What follows is something I hammered out quickly today as I let Friday sneak up on me. It is rough. Decidedly rough. If this story were sandpaper it would have a CAMI designation of 24. I have a feeling most of the Fiction Friday postings will be reworked and expanded upon (I have an alternate ending in mind for this, and a great closing line). All in all, I like this as a quick one-off. To the best of my knowledge Paul’s profession sadly is entirely fictional.
It was six days before Christmas, as her husband was stringing the last of the lights around the expanse of the Christmas tree dominating their living room, that Mrs. Robinson realized she no longer loved her husband. Paul was standing with his legs splayed and one foot perched atop a small step-stool, his arms outstretched above him as he wrestled with the strings of multi-colored lights. Paul strained at the task which had taken the better part of an hour. His brow was wet and a damp ‘v’ had formed on his back starting at his neck and ending at the small of his back. Never an active man he had dedicated himself to a sedentary lifestyle in his middle age, doctors be damned.
Claudette Robinson looked at the man she had wed with all the optimism and energy of a young woman, with all the joys and promise of married life stretching on before her, and found him ridiculous. It was not cruelty or whim that motivated this feeling. Claudette had not come to this moment through epiphany either. After thirty long years events of the recent and not-so-recent past had taken their intractable and inevitable toll. There was simply nothing else left to give. The straining, grunting man who had finally managed to wind the Christmas lights all the way round the tree, the smell of which she always found cloying, had exhausted her store of passion. She simply and inescapably could no longer be bothered.
In April Claudette had discovered the affair. Like most cowards Paul excelled at secrets. Keeping the fact that he had broken his vow of fidelity during a convention for manufacturers of livestock dental prosthetics was probably his greatest achievement. Claudette had never believed that he had grown sloppy. In some way she supposed that Paul had either wanted her to know or wanted to get caught. The latter was far more likely. As the affair had continued the Other Woman, as Claudette insisted on referring to her, had grown increasingly proprietary. Full disclosure was a way out of the situation for Paul. When the confrontation and confession finally happened Paul had let her read the numerous letters demanding he leave Claudette for a new life in Tuscon where he could finally be himself. When had he ever been anyone else? Claudette had asked him as he sat with shoulders slumped on the foot of the bed they shared. “You just don’t get it, Claude.” and there had been defiance in his voice, if muted. An accusation that at some point she had planted the seed for his betrayal herself. Well, maybe so. But all had not been wine and roses as Mrs. Paul Robinson either. In all the years of her disappointment and unhappiness she had never taken another man to her bed.
An agreement was reached to try to mend the union. This mostly consisted of Paul playing the newly devoted and doting husband and Claudette not pelting him with recriminations. It soon became clear to her that Paul was clearly getting the better of the arrangement. Though it was true he was attentive, supportive, and almost annoyingly present Claudette still caught the gleam in his eye. For Paul this was something he would always have over her, a brief shining moment of self-indulgent, prideful boasting. If they lived to be one-hundred years old each he could always retire to the attic of his mind and shuffle through the dusty memories of the time he couldn’t be kept down on the ranch. Bright lights, big city! Hallelujah! Claudette considered having an affair of her own but quickly dismissed the idea. It would always have the flavor of a “me too”. Paul would pity her. Paul’s pity was the one thing she could not abide.
This was their life. Each aware of the imbalance in their marriage. Claudette unsure how to redress the imbalance, or if she even could. Until six days before Christmas when Claudette realized the futility of it. Paul climbed down off the step stool and found the switch which operated the string lights to switch them on. The tree was speckled with alternating points of red, green, yellow, and blue. It was a very festive display.
“There. All done.” Paul said, his face flushed from his efforts, his chest heaving.
“I no longer love you.” said Claudette with a stark simplicity. Then she went into the kitchen to make hot apple cider for the both of them. They drank in a silence amid the smell of pine and the twinkling of lights.
Paul, to his credit, knew instinctively not to pursue the matter. He supposed she would leave him. Part of him had expected it for years, even before he had undertaken the affair. He would begin the new year as Paul Robinson, aging bachelor. He had never truly explained to Claudette why he had chosen that moment to stray. In fact he hadn’t. There had been one previous occasion on which the opportunity had presented itself. Fear had held him back in that instance.
Things had been different when the woman at the convention, Angie, had approached him after the seminar on bovine cuspid orthodontics. The sheer weight of her need had impressed itself on him, as had the fact that she recognized in him a kindred spirit. In Paul she had seen someone like herself who wanted also to be needed, though perhaps not quite so desperately. Paul had been flattered when she approached, and aroused by her shameless, open need. The went to his room the first night.
Every expectation Paul had told him that he would leave the convention and Angie behind him. Maybe they would pick up again next year. Instead, he found himself maintaining contact. He discovered with both unease and delight that she didn’t live too far from him. Though he knew it was foolish he continued to meet with her. Until Claudette had found out. She had not screamed at him or hit him, still he could see the wound went deep and it gave him a little thrill. He had finally dented the armor of her stoicism. From behind the facade of her implacability a rivulet of emotion trickled out. Inwardly, he thrilled at it. Inwardly, he was fearful of it.
Three days before Christmas Claudette knew for certain that she was going. It only remained to choose the nature of her exit. Uncharacteristically, she decided she wanted to make a grand gesture with her departure. As she left Claudette Robinson behind she wanted there to be something to mark the passing. She wanted there to be legend left in her wake. Paul could have his meager affair;his shallow panting, the clumsy groping in dark hotel rooms.
Claudette considered burning the house down. It was a good house though. Claudette had always been happy with the house. To burn it down seemed a waste. Instead, she decided to kill Paul.
Claudette chose Christmas Eve to follow through. Poison would do the trick nicely and she had bought Lily of the Valley from a florist. She had chosen it without a sense of irony, but entirely with a sense of justice. There wasn’t going to be any pretense of covering it up. By the time he was found she would be long gone and Mrs. Paul Robinson as dead as the recently deceased Mr. Paul Robinson. Being Christmas Eve she knew the routine; they would drink their cider, listen to some Christmas music, and exchange the few gifts they had bought for one another. They had no children and Paul had been estranged from his sister since before their marriage. This year she hadn’t bought him anything. Claudette neither knew nor cared if he had gotten her a gift.
In the kitchen she listened to him rummaging for a bit in order to find the CD’s he pulled out every Christmas Eve and knew she had time as he loaded them into the CD changer. She prepared the Cider. She had allowed the cut flowers to sit in a vase in the open for the last two days. The water was now deadly. Claudette would use it to make the cider which Paul would drink. She would then leave, while he was in the grip of the poison, and she would not look back.
The flowers were thrown into the trash and the water used to make the apple cider. In the living room Tony Bennett was making things festive. Paul liked Tony Bennett. That would be nice for him. Claudette made two cups as usual. She carried both cups into the living room thinking about what she would pack.
Copyright Desmond Manny 2015