All unwilling captives find a way to break their chains ...
Rhonda Tidewater Bradshaw touched the wallpaper in the dining room. It was gilt with pure silver, woven with threads of silk. It was a wedding present from her deceased parents, as were the crepe silk curtains, the worsted rug, the heirloom loveseats.
They had given her those gifts after David Bradshaw came to them with the wrenching news that Rhonda was an abandoned bride-to-be. With tears rolling down their wrinkled faces, they bestowed her legacy to her immediately and told her that she was free to do as she wished—choose another, move out, pursue her dreams. But Rhonda had never cultivated any other dream beyond being a bride, a wife and a mother. She had never been taught how. And so, that dreadful night that her parents gave their jilted daughter the presents for the wedding that would not happen, Dave presented himself to her as well. She accepted him. Sixteen years.
She often visited a faded park near the edge of town. She deflected questions by explaining that she enjoyed the flowers and butterflies there. This was in fact true. But the park was also adjacent to the highway, a road leading away from the town, the road that her former fiancé had driven in public shame. She had been standing by that road when he left town. There was luggage in the front of the car, packaging boxes in the rear. Their eyes met for an instant. His face never changed its expression—a weary, resigned look—and he was gone.
It happened at dawn, a fleeting moment that might have part of a dream, but he did not return to work. Besides, now she was wearing Dave's ring. She married him.
They moved into a grand two-story, a reflection of Dave's new status as breadwinner. They decorated a room as a nursery for the baby that they would ultimately never have. They held parties. She met the neighbors' wives, and looking into their painted eyes and rouged faces she found insecurity and discontent. One was a brilliant painter whose talent was smothered by her envious spouse. He forced her to paint flowers, fearing that figure study would "lead her astray." Another was an ambitious chef whose cooking kept a local restaurant full of patrons even as the owners repeatedly denied her promotions. Yet another was a mother of four who knew that every afternoon, her husband was meeting the maid in a private club. "Boys will be boys," she said with a sigh and drank another glass of sherry.
Through this quietly unhappy woman, Rhonda learned how to see the signs of philandering: the makeup stains, the sudden change in work habits, the defensiveness, the hesitation. When she began to see them in Dave, he always had a plausible excuse. The secretary wore too much perfume. The makeup was from his maiden aunt. The cocktail reception had gone on too long. Of course he had to stay late, he was on the board. He was responsible for an entire division. He didn't expect her to worry about business or the duties of his job. All she needed to concern herself with was making sure that dinner was ready no later than 6 p.m. and producing a son.
There was no son.
There was no child whatsoever.
There was quiet, and sunrises and sunsets, vacations, holidays, the mortgage, occasional spurts of happiness, visits to the overgrown park, talks with the neighbors and their wives, and that wallpaper. It was one evening when she was tracing the pattern with her lacquered nails and considering the spaces in between that Dave came in looking more sour than his usual wont. He reeked of scotch. He ran a hand through his graying hair and stayed in the living room, ignoring the steaks and salad. Rhonda waited in the dining room, watching him watch the fire. He finally seemed to realized that she was waiting for him to come eat and approached the table. "I have something to tell you," he announced. "One of the secretaries is pregnant. Her folks wanted to make the man marry her, but he's been drafted, and god knows when or even if he'll be back. She's been sent back to live with her parents until the baby is born, of course, but she's a sharp tack and I'd hate to lose her. I figured ... since we hadn't had any luck of our own ... you could raise the baby for her."
Rhonda raised her eyebrows in surprise. Dave went on, unaware. "I'm sure she'd be pretty glad to have that weight off her chest. Just go ahead and get the nursery back in order, take your sewing stuff out of there and I'll move it down to the basement—"
"David," Rhonda interrupted.
"What? I've been around the house on my off days, Rhonda. You don't do anything but talk to those old biddies across the way, or go to the park, or sit here staring at the wall. You're not going to tell me you don't want SOMETHING to do." He pushed past her and seated himself. "Let's eat." And Rhonda said nothing else, said nothing besides the usual commonplace pleasantries to the girl who avoided eye contact and hurriedly gave her a living bundle, said nothing when the baby proved to have her husband's features, said nothing when the child's breathing stopped five days shy of his sixth birthday and they lay the small coffin in the earth.
Sixteen years of saying nothing. She grimaced as she finished the glass of plum brandy. She set it in the empty sink and looked around at the kitchen and its necessary items, the dining room and its furnishings, the living room and its wallpaper ... and the front door that would swing open of its own accord as Dave came in for the night. IF he came in.
Not for the first time, her thoughts turned to the man who had left town in a station wagon so many years ago, suspicion and ill-will haunting his steps. The investigation against him remained open, as there were too many discrepancies that could not be resolved or accounted for.
