In the story I wrote below, love proves to be enduring in, of all things, a divorce settlement! Enjoy!
The Best Part of a Woman
The reason I fell in love with April was the sound of her voice.
Men are like that. They fall in love with one physical part of a woman and learn to love the whole woman later. For some, it’s the curve of a hip or a breast or the wideness of the eyes. For me, it was April’s voice. Its power made me a one-woman man.
When we married 25 years ago, whatever she said to me had the quality of soothing honey even when she was cussing me out for wasting money or staying out late without telling her where I’d be. It was also an enveloping voice, way out proportion to the body it occupied.
April had always been on the thin side, looking like a model, no bust line, but with eyes and legs that struck a man dead with their elegant beauty. Even though she couldn’t sing a note, her voice sang. It was like listening to a perfect lyric soprano, all passion and sorrow and serenity. It was a voice to wake up to. It was a voice to hear when you laid your head on the pillow at night and wanted the day’s troubles soothed away.
But time erodes us all. The years had worn April’s voice away for me. It had become shrill and demanding of an explanation of why I had not done better in my career as a writer, of why we were still living in the same cramped house, of a thousand other irritations that accumulate like barnacles on a marriage.
We were equally unhappy with each other. I wanted a wife and lover, not a sales manager who came home each day with competition woven into every word of a conversation. She wanted a husband who was not passive, who did something, for God’s sake. Who could, at the very least, keep the cupboards straight and not chip the dishes.
The day we set out for Target to pick up essentials we had the argument that finally surfaced the subject of divorce. It was a pathetic thing as these disputes usually are. She accused me of being less than a man; I accused her of having an affair with Jerry Kubler, a salesman with slick hair and the morals of a rutting buck, and it went downhill from there until we exhausted our insults and could think of nothing better to do than get out of the house to go shopping.
April threw her things in the car while I took Hefty bags to the garbage. The driveway was still strewn with sand tracked in by the tires from the winter’s snow clearing efforts, and it was April’s footsteps I could hear quite clearly in that sand right behind me, crunching on the asphalt.
“Be sure to put the lids on tight so the dogs don’t get at it,” she said.
I didn’t want her anywhere near me at that moment. Still boiling over our argument, I whirled around and asked, “Do you have to walk right behind me? Is this some kind of joke?”
April was in the car twenty feet away.
I could see her cleaning out the back seat where I’d thrown a coffee cup and pastry bag.
Did I break out in a sweat? No. My family has a history of hearing impairment in later years, plus we live close to the freeway and the noise sometimes bounces in crazy ways between our garage and the Emmits with their oversized house.
How did I know it was April’s footsteps I was hearing if it was so noisy in the driveway? When you’ve been married for 25 years, you know all the small things about your partner and few of the big things. That’s nothing profound. We all keep counsel in our own peculiar ways.
But I knew it had been April’s feet because she’d broken her ankle slipping on the ice five years previously, and her right leg had a hesitation in it that was more of a signature to me than any limp. There was no doubt in my mind that my wife had been walking behind me
I went back to the Honda and asked, “Were you just out in the driveway?”
April looked up from straightening out the back seat. A very particular woman with a strong dislike of clutter, she was annoyed at me now.
“No, I wasn’t,” she said. “Can’t you at least keep your trash in your own car?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “Are you positive you weren’t out in the driveway?”
“What did I just tell you?” she said.
I ignored the sharp tone and said, “It was the damnedest thing, April. As I took the garbage out, it sounded like you were right behind me–and I mean right behind me.”
“Well, I wasn’t. Can we get going?”
After I’d backed the car out and into the alley, she said, “It was just the freeway noise.
“Maybe,” I replied. “It’s never had that kind of effect before, though.”
“I heard something,” I insisted and drove out of the alley in a car full of intolerant silence.
I didn’t forget about my experience in the driveway. I’m not the type that forgets anything, despite April’s assertions to the contrary. It wasn’t only the experience itself that nagged at me; it was the quality of it. The sound had been so absolutely real, like the difference between stereo and monaural. I’d never been the victim of hallucinations before, but I assumed that sound quality wasn’t a strong feature of them.
So, I wasn’t totally unprepared when I heard the sounds again.
This time, however, they were inside the house. I’d sat down in the morning to read the Star Tribune before going upstairs to my office to continue writing a seminar on customer service, a subject my clients never seemed to get right.
