“Sometimes it’s a struggle just to keep my shit together,” Robert tells me over drinks on the patio, so matter-of-factly that he could be discussing the weather or last night’s scores, those games he watches, always some kind of balls on the TV. I know what he means, but I act like I don’t, because I sense this is something Robert needs to get out.
“What do you mean?” I say, shifting in my chair, one of the pair of white plastic Adirondacks we bought when this began since we figured we’d be spending a lot of time outside, and together, and the Adirondacks we had were wooden and weathered and crumbling, and while these new Adirondacks looked more lifelike on the laptop, like something made of wood even though the description clearly admitted that they were plastic, when they arrived and we pulled them from the box to assemble, which took forever since neither of us is especially handy, they looked cheap and shoddy and very much plastic.
“You know damn well what I mean,” Robert sort of scolds, not me but more the situation, which I can tell in him by now, his defense mechanism, particularly when he knows that I’m on to him only I’m not letting on that I am. “Day in and day out … I’m tired of it.”
“But it’s almost over,” I say and I lean in because I’m excited about this, “we’re nearly at the end — all the doctors and scientists agree. They say they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Christ, and the clichés,” Robert grumbles, “new normal and unprecedented times and light at the end of the tunnel.” He sighs, or more like a heavy exhale. “So what happens at the end of the tunnel?” Robert turns to me, and his eyes are bloodshot, and I can’t tell if that’s from his beers or if he’s been crying, the way he does, silently and to himself so I can’t detect, not until it’s too late, until it’s over, and I don’t dare ask him if he’s been crying at that point because whatever he has been crying about has passed and I don’t want to stir it up for him. “Do we just go back to living our lives, like none of this ever happened — this thirteen months of bull shit or whatever it’s been?”
“Things will be different,” I say, and I take a sip of my wine, which is what I’ve been using to cope, along with walks through the neighborhood, and cooking, and bread baking though if I never see another loaf of sourdough it will be too soon, “but the same some.” And more upbeat, for him, and for me, “We’ll be able to gather with our friends, and our families. We’ll be able to reemerge into the world.”
“What if I don’t want to reemerge into the world,” Robert says quickly, too quickly, as is if this is something he’s already contemplated at length and he has concluded that it’s not anything he desires. “What if I like it here — quarantined, and Christ, when would I have ever used that in casual conversation?”
I don’t consider this casual conversation. It feels heavier. It feels dense. It feels as if Robert is getting at something that perhaps I have already known. I was concerned that this might happen, Robert like this, as things return to how they were, close enough, and everybody gets on with their ways. I’ll be going into the office, and Robert will be left here by himself. He didn’t have anywhere to go before this, quitting his job how he did, with a huff and a bluster, that “soul crushing career” he called it, in the middle of his performance review, and then a week later the world shuts down, which wasn’t so bad for him then given that no one else had anywhere to go either. But now, it seems, everyone else does have somewhere to go, and Robert doesn’t, and I’m worried for him about that yet I don’t tell him because I don’t want him to be worried for himself too, at least no more than I’m sure he already is. So I reach out across the wrought iron table that we also bought on the Internet and which appears a tad more substantial than the cheap plastic Adirondacks and that’s good, and I take his hand, and it’s cold, and I say, “We’ll get through this like we’ve gotten through everything else we’ve been through,” and I try to sound convincing.
“Mm-hmm, sure,” Robert says, and he doesn’t sound convinced, and he gets up from his Adirondack and takes a few steps away, towards the side of the house, and he suddenly exclaims, in that voice of his, “and what keeps shitting on our patio?”
I pivot to what Robert is talking about, and I focus my eyes, after two glasses of wine, and notice a turd, long and narrow and curled and deep brown, like a chocolate swirled soft serve ice cream, on the bricks. Before I can answer, although I really have no answer, Robert stomps to the shed, flings the door open, and produces a shovel, rumbling around inside there and knocking over other of the assortment of hand-me-down and mismatched garden tools we have accumulated over the years, various shovels and rakes and picks and a leaf blower that my parents gave us when they were downsizing and wouldn’t be needing to do lawn work anymore and I envied them of that.