A man claiming to be one of the original case investigators had come to the house one morning, asking for her help, her memory. There were facts that didn't match the story given by the interviewed employees of the Blakely Firm. There was a newly published scientific study attesting that electric shocks could, indeed, 're-wire' the human brain. There was the problem of the immense amount of art recovered from his house that did not match the work of any known painter or sculptor. And, the investigator continued in his slow, solemn voice, there was talk that the Blakely Firm had something to hide. At that point, Rhonda's desire for self-preservation emerged, and she asked him to leave. Politely, of course. Nonetheless, she had been warned, which put her in a better position than the wives of the other directors who were positively overwhelmed when lurid tales of backroom deals and dirty accounting were splashed across the daily paper. More than one woman disappeared entirely from the social scene. Never part of it, Rhonda kept to her home and her wallpaper, her walks to the park, her ceaseless, insatiable longing. She watched the door open, Dave step through, his eyes dart to the empty table, and then to her face. "Oh, don't tell me—anniversary! Errr ... your present's hidden! Which restaurant are we going to?"
"It isn't our anniversary," Rhonda said.
"It's not," he repeated, taking another look at the foodless table. "I ... see. Have we been invited to dinner elsewhere?"
"No, David." The uncertain smile on his lips quickly became a frown. "Well, if we're not going out, I'd like something to eat. Unless this is one of your jokes? Surprise party?" He peeked up the stairs, behind the couch. "Seriously, where's the food?"
"I'm going away," Rhonda said.
"I need to leave. I've been here for sixteen years. I just need to go." "Oh!" Dave said. "You mean you want to move! Sure, I can see why. This house is horrible. I guess I've never noticed it before because I'm on the road so much, but you're right, it's not a bad time to sell and trade up."
He continued to talk to himself while Rhonda watched, wondering if he was deliberately misunderstanding. No ... he truly thought she meant that she simply wanted a new home. She forced herself to speak through a throat closed from fear of what might happen if she spent another sixteen years suffocating under this life.
"David," she said, cutting him off in mid-sentence. "A police officer has been by the house. More than once. He's asked questions about you ... and about Titus." Dave fell silent, his bluster and swagger gone in an instant at the mention of that name. His best friend, at whom he had cast the first stones. It was some time before he finally choked out, "What about him?"
"They want to re-open the case. They say that new evidence proves that he was framed." Rhonda looked at him fiercely. "They say YOU framed him, David."
The expression on his face quickly froze. "Now you wait just a damn minute—"
"The officer will be by again in the morning," she continued, speaking as if he hadn't uttered a word. "It would be wise for you to be here. Unless you want them to come to your boardroom."
"And you're planning to leave? Where do you think you're going? And with what money? Don't forget you haven't brought a dime into this house since we got married. If you're planning to use my dough to go on vacation while I stay here and get the third degree, you can just think again!" She took a step to the side, and his eyes dropped to the heavy leather suitcases. For the first time, he seemed to see that she was dressed to leave the house, a hat, gloves, a coat. He gaped at these things before spluttering, "Rhonda, what's come over you? Sit down. Sit down, darling, and we'll talk this out."
"I have nothing to say." "Rhonda ... Rhonda, love, tell me what's going on. You have to forgive me, I'm just caught by surprise. You're telling me all in one breath that I'm being accused of lying to the police and that you want a divorce. What happened to 'for better or for worse?' If you truly believe that I'm a criminal, give me an opportunity to prove my innocence. If you don't, then we'll work out whatever's bothering you. What do you want? Did you see a neighbor with a nicer car? Somebody have some jewelry you want? Some of those new-fangled appliances?" She looked at him with disgust. A salesman at heart, to think that he could satisfy the craving of an unhappy soul by offering a gift!
"Do you really want a divorce, or is this because the police scared you? Or ..." He stopped, considered. When he spoke again, his voice was controlled. The chairman's voice, the voice of authority and reprimand. "This is about Titus."
"Of course this is about Titus. That's what the officer said to begin with."
"Don't you mock me! This doesn't have anything to do with the police at all! This is about Titus himself! You're still in love with him! That's why you've just sat in this house like a statue, staring at the wall, for god knows how long!" Dave suddenly got to his feet and went through the desk, dumping the papers to the floor. When his furious activity yielded nothing, he rushed up to the attic, then down to the basement. She could hear the sounds of him tearing through boxes. When he emerged again, he was covered in cobwebs and his eyes were red from dust and internal agitation. He pointed an accusing finger directly at her. "You were perfectly fine before ... whatever that man told you. You listen to me. If you leave this house, you don't come back. You don't get a red cent from me. You just take your ring off and leave it right next to your keys. Do you hear me?" He put his leather coat on and left abruptly.
Rhonda looked at the mess on the floor with brimming eyes. But the tears were not those of self-pity, just relief at a final crumbling of the stone walls that she had lived behind for sixteen hellish years. Whether Dave was here beside her on the couch or in front of his entire staff when the police came for him tomorrow, she would be talking to the investigator. And maybe, just maybe, finding some peace.
The Stones: Chapter Two
Sep 25, 2010 by spladoum
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