Maryanne Stahl


AN EXPENSE OF SPIRIT


I am an average man. Medium build, fair coloring, hair now going to grey. My tastes run to khaki trousers, rare steaks and smooth jazz. Though I have in my time behaved irresponsibly, harbored petty grievances, labored under foolish fantasies, for the most part I have endeavored to do right by those for whom I care or to whom I feel obliged. And I have been content to do so.

I am a family man. Though I am sometimes baffled by my son, Thomas Junior, and my daughter, Jennifer, and despite my inevitable inadequacies as a parent, the children seem to thrive. My wife, Jane, an enthusiastic mother and partner, applies much of her considerable energy toward making our home life pleasant and ordered. She teaches school and runs our house and rarely does her humor flag. Nor does my admiration for her.

I am a diligent man. Though in my youth I caroused and cut corners as much as the next fellow, I take pride in my work as a small town attorney. I don’t bill by the hour, yet I expect that I am paid fairly. I am able to concentrate for long periods, though not quite as long perhaps as I once was. More and more the long rays of the afternoon sun will lift my attention from my desk, ease it out the window and over rooftops. Still, I never leave my office until I have accomplished what I’ve set to do that day. I am a man known to keep his word.

I am a lucky man, many would say, a boring man, others might conclude.

In short, my circumstances and my character are unremarkable, not the incendiary material out of which the flames of passion leap.

Nonetheless, though few suspect it, I am a passionate man. My ardor is so vivid, so fierce, it seems an entity itself—almost a separate person. It seems a being who wishes to obliterate everything of me that is not it. A creature who will destroy me.

Even this, alas, is ordinary. I know that now.

* * *

Fourth of July Weekend

I am on my way to my brother David’s cabin. He calls it his "fishing camp", though he does not fish. He chooses this epithet in order to fit in with his neighbors, whose moldering domiciles have passed down for three generations. My brother’s house is new, built from plans ordered through a custom log home distributor, though it is a log cabin with six bedrooms and five baths. It is a log cabin with a fireplace the size of my garage.

David and Anna have invited me—us: Jane and the children as well—for the long holiday weekend. But Tommy has been invited to a friend’s beach house and Jane’s sister is visiting with her daughter, who is Jennifer’s age. I alone am free of plans. "Go," Jane has insisted to me. "It will be nice for you to see your brother, and we’ll have ourselves a girls’ weekend here."

She is right. I don’t see my brother often—the last time was at Christmas--though perhaps that will change with the purchase of this "camp", situated in the geographic middle between our respective homes, two Southern states apart.

So here I am, driving up a winding dirt road, humming to the radio and the sounds of bees. I turn left at the old milk can painted with our family name and proceed down the narrow, pine-canopied drive toward the rear of the house.

Anna is sunbathing topless on the deck. At least I think she is. I see her stand as I pull my car to a stop. I see the milk white flash of her breasts, held for a moment in a freeze frame of hesitation before she turns toward the house. She is wearing sunglasses, as am I; I can’t tell whether we look at each other. I turn away, busying myself with packages on the seat (wine, a loaf of sourdough bread, a box of pastries), and when I look up again Anna is gone.

In the kitchen, she is leaning against the long granite counter, sipping a glass of water. She is wearing a pale pink tank top with no bra. Has she been so dressed all along or did she just slip the top on? Was I mistaken to think I saw her breasts? I’m sure not; I’m not sure.

She smiles at me, moves towards me holding out one arm. "Tom!" she says. She kisses my cheek, I hers. Her fingers brush the back of my neck. I feel the heat of her sun-soaked skin and the quick loss of it as she steps away.

I set my packages on the counter and look around as though I’m seeing the place for the first time, but I am concentrating on the sensation of her gaze at the back of my neck. I turn into it.

"David has the boys out in the canoe," Anna says. She lowers her eyes, sets down her glass and looks at my offerings. "Oh!" she exclaims, lifting the corner of the pastry box. "How sinful!" She doesn’t say I needn’t have brought anything, and I am glad of her guilelessness.

This is how it begins. Though I have known Anna for more than twelve years and have always liked her, though I have always thought her pretty, though there is nothing lacking in my life that has ever before been there, I suddenly am drawn to my brother’s wife in ways that shock and excite me. Inexcusably, I think about her breasts for the rest of the weekend. I need to know whether I saw them, whether they look in fact as they looked to me in that fleeting moment of my arrival. I imagine their silken heft, the yeasty sweetness that emanates from between them.

Consequently, I am unable to really look at her. I feel her awareness of my not looking, the shared perception palpable between us. I am ashamed of these pictures in my mind’s eye, but I am at their mercy.