As usual, I sat on our blue leather couch that April hates so much because I’d stained it at one end with Cheetos and cranberry juice and at the other with coffee and bordeaux. I’m not the kind of guy to have leather sofas around and had warned April about it. She went ahead and bought it anyway because it was her money. When I opened to the Op-Ed pages, a cup rattled next to me, and I heard the sound of delicate sipping, then the crunching of toast. I lowered the paper and looked to my right.
There was no one there.
“Hello?” I said. It was a dumb thing to say, but then what is the right thing to say in a situation like that?
The sipping and crunching paused for a second, then the voice continued in absolute clarity of sound. “Are you finished with the front page yet?”
The hair on my neck raised so fast I thought it would lift me off the couch. I recognized the sounds I was hearing just as I’d been familiar with the sounds in the driveway.
It was the sound of April eating and drinking.
And talking to me.
Not half-an-hour earlier, she’d been sitting at the table across the room, eating her usual breakfast –herbal tea with a heavy dose of cinnamon and whole wheat toast spread with red raspberry jam. Then she’d gone to work.
“April?” I said , but this time it wasn’t a question. It was a demand. I wanted to know who or what was next to me. “Damnit, April. Is that you?”
Again, there was no response, and I was desperate. I checked the cushion to see if there was a depression from someone sitting there. The leather was smooth. Then I grabbed the Lemon Pledge from the table where I’d left it as usual after some half-hearted attempts at dusting and sprayed it into the air over the sofa. The wax drifted down onto the leather and left no outline of a form in the air as I’d hoped. But the chewing and sipping stopped abruptly.
I called April’s office immediately. When she answered, I hung up without saying anything. What could I say?
I had my hearing checked the next day after browbeating the receptionist into an emergency appointment. I wasn’t any easier on the audiologist and the ENT man, but when the tests were done all I knew was that I did have a hearing loss in the high frequency range from farm work as a kid and riding the Hueys in Nam but nothing significant, nothing to account for auditory hallucinations. The doctor was polite and suggested the name of a psychiatrist. I made the mistake of telling him I already had a psychologist. He didn’t throw me out–no one does that in Minnesota–but his face froze into a great imitation of a glacier, and I knew it was time to leave.
John Gladstrum is an excellent psychologist. I’d seen him for years for counseling on depression. He’s a rotund little bearded man with cherubic features that sometimes give you the feeling that you’re telling your troubles to a highly sympathetic imp.
He’s good at what he does because he sees what’s true and what’s false in the conversation you deliver up to him. I told him about the auditory events. For the first time, I saw alarm crack through his professional face. “You’re hearing voices, you say, Paul?”
“Not voices,” I corrected. “A voice. April’s voice. I hear it when she’s not around.”
“Is her voice telling you to do anything? Commands, orders, anything like that?”
“Not a thing. She—it—just has conversations with me.”
Always honest, John said, “I’ve never heard of anything quite like it before.”
“Great. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Do you sense any threat from this…manifestation?”
“And it was April’s voice both times?”
“Yes, just like I said.”
“How do you know that?”
“She talked to me, for God’s sake. That’s what I told you before.”
After a long silence, John said, “I don’t have an answer for you.”
“That’s just great. Just damned great.”
“I’m sorry, Paul, but I can’t think of anything that will satisfactorily give you an explanation.”
But an explanation was what I desperately wanted so I took a wild stab and suggested, “Maybe it’s a doppelganger.”
His reply was swift. “I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or poltergeists or doubles of someone alive. Neither do you.”
“They’re supposed to appear just before someone dies,” I persisted.
“Has April been ill?”
“She’s healthy as a horse,” I admitted then proceeded to defeat my own argument. “Besides, doppelgangers just appear, don’t they, take physical form? Nothing’s appeared. I’ve just heard things. And if it were a doppelganger, why would it be indulging in such mundane activities? I thought they were supposed to be ominous or weird or whatever it is that they’re supposed to be.”
‘There are no such things as doppelgangers, Paul.”
“I’m drowning here—throw me a rope, will you?”
“All right,” he said. “Do you think the event will happen again?”
“How the hell do I know?”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“I’m sorry, John. I suppose it will. But, I mean, why should it pop up now, all of a sudden? I live a pretty ordinary life. As far as I know, the house has never been haunted, except by my mortgage payments.”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Paul. It has no explanation–so far. I’ll tell you what, why don’t we wait for it to happen again? As soon as it does, give me a call. We’ll see if we can add any more pieces to the puzzle.”
John showed me out in his usual soothing manner, but I felt no better than I did an hour before. I didn’t want to wait for the event to happen again. I just wanted it to go away.
Six months later, I thought it had gone away.
Then I was spading up the garden in preparation for planting when the voice returned.
