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Monday, June 06, 2011

The Last Resort

The Last Resort
by
Kerry Ann Morgan

One year, three months, and two days ago my husband wrapped his BMW around a tree trunk, forcing me into the role of an underage widow and single mom. Though at times my heart still wrenched inside-out missing him, most days I yearned for him to drive back into my life so I could kill him myself. This morning, as I ripped the final foreclosure notice from our hand-carved mahogany front door, I dreamed of slipping cyanide into his single malt scotch.
            Sweat trickled down my dusty face as I plotted how I'd maneuver the hefty boxes inside the three-car garage into the storage trailer clogging the driveway.  If we'd moved two years ago, the front yard would have been filled with a team of movers and a couple of eighteen wheelers. Now, except for the small stash of plastic bins and suitcases  lingering in the foyer, the remnants of our life could fit into a single twelve-foot box.
            Maybe I should have waited for my brother to handle the heaviest lifting, but Dave wasn't off until Saturday, and the bank ordered me out by Friday at five. My parents offered to drive cross-country to help, but I couldn't allow my dad to throw his back out cleaning up my mess. Mom would have chatted about their travels while labeling boxes, her Jean Nate perfume scenting everything she touched. I wanted my mom. I wanted to rewind my life.
            Squeezing my eyes shut,  I pictured Mom, feather duster in hand, belting out “I Am Woman” in her version of '70s housewife karaoke. Yes, I could do this. Since I sang like a goat, I hummed while I hoisted an oversized stack of boxes from the ground and sidestepped towards the trailer. I could do anything. I was strong. I was invincible. I was— caught on a weed rising between the pavers. Before I could spit out a swear, I toppled face first to the ground.
            Technically, I crashed box first.
            “Cuss!” I pushed myself up, careful not to place my hand on any fragments of my great-grandmother's china, now decorating the driveway with sprays of delicate roses and gold leaf. My grandma had bestowed this set upon me at my bridal shower. While I'd sold our fancy Wedgwood to catch up on the electric bill, I'd dreamed of eating turkey dinners with my own grandkids off this set someday. Not anymore. As I lifted a busted box corner, a dozen smashed dinner plates spilled from their tissue wrappings to the ground. I cradled a teapot, now resembling a cracked egg. A gallon of superglue couldn’t put it back together again.
            Spinning away from the annihilation, I diverted my fury towards a boxwood topiary edging the drive. “Consarn it all.” I kicked at the shrub with my calloused food, savoring the adrenaline surge each time it snapped back like a punching bag. “Must. Every. Thing. I. Love. Be. Destroyed!” Each word was punctuated with a kick worthy of a Tae Bo instructor's praise.  Realizing I wasn't going to knockout the bush anytime soon, I whipped back around, flinging the ruined teapot hard enough to decapitate a lawn gnome. The crash granted me an all too brief release before I realized I'd created yet another mess to clean up.
            My glare tempered as I glanced towards to the front windows. No cherubic child's face stared at me in shock, thank God. My six-year-old son, Brady, must still be plunked in front of my laptop watching a Wild Thornberrys DVD, unable to hear a thing over the cacophony of cartoon animals. Not that it would have been the first time he'd watched me melt down, but I was supposed to be past this anger phase and accepting my new reality. And he could do without the swearing.
            As I stomped back towards the garage to fetch the broom and dustpan, I spotted Melinda Rogers― reigning Magnolia Creek Country Club Queen Bee―with chunks of china at her feet.  Melinda wiped the astonishment from her face and picked her way through the debris. I longed to melt  between the driveway pavers.
            “Ivy, honey―any particular reason you're slinging tea sets at me?” As Melinda placed her hand on her hip, the glare from her diamond ring flashed like heat lightning.
             Everyone had expected me to channel Jackie Kennedy's elegant facade of mourning and moving on. Instead I'd gone the Courtney Love route, and emotional exhaustion and financial ruin proved far from flattering. My so-called friends disappeared before the last sympathy bouquet wilted. Melinda and I had shuttled our kids to swim lessons and story times together, even escaped for girl-time cocktails at the club faithfully. Yet I'd heard from her once in the last six months. I couldn’t let her get the best of me.
