d known for sure they weren’t going to watch the game.

“I guess I was unexpectedly pissed at you last night,” she’d told him earlier at Denny’s. She’d been shaking and anxious when she arrived.

“I’m so nervous,” she’d said, holding out her hand to show him. “Aren’t you?”

“No,” he’d said. “Not really.”

“You never feel anything,” she’d said. She was smiling but accusing him of something, he wasn’t sure what.

“You never once wrote me a letter or email or even a text asking me to reconsider,” she’d said.

“I guess I didn’t want to appear weak,” he’d said.

She’d stopped drinking her water, set down her glass. “Are you kidding me?” she’d said. “Are you straight out of a movie right now? You didn’t want to appear ‘weak’? What are you, John Wayne? Except you’re not John Wayne at all. You’re nowhere near John Wayne. You’re the complete opposite of John Wayne. So why are you trying to act like it now?”

The waitress had returned to take their order, so he’d never had to answer her questions about John Wayne. After that they’d moved on to other things: her son starting grad school and searching for an apartment and so forth. And then a younger man who seemed a little autistic had stopped by their booth on his way to pay his check.

“Okay, let’s see,” the young man had said, looking down at Josh’s wife’s plate. It seemed he had only stopped to talk to his wife. “I would eat the eggs, but not that green stuff, which I’m assuming is spinach, and is that turkey bacon? Okay, I wouldn’t eat the turkey bacon. I’d eat that . . . ” The man was pointing.

“The English muffin?” his wife had asked.

“And the fruit,” the man had said. Then he’d looked down and seen her notebook and pen on the seat next to her. “Are you studying for classes?” he’d said.

“Yes, something like that,” his wife had said.

“I knew it,” the young man had said. “Well, goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” his wife had said, smiling. “He must have thought I was a college student,” she’d said to Josh after the man had left. “That’s the second person this week who thought I was a college student. It’s been thirty years since I was in college,” she’d said, and shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t shaking or anxious-seeming anymore.

Then she’d opened the notebook and begun reciting all the things that needed to be fixed in the house. There was a lot of drywall that needed patching. He’d forgotten how many holes there were in the drywall. The drywall would definitely have to be patched before they sold the house, his wife had said.

They were still standing at the windows, watching the deer, but his wife was going on about Richard Burton. First John Wayne and now Richard Burton, he thought. What was it with his wife and old Hollywood actors? It felt to him as though John Wayne and Richard Burton were responsible for the divorce, even though he knew this wasn’t the case. There was a time she used to talk a lot about Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, about how they were getting back together when Marilyn died, about how Joe had tried to save her. But she hadn’t mentioned them in a while, a few months, maybe a year.

“I just finished Richard Burton’s diaries,” his wife was saying. “Remember? I started them last winter? Well, I finally just finished them. The whole second half was pretty much about his and Liz’s alcoholism, how much they drank or didn’t drink each day. He’d use black ink if it was a drinking day and red if it wasn’t, and toward the end there would be a bunch of entries in a row that just said the same thing, one word in black ink: Booze. It was really sad. One time he wrote about Liz being ‘on the wagon’ and said she’d only had—in one week, mind you—one glass of wine, one martini, and ten beers. But then Liz read the diary entry and corrected him. It was actually two martinis, she said. But Richard thought that was pretty irrelevant because in a normal week she drank half a bottle of booze a day. On bad days, he drank a full bottle. Maybe two. I can’t remember now. I think two. Anyway, the whole second half of the diary is Richard fighting this battle with alcoholism and ultimately, of course, losing. But he was so intelligent and witty and intellectual and well-read; no matter how much he was drinking he always seemed to manage to read about ten or fifteen books a week. He was really well-read. He really wanted to be a writer, you know. He was really passionate and sexy.”

“Sexy?” he said. He hadn’t thought his wife would find a man like Richard Burton sexy. He wondered if she found John Wayne attractive, but he didn’t feel like asking. He didn’t wonder that much.

“Yeah. I don’t think you can find a man with all those qualities anymore. He was also a little dangerous too; reckless, on account of the boozing. But tender too. I really miss him. I guess I got sort of obsessed with him. The worst part is I thought I still had a lot more of the diaries left when it ended, abruptly, because I was reading it on my Kindle and it said I was only at about seventy percent, but I guess there were a lot of indexes and bibliographies and stuff like that. So when it all of a sudden said Richard had died, I was in shock. Just like how you would be in real life when a friend dies, I guess. So maybe it was appropriate I didn’t know it was ending. That it came as a shock as it did.”

“Hmm, maybe,” he said.

“After that, I started reading all these novels and short stories about alcoholics who only drink wine or champagne to try to taper off drinking. Like Liz. That’s when I knew I was probably an alcoholic, too,” she said. He nodded. She’d already told him she’d been drinking champagne and wine all summer. She’d thrown out the whiskey and the vodka and the gin and the tequila. He didn’t mention the bike and bar crawl in Portland, vomiting on Bret’s lawn.

“Anyway, my mom went to see her aunt, my great-aunt May, this summer. She’s ninety-six, and she told my mom she prays every night before she falls asleep that she won’t wake up in the morning, that she’ll just die, but she always does—wake up, I mean. So after that, Mom and I joked we would drink and smoke more. Not that Mom needs encouraging,” she said.

“Right,” he said, agreeing. “Your mom is probably good to go without your aunt’s confession.”

“But I did sort of think about it, like, the ten years or so they say smoking takes off, what if those are the eighty-six to ninety-six years for me? I’d be fine with that. Both my mom’s dad and my mom’s mom died in their late eighties, and drank a lot, and that seems good. I’m fine with dying in my eighties.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Eighties are good.”

“Much more than that and you can’t walk or see or hear anyway,” she said.

“Might as well drink then,” he said.

She laughed. “Right?” she said. “Might as well. Except I think Richard Burton was in his late fifties, and my mom’s third husband was in his late fifties, and her fourth husband, too, come to think of it. And they all probably died from alcohol-related causes. So, I don’t know.”

“You just never know,” he said. He was in the fridge now. He had the door open and was looking inside.

“What are you looking for?” she said.

“I was just looking to see if you had any other beer, beer with lower alcohol content, but that’s dumb, because I know you don’t. You got rid of any beer that was here earlier in the summer,” he said. “I’ll just have this, it’s fine.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize the beer we got was high alcohol content,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Eleven percent.”

“Oh, no wonder I feel a little woozy,” she said, moving her head around, side to side.

He laughed. “You’ve only had about an eighth of one beer,” he said.

“You know I only really drink alone. Another sign of an alcoholic,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “I do know that.” It had never bothered him, though.

Back at his new apartment, he unrolled the sleeping bag and sat down with a bottle of whiskey handy. His wife had said she planned out the nights she drank. It didn’t make any difference to him. Tomorrow Luke would come and they would pick up the mattress from the house. Tomorrow night he’d have a mattress to sleep on, and the day after that, the bed frame his wife had picked out for him at the furniture store.

Before he’d left the house, she’d said, “Well, aren’t you going to hug me?”

He’d looked at her awhile. He was still trying to figure things out.

 is the author of six books, including the story collection Her Lesser Work, out this month.


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