Wiseblood Books

Good Company

Debra Brenegan

Gus’s door was closed again and Marianne knew it meant her son had important work to do and was not to be disturbed. For any reason. Not even to receive the fresh cup of tea she had just made him, which had been no trouble at all, considering she had been making tea for herself, anyway, to go along with the almost-stale (but good enough for her) bread and butter she had managed to swallow sitting alone at his too-large-for-any-kitchen mahogany table.

Marianne hovered just outside Gus’s closed study door. Perhaps she could leave the cup in the hall, on the little table near his door. He might find it when he’d pass by to visit the powder room. But, no, the table was on the right and the powder room was to the study’s left, so there was no guarantee that Gus would glance over, especially if he were in any particular hurry. Marianne eyed the corridors on either side of the closed study door. No dog—he was probably in the library, stretched out in a patch of sun.

The table, though marble-topped, was on the smallish side; didn’t look too unwieldy. She put the steaming cup down on the floor for safekeeping and wound both hands around the table’s little lip. She would just see how it looked on the other side of the study’s door, and if it was horrible she’d move it back. Gus certainly wouldn’t notice one repositioned occasional table in this jungle of furniture.

Marianne grasped the table and made a fierce, though feeble, attempt to hoist it. Either the little thing was heavier than it looked or Marianne had grown weak without her usual amounts of protein. When had Gus become a vegetarian? Certainly not when he was with Karen. Marianne distinctly remembered Gus wolfing down heaps of beef and potatoes while she and her daughter-in-law argued corn starch or flour for gravy. Now Gus practically lived on fancy carry-out, slipping out the front door at odd times, oblivious to the chicken or pork Marianne was defrosting in the refrigerator’s meat tray, meat she’d never cook just for herself, meat that often ended up in the trash.

It was forever ago when Gus and Karen divorced. They’d had a “warm-up marriage,” Gus said. It wasn’t the real deal. But Gus had still never taken the main stage, seemed content that way, too. Marianne still puzzled about it. It couldn’t have been money, certainly wasn’t an affair. Henry had already been gone a few years, and Marianne had still been trying to manage their ancient colonial on Hemlock Street, a two-year era Marianne could only remember as washed in grief and confusion. She wasn’t yet living in muggy, bright Orlando with Sam and Arleen, not to mention witnessing their divorce a half a decade later from her thin-walled, improperly-cooled bedroom. Sam with his secretary. That tired cliché. Arleen had dropped a cut-crystal goblet brimming red with wine on the Persian rug, stood so white-faced by the kitchen sink the next morning that Marianne hugged her, even as she understood that she probably would also have to divorce Arleen, now that Sam had. It was like that with Karen and Gus. One minute she had a daughter-in-law, the next she didn’t. One minute married, the next a widow. It had only been a few weeks that Marianne was repositioned here, in Maine, again, with Gus. The general feeling was that they might be good for each other—she and Gus—that the two might be good company.

Clenching the table, Marianne lifted it a few inches, shuffled, then had to put her burden down. It bumped the glossy parquet floor a little harder than she had hoped it would. She took a deep breath and heaved it again, fingers aching, walking the table between her legs to get to the other side of the study door. Again, though, she had to rest and had to let the table tap noisily onto the floor. This would never do. Gus could surely hear the bumping and tapping. Marianne would have to pick up the table and carry it all the way to the other side of the door and put it down once and for all if she had any hope of not disturbing Gus behind the closed study door as he labored mysteriously on advertising projects.

She clamped her jaw and seized the table with a small groan, holding it higher this time, pushed tight against her hip bones. She hugged the table close and forced her feet into tiny splayed steps. She could do this in one try. She could. Just a little farther. But, exactly when she was nearing the spot she meant to place the table, Aristotle, Gus’s spoiled and mangy, foul-breathed Golden Retriever loped around the corner and somehow got twisted up beneath Marianne’s feet and the table legs, despite her whispering shoo!, and she dropped the table with the loudest crash known to man right there in the echoing hall.