It was the first really beautiful spring day with a brilliant blue afternoon sky and the birds in song. April had joined me, and we made a fumbling effort at holding hands as we’d done 25 years ago. Even the usual power of May to infuse our bodies and spirits with optimism could not bridge the gap between us, though.
Our fingers dropped apart quickly, and April used the real, but convenient excuse of allergies to head indoors. I turned back to the annual task I enjoyed so much. The smell of damp, warming soil came up with each turn of the spade, and I was feeling the energy you can only feel after a long winter.
That energy drained quickly when I heard the chunk of a spade right next to me and a light grunting as the earth was turned over. It was the sound April made in the good years when the pollen was low and she could help me in the garden.
“Stop it!” I said, more maddened than afraid this time. Around me, red finches warbled by the feeder, and boat-tailed grackles strutted across the yard like drum majors. The perfume of early lilacs crept on the air. It was a time of hope and promise, and I had a phantom wife spading a phantom garden.
“But you need help with this,” April’s voice said. “You shouldn’t have to do it all by yourself.”
I threw down my shovel and ran into the house. I hadn’t mentioned any of the events to April since she had a kind of merciless common sense that painted any impracticality with a swift patina of embarrassment. But what was happening to me was beyond impracticality; it was impossible and yet it was happening.
She sat at the dining room table, reading Fortune. Both feet were propped up on one of the chairs as she drank her tea. I grabbed a beer–my nerves needed some kind of steadying–and joined her.
“Did you know that you were just out in the garden?” I asked her.
“So?” she responded without looking up from the magazine.
“I don’t mean 20 minutes ago, April. I mean just now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I haven’t moved from this spot since I came inside.”
“You were out there.”
“What was I doing?”
“Spading up the garden with me. You said I needed help.”
My wife looked down at her clothes. She had on a University of Minnesota sweatshirt and jeans. They were both spotless. In that patient wife’s tone that drives husbands to criminal acts, she asked, “Does it look like I’ve been out digging in the garden?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I answered. “I didn’t see you, anyway.”
This time an eyebrow rose. “Make up your mind, Paul.”
“I didn’t see you. I heard you.”
April’s gaze shifted to the Bud in my hand.
“This is the first one I’ve had today,” I said, “and I haven’t had more than one or two swallows. You won’t blame this on beer.”
“I’m not blaming anything,” she said, finally putting down the Fortune. “I’m just not used to my husband coming in and telling me that I’m somewhere that I’m not, and when I am there, he can’t see me, he can only hear me.”
I took a swig of beer and blurted out what I’d been thinking. “Is there something you haven’t been telling me? You aren’t dying or anything, are you?
April laughed. “No, I’m not dying. I had my physical last week and the doctor told me I was one of the healthiest 50 year olds he’d seen.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, half to myself.
My wife sat up in her chair, swung her legs down, and demanded, “What? What did you say?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Well, what way did you mean it?”
“I meant if you were dying, that would at least provide some sort of explanation.”
April stared at me with a cold “Go on” expression in her eyes.
I returned to the only explanation that had given me any comfort. “There’s a supposed phenomenon called a doppelganger. It’s the spirit or apparition that appears when someone is going to die.”
“Well, I’m not,” she said, snapping the words off with chilly precision.
“Look, I don’t want you dead, if that’s what you’re thinking. I love you. You’re my wife. But this thing has been driving me around the bend. Six months ago, I heard you in the driveway. Then, you had tea and toast on the couch with me when you’d left half an hour earlier for work. And you just now spaded the garden with me.”
“Paul, I think you need to see John.”
“I already have. He says I’m sane. Check it with him if you want.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence in me.”
“Thanks for wanting me dead,” April shot back.
“I don’t want you dead, I already told you that,” I said. “I just want help.”
“How is anyone supposed to help you, Paul? You don’t see anything. You just hear things.”
“How am I supposed to know? This is not something that happens to me every day.”
“Well, how do you think I feel?” April said. “According to you, I’m in two places at once. I’m me and a disembodied voice. And, you know what I suspect?”
“I suspect you like that voice better than you like me.”
Her remark had the sting of truth to it, but I knew better than to admit that fact. We ended up glaring at each other across the table, each wondering, I’m sure, how the other could be so selfish and unconcerned about the other. I drained my beer and took another from the fridge. I stood at the kitchen window staring past the squirrel-proof bird feeder at the garden, wishing the whole thing would just go away.
It didn’t, of course, but April did.
