The Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study. It was designed for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLAS program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. We are pleased to include works from the Creative Writing concentration in our publication.
I was home for dinner that night, for once. The trouble started when I turned off the television. Jean was in the kitchen so I was by myself with Josh, our five-year-old, in the living room.
“No,” whined Josh. He played with Legos on the floor, his back to the television.
“You’re not watching,” I said. “You’re playing.”
“Watching and playing!” Josh wore the same sweat suit he wore every day, blue pants with a zip-up hoodie with Thomas the Tank Engine on it. Jean had found it on sale and he insisted on wearing it every day, so she washed it every night after he’d gone to sleep. Josh called it his Thomas costume.
“No, you’re playing. And you can’t even see the television anyway.”
“No!” he wailed and with that, he threw his weight forward, crushing the Lego city in front of him. He started crying, his face immediately flushed red, sloppy wet tears and spit covering his face as he sputtered. A plastic tower gave way under his knee and a plastic brick stuck him in the thigh. The crying amplified.
“What? What happened?” Jean came in from the bedroom, red sauce from last night’s spaghetti dinner splattered on her jeans. Her mousy brown hair was worn short and unstyled. She cut off her long hair not long after Josh was born, saying he pulled it too often. Five years later, her hair was still neglected, a wash-and-wear that lay mop-like on her head. She rushed over to our flopping fish of a child.
“Leg,” Josh said. One sweat-panted leg roundhoused the air and he flipped to face up on the plush, beige carpet. “Hurt.” He always resorted to one word explanations during his meltdowns. “TV.”
“I turned off the TV that no one was watching,” I said, “and he threw himself onto his Legos. One poked him in the leg.”
“Can you just leave him be? I want five minutes to myself without him crying. Jesus, Tom.” Jean’s eyes were green, and they appeared greener when she was angry. I had liked that about her when we met. Bright emerald when she was upset, gray blue when she wasn’t—a gauge for her moods.
I flipped the television back on and left the room. We fought too much, never about anything substantial. Our arguments were about washing dishes or who had to take the car in for an oil change, insignificant things. The actual problems in our marriage we couldn’t articulate; too afraid or too proud or too stubborn or too tired—too real.
At two years old, the doctors told us Josh probably had some level of high-functioning Asperger’s. He was smart and he picked up on things, but he had tics—little things that made him stand out next to other kids his age. Initially, we brushed it off. Of course they wanted to diagnose him, we assured each other; the medical profession was quick to diagnose anything that didn’t fit between points A and B that had been roped off as “normal.” A little yelling here, a few quirks—Josh was unique, becoming his own person. He tested his boundaries. We just had to be firm about rules and give him an outlet for his energy. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge we were raising an individual.
Then the more worrisome things began. He would get up in the morning, walk out to the hallway, sit facing the wall, and stare. He would sit there a full half hour, then he’d get up and go about his day. Sometimes he would start blinking repetitively when a stranger spoke to him. We’d be in the bank or the school or the park, someone would wave hello and ask how he was today. He looked like he wanted to reply but he would just blink—very intentionally—about every three seconds. It was disconcerting. It made people uncomfortable.
He held his breath. The first time he did it to me, we were in the grocery store checkout. He was almost three. He got upset when I wouldn’t allow him to have a pack of gum. Jean wasn’t there and so his arms octopussed out, knocking down an entire rack of magazines before he reached for the packs of batteries and started throwing them—two eight-packs of AAs pelting the bag boy as they soared through the air. I held his arms to his sides to stop him and braced for the high-pitched scream. He looked right at me, sucked in as if about to dive underwater and held his breath.
I laughed to myself at first. He had to breathe sometime, and at least he wasn’t screaming. But he continued to hold it, his face flushing pink, then red, then purple, then red again. He held his breath so long, it felt like ten minutes at least, although I’m sure it was only a few moments. I tried to force him to breathe, shaking him a little. Finally, he passed out and reflexively started breathing again. I was still holding his arms and I caught his body so he wouldn’t collapse. His legs dangled rubbery below him as I tried to set him back up. Finally, with what felt like the whole store watching, I scooped him up and took him out to the car, leaving the groceries behind. After I sat him in his car seat, he woke up and said, “Again Daddy?” That was when I knew the doctors were right.
Jean thinks I have cheated on her. I’ve not, not really anyway.
About six months back, she stopped by work and the new secretary, Maddie, was there. I work as the billing director at a physical rehabilitation center. The center sees all kinds of people, and often I have former patients or family members showing up at any time to dispute old accounts. Part of Maddie’s job is to curb these disputes and set up appointments.
