Danny wouldn’t drop that fantasy of his. He jabbered at Maggie over breakfast, at the laundromat, when they were buying tires for the car that now needed a jolt of whatever made the air conditioner work. It was heartily blowing warm air that only fanned her annoyance.
“Would you want to get married on a beach in Jamaica?” he said.
“Why, when there are beaches here?”
“That mean you want to get married?”
“Please,” she said.
“Why not the mountains of North Carolina?” he said.
“Ticks, Danny, that’s why not.”
“San Francisco, then.”
“I’m not getting married in a raincoat.”
He was wearing sunglasses with mirrored lenses, so when his attention shifted from the road and he turned to face her, she saw only herself, slightly distorted.
“Do I make you the least bit happy?”
“Of course you do,” she said, “and please get your eyes back where they belong so we don’t die before we reach my mom’s house.”
“Your mom could use some cheering up, being a new widow and all,” he said.
“That’s a reason to get married, to cheer my mother up?”
“At least the timing would be good.”
Maggie wasn’t mean enough to tell him to shut up, so she answered in a way that bought both time and relief and left room for clarification later.
“Let’s just say I’m leaning in the direction of yes.”
Danny slapped the steering wheel as though he was high-fiving it. “We can at least tell her that,” he said.
“We go every Sunday now, Danny. Maybe next time, we’ll tell her.”
The road was rising slowly, and when they reached the top, Maggie saw again what never bored her—the still-surfaced blue Intracoastal that curved narrowly between the Florida mainland and the beach. Enormous houses on stilts rose from behind the mangroves that lined the water, and now and then between, rows of mobile homes appeared, white as piano keys lined up on narrow black-topped streets. In a few minutes, after they pulled into Sunrise Isles, if Maggie stuck her head out the kitchen window of her mother’s mobile home and cocked her head just so, she would see a bit of the water. Maggie would never be caught dead living in a mobile home park, but she envied her mother this slice of a view. Her own view, from the apartment she shared with Danny, was the flat tarred roof of a tiny strip of stores, an eye doctor, a tanning salon, and a lawyer who specialized in DUIs.
Catherine Murray came to the door waving a black-handled hammer that she swung triumphantly in the direction of the wall above the TV. Maggie stopped. The Sunday before, the wall was a wall. Not now. In the center was her parents’ wedding picture. Circling it were a dozen more, all of her father, all by himself, in what seemed like an infinite number of celebratory poses: holding a freshly-caught fish, a bowling ball, a winning poker hand. In another, the skeleton of a roller coaster was behind him as he bent down, in the direction of what Maggie knew to be her legs, as she ran away from him. He was smiling, trying to coax her, meaning well, to ride it with him. She was eleven. She hadn’t been on a roller coaster since.
“What happened?” Maggie said.
Danny had settled himself in her father’s corduroy lounger. “I like it. Why don’t you like it?”“Nothing happened. I just did a little rearranging.”
“So when you rearranged things, where did everything else go?”
The photographs of her that had been on the wall— in middle school, in high school, on a cruise she and Danny had taken—were piled on an end table.
“I’ll put them in the hutch.”
The hutch was stacked with never used China and a collection of souvenir spoons from every place they had ever visited. The hutch was standing room only.
Danny ran his palms along the worn arms of the recliner. “I remember that one,” he said, pointing to the wall.” The one where he’s holding the fish. Bigger than what I brought in. Your dad was something, a good something. It must run in the family. I’ve got a good something, too.”
Danny was gooey about families. His had been miserable, so he thought every other one was enviable. When Maggie said she believed she didn’t particularly matter to her parents, Danny insisted that couldn’t be true, not at all.
Her parents did love her. That, she knew, but they never looked at her the way they did at each other. Even as an adult, when she stood between them, and that didn’t happen often, she swore she felt an electric crackle pass over her head.
“So,” Danny said to Catherine. “Maggie and me want to ask you a question. I mean we want to tell you something.”
Maggie had taken a place standing next to him in the lounger.
“What kind of fish was that, Danny? I don’t remember,” she said.
“Of course you do. Grouper. You’re the one who grilled it.”
“Good eating, it was,” Catherine said, “although your dad thought you made it a bit dry.”
“I thought it was just fine,” Danny said.
