William Watkins

One minute and twenty-seven seconds. The Andersons waited one minute and twenty-seven seconds, amid the shimmering heat and the primitive cries of cicadas, for someone to answer the door. They had been invited by the Davenports to dinner “around six”, and Mrs. Anderson made sure that they arrived at precisely two minutes past the hour, giving their hosts a proper grace period while maintaining an air of punctuality. As their car pulled into the driveway, a black flash bolted out from under the Davenports’ van and disappeared into the dense foliage of a magnolia tree. Mr. Anderson slammed on the brakes, swearing under his breath.

 “Now cut that out,” his wife said. “We’re here to make a good impression, so don’t you be getting in one of your moods tonight.” She checked her reflection in the mirror one last time, wiping off a bit of lipstick that had been smeared by the sudden stop, before she stepped out of the car and shut the door firmly behind her. She was a woman of medium height, with dense, curly dark hair that she dyed once a month. The effort was becoming more and more futile, as specks of grey were beginning to show at the roots after only two weeks, but she insisted upon stemming the flow of time all the same. Her husband Roger was a year older, and the little hair that remained on his head was a diaphanous white, barely visible in the evening sun. His posture was slouched, and his sizeable gut belied his successful stint as a college athlete.

Upon climbing the porch steps, Mrs. Anderson rang the doorbell and adjusted a fold in her dress. As with all new couples at First Methodist, she was eager to learn more about the Davenports. From what she had been able to gather from her own sources, Jim Davenport had moved to Wilmington to work as an insurance salesman, while Erin was still trying to find a position as a teacher. They were both in their late twenties, no children.

After some time had passed, Mr. Anderson cleared his throat, and his wife pressed the doorbell again, this time leaning in to be sure it was working. Sure enough, two faded tones chimed inside the house, but still no signs of activity followed. She pursed her lips; either she had remembered the invitation incorrectly, which she hadn’t, or the Davenports were unprepared, which was inexcusable. Eventually she knocked on the door, the loud raps of her knuckles so powerful they reverberated through the house’s foundation. Just as she raised her hand for a fourth rap, light hurried footsteps could be heard running down a staircase. The door opened to reveal Erin Davenport’s flushed face in the doorway.

“Come in, come in! I’m so sorry to keep you both waiting.” She reached out her arms to Mrs. Anderson, and the two women embraced over the threshold. Mrs. Anderson noticed that several strands of untended hair fell over Erin’s face, and that her movements were quick and awkward, as if she couldn’t quite keep her balance. The lightly perspiring couple followed Erin inside, and were surprised to find no sign of Jim. Mr. Anderson was visibly uncomfortable: he felt very much out of place surrounded only by women, whose conventions he neither understood nor wished to understand. Erin moved to shake his hand, but he stayed her with a polite yet distant nod. They stood in the foyer for a few moments, going through the required formalities, before Mrs. Anderson asked: “Will Jim be joining us tonight?”

“He’ll be down in a minute,” Erin said. “He’s still getting ready. Can I get you anything to drink in the meantime?”

“I’ll just have a glass of water.”

“Sure, I’ll go get that for you. Have a seat in the den, I’ll be right there.”

The Andersons sat down at opposite ends of a short, well-worn sofa, across from an ornamental brick fireplace with a dark oak mantle. Mr. Anderson began examining his cuticles, pushing at the dead skin with his fingernails. His wife prodded him sharply with her elbow. “You’re going to have to talk at some point while we’re here,” she said. “I don’t want to see you sulking in the corner all night not saying a word, do you hear me?”

“Alright, alright,” he said, “don’t make such a fuss.”