“For fuck’s sake we don’t even have a pet,” he complains, mostly to himself though I can hear him because I’m sitting right here, “and all I do is shovel shit.”
I curiously observe as Robert uses the shovel to scoop up the turd, scraping it against the bricks, and then marches it into the yard, the shovel extended out in front of him as if he is leading some type of gross procession. He searches about for something before he finds it, whatever it is, and displaces the turd into the ground.
“I dump the shit into the chipmunk holes,” he explains as it’s obvious I don’t understand what the hell he’s doing, and he tosses the shovel into the shed and slams the door shut, the garden tools colliding about inside and it sounds like something has toppled over in there, one of the various shovels or rakes or picks or maybe that leaf blower that we’ve never used nor do we intend to, but he doesn’t bother to open the shed back up to check on whatever might have fallen and rather returns to his Adirondack and to his beer. “Kill two birds with one stone that way,” he breathes out, then laughs to himself, “or one turd.”
I laugh too, to be polite, and it is funny I suppose, and I don’t know what else to do, as I take a last swig of my wine and ponder having another glass but that would require me to get up and go inside and I quite like it on the patio, all things considered, next to the fire pit that we bought on the Internet as well and which actually turned out to be a worthwhile purchase because it looks exactly the way it did in the picture and it emits enough heat to warm the chill on this early spring evening and to melt s’mores on occasion.
“Don’t worry about me,” Robert waves his hand in the air to dismiss himself, changing his tone, as he often does, on a dime, “I’ll be alright — I’m just venting.”
“I don’t mind,” I tell him, and I don’t mind. “I want you to be able to talk to me about these things,” then I edit myself, “about anything.”
“Mm-hmm, yeah,” Robert says as he finishes his beer and I can’t decide if he agrees with me or if he’s thinking about something else, like getting another beer, and if he does that then I might ask him to get me another glass of wine so that I don’t have to get up and go inside. Instead he leans back in his Adirondack, and I can hear the plastic creaking and I pray that this isn’t the time when that Adirondack decides to break. It becomes silent, and still, with the only sound that of the gas blowing up the flames in the fire pit like a miniature blow torch.
We sit like that for a while, longer than I expected but we have no plans, when Robert surfaces from whatever trance he has slipped into, and he looks at me, and he looks at the fire, and he looks back at me while nodding at the fire. “Should we turn this off now?” he asks, as he moves to get up. “It’s late. I’m going in. I want to catch the end of the game.”
“That’s okay,” I tell him, and it is okay. “I’ll stay out here. You go — I’ll handle it.”
“Alright,” Robert concedes, and he lingers before rising.
“Can you take this in with you?” I ask him as I hand him my empty wine glass.
“You want another?” Robert asks me as he takes my empty wine glass.
I briefly considering saying yes, but he’s right it is late, and I have to work tomorrow, online and in sweats but work nonetheless, and Robert’s pours are always generous, which sometimes I like but this time I should pass, so I just shake my head no, and lean back in my Adirondack and the plastic creaks, and I stretch my legs and rest my feet on the wrought iron table. Robert nods and he walks inside, the storm door slamming shut behind him with a shake and a rattle of stiff aluminum.
I remain there under the starry night sky by the flickering light of the fire pit, thinking, about everything, and nothing, how I don’t know how Robert is going to handle this, hoping that he’ll be alright, that we both will, reminding myself that we have been through worse together and have managed to come out relatively unscathed, and this should be no different, should being the operative word, until I spot a set of glowing eyes in the distance cautiously emerging from the brush at the back of the yard, a possum or raccoon or some other kind of critter ostensibly on its way over for its regular bowel movement on our patio, which I take as my cue to leave. I shut off the fire with a shutter and a last gasp from the bluish flames, cutting the gas off at its source, and head into the house, maybe to watch whatever ball game Robert is watching on the TV or to read one of my books before bed.
Peter J. Stavros is the author of the short story collection, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press, 2020). More can be found at www.peterjstavros.com.