Alfred Pender has spent each of the past six Wednesdays perched atop his broken barstool at this recycling and landfill operation. He leans against the scarred trunk of a dying maple tree for balance, carefully watching the contents of each truck as it is emptied. The flickering, partial shade from the maple tree and the dry August breeze make the heat just bearable. He is tired, hungry, and dirty, and his throat is parched, but he stays to keep watch because the trucks will continue their deliveries for another hour, and he does not want to miss his couch.

Another box truck backs up to the expanding pile of forgotten things. Two men in coveralls slide out a couple of broken-up dressers, a torn leather ottoman, a purple toilet, a kitchen worth of birch plywood cabinets.

With some finality, a workman throws the kitchen sink from the truck. Everything but the kitchen sink – and then the kitchen sink, too. Shouldn't that be funny? Dee would think it was funny, which would make him laugh, too. He can picture her laughing, tilting her head down and to her right as she always did when she thought something was genuinely funny. But Dee is not there to share the moment, and the moment is lost.

Alfred thinks separated is not the right word. Dislocated would be a more meaningful choice. Dislocation has the implication of pain, and that the dislocated thing is no longer operative. Alfred has never felt so utterly dislocated.

If his couch is unloaded, he cannot miss seeing it. It is avocado green with a harvest gold fringe skirt and matching piping around the three cushions. Nothing evokes the early seventies like his couch.

Alfred brought only two things to the marriage, the couch and his blue and white 1970 Ford F-100 pickup truck. The pickup Dee didn't mind so much; she used to ride sitting next to him on the bench seat on hot summer days when they would go to Dairy Queen, get milkshakes and watch the sunset. But she despised the couch. It was ugly, dirty, worn out, and went with nothing else in the whole house. She had wanted him to throw it out, but he just moved it down to the basement.

She would have had the couch hauled away long ago if he hadn't been there to object. He wasn't there anymore.


On that couch, when he was a kid he had watched Hogan's Heroes, McHale's Navy and Gilligan's Island after school each day. On that couch, he'd spent more than an hour with his friend Wicker's friend Ray, arguing about how to properly pronounce the word "dude." Ray was from Canada.

On that couch, while his father was in the hospital for something he didn't want to talk about and his mother was visiting him there, Alfred lost his virginity. The girl had light green hair and was skinny as a plank. He'd loved her at the time, and he supposes she loved him in that simple everything-is-you sort of way.

Later, his mother bought a new blue and tan couch and he and his father moved the avocado green couch to the basement. That's when it became his couch.


Another truck backs around, beeping obnoxiously. Two men get out and unload two couches, among other things, but neither couch has the golden fringe. They are not avocado green.

Sitting on his stool, watching as the next truck unloads washing machines and water heaters, a few mattresses and box springs, and a mangled bookcase, he begins to replay the day he left Dee, or actually, the date by which she'd suggested he leave. He'd been loading a few belongings in his truck to take to his new apartment. Dee went to the Golden Hen while he packed up and left. "To leave you to it," she'd said. He pictures her walking away, but the image is blurry. He stops the memory short by shaking his head, shuddering and pinching his leg painfully. "There be monsters there," he says aloud, but he doesn't smile.


The mountain of fresh dirt grows each week. They truck in soil from the highway excavation, and bulldozers push it over the top of the junk, burying all the old, rejected memories and preparing the dump for the arrival of all the new ones. Twice already, Alfred had to move his stool back because, as the junk pile grew outward, the tree he sat under one week might be bulldozed into the pile by the next week. Pulling into the dump each week is like watching a stop action film of an explosion of soil, or perhaps a huge, rapidly growing carcinoma.

Faso, one of the workers at the dump who has befriended him, strides over. "You'll have to move next time, Fred. This tree is coming down tomorrow." Alfred looks around from his seat and scouts out prospective trees.

Faso says, "I saw a green and gold couch at the Goodwill yesterday. It looked really good, and it only cost seventy dollars."

"If it looked real good, then it's not mine."

Faso squints at him, then shrugs, pulls on his hearing protection, and returns to his skid-steer.


