Fiction - Spring 2009

Without Wendy

By Roberta Silman | March 1, 2009


Almost furtively Bernie drops into his shopping cart: one red pepper, one yellow pepper, the smallest bunch of carrots he can find, four Yukon Golds, six, no seven, Brussels sprouts, a loaf of Berkshire Bakery sesame bread, one sinful brownie, and a pint of Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, which he is determined to make last three nights. Standing uneasily at the fish counter, he orders a half pound of scrod; when the boy packs up the fish, it looks scarcely bigger than a fist.

This is the worst, he thinks, shopping without Wendy. Because she never had to watch her weight she would search for treats, sweet or savory, depending on her mood, and come up with a special olive paste, a pungent curry powder, or shortbread that tasted better than anything you could get in the British Isles. Together they would set off on a weekly adventure in which they spent more than they should have, but “what the hell,” she would say with the most delicious smile, “it’s a lot cheaper than eating out, especially now that this town has become so gentrified.” And while she unloaded their teeming cart, she would tell the person on line behind them where such goodies could be found.

Why does he miss that so much? He guesses it’s because here in this upscale market her playfulness came out in the most natural way. Her sense of fun, the very thing that inspired him when he was working well, is what he yearns for most.

Bernie grabs a four-pack of toilet paper, a box of Kleenex, one roll of Bounty, the smallest bottle of Palmolive (the dishwasher doesn’t make sense for one person), and a small cream cheese, light; then he heads toward the cash registers. Not fast enough.

“Hi, Bernie, how’re ya’ doin’?” In front of him stands his neighbor George, feet planted squarely in the middle of the aisle, eyeing his cart. Bernie pastes a smile on his face but before he can utter a brusque “Fine,” George asks, “Hey, Bernie, have you and Wendy split?”

Tears well in Bernie’s eyes. He takes out a handkerchief, unironed, of course, and blows his nose hard, and nods. The relief of not having to pretend anymore surges through his body, making his legs rubbery. “Do I look that bad?”

“No, you look fine, if anything better than when I saw you last. The tip-off is your cart. If I ever saw a bachelor basket, yours is one.” When Bernie looks down, the food appears even more forlorn than it did 10 minutes ago. Bernie last saw George—last saw anyone—at the Harvest Festival, two weeks before Wendy announced that she had taken a small apartment in town and needed to think about her life, especially their marriage. “Too much stress,” she explained, which almost knocked Bernie over, because they had finally begun to have some security after living for more than 20 years from day to day.

“Hand to mouth,” Bernie’s father used to sneer. Unlike Wendy, who was always suppor-tive, or so Bernie thought, his father had only contempt for Bernie’s work as a toy maker—one of the best in the business, whose chosen material was metal, which he shaped and welded to make what Wendy called “wonderfully witty inventions.” A toy maker with a mailing list from here to Kalamazoo, articles about him in dozens of magazines and newspapers, and a shop that was the pride and joy of this small town in western Massachusetts.

Within the last decade Bernie’s trains and barns and people had become collectors’ items, and with that came some real money. The tide had turned after his father died unexpectedly and blessedly five years ago, but at least his mother lived to see it. Although she had always encouraged Bernie, she’d also worried that he “had no feel for money.” Of course she was right. So when he finally came to her for advice about where to invest—she was a whiz with stocks—she was thrilled, then filled with pride, when he and Wendy could afford to send their sons, Jonathan and Seth, to Amherst and Colby.

But best of all were the new house and studio they finally built, where George had done most of the finish work. Wendy had taken more interest in the house than Bernie had. Now, Bernie explains, “Wendy’s moved out, left all those million details she agonized over as if they didn’t mean a thing.”

“I want everything as good as we can possibly make it, this is the last time I want to do this,” Wendy had kept saying.

