Eugene’s wife Margaret lifted the lid of her husband’s medium Samsonite. Inside, the blue satin retaining straps were neatly buckled, one to the other, and pulled taut. She slid her hands into the long puckered pockets. In the right-hand pocket she discovered a hotel-sized bar of Camay soap and a sewing kit folded into the shape of a large matchbook. There was nothing in the left-hand pocket.
Margaret slippered across the hallway into the bathroom. From the linen closet she removed a milky-white Tupperware container. Opening it, she smelled the combined perfumes of the other small, paper-bound bars of soap; Ivory, and Dial, and Camay; the one-ounce portions of Bayberry Spice Shampoo, Violet Creme Conditioner, and several cylinders of Silky Touch Hand’n’Body Lotion. Filing the new bar of Camay next to its cousins, she snapped the lid back on, and returned the box to its place on the third shelf, beside the guest towels.
She turned to the sink and noticed a smudge of toothpaste on the chrome spout. This she polished away with a blue tissue from the dispenser that sat on the tank of the toilet. The box of tissues were protected by a blue plastic cover; on it were the embossed impressions of several varieties of shells. She gave the faucets a precautionary turn to the left. Lately they had been leaking; she had heard the distinct ping of water against porcelain during the night.
Back in the bedroom, Margaret opened the beige curtains and noticed the October afternoon sunlight illuminating the elastic hem of the uppermost pair in a stack of Eugene’s boxer shorts.
From the brass rack screwed into the side wall of his closet she selected four neckties in various muted colors. She folded the ties and slid them into a quart-sized plastic bag, which she zipped nearly shut before putting her lips to the remaining gap between the two sides. She sucked deeply, vacuuming the last of the wrinkling air from the bag, then placed it onto the pile of shorts.
Eugene was in the den. On the eastern wall, he had installed, several years earlier, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. There he stored back issues of the magazines to which he and Margaret subscribed: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Architecture, Hardware Jobbers Weekly, for him; for her there were dusted stacks of Sunset, Western Living, and Ladies Home Journal.
He switched on the green-glass lamp that sat on the left side of his desk. The wooden veneer was nearly covered by the blotter, the in and out baskets, and the Grecian marble pen-and-pencil holder, with matching paperweight, which Margaret had given to him as an anniversary gift some ten or twelve years before. His face was reflected on a framed, close-up photo he had taken of Margaret on their recent trip to Key West. She was, as her friends might have said, a handsome woman; one who had mellowed rather than age;, a woman whose face continued to emit something of the girlish quality that had originally attracted Eugene to her. At the instant the Nikon’s shutter had opened, her hair had been sculpted by the Gulf wind into a soft-edged swirl the color of brown sugar, and the sun, dropping behind her, had blushed the helices of her ears a tropical red.
The glow from the lamp shade painted an unhealthy green across the upper half of Eugene’s face. He wrapped the framed photograph of his wife within several sheets of typing paper, taped them closed, and laid the package carefully in his briefcase.
He inspected the contents of the files and folders he had transferred from his desk to the case; sales reports and order sheets, lengthy notes on three-by-five index cards for a presentation he would make to the regional managers of the company, and a thick glossy catalog with descriptions and photos of American Hardware’s new products for the coming year. This Eugene had received at home, directly from the national office; he had spent every evening for the last week memorizing the descriptions, dimensions, and price breaks.
Preparations for a business trip, and there had been many in his career, had a curious effect on Eugene. He felt himself, by small degrees, peeling away from his home, and from Margaret. Each item he placed into his briefcase seemed to release a clasp. He felt something of an airy lightness in his chest; he would often become clumsy, in a way that made him feel he was a stranger in his own body. He wondered if this was a sensation shared by other men who had, at some time in the past, gathered their weapons and readied for a march into the unknown. He often had trouble sleeping for a few nights before a departure; on these nights, he would stealthily rise from their bed and spend the early morning hours in the den, trying to work, but succeeding only in putting his papers in neat stacks on the desk. In some small way, he thought, every trip carried with it the likelihood that the person who returned would be someone different than the person who had left.
He tucked his traveler’s checks into the zippered pouch in the lid of the briefcase. The latches produced a familiar and satisfying click as he thumbed them shut. The surface of the leather was a deep chocolate color, and carried scars that had been inflicted throughout his years on the road. Only the deepest ones remained; the others he had carefully rubbed to invisibility with saddle soap and Kiwi.