My brother, as if a willing participant in this subterfuge, all but ignores his wife in favor of attention to his young sons, his boat, his brushtrimmer, his single malt scotch, me. Anna may as well be a fixture, a shapely, elk-antler chandelier casting a subtle but unacknowledged light across his possessions. Has he always treated her this way? She smiles and busies herself with attending to us; she moves with grace, even repose. But does she suffer? Or is it only I?

* * *

Labor Day Weekend

David has taken all the kids for a ride on his new pontoon boat. I have stayed at the cabin to nap while the women prepare food for tonight’s lake community celebration. I have chosen to take my rest in the den off the kitchen, and as I rouse from my short sleep I can hear my wife and my sister-in-law converse. I listen to the differences in their voices, but mostly, I listen to the low modulated tones of Anna’s speech, checking for hints of longing, for double meanings, for the sound of my own name.

"It’s wonderful here," Jane is saying. "Such a special place."

Anna waits a minute before she responds; perhaps she is nodding. "David just loves it," she says at last. A cupboard door thuds closed.

I lift my head from the sofa cushion.

"Don’t you love it?" Jane asks. There is a clinking of pots. "You must!"

This time Anna answers quickly, as I knew she would—too quickly. "Of course. I do."

The clinking stops. I know Jane is giving Anna a questioning look. I can see it without seeing it.

"But," Anna laughs a little.

"What?" prods Jane gently.

"Oh, you know."

More clinking. The sound of water. I sit all the way up and lean toward the door.

"It’s beautiful here, it is. But our other house is beautiful, too. You know? Two houses, twice as much work."

"I can imagine," Jane says. She is a sympathetic person. But her voice reveals no understanding.

"Which is fine," Anna says. "It’s just that David is always off pursuing some new hobby or toy."

Sunlight streams in through the shuttered den window, making prison bar patterns across the wide-planked floor. This weekend I have not been obsessing over Anna’s breasts. That stopped after a few weeks. Now it is her life I ponder, the trap of her marriage to my brother.

"You have lots of hobbies," Jane insists. She is a tireless advocate of the inalienable human right to self-acceptance. "You garden, you cook, you play the piano, you read, you…"

"Yes." Anna’s interruption is swift and stark. I have never heard this voice of hers. "But I am alone."

Silence, and then a clatter. Water filling pans, cupboards opening and closing, the scrape of a spoon against a bowl. Does Jane nod in feminine commiseration, does she stroke Anna’s shoulder, or is she too non-plussed to speak? I get up, smooth my hair, put on my glasses.

In the kitchen, Jane is putting a lasagna pan in the oven. Anna stands in front of the large, plate-glass window overlooking the lake, her arms folded across her chest. Perhaps she is watching for David, wishing him home. Perhaps she is wishing herself elsewhere.

"Something smells good," I say.

Jane smiles at me, hiding nothing. Her short, blond hair sticks in damp curls to her glistening forehead. "Did you have a good rest?" She wipes her hands on a dishtowel printed with leaping frogs.

I answer "mmhm," and walk over to stand behind Anna at the window. Am I risking something, a lot? It does not occur to me. We have been family for twelve years. I have earned the privilege of standing near my sister-in-law.

"I do love this landscape," Anna says without turning. Does she know I’ve been listening to her lament? Does she know everything? I realize that I am as alone as she is. I am alone with her, in the same way.

Anna’s chestnut hair is caught up in an unraveling knot. I long to lift the wisps that fall across her nape, long to press my lips there. I want her to feel my breath on her neck.

"Let’s go for a walk," I say.

"Oh," Jane answers from behind me. "There is another casserole to put together."

Anna says nothing. I say nothing.

"You two go," Jane says.

What do I hear in her voice? Generosity? Resign? I don’t believe she can’t identify my desire.

Anna turns. "Just a quick walk," she says, reaching for the sweatshirt draped across a chair.

"You sure?" I look at Jane. She is standing in another world, on the other side of the granite counter. I don’t know why I’m not there with her, but I’m here. Every molecule that is Anna calls to every molecule that is me.

Jane turns to the sink before she answers. She waves at us, splattering water droplets like a benediction. "Go," she says.

* * *

Second Friday in October

After a visit to a client who is in the lumber business, I drive out to my brother’s cabin to deliver the cord of firewood I have promised him. Anna is standing on the deck, her hands pulled up into the sleeves of a thick, knobby sweater. A breeze lifts her hair from her shoulders. She is looking at me, plainly, unwaveringly, as I jump down from my truck. Her eyes stay on me as I walk toward her.

"Hello!" I say as I crunch across the leaf-strewn drive. Autumn has arrived early here. I inhale the earthen tang of decomposing plants.

Anna says nothing until I am at her side. Then she says my name, just that, with a small, sad smile, as though she is already sorry for what’s yet to come.

