Prose Header


by Marge Burke

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Max pulled the dusty curtain back and shielded his eyes against its afternoon glare. He should be heading home, but he couldn’t make himself move. Zoe was sitting on the disheveled bed, propped with pillows and covered with a sheet. He could feel her staring at him.

“So tell me what was so urgent,” she said. “Surely it wasn’t this.”

Max heard her move, and then he felt her arms around his waist. He turned to face her, pulling the sheet tighter against her. His lips brushed her forehead and he leaned away to look into her eyes. There was something about those green eyes and feathery lashes that pulled him into her. He connected with her from somewhere deep within.

“You know about the pup.” It was a statement. Max knew that Zoe understood his total passion toward his dog, Lace.

“That she’s sick? Of course I do.” She was silent for several seconds. “And she’s not a pup. She’s a very old dog.” When Max didn’t answer, she continued. “Did something else happen? Is she worse?”

“No. At least I don’t think so. She’s moving around on her own. But the doctor said when the cancer strikes deep she will be immobile and in horrible pain. When that happens...”

The words hung between them, inaudible but unmistakable. Max cleared his throat to clear the emotion.

“I had Jake build a ... box for her. I told him I didn’t want to see it or know where it was. I just wanted it to be ready if - when....”

Zoe rubbed his back, and he felt the tension in his own muscles as her soft hands worked over him. “That was probably wise. But I still don’t understand the problem. You had me come here to tell me that?”

“No. Yes. There’s more.” He broke away from her hands and walked to the chair where he had tossed his coat. Reaching in the pocket, he pulled out two of the notes and handed them to her.

Zoe laughed. “What does all this mean? Which what? I don’t understand.”

“Well, I had this bizarre thought yesterday, about what it would be like...” Max stopped. How could he tell her that he was imagining one of them dead as an answer to his dilemma?

“I think you have a bizarre thought right now,” Zoe said. “No one thinks it’s horrible to be prepared for the death of a dog, especially one who has been so close to all of you.”

Max could tell it cost her to refer to his family, something they almost never did.

“It’s more than that. It’s as if this thought became alive and took control in my mind. The thought took the fantasy and made it seem possible.” Max shook his head, unable to explain without explaining too much. “I guess I overreacted. It’s nothing, really. I’m sorry I pulled you away from your plans.”

Zoe tossed the notes on the bed and reached to encircle Max. Her eyes again captured him, and he closed his eyes and melted into her; the jumble in his mind disappeared. No bizarre thoughts. No notes. No discontentment. As he held Zoe, he knew that Angeline was at home keeping his world in place. He relaxed.

Maybe the notes meant something else entirely. Maybe they weren’t meant to suggest that he eliminate one of the women in his life. He pulled Zoe closer, kissed her completely, and then stood back, ignoring his growing need for her. “We both have someplace to be,” he reminded her, reaching for his shirt. He took several deep, slow breaths. “I’ll call you...”

* * *

“How’s the pup?” Max asked, slipping off his shoes and dropping his dress shirt across the foot of the bed.

“She’s getting along. I had her out twice today.” Angeline picked up the discarded shirt, folded it, and put it in the laundry hamper.

“Was she limping?” Max collapsed into his recliner and took the drink Angeline handed him.

“No, not that I noticed. She moved a little slow but her tail never quit wagging.”

Max nodded, taking a sip of the drink. Rather than creating a fog, it seemed to help clear his senses.

“Jake called and said to tell you everything was ‘handled’, and that you’d know what he meant.” Angeline looked at him quizzically and he tried to smile.

“He was handling a problem for me, something I didn’t want to face. I’m glad it’s done. Now I can quit thinking about it.” With some effort, Max pulled himself out of the chair and stood next to his wife. She was a beautiful woman--black hair, dark Italian skin, brown eyes. She carried herself like royalty and was perfect to look at any moment of the day. She was the exact opposite of Zoe, who was pale and blond and spontaneous, as natural looking as a child. Sometimes he wondered if she would ever grow up.

Max put his arms around Angeline and bent to kiss her. She posed for him, holding stiff and distant except for her lips, which were soft and warm. He supposed she didn’t want to be rumpled in any way. It would ruin her image. She was like that with everything in her life--neat, proper, formal, in spite of her loving nature. Max stepped back and slumped back into his chair.

