It was a Saturday morning and I was up early and on the front porch, getting ready to slice a tomato and eat it. The dog was looking up at me like he wanted some and I reminded him, "You don't like tomatoes."
I had heard nothing from Mary all morning. I concluded she must be sleeping in, so when she finally came downstairs and stepped out on the porch, I thought it would be good fun to provoke her a little. I told her she ought not to lie in bed so late, because it made her eyes puffy as though she had been crying.
"I wasn't lying in bed," she said. "I was packing."
"I'm moving out, Don," she said.
I had not expected this. I knew there were certain aspects of things that she was not happy about, but I did not know we had reached an emergency stage. I said, "Mary, wait and let's talk about this." She shook her head no and said she had already thought it through and wasn't changing her mind. I said indignantly, "But I haven't thought it through."
"You don't have to think it through," she said. "I'm leaving, and that's it."
I studied her face, trying to understand what was happening, and my indignation began to wilt when I noticed how her jaw jutted, as I had seen it do many times before when she had made up her mind to get through some chore that she was dreading. Two things occurred to me: one that she was serious, and two that I loved her more than I knew what to do with.
I began to fall apart and believe that she was right and must go. Here was Mary, my wife of seven years, an attractive person with her sharp, serious eyes, and as smart as anybody, and tough, and at times humorous, and simply admirable in all respects. In contrast, here I was, a person of ordinary talents, at present unemployed, and not especially ambitious to improve, and really not mindful of anything in the world on that morning outside of my tomato that I had been planning to eat, and my knife that I had planned to slice it with. I had found the knife to be slightly dull, and so my whetstone was there too on the table like an emblem of my inability to get on with things.
I told Mary that she was completely right and something had to change. She deserved better, and I was the one at fault. Whatever would make her happy was what we needed to do next, I said. Looking back, I would call this a moment of pure selflessness on my part, except that it was only a moment, which makes me question its purity.
Mary sat down with me at the table. It was a former cable spool and she had polyurethaned the top of it. She pulled off her glasses and wiped them with the paper towel that my tomato had been resting on. Without her glasses she looks very vulnerable.
"I want you to be happy," I said.
"So do I."
"I won't be happy if you're not happy," I said. "I love you, and so therefore I want whatever is best for you."
She considered that and smiled. She put her glasses back on. She said, "But that's not really true, Don."
I said, "Well I want it to be true, and I intend for it to be true in the future. If you're not happy, I'm not happy. That's the program."
"I'm seeing a lawyer on Monday," she said.
"A lawyer? What for?"
There was more staring at each other now.
ardI said, "Look. I thought you were talking about moving out temporarily. That's what you just said, I think. Monday's a little abrupt to be seeing a lawyer, Mary."
She didn't speak. I stood up. I looked at the top of her head by the part in her hair, where there was a small stubbly spot. I had dropped a blob of SeamerMate in her hair when she was helping me with the gutter, and it'd had to be cut out with scissors. It was a small thing that would not have been very noticeable, had you not known where it was and had you not been standing directly over her head. There were so many reasons why I loved her! I reached to touch the stubbly spot, and she got up and went into the house.
"Monday is too soon to see a lawyer!" I said.
I followed her upstairs and saw her open bag on the bed with her clothes folded in it. It was only her overnight bag. She stood at the clothes rack by the wall. Her hanging clothes were on this rack made of pipe because we were remodeling, and I had torn out the closets upstairs. She pulled out a suit of hers and said, "Where is the hanging bag?"
"I don't know where it is," I said. "Somewhere."
She spun around and knocked her bare foot on the corner of a computer that was sitting in the floor beside the bed. The computer had not been plugged in for a couple of years. It was an old desktop computer from when they were still making all the cases out of metal. Mary swore and picked up her foot, and I took the suit from her.
I put my hand on her shoulder to steady her, and with my other hand I hung her suit back on the end of the rack. "You can leave this here for the time being," I said.
"My foot is bleeding," she said, and she went downstairs.
I looked at her bag on the bed, and something happened. I became alarmed and also distracted. It was panic. I picked through the clothes in the bag to see what all she was taking with her, and I wondered if she had a damned boyfriend. I went downstairs to the bathroom, where she was getting a Band-Aid. I said, "Have you got a boyfriend?"
"Let me move out, and you stay here in the house," I said.
"You can forget that idea," she said. "This house is making me batty."
