One Saturday morning, early, while her husband was out jogging, Mary Beauchamp went through his pants, left in a heap on the floor by the bed, and on his keychain found a small silver key. She knew all about small silver keys. Two years earlier she had caught her husband, Brian, cheating with a woman she had thought a friend, and there had been just such a key, which had fit a postal box at the UPS store. In it she had found a letter describing what that woman and Brian had done a few days before and what she hoped to do next time in a language redolent of cheap romance novels. After the shock, the disgust, the anger, she had felt a cold and bitter envy, not of the woman but of him. No one had ever written such a letter to her. Certainly not him.
That had led to months of ugliness, filled with recriminations so old she’d at times had to stop at times in mid-fury to try to remember what really happened. He, of course, remembered perfectly, though she suspected most of his memories were lies. She had made her way through, but in the process Mary had become another woman—a woman who rummaged through drawers and studied the call list that came with their phone bill, a woman who could list her grievances point by point like an argument in an essay.
Before she did anything else, she folded Brian’s pants and put them onto a pile with his dress shirts so she could say she had taken the keys before sending the clothes to the dry cleaners—he should be more careful. He was the sort of man for whom one prepared explanations ahead of time.
There was a lock on one of his desk drawers, and that was the first place she tried, feeling, as the key turned, a savage pleasure. This time there would be no tearful reconciliation, no agreement to try harder—as if his fling with a younger, prettier woman had occurred because Mary hadn’t been trying. The drawer opened, but only part way. Something bulky was wedged inside. She slipped two fingers in to loosen it and blanched at the smooth metallic surface.
A pistol, black and rather small compared to the ones she’d seen on TV, with a cross-hatched grip and a trigger like a broken tooth. It had a clip, she assumed, since there was no cylinder, and two little switches on the barrel, one of which must be the safety. The other she could not imagine. Its name was etched on the barrel “Glock 23.” The grip was thin enough to fit her hand and the gun light enough that she could hold it at arm’s length and barely feel the weight. She pointed it at a picture on his desk: the two of them and their adult girls (the boy lived in New Zealand) with a Christmas tree in the background and the three grandchildren at their feet.
A self-correcting habit of mind made her wonder, briefly, if he might have bought it for her, as a present—there had been burglaries in the area—but she dismissed the idea. He wouldn’t have trusted her.
Only when she put the pistol down did the fear come, like a jolt of electricity, and like electricity it kept her rigid and fixed to the spot; and only when the fear gradually dissolved into the heat of anger could she move. She would not let him get away with it, the bastard.
With the pistol was a box of .40 caliber bullets, ten missing. They felt like fishing weights and looked like tiny lipsticks. She slipped the pistol into her purse then took it out again—afraid of what she wanted to do with it.
Had he found another woman—or was the same one playing for higher stakes? It would do no good to confront him; forty years in sales had made him a superb actor. No, it was better, and perhaps safer, to put the pistol back. She was on to him, and that, for the moment, was good enough.
As she returned the pistol to the drawer, something at the back got in the way: a fat envelope, unsealed—two paperclipped sheaves of lined legal paper, which she read, her hands trembling. The first was addressed to her, and in it, he told her how much he loved her, how much he regretted the childish self-pity that had led to his fits of temper and to the affair. His anger and his self-indulgence—a lifelong adolescent tantrum, he called it, because he had wanted to be a doctor. Now he realized what a terrible doctor he would have been.
He could tell that she no longer loved him, that she continued out of a sense of duty, and he admired her for bringing it off without demanding, as he called it, her “pound of flesh.”
He begged her not to think of this final act as more of the same. To repair the damage was impossible without starting over, and no one at their age could start over. She needed to know that he had never loved her more, that she was in no way responsible for his death. This might be a coward’s way out—and he did apologize for the mess—but it had the virtue of providing a clean break for her and the children.
The note displayed all of his faults—his arrogance, his need to take control, his emotional cowardice, his love of show—but she was touched. What girl hadn’t dreamed of a man willing to give up his life for her? But now that she had one Mary didn’t know what to do with him. About the letter, she felt nothing—not fear or anger or concern for him—except distaste.
The second sheaf was three handwritten pages giving some of his possessions to friends who might appreciate them and trying to decide which child should get what, as if his wife should not have a say. There was also a tiny envelope with a key inside, which belonged to their lock box. Mary was tempted to take it, since she had never seen the contents of their lockbox, but as she could see Brian walking up the lane with the newspaper in its blue plastic wrap, she folded the sheets and put them back in the envelope. As he began his stretches against the maple out front, she locked the drawer, put his keys on the kitchen table, and started coffee brewing.