He picked up a stack of mail on the end table and leafed through it. Several bills, an ad for a new credit card, a ‘Healthy Living’ newsletter from his insurance company, and a ‘Fashion World’ magazine. There were several envelopes that appeared to be junk mail, and he fed them one at a time into the shredder. He paused over the one with the return address of his corporate offices.

Setting his drink down on the table, he sliced open the flap of the envelope with his finger and pulled out a small scrap of lace and a sheet of plain paper, with five words printed in bright red: YOU CAN’T KEEP THEM BOTH.

Max glanced at his wife. She was checking her makeup in the vanity mirror and re-applying lipstick. He made a conscious effort to keep his hands from shaking as he stuffed the note and the lace in the shredder. This was going too far.

* * *

Can’t keep both. Who couldn’t he keep, and what did he have to decide? And what was this with the lace? Max paced in his office, going back to the morning several weeks ago when he had thought about life with just one of his... His what? Wives? Zoe felt like a wife sometimes, but of course they weren’t married. His women? He hated that phrase. Women were not something you could own, or even control. How well he knew that.

This double life had been more manageable when he was younger, but he was getting tired of keeping it all straight. Zoe was the spontaneous, sensual, devil-may-care free spirit who made him laugh and set his senses on fire with every touch. Angeline was strong, organized, structured and practical. Every inch of his life was in perfect order, from the clothes in his closets to the special-occasion gifts she picked out for his business associates. He couldn’t run his home - or his business for that matter - without her help. On the other hand, without Zoe’s wicked smile and dancing eyes he wondered if all of that would even matter.

It would be Zoe. It had to be. He smiled at the thought of her, felt his emotions run the full course of his body. He could see her hair blowing in the wind, her lacey garments piled softly on the floor where they fell in her haste to be near him. He let out a deep sigh.

Without warning a picture flashed in front of his eyes. It was his home, but it was cluttered and piled with items that landed where they might. He couldn’t find any of his favorite golf shirts and his socks had no mates. His business day planner was cluttered with notes of appointments and errands that he had to handle himself.

Max stopped pacing and went to the window. He loved looking out over the parking lot filled with cars. They were all clients, people wanting to buy what he had to sell. People that dealt with MAX’s because they liked the order and structure of his business.

No, it would have to be Angeline. His business and his very existence would be nothing if she were not part of his world. He knew she would have wine for him when he wanted it and steaks for him and the pup when the whim struck him.

Another picture passed before him, and he saw himself sitting in his favorite recliner, remote in hand, watching “Style European” on a Sunday afternoon. There was no light in his eyes, no secret phone calls to expect, no surging of blood in anticipation of Zoe’s touch. His life was ordered and perfect, but it no longer mattered.

Max threw his pen against the wall and it bounced into the register vent. He swore with more vengeance than was customary for him and got down on his knees. His fingers were too thick to pull the pen up between the slots. The pen broke loose and went sliding down the vent. He sat flat down cross-legged on the floor.

What on earth was wrong with him? Why couldn’t life go on just the way it was? Angeline could be his anchor, and Zoe his kite. It was the perfect arrangement.

Even as he thought it, he knew it would not work. Something had to give, and it looked like sooner rather than later to him. The puzzle was why the bizarre thoughts had started at exactly the same time as the notes.

* * *

Max sat straight up in bed, drenched in sweat and trembling. The dream had been so real. Zoe and Angeline were standing together in front of his desk, each dressed in nothing but nightgowns. Angeline was a vision in a pale peach color, made of thick silk and touching her ankles. Zoe’s was a deep cranberry lace with spaghetti straps, low cut in the front, clinging seductively to her hips and stopping just above her thigh. He tried to separate them, get them away from each other, but they were determined to stand there and taunt him. He loved the rich looking aura of Angeline’s gown, but the frivolous teasing from Zoe’s made his blood race through his veins.

He shook his head to clear it. The dog lying at his feet lifted her head and looked at him sadly, almost in sympathy. Max watched her tremble and roll over on her side. She was breathing heavily and whining. He turned on the nightlight and saw that her eyes seemed glazed over.

