“The Slap” — a (cut) prologue to The Awful Mess

I wrote this short chapter mostly as an exercise in understanding where Mary and Roger were coming from, and I’m comfortable that I didn’t include it, but you may find it of interest. (Then again, don’t you find that nearly all the cut scenes on DVDs deserved to be cut?)

At the moment, I’m actually playing with this as part of a longer prequel, one that also gives us a peek at Winslow and other characters before The Awful Mess. and possibly some others. I’m thinking of calling it “Motivated Sellers.” If it stands on its own, I could offer it for free to try to find a few new readers for the novel, or perhaps include it in an anthology of stories I’m trying to get together. (I’m not absolutely positive this will happen, though. I appear to be much better at ending novels than short stories.)

PG-13 for language and mild violence.

One night Roger came home from work – late, as had become usual – stood in front of the open refrigerator, and said, “Where’s the beer?”

“We’re out,” she said, and her heart started pounding.

“I told you last night we were out. Why didn’t you get any?”

“Because I didn’t feel like it.”  She had told herself at the store that day that she was sick and tired of buying him cases and cases of beer and watching him drink it down. He could damned well buy his own and, yes, she would tell him so.

She’d felt confident, even brave, at the store. Not so much anymore.

“What do you mean, you didn’t feel like it? You got other stuff, didn’t you? It’s at the same grocery store, isn’t it?”

She took a deep breath and turned away, continuing to heat up his dinner. She’d already eaten earlier, during the news on TV, and put his away his portion until he got home. “I figured you could start getting it yourself. I don’t feel like lugging it around anymore. It’s really heavy, you know, the amount you go through in a few days. You could go get it right now. Your dinner will be ready when you get back.”

She tried to quell a nervous tremor in the hand stirring the spaghetti sauce. Her body seemed a lot more worried about this stand she was taking than her head was. Her head had calculated that Roger would throw a little tantrum at worst. He’d probably deliver his semi-annual lecture about how hard he worked and how his job at his father’s real estate development company involved longer hours and higher pressure than her low-stress, low-level, poorly-paid editorial job, and why couldn’t he count on her support, goddamn it? She was his wife, wasn’t she?

And this, she had figured, would give her the opportunity to bring up those increasingly long hours, or the stops at the bar on the way home, or the amount of drinking in general, or his growing absence from their marriage.

Which meant, of course, that he would probably bring up her inability to get pregnant, and then she’d probably cry because what the hell was she supposed to do about that that she wasn’t already doing?

But at least then it would be out there.

And it needed to get out there. They hadn’t had this particular fight in months. Afterwards, maybe the pall that had fallen over their evenings would be lifted for a while.

Maybe he’d even be willing to discuss adoption.

But what actually happened was that Roger turned white, let the refrigerator door swing closed, and slapped her across the face.

The spoon in her hand went flying, flinging a narrow, blood-red spray of spaghetti sauce across the wall behind the stove.

He looked almost as surprised at what he had done as she was. Then his eyes narrowed and he stepped towards her.

Terrified, she scrambled up the stairs to their bedroom, where she locked the door and then barricaded it with a chair – he’d shown her how, in a hotel in Paris on their honeymoon – and called her father-in-law.

“Oh dear. I’ll be right over,” Mitchell said, predictably soothing and efficient. “Don’t you worry, dear. He won’t do it again.”

x x x

Roger hadn’t pounded up the stairs and pleaded with her or even just screamed at her. She didn’t hear anything. Eventually she realized that she smelled something burning, and ran downstairs to find the kitchen filling with the acrid fumes of carbonized spaghetti sauce. There was no sign of her husband.

When his father arrived she explained that she had no idea where he was, though she supposed that he might have gone out, just as she’d suggested, to get some beer. Mitchell hefted his brick of a cell phone and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll track him down. I’ll have him stay with us tonight. You’ve got enough on your hands cleaning this mess up.”

Oh. Right. So Mary cleaned it up.

Then she sat on the sofa, not watching the television, thinking of that strange, utterly cold look on Roger’s face after his initial surprise. What had those narrowed eyes signaled? She wondered if he would now follow the classic pattern of the abusive husband: remorse, contrition, claiming he only did it because he loved her so much. Though that was pretty hard to imagine coming from him.

And she didn’t really think she could consider herself a ‘battered woman.’ A slapped woman, maybe. Slapped once in eight years of marriage. Hardly that big a deal. Running off to a shelter seemed like an excessive response, and also really inconvenient when it came to getting ready for work the next day.

On the other hand, if she believed those forensic shows they’d often watched together, he might just come back and kill her. But aside from that one cold look, he’d never shown any hint of homicidal tendencies before. Annoyance, frustration, disgust, yes. Little tantrums when things didn’t work out the way he wanted. But never murder. That would require so much effort. He’d have to do something with her body, for instance. That trip to Paris for their honeymoon had never been repeated because Roger didn’t like the hassle of overseas travel. At this point in their marriage, she didn’t have a lot of energy for adventures either.

