Rachel tries desperately not to let her difficult husband subsume her personality; by Thomas Elson.
Merle Rector, his shadowed face cast in an abiding scowl, sat behind his chipped, beige metal desk in his home office. The entire house was redolent of fried foods and warm pastries his wife, Rachel Benson, had prepared.
Rachel walked past the mirror in the hallway. Her barber-cut straight hair emphasized broad shoulders, thick legs, thicker ankles, and a waistline that concealed any trace of femininity. She stopped, looked at herself, adjusted her newly sewn blouse, checked the decorative cuff on her pressed jeans, and left for work through the back door. She had a history lecture to deliver in an hour and a student to advise before then.
Merle did not look up, but stared blankly at the wall in front of his beige metal desk. He felt comfortable in this home office surrounded by combat biographies, books on the Maginot Line and the World Wars, and magazines from the N.R.A. and the Ayn Rand Institute. He looked for the rifle he kept tilted against his desk like a talisman - a rifle no longer loaded since his return from the hospital. He exhaled, and promptly forgot where he was. Episodes like this recurred more and more frequently during the past two years.
Within moments, his mind returned to when Merle was a six-year-old boy during his father's second tour in Viet Nam. His parents left him to live with his grandfather, who was dying from addiction to alcohol. Thirteen months with a dying man.
When Merle was a boy, it was either thirteen months or twenty-four months; then another military posting, another threatening school hallway, another solitary walk home. He remembered no friends - only rocks, soil, and military housing.
Two years earlier, after four days under intense scrutiny, nine days in isolation and ten days under observation, Merle, recently given phone privileges, dialed his wife for the third time that day. He had shown no emotion during her single visit - better to remain stoic, keep his feelings hidden. Safer that way.
Merle's call went quickly to voice mail; he waited, then said, "I'm getting out in two days. Call me." His flat, labile voice mirrored the level of medication in his system.
Rachel, a former college baseball third baseman, and later a substitute coach, was talking with her history students at school, when she heard the distinct military march ring tone Merle had insisted she install. She rolled toward her phone with the walk of an injured middle-linebacker.
With three fingers of her left hand, she shoved her hair back, squinted, pressed the mute button, and returned to her students. She was angry at the walls, cranky at the chairs, and irate at herself for her indecisiveness.
Rachel walked back to her students, and recalled his epic basement project. Ten plus years of dirt, complaints, evenings dominated by his plans, questions, his need for her to echo his enthusiasm, while he made solitary decisions. Her attempts to plan social events with married friends or schedule dinner out ended with Merle declaring some variation of, "I don't know these people. Let's go to Home Depot instead."
"Okay," she said. Then to herself, You'd know 'em, if you'd ever met 'em.
On the one occasion she complained, he said, "Email me your monthly schedule, and I can see if I'm able to work it in. We can plan it out at our monthly family executive meeting."
As if Rachel were watching a PowerPoint presentation, images emerged from their early dating period. Returning from a concert on a cold Saturday evening on Merle's Harley. She remembered the engine's distinct purr, the sting of the northwest winter wind against her face. Her feeling of warmth and excitement when they stopped at the motel. Coffee and breakfast the next morning. I wanted that to last forever. Best he gave up that bike though.
Merle continued to work in the basement after his episode began. He convinced himself he could tough it out. I'll feel better after a night's sleep.
Rachel found him slumped, contorted, and talking to himself on a bench. "You've got to get to the hospital."
"No." The voice of male certainty came forth. She heard it as a plea to be convinced, to be pushed into the right decision. She waited, said, "I'll just go upstairs and begin dinner."
"No, stay here, please." She reached for his hands, pulled him up, and he walked without protest to her car. They both sat silent on the way to the hospital.
She referred to his projected hand-dug, three-floor basement as his one true love, the central preoccupation of his life. With a mezzanine for his office, and a middle level for the living area with a bedroom and master bathroom, and as he branded it, "my better-half's sewing room". He unilaterally decided the lowest floor was to be a workout area for Rachel. Two-thirds of it anyway. The other section was to be his shooting range and rifle storage area. Three stories below a one-bedroom dollhouse surrounded by a wall of trees in front of a six-foot high cinderblock barrier.
She dreaded ever taking her friends to the third level. What would I tell them as they descended? Some Dante rings-of-hell joke? Why would I want to spend any time there? Rachel, a social person with an ever expanding circle of friends, absent from the house four to five evenings a week, living out her life three floors underground? Never.
