Postcards from Home
JOHN JASPER OWENS
Wife number one has the strength of a grizzly and skin as solid as sandpaper. She is impenetrable—not an ideal quality in a wife—and so quiet that people project qualities upon her (intelligence, empathy, Catholicism) which she may or may not possess. She usually wears yellow and red. When relaxed, watching television for instance, she is so still that any movement she makes seems sudden, causing most of us to flick our gazes towards her. This interrupts the show we’re watching. She sometimes apologizes.
. . .
Wife number two has great powers of hearing and eyesight, capable of finding me even in my most unusual hiding places. Once, I was standing at a deli counter in New Brunswick when my cell rang. “Just get the Black Forest ham and Swiss,” she said, “the pesto on the roast beef would give you heartburn. And honey? You’re holding up the line.”
. . .
Wife number three is a sex machine. I’m not going to lie, that’s why I married her. Perky breasts, an ass that bounces twice when I slap it, and always ready, with the total lack of inhibition normally seen only in wildlife documentaries, or in Embassy Suite penthouses atop piles of hundred dollar bills.
She also cooks a little, a skill I have yet to develop.
. . .
Wife number four is Mama, surrounded by children: hers, ours, and others—some neighbor kids are mixed in there—and trailed by the dogs and cats and hamsters who not-so-secretly love her best. The wives are not numbered in the order of marriage (I distinctly remember marrying Sex Machine first), but rather as represented in a flow chart Mama stuck to the refrigerator. I’m not sure of the order of wife accumulation beyond Sex Machine; if I need to know I’ll ask wife number six, who has never forgotten anything and is excellent at games of chance.
When Mama calls, we all respond. The boys need compelling, the girls dissuading, checks are due to instructors, there are recitals to attend, teams to cheer on, and reminders to sit up straight that require, in this instance, a masculine voice. Gutters need cleaning, and hoods on cars are scheduled to be opened and peered into with a cluck in the back of the throat.
In a family our size chores can get pretty specific, and Mama assigns tasks like she’s blocking a production of Les Miserables. We’ve got one son who polishes tines. I’m responsible for the stretch of upstairs hallway between the Bertbaugh lamp and the room the two oldest daughters share.
Wife number one handles the rougher discipline—she is the threat Mama hangs over our heads—as well as adolescent talks centered around “this is your new body and these are the dire consequences that await when used as intended.”
. . .
Wife number five works a lot. She’s never home, and we rarely talk outside of good nights and good mornings. She’s the wife I sleep with because she’s most reliably home and in bed at a decent hour. I hate to sleep alone. She also makes the most wonderful alarm clock, as she always wakes up at the same time. I am therefore pulled awake by her weight shifting beside me, sitting up, maybe a cough. Then, as she rounds the bed toward the bathroom, she reaches out and gives my ankle a shake. It is the gentlest possible way to be forced to face the morning.
On Fridays I avoid Sex Machine (sometimes this is not so difficult because she is suspiciously absent) because Friday night is when wife number five and I have what she calls her “end-of-business-week sex.” Efficient in this as in everything (she’s the most skilled woman at dressing, makeup, and out-of-the-house I’ve ever met), she’ll have her third orgasm just as I can no longer keep control, after which she’ll go pee, return to bed and mumble “One more in the books” before going to sleep. She golfs with clients most Saturdays, attends the same church as her company president on Sundays, and otherwise spends time with wife number two, who uses her observational powers to spy on wife five’s competition, adversaries, and dear confidantes.
. . .
I walk into the family room and find wife six and Mama, heads together, with Sex Machine stretched on the couch and eating strawberries that she runs through an open container of Cool Whip on the floor. They fall silent at once, in the way of having been discussing something I shouldn’t hear.
. . .
“You forgot your Lipitor again,” says wife number two. “I can smell its absence on your breath.” My knees weaken and I fairly fall into a chair. In addition to her sight and hearing I now have to worry about wife number two’s olfactory sense? The way she nods at me makes me think she might also be telepathic.
. . .
A chance mention of a homework assignment while I’m remedying my statin deficiency evolves (or devolves, as you look at it) into me giving a lecture to the children about the nature of fossil fuels, the irreplaceable nature of oil and coal, the boogeyman future of their depletion. I rarely hold forth, so the children slowly gather to my voice and gesticulations, until they surround me on armrests, stairs, and the floor, entwined with the cats and dogs who sense the hand of Mama in all this and the potential for treats. “Maybe that’s what happened to magic,” says Molly, one of our nerdier daughters. “Maybe Baba Yaga and Camelot and Atlantis used up all the magic, so today we don’t have any, not a single unicorn.” Mama rubs Molly’s head and murmurs to her. “Merlin tried to warn us,” Molly continues, already laughing at her own joke. “He lived backwards!”