That’s when Bernie was truly grateful he had been more successful financially than anyone had ever dreamed he could be. So grateful that he convinced Wendy to stop working, although she loved her job as a psychologist with a specialty in eating problems. For a few months it was wonderful, but then the IRS descended with a huge audit. Suddenly they were under siege. Bernie had never been very good about keeping tabs of his sales, so instead of making love in the middle of the afternoon they were poring over the scraps of paper that were Bernie’s excuse for records.

“That was only the beginning, ‘the tip of the iceberg,’” he tells George as they sit in their old joint on Railroad Street and George keeps pushing Diet Cokes toward him. Bernie doesn’t drink. “Then came all this talk about the marriage. We’d been through all that when we were young and I never could believe someone as lovely as Wendy could fall in love with me—overweight, with an okay face, but nothing that could ever remotely be called handsome. I would ask her over and over before the kids were born if she was sure, and she would smile her mysterious smile and say, ‘Bernie, stop it. Of course I love you, you make me laugh.’”

Bernie knows he should stop, but he can’t. He feels like a car whose ignition won’t shut off. Still, what a relief it is to get it all out.

“So, idiot that I was, I believed her. Obviously for too long. Within weeks after the IRS appeared, she admitted that the stress of the audit was an excuse. She was meeting one of her old colleagues from work for lunch, and ‘like magic,’ they’d fallen in love. She says he’s her best friend, that he’s been her best friend for years.”

He looks at George and shakes his head. “And here’s the last straw. She had the nerve to point out that now that they didn’t work together they were free to fall in love. They’re living together in some crummy attic in Lenox. Beats everything, doesn’t it?”

For once, George, who could usually be counted on for a quick comeback, is speechless. When he replies, it’s with clichés: that everything’s changed, nothing stays the same. “Why even this greasy beat-up table will probably be sanded to a smooth finish the next time we come,” he adds with an unfamiliar note of desperation.

The first week after Wendy left, Bernie ate three pints of ice cream each night, then stood sideways, naked, in front of the full-length mirror and groaned so loud that Seth, who was home from college, banged on his bedroom door, shouting, “Dad, are you all right?” Bernie threw on some clothes and they went for a long walk with the dog. Next morning he joined the Health Club in the building that used to be the Police Department. Working out attains a higher purpose when you’re in the same place where you’d once been humbled for speeding or getting high.

Bernie goes early in the morning and hardly knows a soul, since most people rush off to work at nine. So different from the ones who work at home and get started around nine. “The Entrepreneurs,” they used to call themselves. “Another word for lazy,” his father once spat, but his old man had worked at the same textile company for over 50 years and didn’t realize how much determination you needed to self-start each day, even if you love what you do.

Why the hell is he thinking so much about his dad these days? Years went by when all he felt was freedom that his father wasn’t here to bug him: “Going to open a history store?” he’d asked when Bernie picked his major at Brown. “Making toys for grown-up babies?” he’d muttered when Bernie showed him the studio on Main Street. “You’re just pandering to a population of arrested adolescents.”

After he says goodbye to George, Bernie thinks maybe it’s time to visit his mother, whom he calls once a week and who is unfailingly cheerful.  “Wendy just needs to sow her oats, just be patient,” she tells him. But he wants more than the phone calls. Besides, she’s 85, and he hasn’t seen her since all this began. On Thanksgiving he wanted to be with his sons, so he ended up at the home of their oldest friends, Alan and Sue, and Wendy turned up, too. For a few hours it felt wonderful, as if they were still a family. He called her for a date that Saturday night, but she said, too gently, she was busy. So were Seth and Jonathan, who both had new girlfriends. Bernie had once read that even in a happy marriage you have to have your wits about you. Now he seems to have no wits at all.

Soon it will be Christmas and New Year’s. For Christmas he has invited the kids and their friends for a movie and Chinese food, which is what all the Jewish people in this town do. New Year’s is a different story. Everyone seems to have plans. That very afternoon Bernie calls his mother. “Oh, darling, I’m sorry, my bridge club is getting together, just a simple dinner and a game and then we’ll watch the ball come down.” Her voice is apologetic, but she is also too kind to suggest anything.