The east side of the dump is for things that can be recycled or reused, and the west side is where the junk that is not recyclable and is too worn out to be of any use is tossed. He sits on the west side. The irony is not lost on him. He dwells on it, he lets it sit heavy on his chest, focusing on it so he can feel a bit like a martyr. The recursive nature of the emotional irony isn't lost on him either. The feeling of uselessness builds on itself, which leads to even greater focus on the stupidity of focusing on his own worthlessness. It didn't used to be like this.

How many old stoves were brought here, stoves upon which some young woman cooked for her new husband? Things are different now. Men cook for women more often. Dee wanted him to cook for her when he lost his job. She had a job. He didn't. He should do the cooking. But he didn't think so. He didn't think he'd be any good at it. He wouldn't know that you had to put peas in a tuna casserole, not green beans.

When he'd made love to Dee the last time, she said, "Who are you trying to please by doing that?"

"Myself," he'd said, enjoying his own joke. Then he realized that was indeed who he was trying to please. He knew then the admission was a revelation, but he didn't take the time to figure out what it meant. Now he knew. He had needed to feel potent, significant, even if he was the only one who saw it that way.


The seventh week after his separation from Dee, the bald guy at the unemployment office is staring at him. "How could you not get this job? It wasn't a perfect fit, but it would do until something better came along. What did you tell them?"

The man waits for an answer. Somehow, Alfred always makes a bad impression on prospective employers. He needs his Wednesdays off for a while longer to watch for his couch. They don't seem to understand that. And what did he know about project management anyway? He had used the plans and watched the critical path, but someone else had always been the project manager, not him.

His unemployment will run out eventually. Not that it is enough, anyway. The apartment he'd found when he and Dee first separated is too expensive. He will have to get a walk-up room over one of the stores downtown. That's all he really needs. Maybe he can just sleep in his truck.


Alfred thinks he must smell worse than the dump itself, but he placed himself upwind, so he is not sure. Although they don't haul regular household refuse to this dump, and even though they keep most of it covered with a veneer of sandy dirt, it still reeks of mold and rot. Aggressive seagulls squawk and scream when each truck drives in. Alfred figures it's the smell that attracts them, but it doesn't bother him. It's nothing compared to the car.


The ground chuck incident was more than seven weeks ago. He left one of the bags of groceries in the car, and two oppressively hot days later the car's interior had smelled worse than anything he had ever smelled before. He opened all the car doors, held his breath and put a plastic trash bag over the two pounds of ground chuck he'd let slow-bake in the hot car, then he lurched away, sucking in a long breath, making him woozy. He thought he might need to change his clothes, and worried he might need to replace all the upholstery. Smells like that linger.

Alfred imagined Dee saying, "I can still smell it," every time they got in the car. She wouldn't intend anything mean. In fact, she would probably make light of it to help him feel better, to show she didn't blame him.

When he closed the garage door, Alfred heard his wife yell out, "Did you save the cans of green peas? They should be fine."

He washed his hands in the powder room and plodded to the basement door. It wasn't an argument yet, and it certainly hadn't reached the point where he needed to seek the seclusion of his den, but it seemed easier to retreat quickly rather than let the conversation deteriorate. "No, I couldn't do it. It stank too much," he yelled through the wall. "I left the car doors open to air it out. Remind me to close them later or the battery will run down."

"Oh, you can't leave the doors open, someone might steal it or the stereo or something." Dee remained in the kitchen, preparing dinner.

"No one's going to steal the car... or anything within fifty yards of it."

"I need those peas, Alfred. I'm baking tuna casserole. You know I need the peas."

Alfred turned the handle on the basement door. She always seemed to think he should know what she needed. Truth was, he used to, but he seldom thought about it anymore. There were times when he just had to go down in the basement and sit on his couch. Sometimes he'd watch TV, sometimes not, but he could not handle an argument with Dee.

"Sorry." Alfred ducked down into his basement sanctuary. He called it a den, but it was just a dark basement with a black and white TV and his couch. The walls were concrete, and he’d covered a section of the floor with indoor/outdoor carpet they had removed from their deck when the gaps between the boards telegraphed through. It was a yellow-green carpet, intended to look like grass. As long as he didn’t paint or panel the basement, his wife wouldn't come down there.