He didn’t ask about the keys. He sat at the kitchen table, reading the paper and sipping coffee until he had cooled down. He talked about their stocks, which had lost a lot of value in the recession, and she found herself wondering if maybe that had triggered his depression. There were things, he had warned, they might not be able to do.
While he read, she studied him. Still attractive, thin and muscular, but beginning to dry up, as thin men often do when they get old. His face appeared as if it had been shrink-wrapped over his skull, and the cords of his legs looked like roots knotted at the base of a tree, the veins protruding like vines. She thought of the other woman, just turned forty and acting eighteen. Could she have been so much a part of his life that he couldn’t go on without her? Was there another envelope somewhere with her name on it?
Mary considered confronting him when he came out of the shower. Something oblique. How are you feeling? But she decided not to. She didn’t care how he was feeling—was glad he’d finally taken responsibility for his actions. So what if he was in pain?
The next few days, she found herself mentally summing up their marriage, as if she were already mourning. She bought him a couple of nice summer shirts and took special care with dinner. Though he was pleased with the shirts, as always he had to ask the price, because they were both from trendy labels. She said she couldn’t remember, but he was worth it.
On the whole, he hadn’t been a bad husband—sharp-tempered but generous. Though they had married young and for the usual reason, he had worked hard and had, to a degree, taken his part in caring for the children.
The children had been his problem. The first he had accepted with a wry smile, but when the second came along he ranted. She had pills, why didn’t she take them? Did she want to destroy their lives? It went on the entire pregnancy and even afterward. She should have taken more offense, but at the time, those were the questions she was asking herself. At least he had never mentioned an abortion, and for that she was grateful. As often as she had spoken in favor of choice, she would never have given up that child.
His dream of medical school became a job selling pharmaceuticals, and he was good at it, in part, because he wanted so badly what his clients had. She worked when she could, pretending that her lost dreams did not matter compared to his, until the third child made her permanently a housewife.
It came out when he drank: the bitterness, the blame. He loved his misery, and drink gave him the chance to wallow in it. Mostly he focused on her, but the children got their share. Jenna got a nose job at nineteen because he told her she looked like a pug, and Bill gave up t-ball at eight because his father told him he threw like a girl—she remembered him mocking the boy in a high voice as he mimicked his throwing motion. Had she said anything? She couldn’t remember. Brian would apologize when he was sober, but the apology simply underlined what he’d said.
All of that was water under the bridge, as he liked to say, but it wasn’t that easy. As long as there was any sort of water under that bridge, she would remember. Brian had retired as Vice-President of sales, making more than most doctors, and the children had long since made their peace with him, with both of them—but it was a peace without love and without forgiveness.
Since he liked to have his own way, very early in their marriage they had reached a compromise: he would give the orders, and she would modify them to suit her intentions, pretending ignorance of any deviation. He complained, he sulked in his study, but that was all. Of course the children were not party to that compromise—they were expected to obey—which might be why they blamed her as much as they blamed him.
The affair had been a shock, but one in retrospect she should have expected. Their lives had been calm since the children left, and he couldn’t stand calm. The woman, who had been a neighbor for some years and had remained a friend even after her husband decamped, was a single parent with two children, playing the cards she had. For Brian, her desperation must have been irresistible.
About the gun and the letter, she found it easy to pretend ignorance, but she watched him constantly and at night stayed up until, passing the bedroom door, she could hear him snoring. Mornings she woke early and was dressed by the time he rose. That vigilance made her sick, and during her illness he tended her faithfully, though at first she refused the 7-Up and the aspirin. The gun still trumped the letter in her imagination.
As she improved, she became fatalistic. Whatever he wanted, so be it. She was tired. After a week, a week in which nothing happened but tepid talks over herbal tea and reruns ad nauseam of the housewives of various cities, she declared herself well, and two days later they kept a weekly bridge date with friends.
Her husband seemed quite happy—he teased and joked, and when they settled into the game he played with his usual intensity. Was the letter an exercise, she wondered, like the one their pastor had suggested: writing an apology to someone you’d hurt but never sending the letter? But then why the list? That was going a bit far. Lyle, the man playing to her dummy, was to be the recipient of her husband’s Ping clubs. No doubt he played golf as badly as he did bridge.