After his father died, his mother confessed she sometimes felt numb, as if her extremities were falling asleep. She often didn’t re­call if she had actually completed a chore and would re­peat things, as if to press their significance onto her brain. He’d felt sorry for her, and she sensed it, because she said, “You should never know from this.”

Now he does know from this. Sometimes he feels so dead he can’t remember if he’s done what he set out to do and has to backtrack to find out. It’s as if he has Alzheimer’s. But he’s only 49, for God’s sake.

Actually he’s had two invitations for New Year’s Eve.

Alan called, saying, “This is the first New Year’s Eve in 20 years that we aren’t spending with you and Wendy and we couldn’t figure out how to have you both here, but it turns out she’s busy, so we hope you can come.” Alan is a nice man and believes, incorrectly, that honesty will save him. “The problem is that you’ll make us 13 around the table, and you know how superstitious Sue is,” he added.

“With friends like you I don’t need enemies,” Bernie told him, trying to toss off a joke, but the words turned bitter on his tongue. “I’ll stay home, Al,” he said. “Easier all around.” Alan was so embarrassed he wouldn’t get off the phone until he and Bernie had made another date. If only Bernie could get angry, first at Wendy, and then at all the rest of them. But it takes energy to get angry, energy he doesn’t have.

The other invitation came from someone who admired his work and needed an extra man. Honesty seems to be the watchword these days. He refused and ends up watching Analyze This, which he enjoys so much that he eats only half a pint of ice cream and goes to bed after the kids call. For some reason he feels more hopeful. A few days later he takes a train into New York to see his mother.

Bernie cannot believe how beautiful the renovated Grand Central Station is. Slowly he takes in the constellations on the ceiling. For a second he forgets and imagines Wendy’s face as he describes it. Then his heart sinks as he remembers. For all he knows she could have been here and seen it.

There’s so much he doesn’t know about her life. That, not the shopping, he now admits to himself, is truly the worst of it. He has no idea how she’s spending her days. Why I could step out of here and bump into her, he thinks with a feeling close to panic, then reassures himself. Not really likely, Ber­nie. He pushes the big brass doors and wonders if it’s possible to restore a marriage as marvelously as a building. Then he takes a deep breath of the surprisingly mild air. It’s more than 50 degrees.

Gradually he relaxes. It feels so good to walk down a street where no one has the remotest idea who he is or what has been happening to him. He strolls up Madison Avenue, entranced by the lush color in the windows. So different from when he was young and New York was practically bankrupt. He calls his mother and tells her he has a few errands to do and will stop for lunch before he gets to her apartment. “Fine,” she says, although the table is probably set. But it’s not in her nature to demand anything of him, least of all lunch.

While he eats a salad at a bistro, he stares out the window. People are thinner here. He could do a city scene, a Madison Avenue tableau. He visualizes its brilliant colors, the smooth textures, the strange combination of grace and stiffness in the people. The way they walk here. What only the slender can achieve, like Wendy.

He remembers the first time he brought Wendy to his old studio, where he had begun to make the animals and games that were precursors to the complicated toys he eventually became known for.  It was an old outbuilding behind one of the big houses on Main Street, but he cleaned it up and painted it a golden yellow and put in a Jøtul wood stove. At that time he worked only in wood, and the place had the sweet smell of things in the making.

In his new studio near the house, where he works mostly in metal, everything is on a bigger scale and there are neat storage areas for his tools and materials, so it has a more antiseptic feel. Once Wendy said, with a chuckle, that it held the faint smell of success. In a tone that was not wholly flattering. And when Seth starting talking about wanting to become a toy maker, too, she said, crisply, “There’s time to think about that. First college.”