“Your sport shirts are clean, they’re in the closet, and I pressed your khaki pants in case you get some time for sight-seeing while you’re there.” Margaret’s footsteps had made no sound on the tan pile carpeting, and the sudden intrusion of her voice in the dead quiet of the den caused Eugene to twitch. “You will have some free moments, won’t you? It’d be a shame not to get out and have some time to yourself. You know how you love Chicago.”
“I might, after the sales meeting.” Eugene picked up the marble paper weight and began to toss it from his left hand to his right, and back again. “I’ll pack the camera and the long lens. Maybe I’ll get up to the observation deck at the Sears Tower.” Eugene rose from his desk and replaced the chair. “I haven’t been up there in years.”
He smiled at his wife. “How about this,” he said. “I’ll bring home some pictures, and we can look them over together.” Eugene put the paperweight on the desk. “I talked to Marty, the Midwest rep, a couple of days ago. He lives in Highland Park. Remember, you met him a few years ago. Big guy, with glasses?” He waited a moment for Margaret to acknowledge his description. “He says there’s a lot of new buildings up since the last time the convention was there. I’ll take some pictures, and we’ll look at them together when I get back.” He walked across the room and kissed Margaret’s forehead, just above her left eye. The taste of the oils on her skin was as regular as morning. “I’ll miss you, Meg.” he said. “I’ll call when I get to the hotel.”
The drive from Saginaw was without incident. Eugene was acclimated to life behind the wheel; his entire career had been involved in selling one line or another, and after so many years of travel the driving had become automatic. While his body controlled the Chrysler, he rehearsed his report. He imagined the attentive eyes of the managers as he delivered what he thought was an innovative and sensible strategy for increasing the market share of American Hardware’s catalog of small hardware and tools. He choreographed his speech with the graphics he had had transferred to vivid transparencies, with bar graphs and pie charts and phrases such as “Multi-Phase Integration into Medium-Market Locales”, and “Projected Bottom Line Puts American Hardware Over the Top!”. He imagined the handshakes of appreciation and respectful attitudes with which he would be greeted the next day at the company’s booth on the convention floor at McCormick Place.
Eugene’s planning session carried him across the crisp Michigan landscape, through Indiana and finally into Illinois. At nine o’clock in the evening he edged the Chrysler to the curb in front of The Dorchester. The right front tire scraped against the concrete, and he winced at the sound, remembering, with some surprise at the suddenness of the association, how it was not so many years ago that nearly every car on the road was equipped with a pair of chrome curb-feelers to prevent such tire damage.
The Dorchester was an old house, one of the oldest in Chicago, and it was Eugene’s habit to stay at such hotels so that he might consider himself a part of the preservation of historically significant architecture. Others at American Hardware, the younger men, mostly, opted for the glitz of the newer hotels, with tiled lobby fountains and silk greenery; windows which couldn’t be opened; and rooms carrying all the charm of a model home facing the freeway. Let them have it, he thought. I want to hear the laughter of couples on the sidewalk below; the sound of the taxis and trucks echoing up to me, announcing the busy Chicago morning.
He gathered his Samsonite and briefcase, told the valet he wouldn’t be needing his car for the rest of the night, and walked, on legs stilted from the six hour drive, to the heavy brass doors of the hotel. Checking in at the reception desk, he noted with some satisfaction that he recognized the white-haired clerk, even though Eugene’s previous visit to the hotel had been seven years before. The clerk did not, however, seem to recognize Eugene.
Eugene requested a room on the highest floor, the twenty-third, but the clerk, whose gold-colored nameplate identified him as Carl, told him the only room available on that floor faced southwest, toward the city, rather than northeast, toward the Lake Michigan shoreline. In fact, he had added, there were no other rooms available all week, because of the convention.
“That’s fine,” Eugene said. “I’m not planning on spending much of the day in my room anyway. I’ll be at McCormick Place, making myself rich.” Eugene slapped a snappy rhythm on the marble top of the counter. “And in the evening, well, as I remember, the view of Chicago from the twenty-third floor of the Dorchester is pretty breathtaking.”