He used to watch TV there if Dee went to bed early, so the noise wouldn't keep her awake, or when she had the quilt table unfolded in the living room and was concentrating. Since he'd lost his job though, he spent more and more time in the basement.

It was months since he had lost his job, but he clearly remembered being called into his department head's office. "The market being what it is, and... "

He had stared at the floor, trying to resist the urge to plead, trying to resist the building pressure of tears behind his eyes, trying to resist the dreadful downward pull on his dignity, which he was losing along with his job. Afterward, he sat in the parking lot for an hour without the energy to start the truck and drive home. He felt heavy and slow and very old. Fifty-year-old line managers weren't in high demand, and he didn't know what else he could do.

Alfred had slouched on his couch and thought about the graduation party he'd had in his parents' basement. He'd been sitting on that couch when his friend Jeremy told him he'd started a band and then got up and began wildly strumming air guitar and dancing around the room until he crashed into June Something, who was holding a fork and trying to get out of the way. She ended up stabbing him in the groin, not hard, but everyone there said she should kiss it and make it better. June was a sweet girl. The blush of embarrassment went up her face like quickly rising mercury in a thermometer. Just like that, he remembered.

Sitting on his couch, Alfred thought about his summer jobs with the city, about playing baseball in the park, about the girls he knew. He didn't notice Dee had come downstairs.

"Alfred, what are you doing sitting here in the dark? I need that can of peas."

"Why don't you use green beans?"

"You don't put green beans in tuna casserole. You put peas in tuna casserole." She made a sour face then, like the one she would make whenever he said, "I'm going to the basement."

She said, "You used to like my tuna casserole."

"Yes," he said. "I used to like your tuna casserole." He wasn't going to lie about it.

He expected her to leave then, to sigh and go back upstairs. He wanted her to go back upstairs. She stared at him instead. "You can't do this to me again, Alfred" she said. "I get it, you lost your job, but I still need you."

She'd had this reaction when he'd lost his brother too. She didn't give him time to think. He wanted time to think. "I can't get the peas, Dee. I think the air in the bag is actually dangerous."

"It's not about the peas, damn it! It's about you sitting down here in this fucking bunker all day. When you do poke your head out, you mope around like the whole world is against you, like no one's on your side, and you won't talk and you won't even touch me anymore. Where did my Alfred go? Why are you hiding from me?" He could sense her still staring. "At least look at me."

He wasn't hiding, just thinking things through. Figuring out what to do. He just needed some time. He glanced at her. She wasn't really angry. "I'm not hiding from you," he said.

"I think you need to see someone."

"I'm not going to a shrink."

She paused, one foot on the step. "I know it's hard to deal with the job thing, but we can get by, even if it takes a while to find another job."

It wasn't about the money. She didn't understand.

"Oh, Alfred. I wish... " She sighed, then walked quietly back upstairs. She sighed a lot since he'd lost his job.

He had always loved her, though lately he failed to reaffirm it even to himself. So, later that night after eating tuna casserole with green beans – he admitted that peas would have been better – when she asked him if he loved her, he thought about it.

Before he could come up with an answer, she said, "I think we should give this up. It's not getting either of us anywhere."

Alfred contemplated his basement couch. If he were in the basement, they wouldn't be having this conversation. He would be thinking about Lisa, who had given him his first kiss when he was almost sixteen. How giddy, how happy it made him, how simple it was, how exciting. He couldn’t remember Lisa's kiss clearly, but he remembered opening his mouth just like they did in the movies.

Dee pushed her chair back and sighed. "I'll take that as agreement." She went quietly upstairs and closed the bedroom door.

"Yes, I do love you," he’d said to her empty chair, but he understood her decision. He didn't feel emotion that strongly anymore. He didn't have the energy to put into it. He returned to the basement and watched the last half of Old Yeller.

When they separated, Dee had kept the car.


By nine weeks, Alfred decides that maybe she threw the couch out that first day, and he'd missed it. He asks Faso if it might have been taken to a different dump, but Faso reaffirms that all the larger items come here. There isn't anywhere else for them to go.

Alfred again perches on his broken stool and wishes for his couch. When he had found the stool, one tubular steel leg was folded just below the ring brace that supported the four legs, so Alfred spent ten minutes worrying it, bending it back and forth until it came off completely just below the knee.