Married life for Rachel came after years of struggle to twist away from her heritage. She came from a large family, the oldest of nine, accustomed to sounds, voices, conflicts sometimes escalated, often buried. As Rachel's mother deteriorated from years of exertion, strain, and religiously imposed childbirth, she insisted that Rachel assume the role of caregiver, substitute mother.
Three weeks after Rachel and Merle were married, she cuddled beside Merle, and talked to him about her day and its intendment difficulties. He listened for a few moments, interrupted her, "If all you want to do is talk, you'd better talk to your friends. I can tell you what to do, but this kind of talk is just mindless."
She sat in silence. She was reminded of her childhood as the inheritor of traditional responsibilities, heard echoes from religious texts proscribing female behaviors. Now, as if dropped into a foreign country, knowing neither customs nor idioms, she was forced to realign her expectations.
As her initial decision not to shrink herself into being a dutiful wife gained strength, she began to forge an alternate life. Over the years, her circle of friends expanded.
To her best friend, "Sometimes he just talks, like a dull sound, a drone. It's easier for me just to nod, and make the appropriate noises, than to talk, and be told where I'm wrong."
To a teacher she had befriended at school, "I have no idea how I got along in life before I married," then rolled her eyes. When asked what she meant, Rachel muttered something about dishwashers and folding clothes.
She felt like a jilted spouse, unconsciously acted like an abused one, and knew, once again, she had become a substitute mother, but felt strangely comfortable - both at home and out of place. Repressed vague ideas of independence, relished long thoughts of retribution, took solace in a private joke, "Divorce never, homicide maybe," repeated as if a mantra.
Their sole excursion with another couple consisted of a Saturday afternoon and evening at dinner and an out-of-town regional theater play.
Rachel did the introductions that afternoon at David and Nicole's house. Merle looked at Nicole, slumped his upper body, extended his hand. His eyes widened, his pupils rose to look at the ceiling, "Top of the morning. Nice to meet you."
Without waiting for a reply, Merle pulled his hand away, turned his back, ignored David, and, hunched forward, crossed the living room as if carrying a heavy assault rifle through the streets of Beirut, strode around the marble table, then sat on the love seat by the window.
After placing his right foot on the marble table, his eyes deflected when Rachel nudged him. "Merle, move your foot," she said.
"Oh, I won't hurt the granite." He placed his foot on the floor, slumped forward, then leaned back, and extended his arms over the back of the love seat.
Merle began to talk. "I hope no one is uncomfortable that I'm wearing a tie. I have many silk double-breasted suits at home I bought in Thailand, but I thought today I'd wear this. If you two feel ill at ease, I'll take it off."
Nicole looked at him, Gray shirt, a wide orange and green tie, Dockers two sizes too small. And he's worried about us being ill at ease? To avoid laughing directly at him, Nicole turned and walked into the kitchen where she filled four glasses with tea, placed a straw in Rachel's glass, then returned to the living room. Merle was talking.
When Rachel talked over his monologue, Nicole listened, "Merle was up at four a.m. trying to fix my computer."
"What happened?" Asked Nicole.
"It kind of broke. Needed to be defragged," said Rachel.
Nicole looked at Merle. "Did you get it fixed?" She asked.
Merle fixed his eyes on the table, then the walls, and said, "There are two ways to look at fixing something. First, is to just correct it. That's for simpletons. The second, and, I believe, the proper way to do it is -"
Merle interrupted himself, "And this may just be my scientific mind at work; which I feel has been more of a curse than a blessing, to have been born with this talent. Even when I was in grade school, when other kids were playing, I was reading, and educating myself to think. That may be my greatest talent, my ability to think."
Without looking at anyone in the room, Merle placed his hands behind his neck, interlocked them, and continued, "You know, most people can't think. Most people are sheep. In fact, when there's a call to people to get in line, or to stand somewhere, I'll start calling out 'baah, baah'; to imitate the sheep most people are. Even my doctor tells me he appreciates the fact that I don't act like most of his other patients who just sit there and act like sheep, saying 'Yes, doctor, no doctor'. I'll bring articles from the internet about medical matters to educate him. And..." And on and on and on.
Nicole began to drift. Just kill me now. When she refocused her attention, Merle was still talking. To Nicole, it sounded like a Charlie Brown cartoon when adults are talking.
As Merle backed out of the driveway, his subject had shifted to the architecture of garages and the stress force that concrete undergoes, and how most people don't understand it as well as he does. When he took a breath, Rachel attempted to discuss the play, Doubt, they were attending, and the restaurant where she had made reservations.
Before she finished her comment about the restaurant, Merle redirected it to Italian restaurants and his expertise in that area, describing his sole criteria for a good Italian restaurant as how they prepared the carpaccio. "I've been to Italy, so I know about that."
