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PrintRobert Bausch, Perfection

 

One day, while he was trying to perform a very simple task at work, Marvin Flynn accidentally touched the wrong wire. He and his wife were in the eighth year of their marriage and had just recently moved into a new, $250,000 home at Lee’s Crossing Estates. They had two children by that time, and when they had signed the papers to buy the house of their dreams—a beautiful, four-bedroom colonial with skylights, cathedral ceilings and two fireplaces—they agreed that it was the very beginning of perfection in their lives. They were, to be plain about it, happy people. They were thankful for their happiness.

Judy Flynn, who dreamed of being Judy Flynn for most of her teen years, and who therefore saw her marriage as a kind of achievement, was sometimes troubled by the perfection in her life. It oppressed her slightly. Sometimes she longed for just one minor, insoluble problem so that her life might be slightly complicated and then, just like that, her husband would call her on the telephone and sing his love to her, or they would laugh honestly and naturally about something one of the children did or said, and she would regret even considering anything else but this gorgeous and lovely life.

“What is wrong with you?” she’d say to herself. And yet, she did not entirely approve of being so happy. It made her afraid—as if she were waiting for a great calamity. She knew people for whom life was infinitely more dangerous and threatening. Her own younger sister, Caroline, had the misfortune of marrying a sculptor, and his problems were so complex and tinged with evil, she had recently confessed to Judy that she was thinking of divorce. One night she called in tears and told Judy that her husband threw a wooden mallet at her and told her he would rather talk to a block of stone.

Judy was horrified and briefly saddened by her sister’s predicament. But Caroline’s problems, from the point of view of one whose life seemed perfect, appeared to possess a certain amount of grandeur. After all, each day of Caroline’s life was devoted to living with this dangerous, sanguinary man. A man whose passions sometimes got the best of him; a man whose whole life had been a struggle against stone and bronze, full of pain and insult and failure. He never held a job longer than a few months. He was forced to work in bakeries and Laundromats and pizza parlors so he and Caroline could put food on the table. He frequently exploded into terrible and fairly articulate rages, and Caroline would describe them to Judy—complaining about her fear; about the possibility that he might strike her someday, or injure her somehow.

These stories were so intriguing that Judy almost looked forward to them. Not that she would wish any sort of misery on her sister. Often she prayed for her, feeling a strong sense of humility and virtue—as if she had rescued her sister from imminent pain. Still, each episode about Caroline’s dissatisfied husband gave Judy a glimpse of a truly troubled life, and had the power of entertainment. “You know these artist types,” Marv said. “They can’t create unless they’re busy destroying something.”

Marv was the most even-tempered, steady person Judy had ever known. When he was a junior in high school, he announced that he wanted to be the starting quarterback on the football team the following year. She barely saw him that summer and when she did, it was to watch him throw a football through a swinging tire—first standing still, then backing up and planting his foot as a quarterback does, and finally running to his left or his right. He practiced all day, every day. “Eleven hundred balls,” he told her. “I throw eleven hundred balls a day through the tire.” By that fall, his senior year, he could throw that football through the tire and the ball never even brushed the sides of it, and he could do it running full speed across the perpendicular of the tire while it swung from a tree.

He went out for the football team and, although there were no tires in practice, his skill with the ball was obvious. He was the starting quarterback on the Potomac High School football team. He didn’t get a chance to pass much (his coach was, in the common parlance of the game, “run oriented”), but when he did, he made the most of it. He completed nineteen passes his senior year—he only threw twenty-three balls—and the ones he missed were mostly dropped passes. He completed one for a touchdown. A forty-one yard play. Judy would always remember the soft arch of the ball as it sailed its path to the receiver’s open hands. Marv’s coach had called it a perfect pass.

In college Marv didn’t play football. He told Judy he’d gotten what he wanted out of it. After a whole summer of throwing the ball, and then his senior year going to practices every day, he truly wanted nothing to do with football ever again in his life. “It’s a game. I had fun playing it,” he said.

If you asked Judy what it was she admired about him, she would tell you about that summer with the football. And to be enigmatic, she might tell you she admired him because he was courageous enough to begin wearing argyle socks before anyone else had the nerve. In an odd sort of way, Judy meant more by that than you might think. Marv was himself above all.

The new home was a powerful source of pride. “Now,” Marv said. “our lives are perfect.”

Judy was aware of how funny it was that she had this problem of sometimes wishing she could have just one significant difficulty to contend with. Also she felt as though she wasn’t enjoying her happiness as much as Marv seemed to. She never told him that because it wasn’t something she thought about very frequently, and she was afraid it would hurt him in some ineluctable way. In fact, she often made it a point to try not thinking about it, and in its own way, since she didn’t wish to entertain such thoughts, but they sometimes came into her mind anyway, this became the insoluble problem she had hoped for. She was quite happy with that.