I’ve pieced together the scene that follows, from what I later learned and what I could fill in with my imagination…
There is a picture of Jean and me on my desk, taken on our honeymoon in the Bahamas. We were young and carefree, the baggy eyes and worry lines of parenthood still absent from our faces. Jean rarely stops by the office, so it was no wonder that Maddie didn’t recognize her when she walked in that day.
Maddie looks about nineteen even though she has a college degree. She has large blue eyes, and as she types, her hair falls toward her face in a curtain, shimmering in the fluorescent office light. She wears tight pencil skirts and high heels to look professional, but a charm bracelet tinkles on her wrist as she types, giving away any doubt of her youth. She is engaged but doesn’t wear a ring. The patients love her.
“Mr. Blair is unavailable at the moment,” she said. “May I leave him a message?”
“I know he’s here now. Is he in a meeting?” Jean asked.
Maddie checked the calendar. “Mr. Blair doesn’t have any appointments scheduled this afternoon.”
“I’m not an appointment. Tell him Jean is here. I want to talk to him before his meeting tonight at six.”
Maddie smiled apologetically. “Mr. Blair leaves the office at four, ma’am. We don’t schedule any of his meetings after four.”
“Of course he has meetings after four. He doesn’t usually get home until eight.”
I can only imagine the silence that followed. Maddie uncomfortable but trying to protect me, Jean staring her down, considering where I was going if the office was closed four hours before I got home.
“I’ll check his office. May I ask what the nature of your visit is?” Maddie said, stalling.
“I’m his wife. You tell me what the nature is.”
“Oh,” said Maddie. She flushed with embarrassment. Jean misread the blush for guilt. “Of course. I’ll go find him. Excuse me.”
When Maddie came to my office, she was sputtering. “Your wife is here, but I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know, I didn’t recognize her. She looks so different from the picture on your desk. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Her face was the color of a beet and she kept glancing between the floor, me, and the picture on my desk.
I glanced at the picture, Jean’s shiny hair swept back off her shoulders, a wisp or two blowing in her face from the island breeze.
“Don’t worry, it was an honest mistake.” I smiled at her, trying to be reassuring. I followed her out of my office and went to find Jean.
“Who’s the girl?” Jean hissed at me when I came out to the lobby. She stood over a low couch, a ficus blocking our view of the window at Maddie’s desk.
“Maddie?” I asked.
“The blonde jailbait.”
“She works here, she started a few months back. She hasn’t met you, it was an honest mistake.”
“Does she stay past four? With you and the other employees?”
“I don’t know, Jean,” I stammered. “She’s hourly. Probably not.”
The truth was I did leave work at four. I was not cheating though. Many times when I left the office, I just couldn’t go home. I drove, circling the neighborhoods around Huntsville, wondering what the people in those houses were like. Huntsville doesn’t have much of a downtown, maybe three blocks of businesses before another group of suburbs leads to a shopping center or the Huntsville Hospital campus where Josh was born. The further away from the center of the city, the larger the houses get. Two-story giants with picture windows, two-car garages, and immaculately manicured lawns.
Sometimes I consider going into bars, malls, hospitals. Anywhere that might give me some insight into how other humans live. What normal families are like. I never do though, I just drive, looking at lawn ornaments and mailboxes and garden beds. I need those few hours, time to be alone without the demands of a temperamental five-year-old or the martyred look Jean gives me after she spends the entire day keeping Josh’s meltdowns to a minimum. Time to consider another life. I’m not cheating on Jean, at least not in the traditional sense.
A heavy storm system was moving in and as the winds grew stronger, the blooms swayed back and forth like cattails, the new leaves of spring holding on for dear life. Behind the house the land fell away, sloping down to a creek that separated our land from a house in the suburb one street over. A German shepherd barked, treeing a squirrel on the edge of its property. There was a semblance of woods that separated the two properties, but in reality it was only about sixty yards of tall trees, mainly Virginia pines and silver maples that filled out and blocked the view to the neighboring cul-de-sac in the summer and fall. The bark on the more established trees crackled and groaned in the winds, elderly compared to the supple, young branches of spring.
It was April, so we expected storms. The line approaching, however, was labeled by the National Weather Service as “having a history of tornadic activity.” We lived in Ardmore, near the border of Tennessee, and the news stations were focusing on the more direct suburbs of Huntsville—Harvest, Madison, Owens Cross Roads. Our weather radio had been beeping the last two hours, warning us to take shelter immediately and that there was a strong likelihood of downed power lines and trees because of the strong wind gusts. Initially, Josh had happily joined us in the interior bathroom, Thomas the Tank Engine and Batman figurines in either hand.
