Polly Dugan is the award-winning author of The Sweetheart Deal, releasing today from Little, Brown, and So Much a Part of You, which writer Alan Heathcock said “announces the arrival of a potent and fresh new voice” in fiction. A former employee of Powell’s Books, she is an alumna of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and a reader at Tin House magazine. Her short fiction has been featured as a Narrative Story of the Week and awarded an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Excerpt from The Sweetheart Deal
Little, Brown and Company
©Polly Dugan 2015
Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
From Chapter 2, Audrey
The day Leo died on Mount Hood, as the night skiers arrived my concern started to nag. When the weather changed and the sky darkened while I waited, for a short time I thought a joke was coming. Leo’s jokes were a fixture in our marriage, but he still always got me. I was never onto him because he was discriminating and patient with his timing. No more than two good ones a year, and his best schemes were grand and I never expected them.
It started with him moving my wedding ring from where I’d left it. The first time, during the first year of our marriage, I took it off to do the dishes or clean the bathroom. It was so precious, I couldn’t bear to wear it during those menial parts of my day. When I went to put it on again, I panicked when it wasn’t in the porcelain dish on the kitchen windowsill. I was certain it had fallen down the drain and was gone forever.
“You don’t lose things, Audrey.” He was cavalier. “It will turn up, I’m sure.”
“Well, can you at least take the sink apart, please?” I begged. “Find it before it goes down any farther.”
It pissed me off that he didn’t care more. My wedding ring. The one he had given me. “I don’t think it’s down there,” he said. “But if you need me to, I will. Let me grab some tools.”
Then he called from the living room, “Babe, it’s in here. It’s on the mantel.”
He brought it to me, smiling. “Did you leave it there and forget?”
“I absolutely did not,” I said. “That’s not where I put it. And I don’t lose things.”
“I know you don’t. Strange.” He could pull off his pranks, wearing a poker face for weeks while I was ignorant, but once I was onto him, he caved. He tried, but he couldn’t curb his grin, like a boy who hadn’t yet had years of practice. “Maybe we have an elf or a gnome in the house. Cheeky little bastard.”
“Bastard is right,” I said, and he surrendered and laughed, found out. I never ever lost my wedding ring but he moved it at least once a month. One weekday, just a month ago, he was working on the addition, and the boys were back in school after the break. I was cleaning what remained in the fridge from Christmas and had taken it off. I still kept the routine.
He came into the kitchen, dressed to work, tool belt and kneepads. “Hey, have you seen your ring?” he said. He spread his arms. “Here’s a hint. It’s somewhere on me. Find it.” That was a lovely afternoon we spent alone.
Then there was the much-needed and overdue girls’ night out years ago that I’d planned with Erin and some other friends. I knew Leo’s schedule, I’d double-checked, we’d arranged it weeks earlier. He was at the station, at the end of his shift, and I was getting dinner ready for the boys, ready for the hand off when he came home and I’d leave. When the phone rang, it was Leo, full of apology and regret, saying he had to cover at the station because a bunch of the guys had called in sick. They’d all eaten the same bad brisket at work.
“I’m so sorry, babe,” he said. “I know it’s your night out. Thank God I’m not sick too.”
“Goddamn it, Leo,” I said. “Sometimes this is too hard.” The door-bell rang. “Jesus, now someone’s at the door. Will you be home early at least?”
As he was saying, “No, I’ll be here all night, I’m afraid,” I opened the door to him standing on the porch with a bag from Tumbleweed, a shop on Alberta I loved.
I took the phone away from my ear, and he smiled then, handing me the bag with flourish, like a proud cat bringing home the prize prey. I shook my head. He walked in and kissed me. “Open it,” he said.
It was a beautiful little dress. Something I could wear over skinny jeans, or by itself in the summer. A sweet print of blue and red, with ruching at the bust, and an empire waist. Exactly my style. That’s the sort of thing he would do. The man could shop for me better than I could shop for myself. My friends, begrudging me nothing, hated their own husbands a little for it.
