By Jim Mentink
You say her name.
You won’t say it a third time because you know she isn’t there.
The door closes and you still feel the handle in your palm. It’s a touch memory. You think of it and realize every time you touch a door from now on you’ll think of the empty house.
The floor creaks and you step past the foyer. You’ve always hated the groan of the wood. And you hate yourself for not fixing it. You promised you would.
Something that sounds like water dripping emanates from the end of the hall. Maybe the half bathroom sink. Otherwise, it’s soundless. You’ve never experienced this level of quiet before, not in this house.
Janie isn’t on the phone or walking up the staircase with a basketful of laundry. Stella isn’t singing loudly or running up and down the hall with her tap shoes on. Those scratch the floor, you always say. Stella tells you, you ought to see me tap.
And Mick, your three-year-old, isn’t laughing when he sees you, or running to you and hugging your leg before punching your scrotum with his curled up, preschooler fist.
Instead, it’s like a tomb, like a mausoleum. The only thing dead is your marriage you realize as you set your messenger bag on the table near the bottom of the stairs. And you realize you had been forbidden from putting your bag there in the past. “It’s ugly”. And you feel a sense of pride in being able to do that.
The water is still dripping, and you make a mental note to look at it later. Janie has left a kitchen light on. For a moment, you think she is still there, and you walk down the hall hopeful yet guarded.
If she’s there, you’ll smile sheepishly and say you’re sorry, ignoring the pain she’s caused you, too. If she’s not there, you’re pretty sure there’s still a pint of cookies n’ crème ice cream in the freezer.
She’s not there and you turn the light off as it’s not dusk yet. You look for a note on the counter, the dining table, and the refrigerator. There is nothing other than what was already there. A pizza place menu, a drawing Mick did, magnets you picked up on the last family trip (this one the Smithsonian).
Maybe you should have left, you think then. And you feel embarrassed, like someone is listening to your head, an invisible entity ready to write an unauthorized biography of your thought life.
A half-eaten banana lays on the counter near the sink. That would be Mick’s. You absently pick it up, breaking off the brown exposed part, and eat the rest. You feel close to your son, though he could be far away.
Janie, you say again. Knowing she’s not there. Not hiding, not anywhere near you.
Her mother’s parents live three hours south, and you think she’ll head there. You picture them living in the guest house Roger always offered them. Never you; Roger never liked you.
You see the message light flicker on the machine. You wonder why they didn’t call your cell, and you realize Janie could have left it on the machine itself, bypassing a phone call which would risk your answering it.
You hit the Play button and brace yourself for Janie’s voice. Or Stella’s; she liked to leave voice memos like that.
But you hear a real message. It’s the dental office reminding you of your upcoming root canal. You realize your life feels like a root canal: drilled down, excavated, and maybe hollowed out. And very painful.
You open the refrigerator to see if there’s food, not even surprised you feel hungry despite everything.
Some leftover Chicken Lo Mein sits in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid. It will do and you heft it from its shelf and put the whole thing in the microwave for a minute and thirty. While you wait, you look at the backyard.
The wind blows the wooden swings on the playground set you put up two years ago, and you imagine Stella on it. Mick is too small but tries anyway.
It seems wise to ask yourself where it all went wrong. But you know.
It wasn’t a surprise. You talked about it. Janie talked about it. And in their cavernous bedrooms, Mick and Stella heard about it. You miss them then just as the microwave sounds.
But you only stare at the backyard.
* * *
Jim Mentink’s publication history includes short fiction with Bending Genres, Pangyrus Literary Magazine, Mono, and New World Writing and forthcoming, The Woolf.
Additionally, he had the privilege of being invited to workshop at the Writers in Paradise conference in 2019, and was granted art residencies with Hewnoaks (2015) and Wildacres (2019).
Jim is a current member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.