Aristotle yipped, high and piercing.

“Hush,” Marianne hissed.

But the dog whimpered whimpered whimpered and danced around the hall in a pathetic little stagger, his toenails clacking on the parquet floor like a drunken tapdancer’s.

Marianne squeezed her eyes. “Hush now, you’re fine!” she said, just as the study’s door banged open.

“Mother, what is going on here?” Gus’s face was red, almost purple, and he wiped his chin with a napkin (when had he gotten lunch?) and glanced quickly right and left taking it all in, the table, dog, cup of tea, and mother, all out of place and infuriating to a forty-six-year-old advertising executive just trying to get a little work done outside the hubbub of the office. As was his way, Aristotle instantly wound around Gus’s legs and when Gus pushed the dog away, the dog, of course, stumbled with a yelp right into the tea cup and upset it, too, with a tinkling crash and the resulting warm fast-spreading puddle.

Marianne clasped her hand over her mouth.

“Oh, for God’s sake. What on earth,” Gus said, crouching awkwardly to mop at the mess with the napkin. “Why is there a cup of tea sitting on the floor?”

“I was bringing it to you.”

“I’ve told you I don’t need waiting on. I’m a grown man and am accustomed to taking care of myself. I’ll eat when I want. I’ll sleep when I want. I’ll work when I want. I do not need you to bring me a cup of tea, rearrange my furniture, or—”He waved at the still whimpering Aristotle, “—injure my dog.”

Marianne wrung her hands. “I’m sorry. I was just…”

Gus straightened, holding the sopping napkin away from him to avoid dripping tea on his linen trousers. “Trying to help. I know, Mother.” He swooped down and collected the broken pieces of cup, balancing them in his outstretched hand on top of the soaked napkin. In six strides he carried the mess to the kitchen’s trash can and was back in a blink with a pail and sponge.

“Tea is acidic,” he said, wiping the floor. “It’ll eat through the finish if you don’t get it right away.”

Marianne nodded.

Aristotle sat quivering against the wall, swinging his sad eyes from Gus to Marianne and back to Gus again.

“And what did you do to Aristotle?”

At the mention of his name, the dog slinked toward Gus, his tail banging against the newly-wiped parquet floor.

“The table fell on him.”

Gus reached over to scratch Aristotle behind the ears.

“I was trying to move it to this side of the door so you could—”

“Rearranging furniture,” Gus said in a sing-song tone, a tone that instantly implied the breaking of rules.

“I was just trying—”

“I’ve already requested that you please leave the furniture as it is,” Gus said, still scratching the moaning, quivering Aristotle. “All of this sneaking around—”

“Sneaking?”

“I never hear your heels come down. Never,” Gus said. He made a walking motion with his fingers. “You tippy-toe past my door, then tippy-toe back.”

Marianne blinked. “I’m not sneaking. I’m trying not to disturb you.”

“Well, you disturb! You do.”

Marianne’s mouth hung open like a fish’s.

Gus looked from Aristotle to his mother and back to the dog. He squeezed his eyes. “You do, you know.”

“I had no idea.”

“No, of course not.” Gus patted Aristotle roughly. The dog yipped again. “What the deuce?”

“I dropped the table on him.” Suddenly Marianne’s eyes were leaking.

Gus stood. “Now, Mother.”

“I know.”

“He’ll be fine.”

Gus looked closely at his hands, then shook off a clump of golden fur. “Except in your room, of course,” he said, flicking his eyes to his mother’s anguished face. “You can do whatever you like there.” He smiled with his mouth.

Marianne’s chin quivered.

“I must get back…”

“To work,” she replied.

Gus blinked kindly, his lips still stretched wide for Marianne’s benefit, and backed into his study, closing the door slowly behind him until it clicked shut.

