The Geometry of Solitude

There is an intimation of dampness as light glitters and glistens on the flowers Sandy planted in the broad wooden box Tom made for her several summers back, when she decided that she needed a garden to keep her occupied in what she liked to refer to as her dotage. It had quickly turned into her ideal place – an oasis, whether or not anyone else would have ever thought of it that way. Their trailer, as managers of the park, sits a stone’s throw from the park entrance. From there she can see the residents coming and going, which becomes inconvenient only late at night when highlights scan across the park and engines echo down the narrow gravel roads, echolocating. It’s a side effect of the park. Here, where a handful of vintage cars and overpowered motorcycles sit pristine and babied in front of an array of battered mobile homes. Van Dykes and Biltmores. Winfields and Modulines.

Route 82, cutting east to west past the front gates, is more or less quiet most days. Intermittently she can hear the Doppler effect of semis; the pitch of the massive engines charting the curvature of the hill, lower as they reach the top and then rising as they descend. An inverted function of topography.

As always she is aware that Tom is near, doing one chore or another around the park. This is his particular dotage. One that he prefers, because full retirement never would have suited him. He needs something to do, some little thing or another to fuss with, and she teases him for still being about the same as any middle school kid that she has to tell to go out and play. Even now, in his late sixties, he seems to have the endless energy of a puppy.

The park is generally quiet at midday, especially during the week – the only disturbance is, potentially, the cars on the highway, or an intermittently barking dog that is chained up outside of the Jacobs’ trailer. There is a way, in the morning, that the park seems rustic and pastoral. Maybe it takes a certain shift of perspective. Most people seem to dismiss trailer parks in the same way that they dismiss high-rise apartment buildings. All of these things seem to fade into the background, not the happy focal point of the scene – only the ancillary. The backdrop. Maybe the park itself is like that barking dog down the road. People learn to tune out such things, passing by places that are familiar and comfortable to others. Even as we cross the country ,passing quaint houses, or even the broken-down, nearly abandoned places, it’s easy to forget that there are people who occupy these places. There is no need to wonder who lives there except for in an utterly abstract way.

And so she can sit out there in her little oasis, among her plants and the soft breeze and the familiar trailers, and she can read her magazines and smoke her cigarettes and let her mind drift to other things. The magazines are delivered at least a few times a month. One or another of the magazines that are considered relentlessly trashy. It’s precisely that level of trash that she appreciates now. Something that is a wonderful distraction from the world itself, and something that she finds perfectly in keeping with her new persona as a trailer park manageress.

The cellophane of her cigarette pack rattles in the almost imperceptible breeze as she draws a cigarette from the pack and cups her hand to light it. She sets the thick glass ashtray on her magazine to keep it opened to the page she wants. Everyone in this magazine is no one that she really cares for. They are all people who have amassed egregious amounts of money for no particular reason. Here are the women who are famous only because they are rich. And here, she can flip idly through the pages with impunity. The magazines themselves gather in thick stacks beside the couch until Tom becomes so irritated that he nags her to get rid of them, and finally she relents. There is no reason to be resistant. She has no intention of going back to look through celebrity recipes. She has no intention of looking at the fashion tips. She has no intention or desire to take the quizzes in the magazines, although she will peruse them and surmise the answers of various park residents.

Even the plants themselves are as low-maintenance as they could possibly be, thanks to the thoughtful drip irrigation system that Tom set up for her when he built the boxes. Even as she is sitting there now she can hear him around the end of the trailer where he has been working on setting up lighting, which will flank the edges of the path up to the front steps of the trailer. As her cigarette approaches the orange filter she takes a long last drag and stubs out the butt, not long before Tom comes around the end of the trailer and steps up onto the deck, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the edge of his faded sweatshirt.

“Have to go to the store,” he says.

She nods but doesn’t look up from the magazine.

“Do you need anything?”

Sandy shakes her head without looking up from her magazine and leans slightly into him as he puts his arm on her shoulder and kisses the top of her head. She hears him duck inside for his wallet and then he passes back down the path to where his truck is parked. The truck’s deep rumble sets the dogs barking again and she can hear the gravel grind beneath the wheels and then go silent as he pulls onto the blacktop.

 

By the time he returns from the store she has finished with People and has moved on to Us. He makes his way back to where he was working and she hears him dropping tools – the metallic sound of one thing clanging against another. Each one of them something that has a name that she will never be able to remember. Crescent this and long-handled that. It’s not much more than ten or fifteen minutes later when she glances up to see Tom coming back around the trailer with a sheepish look on his face. He steps up onto the deck and lays two parts on the table – pieces that look almost identical. After a moment of rummaging through his pockets, he withdraws a crumpled receipt and spreads it out on the table, smoothing it out carefully.

