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His mind returned to age six, when his dad was on a military posting, when his parents left him to stay with his grandfather who was dying from addiction to alcohol. That was Merle’s boyhood: a series of military postings, ominous school hallways, solitary walks home. He remembered no friends — only rocks, soil, military housing.
He continued to work on his project after the episode began. He convinced himself he could tough it out. I’ll feel better after a night’s sleep.
Rachel found him slumped over, contorted, talking to himself. “You’ve got to get to the hospital,” she said.
“No.” The voice of male certainty came forth. She heard it as a plea to be convinced, to be pushed into the right decision.
She waited, said, “I’ll go upstairs and begin dinner.”
“No, stay here, please.”
She reached for his hands, pulled him up, and he walked without protest to her car. They sat silent on the way to the hospital.
As if Rachel were watching a PowerPoint presentation, images came to her mind from their early dating period. Returning from a concert on a cold Saturday evening on Merle’s Harley, that one especially. She remembered the purr of the engine, the sting of the winter wind, her feeling of warmth and excitement when they stopped at the motel. Coffee and breakfast the next morning. I wanted that to last forever.
Married life for Rachel came after years of struggle to twist away from her heritage. She came from a large family, the oldest of nine, accustomed to domestic sounds, voices, conflicts that sometimes escalated, often were buried. As Rachel’s mother deteriorated from years of exertion, strain, and religiously imposed childbirth, she insisted that Rachel assume the role of caregiver, substitute mother for the family.
Three weeks after Rachel and Merle were married, she cuddled beside him and talked to him about her day and its intendant difficulties. He listened for a few moments, interrupted her, “If all you want to do is talk, you’d better talk to your friends. I can tell you what to do, but this kind of talk is just mindless.”
She sat in silence, deflated. She was reminded of her childhood as the inheritor of traditional responsibilities, heard echoes from religious texts proscribing female behaviors. Now, as if dropped into a foreign country, knowing neither the customs nor the idioms, she was forced to realign her expectations.
She felt like a jilted spouse, unconsciously acted like an abused one, and knew, once again, she had become a substitute mother, but felt strangely comfortable — both at home and out of place. She repressed vague ideas of independence, relished long thoughts of retribution, took solace in a private joke, repeated like a mantra: “Divorce never, homicide maybe.”
But she began to forge an alternate life. Over the years, her circle of friends expanded. Still, her attempts to plan social events with married friends or schedule dinner out usually ended with Merle declaring some variation of “I don’t know these people. Let’s go to Home Depot instead.”
Their sole excursion with another couple consisted of one Saturday afternoon and evening at dinner and an out-of-town regional theater play.
Rachel did the introductions that afternoon. It was at David and Nicole’s house. Merle looked at Nicole, slumped his upper body, extended his hand. He looked at the ceiling. “Top of the morning. Nice to meet you.”
Without waiting for a reply, he pulled his hand away, turned his back, ignored David, and, hunched forward, crossed the living room as if carrying a heavy assault rifle through the streets of Beirut, strode around the marble table, then sat on the love seat by the window. He placed his right foot on the marble table.