“Of course, sir. You’re quite right.” Carl slid a perforated plastic card onto the counter, and offered a practiced smile to Eugene. “This is your room key. Enjoy your stay, and feel free to ring the desk if there is anything you require.”
When Eugene opened the curtains covering the windows in room 2366, he discovered that one of the new buildings his friend Marty had told him about was a massive condominium tower looming directly across the narrow street from the Dorchester. His view, rather than of the dramatic thrusting shapes of the Chicago skyline, and the older neighborhoods that eventually gave way to the distant south side, was of the balconies and Levelored patio windows of expensive, vertically-stacked urban homes.
He took the suitcase stand from the closet and positioned his Samsonite on the black nylon webbing. He removed the neat stacks of clothes, transferring them to the drawers of the dresser. When he found his vacuum-packed bag of ties he shook his head in wonder. This was, he thought, a perfect example of Margaret’s approach to life.
Eugene retrieved his presentation materials and laid them carefully on the writing table. He had brought along a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, as a sleeping aid, and after removing the drum-tight plastic wrap from the tumbler in the bathroom, he poured a glass and sat at the writing desk near the window to brush up on his work.
After a few hours and another glass of Scotch, Eugene rose and went into the bathroom to urinate. The slick, antiseptic tiles of the tub and the wobble in his legs enticed him into running a hot shower. With the water thrumming across his scalp, Eugene thought about Margaret and what she might be doing. Probably reading in the living room, or perhaps she was talking on the phone with her sister, to whom she spoke, it seemed to him, far too frequently for any meaningful information to be conveyed.
He wondered just how long it had been since he had felt the relentless push to be at Margaret’s side, touching her, to have her attention each and every minute, and he was unable to remember, exactly, when it might have been. He wondered if she wondered about this, too. He had his work, and she volunteered two nights a week at Oakwood Hospital. She always returned home in a good mood, he thought, so at least she has some fulfillment in her life.
They were comfortable now, inhabiting the house together, but sometimes, in the evenings, he would abruptly realize that an image of her, of what she might be doing or feeling, hadn’t crossed the barrier of his thoughts in what seemed like hours. He supposed this was normal, expected; desirable, even, for a couple that had been together for more than three decades. At least they were still together, he thought, and still sleeping in the same bed, although they seemed to be often too tired anymore to make the kind of love that they had enjoyed throughout the first ten years of their marriage.
Eugene dressed in his pajamas and robe, poured another Scotch, and opened the window, inviting in the clamor of the night. He leaned out, laughing to himself that The Dorchester was one of the few hotels still in business that allowed its guests the dignity of making their own decisions as to whether or not to spring from the window in a fit of suicidal despair.
The view of the city, beyond the condominiums, was not so bad with his head and shoulders jutting outside the building; he dropped back into the room and lifted his camera from the suitcase. Rotating the telephoto lens onto the camera body, he checked the film, then returned to the window. The lamp on the writing desk interfered with his view of the darkened streets; he snapped it off, and the room was dim except for the light streaming from the half-open bathroom door and the yellow wash from the streetlights below.
He snapped a couple of shots of the Sears Tower, which, because of its enormous height, rose above the obstructing condos; he aimed his lens at the street below and squeezed off a composition containing what he hoped would be the streaky red blurs of time-lapse taillights. As he turned to his left, his Nikon still to his eye, his viewfinder framed a glass door over which there were no curtains. The condominium was on the same level as his room, and, though the light inside was indirect, he perceived a figure lying on a sofa, apparently watching a television which was out of Eugene’s view. The figure was a woman wearing only panties and a red cardigan sweater.
The strength of Eugene’s lens caused him to have the unnerving sensation that he had somehow been drawn across the thirty or forty yards separating the two buildings and had come to rest, unwittingly, on the very sofa which she occupied. Before he lowered the camera from his face, she had turned to the window and smiled at him.
Eugene laid his camera on the double bed and entered the bathroom. The sudden shift from darkness to fluorescence jerked his pupils into contraction. He splashed cold water on his face and scrubbed it dry. He brushed his teeth for a full three minutes. He mined around in his Dopp kit for the floss, with which he whittled away at his gums, as if he were a convict with a hacksaw, until his spit changed from white to livid red. He sucked water back and forth between his teeth, swallowing it, and filled the glass to the top before drinking it down.
