Fiction by Benjamin Roesch
Linda and Roger weren’t married anymore. They weren’t officially divorced yet, either, but it was only a matter of time. And she’d only invited Roger over to co-sign on the loan for the art gallery she was trying to open. Neither sex with him, nor his sudden death at the ripe age of forty-three, had been on the agenda.
To make sure the kids were sleeping—neither wanted to confuse them or give them the wrong idea—Roger had arrived late, revealing, as he kicked off his cowboy boots and rolled back the sleeves of his flannel, a wry smile and a bottle of Jameson’s held out like a bouquet of fragrant lilies. “I know I came for official business and all that, but, hey, let’s have a drink first, okay?” he’d said. “For old time’s sake.” He went to the kitchen, took out some glasses, and poured them each a shot.
And as usual, since the night they’d met on a dark dance floor at a club a stone’s throw from the University of Memphis, where Linda earned a degree in Art History and Roger one in Business, whiskey and Roger proved to be irresistible trouble.
It wasn’t long before they were kissing on the couch like teenagers. “Let’s go upstairs, Lin,” he said.
“But the kids!”
“They can watch,” he replied and she tried not to laugh. It was such a Roger thing to say and the laugh was partially nostalgic.
“The papers,” she muttered, “you came over to sign the papers,” but she hadn’t been pushing him away, in fact had frantically been tonguing his ear and kneading his bicep.
“Bring em upstairs,” he added, “kinky foreplay,” Linda giggling now as Roger snaked up the back of her sweater and unsnapped her bra, at which point she’d come unglued and started pawing at his zipper. Linda knew that since their separation a year-and-a-half ago, Roger, who’d always been handsome, had dated on and off and had probably helped himself to plenty of single older guy sex. But Linda, who’d kept the kids and worked full time as a curator at the local university’s art museum, hadn’t been on a date, let alone gotten laid, in all that time. While they made piles of their clothes and fell into the bed they shared for so many years, the loan papers ended up on her dresser—unsigned, castrated, bereft.
Downstairs, the kids were making breakfast. A family breakfast. For in the eyes of Linda and Roger’s ten-year-old daughter Skye, the sight of her father’s blue pick-up in the driveway this morning, glimpsed when she went out to get the paper for her mother, meant only one thing: her parents were finally getting back together. She believed it instantly—the way children do—deep into her milky bones.
“Mom! Dad!” Skye shouted, if only because she liked the sound of her voice rocketing through the house.
She’d already made her mother’s coffee, its adult scent like a dark bird in the room, and was now measuring oil and adding it to flour and egg and baking powder, Betty Crocker splayed on the counter, pancakes on her brain. Since her parents had separated, Skye had been doing more and more cooking and she wanted to show off for her dad.
The kitchen had become her favorite room in the house. The place she felt the most comfortable. It was a room that honored the way she felt older than she was. That made plenty of space for her constant companions order and predictability, both on short supply in her life at large, but, she’d found, abundant here where things were listed, measured, and timed. On the floor behind her, a portable video game system two inches from his face, sat her brother Caleb, lips wrestling, thumbs attacking, his slim back arched into a kitchen island whose countertop was three inches of pink marble, which Skye knew their father, a contractor, had ordered special. Skye liked that the kitchen was decked out in shiny new stainless steel appliances and was full of big picture windows that let in lots of light. She knew her dad had built the house with her mom’s tastes in mind. Big, open, finely detailed. Her mom had lived in France for a year growing up and often spoke about falling in love with the pointed arches and picturesque rooflines of its cathedrals. Skye could almost remember the building of the house seven years ago. But now she occasionally heard her mother muse that the house felt too big for just the three of them and seemed, at times, embarrassingly ornate. She’d even once heard talk of moving, which had horrified her.
Linda’s head was still a bit woozy from the whiskey and she felt a million miles from the dark and unexpected sweetness of last night. She looked again at Roger’s body, the stillness of it. He’d been breathing when she nodded off—lightly snoring, even—she was sure of that. She remembered thinking that she needed to tell him to leave, to go home so the kids wouldn’t wake up to him there because it would be so confusing. It had felt important, yet just out of reach. And then she’d been out. He must have died some time during the night. She’d heard of people dying in their sleep, though had never thought about what could kill a person so quietly it didn’t even wake someone sleeping next to them.
Though it made her feel guilty, she stole a glance at the unsigned loan papers—the whole reason the charming son of a bitch had come over in the first place. For Linda, the loan was the end. The moment they were no longer husband and wife, no longer lovers. Just old friends. She knew a formal divorce would follow, and though it had taken some time to get used to the idea, not to mention the word divorce itself, she’d become fine with all of it: going their separate ways, sharing the kids, the almost strange lack of hard feelings. And now, she’d gone and fucked him to death, and lost her money in the process. The whole thing was like a strange and powerful dream.
After one final look at the snarled carpet of dark hair on Roger’s chest, the inflated caterpillar of his flaccid penis, the flatness of his big man feet, Linda slid the bed sheet up and over his forehead.
