Although she didn’t know it, her husband had collapsed in the paint aisle at the local hardware store. Dead of a massive heart attack. It was a Sunday. He was forty-four years old.
Hours later, his car pulled into their driveway.
What took so long, she asked, when he appeared empty handed in the doorway. He just shook his head and went upstairs.
All week he had promised to paint the kitchen. That’s why he had gone to the store. For some supply that would set the whole procedure in motion. But he didn’t come down in his old clothes. The ones that always reminded her that time was just something you got dirty.
He was neatly showered, square shouldered, trim as they day they met. He sat in a chair he never sat in, a beam of hard sunlight on his face.
Are you okay? she asked.
I’m fine, he said, gazing up at her. Just really hungry, that’s all.
He smiled in that way he had, then looked at the television and flipped on the game. And yet something was off. This was the man who fathered their children, had made love to her mechanically. A man of utility in times of importance. It wasn’t like him not to finish what he started.
He was sitting there, rigid in the chair when she came and brought him some fresh baked bread. His favorite. She watched him push the bread in his mouth and chew it. He didn’t appear to taste it. He was unappreciative of all that had happened to make it arrive there.
She smiled, satisfied that he disappointed her in the same ways. When he was finished she took his plate. Where his fingers had touched, it was covered in a black dust.
At dinner, he was there at the head of the table, talking to their three children. He had forgotten they’d gone to the beach with the neighbors that day. The children stared at him. Suddenly her youngest daughter began to cry. She whisked her from the chair and sent her to watch television.
He lay beside her in bed that night. It gave her a strange feeling that she couldn’t shake. Something had happened at the hardware store. Perhaps the old men who work there, knowledgeable of marriages and inner workings of houses, who knew the ways in which they could all suddenly and disastrously fail, had shared some secret with her husband. Or perhaps, she feared, as he walked into the store, he’d been crushed dead by a passing car.
She knew he’d bought that new kind of life insurance. They had talked about it once, briefly, and then one day he said he’d signed the papers. That was the end of it. She didn’t know if she’d be informed when it was activated. It depended on how he had wanted it to be.
It was a frightening feeling, not knowing. There was no way to talk about it, as that would defeat the purpose of the insurance. It felt like she was in the story she read in college about the man who turned into the cockroach. And she would have to pretend everything was normal.
When she awoke in the morning, he was already up and making breakfast. Her children were laughing at the table. As she came into the kitchen, she looked out the window at the leaves falling from the trees. Above, the moon was a smudge on the sky.
Soon it would be winter. There would be many Christmases, and she looked at her husband and wondered what it would be like. If she could endure not knowing. Year after year, unsure if he was the same man. Same not just in demeanor, but in the cells that made up his body. She wondered if she could love him, if she could convince herself that it was she who was strange. That she was the cockroach.
No. She had a sister in Cleveland. She would tell this man that she was leaving. That she couldn’t love him. She would tell him that she was taking the children. That she had never wanted the insurance, although he had insisted, saying they would need someone to provide.
He kissed each of their children and sent them off to school, gathered his things to leave. She shivered at the way he looped his arms into his coat, fit his fingers in the handle of his briefcase. Other men and women had felt like she did now. But they had never talked about it; somehow they had kept the secret.
He kissed her goodbye at the door, his lips tight and his teeth long and hard. It had the effect of kissing a skeleton, and she recoiled. He recoiled too. And in a horrifying instant she saw that he knew. He knew he wasn’t the same.
And then that look was gone. He turned and walked to his car, and she knew that he was still her husband, even if he wasn’t the same. He looked up at her as he opened his car door. In that look was love, that same camaraderie that came from all terrifying things that had happened to them, just as years before when she had pushed a blue, quiet baby from her womb. That like all the awful, unspeakable and terrifying things in their lives, their miseries were intimate and no one else could own them.
As he drove away, she figured that in time this wouldn’t seem so strange. There would come days that would feel plain ordinary again. And she decided, as she went and scrubbed his black dust from the dishes, that she was never going to say a thing about it.
Nothing. Not a thing.