Two weeks ago, when he returned to his apartment from a trip to the dump, wishing he had the extra cash to get his truck detailed, the assistant manager of the complex, a young man with hair to his shoulders and a vague beard, stopped him in the parking lot.

"Mr. Pender, you need to come with me to the office. You're two months overdue, you owe this month's rent too. You need to pay today." The assistant manager actually grabbed Alfred's arm and started dragging him toward the building that held the office and the pool.

"Stop that!" Alfred said, peeling the young man's hand off his arm. "I know the way to the office, and I have my checkbook with me. I just forgot, that's all."

In the office, Alfred wrote a check for two months’ rent, saying, "You’ll have to wait until I move some money over to checking for the rest." The assistant manager raised an eyebrow, but the comment about moving money from one account to another gave the transaction an air of authenticity. The assistant manager was new to the job.

Late that night, Alfred moved out. The next morning, he emptied his checking account. Skipping out made him feel like a criminal, like a bum, but he couldn't think of anything else to do. His security deposit would have to cover part of his debt. It was the best he could do.

He bought a large plastic container for his clothes and things at a Walmart, bungeed it into his truck bed, and slept in the truck. There was a quiet, unused side road near the dump where he wouldn't be disturbed at night.

After a week without a shower or washed clothes, his worry that his wife had destroyed his couch in some other way got the better of him. Perhaps she gave it to the Salvation Army or AMVETS?

He drove slowly down his street then parked around the corner. Before, he would give Dee a kiss when he came home after work or shopping, then he would say, "I'll want that kiss back later." And she would reply, "No, I'm keeping that one." He'd stopped saying that the day he lost his job. He'd sneaked into the house that day, avoiding the hello kiss – the kiss that would reveal his failure.

He glanced around furtively every few seconds as he sneaked along the hedges up to his house. Acid churned in his stomach and he could hear his own breathing, loud and raspy. The chill air cooled the sweat that broke out on his arms and hands as he peered through the gap in the basement window curtains. Using his flashlight, he realized that in fact nothing had changed. The couch was still there. Why was she keeping it? It might be hard to carry up the stairs, but the neighbor on either side would be glad to help.

Before someone called the police and he had to explain why he was peeping at his own house, he slinked away. Hurrying along the sidewalk toward his truck, he glanced back one more time. The front door of his house opened and Dee looked out. It was too dark for her to see him clearly, but for a moment he thought she looked right at him. He was suddenly frightened and darted around the corner to his truck and drove off wondering what he was afraid of. Why was he shaking? It was still his house after all.

They used to kiss at the door whenever either one of them left. Once, he forgot his hat so they kissed again as he left the second time, then he realized he'd forgotten a coupon and had to go back yet again. After the third goodbye kiss, Dee said, "I keep kissing you goodbye, but you never leave!" adding a theatrical stomp of her foot and theatrical glare of frustration. Soon she said it every time he forgot something and had to return. Dee thought it would make a great country song title.

He tries to smile at the memory, but the quote isn't funny anymore.


A week later, he drives to the dump again, and this time his couch is the first thing unloaded. In the sunshine, it's shabbier even than he remembers, and it smells moldy. Finally, he can continue with his life. Finally, he has broken with the past. He gives the guys five dollars each to help him put it on his pickup, then he straps it down and ties the plastic tub containing his other possessions on top of it.

He opens the truck door, but then trots back and retrieves the stool he'd sat on for the last nine Wednesdays and puts that in the truck too. He is whistling "Oh! Susanna," as he starts the engine and drives back out to the highway thinking there is nothing holding him here anymore.


The farm Alfred grew up on is up in the hills two hundred miles away along the turnpike, then down Route 219. His parents had sold the farm to a real estate speculator, who then sold it at a loss to a strip mining group a few years later. Alfred hasn't been back, but his parents have, and they'd told him the barn still stood, but that the house was beginning to decompose.

It's late in the day when Alfred drives up the hill. The farm never had a real driveway, just the wheel tracks where they drove the cars and tractors in from the road. The grass grows in those tracks now, but he can still tell where they were. The barn stands on the downhill side of the tracks, barrel roof covered with green asphalt roll roofing. The house, which looks out over the barn and lower pastures, had been white the last time it was painted, but now it is mostly weathered gray on the west side as he approaches along the narrow trail.