Bernie always envied his wife’s assurance. Even when they did errands in town she would never just stroll through the streets wondering what to do next. People used to ask him why she was always in such a hurry. Sometimes she would rush off in the midst of their chores with great excitement, as if . . . he always wondered and now grasps that she might have been meeting Jeff, or sneaking away to call him. While he thought she was buying a Santa Fe bread or browsing in the new boutique.

She would do just fine here in Manhattan, Bernie realizes, she has that lean person’s tilt, that nervous energy you need to maneuver in a city, the same kind of verve whose flip side makes you think a gust of wind could lift her. She always loved coming to New York. That’s why all this is so puzzling. This Jeff of hers was born in Pittsfield and looks like your proverbial country hick. Nice enough, slim, blond, but no sense of humor. Jonathan and Seth didn’t like him when they were shuttling between him and Wendy during Christmas week. They said Jeff was an asshole, more than a little cheap, and that his daughters whined all the time. They were happy to go off with their friends to Florida for New Year’s and the rest of winter break. Now, though, Bernie wishes he knew more about Jeff, wishes he’d listened more when Wendy was reporting on Jeff’s divorce last year.

Out in the street he feels better. As he makes his way toward his mother’s apartment, Bernie thinks about the day he realized that he could do more than wonderful wooden toys, that bigger ideas were coming to him sometimes faster than he could draw them. He finally realized these were images that should be done in metal and were often more sculpture than toys. He can still feel his excitement when he began to get the hang of welding and the quick changes that were suddenly possible. Wendy was so much a part of that time. Will he ever be able to separate thoughts of his work from thoughts of her?

His mother flings open the door and nestles into his arms. Smaller than last time, always smaller, each time he comes. But very glad to see him.

“We’re going to the Cooper-Hewitt, it’s the last day of the Eames show, and there’s a film you have to see, it’s right up your alley,” she tells him, so delighted that Bernie doesn’t have the heart to tell her he’s seen all of the Eames’s toy films—Traveling Boy, Parade, or Here They Come Down Our Street, and Toccata for Toy Trains.

Toccata for Toy Trains is better than he remembers. His mother presses his arm when they get up and looks around. For a second he’s afraid she’ll say to some stranger, “My son makes toys as wonderful as those in the film,” but she is merely trying to compose herself before they go into the exhibit. Later, in the shop she insists on buying him a book, as if he were still a boy. He indulges her and chooses an overview of the Eames’s work.

“They looked so happy, and their marriage was a success because they loved what they did, an amazing couple,” she says, and Bernie gathers that she’s talking about Charles Eames and his wife, Ray. But he says nothing and takes her arm, as carefully as if they were about to walk down the aisle at someone’s wedding. Silent, happy, they make their way home. There she says, “Oh, how I wish your father could have seen it.” This, coming from his mild and loving mother, is as emphatic as if she had raised her fists skyward, shouting, I always knew I was right!

It reminds him of the way she defended Wendy to her mother, his grandmother, who hissed “All bones!” when she saw Wendy and refused to believe that anyone so willowy could be Jewish. His mother was exasperated beyond belief and finally yelled at her mother, who was going on and on: “For God’s sake, the ballerina Allegra Kent is Jewish!” At the memory, laughter rises in Bernie’s throat, and he looks at his mother with affection.

She is frowning. She wants to talk about Wendy. Yet now she’s not nearly as confident as she was on the phone. She’s also curious about Jeff. “He’s good-looking, a social worker, divorced, and has two little girls Wendy loves.”

“More than her own sons?” His mother’s voice is wobbly. “But you remember how much she wanted a girl, maybe they’re the draw.” Yes, Bernie knew, but if she wanted a girl so much why didn’t they have a third child, as he encouraged her to do? It was only six years ago. Wendy vacillated, then decided she didn’t need a third anything.

Was Jeff her best friend then? Bernie wonders. The question makes his skin crawl, so he says, “I think I’ll take a nap before dinner, Ma.”