“Why I do apologize, Melinda,” I drawled. “It seems my aim is off today.” Yes, I should have nailed her. “Just loading up a few boxes. Care to lend a hand?”
            She snorted like a pig―a petite, pampered pet walked on a leash, of course. “Now there's that sense of humor we've all missed. Sorry, but I've got a tennis match in ten, and I need all my stamina to knock Tish Jones on her bulimic behind. Plus, I don't think they'd let me through the club gates all mussed up.” Melinda blatantly assessed my hot mess style. “Well—at least you're thin.”
            I wiped the sweat from my upper lip, smearing a dirt mustache across my pale skin. My frizzy ponytail sprouted from a NASCAR cap I'd dug out of the garage. Dirt striped my tank top and my cut-offs sported a glaring hole in the rear. I hadn't bothered with  makeup or razor blades for weeks, and blood oozed from my stubbly knee.
            “Yeah, well, forget the Divorce Diet. The weight of widowhood can whittle any woman down to the nub.”
             Those first weeks after Derek died, I wouldn't have eaten a bite if it hadn't been for Brady. We'd emerged from our den of blankets and raided the kitchen under cover of darkness, scavenging from the frozen casseroles guests dropped off after the funeral. Later, we'd subsided on chicken  nuggets and other preschool fare. I'd never been a fabulous cook, we couldn’t afford take-out anymore, and all food seemed to have lost its flavor anyway.
            My days of whining about the treadmill were but a plodding memory. After enacting extreme austerity measures, I'd learned to vacuum my own pool, scrub all five bathrooms, and push my dad's old mower through the shin-high grass. My former country club buddies blanched behind their luxury SUV windows as they passed me by.
            Melinda surveyed the chaos spilling across my drive, then nudged a fragment of china with her tennis shoe. The sliver of ruined country rose pattern matched the pink of her Nike swoosh. Her voice softened. “So today's the big day?”
            “Friday, but I thought I'd give myself a few days to get what's left loaded and ready for storage.” 
            We'd be spending the summer squeezed in at my brother and sister-in-law's home, just until the fall term started and I found a permanent teaching position, just until...
            “If you like, I can call someone to help you out. I remember who the Attwaters over on Azalea Circle used when they were evicted. That company must be reasonable, because they were in some dire straits themselves.”
            I wasn't the only one who had fallen on hard times.  For Sale signs littered the once-immaculate lawns of dozens of  bank-owned faux Italian villas and Southern plantation homes in our suburban community. With the glut luxury homes on the market, I'd barely had a nibble in the year my house had been up for sale.
            Melinda whipped out her phone and started typing. “You know, I did text you—several times—over the last few months. When you ignored me, I figured you needed some space.”
            I tittered and stared off into the clear ocean blue sky. “I don't text anymore.”

            Not since that night. A rare March monsoon had raged outside as I clung to my sleeping Brady, listening for each whoosh of his gentle breath. My baby, my Grace, had slipped away just days before. I'd told everyone I was fine—it was just another miscarriage—but by shrouding my tattered spirit, I waded through the guilt and bitterness alone. My husband had fled to his regular Tuesday night poker game, though I'd silently pleaded for him to hold me in his arms, to whisper promises that everything would be alright.
            But he hadn't. And it wasn't.
            I'd yet to cut off my hospital bracelet. While I ran my finger along the plastic ring, lamenting my baby girl with strawberry-blonde curls who would never see the light, my iPhone pinged twice. I wiped the crust of spent tears from my eyes and focused on texts from my husband on the screen.        
                        RU awake? Need to talk when I get home.
                        Can't keep doing this. You've been through so much but 
                        things U must know. Things I've done. I'm sorry I lie  
            My stomach plunged to my toes as I reread the messages. Yes, I was wide awake now, but what had he done? Was he too drunk to finish? Where was he?