At the house, he turns off the engine and sits staring for a long while. The porch has separated from the house and is adrift on its own. There are large holes in the house's rusty roof where pieces of the corrugated tin have blown off. His father always commented whenever he saw a roof in disrepair, "A building will stand for a hundred years without other maintenance if you keep a good roof on it."

Alfred climbs out of the truck cab and stretches his back while standing in the high grass. A tally starts in his mind as he approaches the door. Fix the roof first, a few thousand, then the siding and windows, fifteen or twenty thousand more.

The door hinges are rusted out and when he pushes, the door falls in. Twenty more for hinges, maybe more for a new door.

Inside, the stairs to the second floor are in the basement in a pile, and the kitchen floor is sagging and open in the middle.

He pictures the view from the kitchen door as it used to be. A wooden box where the kids threw their shoes sat in the corner, flypaper dangled over the table. An extra washup sink for when they came in from the barn sat between the hall and the dining room doorway. Although the medicine cabinet with a broken mirror still clings to the wall, someone has torn out the sink.

It is getting dark, but the sky is clear, so Alfred slides the couch out of the truck and drags it to the porch, then pulls a blanket from the plastic tub.

He walks once around the house, amazed at what thirty years has done. Has it been thirty years? It wasn’t that long ago that he picked pears off the tree below the house and rows of sweet corn grew in the garden plot behind it.

He jumps on the porch to make sure it won't fall in while he sleeps, then he lies on his couch listening to the pulsing chatter of a thousand crickets.


Just after sunrise he sits up, stretches the cold and damp out of his joints. A heavy fog clings wetly to the porch and to his blanket. He'd slept on that couch many times when he was younger, falling asleep in the middle of a movie or a baseball game, but now after a night trying to sleep folded up in it, he decides that sleeping there was no more comfortable than sleeping in his truck.

After walking a few yards from the porch through the tall dew-wet grass, he is pulling up his zipper after urinating against what remains of the brick barbecue when he hears a car. He stands and watches a faded blue Ford Taurus with a dented right fender speed up the path and park just to the left of his pickup.

From the car steps a long-legged woman wearing jeans, a khaki shirt and sunglasses. She approaches within ten feet before Alfred finally recognizes his former teenage sweetheart, Lisa.

"Hello, Lisa." Alfred says, trying to sound oh-so-cool and relaxed.

She pulls off her sunglasses and stares. "Jeez, Freddy, is that you? I thought for a moment it might be, but then... "

"Yeah, just up here looking at the old farm." He used to be called Freddy. Dee preferred Alfred. She said it sounded more dignified.

"Freddy Pender, I know you slept here last night, didn't you? Denny called me, said someone was parked here in a blue and white pickup, but I never thought. . . Well, I figured, what damage could they do, but this morning I thought, well, I might ought to come out here and run the bum off. Did you sleep here last night?"

"Yeah, I got tired."

She nods toward the porch. "Brought your own couch?"

"Mmm."

She walks toward the house, and Alfred follows, feeling like a school kid caught smoking. Lisa has a nice rear end and long hair. She looks good for her age. She strides through the grass to the porch with authority, a no-nonsense determination. There, she gapes at the couch, then him, then the couch again. She is still pretty, and her ring finger is bare as January.

"That couch?" she says. "That's the couch... Shit, Freddy. Well, ain't you the oddball after all? How come you still got that couch? It looks like you dug it out of a dump or something."

"What are you doing these days, Lisa?"

Lisa looks startled, then confused. "What are you talking about? Get off my land. I got better things to do than stand out here and jaw with you." She stomps back toward her car, but then turns. "Freddy, you want to wander around for a few hours so you can get all depressed about how this place used to look, go ahead. But don't spend another night here, or I'll call the sheriff."

While Alfred assesses the news that Lisa had mistaken him for a bum, and that she owns his family farm, she gets into her car and backs down the path. She turns around smartly in the grass, then pulls onto the blacktop lane and shoots back down the hill like she has somewhere to go.