Unfortunately, when they were settled into the new house, had the furniture in place, pictures on the walls, linen in the closets, medicine in the bathroom cabinets, and dishes in the cupboards, Judy stopped thinking about much of anything except how happy she was. Even her one problem didn’t seem very significant anymore. If anything, her happiness only worried her occasionally—it seemed to her that she might be slightly weakened by it.

And thus, if Marv had been electrocuted earlier in their marriage, before they had achieved perfection, before they had purchased the new house, and before Randy was born, Judy might have found the strength she needed to endure the loss. As it was, she sank into the sort of grief and depression that evolves into a way of life.

In the years that followed, nothing very good happened to Judy. She began to eat whenever she wanted to feel good, and she doubled her weight in a little over two years. She spent the insurance money during the first year, and then she had to sell the house and move into an apartment. Although the rooms were clean and fairly comfortable, she never got over the beauty of her house in Lee’s Crossing Estates and the wonderful, exquisite life she had lived there. That’s all she talked about when her sister Caroline came to visit. She let her friendships with old coworkers and neighbors—the Fergusons, the Haleys, the Trebbles—die off like memories of youthful dreams.

On the day he died, Marv had reached to remove a wire from a transformer, and electricity had shot through him like something solid, hot and sharp. It burned him all along thousands of pathways to his head. The news reached Judy late in the afternoon. Someone from Marv’s crew actually pulled into the driveway in one of the company trucks.

Just a half hour or so before the crewman arrived with the news, Judy accidentally dropped a long wooden spoon down between the stove and the counter. She had just returned from work and put the children down for a nap. She picked them up at the baby-sitter’s every day, and usually she made them take a late nap so she could clean the house and make dinner.

On this night, she wanted to make a special dinner because she had invited the Fergusons and she wanted to impress them with her cooking skill and the new kitchen. The invitation was also a sort of peace offering for having insulted Kitty Ferguson at work that very morning.

Both women worked at the Fidelity Savings and Loan. The job was ideal because it afforded them the opportunity to work in an office, and they got off at two o’clock in the afternoon so they could have some quality time with their children.

On that particular day, Judy had been talking about her new house and Kitty had rudely interrupted her. “We’ve heard all about it. Can’t we talk about something else?”

Mrs. Harrison, an older woman who managed the business accounts and lived by herself in a two-room apartment, nodded in agreement—a knowing smile on her face. “I’m glad you’re happy, dear,” she said.

“I have a right to talk about anything I want,” Judy said.

Kitty threw a pencil down on her desk and pointed at her blotter. “I’ve got check marks here for every time you’ve mentioned your goddamned two fireplaces and cathedral ceilings. For Christ’s sake, Judy. Another week of this and I’ll need another pencil and new paper."

Judy didn’t say anything for a long time. She felt wronged, humiliated, ashamed. She understood that Kitty was exactly right, but in spite of her guilt and shame, she was enraged. She hated Kitty for pointing out all her intolerable expressions of happiness. But she would not let such powerful feelings tatter the perfect accumulation of days that had become her life with Marv and the children. She dreamed of her babies, finished her work, and gradually gave up most of her anger. Only, near the end of the day, while there was still some residual ire in the smallest valves of her heart, she announced publicly that she could not believe how much weight Kitty had put on since her second child.

It was all very harmless really, but she saw the hurt on Kitty’s face. There had been a young woman waiting in line to make a deposit, and Judy noticed that she was pregnant. Kitty was working at the next window, so she could hear everything. Judy pointed to the young woman’s stomach and said, “Your first?”

“Second. I have a little girl.” Then the woman talked about how heavy she felt, how difficult it had been to control her weight since the first child.

And Judy pointed to Kitty and said, “She just had her second child last year and she still hasn’t lost the extra weight.”

Kitty smiled, pretended to be looking carefully at the deposit slip of the customer in front of her.

“Tell her how much you weighed before your second,” Judy said. “Go ahead.” Then she turned back to the young woman and told her that Kitty had put on over fifty pounds and hadn’t lost a single one since she gave birth. “But she’s not as fat as she thinks. It really bothers her, though, doesn’t it, Kitty?”

Kitty looked at her with dark eyes and a sort of petrified sadness; her face was caught in Judy’s memory like a freeze frame in a movie. Instantly Judy felt terrible. If she could have, she would have gone to her friend and hugged her right there and told her she was sorry. Later on that morning, she invited Kitty and her husband for dinner.

“I’ll make something special,” she said. She was happy when Kitty agreed to come.

The only problem was it was going to be difficult to have everything ready right on time. She told Kitty to come around six, and she had to work very hard to get everything to go just right. Once she put the children down, she’d have to begin the preparations almost immediately. It would be necessary for the children to sleep well into the afternoon and evening. She was going to make Balinese lamb kabobs with a tamari sauce, chopped spinach, brown rice pilaf, and tossed salad.