Marianne’s insides suddenly felt weighed down with bread and butter. She walked, toe-heel, back to her hard perch in the kitchen where her own cup had grown scummy and cold. Marianne rinsed the cup, letting the hot water from the tap rain down on her fingers.

Sneaking.

She sniffed. She dried her hands. She hung the damp towel on the stove’s handle. She peered out the window for a while, staring at the clumps of half-brown daffodils drying to their roots. Then Marianne clomped down the bright floors, past Gus’s study, to the library. She heaved the great rumbling ladder back and forth along the shelves, fumbling among the books, and dropped, almost purposefully, The History of the Western World, bomb-like, onto the thin patterned carpet. A swirl of dustmotes rose, boiling the air as Aristotle scurried yellow out the door. She perused the volumes. War and Peace was front and center, almost shielding a whole row of Grisham. Marianne rearranged the row, slipping Tolstoy protectively behind The Innocent Man. Then, she spied an old friend. Marianne gasped, reaching for her very own Jane Eyre. So, this is where it had resided all those years since Henry. Why anyone would think it better they were parted, especially after Henry, especially to Gus. Or was it Karen?

Marianne walked heavily back to the kitchen, Jane tight against her chest. She’d have her cup anyway. And the last of the cheese tarts she’d squirreled away at the back of the cupboard. When the kettle whistled, she couldn’t get to it for a minute, busy as she was procuring a cloth napkin from the drawer of the sideboard in the dining room and, then, arranging the tart on a china plate. From somewhere, Aristotle yowled, duet-like.

They study door banged open. “Mother!”

Marianne snatched the kettle from the burner and poured a little into the pot, sloshing the old scum away and down the drain.

“Mother!”

“I’m in here,” Marianne sang as Gus strode into the kitchen.

“I can see you’re in here. And conducting a circus.”

“I’m making tea.”

“You already made tea!”

“It got cold.”

“Aristotle was howling.”

“I couldn’t get the kettle off right away.”

“And what was that noise before?”

“What noise?”

“It sounded like something broke.”

“I dropped a book.”

Gus eyed Jane Eyre on the mahogany table next to the plate with the tart. “Are you quite settled now?”

“It wasn’t that book.”

Aristotle sidled up to Gus’s leg and leaned against it. “And will you stop harassing my poor dog?”

Marianne’s jaw unhinged.

Gus’s eyes swung to the floor as he knelt to scratch the dog.

Aristotle moaned.

Gus sighed, scratching. After a while he said, “I’m sorry, Mother.”

“I never.”

“I just need to get some work done. Sam told me you might be angry. About the move. I realize you felt at home there.”

“I felt no such thing. You don’t know the half of it.”

Gus patted Aristotle’s neck, jingling the tags on his collar. “This has been hard on all of us. Arleen is lovely and Sam is, well, Sam.”

“It’s not like you might think,” Marianne said. “It’s just that everything here is so big. It’s imposing—”

“Sam will be fine.” Gus gave Aristotle a final pat on the haunches. Aristotle yipped. “What the—”

“Crowded, too. Stuffed to the gills.”

Gus ran his hands searchingly over Aristotle’s legs.

“I can’t take two steps without knocking my hip against something. And you know I’m supposed to be careful about my bones.”

The dog anchored his eyes on Gus’s face. When Gus rubbed his hands over Aristotle’s back, there it was, a small lump, tender—as indicated by the dog’s wince—just above the left hip.

Marianne’s forehead wrinkled. “What is it?”

“Just a bruise, I think. Maybe from the table.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I never meant—”

“He’ll be fine,” Gus said, rising. He pulled a wallet from his left hip pocket and deposited a stack of bills on the table. “To make it more comfortable for you here.”

Marianne blanched as Gus turned on his heel and strode back to the study.

She looked down at the blinking, quivering dog. “Shoo,” she spat and fanned her hand at his face.

Aristotle flinched but didn’t move.