            Five times I called him as I paced by the front windows, and five times his phone rolled straight to voicemail. He should have been home already. The game was at Clay's house, only a few miles away . . . unless he hadn’t actually been there. But of course he'd been there. What reason would he have to lie?
            I splashed a double shot of Grey Goose into a Waterford tumbler, a wedding gift nearly a decade old. The vodka microwaved me from the inside out. It had been months since I'd imbibed ― it wouldn’t take much to sedate my sparking nerves. Maybe just one more. Before I could swallow it down, my phone rang. I didn't bother checking the number.
            “Where are you? You're scaring me. How could you send me a text like that then not answer your phone?”
            “Ivy?” asked a deep voice who was not my husband.
             “Yes?” I pulled the phone away and checked the caller ID. Thad—another member of the Tuesday night poker club.
            “There's been an accident.” His voice quivered, as if he was calling his parents to bail him out from jail. “I left just a few minutes after him and—“
            “Derek? Is he okay? Oh God—please—what happened?”
            “His car. . . it must have hit a tree or something. It was on fire when I got here. It's bad, Ivy, real bad. The police said . . .” He began weeping into the phone. “I wanted to call you first. Just come. Meet us at the hospital. Oh, man . . . Ivy, I'm so damn sorry. I don't know what to—”
            I didn't catch the end of his sentence. The glass and the phone slid from my hands, plummeting to the floor like two-ton bombs. The phone, shielded by a  rubbery case, merely bounced twice and lay still as a bright coffin. The glass exploded into a thousand tiny shards, shooting jagged shrapnel across the cold stone floor, shredding my life.
            “Oh, Ivy.”  Melinda grabbed my arm, kneading the freckled flesh. “I'm sorry—me and my big mouth. I didn't think...”
            As I jerked away, glass crunched under my foot. Glass—no china—everywhere. Gritting my teeth, I stared at the sea of wrecked treasures around me. “It's fine. You texted. I disabled my text. I'm sorry, but I've got to clean this mess up.” 
            “Alright.” She sighed and glanced at her watch. “Listen, if you need anything...”
            I chuckled and offered her a shy half-smile. She was trying. “I could use a job, a winning lotto ticket, and a cabana on some Caribbean island, but—”
            “Mom! Mommy!” Brady's cry tumbled out the mudroom door.
            Oh, thank you, baby. “Be there in a sec, Brady,” I shouted back. “Sorry, but it seems my presence is required elsewhere. Enjoy your ... competition.”
            I fled inside and leaned against the cool steel door, cursing my snappishness. I never used to act like such a shrew. I'd been Easy-Peasey-Ivy, always aiming to please. Sometime during this calamitous last year I'd grown a spine but lost my heart. 
            “Mom?” My son appeared before me, his eyes remorseful, his hands stained. “Moe knocked over my juice. He didn't mean to. He's REALLY sorry.”
            “Oh, buddy, it's okay.” I wrapped my arms around my son and his faithful companion, Moe the stuffed monkey. They were a two-for-one deal. Velcro kept Moe's furry brown arms and legs bound around my child every moment he was not submerged in water.
            The family room looked like a murder scene. Splatters of cranberry juice doused the creamy carpet and pooled under the empty bottle. 
             I smiled conspiratorially down the duo. “Let's just leave it.” Let the bank or the listing agent deal with this mess.
            Through the front windows, I watched as Melinda yapped away into her rhinestone-studded cell phone. She hadn't even made it to the end of the driveway before she broadcast the latest update on poor Ivy Branson and the depths to which she had fallen.
#
The air in Derek's office hung stagnant enough to breed mosquitoes. I yanked the blinds open, flooding the room with late afternoon sunshine. The movement stirred up a layer of dust, and it hovered  in the stream of light like a cloud of ash. After a double-sneeze, I coaxed the windows open, inviting in fresher, though not cooler, air.
            There wasn't much left to pack. I'd sold off the furniture months ago. Running my finger across a ledge of the built-in bookcase, I carved a blackened valley through the blanket of dust. Derek would have had kittens if he'd ever seen his office in such a state, but I rarely set foot in here anymore. It was too dark. Too masculine. Too him. I traced “Ivy was here” through the gray film. Now I could stake some claim on this room, too.