After watching her leave through the glare of the foggy haze, Alfred's gaze drifts to the lower pastures. Saplings grow in the fields and tall grass and weeds fill in the spaces that were once gravel paths. He meanders over to the house. The flagstone walkway from the house to the barn is uneven and the spaces between the stones are filled in with weeds and scrub bushes.

Dee has never been to the farm. Now he wishes he had brought her out just once so she could understand where he came from, where his roots were.


When the milking was done and the barn swept down, Alfred used to walk up the path to where the sodium light lit the barn bridge, then he would imagine ghosts in the sharp shadows. They would talk about him, hoping to scare him, but at seven or eight, Alfred thought himself fast, and when he imagined the ghosts starting to run after him, he would sprint the rest of the way up the hill to the house, easily outrunning them. It was a game he played most nights, running past the pine tree, which stood at the halfway point up to the house. Sometimes, more ghosts would leap from behind this tree and dive for him. Alfred always dodged them, outdistancing them. Now, the pine is sixty feet tall, and has spread out over the walkway.

Approaching the barn, he notices that the roof of the attached milk house is gone, leaving only a square tile shell. The stainless-steel bulk tank and the sinks have been sold off or stolen. A sugar maple grows up through the concrete floor near the door.

The original timber-frame barn burned when he was five, and the Amish neighbors helped raise a new one on the same foundation using enormous arched trusses made from two-by-fours. In the barn, someone has sawn out all the two-by-fours they could reach with a stepladder along the bottom of the trusses. How the barn roof still holds is beyond his comprehension. It should have collapsed on top of the people who were sawing out the bottoms of the trusses.

Bird nests sit high on what’s left of the trusses, and the smell makes it obvious that other critters live among the rotten feed bags and piles of dusty hay. He wants to show Dee. She would understand how the sight makes him feel. He wouldn't have to say.

He walks down below the bull pen to the ditch that divided their land from the Susserts's below, then as the sun burns off the fog, he does a slow loop around what used to be a 287-acre working dairy and barley farm.

The pond has filled in and is now a stand of willows and mulberry trees. Twenty-foot scrub trees cover the back pasture. The giant oak, which led the line of trees dividing the back hill into two fields, has fallen and is now a scattered sequence of rotted trunk pieces. The far back hill is an open, suppurating wound left by the strip mining company that went out of business soon after clearing off the topsoil from that part of the mountain. The flesh of the mountain is oozing out of the hole and sliding down into the stream below. Even the air is different here. It feels gritty and smells hot and dry.

He sits in the dirt and stares across the valley at the distant railroad trestle. Clouds are building and darkening to the southwest, threatening a thunderstorm. He should be hungry. He hasn't eaten since McDonald's the night before, and he has wandered around the farm all morning, but although his stomach growls, he doesn't want to eat. It begins to drizzle as he walks back to the truck, then the wind picks up and it rains hard enough to hurt his head and shoulders.

Back at the house, he sits on his couch to wait out the storm. He yearns to tell Dee about always being the front person on the toboggan because he was the smallest, about the ghosts, about the big radiator in the first-floor hallway that had a pine board on top so people could lay there, the warmest place in the house. He wants to tell her about the dogs being whelped in the dining room, about the flypaper. Could you still buy flypaper?

But Dee isn't there, and Alfred misses her. Not just to tell her all these things, but also because she would have similar stories, things she had done in her childhood. And because she would walk with him hand in hand and tell him she understood how he felt, and he would believe her, because she was always empathetic.

Yet Dee's empathy is part of what is so hard for him. She understands how he feels not having a job, not having a use. He can't fake bravado to bolster himself. She would see right through it. She is forgiving and caring, and sometimes that just frustrates and irritates him more than anything else.


The storm passes and the sun shows crisp and clean through openings in the clouds. He walks out to his truck and looks back. At dusk and in the morning fog, he hadn't noticed the splits in the siding, the popped nails, the lean toward the south, the broken windows. The couch looks so lonely there on the weathered, disconnected porch. It does look like he dug it up. He'd imagined it as avocado green, but it isn't that color anymore. It is now an olive drab, with a dull gray showing through the cushion where he spent most of his time. The once harvest gold accents now add a muddy yellow outline. Of course, Dee had thrown the couch away. He wondered what took her so long.