 

Upon entering the kitchen, Erin opened the upper-right cupboard and took stock of its contents, trying to decide which glass would speak best to her abilities as a hostess. In the summer months the days were so full of sunlight that they spilled over into night, and as the late summer sun poured through the kitchen window it reflected off the newly polished crystal, nearly blinding Erin with its brilliance. She eventually chose a slender glass with a small handle and went to fill it at the sink. Through the window she could see their two southern magnolias, whose dark, succulent leaves all but hid the Davenports’ house from view. Erin resented that grandifloral wall: it gave the house a secluded feel, she thought, as if it were skulking in the shadows. She had even heard someone refer to it facetiously as “Magnolia Manor”. Still, in a way this idea of distance appealed to her – the houses in their new neighborhood were packed together in tight little rows, and despite the suburb’s peaceful atmosphere she could never shake off the feeling that she was being watched.

She let her hands linger under the smooth flow from the tap, hoping the cold, metallic water would bring her back to the present moment. Memories from earlier that day flashed in front of her eyes, obscuring her vision. Their pull was strong, and before she knew it it was late morning again, the water in the sink no longer cold but warm and full of suds. It was her second attempt at washing the dishes they would use that night, and she hoped against hope that her diligent scrubbing would somehow make up for the countless scratches left by uncoordinated forks. Jim’s pounding footsteps on the stairs caused her to jump – she still hadn’t grown accustomed to the rhythms of the new house.

“I’m gonna go get some work done while I can,” Jim shouted from across the hall. “What time should I get back?”

“No later than four-thirty,” Erin said. “I’ll need some help getting things ready.”

He walked over while fingering the top button of his shirt, unsure whether professionalism would be expected of him in such sultry weather. “It’ll all work out, it looks like you’re already close to being done,” he said. “After all, it’s just dinner.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped without turning around. “I’ve spent hours getting all of this ready, and there’s still more to do. Did you clean up around the house like I asked?”

“I did, honey, don’t worry,” Jim said. He decided to keep the button as it was, leaving a small patch of hair visible just below the collar. “I won’t be long – that is, unless I pass out in that godawful heat.”

“Don’t you dare – I don’t plan on hosting this dinner all by myself.” She tried to feign annoyance, but really she was too nervous to pay attention to his teasing. He gave her a light kiss on the cheek before walking briskly out the door. Erin watched as his car passed through a screen of heat, its image rippling in the distance before finally turning a corner and vanishing altogether. She wiped her hands on a tattered dish towel and hung it up to dry.

That night’s casserole was still cooking in the oven, and Erin figured it would need to stay there for at least another half hour. She knew that hovering over it would do no good, so after finishing with the dishes she decided to step out to the mailbox to clear her head. She had hardly opened the door when the stifling afternoon heat enveloped her, the air so thick and muggy that her lungs all but refused to take it in. The trees intensified the sunlight rather than filter it out, sending blinding shards burning through the gaps in their branches. For some reason Erin took personal offense at the weather that day. She had been on-edge all afternoon, and the oppressive heat merely fueled her irritation: it fired her up like a bellows, kindling small sparks and coaxing them into a dangerous flame. She couldn’t help but feel that Jim didn’t care about the dinner as much as she did; he would no doubt make an excellent impression (he had much more charisma than she did, that was undeniable), but it bothered her that he should be able to earn the admiration she craved with such little effort. Besides, she thought, Jim grew up not far from here, he understands these people better than I do, and I bet the weather doesn’t bother him at all. Meanwhile here I am, suffocating at home. Not that he’s noticed.

That day the mailbox held only a handful of bills and unsolicited magazines. She had been unconsciously hoping to find a letter written specifically for her, although who she had expected to hear from she couldn’t say. She sighed, closed the mailbox lid, and walked back into the house.

 

Jim’s pounding footsteps startled Erin for the second time that day as he came down to greet the Andersons. She realized that the water in Mrs. Anderson’s glass had long since begun to overflow; she quickly turned off the faucet, poured a small amount back into the sink to make room for two slivers of ice (she had read somewhere that this was more elegant than cubes), and carried the glass into the den. The two men were in the middle of a firm handshake, with Mrs. Anderson looking on approvingly, relieved that the imbalance of genders had been righted.

