In the Middle of Things




She was tossing and rearranging the tangled sheets, the silky ones with green vines against whiteness. Two a.m. and outside wild cats were cruising the neighborhood. Someone’s sports car was more rattle than glam. She stretched toward the screen to see it. Into a length of shadow it vanished, a small slash of sound as tires leaned around a corner.

It was too late to be awake for no good reason. Iris thought about her list for tomorrow and the sameness of it, like every other list she made, failed to arouse her attention or quiet it. There was cleaning to pick up, flowers to arrange, Paddy to walk to the dog park, a restaurant reservation to be made at Chano’s. Iris counted ten different items in her mind, the last being: re-schedule that dental appointment for Mrs. Callahan.

This was a life lived in lists. She had been fortunate to get the assistant position after losing her teaching job in North Haddon. So very many months sick; she couldn’t help it. Shingles. Who would have thought at her age? And the recovery continued. There were areas on her back that still stung deep inside the tissue, ached even when she was trying to visualize perfect health.

She tried this now: slow breath in and out, eyes lightly closed, the beach scene coming up, sky like sapphire, waters lapping at shore, palm trees swaying as though she was living in the middle of paradise, in the direct center of all that was right and good.

Iris looked fabulous out there in her two-piece of brilliant red and purple flowers. She was getting off the surfboard even though, in fact, she had never excelled in that sport. That was something she regretted; it meant that sometimes the guys took off with the others, leaving her to boil and bronze alone.

The truth was, they all met or surpassed people’s expectations in 1977. It was their town, their beach. They were smart, headed to college, though not together. Their youth was bold, even disconcertingly so. No fear, no misgivings then. All they had to do–Vince, Marty and Iris–was step out of the car and start shooting the bull, leaning against the car easy as you please. Those baby blue Chevy fins! They announced Vince, just as he wanted. You couldn’t miss him, car or not. He was destined to be a leader somewhere out there. And he was.

But it was Marty she watched when he wasn’t looking. They had all grown up together, same  block, similar two story brick, parents  playing bridge together once a month or teeing off on Saturday mornings. There was nothing they didn’t know about each other, they thought. Marty had a pool and they swam until September ended, despite breezes edged with the promise of change from hot to warm, known to unknown. Iris could watch him do jackknives for hours, the way he snapped against the air and sliced through the surface. But she was nearly as good, all muscle and sleek curves. She was a good match for anyone, even Talia Kawaniak, head of girls’ swim team. Imagine: after school Talia married a dentist fifteen years older than she. A scandal not worth much after a few weeks.

Iris was fully out of her health-inducing vision, into cinematic memories. She threw off the sheets and sat up, rubbed her eyes. Health, how elusive. You had it and then it turned into something unwelcome, a stranger in your house that wouldn’t let you rest one minute. It had been that way for years–this odd annoyance, that random diagnosis. It was as if she hadn’t worked hard enough long ago so she had to pay something. Valedictorian, full scholarship to State, then plumb teaching job at a private school in northern California that lasted most of her career. But they had come like gifts.

Now she was all set up in an apartment atop a triple garage on the Callahan mini-estate. It faced the water, but this side she could always see the neighbors across the way, their security lights flashing whenever creatures of the night, likely those damned plundering raccoons, crept by. She thought she heard someone moan but it was nothing; people here didn’t moan so you would notice, not in the middle of night. Still, she was wide awake now. She turned on a lamp, amber glow illuminating her desk, then opened the second drawer and pulled out a folder.

It was not good to do this, to look again. It had been a month since she got it from the drugstore owner. It was Mr. Zeland’s old photo of the trio. There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t pull it out despite the pain it induced. Marty on the left, Vince with his fast wheels, and herself. They had parked in front of Rexall Drugs and each had a lime soda and a burger at the counter that afternoon. She knew that because it was the last time they met. Iris’ eyes lingered over the picture. She thought for the first time that they were heavier in those days–no one thought it not good–just full of life and an insatiable appetite for more.

She turned out the light and got back into bed. Iris rested her hands on the photo face down on her chest. Marty, retired from pro golfing only two years, was gone. Taken down by his own heart. The one she had longed for. Vince was still a lawyer, in his glory with a new wife. It had been strange seeing everyone lined up in rows in front of the casket, the whole town in unison. Funny how Marty wanted to end up back home; it never happened while criss-crossing the country. But there he was at last; she turned away from the dirt being dumped on him. Everyone told her she looked just as good as they thought she would. She wondered about that.

Iris sighed from a hollow she willed to disappear. The cats were back, yeowling and hissing. She knew they were onto something interesting, perhaps an encounter with the raccoon, dukes up and readied. But she was tired, more tired than she thought, enough to not care at all.

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