After that they don’t talk about Wendy anymore. It’s as if the clock has been turned back and he is in college, home for vacation. They go to the Met for the Egypt exhibition and to see the new Greek galleries. While his mother has her bridge game, Bernie visits old friends in Soho, who are so upset about his situation that they behave as if he’s never been married. His last day it’s the Frick, then a swish Italian restaurant where all the women are as thin as Wendy. When his food comes, he slides his knife across his plate, eats half, asks the waiter if he can take the rest home. His mother’s eyebrows rise but she says nothing. His weight was never a problem to her, which is probably why I’m chunky, Bernie realizes.

They linger over coffee until most of the other diners have left. We’re afraid to go home, Bernie thinks, because then we’ll have to talk about Wendy. He takes a breath and says, “Ma, this has been great, a real gift, to get away and not think about my troubles all the time. And seeing the Eames was a stroke of genius, the book is terrific, and it’s filled me with ideas.” Her eyes have welled with tears, and he sees with a start that they are no longer a rich, bluish gray, but pale, faded, even when magnified. Her hand trembles as he reaches across the table to take it. God damn Wendy!

How dare she turn their lives upside down?

“She’ll come back, Bernie,” his mother says, patting his hand. “For the boys as well as you—they’re still young. Besides, she loves you, though she may not know it. Just be patient, something will happen to change her mind.” Now her voice has the decisiveness he hears when she’s discussing stocks. But when she adds, “This can’t go on forever,” he’s reminded of a line about Eames he once read, how Eames approached design the way he approached the making of toys, remembering that a child has no self-consciousness and embarrassment, and everything is direct and true in the world of children. The same can be said for the world of the old.

“If you say so, Ma.”

A dense cold descends over the landscape as soon as Bernie returns home. But he likes the winter weather, it forces him inside, and he gets up early and rushes to his studio, totally absorbed in his work until lunch. In the afternoons he deals with the tax questions. It’s often dark by the time he gets to the gym and it’s a whole different crowd, people who make their own workday the way he does. George and a few old cronies greet him, and he begins to go out with them.

Wendy telephones. She needs her winter clothes, then her boots when it snows, and finally she asks, sheepishly, if she can take the down comforter from the guest bed. After she arrives, he stands in the doorway of the guest room watching her pull the comforter off and replace it with some old blankets. She is far more tentative now than the woman who marched out of here so defiantly in the fall. But her movements are still as fluid as a dancer’s.

It’s not her body he misses, though, it’s her mind. What is going on in that mind of hers? He has no idea, so he says nothing. When she asks him what he’s working on, he’d like to say, None of your business, but resists. He’s doing the tableau he envisioned in that bistro, and it’s turning out to be huge, the biggest thing he’s ever done. Because she’s lost her right to know about it, he’s brusque. When she leaves, he tries to put all thoughts of her from his mind and concentrates on the voice in his head, his mother’s, saying, “Be patient.” For almost a week Wendy’s calls stop. Now that she’s warm, Bernie notes.

One morning an avalanche of snow begins to pour from the sky and two youngsters from the Hart­wick family down the road are taking their usual path next to the Housatonic River to school. This morning, though, they are blinded by the snow. The boy miscalculates and walks out onto the ice and his sister, Lizzie, tries to pull him back, and they both fall into the raging river. The boy is rescued but in the few minutes it takes to pull him out, Lizzie disappears. The news makes national TV and radio, and Seth and Jonathan are so upset, they come home for the weekend.

Wendy calls. “Oh, Bernie, remember their faces when they talked about their fishing vacations?” Of course he remembers. Last year the family came to the studio and talked about how much they loved to fish and Wendy got the idea for the toy he finally made: a man fishing with a movable line that flaps exactly like a real one does when a fish is caught. Since the little girl’s disappearance, he has been hearing the way she laughed when he showed them the finished toy. From her voice Bernie knows that Wendy hears Lizzie’s laugh, too.