So this had probably just been a momentary aberration. He really must be under a lot of stress. She wished she knew someone other than her in-laws to discuss this with. Her own mother would probably suggest that Mary go see a priest and ask his help in examining her own shortcomings. When Mary had tried to talk to her about her infertility problems, her mom had noted that this sort of thing could happen when a wife didn’t wholeheartedly fulfill her role as sexual partner and helpmeet. It was Mary’s duty to keep the works well oiled and running smoothly. Perhaps, she whispered darkly, Mary should try not to be too critical. Men needed to feel their wives were impressed by them in order to, you know, function properly.

If this were true, Mary figured that she and her own brother and sister would never have been born. Her father had died relatively young, just after retirement, and Mary thought that if she’d had to live in the same house with her mother she would have drunk herself to death, too. She had been relieved when her mother moved across the country to Arizona, where she could be near Mary’s older brother and sister, who had each successfully produced grandchildren whose upbringing needed to be continually second-guessed.

Which meant that her sister Patty might be sympathetic, but was far away and obviously afflicted with her own problems. As for Mary’s friends … well, in recent years Mary hadn’t really kept up with her friends. Or they hadn’t kept up with her. They didn’t like Roger, she suspected, and this wouldn’t help that any. As for work, she didn’t think it was a good career move to let it get out that her husband had slapped her. She already got the most difficult editorial projects dumped in her lap.

x x x

When Roger did come home the next evening it was with a stiff “sorry” and eyes that slid away from hers. She felt vaguely cheated that she didn’t receive even an attempt at a little insincere manipulation. But then she told herself she should be relieved he wasn’t conforming to the classic profile of the wife-beater.

Saturday passed in the usual whirl of Bellamy family celebrations: two nieces had birthdays. That Sunday Roger’s friend Joey and his current girlfriend were supposed to come over and watch the Patriots game, but at the last minute Joey called and moaned that he’d come down with a stomach bug, which probably just meant that he’d scored something more fun to do. Normally she would be pleased, but today it meant that she and Roger had only each other for company.

They sat in their usual spots on the sofa and silently ate the potato chips and onion dip and watched the game. Mary flipped through home and garden magazines, wondering if there was any point to thinking about future projects for their home.

Roger lined up empty Molsons in front of him on the coffee table and occasionally yelled at the Patriots to get their shit together. He had developed this system a few months earlier, after he’d gotten a lecture from his dad about showing up for work with an obvious hangover. He had explained it to her this way: work nights, six bottles max. Eight if he had had a really bad day. On the weekend, he could have twelve to fourteen. Technically, Sundays were work nights, but Patriots games got a special exemption and anyway the game started early so he had more time to metabolize. He had also introduced variations based on the quality of the beer – piss-water American beers could be drunk in approximately twenty percent higher quantity than dark European beers. Molson was Canadian so it probably fell somewhere in between.

There were eight empty bottles lined up on the coffee table and it was half-time when Roger said, “Did you really have to call my dad?”

They were finally going to talk about this? “You slapped me.”

“Yeah, well, you really pissed me off.”

Did he actually think that excused it? “Who was I supposed to call? The cops?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, he’s also my boss. I already get enough fucking grief from him every fucking workday.”

Roger’s language usually deteriorated after the first six beers or so. But he also told more truths. Which meant … Jesus, what did it mean? “Why are you telling me this? Is there going to be a next time?”

He scowled and twisted the cap off another beer. “I didn’t say that.”

Silence stretched between them, interrupted only by the tinny cheer of a beer commercial, then a truck commercial.

She said, “Do you think we should try some counseling?”

He shook his head. “No. It’s not going to happen again.”

x x x

Another week passed. Mary slept poorly, often lying awake at night and wondering what she should do. On Friday night, mostly to break the tension, she kissed him. He was receptive, and they made love on the living room sofa. Afterwards he smiled and patted her on the head while he watched the rest of a game.

x x x

The next morning he was up first. She could hear him downstairs brewing coffee.

“You’re up early,” she said.

“Yeah. You want a cup?”

“Sure,” she said, pleased. It was the nicest thing he’d said to her in days. Maybe she really did just need to keep the works well-oiled and running smoothly.

They sat at the counter. She sipped her coffee and read the paper.

“I have something to tell you,” he said.

She looked at him and put her coffee down.

“You know things haven’t been going too well between us lately.”

“Yes. That’s why I suggested counseling.”

“The thing is, there’s someone else.”


Why hadn’t she suspected this? Because somehow she couldn’t imagine Roger ever being enough in love with anyone to want to suffer any inconvenience from it? “Who is it?”