“Here’s your water, Mrs. Anderson. Sorry it took me so long.”

“Don’t you worry, dear, we were just getting acquainted with Jim here. What a strapping young man! It will certainly be nice to add a bit of youthful energy to this old congregation, won’t it, Roger?”

Mr. Anderson seemed less enthusiastic than his wife, and Jim gave no reply. His face exhibited the terrified expression of an actor who has forgotten his next line. Mrs. Anderson no doubt assumed him to be too modest to acknowledge her compliment, but Erin knew that it was her own entrance that had unnerved him. It was obvious he hadn’t forgotten his lines – he knew the script by heart. He was simply awaiting her cue as to which role he should play. She was even less sure than he was, but she enjoyed the slight thrill of power that his eyes sent rushing through her veins. They all took their seats, the Andersons on the couch, the Davenports in matching armchairs across from them.

“So tell me, Erin,” Mrs. Anderson asked, “they say you used to be a teacher back in Pennsylvania. Do you think you’ll try and find another job here?”

“That’s what we’re hoping,” Erin said. “The move happened too late for me to find a full-time position for the fall, but I’m going to see if any of the schools could use an assistant or an extra sub.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find something, they’re just bound to hire you right on the spot! I bet the kids just adore a sweet little thing like you.”

“She was Teacher of the Year two years ago,” Jim said. “They said she was the youngest one they could remember.”

A peace offering, Erin thought, or perhaps an appeasement. Either way, she shouldn’t accept, not yet; best to let him dangle a bit longer. She ignored his comment.

“Thank you Mrs. Anderson, but I -”

“Oh please, call me Deborah,” she said. “Nothing makes me feel older than grown women calling me by my last name.”

“I’m sorry, Deborah…”

“It’s alright, dear, it’s alright, no harm done.”

“…but the thing is that Jim found a great position here in Wilmington, so there’s not too much pressure for me to find work right away.”

“Good for you,” Mrs. Anderson said. “I always say, there’s no need for women to always be going out to prove they can do it all. Why, I stayed at home with our kids for nearly ten years, and it didn’t do me any harm, did it?” She turned to Mr. Anderson, who gave an affirmative grunt. “It wasn’t easy, though, I’ll tell you that!”

“I’m sure,” said Erin.

“And if you think an empty house keeps you busy, you just wait until your first one comes along. You won’t even know what hit you!”

Erin bristled – Mrs. Anderson had wandered into dangerous territory. Mr. Anderson, perhaps not as unobservant as his wife thought him, coughed uncomfortably. “Why don’t we move into the dining room?” he suggested.

“Now Roger,” Mrs. Anderson said, “don’t be so forward. I do apologize, sometimes I think his stomach does his thinking for him.”

“No, no, I think it’s about time we eat,” Jim said, turning to Erin, “don’t you, dear?”

Their eyes met: his blue as water, with fish-like pupils darting this way and that, hers dark amber, once malleable, now solid, hardened, gleaming. She gave in, her attempt at malice finally outweighed by pity for those frightened guppies. “Yes, I’d hate for the food to get cold while we wait. We’ll show you to the dining room.”

Erin had to admit, she was pleased with the day’s culinary achievements: three-bean salad, shrimp and grits casserole, pork tenderloin, and ice cream with mixed fruit for dessert. Southern enough to show her willingness to assimilate, but not so much as to expose her yankee roots. (Did they still say “yankee”? She made a mental note to find out.) She had forgone the wine, however, unsure of the boundaries and limits set by First Methodist’s congregation (let alone by Mrs. Anderson). They sat around the dining room table, which was set by Erin and blessed by Jim, and with the final “Amen” they set into the food with vigor. A meal is a blessing at any gathering, even in the absence of hunger; it establishes a kind of natural order, allowing host and guest to fulfill their complementary duties of providing and praising. This, along with the satisfaction of a full stomach and the distraction of busy hands, encourages conversation to flow from lips made loose by chewing. It is no coincidence that the South prides itself both in its rich cuisine and its social grace: the two are necessarily intertwined.