For a moment, he thinks he should take the cigarette lighter from the truck and burn down the whole farm, but Lisa knows he is there and besides, what would it prove? He stares at the house, imagining his memories wafting up in the smoke, an olive drab cloud rising out of the burning house. The smoke makes his eyes water.


He drives the two hundred miles back home without the radio, starting conversations with Dee over and over again. "I'm sorry," he would say, but it sounds so lame. "How about I make dinner?"

What he can't figure out is why she stayed with him as long as she did. She is smart, funny, and nice to look at, all the things he isn't anymore. Yet he suspects she let go only reluctantly.

When she'd asked him if he loved her, she wasn't looking for an excuse to leave or to kick him out, he knows that. She was hoping for a reason for them to stay together, but he'd hesitated. He'd thought about it. Did he have to think about it? Had he considered saying no? No. He'd tried to decide if she still loved him, and if she didn't, then he sure wasn't going to say he loved her. Juvenile. Like they had never said it before. Like she would have some power over him if he said yes.

In town, he drives to the U-Wash and puts two dollars in the machine. He washes his truck, and because the sun is out now, he pays extra for the spray wax and uses a worn-out pair of underwear to buff up the shine on the chrome. Another fifty cents for the vacuum, then he washes his face and cleans up as best he can, using the sink at the Burger King next door.

Dee and Alfred own the seventh house along a stretch of Colonials that all look the same except for the color of the porch and the shapes of the bushes. He cruises by, hoping to catch Dee out in the yard or walking back from the Golden Hen Pantry. The second time, he notices the bushes are a little hairy from lack of pruning. August heat and little rain have kept them from spreading too far. He pulls up in front, trying to come up with something to say. He could walk up to the door if he could just think of something to say. "Sorry about the peas," or maybe, "Does the car still stink?" He had asked Dee to marry him when he got the assembly line job twenty-nine years ago. He’d finally felt like he could support her, like he could be the man of the house. He can't support her anymore. How can he ask her to be married again?

He stares down at his dirty pants. They're wet around the cuffs and the left knee is torn. His shirt looks stained across the belly, but it is just water from the car wash.

"Hello, Alfred."

Dee stands right there, elbows on the passenger window opening, smiling a little. Her hair is down over her shoulders and gleaming in the sun. She wears a pink and red floral dress. The sleeves flutter in the gentle breeze. She wears lipstick, and her eyes are bright.

"Hello, Dee." He still hasn't thought of anything to say. He mumbles an "I'm sorry," then adds after a moment, "for everything."

"Yeah, me too."

His head snaps up and he looks her in the eye then. "You've got nothing to be... " But she knows that. She’s saying she understands, that she knows what he was going through. Maybe that empathy isn't so bad. Maybe if she understands, she will take him back. Maybe she's sorry they separated.

"I painted the basement, put down a new cream carpet, added a couple lamps... and I threw away your couch."

She is apologizing for that? He thinks for a moment, looking at his wet shoes. She might like the quiet, the distance the basement had from the real world, from troubles and issues, from money and responsibility. He looks up at her, rubbing his thumb in his palm. She is waiting. Her look seems to say, make up your mind.

"Do you want to go to Dairy Queen? Sunset should be spectacular tonight." He'd said the same thing to her years ago in front of her father's house. The Dairy Queen over on 40 has been replaced twice, Alfred and Dee have moved three times, but the view is still special to them.

"I threw away your couch, Alfred. I painted the basement." She's lost most of the smile. She looks pensively into his eyes.

"I threw the couch away too, Dee. I don't need the couch."

She opens the door and climbs in. "Let's go," she says, "I'll buy," which for some reason doesn't bother him. She knows he isn't likely to have any money left.

He feels her looking at him as he puts the truck in gear. She says, "You'll have two hotdogs, a tamale, and a chocolate shake."

"All that and a bag of chips," he says. It's one of their running jokes, and she smiles at it. He regrets not bringing the kitchen sink as a present.

As he turns the truck around in the driveway, he hears the three-legged stool roll back against the tailgate and wonders briefly if she will let him keep it in some corner of the basement.


Title image "Barrel Roof Barn" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.