Maggie flicked her fingers across his shoulder, as though she was getting a bug off his shirt. She didn’t need any defending. She was used to this habit of her mother’s, to run interference so Maggie could get only so close to her dad, to suspect she wasn’t good enough. It was one of the ways her mother made sure that nobody came before her relationship with him. Her mother was possessive as hell.
“Married love. It’s a beautiful thing, Catherine, isn’t it?” Danny said. Now he was patting his pocket. You and Dick were regular experts. I’d sure like something like that.”
If he ever got it, he’d be the oddest man out among his friends. Maggie didn’t know anyone whose marriage lasted more than ten years. Her own, soon after high school to a man who rented her a car when she smashed up her parents,’ barely got past one. Puppy love, they called it, and they refused to accompany Maggie and the car rental guy to the courthouse.
“Here’s how you get it, Danny,” Catherine said. “You believe in your vows. People your age don’t even say the words we said. You make up your own.”
“They’re just trying to be special,” Maggie said.” What’s wrong with that?”
Danny patted the arms of the lounger as though he owned it. “I’m sure my parents said them, but they were just words. Me, me and whoever I married, they wouldn’t be words to us.”
Catherine placed the hammer on the dining room table. “Somebody here thinking about getting married?”
“Not this week,” Maggie said in her best imitation of her mother’s upbeat voice and then leaned into Danny’s ear.
“Get up. I’ve got to talk to you.” He was peering into his shirt pocket. “What are you looking at?” she said.
She pushed open the front door. He followed her into the carport. Her parents had once hung a ceiling fan overhead, but its motor had long ago burned out. Whatever air they might have moved was wet and close. “It’s miserable out here,” he said.
“It’s worse in there.”
“Let’s tell her. She could use a boost.”
“Tell her what? That we don’t have the money to buy a house? Isn’t that what you do when you get married? We don’t even have the money for a house.”
“So we’ll keep renting.”
“We haven’t even talked about kids. I don’t know if I want kids. I’m too old. What if I don’t get pregnant? What if I do get pregnant?”
“Kids are nice. But they aren’t a deal-breaker for me,” he said. His voice had risen. For a moment, it was just a little too high for a man.
“You think it’s simple. It’s not simple.”
He stepped forward and put his arms around her. She felt his heart thumping, serious and slow. “It’s okay, baby. We don’t have to tell her today.” She opened the screen door to go inside and looked back at him. He was patting his pocket again. She rubbed her eyes. Enough sweat had gathered at her hairline to run down her forehead and make them burn.
Catherine was calling Maggie from the bedroom, asking for help, not panicking, just asking. Her mother was usually the master builder of cheerful fronts; when Maggie entered the bedroom, the front her mother maintained in the living room was gone. The curtains were nearly drawn, and the bit of sunlight that they did not conceal was a harsh interruption that made her eyes ache. Maggie reflexively turned away. An unruly pile of clothes was heaped on the bed.
The pile constituted the only answer to the question she’d had for two months, about where her father went after he had been rendered into a bony, gray powder and hurled from the sea wall that protected the park. Her mother told her to put the pants in one spot, shirts in another, socks, belts and shoes in another. Everything was going to Goodwill.
“You’re throwing him out,” she said.
Her mother worked quickly, as though she was sorting laundry she had sorted a thousand times before. “Somebody will find his things just right for them,” she said. “One day, I’ll see a man who reminds me of your father coming down the street.”
“And that won’t freak you out? It would freak me out.”
“Not in the least. He’ll still be in the world. Not gone like that damn dust.”
Grief quieted her mother, as it did then, but tears missed their cue. She had turned on a light and was matching the socks and tying them into pairs, one after the other. Maggie picked up her father’s walking shoes. The heels were uneven, a lace was missing, and the toes were scuffed from his daily walk up and down the streets of the park.
“Forty-five years. You were with him forty-five years and you never got bored with each other.”
The pair of socks her mother had just tied made a soft thump when it dropped into the pile. “Of course, we got bored. Sometimes we even enjoyed not having anything to say. The silence was a comfort. We didn’t expect to be thrilled by each other all the time. You do.”
Maggie felt vaguely accused, like she’d been caught lingering, which she sometimes did, in front of one of those bridal magazines racked in the grocery check-out line. She had believed that those magazines, in which the future came in shades of pink and ivory with a fair amount of crystal thrown in, were overdone to cheer up the women who bought them and who pretty much already knew the future would likely end up a deep olive drab. They were wisely pessimistic. So was she.