“Now Jim, I hope you don’t mind my asking,” began Mrs. Anderson, “but we couldn’t help but notice a nice little dent in your car out front. It wasn’t anything serious, was it?”

Erin froze at this unexpected question, unsure how Jim would answer, but he simply gave a short laugh and said, “No, nothing that serious. It’s these high school kids, you know, they’re so excited to get their license they go out and wreck their parents’ cars the first week. The kid who hit me didn’t do that much damage, so I figured I’d give him a break. After all, we all make mistakes.”

“Well now, wasn’t that nice of you?” said Mrs. Anderson. Erin busied herself by offering to cut off pieces of tenderloin for everyone at the table, but no one acknowledged her at this point. It was clear Jim had become the center of attention.

“So Jim,” said Mr. Anderson, his mouth still somewhat engaged in chewing, “they tell me you’re in the insurance business?”

“Yes sir,” Jim replied, “I’ve been working as a salesman for almost six years. I had a pretty good job in Philadelphia, but I got a hefty offer here and we decided a change of scenery couldn’t hurt. Besides, my family’s all from the South, and I was starting to get a little homesick up north.”

“You must be an accomplished salesman,” said Mrs. Anderson, admiringly.

Erin tried to focus on cutting the meat, but the latent anger in her eyes reflected dangerously in the newly-scrubbed knife. She felt Jim slowly but surely squirming out from under her thumb; his natural charm was working its usual magic, winning over complete strangers with its false modesty. She worried that her moral advantage no longer held sway with Jim – why should he play by her rules now that he was gaining ground?

“…well, you certainly never complained when my salary was putting food on the table, let alone paying for all your fancy get-ups.” Erin looked up from her cutting: apparently a small squabble had arisen between the Andersons during her meditation. She tried with difficulty to clear her mind of distractions, thinking of how to ease the building tension in the room.

“All I’m saying is, she sure must feel lucky to be married to such an outstanding young man,” Mrs. Anderson said, turning to Erin. “Don’t you, dear?”

Erin looked up, intending to respond directly to Mrs. Anderson’s question, but a mixture of curiosity and inevitability compelled her to turn to Jim instead. Their eyes met.

 

4:30 had come and gone without any communication from Jim: no calls, no texts. Now it was three minutes past five, less than an hour before the Andersons were set to arrive, and Erin was still staring out the window, waiting for Jim to materialize out of thin air with bags full of groceries and a mouth full of excuses. Her eyes fell only upon the wide expanses of a clear summer sky, with two or three wispy clouds lazily flaunting their collected moisture above the blistering earth, which viewed their stores with envy and thirst. At five minutes past, Erin’s anger gave way to worry. Suppose there had been an accident? Suppose robbers had broken into his building and caught him by surprise? Her thoughts were drawn taut like a string ready to snap, and to put her mind at ease she decided to drive down to the office herself. Jim had given her an extra key to use while they were moving in his belongings, and she had forgotten to take it off the metal ring she kept in her purse. After all, she thought, it was only ten minutes away. Making sure the oven was off and the casserole was cooling on the stove, Erin ran out the door, slamming it shut behind her to line up the swollen wood of the doorframe with the lock, and made her way down the steps and across the driveway. The inside of her car was suffocating, so she left the door open while she turned it on, hoping the fresh air would breathe life into the scorched leather and burnt plastic.