“The trick with pancakes,” instructed Skye, who’d always sounded twice her age no matter what age she was, “is to have the batter be just right. It can’t be too thick. Or too thin. Too thick and the pancakes will never cook through. Too thin and they’ll burn.”
“I like French Toast better,” said Caleb, pushing up the dark glasses he’d only recently started wearing and complained about incessantly, even though Skye knew her brother had been pretending to be able to see for a long time, misreading passages in books, receiving occasional notes home from school.
“You just want whatever you don’t have,” Skye said. “It’s so childish. I wonder where they are.”
“They’re not gonna be our mom and dad again, you know,” said Caleb.
Skye glared at him. For a second she thought he was just getting a rise out of her, which she knew wasn’t very hard to do and that this was precisely the kind of comment to do it, but she could tell now that he was being sincere and was trying to protect her, which he did occasionally, and especially lately.
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true, Skye. Just don’t get your hopes up, okay? It might not mean what you think it means.”
“Stop being so pessimistic.”
Quantities of milk and brown sugar and salt were added to the bowl and Skye flipped on the mixer.
Upstairs Linda, who couldn’t seem to muster the courage or clarity to leave her room, sat on the bed’s edge, a hunk of white sheet in her fist, her bottom lip between her teeth. She was looking at the wall, only it looked different than usual. It was a soft blue that Roger had sworn wouldn’t look canary but had looked canary anyway. Only now it didn’t look so bright, so cloying as it had, did it? Maybe it had faded. Maybe she just had been too busy to notice. Could paint really fade so fast?
Since Linda had woken up to find her husband dead a half hour ago she’d paced the room fifteen times, still naked, her breasts and vagina sore from their first non-manual go-round in eighteen months. With each turn around the room, she’d eyed the papers, then finally grabbed the damn things and sat back down. On the floor beside his socks and underwear sat Roger’s pants; a ballpoint pen stuck out of one of the pockets. All she had to do was forge his signature in three places and the loan would be hers. Easy. After all, before they separated she’d done the books for his small business, as well as the family taxes every April, and could see every twist of his looping lazy signature in her mind. She knew that in size and scope the loan and the gallery it represented paled in comparison with Roger’s death, yet, it was incredible how the loan urged itself forward, fawning for her attention.
Skye opened the trashcan and shook a couple of inedible black discs out of the pan. “I always burn the first ones,” she moaned, “I can never get the heat right! Maybe the batter’s too thin. Maybe not. I can never tell. I followed the recipe. Pancakes always sound so easy until I actually make them. They’re actually quite hard to do well. Where are they? I don’t hear them walking around anymore. Do you hear them?”
“Maybe they went back to sleep?” Caleb said with a shrug. He was now standing across the kitchen from his sister eating a piece of bacon and drinking a glass of two percent milk, and like Skye, wore sweatpants and a t-shirt sponsoring the university where his mom worked. Together, they looked like two people awaiting a train whose arrival seemed less and less likely.
“They’re not sleeping, dummy,” Skye said, “it’s eight-thirty. Mom never sleeps past seven-thirty, even on Saturdays.”
“How do you remember stuff like that? You remember the weirdest things.”
“I don’t know. I just do,” Skye said, then shouted, “Mom! Dad!”
“Just a second!” Linda immediately shouted back, terrified her daughter might give in to what sounded like a bout of particularly urgent curiosity, might come upstairs, might find her.
She’d pulled the bed sheet back down, then flipped Roger, whose weight seemed to have doubled, over onto his stomach and straddled him from the back like a jockey, pinning the pen clumsily between his limp fingers with her own, the loan papers strategically positioned on the nightstand where his arm could reach. Part of her knew what she was doing was morbid and creepy, not to mention highly illegal. The same part of her knew too how unnecessary it was, knew that she could simply forge the papers without even making contact with Roger, get her loan, collect her money, open her gallery, and go on with her life. After all, she was the only one who would ever know the difference. She wasn’t even sure why, then, as she sat there atop his back, wiggling his fingers across the line beside the X, it seemed so necessary to bring Roger’s actual hand into play, to involve him in this so physically. Only that it did.
She’d already “signed” twice, now the frantic flipping of papers and the necessary third, then she hopped off, covered Roger back up and put on some yoga pants and a tank top. And then started shaking. Of course, she’d have to call 911. And she’d have to leave this room eventually.
Their stomachs growling audibly, the minutes limping like hours, Skye and Caleb sat silently at the dining room table like an old married couple who no longer needed to make polite conversation. To be funny, Skye had poured them each a small mug of coffee and added heaping spoonfuls of cream and sugar.
“It’s not that bad,” Skye said, smiling as she drank.
“That’s because you put a pound of sugar in it,” Caleb said, drinking some more of his, “now it’s like…coffee Kool Aid.”
They burst out laughing, which broke the tension, then heard, finally, footsteps on the stairs. A knot tightened in Skye’s stomach. She held her breath.
Benjamin Roesch is a novelist and short story writer who lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and two sons, Felix and Leo. His work has recently appeared in Monkey Bicycle, Word Riot, Brilliant Corners, and Seven Days. He is delighted to be appearing in Splinter Generation for the first time.