On my thirty-ninth birthday, I was getting my hair done. I was in the chair, and Suzanne was finishing up. Leo and I had reservations for dinner at Blue Hour at six. The sitter was coming — all I had to do was go home and change. Leo had been working all day on our bathroom remodel.
When my cell rang, Suzanne said, “Sure, go ahead.”
When I picked up, it was Leo. “Don’t panic, darling, I’m okay. I’ve called some of the guys and they’re headed over. I think we’ll be okay for dinner.”
“What?” I said. “What happened?”
“Well, I was trying to level the tub, and the bitch fell on me and I’m stuck. Goddamn thing weighs a ton. Nothing feels broken. I’m all right. They’re on their way. Just hurry home.”
I drove home in a fury, wondering why he hadn’t had someone helping him. Why he’d thought he could move a claw-foot tub by himself. I knew we’d celebrate the dinner sometime, whether it was tonight or not. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened. When I opened the front door, panicked about what I’d find inside, a roomful of our friends shouted, “Surprise!” with Erin and Leo at the front of the crowd. There had been no trouble with a fallen tub, he had pulled off an impressive surprise, and it was a wonderful party, which I’d never suspected. Who celebrates thirty-nine?
The reason Leo’s schemes always worked was because he wasn’t greedy — he didn’t overdo their frequency. And in a family with a firefighter husband and three sons, there were many times when a calamity or cancellation or interference with plans wasn’t a ruse. Andrew fell at school and broke his arm when he was in first grade. Leo forgot to pick Brian up at preschool once because he’d thought I said I would, and the teacher had to call me when he was the only kid still left, sobbing and worried, forgotten by both parents. That’s what made his pranks perfect. The reality and chaos of our lives made anything possible.
I never asked him why he did it. I didn’t want to dissect the pranks’ charms. When I was a teenager, I asked my father once why he loved my mother. I never thought of him as poetic, although he was a smart man and often loved the sound of his own voice, but his answer to my question was unexpected. “Audrey, if I thought about it, it would be like examining the unremarkable parts of a beautiful flower to see how together they make it exquisite. It would be disappointing.” That’s how I felt about Leo’s stunts. I suspected they were an outlet, a panacea to offset the awful things he saw on the job. To create — and completely control — a fabricated crisis that he alone knew would have a happy ending.
I didn’t know how they all coped. Beyond what I heard on the news, and from other wives, occasionally, I knew about only the calls Leo chose to share with me. At the Motel 6 on Southeast Powell, which had a reputation in the department as the destination for suicides — the man who’d set himself on fire being one of the worst. There was the three-month-old who’d drowned in six inches of water. And the bicyclist fatalities, at least one hit-and-run every year. The teenage boy who had killed himself with a shotgun in his parents’ bed. And the congenial man with dementia — deprived of food and water himself — whose caretaker wife had been dead in their house for days. Leo told me that when they entered his apartment, the man had wanted them to sit down and visit. “He said, ‘Here you are. Maggie’s run down to the store and should be back any minute,’ ” Leo said. “Christ, that poor, sweet man. Nothing but skin over bone.” But he didn’t always tell me. I knew after the shifts he finished when he didn’t want to talk. When he brooded and his mood was dark. He’d tell me if he wanted to, when he wanted to, and the only thing I could do was give him the space he needed to transition back to us.
The night after the call with the man on fire, we were on the front porch with glasses of wine after the boys were in bed.
“Come here,” he said. He patted the step between his legs.
I slid down and over from where I’d been sitting next to him, and put my glass on the step below me. He kneaded the base of my neck with his thumbs.
“I don’t know how you get through a day like today,” I said.
“You hope there’s not another one like it for a while,” he said. “But the very same thing could happen again tomorrow. Accountants get audited, right? Surgeons have patients die on the table, and executives get thrown in jail. It’s what you sign up for.”
How he could be so grounded that night I didn’t know, but I loved him for it. I thought of my father and not dissecting the flower.
“Look at Gallagher,” he said. Leo’s closest friend at the station, Kevin Gallagher, had been a New York firefighter — a 9/11 survivor — before he’d moved his family to Portland. “Even after my worst shift, I’m lucky. That’s not a cross I have to bear.”