Marianne shook herself. Tea. Yes. And the tart. And Jane. That’s what she would do. She would have her enjoyment, she would have her life, if it killed her.

Her hands shook as she pushed the bills to the side of the table to make room for a tray, gathered her things on the tray and carried it out of the kitchen, down the back hall, to the sun porch. It was only late May, but the porch had already been fitted with screens. Fine for Florida, iffy for Maine. Today it would be suitable, though. It was nearing 80 outside.

Tray in hand, Marianne pushed hip-first through the swinging door, then bumped between the wicker settee and glass-topped tables to the arm chair in the corner. She simply didn’t have the energy to be more graceful, not that it mattered much out there on the porch. This was the only informal room Gus kept. The day’s newspaper was often strewn on the floor and many a cup or glass had been left, unwashed, for a day or more. Geographically, it was the farthest room from Gus’s office, notwithstanding Marianne’s own quiet room, behind the kitchen and always dark with shade. She settled the tray onto the closest table, and froze, bent over, knuckles white on the tray’s handles.

Marianne’s eyes bulged. Was it? Oh, my. How on earth? There, snuffling along the baseboard behind the arm chair, was an honest-to-goodness skunk. It was surprisingly fat with glossy fur, the tell-tale white a perfect streak through the healthy jet of its body.

Marianne started to tremble. She thought briefly of baths with tomatoes or lemon juice—which was it? She thought of sharp claws raking her thighs, maybe having to kick away some snapping teeth. She unclasped the tray and slowly stood erect. The skunk kept snuffling along, oblivious to Marianne’s movements. She could just back away. Slowly. Carefully.

Marianne took a step backward. Her footstep sounded horribly loud on the tile, but the skunk didn’t notice. Marianne took a tiny breath, rose to her toes and shuffled slowly backwards toward the swinging door.

Her foot bumped the wicker settee. The skunk stopped snuffling, raised its head to inspect the wall and the back of the arm chair, but still didn’t seem to see Marianne. Marianne’s throat felt tight and her breaths were coming in fast little pants. She must be quiet. She must stay calm.

Just as Marianne started tip-toeing backward again, she heard the swinging door squeak slightly and the sickening thump thump thump of one golden tail on ceramic tile. Aristotle’s quivering face was pushed through the door, his wacking posterior still planted in the hall outside the sun porch. The dog didn’t notice the skunk, but instead looked at Marianne with baleful eyes.

“Shoo,” Marianne whispered. But when had that dog ever listened? She should have guessed he’d take her reprimand as an invitation to slink into the room, tail wagging furiously, golden body trembling with hope.

“Sit,” Marianne whispered. She even performed the hand signal Sam and Arleen had used on their dog Pepper.

The skunk froze now, its body tight against the wall, head arched to peer around the chair at the still unsuspecting Aristotle. Marianne shivered.

Instead of sitting, Aristotle pushed his nose at her crotch and she slapped his face away. He whimpered and crouched to the floor, his head thrust forward.

Behind the arm chair, the skunk arched its back.

Aristotle whined, batting his great eyes and quivering so much the tags on his collar jingled.

“Hush,” Marianne hissed, reaching down to settle the ridiculous dog. She would pull him sternly by the collar and get them both safely to the other side of the door.

At her touch, Aristotle moaned with pleasure and leaned heavily against Marianne’s legs. The skunk peered steadily at the woman and the dog, barely blinking.

Hesitantly, Marianne rubbed the soft fur behind Aristotle’s ears.

He groaned and shook his whole body.

“Quiet now,” she whispered, laying her palms gently on his neck and moving them slowly down his back. “There, there.”

Aristotle moaned again and Marianne let her outstretched hands rest on his back.

“Shhh,” she whispered. The skunk watched from its corner.