Erin’s memory skipped over the drive itself, which was to be expected, as the most mundane actions are always difficult to recall even under normal circumstances. Only the smallest of details penetrated this blank space in her mind: the bright red sheen of a stop sign that had been overturned by a recent storm, a barking dog who broke the neighborhood’s austere silence. The next thing she knew, she was pulling into the parking lot of Jim’s building. She saw her husband’s undamaged car and gave a sigh of relief, reasoning that he couldn’t have been in an accident. Next to it, however, was a rather shabby looking pickup truck with one of its backlights covered by red tape. Erin had never seen this car before; it clearly didn’t belong to any of Jim’s coworkers. Without turning around she reached behind her for some kind of weapon. Her hand came upon the smooth handle of a metal baseball bat that had fallen out of a box during the move, and she grabbed it before closing the car door, leaving it unlocked in case she needed a quick escape. She held her keys tightly to silence their jangling, and, after opening the building’s front door slowly with a steady hand, she stepped inside, forgetting in her distracted state to close it behind her.

As she stood in the empty lobby, stock still, several sounds clamored for her attention: the percussive pounding of her heart, the incessant call of a mockingbird outside, and finally, softer than both of these, the sound of a muffled struggle behind the closed door of Jim’s office. Adrenaline rushed through Erin’s veins. With steady footsteps muted by the faded carpet, she walked straight ahead and, without a moment’s pause, opened the door to find her husband fucking another man.

She couldn’t remember how exactly they were positioned, or to what extent either of them was undressed; her mind had repressed any such images. A small mercy. She only remembered her own response, an insipid “Oh!” for which she would later berate herself many times over. Without even closing the door, she made a simple about-face and walked calmly back to the parking lot. For a moment she did nothing but stare at the busy road ahead of her, then the legions of trees that surrounded them, and finally the vast canopy of the summer sky, light blue, as if filled in by colored pencil. All of this was accompanied by the peals of the mockingbird’s song. She had no idea how long she stood by her car taking in her surroundings, although it couldn’t have been longer than a single minute. As her wandering gaze fell upon Jim’s car an unusual sensation pulled her out of her reverie, and it was only then that she remembered the baseball bat, still clutched beneath her marble white knuckles.

 

“All I’m saying is, she sure must feel lucky to be married to such an outstanding young man,” Mrs. Anderson said, turning to Erin. “Don’t you, dear?”

Without lowering her eyes from Jim’s, Erin gave a twisted smile. “Yes, Deborah,” she said, “I most certainly do.”

***

“Have a safe ride back,” Erin said as the Andersons descended the front stairs. “We would love to have you over again sometime.”

“Oh, that would be so nice dear,” said Mrs. Anderson. “Thank you for such a wonderful evening; we’ll look for you at this week’s service.”

“Glad to have you with us,” said Mr. Anderson, giving a rare half-hearted smile.

The older couple gave a final wave goodbye as they walked over to their car. The Davenports went back inside, and Mrs. Anderson waited until the car engine started before she began discussing the evening with her husband.

“Well, they seem like a lovely couple,” she said. “Only I feel that there was something odd about her…something a little off-putting.”

“She seemed nice enough to me,” Mr. Anderson said, pulling out of the driveway.

“Oh of course, she’s just as nice as she could be, bless her heart. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right with her.”

“Maybe she’s just not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll talk to some of the ladies in the congregation and see what they have to say about her. At any rate, it’ll be nice to have a new couple around; I’ve been saying for a while now that the church needs some new blood, don’t you think so?”

Mr. Anderson grunted. She could tell he had reached his limit for the night, and so she spent the ride back picking over various moments she meant to relate to her friends, trying to pinpoint the vague uneasiness she had felt in that secluded house.

As the Andersons drove away, the same black cat that had frightened them earlier observed their departure from behind the shelter of large, decaying magnolia blossoms. It sat perched on a high branch, and once the car was out of view it turned to direct its gaze towards the Davenports’ house. The sun had finally set, and as the neighborhood’s lights flickered out one by one the cat’s outline slowly melted into the night. Soon all that remained was not a smile, but two green eyes, reflecting the light from the Davenports’ bedroom window. The silhouettes of the figures inside flashed across the shining emerald orbs for some time until finally, after a period of inactivity, the light went out, and the cat succumbed to sleep in the summer night’s warm embrace.