Her mother had stopped pairing the socks. “You’re all children, people your age.” she said.
She was 35 years old and two inches from indignation. Danny was the childish one. He believed in horoscopes and every stock tip he heard at the bar where he tended of late, he had trouble making his half of the rent. She tossed the shoes in her mother’s direction and walked out.
The TV in the living room was playing some show about dumpy places to eat when you have to stop on the highway. Danny was always promising that they’d just get in the car one weekend and go someplace, nowhere planned, and eat in one of the dumps on the show. The volume was up. He didn’t stir when she walked past the recliner, and she didn’t hear her mother follow her, after a few minutes’ delay, into the room.
“Can’t you turn that down?” Maggie said.
Danny leaned down to pick up the remote that was kept in a side pocket of the lounger. He did as he had been told. The TV went silent.
“My,” her mother said. “Would you look at that?”
“I couldn’t help it,” Danny said. “It fell out of my shirt pocket. I swear.”
A tiny silver circle was on the carpet. A pull-top of a can of beer, maybe. Not a ring. It better not be a ring. It was a ring. A small stone. A flicker of bright light. He didn’t get it for her. He did. But not now. Not yet. She would tell him when she was ready. She would know when she was ready because that buzz of failure she carried within her, in every circumstance, would finally stop.
“You promised me,” she said.
“I like the sound of that,” Catherine said. “Just like in sickness and in health. Those are promises. They sure are.”
Maggie spoke to Danny, and Danny only. “Out there. On the carport. You promised.”
“So things went wrong, if you think they’re wrong. I don’t.”
He reached down and picked up the ring. When he rose, she saw that his face had reddened. That was so like him. He was lousy at hiding his feelings.
He held the ring between his fingers and extended his hand. The diamond was bigger than she had imagined. And she had imagined it. Yes, she had. She imagined a dress and maybe Hawaii for a week. She had never seen Hawaii. After that, though, the screen went blank.
If the ring falling out of his pocket was an accident, it had to also be true that if the fool in a suit she was waiting for one night at a bar had not stood her up, Danny would have picked somebody else, and he would have been just a bartender working to run up her tab. And that middle of his, in ten years, that middle would be so big he wouldn’t be able to see his feet. They’d be one of those couples who eat in restaurants without speaking.
“Maggie,” her mother said.
She’d already bought some time and relief once that afternoon.
“Well, I did say I was leaning in the direction of yes.”
Danny went down on one knee before her.
“Get up, will you? You look ridiculous down there.”
“He does not.”
Danny began to slide the ring on her finger. What if it got stuck on her knuckle? What if it was like a dress in a store you were sure would fit until you couldn’t get it over your hips?
The ring fit nice and snug, as though it had been custom-made. Custom cost money, maybe half the rent, wonderful him, sweet him, forever him, damn him for playing on her wishes.
Catherine launched into chatter about who at Sunrise Isles she would tell first. Dick would be so happy, she said, and scurried to the kitchen. She returned with a plastic tray that contained beers and pretzels, ice tea and cookies. “You’ve got me so excited, I couldn’t decide.”
Danny sucked down a beer. Her mother’s chattering resumed. They had to pick a date, but it couldn’t be too soon, and the park clubhouse was available because weddings were expensive, they had to be practical.
Maggie promised her mother they’d figure out the details later and told Danny that he’d have to wait for home if he wanted another cold one. She didn’t make a regular habit out of kissing her mother, but she kissed her then, on the cheek. Catherine kissed her back. Her breath held the sourness of age. As they left, she stood in the doorway, waving furiously her goodbye.
The car was hot. Stinking hot. Worse than the ride over, that Sunday afternoon. Danny turned on the radio. He liked oldies, doo-wop so old he wasn’t even alive when doo-wop was the thing, and some song about convertibles and starry skies was playing. He said some people thought words were just words. He said he knew. She figured that it might take a few days, but eventually he’d understand that she would have said anything to escape her mother’s house. Anything.
Mary Jo Melone is a writer in Tampa. Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, 2 Bridges Review and Crack the Spine. She is a Philadelphia native and a former journalist. Early in her career she was an anchor and reporter at KYW Newsradio.