He turned his head, and continued to talk to no one in particular. That monologue continued until the play started. At which time, he slouched low in his theater seat, looked down toward the floor, and fell mute.
After the light dimming signaled the end of intermission, Merle said to Rachel, "I'm going to get my camera and take photos of the coffee shop, this play is dull." He stood and left the auditorium.
Rachel leaned toward Nicole. "He's bored easily. He has a new toy. I got him a camera yesterday."
When the play ended, Rachel searched for Merle, her demeanor that of a fourth-grade teacher looking for a child who had not returned after recess. She entered the coffee shop, came out, her smile vanished and her eyes assumed a squint. She veered to the left, descended nine steps, entered the exhibit hall on her right, and found Merle standing behind a display panel. "Where have you been, and where is your camera?"
Merle continued staring at the corner behind the art displays. "In the car. I took photos. They're pretty good, especially of the coffee cups."
"We're going to dinner at across the street. Let's go."
Merle ambled from the hall to the door, walked up the nine steps, looked at the corners of each wall, saw a table, pulled his knife, and with its tip, pounded in a loose nail while explaining how that makes a table more sturdy, then got in line behind Rachel.
At the restaurant, the server introduced herself, then Merle introduced himself, Rachel, and Nicole to the waitress. He forgot David's name. David looked at Rachel and shrugged, indicating his wish to ignore the oversight.
Rachel held up the menu and pointed to the food she wanted, named it. Merle placed his order, "I'll enjoy the halibut," added, "Could you bring some jalapeños or poblanos with that?"
He proceeded to tell the group his story of digging his basement, which, during the 15-minute soliloquy, included a statement about his hatred of Ebonics, and how "...King and Roosevelt caused this country to become Socialist."
He continued with, "You know the New Deal was actually a raw deal for the American people. The Federal Reserve controls the country," and without a pause, "here let me show you this fifty-dollar gold piece I carry around. The government doesn't want anyone to know these can be bought, since they want everyone to have paper money."
He ricocheted from one subject to another, "Did I tell you that even though our house is built on an old river bed, my basement will be three levels and have an exercise room and sewing room on the bottom level for Rachel. My office will be on the first level, then on the second, there'll be a master bedroom and bath with a small living room."
Merle continued, "You can never be too careful with all the strange people moving in. That's why I have a Bahamian driver's license, refuse to have a social security number, and my public address isn't even in this county; I won't let Rachel use a national credit card. We get ours pre-paid at Western Union, and I certainly would not have an American bank account. Mine are all offshore."
Without stopping, "Someday I'll show you our pre-nup. It bases our marriage on Biblical obligations, and not on state laws, which are contrary to the laws of God."
And on, and on, and on. "I've already installed security cameras in the basement. Did you know that in Texas you can carry a gun openly in a car? If I lived there, and anyone threatened me, I'd shoot 'em or beat 'em with a bat. I keep a baseball bat in the car just for that."
"The security cameras in the basement are working now. Maybe I'll install a sex-slave dungeon too. Never know."
David, Never again. Screw this.
Nicole, I'll just keep quiet, no sense in embarrassing Rachel.
Rachel, They'll never go out with us again. Thoughts of evenings of silence and avoidance.
The next Monday she apologized to Nicole for Merle's behavior.
After her classes, while sitting at dinner with her friends and listening to their conversation, Rachel remembered Merle's call from that morning, "I'm getting out in two days. Call me."
She decided to drive to the hospital. Hadn't planned to go there tonight. Probably should. Just endure his blathering, then go home.
She walked from the hospital parking lot toward the entrance, "I'd rather be in -" Stopped outside the entrance, pulled out her cell, shook her head, placed the phone back in her purse. Moments later, she was walking down the main floor hallway to the elevators.
Closer to Merle's unit, the hallways narrower, more supervision, more electronic monitors, intrusive and invasive. Once again she felt at home - both comfortable and out of place.
Rachel stood outside the unit door and waited for an attendant to open it. She walked toward Merle's room and stopped, then almost impulsively gazed at the wall monitors not knowing what she was searching for. Rachel looked for a chair in the hallway, but found none and walked to the nurses' station.
She made an excuse to the nurse, and, after leaving the unit, found herself in the hospital cafeteria, a windowless, featureless, low-ceilinged white room.
She sat, turned her face toward the blank wall. Her eyes cast down and to her right; her lower lip slanted down, she adjusted herself in the chair, slowly tilted her head back, then stood for a moment as if undecided. She walked away looking like a talented, but losing, substitute baseball coach resigned to her fate.