. . .
At dinner, Jacob (who’s going out for guard this year) piles fried chicken on his plate, depleting the family basket. “Limited resource,” he tells me. “Get it while you can.”
I slip out onto the balcony for some nighttime air, and the slightest movement catches the corner of my eye. Wife number one is pressed against the wall at the edge of the rail, a bas-relief smoking a cigarette. This shocks me because not only did I presume her impenetrable, I didn’t know she smoked. The night is still and humid, so her exhalations do not scatter, rather, they rise up cohesive as a mist—dry ice—the remnants of a hair metal band hanging in the cornices and eaves. She’s obviously upset.
“I was married once before,” she says, and I nod. I remember. “I don’t have any forgiveness left in me. He took every last drop.” She reads my face and says, “No, you haven’t done anything.” I exhale. I’m not afraid of her, but I am aware that wife number one could snap my collarbone with the most casual downward sweep of her hand. It occurs to me as a revelation that this is the reason she is so still, so precise in her movement. She extinguishes the cigarette between her thumb and index finger. I wonder if forgiveness is a renewable resource.
I open my mouth to ask her who needs forgiving, but a second concern, newly ignited, pushes its way forward. I say, “I thought you were impenetrable. If you can smoke, maybe we could . . .” But she shakes her head. “I’m not interested in sex anymore, but if I ever want it again, I’ll come get you. Besides,” she places a palm hard as scar tissue on my cheek, “aren’t all the other wives in this house enough?”
. . .
Wife number five jerks in a nightmare, waking me up. This is yet another development, and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. “Ow.” She says. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” in a rhythm. I shake her shoulder, and she says, thickly, “The keyboard is jabbing my ass.” She works so hard. Do we have a dream interpretation book in the library? I ease out of bed and creep downstairs but am distracted by some goings on in the kitchen—murmuring and candlelight. I sneak in.
“Forgiveness is a limited resource,” says wife number seven, when I bump into her.
Wife number seven is easy to forget, and I apologize for waiting so long to introduce her. Her presence in the house is normally felt only indirectly—a cereal box moved, the television set to a different station than the one I left it on, a bathroom sink cleaner than Mama remembers—but she always appears in times of crisis. She’s the one who hands me a flashlight, the one we can send to climb a short wall and wiggle through an open window, the one filling out our paperwork in the emergency room. Although always a pleasure to see her, it’s also disconcerting. I associate her with cries for help.
Right now she’s in the shadows against the wall by the door, watching the presentation at the kitchen island: kids out of bed too late; Mama foiled, snoring upstairs. Molly sets plastic dinosaurs out like a shell game for the siblings around her. She presents a downloaded picture from Dragonheart and shows crayon drawings propped on a picture stand (I hope the picture that belongs there is safe somewhere).
I have entered in mid-explanation: “. . . because the dragons lived the same time as the dinosaurs! Get it? They’re even built like dinosaurs, so some of the skeletons in museums we think are dinosaurs are probably dragons. So then there was a meteor.” Her visual aids here are a screen capture from some space site, which she passes around, and a much more vivid crayon catastrophe, all yellows and reds, streaking toward earth. “And it killed all the dinosaurs and dragons.” Molly solemnly turns over the plastic dinosaurs, which rock on their backs like disabled turtles.
In the dark, wife number seven elbows me and says, “I hope our college fund’s coming along.”
“The dinosaurs got furnace-pressed into oil,” says Molly, “and the dragons got pressed into magic, and magic was underground like oil but you had to drill for it, like oil.” She switches pictures on the stand to a drawing she’s done of Atlantis. She’s depicted it as a city rising from the sea, but in a bit of eleven year-old logic has also drawn a dome over it. “Atlantis,” she tells us, “was the Middle East of magic times, built over the biggest magic reserves. They made magic swords and flying carpets and genie lamps and all sorts of stuff from the magic they pumped up from the magic wells.”
The children lean forward, candlelight painting their hair. They are heartbreaking in their earnestness.
“And they all said,” (at this point Molly adopts a grown-up voice), “‘We mustn’t use up all the magic. We have to save some for the future’, but they didn’t, they used up all the magic underneath, and Atlantis sank into the ocean.” She replaces the picture of Atlantis she’d drawn with a picture just like it, except where the city had been there was now just sea. It is surprisingly effective. “Then came the dark ages, and the rest of history is pretty much correct.” Her audience (and I’m including myself here) is aghast—no more magic at all? “There’s probably still some in places,” surrenders Molly, “but it’s increasingly hard to find.”
. . .