“I already had one,” he says, “I don’t know how I forgot it.”

“You can take it back, though, right?”

He taps a knuckle on the receipt.

 

When he has left again, headed back towards the hardware store, she returns briefly to her magazine, but her mind drifts back several weeks, recalling the phone call that he missed from their son. When she told him that John had called on his birthday Tom had looked at her blankly for a moment, as if pausing for one of his witty retorts.

“It’s not my birthday.”

Still thinking that he was putting her on she had laughed at him. When he continued with the same confused look she had to remind him that it wasn’t his birthday but the birthday of their son.

“Yesterday was John’s birthday.”

“John.”

“John, your son John.”

“Oh, right, of course.”

And then even before that there had been the other seemingly insignificant things that were disappearing that she thought were only a component of forgetting that was a natural part of getting older. The natural process of aging. They used to tease each other about it. They used to talk about how great it would be when they were forgetful enough to buy their own Christmas presents and hide their own Easter eggs. But now there is something different, and the more that she thinks about it the more the little details keep coming back up. All these things seem to coalesce into something that worries her more and more. At some point it had been insignificant, and so it had never bothered her. There were the forgotten doctor’s appointments, and the moments that he stood in front of the coffee machine trying to remember the exact order of how to make coffee. Things that seemed only the hallmark of a dotty absent-minded retiree. But it has been a year now since the number of Post-it notes around the trailer had begun to increase almost exponentially. A part of her had figured that it was all nothing and that she was overreacting and that there was nothing to it. After all, hadn’t she been guilty of forgetting things herself on rare occasions?

 

That evening, after dinner, they are on the couch watching their favorite cop drama and Tom gets up and carries their dishes into the small kitchen and rinses them and sets them in the small dishwasher. He wipes down the table – all of this she knows without having to turn to look. It’s all one thing after another – a routine. A habit. It’s a habit that he has built after years and years of living in a firehouse, slowly making his way up the ranks of the department. She thinks now of what he was like when she first met him, all broad shoulders and muscles and tan from so much time spent outside. And when she got to know him better she would tease him about standing too close to the same fires that he was trying to put out. She teased him about becoming a firefighter only so that he could work on his tan. But she could tease him only because she knew how incredibly hard he worked at his job and how deeply he cared about what he was doing. Over time, she came to understand and know how hard he had worked to become a firefighter, beginning from the time that he was a high school quarterback. She learned how he spent his time playing football and working on his grades – struggling with his grades primarily because he didn’t want to sabotage any prospect he had of joining the department.

Back then Tom had been easy and carefree, an easy-going and loquacious man spending time in a small bar in downtown Everett, where he was drinking with some of the other guys from the department. They teased him and called him Champ because it seemed as though there was never a single thing that he had failed at in his entire life. It seemed as though there were nothing that he could do wrong. After all, all those years ago (how many, two dozen?) he had been the youngest man in the department, and his easy smile and good-natured approach to things made him popular. He was optimistic to a fault and endlessly determined. It helped the camaraderie that the men had built up with each other. And then, over a period of weeks and months Tom and Sandy developed a deeper relationship; and slowly it verged more and more on seriousness until Tom finally proposed to her on the ferry from downtown Seattle to Vashon Island, where they had planned to spend the evening at a rented cabin. Even now, it seems that she can remember every detail of that night. She recalls the crisp breeze that cut across the bow of the big, lumbering hulk of a ship as he knelt down there on the deck in the absence of other riders – all of the other riders having retreated inside, out of the wind. She remembered the way that the breeze lightly tousled his short sun-bleached hair. She remembered the way that she had shoved her numb hands into her pockets. Those same hands had been numb and pale when she finally pulled her right hand from her pocket so that he could slip the ring onto her finger with only a happy nod.

During the early years of their marriage – and so many times throughout – she had reveled in the way that he was always such a typical guys’ guy. He was the guy whom, as the saying goes, all the men wanted to be and all the women wanted to sleep with. But he was hers and hers beyond any question. His loyalty was without question; loyalty not only to the department and to the people that he spent every day trying to save, but also to his new wife. It was a loyalty that would eventually be transferred to their sons. Divided again and again but at the same time magnifying endlessly. A complex arithmetic of reality and love as they settled into their life. There were, of course, still the same trials and tribulations – things that every couple faced. The most difficult part had always been the times when Tom was away, and that was always followed by the times that he was home suddenly and trying to enforce his authority. He was always and forever trying to control things at home until a single, momentous argument that nearly resulted in their divorce. It was narrowly averted. Averted only through mutual tears and an agreement to work together for the greater good of the family, as they knew that there was no single reason that they should argue or war over a combined single goal of having a happy family. She was sure now that John and David never knew that the argument had transpired. There was no way to know for sure, but they had been so young then. Too young to have any awareness.