Eugene felt compelled to call Margaret, to immerse himself in the clean familiarity he knew her voice would bring. He sat on the bed as he dialed the number. His camera was at his side, its long black lens pointing toward the window. He replaced the lens cap and turned the camera so the extended lens was aimed at the headboard. Eugene listened as a series of clicks on the long distance line gave way to an insistent busy signal, which, after he hung up the phone, merged into the steady ping of water hitting porcelain.
Returning to the bathroom, he found he had failed to completely shut off the faucet in the bathtub. He leaned into the tub to correct his oversight, and in doing so, misjudged the movement of his head and creased his brow on the vertical frame of the glass door. He flattened his palm to his forehead, then surveyed his injury in the mirror.
There was a small cut, not more than a quarter-inch long, but the area around his eyebrow was already reddening. As he peered into the mirror, leaning close enough that his breath fogged its surface, his vision was captured by the reflection of the shower door. Its texture was composed of innumerable tiny beads in a seemingly random pattern. To Eugene’s eyes it took on the appearance of the tightly stretched hide of a transparent alligator, invisible and dangerous.
A triangular cardboard tent on the television caught his attention as he padded back from the bathroom. He picked it up, and, holding it close to his undamaged eye, found the channel and time for the adult cable film for the evening, “Linda’s Lips”. He clicked the selector to channel seventeen, then stretched himself out on the bed. After several minutes of weak exposition, the film allowed its viewers the pleasure of seeing Linda’s lips, and the soft-focus fellatio on the small screen imposed on Eugene a halfhearted erection. He pulled at himself, his eyes alternately open and shut, until he realized that his interest was elsewhere.
He turned off the television and walked to the window with his camera. The woman’s apartment was dark, and he saw in the glass door a tiny reflection of a man with a camera in a hotel window. He lowered the Nikon and went to bed.
As he had hoped, the morning sounds of the city awakened him. He looked at his wristwatch and found that the clamor from below had failed to interrupt his slumber as early as he had expected, however; it was seven-thirty, and he had only enough time for a quick room-service breakfast. As he reached for the phone he noticed the illumination of the red message light. He called the hotel operator, who told him that he had had a call late the previous evening from a woman named Margaret. Would he like the number? No, he said, but thank you; after ordering black coffee, a cherry Danish, and a large grapefruit juice, he dialed his home.
Margaret answered after three rings. “Gene,” she said. “”I’m glad you called. I tried your room around one o’clock this morning, but there was no answer.” She waited for his response. “Where were you?”
Eugene saw himself in the mirror, smiling. “I tried to call around midnight, but the line was busy.” He pulled a clean sock onto his foot. “I’m sorry I didn’t get your call. I might have been in the shower. Or sleeping. I don’t remember.”
“Well. I’m glad you’re all right.” Eugene heard the sound of their cast-iron skillet hitting the burner of the range; two eggs, over easy, on rye toast, he imagined. Margaret’s usual morning fare.
“What’s for breakfast?” he said.
“Why don’t you try to guess?”
“Why don’t you just describe it for me?” There was silence on the line. “So,” he said. “Two over easy?”
He heard the sound of air leaving his wife’s nostrils. “I’m making a Denver omelet. There’s a green pepper I have to use before it goes bad.”
“Well. That’s different,” he said. He continued dressing. “Who were you talking to last night when I called?”
There was a pause, and then, “Louise, for a while.” Eugene heard, over the phone line, the dim sound of Margaret humming. “Oh yes, before I forget, your friend Marty called. From the company? He asked what hotel you were staying in, and I told him. He said he’d call you so the two of you could get together for dinner. If he didn’t call you last night, I guess he’s planning on meeting you at the convention. Oh, hold on a second,” she said. The ambient sounds from the telephone dimmed, as if Margaret had placed her hand over the mouthpiece. He thought he heard some muffled words.
“Margaret?” he said. “Are you there?”
There was a knock on the door of the room, and as Eugene attempted to carry the phone along with him the cord disconnected from the wall. “Shit,” he said. He hung up the phone and opened the door to his breakfast.