Wife number five has mumbly nightmares on Wednesday night, and Thursday night too. The keyboard is still jabbing her ass. She’s keeping a secret from her boss. Is her assistant happy with his job? Will this get me fired? It occurs to me how little I know about her office.
. . .
Wife number seven tells me, “I think you need another wife.” When I ask her why she says, “I’m sorry, but the husband really is the last to know.” Mama has plastered the refrigerator with Molly’s art, and every time I go for a beer I’m confronted by yellow and red crayon, absolute destruction raining down.
. . .
“I’m having an affair,” says wife number five. I make a note of the verb tense. It’s Friday night and I must’ve felt something inside her needed addressing, because I’ve lit candles and broken out massage oil for our weekly lovemaking. Wife number five has just exited the shower—she’s wrapped in a towel and crying as she speaks. She looks as if her tears have soaked her body and are pooling at her toes. I ask if it’s her boss, and she shakes her head. “Worse,” she sobs. “My assistant.” I imagine nooners in a local No-Tell. I see my wife in a black cocktail dress and heels, dashing across a car-clogged downtown avenue, but the truth is sadder and more sordid. It’s an affair of locked office doors and hiked skirts, of panties dangling from an ankle as a keyboard jabs her ass with each thrust, of two mouths and two sex organs in the four possible combinations—the efficient orgasm production I’d expect in an affair designed by wife number five. I ask her what she plans to do, except I say “we,” as in, “What are we going to do?”
. . .
This house is drunk with children, garnished with pets, and supported by wives. Wives in the shingles, the wiring, the load-bearing columns; estrogen in the mortar, lipstick in the paint, comfortable silences in the walls. The word in the head of wife number five, even as it forms, makes the basement shudder. The pipes knock, rebellious at the intention. The foundation shakes, and as we are on the top floor, the effect is magnified, and I am jostled off the bed. “Maybe we should consider . . .” she says, and the entire house seems to drop, as if finally crashing through empty reservoirs we’ve tapped beneath it.
. . .
I sleep on the couch, alone (which I’ve mentioned I hate to do) and awake to a clutch of wives, their dawn robes, sweatpants, and tee shirts in the usual Saturday morning disarray. It’s a frightening sight first thing in the morning. The wives almost never congregate, preferring loose alliances that shift and change from room to yard to deck. They’re like the cats in that regard. And they never face each other without makeup—even Mama has time for concealer. Their blotchy skin and crows’ feet make their faces seem bigger, slightly forward, crowding and overlapping each other like word balloons.
“That whore,” says Sex Machine. “She could ruin everything.” I re-member many nights of lifting Sex Machine’s drunken body from the rhododendrons and corralling her to bed, of phone calls ducked out before taken, the couple of kids around here with questionable genetic ingredients. I stare at her but she does not drop her eyes (message received, read, discarded). “But you’re the one I love,” she tells me. “You’re why I’m here. Lasciviousness is my department, she’s the one who churches and golfs.” She joins me on the couch and rolls onto her back, bites her thumb and lets the other hand wander down between her legs. All of a sudden this conversation can wait, because I really want to nail Sex Machine, right now, right on the couch with the other wives watching. “You’ll feel better if you take it out on me,” she says, and whereas that’s true, it avoids the problem beneath. “Tie me down and ram me in the ass. Whip me while you make me lick Wife number two’s pussy.” My cell rings—it’s wife number two out early, already at the farmer’s market. “For God’s sake,” she says, “tell Sex Machine I can hear her.”
. . .
Molly asks everyone she comes across that day to finish this sentence: “If you dig down deeply enough, you’ll find . . .” Some of the answers she receives, which she records on an unlined pad: Oil, Lava, Magic, Bones, Sleestack, Morlocks, I don’t know, Bats in caves, The Land That Time Forgot, Lava, Go away, China, Forgiveness, Courage, Fossils, What you’re really made of, Lava, Buried treasure.
After answering “The Antipodes” Mama asks Molly for a sheet of her paper.
. . .
MWMw/K ISO SF race/age unimportant for LTR. Should work well in groups. Ability to forgive a must. Plus size OK. NS, but S OK, D/DR OCC.
. . .
On our third date, I decide to tell Linda. I’ve kept the wives a secret but she’ll be getting suspicious soon if she never gets to see my house. Best foot forward and all. She shakes her head and says softly, “That’s okay, I understand.” For a moment I’m afraid she’s a milksop, a woman destined to be rolled over, the kind of woman who’d forgive a heroin addict as he carted off her vanity, and that wouldn’t do at all. But then she pauses, her fork at an angle to her left cheekbone, and delivers it: “Some men are just like that.” That is the look—it seems to hang in front of her face, frozen, like a picture in a frame, even as this conversation moves on—that is the look missing from our home.