"I didn’t expect anyone to be here," I say.

She pushes a lock of hair from her forehead, looks up at me. Her eyes are large and brown, liquid like an animal’s. "I came up to turn on the heat; it might go to freezing tonight."

I nod, rub my hands. "It’s a good deal colder up here." I sound inane. How do I know the temperature where she lives? From the woods behind us, an owl hoots an admonishment.

Anna looks away, toward the lake, before she speaks again. "David will bring the boys up tomorrow morning." Her voice is so flat, I can’t tell how she feels.

But I am filled with happiness. I remember the walk we took around the lake in September, how she held out her hand to me as we clambered over rocks, how her silence was more resonant than song.

"I’ll unload the wood," I say. "Tell me where you want it. Then I’ll build you a roaring fire."

She smiles now, for real, and it’s as though she’s lit a candle in my chest. "I’ll help you," she says, and we go to work.

Later, I sit before the blazing hearth in my brother’s cavernous "great room". Anna brings me a mug of coffee, drops a sofa pillow to the floor and settles herself beside me.

"Mmm," she says, cradling her blue mug in her pale hands. "So nice."

"It’s too easy to build a fire with that gas starter," I say, my voice sounding of pique. I wanted to show off for her, like an eager Boy Scout, like a fool. I immediately regret my complaint and raise the coffee mug to hide my face. The smell of alcohol surprises me.

"Irish coffee," Anna says. She sets down her mug and lifts her arms, pulls off her sweater. She is wearing a plain, white cotton T-shirt with long sleeves. But she might as well be wearing a lace corset for the swift contraction in my groin. I can’t look at her.

Then I do, sidelong. There are lines at the corners of her eyes. I want to kiss them.

"Autumn’s such a melancholy time," she says.

I look full at her, at the pink flush of her cheeks, at the delicate curve of her exposed neck where she has gathered her hair to one side. I agree with her, feeling anything but melancholy. Feeling every cell of me alive.

I gulp my coffee. "How am I going to drive home after drinking?" I say.

She wrinkles her eyebrows at me. Confused or skeptical, questioning.

"I’ll have another," I say, grinning. "Hold the coffee this time."

Anna shrugs, gets up, returns with a bottle of Jamesons, pours for us both.

I poke at the fire, add yet another, superfluous log. Anna is quiet, but I love her that way. I love her.

Suddenly I need for her to speak, or I need to touch her. Her left hand, its diamond ring glittering with reflected light, rests on her lap. My large, square hand subsumes her own. I am surprised at the coolness of her fingers.

"You’re a good man, Tom," Anna says, her hand unmoving, smooth and still beneath my own damp palm.

At last. My hand contains hers, my being her being, the space I didn’t know I had inside my life is full. And everything I feel bursts from me like a conflagration, erupts in the adulation that is her name. I reach to stroke her hair, her cheek. She is so whole, and yet so needing of my care and protection.

"Tom." She slips her hand from mine and lays it flat against my chest, not pressing me away but as though to take the measure of my heart.

I kiss her. Her mouth is soft, small, and closed.

She pulls away and holds my shoulders in both her hands. She shakes her head, slowly, from side to side. But I don’t believe her. She’s created me.

"You wouldn’t do this," she says. "To David."

But I would, and I’d believe that even he would see it as the inescapable force it is. Desire, yes, but desire for love, borne of love. I say it aloud. "I love you."

And Anna agrees. She nods. Her eyes glisten.

I reach for her but she inches back. "The human heart is meant to love," she tells me.

"Yes," I say, but she has more.

"You love Jane, you love your brother."

"Yes, but."

She holds up her hand, her right hand this time, ringless. "It’s okay to love me, more than okay. It makes us alive." Now I hear the but in her words. "It makes us human."

A log tumbles from the fire onto the hearth, sparks flying. We jump to our feet. I kick the glowing pieces back toward the embers.

"I overbuilt it," I say with a bitter laugh. The air at standing height is cool.

"Get home safe," Anna answers.

And even this time, even now, she follows me out onto the deck, watching as I climb into my truck, start my engine and back away. I back the truck all the way to the road in reverse, without looking, without seeing. I don’t know that she is, but I hope at least Anna is crying.

I drive away from her; I drive and drive and before I know it everything looks unfamiliar. And I realize that although I have traveled these roads a hundred times, I am lost.


* * *

copyright 2001 by Maryanne Stahl


Maryanne Stahl lives on a lake in metro Alanta with her husband, son, dog, cats, ducks and other wild creatures. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in In Posse Review, The Paumanok Review, Salon, Vestal Review, Mindkites, Snow Monkey, Sunscripts, and Aileron. Her first novel, Forgive the Moon, will be published by New American Library (Penguin-Putnam) in June 2002.