“Angeline! Wake up!” Max slipped out of bed and sat down carefully beside the dog.

“What? What’s happened?” Angeline lifted herself off the bed and leaned on her elbow. “Is it Lace?”

Max nodded, unable to speak. Lace was trembling all over and her breathing was slower. Lace’s eyes were almost totally hidden now and her legs were stiff.

“She’s in pain, Max.” Angeline got out of bed and went around to sit beside Max. Her touch was gentle and compassionate. Even in his anxiety, Max noticed her touch. He supposed he had noticed it before, but that would have been so many years ago. He had been so pre-occupied lately with Zoe...

Lace whined and shuddered, and Max drew his attention back to her. He stroked her thick fur and rubbed her belly, but she didn’t respond to his touch. Maybe he had been like Lace all these years, steeled against the touch of his wife. She sat so close to him that he could feel the warmth of her skin through her gown. It wasn’t the peach color of his dream, but it was a rich, satiny lemon color that suited her tan. Max smiled sadly at her and she took his hand.

“What will you do?” Angeline asked in a whisper. “Should we leave her to suffer?”

“No. I think not.” Max reached for the phone on the nightstand and hit the speed dial for the vet. As he spoke and then listened, the tears spilled from Max’s eyes and slid down his cheeks.

Angeline reached up gently and wiped them away. “Oh, my darling Max. To lose something so dear. I’m so sorry.” She gathered him in her arms and held him.

* * *

The ride home was silent. Max could barely stand to think of his precious pup wrapped in plastic in the trunk of his car. It made his own life seem more vulnerable.

Max gripped the wheel. He had never asked where the coffin was. He’d have to call Jake right away. He couldn’t have Lace lying in plastic like discarded trash.

Jake answered on the second ring. “I’m on my way,” he said, reassuring Max that everything was taken care of. Angeline made a pot of coffee, then sat at the table holding Max’s hand. She began talking, just little bits and pieces of her day, her voice soft and soothing. Max felt himself relax and actually began listening. She told stories about the grandchildren and about their sons, and even whispered a few confidences--he didn’t like the word gossip--about their neighbors. One story even made him smile.

The sound of grinding truck gears drew their attention to the driveway, and they walked out hand in hand to talk to Jake, who unloaded the coffin and sat it on the garage floor. Max handed him a shovel and grabbed one for himself. Angeline disappeared while they were working and came back several minutes later with a crucifix.

“It was from my first Holy Communion,” she explained, offering it for the headstone.

Max was too overwhelmed to speak. He nodded and kept digging, allowing the tears to fall. Jake quickly finished up and moved to put Lace into her final bed.

“What’s this?” Jake pulled an envelope out of the coffin that said “MAX” in rich, purple letters.

There was no way Max could refuse the envelope or refuse to open it. Struggling to keep his hands from shaking, he ripped open the envelope. There was a piece of pale yellow lace. And there were four words written on the lace in the same bold strokes. “I SEE YOU’VE DECIDED.”

There was no way he could explain this. It made no sense. Who could have known what was in his heart? He was just discovering for himself that Angeline really was his anchor, but she was his kite, too. He had been so stubborn.

“What is it?” Angeline asked, reading over his shoulder. “Decided what?”

“Oh, someone knew I was struggling with a decision. I think they knew before I did what I needed to do.”

“You mean Lace.”

Max didn’t bother to explain. They stood together and watched Jake lower their pet into the ground and cover the coffin with dirt. Angeline kissed the cross and placed it over the grave.

“We’ll get through this together, Max. Trust me.” Angeline took his chin in her hand and turned his face toward her. She looked directly into his eyes as he could never remember her doing before.

In that instant he knew. There was no question. “Let’s go away,” he whispered. “I’ll leave Rutherford in charge of the business and we’ll go to Europe for a few months.” He noted the surprise in her eyes, but it was quickly replaced with pleasure. “There’s this little shop I want you to see. It’s called Lacy’s. They carry some of our clothing, and the display is wonderful.” Max smiled. “The shop is on a little street off the beaten path. You’ll just love it, Angeline. I can’t even remember now how I found it...”

Copyright © 2007 by Marge Burke

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