If there were an argument for staying with Brian all these years, Lyle was it. A nice man with a tonsure like a monk. a man wouldn’t even take chances at bridge. Her friend Susan, to her left, ready to pounce with what Mary supposed was a king in trump, would never have the chance; he’d box her into a corner and she snarl at him, just for show. But that’s what Susan liked about her husband, he was shrewd and steady—and he let her make all the decisions. If living with Brian could be horrible at times, it wasn’t tepid. And the happy times, some of them at least, had been beautiful. Perhaps her husband’s letter was wrong; perhaps she did still love him. When he brought her a glass of wine, on impulse she took his hand and kissed it, and when they got home, they made love on the couch. All she managed to unbutton was her coat.
They began to act like younger couple, fond and impetuous—like the couple they should have been when they were courting and never were. She spent time on meals and shopping, making sure that he watched his diet and wore colors that looked good on him rather than the blues and browns he preferred. He dug up the bushes at the back of the house that she had complained about for fifteen years and planted flat after flat of marigolds until the entire back yard was bordered in bronze and yellow. Their lovemaking, which had dwindled to almost nothing, resumed with a sense of urgency. It was as if they had rediscovered, though their old bodies, the young bodies which had so consumed them when they first fell in love that they had ignored their differences and the quarrels that resulted, the way scientists or artists set aside their commonplace lives in the pursuit of an overwhelming goal—set them aside even when the quarrels turned physical, which they sometimes did on both sides.
If there had never since been calm, there had been, once those passions had burned away, a comfortable complacency, a sense that this and this and this would always be true. It was that complacency the affair had destroyed—and now there was this strange heat, born of chagrin and nostalgia, and the certainty that he would be dead soon.
Good salesman that he was, he immediately exploited her change of attitude by, with his usual zest for overkill, planning out a vacation to Tahiti. She would have preferred almost anywhere but an island thousands of miles from air-conditioned buses and shopping malls, but there had always been this about his generosity: it had to be his. To say, “Florence is nice this time of year,” would lead to disaster.
The night before their flight, they went out to eat, and he gave her a set of yellow diamond studs, a carat apiece. As she oooed and ahhhed, she wondered if this might be his parting gift—or was it a present he knew, in a few weeks, he would get back in an envelope from the coroner?
Tahiti was lovely, once she got used to black sand beaches. They stayed in bungalows over the water, went diving among coral reefs, picnicked on a little island off Bora Bora, shopped in Papeete, and made love so often and so spontaneously that she had to remind herself there was no chance of getting pregnant. Sometimes as they made love, she would recall the lurid phrases in his mistress’s letter and anger would rise in her, masquerading as another sort of passion, and she would want him dead. He seemed to enjoy those times, especially.
They returned home with black pearls and pareus, with a tivaivai quilt and a shell chandelier accompanying them as mail and slept nearly half the way home.
The children were tiresome as usual. Why go off to Tahiti by themselves? Why spend so much money in the middle of a recession? The younger girl said, “I thought you hated each other,” which, while understandable, was so rude Mary hung up on her. Their son, who had moved to New Zealand, wondered why, if they had come so far, they didn’t bother to visit him?
At home, the lovely blur of Polynesia muddied into a strange mix of joy and anger. It had been beautiful, but it hadn’t been hers, none of it had been; their whole life had not been hers. She put the quilt on their bed—indigo flowers and purple spiky leaves against a violet background; it clashed with everything and she loved it. But once the shell chandelier was out of the box, she hated its shower of bright medallions so much she boxed it back up and mailed it to the daughter who had criticized her.
Happiness can wear down the soul in ways indistinguishable from misery. In both one must open the heavy doors of the heart and let it feel and feel and feel. There was a time, perhaps, when Mary Beauchamp had wanted to be happy, but that time had passed, and after their tropical vacation she found herself exhausted, unable to sleep, angry over trifles and unable to hide it. Finally, she threw a fit over nothing—he’d forgotten to take his running shoes off at the door and had tracked mud into the kitchen. She told him awakened with a headache, which was true, and he said he understood. But she didn’t apologize.
Why, in all those years, had she never screamed or wept or thrown things; why had she never taken the children and lived out of suitcases for a month, never had an affair or a nervous breakdown, never pointed a gun at his head and threatened to use it? Much against her nature, she’d been the stable one because that was what they needed—he, the children, the people they knew. There had to be at least one stable person in a family, and somehow, without knowing it, she had been elected.
Now she felt alive. Every pore in her body voted yes to this new détente, and reason told her there was nothing wrong with enjoying herself, but still she wished she could return to the way things were before.