When she dropped the spoon, the baby was upstairs crying. Little Randy, in his own room, screamed that the baby should “shut up!” Ordinarily, when the children revolted against their nap, she’d ignore them and go on with whatever she was doing. Perhaps she’d admire the various rooms of her house—standing back and imagining them as photographs in House and Home magazine. Or she’d read through her cookbooks and try and invent something new for dinner. Sometimes she’d involve herself in getting the laundry down to a manageable level.

But this day, when she lost the spoon, and just before she found out about Marv, she went upstairs to try and calm the children. She went into the baby’s room first, lifted him out of the crib, and patted the back of his head. “What’s the matter?” she whispered, rocking back and forth. The baby smelled wonderful, and she placed his head against her cheek, felt the thin hair and sweat at the crown of his head, and, when she remembered the depth of her love, tears came to her eyes. She heard Randy open his door and knew he would come to her. She sat down in the rocking chair and welcomed him when he pushed the door open. “I can’t sleep,” he said.

His small, new voice trembled in her heart. “Come here, honey.” She held him against her knees, the baby across her lap. It was not for long, a few minutes of ecstasy, but she found herself once again wishing there was some way to freeze such moments indefinitely. This was paradise, not some imagined garden where angels walked.

When she put the children back to bed, she knew they would sleep, and she knew she would find the right tool to reach the spoon and get it out from between the counter and the stove, and she would make an extraordinary dinner for the Fergusons, and later that night, when she and Marv were alone, they would sit in front of the fire and talk dreamily of their children and the events of the day.

The children did go to sleep, as she expected, but the spoon was not so easy. She stuck a spatula down there and only pushed it further in. Then she got a long screwdriver from Marv’s toolbox and tried to push the spoon up by getting under it. She knelt in front of the stove and peered back into the dark crevice. The spoon was positioned at a slight angle, but she thought she might be able to get the screwdriver wedged between the curve of the spoon’s bowl and the wall. Then she could edge the screwdriver up toward the countertop, pushing the spoon all the way, and when the handle emerged, grab it with her free hand.

This almost worked, but as she pushed the spoon toward the opening, it slipped back down. It seemed to land in the same position, though, so she leaned down and tried again, this time with a little more impatience, but still believing it would come out. She sang a brief tune, an attempt to convince herself that she was not losing her temper. When the spoon dropped down the second time, she placed the screwdriver under it again and started working it back up, but this time she was cheering for herself. “Come on. Come on.” She rooted quietly, because she did not want to wake the children, but she was getting slightly nervous. If she was going to have this fine dinner for Marv, she would have to get the spoon out before long.

It dropped down again and she said, “Oh, you.”

She worked it up a fourth time, got it very close to the edge, and then it dropped back into the crevice, this time a little further down. She took a deep breath, concentrated on the spoon, then put the screwdriver against it very gently and started over again. “This time we’re coming out of there, Mr. Spoon.” Though she was getting a little bit more frustrated, she managed to sing these words.

She went very slowly. She was beginning to sweat. Her neck ached. Marv would be home in less than an hour, and she had not started the dinner. With the screwdriver once again flat against the spoon, she edged it toward the opening now with great caution. She was as close as she ever got to it. In the back of her mind, she resolved to make this the last attempt. If she didn’t get it out this time, she would give up and go ahead and start the dinner before the children woke up. At the same time, she remembered Marv’s determination, his willful conquering of everything he ever tried, and she hoped she would get it out with this last try.

With infinite patience, she worked until the handle of the spoon was above the counter, and she reached for it, but in doing so, she moved the screwdriver and the spoon fell back down. “Goddamn it!” she screamed.

Now she dug with the screwdriver, as though she were trying to hurt the spoon. It was a furious and useless jabbing in and out, her hair flying over her eyes. “Goddamn it!” she screamed again.

The spoon dropped further down. She knelt in front of the stove now, with both hands on the screwdriver, working it like a butcher carving a sirloin. The spoon would not budge.

Then she screamed. “Goddamn it, goddamn it, godDAMN it!”

The scream echoed in her head. She fell back on the floor, breathing heavily, tears in her eyes. She could not think of anything but how goddamned awful the world was. What’s so goddamned wonderful, she wanted to know. She threw the screwdriver against the stove so hard the noise of it shocked her into silence. She held her breath for a second in the face of an implacable day.

Upstairs her children slept. The horror of her husband’s death was on the way to her, but she did not know about any of this. She was so shocked by her behavior she did not even remember she had children and a husband. She got up off the floor and stared at the stove as if it had knocked her down. It held the spoon, and time was constricting on her, and she had been terribly unhappy without consenting to it. The spoon was gone, and nothing she determined about it mattered. She could not get it out. Not ever. Not by herself. And she wanted to get it out. At that moment, she wanted to get the spoon out more than almost anything.

Reprinted with permission from Robert Bausch, The White Rooster & Other Stories, Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1995.