            I filled two donation boxes with sooty souvenir glasses, award plaques, and travel guides. Fighting the urge to doodle devil horns on his framed celebrity-studded ego shots, I packed them away for Brady like a good mom instead. Every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition from the last two decades was unceremoniously dumped into the recycling bin.
            With the shelves cleared, I sat on the edge of the desk and glared at the hideous “art” filling the wall behind it. I hadn’t attempted to hock the Dogs Playing Poker painting. I didn't want to tick off another wife by allowing her husband to show off his profound lack of taste. But the frame was solid mahogany—it could be worth something.
            I stretched my arms wide to grab opposite ends, nearly wiping my nose on the bulldog's smug jowls, and lifted up.
The picture didn't budge.
            I tried again.
            Nada.
            Had he bolted the thing to the wall? I braced myself and yanked it straight back towards me. Instead of flying off the wall, the right side swung out a bit, like a cabinet door. What the heck? I cocked my head, hooked my fingers behind the frame, and pulled it open.
            Embedded in the wall was a smooth, gray faceplate. It could have been a fuse box, but why would a fuse box have a keypad? Stumbling backward, I nailed my hip on the desk.
            Why in the world had my husband needed a safe?
            Our lawyer, Derek's college buddy Chet Chambliss, held most of our important papers on file at his office. Chet had organized Derek's affairs while I'd wallowed  in my haze of grief. I’d assumed Chet would tidy up the fragments of my life. I should have learned never to assume.
            I hadn't a clue until I discovered my Escalade missing. I'd spun around the driveway, searching for the hulking SUV like it was a misplaced set of keys, before I freaked out and called the police. Hours later, I discovered it had not been stolen, but repossessed.
            Repossessed. The word had ricocheted inside my head for days. People like us didn’t have things repossessed. I'd ignored Chet's calls and the pile of mail spilling off the counter for nearly two months. I couldn’t manage to dress myself most days, so how could I possibly hold a coherent financial discussion in Chet’s downtown office? After my SUV disappeared, I finally paid him a visit.
            “I know you're still mourning, but I've been tempted to bang down your door to get ahold of you.” Chet had settled me into a leather chair facing his sleek desk.“We need to talk. Now, how much did Derek keep you in the loop regarding his business?”
            I picked at the remnants of chipped polish on my fingernails. “He'd tell me about how his day went, what projects he was working on, but, honestly, I tuned out most of it. Roofing trusses and drywall never interested me―”
            “What about the financial aspects?”
            I shrugged. “I know the housing market stinks. Business was slow, but he said it would bounce back soon.”
            Chet leaned across his desk, his smooth fingers folding together. “I apologize if this comes as a shock to you, but Branson Construction filed for bankruptcy three months ago.”
             I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out, not even a breath. My husband had never whispered a word about his business going under.  Had I been so disconnected from reality—between the morning sickness, the nerves, and the eventual loss—that I hadn't even noticed if he'd gone to work each day? Was that why he'd insisted he wasn't ready for another baby?
             “I’m afraid there's more. I’ve been reconciling your personal finances, trying to make heads or tails of the mess he left―”
            “Mess? What mess? He just bought that BMW. We'd been planning a trip to Hawaii in June and . . .” I crumpled back into the chair. “Why is it all a mess?”
            “You haven't checked your bank balance lately? Opened any mail? Received any alarming phone calls?”
            I shook my head. Our voice mail filled up weeks ago. I couldn't bare to listen to any more condolence messages. Derek handled our money. He'd minored in finance and knew where the edges blurred between company and personal expenses. Balancing the checkbook gave me hives. I'd never doubted his financial abilities. Or his honesty.
            “I'm gonna be blunt—you're in trouble.” Chet leaned back and rolled up his crisp, pin-striped sleeves. “The mortgage is six months behind. There's over $50,000 in credit card debt. You have less than $400  in your bank account and no income coming in. Now, I can work with your lender to buy you some extra time, but you need to consider selling that big ole house and finding a job.”