Marianne knew that she should get out of the room, that she should get the dog out of the room, but she was suddenly hypnotized by her easy power over the animal. The dog absolutely melted into her hands, unlike Pepper who never listened to a word anyone said, not even with the choke-leash pulled tight, not even if you held his food dish over his head when nobody else was around. With each stroke over his golden fur, Aristotle’s breathing quieted, his body relaxed and he oozed into a calm Marianne had never suspected he was capable of. Marianne continued to stroke Aristotle. He blinked gratefully through half-lowered lids and Marianne’s chest expanded. Marianne stroked and stroked, almost cavalier about raining affection on the dog in front of the skunk. The skunk watched from its cold corner of jealousy. Aristotle seemed to purr. Marianne felt empty and full at the same time, a feeling she hadn’t had in years. Since before Henry passed. Since the boys were small. She swallowed hard and her throat made a funny choking noise.

Both Marianne’s and Aristotle’s ears perked up at the scuffling. The skunk had turned its back to them. It was again shuffling along the wall, nosing its pointed snout along the baseboard and into the corner.

Aristotle swung his head from Marianne to the noises behind the arm chair.

“Shhh,” she whispered to him, her hands smoothing his fur. The skunk was truly no threat, uninterested as it was in the porch’s other inhabitants, intent only on its investigation of the porch’s perimeter. She’d get them both out, she and the dog, and after the exterminator had come and gone, maybe they’d sit together in peace. Maybe they’d share a sandwich. Turkey. Ham even.

Marianne took a bracing breath. First, she’d tiptoe back to the tray and retrieve it. No use feeding the last tart to the varmint if she could help it.

Marianne motioned with her hand for Aristotle to stay. He lifted the front of his body from the floor, quivering.

She took three quiet steps to the table and lifted the tray, just as Aristotle sprung up, all a-jingle, and the skunk turned from the corner in surprise.

The dog had finally spied the skunk and the skunk knew it. Both animals froze, staring, as Marianne backed slowly, tray in hand, toward the swinging door.

“Aristotle,” she whispered. “Quiet now.”

At the sound of his name, the dog quivered and moaned, swinging his head from Marianne to the skunk.

Marianne continued backing up, slowly, quietly, as Aristotle began whimpering with excitement. The skunk arched its back and crouched low. It pounded its front paws on the tile.

Aristotle couldn’t contain himself. He looked back and forth from Marianne to the interesting noises the skunk was making with its paws. He shook all over, his collar jingling and his wagging tail thumping loudly against the leg of one of the glass-topped tables. The skunk drummed its paws and arched its back even higher.

Aristotle danced at Marianne’s feet, swinging his head to look first at the skunk, then up at Marianne. The skunk started to turn its body and Marianne knew there was no time to waste. She slammed the tray on the settee, intent on grabbing Aristotle by the collar and dragging him out the door. But upon spying the tart on the tray, Aristotle lunged for it, moaning and jangling. The skunk completed its turn and lifted its tail. Marianne grabbed the tart from the tray, holding it in front of the dog’s mouth with one hand and yanking him by the collar with the other. Three brisk toe-heel steps to the door and they were through, just as Marianne heard a wet, hissing sound.

The door swung squeakily behind them.

Marianne continued to maneuver the dog, tart first, into the kitchen, and when they were safely settled there, together on the floor, leaning against the humming refrigerator, she breathed shakily, her eyes moist, and both she and Aristotle whimpered and huddled together, Marianne hushing the quivering dog as she fed him the whole tart straight from her hand, stroking his soft fur over and over, careful to avoid his tender spot, his eyes mooning her and her eyes blinking fast as she tried to remember how long she’d been separated from her Jane Eyre, how long she’d been separated, without anyone even knowing it.

Debra Brenegan has a Ph.D. in creative writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is an Assistant Professor at Westminster College in Missouri. She has recently had work published in Calyx, Cimarron Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review and elsewhere. Her novel, Shame the Devil, about nineteenth-century American journalist and novelist Fanny Fern, is forthcoming with SUNY Press.

www.bringuptospeed.com