She went to throw the Band-Aid wrapper away, but the wastebasket was crammed full. She shook the wrapper at me and then flung it. It fluttered sideways into the tub.
"I'm fed up!" she said.
"If the house is the problem, we can fix that," I said.
"Get out of the doorway, please!"
"Look here," I said. I ran up the stairs and into the bedroom, and in one move I lifted the computer, monitor, and keyboard in a stack from the carpet. I carried them downstairs. This wasn't an easy feat.
"Look, I'm throwing this out," I said. I got the door open and carried the computer outside, and I set it in the back of my truck. Then I went back inside the house, looking for more.
"I wish you had thrown that computer out a long time ago," Mary said.
"I know it," I said. I ran upstairs and started the vacuum.
Mary came up and told me to stop vacuuming. I pretended not to hear her. She went back down the stairs, and I unpacked her bag and put her clothes back in the dresser while the vacuum was running.
I paused to consider the carpet. It was striped in shades of purple, blue, and magenta. It wasn't a nice choice, and it had not been professionally installed. It had come with the house. Also, I noticed, the bed sagged, and the headboard did not line up with the windowsill because of a slope in the floor. One pane in the bottom sash of the window was cracked and had been repaired by me some time ago with a yellowish piece of strapping tape. It occurred to me that if I honestly wanted to be kind to my wife, I would encourage her to spend a few nights in a nice motel room.
That troubled me, because I did want to be kind. But what I wanted even more than that was for her to not leave me, ever. And I had the feeling, the more I paused and considered my surroundings, that if she once made the break and left this house, it would be very hard to ever talk her back into it. The house had many problems, entirely apart from the people who lived in it. Outside of the house it was a big world, and a person with my wife's merits would soon find new challenges and ways to spend time with more interesting people than myself. I would be left alone in the house then, with the carpet and without Mary.
I vacuumed. I tidied all the boxes of our stuff as well as possible -- they were boxes that had not been unpacked in two years -- and I gathered some scraps of lumber that had been lying about upstairs. After calling a warning, I tossed them from the window into the grass. I had been meaning to do this for weeks.
I ran back down the stairs and past Mary, who was sitting on the sofa in her silent Indian Chief mode, holding the cat. I ran out the front door and moved all the lumber from where it had landed in the yard to the barn across the road. I was careful not to block the lawn mowers, but otherwise I was just adding junk to the pile that already included sheets of roof metal and parts of broken farm implements from before our time. It was a hazard but now was not the time to worry about it. I strode back into the house and washed the dishes. I got a headache. We were out of aspirin, so I took a beer from the fridge and drank it at the sink, though it was earlier in the day than I would normally have a beer. It was about ten, I guess.
I heard Mary on the stairs, and then I heard her walking above me and then walking back and stepping down the stairs again. She came into the kitchen. "Where are my clothes?" she said. "What did you do with the clothes that were in my bag?"
"I put them away," I said. "I thought you were staying now."
"I never said I was staying."
"Well, stay, and I'll go."
"No, I'm going," she said. She ran back upstairs, and I heard her pulling open dresser drawers.
I went out to my truck and left.
Copyright © 2003 by James Whorton, Jr.
Approximately Heaven is a marvelously rambunctious debut, by turns melancholy and uproarious, about one hapless man's pursuit of happiness -- or at least another six-pack -- preferably both. The novel charts Don's amiably clumsy attempts to improve his situation, beginning with his decision to take a road trip with his friend Dove Ellender -- a retired, chain-drinking ex-felon with emphysema -- to Mississippi to deliver some furniture. Or maybe there's something besides furniture in the trailer behind Dove's leaky half-ton green-and-white 1969 Ford truck, but Don isn't asking and Dove's not telling.
Will Don find his heaven -- or something close to it? Will Mary give him another chance (his fourth, actually)? If heaven is a house that is square, level, and plumb -- with a loving family inside -- then for Don, even a sober hope of these things would be enough
In the course of his hero's grand misadventures, prizewinning short-story writer James Whorton traverses the broken white line between the absurd and the desperately poignant. Fans of Richard Russo will want to raise a glass -- or at least crack open a can of Natural Light.
Featuring an endearingly flawed protagonist, dead-perfect dialogue, and a mordant eye for small-town southern life, Approximately Heaven is about the paradise we long for and the approximations for which we settle. It heralds the arrival of a major -- and heaven-sent -- new literary talent.