            I stared blankly at the bold Dali print hanging on the far wall, feeling like one of the surreal clocks melting into the void of hot desert sand. “What about all his life insurance policies?” I whispered. “I think he had a few.”
            “One policy, worth ten grand, should be coming to you any day. It should just about cover the funeral expenses.” He paused and looked me dead in the eyes. “But the other policy―the five million dollar whole life account―was cashed out last year. I wholeheartedly would have advised him against that, had I know. The cash out value was nowhere near that much, of course, but, it’s gone.”
            Gone, gone, gone. All our money had evaporated faster than a puddle on a sizzling summer day, leaving me gasping like a tadpole out of water. The real estate losses could be tracked. But where did the rest go? What else had my husband kept from me?
            How about a big safe. His gut-punch from the grave.
            Anger propelled me up to the keypad. How dare that man hide our money from me? He'd always used the same password for all his accounts. I punched each stupid digit in—11223344. The  light on the top of the keypad flashed red. Crap. Okay, how about his birthday? Red light. My birthday? Red light. Brady’s birthday. Red light. Our anniversary, his mother’s birthday, our ages,  home address,  phone numbers, social security numbers―every time that blasted red dot vexed me like an eternal stoplight.
            What was his password? I yanked each hand-mitered drawer from his desk, searching for a paper taped in a recess, feeling for any strange notches accessing a secret compartment. Slamming the last drawer to the floor, I collapsed beside the packed recycling bin. Tears of frustration blurred my vision.
            “Curse you, Derek. What is your code?”
            I hammered my fist onto the box beside me. Ghosts of cover models past stared up at me in  skimpy bikinis, flaunting perfect bodies I never could quite attain. Fanning them out on the floor around me, I trapped myself in a sea of paper and perfection. “Why was I never good enough for you? Why did you do this to us?” Tears dripped onto the glossy covers, real splashes of saltwater melting into the carefully crafted compositions of what a woman should be. No matter how hard I tried, I never measured up to them, never had their smooth flowing hair, their perfect curves, their―
            The perfect body. Derek had been slightly obsessed with it. While he paid for me to fill out the 36 on top, I never achieved the exalted 24-inch waist or 36-inch hips. 36-24-36. I sprang to my feet and punched in the numbers, gawking with disbelief as the light flashed green. I wiped my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened the safe.
            No stacks of cash spilled out of the cool metal hollow. No diamonds, velveteen boxes of gems, or gold coins hid within the void. Where I should have found something expensive, illicit, worthy of such stealth, I found only a sheet of paper and an envelope tucked under a ring of keys.
            Looping my finger through the ring, I lifted the keys into the light. My fingers traced each crook, searching for glimmers of recognition. The first key was utterly nondescript, like any house key, anywhere. The second had jagged teeth and a number etched on the oval head. The third was small, brassy, and beat up. I had never seen them before.
            Next came a sheet of ordinary copy paper, carelessly crimped in half. Once unfolded, just three lines of type sat above the crooked crease:
            Amante paid off. Used cash from your account.
             I await your further instructions. Attached is relevant information.
             I.V.
            Nothing was attached. It was dated two weeks before his death.
            I let the paper flutter to the desk before I grabbed the blank envelope. Its flap sliced me, a sentry protecting its contents. Whipping my finger to my lips, I smoothed the letter upon the desk with my trembling left hand.
            Dearest Derek,
            Grace is yours. As requested, only my name is on the certificate. You will remain             anonymous until you decide to step forward, perhaps once things in your life are settled.
            Please call me. There are many things we must  discuss.

            Con Mucho Gusto,
            Bella
            The air heaved out of my lungs, like a football had slammed dead center into my chest. I  teetered against his desk, then sank to the floor before my legs gave out. 
            Who in the world was Bella?
            And who was my husband?

1 comments:

E. Michael Helms said...

Wonderful narrative voice and spunky protagonist (Ivy). Wish I had the entire manuscript/book to read. Very much deserves publishing via traditional publisher.