An extraordinary number of buyers had cornered Eugene on the convention floor that day. As soon as he would finish with one, the chief buyer from the Valu-Plus chain, say, he would be hailed from behind and have his hand grabbed by the owner of another, competing operation. Eugene had the feeling he was being watched; that his conversations were being overheard. American Hardware had erected, within the display area, a warren of offices in which the salesmen explained quantity discounts, showed samples of new products, and, with luck, wrote orders for the upcoming quarter. These office spaces were hardly soundproof, however; they were little more than six-foot-high carpet-covered metal panels which had been puzzled together by the unionized handymen who controlled the convention construction within the hall. What a racket, Eugene had thought. These guys give you forty-five minutes of halfhearted labor, then sit on their forklifts for the remainder of the hour, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. And for this we pay thirty dollars an hour per man.
There was nothing preventing a buyer from standing just outside Eugene’s cubicle, beyond his vision, and listening to the deals being made. On one occasion a buyer had come in and had simply said that if American Hardware wanted his business, the company would have to do two front points better than the deal Eugene had just cut for the previous buyer. The business was changing, Eugene thought, and it wasn’t for the better. That same buyer noticed the swelling above Eugene’s left eye. Wife give you an uppercut there? he asked. Eugene had felt obliged to laugh; the guy just bought twenty-four thousand dollars worth of hardware.
Harv Sharpley, Eugene’s supervisor, had added to Eugene’s anxiety by insisting that all sales representatives hold the line that had been ordered in the new pricing guides. Any difference in the published pricing and that which ended up on the order sheet might well be made up, Harv had said, from the commission check of the rep who wrote the deal.
After an expense-account seafood dinner at Bookbinders, Marty suggested that they cab it down to Rush Street and have a few more drinks. The night was young, he said.
“I don’t think so, Marty. I’d better keep the lid on tonight. I want to have a clear head for tomorrow.” Eugene circled the rim of his wine glass with the meat of his forefinger; a crystalline ringing danced from the glass. “I want to be fresh.”
“Forget fresh. You could do the meeting in your sleep.” Marty lowered his voice. “Let’s go out and chase some skirt.”
Eugene thought he heard someone call his name from across the restaurant, but realized, after looking in the direction of the voice, that he had been mistaken. “I’m too old to chase anything,” he said.
“Sure, sure you are,” Marty said. “You think I forgot that time in Dallas?”
A cooling sensation spread down Eugene’s neck and across his shoulders. Four years before, at another convention, he and Marty had met two women in the bar at their hotel. It was the only time in his marriage Eugene had been unfaithful to Margaret. The woman in Dallas had made earnest and imaginative love to him, but Eugene was uncomfortable discussing it with his associate.
“That was a fluke, Marty. A weak moment, you know?” Eugene saw a distorted and upside-down reflection of his friend’s face on the surface of the varnished table. “I’m not exactly proud of that,” he said.
“Proud shmoud, Gene. Who did it hurt? Nobody. Unless you told Margaret.” Marty drank from his wineglass. “You didn’t tell Margaret, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t tell her.”
Marty reached into his suit coat and brought out his wallet. He put his American Express card on the table. “Well?” he said.
“Well, what?” Eugene said.
“Well, are you coming, or not?”
“Not,” Eugene said.
“Suit yourself, my friend,” Marty said. “I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
Eugene rose from his chair. “I’m heading back to the hotel. I’ll see you in the morning.” He laid a ten on the table. “That’s for the tip.” Eugene took a taxi back to the Dorchester. The driver talked nonstop during the five-minute ride, but Eugene wasn’t listening. He was trying with no success to shake the memory of the woman on the couch, smiling at him.
He inserted the plastic card into the slot on room 2366. The red light flashed, signaling the failure of his key to properly activate the lock. He tried again, and this time the lock clunked, the green light illuminating his thumbnail as he pulled the card from the door. The room was dark; he wiped his hand over the wall in long sweeping motions until, on a downward thrust, his fingers connected with the switch and the desk lamp lit.
The bed had been pulled down, and the coverings were arranged in a severe diagonal from one corner of the head of the bed to the halfway point of the other side. One of the pillows appeared to have had the weight of a head upon it, but Eugene realized instead the maid had placed the mint onto the pillow with no little force. Perhaps she had had a long day, he thought.
Eugene tossed his briefcase on the bed, picked up the mint and removed the foil wrapper. The cocoa butter had risen to the top of the candy, mottling the dark chocolate with tan smears. He remembered reading somewhere, probably on the side of a box of cheap chocolates, that this was normal, and wouldn’t affect the quality of the candy. Tossing the mint into the toilet and undressing, he dropped his suit in a lazy hank on the back of a chair. That’s so unlike me, he thought, and he replaced the garment on one of the chrome hangers in the closet. Eugene showered, raising steam into the atmosphere and pinking the skin of his back.