 

During the commercial break that evening, after he has put away the dishes and cleaned up the table, he returns to the couch and she asks him when he last heard from the guys from the old firehouse, but he shakes his head. He hasn’t talked to any of them in a long time and she knows it for a fact but she has asked anyway. A part of her thinks that he will ask what she is talking about. What firehouse? But of course there are some things that he maybe could never forget – even if only for a moment he has forgotten their eldest son. She looks at him now in the pale glow of the TV as he sips his beer, and she still remembers the younger face that lurks beneath the crow’s feet and laugh lines that have etched themselves into his face like a map of the years that they have spent together. She remembers how his pale hair had once been more blond than silver, although the proportion has defiantly reversed itself these days.

She knows his body like Braille: the indent of the scapula, the curve of deltoid, the parenthetical scar of rotator cuff surgery. The pencil-wide scar bisecting his chest where a doctor that seemed far too young cut him open, spread his ribs and placed stents in his heart. It’s just as he must be able to read her body. Tactile. Tracing the scar of the C-section she had when David was born. The scar from the biopsy that she had during the breast cancer scare.

“You ought to call some of them,” she says, “maybe we could get together.”

“Sure,” he says, “some of them are still around.”

“Unless they forgot about you.”

“Why would they forget about me?”

“I’m teasing.”

The commercial break ends and she can tell that he has, once again, become engrossed in the show, just as she is now engrossed in memories of their youth. The show prattles on as she remembers Tom dressed in his uniform. Both the dark blue daily uniform and the yellow flame-retardant suit that looked heavy and oppressive, even with its thick red suspenders crisscrossing his back. There was a certain smell to the uniform – one that she couldn’t exactly place. It was a smell that was neither smoke nor fabric, and not altogether unpleasant.

After days at a stretch he would return home and she would ask him how the office was. Or, the boys would want to know how many people their daddy had saved because that is a little thing that boys do when they are proud of their father before they can say that they are proud of their father in any sort of explicit way.

“Daddy saved a few cats from trees,” he liked to say, “He helped a few old ladies cross the street.”

Even though Sandy knew that Tom wasn’t running into burning buildings on a daily basis she couldn’t help but worry – and that worry would strike her at odd times. It wasn’t always as predictable as hearing a siren wailing in the distance. More often than not, the thoughts seemed to push their way through her consciousness as she was standing in line at the grocery store, or picking the boys up from soccer practice. It was as if any moment that her brain wasn’t actively occupied with some other task, it would drift to tragedy.

Regardless, even after all the patient repetition there were plenty of things that she knew that he would not say to the boys, and might even avoid telling her. Stories that would make her stomach churn if she knew them. She knew, only in an abstract way, of the accidents that he had come upon and could only imagine the Hollywood-esque scenes of blood and the charred smell of burnt flesh. And she knew all of this was locked away inside him somewhere – and still is, even now as he leans forward on the couch and heaves himself up so that he can gather another couple of beers from the refrigerator. This is pattern as well. He never bothers to ask if she wants another beer, because he knows with certainty that if he were going for another she would also take another.

Maybe the mention of the guys from the old department was a bad idea. It is possible, isn’t it, that he is avoiding them on purpose? Maybe he no longer wants to be reminded of those days and those tragedies. She knows with certainty that it was the minority of lives that he could not or did not save that weigh on him, the guilt of failure magnified and heavier than those whom he was able to save. It was as if he had failed, and failure was not something that he was accustomed to. She has seen it gnaw at him. She has seen the way that losing a ten-year-old boy in a house fire haunted him for the better part of the year – and at the time she rationalized that it was only because their own boys were around the same age, and it had to be that he could envision them there in the house. But she came to understand that it wasn’t the similarity to their own boys – at least not solely. It was something more, as if there were a specific algebra that balanced lives saved against lives lost, and each lost life was exponentially weightier.

She had urged him, after the worst calls, to go and see someone, but he had always simply shaken his head. Part of it was culture, she knew, that first responders didn’t like to admit that they couldn’t handle the trauma that was inflicted on them in the middle of otherwise calm afternoons, while their families were safe, across town, watching ball games or spending time with families at Fourth of July picnics.