She told me on a stormy Tuesday evening that she had been having an affair with Jerry Kubler as I had suspected. Still, I was stunned by the news and could only stir the oriental casserole and green beans on my plate with my fork.
“You’ve brought bad taste to a new level,” I said.
“I’m in no mood for your clever writer’s repartee,” April said, wiping her nose with a tissue. “I have a cold, and I’m losing my voice from talking all afternoon at the sales meeting.”
“I thought you might be wiping away tears for our marriage,” I said. I said the words sarcastically but was surprised to find that I wished it was true.
“Spare me, Paul.”
I sat and looked at her across the supper table. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to do. It was as if I’d been irreparably paralyzed by the information she’d give me.
April shifted nervously and said, after a while, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you say anything?”
“Most husbands would get angry, at least. You can’t even fight about it.”
“I outweigh Kubler by 50 pounds.”
“I don’t mean fight him. I mean fight with me.”
“What’s the point, April? You’re having an affair; you want out of our marriage; you think I’m less than a man. Does that ‘net it out,’ as you say?”
She stared angrily at me for a moment, then answered in a hoarse voice, “Yes, it does, damnit! But that’s only part of it. How can I live with someone who hears voices? Answer me that.”
“Just one voice,” I said. “Yours.”
“That makes it even worse,” she said and sipped chocolate milk before continuing. It was her favorite drink, and I included it with as many meals as I could. “How do you think I feel about that kind of nonsense?”
“Unnerved?” I suggested.
“I’m not the one having the affair,” I reminded her. “As far as I know, hearing a voice is not a moral offense equal to what you’ve done.”
Her hand trembled as she sipped more milk. “Look, Paul, my throat is sore, and it‘s hard to talk so could we just talk about how we’re going to divide things so we can get our lawyers off to a quick start?”
“Of course,” I answered. “You can have everything, except the house.”
An eyebrow arched high. “That’s it? That’s all you want?”
I nodded. “It’s my office as well as my home, and it has some good memories. I don’t think you’ll mind parting with it. You never liked it anyway.”
“I hated it,” she said, clearing her throat. “It was always too small and cluttered.”
I could barely hear what she was saying because her voice had been reduced to a whisper.
“Well, that should be good enough for now, shouldn’t it?” I suggested. “You sound like you should take care of that throat.”
She nodded and made an effort to show regret as she rose from the table. The only thing I saw on her face was relief. That hurt me more than anything she’d said.
I stood by the window and watched her hurry into the Honda. I stood until I heard the noises once again.
There was the sound of April eating the oriental casserole.
And the green beans.
And drinking the chocolate milk.
“April?” I asked. “Are you there?”
“Of course, I’m here.”
The sound was extremely distinct again, almost as if it were being carved in the air.
“I can’t see you,” I said as calmly as I could.
There was a light, musical giggle, then she said, “Since when can you see a voice?
I laughed and said, “You sound different.”
“How is that?”
“Younger. Like when we first met.”
“How did I sound then?” she asked in the tone of a woman who wants to hear her man confirm her beauty, not because she thinks she is beautiful but because it confirms that love is really hers.
“Sweet. Musical. I could have listened to you talk all day long.”
“My voice was not like that–before this?” she asked.
“We were getting older,” I said.
“Yes,” she said in that familiar tone of honey. “I’m unique,” she added and laughed the bell-like laugh of a young girl. It sent a thrill through my body.
“How many years have I told you that? You never believed me,” I said.
“Since when can a woman trust a man’s words?” she accused but in light, teasing tones, not in the dogmatic angry voice of so many of today’s women.
Flirting, I thought, the lost art. My wife–her voice– is flirting with me. It was such a simple act that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
“Never,” I replied in the same tone.
“Then why should I talk to you?” she teased again. “Why shouldn’t I just shut up and go away?”
“Because it would kill me.”
“You’re so melodramatic,” she said with pleased laughter.
“I’m more serious than you’ll ever know,” I said.
“Now, why you want to go on just hearing me talk all the time?”
“It was the part of you I always loved best,” I answered.
A week later, the phone rang. It was April’s lawyer, Dave Zelkirk.
“Paul, I have April in my office, and we’d like to review the terms of the divorce one more time. April’s still having trouble with laryngitis, so I’ll do all the talking. Is that okay?”
“All right,” I said and listened he ran down the terms. When he was finished, I told him, “Fine. I agree to all of them.”
There was a long silence on the line, then Dave asked with some incredulity, “You don’t contest any of these terms? Don’t you want to have a voice in these proceedings?”
I laughed, assured him I already had one, then hung up and resumed my conversation.