Feeling refreshed, he decided to go over his presentation materials once more. The transparencies had stuck together, he found, and some of the colors from the pie charts had adhered to the bar graphs. He was able to remove the flecks of yellow and blue, but there were places on the charts now that were missing color.
The window was shut, and he noticed the silence in the room shortly after his own thoughts had begun to quiet. He opened the heavy sash, pulling in a deep whiff of lake and land and car exhaust. Even so, he thought, even so, it smells good; this is Chicago. His eyes scanned the view, and stopped at the condominium window through which he had seen the woman the night before. He lifted his camera from the nightstand.
It took a moment for his eye to adjust to the magnification; as before, he felt as if he were in the room across the street rather than sitting in a chair in front of a window nearly forty yards away. He saw no one on the sofa, though the lighting in the room was brighter than he had remembered it. As he turned the focus ring, his finger slipped onto the shutter button, and he was startled to hear the motor drive advance the film. He jerked the camera away from his face, looked across the chasm with his naked eyes, and lifted the machine once again. This time, the woman was there, reclining on the sofa, her feet pointing in the direction of the patio door. At two-hundred times magnification, Eugene could fill the frame of his viewfinder with her face.
She was younger than he was, perhaps thirty, with light brown hair that draped itself down her shoulders. Her head was turned toward the light of the television, stretching the muscles of her neck. She had a full, almost swollen-looking lower lip, but her upper lip was strangely thin. Her eyes, as close as he could tell, were a light color, perhaps blue, or green, but definitely not brown.
She wore the same cardigan sweater as the night before. It had only two buttons fastened, and Eugene allowed his vision to linger on the cool curves of her breasts, which were smallish. He followed the line of her sweater to where the bottom hem gave way to her underwear. Her panties were white; he saw the slightly darker area where the mass of her pubic hair shadowed the soft material.
Her legs were good legs, he thought, strong , with long muscles. He traced his way down her calves, noticing the smoothness of her skin. Her feet were small, with long toes. Her toenails were painted a dark pink, but showed a small crescent next to the cuticle where the nail had grown since the polish had been applied. With auburn hair, he thought, she might look a little like Margaret had once looked.
Eugene pulled back the shaft of the lens to decrease the magnification, and, as he did, the woman sat up, interlocking her fingers and raising her arms above her head in a slow stretch. She yawned. Looks like she’s ready to hit the hay, he thought.
The woman left the room, and Eugene increased the magnification so that he might see the furnishings.
There was an abstract painting on the wall, one he didn’t recognize. The coffee table in front of the couch was chrome and glass, and on it were several magazines and a half-full glass of what looked like cola. Near what he supposed was the front door there was a cat’s litter box, though he saw no cat.
He noticed there were no objects suggesting that a man shared the woman’s home. Eugene began to compose a list of items that might suggest the presence of a man; a pipe rack, large muddy boots, a baseball glove–no, he thought, lots of women play softball now, they have their own leagues–a weightlifting bench–again, no, women work out, too–and as his eye snuck through the woman’s apartment he found himself once again face to face with her.
She had removed her sweater. She sat upright, rigid even, he thought, and he allowed his gaze to once again explore her body. He began to squeeze the shutter release, and the sound of the motor drive seemed to supersede the city clatter which surged up from the streets below. He had never really considered himself a voyeur–that’s the name of the kind of person who does what I’m doing, he thought–but right now it felt good, and he convinced himself he wasn’t hurting anyone, certainly; he certainly wasn’t hurting her.
Eugene focused the camera on her breasts and squeezed; the motor drive whirred. The contents of his intestines began to thump like the desperate occupants of a sunken submarine. He saw the woman’s hands rise from her lap and cover her breasts in what he took to be a gesture of modesty. He squeezed the shutter again.
She moved from the frame and he understood that the woman had once again left the room. Eugene was aware, suddenly, that his fingers were trembling; his next thought was that he hoped the pictures wouldn’t be out of focus. He put the camera on the bed and picked up the phone. He set the instrument on his lap and, in doing so, realized he had an erection. This is crazy, he thought, I’m acting crazy. This isn’t me, this is crazy. He took a long drink from the bottle of Red, to steady his nerves, and dialed his home number.