“No one you know. A girl I met down at Laredo’s. After you stopped going.”

Was he implying that this was her fault because she had tired of the bar scene and the things he would say to his buddies there right in front of her?

Roger leaned forward. “The thing is, Mary, she’s going to have a baby.” The corner of his mouth twitched.

Oh God. He was proud. He’d fathered a child at last. She felt a cold sweat break out.

“Admit it, Mary, we’re just not good for each other anymore. We’re just beating a dead horse here.”

Okay, maybe so, but his half of this dead horse still had some uses. She knew because she’d been tallying them for two weeks now: his half of the mortgage. His hanging of dry wall and fixing of plumbing. His killing of spiders. The simple fact that he was someone to watch a movie with. The social life he provided, whether she really enjoyed plodding through all those Bellamy family events and football games or not. The fact that he was someone to have sex with – oh God, how long had he been fooling around? How could he let her make love to him last night?

She was going to have to get tested.

More doctors, more blood work. More examinations. Like she hadn’t gone through enough of those already trying to get pregnant. Just how many women had he slept with, anyway? And how far back? How could he do this to her?

His grimace was perhaps meant to be compassionate. “I’m really sorry about this, Mary. But you know we can’t control what our heart feels. I only want what’s best for both of us. I’m sure we can work something out. I’d really like it if we could stay friends.”

“Get out,” she said.

“What?” His mouth hung open.

“Get out. Leave. Now.”

“But…why? You hardly need this whole house for just for one person.”

“You just told me you got another woman pregnant. Do you expect me to commute to work from Arizona? You’re going to have to go live with your parents. If and when I find another place, maybe you can buy out my half in the divorce.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’ve been thinking about this, haven’t you? You have an attorney already?”

“Not yet,” she said. “But I’ll look for the best one I can find.” She was a little surprised that she wasn’t fumbling or hesitating, panicking, running, giving all her rights away. Perhaps it was all the hard thinking she’d had to do after that slap. He’d done her a huge favor, really, giving her that heads up. “I’ll call your dad so he can help you move.” She picked up the phone.

He grabbed the phone out of her hand so abruptly that for a moment she thought he might hit her with it. “I can’t believe you’re being so selfish about this!”

I’m being selfish? You are unbelievable! Get the hell out!” Her eyes darted around the kitchen. She thought: frying pan. Smash it into his skull. And then she thought knife. But that was too awful a thought, actually slicing into another human being, even if it was Roger. Her desire to attack evaporated. It left her feeling limp.

“At least let me pack a bag!” he said.

“You can come back for your things later, when I’m not here. I’ll call your dad and let him know when you can come.”

“I don’t see why you have to make this so difficult.”

“You don’t?”

“It’s not my fault you can’t get pregnant,” he said. “God knows I tried.”

He left before she had time to pick up that frying pan up after all.

After the door slammed she broke down and sobbed. Then she started walking around the house, thinking: this is his, this is mine, what about this? She picked up a wedding picture in the living room and went and dropped it into the kitchen garbage from a great height for the sheer pleasure of hearing it shatter. She’d never liked the frame anyway. It was from her in-laws. She didn’t dislike them, but now there would be no more need to endure the constant whispered questions about their efforts to reproduce, and no need to look at that sappy frame with the lovebirds and the ribbon and that asshole and that stupid, stupid woman clasped in a meaningless embrace in the middle of it.

Okay, so her eight-year marriage was in the toilet, and she was thirty-six and barren and her annual income was going to sink back into the genteel poverty that came along with editorial wages.

Fine. Better that than eight years of lies and lying in bed at night wondering if her husband might just be willing to murder her.

She drew the curtains to let the sun in and hunted out her favorite old Steve Winwood CD, which Roger didn’t like, and put it on at top volume and danced around the living room the same way she had once danced around her apartment, the one without any roommates, the one she’d had before she met Roger. How she’d loved it there.

And now she would have that again.

Back then she’d thought of it as a way station along the road to a loving husband, a house, babies, children who prospered from one milestone to another, and finally growing old as part of a thriving, loving, raucous  family. So much for that idea.

But maybe if she sold this house, the fixer-upper in the good neighborhood that they had so diligently fixed up, she could then afford a little house of her own somewhere. Not just a another bachelor apartment. She wouldn’t have taken an entire step back.

Housing prices had gotten ridiculous locally, which was good, because there were many more affordable places to live, especially if she was willing to commute further. And her company had been talking a lot about flexibility lately. No doubt it was a sop for people who hadn’t had decent raises in years, but it could work to her advantage now.

A little house of her own, with no Roger in it or anywhere near it. Wherever she wanted. Yes, that was a dream worth having.

She would start looking right away.

What do you think? Would you like to continue on and meet Winslow at Mrs. Lacey’s house?


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