“We do what has to be done,” he had told her, “not an easy job.”

And somewhere along the way he had even talked John out of firefighting as a profession – in a way that seemed less worried about his son’s safety (he knew that his son would be at the same risk as everyone else, but that he would be trained accordingly) than for the pragmatism of their son actually taking advantage of the talents that he had been born with.

“It’s a noble profession,” Tom had told John, “but don’t feel as though you have to do what I did in order to earn my respect. You’re smart. Smarter than I was at your age. If you do this, do it for yourself. But you also need to know if it’s what you really want to do, or if it’s something that you’re going to start doing and get stuck doing and begin to regret the choice and wish that you had gone to college and followed a different dream.”

John had taken it well, and had gone away for a week or so, back down to UW where he was already a strong student and had already been admitted to the Foster School of Business. It was that same son that he had somehow forgotten – however momentarily – only six months back. She can’t reconcile that now. She struggles to figure out why or how, and tries to convince herself again that there might have been something else on his mind – that he had been mulling over some project or some other idea when she’d mentioned it, and so the whole thing had been out of context and a simple mistake.

“Something bothering you?”

Sandy looks up, realizing that the show has ended and the credits are playing. Tom is leaning back in the couch, looking at her at an angle, as if trying to figure out a puzzle. Self-consciously, Sandy brushes her hair behind her ears.

“Sorry,” she says, “I was just thinking.”

“Lord help us when this woman starts to think. Which is it going to be for me this time? Heartache or wallet-ache?”

She smiles and leans towards him, resting her cheek on his shoulder, inhaling the familiar smell. The smell of the aftershave, the same brand he’s worn for thirty years. And as she shifts towards him he puts his arm around her and lets out a deep sigh that seems to come from the bottom of his soul.

“Who died?” he asks.

She turns to look at him, crinkling her neck.

“Who died?” he asks again, “That’s what you’re acting like, like someone died.”

What can she do but shake her head and assure him that everything is fine. She’s had fears like this before, fears of being alone without him, knowing that there was no way that she could ever remarry. She could never re-love. They are tied to each other in a way that wouldn’t make sense to most of the people whom they know – even people who think they are in love and have been for ages.

“Sleepy, I guess.”

“Well, go on to bed, just save me a place.”

She debates for a moment, wondering if it would be better to stay there beside him, recalling the moments that she had with him – banking them for the day when they were gone. But she relents; she can’t go on living as though he might die any second. There is nothing wrong with him; after all, he is still healthy as a horse.

“Maybe I will,” she says finally, and he places his hands on the small of her back to boost her up. She smiles at him sleepily and she can hear the couch shift and settle beneath him as she shuffles down the hall to the bedroom, her thick socks scrunching around her feet as she moves. Outside, the night is dark and she can hear the cars hushing out on the highway. Through the slats of the blinds she can see the handful of trailers and motor homes facing them – each belonging to a family she knows by face and name. The high orange streetlamps cast a warm familiarity on the park, and she changes by that diffused light without bothering to turn on the bedside lamp. The dog down at the Jacobs’ is quiet.

She pulls back the covers and slips into the cool envelope they’ve left there. She wants the entire world only to fall into good, warm dreams, but there is no way of knowing what there will be when she closes her eyes. A sliver of light becomes a wedge expanding outwards from beneath the door, and even now, she is trying to remember the name of that singular and specific shape: trapezoid, rhombus, parallelogram? She can hear the TV still playing in the other room, although she knows that he turned it down even before she passed the kitchen.

As she lies there now in the darkness of their room she wonders how long they still have with each other – as though there were some sort of time limit and at any moment a cosmic egg timer might go off and shatter the world that they have built together. And then, perhaps, the timer is reset, and it ticks only for the one who remains, the clock trickling towards their own ending. In the meantime it will only be a purgatory of days, an endless stacking up of movie magazines with no one to remove them for her – but the plants will continue to be watered with the irrigation system that Tom set up and the tenants will continue to bring their lot fees to her once a month. And somewhere, behind the closed doors of the other trailers, people will say how sorry they feel for her, this widow living alone in a trailer park. Or maybe, it won’t be her at all, perhaps it will be Tom who stays and she will be gone and then there will be nothing to worry about at all.

Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University, Michael returned to Seattle, where he currently works as a writing tutor and is a writer-in-residence with Seattle’s Writers in the Schools Program. His work has appeared in Portland Review, The East Bay Review, FictionDaily, Inlandia, and Across the Margin, among others.

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