It rang, but Eugene replaced the receiver before Margaret could answer. He thought of calling Marty, but what would he say? Hey Marty, you got to see this, I’m watching a nearly naked woman through a telephoto lens, taking pictures of her, and this is why I couldn’t go out with you? Eugene raked the fingers of his left hand through his thinning hair and said shit, what am I doing here, and at that instant the phone rang and he felt the vibration through the nerves at the end of his penis, down and then up through his spine, and he put the phone to his ear; before he could say hello a woman’s voice said hey, where’d you go? And it wasn’t Margaret’s voice; not a bit.
He carried the phone to the chair by the window and nestled it between his shoulder and his head as he raised the camera to his eye, and when he had the woman in his sights he found she had reclaimed her sofa, and she was covering her vagina with one hand and holding the phone to her small red ear with the other.
“You like what you see?” she said.
“Um, sure. Of course I do,“ Eugene said.
“Good. I’m glad.”
“How did you get this number?” Eugene said.
“Easy. I count the rooms. The first one on the left is 2360, and they’re all even numbers on your side. Your room is the fourth from the corner,” she said. “2366.” She had moved her hand into her underwear, and Eugene followed it there. Her fingers began to move rhythmically and slowly. “I’ve done this before, you’re not the first,” she said. “I like it.”
“I see,” Eugene said.
“Yeah, I bet you do.” The woman stood up and faced the window. “Now here’s the rules.”
“Rules,” repeated Eugene.
“Yeah. Rules,” she said. “You can watch, you can even take pictures. But you can’t come over here.” The woman was staring into the lens of the camera, and Eugene saw her eyes tighten. “If I find out you’ve so much as set foot in my building, I’m calling the cops. Get it?”
“Yeah, um, sure. I got it.” Eugene squeezed off another shot. “No problem.”
“OK, sweetheart. How long you going to be in town?”
“Until the end of the week.”
“Well, I’m not going to be available every night. Besides, that would take some of the shine off the whole thing. Make it less than oh-so-special. It only works for me if we do it once or twice.”
Eugene had the sensation of being one of his own customers, locked into a deal he had to have at any price. “Once or twice is nice,” he said. “That’s fine with me. Once or twice, sure.”
“So let’s say that tonight you watch, and take pictures if you want. When I turn off the lights, the show’s over.” Her voice softened, and she resumed her position on the couch. “But if you’re really paying attention, I’ll bet you’ll know when the show’s over anyway, right?”
“Right. And I will. Really. Really be paying attention, I mean.”
“Maybe next time we can stay on the phone together,” she said. “You know, tell each other some dirty secrets? Would you like that?”
“Honey, do you want to tell me some dirty secrets over the phone next time?”
He did, and he said so.
“I’m going to hang up the phone now, sweetheart. I want you to watch me touch myself. Watch me.”
She hung up the phone. On the wall behind her, Eugene clearly saw the shadow of a cat as it passed in front of the TV. He reached over to the desk and snapped off the light.
Eugene’s first Saturday lunch at home after his trip consisted of a patty melt on rye, carrot strips, a small bowl of Better Maid potato chips, and an iced tea. Margaret faced him, sitting at her usual place within the breakfast nook. The wash of light from the window behind Eugene shone on her face harshly, and she squinted when she looked at him. Margaret ate the same meal as he, though in his recent absence she had continued her habit of experimentation in the kitchen.
“Looks good, Margaret,” he said.
“You’ll like it; I bought some of that cheddar, your favorite, sharper, at the market.” Outside, the neighbor’s dog had treed a grey squirrel, and was yipping in triplets. “That, and it’s ground chuck,” she said.
Eugene sipped tea.
“Trip was good,” he said.
“When do you want to tell me about it?” Margaret;s knife chiseled through her beef patty.
Eugene thought about her question, all its possible shades of meaning. After these many years together, he found that he was regularly confounded by her language. He had learned, however, to be deliberate in his communication with her; he rarely answered a question without poking through at least the three most apparent subtexts.
“Tonight would be good, I guess.” He tried to sound nonchalant, and in so doing, felt that he had overshot that effect. “I can fill you in after dinner tonight.”