I shop for a ring the next day. Wife number five will have to pay for it out of her yearly bonus—money she would normally keep for her own clothes, glitter and scent. I take enough to make her feel the sacrifice, but not so much as to pauperize her. “You have to make your own decision,” I tell her, “but keeping your affair will be expensive.” My engagement to Linda stretches on—she has weekends to juggle and friends and family to import—and on these preamble nights I lie beside wife number five and watch the back of her head as she stares out the window—black hair, black window—filtering her desires, digging down through the strata of wants until the shovel bites hard into needs.
Linda arrives to meet the family. I don’t envy her. My wives form a hall within a hall she must pass through, hugging, “I’ve heard about you,” shaking hands, showing daring, appraising brows. The children, and I never knew there were so many, turn out on the staircase and sit behind knees, scrunched against the molding. The pets scurry, leap, and fly to higher-up perches. It is through this gauntlet of life that Linda, clutching her purse but otherwise calm, walks through to meet me and Molly, who has taken up position at my hip.
“You must be Molly,” Linda says, the way you do to an older child. “I got your letter.” I stare down at the top of Molly’s head, and from this angle I see her skinny arm come out to take Linda’s hand. “And where is this basement you wrote of?” Molly turns to lead Linda to the cellar doors (Linda brushes my cheek with her lips as she passes) and we all follow—a solemn parade down the entry hall and along the great room partition wall, to the utility hall and the door at the end that opens to a staircase into the earth.
I’ve never cared to examine our foundation too closely. Yet here we pour, down to the basement, a place of Suessian ducts and pipes, crossing and threading, from the too big to the normal to the stringy. This is the complexity beneath us. I guess. What do I know; I never come down here. It is cold; I notice that. The furnace and water heater live here, coupled in a corner. Linda and Molly march ahead, and wife number five shoulders to the front. Hey! There are things from my youth down here! I kneel to open a box, and wife number one stops me with her implacable palm. Kids, cats, and hamsters flow around us. The floor here was built brick—the normal rusty red kind with three holes. Here and there I see where the bricks have been pried up, stacked like hills. Molly’s work. I kneel to examine the holes bored into the Earth beneath the brick layer. I glance up at Jacob, who is watching from the stairs, arms crossed, some younger children around him. I turn my head and see the trio in the deepest part of the basement—wife, daughter, and wife-to-be. They are conversing heatedly in a witchy, Macbeth circle.
This hole I’ve found, in the foundation, fascinates me. The dirt’s still loose, and since no one is paying attention, I dig in the tingling coolness. I dig with my fingers.
At some point, a shin brushes my shoulder. It’s Mama. I look up and find the two of us alone at the floor of the foundation. I’m not surprised. When the wives who know fancy tricks have turned their attentions elsewhere, it is the children’s mother who is the last to leave my side. She kneels on the ground beside me. I look in her broad, sweet face and see she’s near tears. I take her in my arms. Above us we hear the faint sounds of a celebration underway—they’ve left us to our digging. Together we scoop the earth hoping for a shred, a trace, of the magic our daughter promised.
We lie filthy and exhausted on the foundation floor. The glow between us is damn near post-coital. My shoulders ache. “The ceremony will be on Sunday,” she tells me.
. . .
I skip the wedding and take the honeymoon alone, to Sapelo Island, a place I find by globe, running my index finger down the east coast of the United States until Molly, palms over eyes, says, “Stop.”
They send me a DVD of the ceremony; Linda is lovely in pale chiffon, wife number five acceptingly suave in her tuxedo. The reception looks rocking; Sex Machine got hammered. I wish I could’ve been there. Over the next two weeks I get postcards from home—Molly’s blocky script on the through-the-looking-glass side of a glossy from our local museum (towering skeletons—maybe dinosaurs, maybe dragons), Mama’s list of the chores awaiting my return.
I read them in the hammock, the dozen postcards that arrive daily, and I watch the vacationers around me. Northerners, mostly, come to lobster their shoulders in the Georgia sun, mothers in their singlets, some with skirts, husbands absent. I am the only man on the shore, I think, although there are boys among the jumping-bean children. Those boys carry yellow plastic pails and red plastic shovels, which they use to assault the sand, to dig.
John Jasper Owens lives in the South and is not named after the painter, although he thanks you for your concern. He is aware that his other story included in this issue also contains female marital infidelity, and wonders where his head’s been at lately. Look for him in print in Out of the Gutter and Bards and Sages Quarterly. Yet another of John's stories, "Horrortown," was featured in A cappella Zoo's debut issue.