And then, with the same rough abruptness with which news of the accident came, Bernie understands that he is still in love with his wife, that his love is stronger than his anger. He had thought he was learning to manage without her—isn’t he working again, maybe better than ever?—but when they hang up he knows he misses her more than he ever has, and vows to stay away from her: this is simply too painful.

Not even the boring ritual of gathering information for the tax people can calm him, although he’s grateful to see that he’s beginning to sort things out. So this, too, shall pass. It’s one of his mother’s favorite sayings. But why did the tax problem seem like such a catastrophe when it first happened?

For the first time in Bernie’s life his work doesn’t absorb him completely. That afternoon he quits early and drives to the bank of the Housatonic, where clusters of people are searching for Lizzie’s body on the sluggish surface of the river. Its usual rapid current has been slowed by the huge chunks of ice, which collide and create jagged, unnerving sounds in the eerie silence. The air is frigid. He walks for a bit, then spies George, who offers him a sip of brandy. He shakes his head. “Come on, Bernie, you’ll freeze to death, come on, now, take your medicine,” George whispers. Bernie takes a sip. Its bitter taste warms him. In about an hour he feels as if his eyes are popping out of his head with all that vain searching, and he leaves.

At home he’s at loose ends. It doesn’t seem right to do anything when that poor kid is twisting helplessly in the river. Then Jonathan calls and insists they all meet for supper at a café in Lenox. “You shouldn’t be alone,” he says, “and Seth and I are going back to school tomorrow.” So Bernie ends up eating with his wife and kids, averting his eyes every time Wendy’s slim shoulders shrug or her bony wrists work their way out of the sleeves of her big sweater. They let the kids do most of the talking, as they always did when they argued. Now Bernie wonders: Did the boys know things were going bad before I did?

The next day the girl’s body is found; a few days later there is a huge funeral. He goes to St. James Church, and from the corner of his eye he sees Wendy come in alone, but he doesn’t linger. Then the town returns to normal. Within a few days, as people catch their breath, red hearts start sprouting everywhere, their high color a startling contrast against the graying snow. Valentine’s Day, Wendy’s favorite holiday.

On his way to the market Bernie remembers a party they once had: everyone in red and white, huge doilies with red hearts all over the house, red tablecloths and white dishes, and a few diehards who got loaded and stayed until 3 a.m. singing folk songs. Better than New Year’s Eve or Fourth of July or Tanglewood on Parade, the kids said. How young he and Wendy were, just scraping by—when their future was as lovely, as predictable as the greening of the hills each spring.

He sees Wendy’s cart before he sees her. She and Jeff are at the bakery counter. Bernie slips into a narrow space behind them. When it’s their turn, Wendy’s high voice gets higher.  They’re having a party, she’s excited, and Jeff is perplexed, the way he used to be, by her delight at entertaining umpteen people for a few hours, then cleaning up for days afterward. The guy is in love with her, but is she in love with him? Bernie slips out of sight as they walk away and feels a catch in his throat when Jeff’s fingers begin to hover over Wendy’s slim back, wanting to protect her, to connect with her.

I used to do the same thing, he thinks. Then, though, Wendy sensed his fingers floating in the air and would somehow curl her slenderness into his uncertain embrace. How proud he felt when she did that. But that is not happening now. No, now Wendy remains stiff, and apart.

Bernie stares. That’s exactly the stance he has been seeking for the woman in his tableau, the woman no longer young who steps off the curb so warily because she knows that time is beginning to run out. The whole thing is his homage to Wendy. How could he not have realized that? He gazes at her ramrod back, and finally he knows that his mother is right. Wendy will be back.

But what then? And how much have they lost, perhaps forever? Bernie has no idea. As he walks through the aisles he picks up some of Wendy’s favorite treats. When the checkout lady smiles approvingly at his nearly full cart, he feels a strange, bittersweet joy. It’s what he imagines the rescuers of the Hartwick children might have felt when they lifted the boy, frozen and limp but alive, from the rushing river, then realized that his sister Lizzie was gone.

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