“Did you take any pictures? How was the view?”
“Blocked, a little. New construction across the street from my room.” Duke, the neighbor’s dog, had stopped barking, and Eugene considered whether he had given up the chase or if, perhaps, the squirrel had misstepped and been caught. Likely the former, he thought.
“Some frames of cars and their headlights, blurred taillights, traffic.” He fished a chip from the bowl and crunched. “From my room. And too many shots at the trade show … probably I’ll delete most of those. How many pictures of guys in suits can we need?”
Margaret smiled. “I’ve seen those shots. From before. We’ve enough,” she said.
She chewed a carrot stick, slowly, minimizing the sound of the crunch. “What else?” she said.
“I forget,” Eugene said. “Buildings, mostly. A few faces from the hotel. My room, I think.” He looked at her, and their eyes met. “There’s more, probably. I’ll plug into the computer and get a slideshow ready. You can pick some music to go with it, if you want.”
“So. And what about you? How were things around here?”
“Well, I would say boring, the same as ususal, you know, but I’m trying to answer questions more specifically these days. Something we learned at a patient service meeting at Oakwood.” She drank from her iced tea, and, before putting her glass on the table, she held it in front of her face. Eugene saw a mottled slice of deep orange appear on her left cheek.
“Pretty,” she said, looking through it at the early afternoon sunlight “Looks like a sunset in the dessert. You try.”
Eugene twisted in his chair, holding his tea to the light. “Yes. Yes, it’s nice. Maybe why they call it Orange Pekoe, I guess.” Outside their window, a cardinal landed on a branch of a small birch tree in their back yard.
“It’s English Breakfast tea, actually.” She drank again. “But I know what you mean. It does appear orange.”
“You were saying. About your week,” he said.
“Oh. Sorry. Right,” she said. “Monday. Housework. Tuesday. More housework, shopped for groceries and went to the pharmacy. Refilled your prescriptions.”
Eugene’s medications included Singulair and a generic loratimide for his asthma, Cozaar to help regulate his blood pressure, and another one. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “So. Wednesday. Treated myself to a wash and a style at Marie’s. Uptown, my usual place, though I’m thinking of changing. They’ve raised their prices again.”
“Too bad,” Eugene said. He was happy to be able to wash his own hair, and had never understood his wife’s, or any woman’s, easy agreement with strangers to perform so many personal activiies. The irony of his judgement regarding this took no hold within his consciousness at this moment. “Looks nice, though. I noticed it yesterday when I got home. Sorry, I forgot to mention it. But it’s nice.” He waited a moment, then, “Thursday?”
Margaret said, “Oakwood, of course. Every Thursday.” She slid her fork into the final bite of her patty melt and put it in her mouth. Eugene watched as her lips flexed, carefully closed as she ate. He look down to his own lunch when she caught him watching her chew.
“And how’s that going?”
“It’s still fulfilling. Yes. That’s how I would describe it.” She rose from the table and began scraping her plate into the garbage disposal. “Fulfilling. And if you’re wondering, my dear husband, if part of the reason that it’s satisfying is that I’m able to spend time with Arnold, then, of course, you’d be right. Our arrangement stands.”
Margaret walked to Eugene and placed her hands on his shoulders. Her neatly-manicured nails, polished a light rose, rhythmically squeezed him.
“Darling. I love you more than ever. Every little thing about you. And I love that you let me have a life of my own. And I love that you have a life of your own, too.” Margaret sat beside Eugene. “ I love how you come home from a trip, so excited, so eager to share your photos , and your fantasies, with me. It’s what’s kept our romance alive. It’s why we still feel attracted and alive at our ages.”
Eugene thought about these things for a moment, then, “And Arnold?”
“Arnold is Arnold, darling. Company, another perspective, a good friend. And we may sleep together, sometimes, rarely, these days, but he’s Arnold, and you’re Eugene, and you’re my husband, and you always will be.” Margaret kissed Eugene on the lips, gently, then harder.
“So finish your lunch, and stop worrying. Everything is just as we’ve agreed it should be. We have each other, and the rest of the world is there only as we intend it to be. Your diversions on the road. Arnold. All diversions, catalysts, really. Nothing more, and you know it.
“Yes,” said Eugene. Diversions. That’s all.”
“Yes,” said Margaret.