Despite her changed feelings, she and Brian went on much as they had on the islands. Friends teased them about it, and claimed they were booking trips to Tahiti. The older daughter visited for a week, bringing her children, and it was a trying time because the girl was often anxious and her children shared her anxiety, but while Mary had trouble holding her temper, Brian shook it all off with the easy humor that had been one of the things she had loved when they were dating and had been one of the first things to go after they married. Before she left, the girl threw herself into her father’s arms and cried, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry!” Without saying what she was sorry for.
The younger daughter seemed to resent their cheeriness over the phone and called less than she used to.
For years, the two of them had spent part most evenings in separate rooms because they seldom liked the same television shows. Now, Mary found reasons to invade his space, and sometimes he did the same. The anger, the old anger that had sustained her for so long, seemed to be leaving, and that frightened her. What would she do without it?
From time to time, she checked to see that the gun and the letter were still in place, and they always were. She arranged them so she could tell if they had been disturbed, but they never were.
Then one day, the gun was gone.
She felt its absence even more keenly than she had its presence. What did it mean? He was nice as ever, but without the gun, fear took hold of her again. It was like receiving an anonymous threat in the mail—she went on as before but her world was peopled with shadows. She felt betrayed, as if the gun and the letter had been a hoax to get her to love him again.
It difficult for her to sleep, even with sleeping pills. She would watch him, purring next to her and hate his obliviousness, for Mr. Sensitive hadn’t noticed a thing, not one blessed thing—as if Tahiti had solved everything, and she and her love and the rest of their lives together could be taken for granted.
It infuriated her, and yet how could she resent his kindnesses? She seemed to go in circles, hating him because he made her feel guilty about hating him. Things went downhill for a few weeks—not badly downhill, not back to the cold silences and the days planned so their paths might intersect as seldom as possible. They squabbled over who said what and who was supposed to get the dry cleaning, little things, but they always made up and made love, and afterword he would walk around the house like a cock on a dunghill. Which was exactly what had happened the first time, when she had fallen so far in love that she couldn’t climb out.
So one beautiful, crisp fall afternoon, while he at the gym playing handball, she took apart a month’s supply of her sleeping capsules one by one on a sheet of newspaper, and when he called to say he was on the way home, she mixed the powder with his energy drink—milk and strawberries and bananas and ice, a protein supplement and a sour Tibetan berry.
He’d won, playing against one of the trainers, and she was happy for him. She told him that she had to go to the bathroom, which she did—it was a very trying moment—and when she returned to the kitchen he was refilling his glass.
Together they watched what remained of the evening news, after which, out of deference to her tastes, he turned to a PBS performance of Das Lied von der Erde, turning on the then additional speakers so they could get the full effect. Then he fell asleep, fell asleep and died, and as she settled him on the couch, she felt such a surge of love that she held him in her arms and wept.
When she had arranged him properly, she retrieved the note and sealed it and put it on the coffee table in front of the TV. After wrapping his fingers around the pill bottle and letting it fall to the floor, she left the house to attend, a bit late, a budget meeting at her church. After the meeting, she got groceries, making sure that there were quantities for two and that she included toiletries for a man. At home, she left the groceries on the counter and, still breathless from carrying the sacks in, called 911 and told them she could not rouse her husband. Before anyone came, she opened the envelope and read Brian’s note as if for the first time. Some of the phrases struck her as beautiful.
The first to arrive were the firemen—in boots and coats, as if they expected the house to be burning. They put him on the floor and pounded his chest, though it was clear he was dead. One of them found the pill bottle and called the police, who arrived almost instantly and asked a lot of questions. She told them she’d just come home after church and handed them the letter and the torn envelope with her name on it.
They were bothered by the fact that the pills were hers. They asked if she knew any reason he might take his life, and she said “no.” They asked if they might look through the house, and she said “yes.” None of this frightened her, but it was an ordeal and when she tried to sit on one of the kitchen chairs she fell to the floor. A fireman helped her to sit while the police watched. It was obvious there would be inquiries and the inquiries would lead to suspicion, but there was the note in his handwriting, and they wouldn’t be able to get around that.
Two plainclothes police came as the firemen were taking the body out on a gurney. One was a woman, who asked her a lot of questions about the contents of the note. She explained as best she could the references to trouble in their marriage. She told them about the trip to Tahiti. She was wearing the canary diamonds, and she mentioned them too. Finally, one of the detectives asked if she had any idea why her husband might have done such a thing, and she burst into tears. Through her sobs she wailed, “I don’t understand. This is the happiest we’ve ever been.”