After two hours, he was running from window to window, looking at the sky. Batman stood watch in the east window, SpongeBob in the north window looking toward the front yard. Thomas remained in hand.
We had lost power the night before, something about the entire grid going down. The radio reported more than three hundred electrical towers had been destroyed by the storms, and Huntsville city and the surrounding areas were all without power. We plugged the refrigerator into the generator.
Jean was making peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the kitchen, the weather radio still beeping every three minutes with updates. County by county, it reported sighted tornadoes, each at least ten miles away from us.
“I’m sick of this thing beeping,” I said, jostling the radio cord.
“Leave it on, another one could be coming our way,” said Jean. “Lunch!”
“No samwiches,” Josh called from the living room floor.
“Sandwiches are lunch. Come on, Josh. We need to eat.”
I rolled my eyes at Jean. “Come on, buddy. Mom made sandwiches. Time for lunch.”
“No, no, no, no, no.” The belligerent five-year-old attitude was starting up.
I started to say something, but Jean cut me off.
“What do you want to eat, honey? Mac and cheese? Soup?”
“Waffles for lunch?” she said.
“I make them!” Josh said.
“All right,” said Jean, but I have to plug the toaster in for you first, little man.”
“You a short order cook, now?” I mumbled. Josh came bouncing in, his head narrowly missing the breakfast table as he skip-hopped to the freezer for the waffles. It often smelled like burning in our house, since Josh was known for over-toasting the frozen waffles he ate with strawberry jelly. It was one of the few things he could make himself, and therefore, one of the few things he would consistently eat. I tried to offer him other things, a vegetable, a fruit, anything. Jean said we needed to pick our battles.
The weather radio bleeped again. “Northern Limestone County, near Highway 53 and Grady Pepper Road, take shelter. Suspected tornado touched down in the area at approximately 1:23 p.m. central daylight time…” The information faded away as I swept Josh into the bathroom, Jean on my heels.
Grady Pepper Road was all of a five-minute walk from the end of the driveway. We often took Josh that way to ride his bike, since the road was smooth and the neighborhood quiet. We sat facing each other in the garden tub of our master bathroom. “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” said Josh, pointing to each of us. He pretended to wash his armpits. “Rub a dub dub.”
When we bought the house, we were excited about the tub feature, thinking the whirlpooling jets and bubbles would be romantic or stress relief or…something. The tub had been filled once, while Jean was pregnant, but mainly it served to collect piles of folded laundry. Two dusty, fake plants sat in either corner of the unused tub.
The radio in the kitchen was still beeping distantly, but the trees outside had stopped swaying. Everything was eerily still. Even Josh had stopped squirming for a second, and time slowed. Moment to moment, we listened. I listened for the sound of trains, the tracks leading the freight of refuse toward us, but it never came. Just silence, and the sound of my heart pumping blood to my ears. I wondered if maybe the freight-train sound is just the blood in your own head, coursing and pumping louder and louder as the world falls still around you.
Josh was curled into the crook of Jean’s armpit now, a waffle in one hand, his Batman figurine in the other, and his eyes closed although I knew he wasn’t sleeping. I looked over at Jean and our gazes locked, an unsaid conversation passing between us. We both knew I wasn’t in love with her anymore, and she didn’t love me. We weren’t in hate either, though. We just—existed with one another, and nothing was going to change that. We had history, and we had Josh—and so, passing between us like a contract, we agreed to be. With each other, I guess. It wasn’t really a sacrifice, for either of us. We just knew this was how it would be. I was too apathetic to change anything and she was unwilling to be the one to call it off, too comfortable in her own self-created victim status.
We were without power for five days, in town it was only three. There were 355 confirmed tornadoes between April 25 and 28, approximately 11 billion dollars in damage, and over 300 casualties. The city imposed curfews after the first night, attempting to curb looters.
“What kind of person steals from people who just had their houses ripped apart?” Jean had asked while we listened to the radio.
I drove into town the day after the storms to see the damage. The bank next to my office was leveled, and two trees lay in the parking lot—a third split down one side, its greenery busting through the lobby’s windowed door. Maddie was already at the front desk on her cell phone, the computer and fax machine plugged into the generator. “I just hope my gown survived. The lady altering it lost her entire house. Hopefully it wasn’t there. I bought it in Birmingham, it cost fifteen hundred dollars. I should have just had it altered there.”
Another coworker asked how my house had fared. The tornado missed our road—hopped over it as it destroyed the surrounding neighborhoods. Half of our wood-slat fence was gone and our shingles had sustained a little wind damage. Some of the house’s support beams had shifted, just enough to put structural integrity at risk. From the road, the house was aesthetically fine, spared from the storm, but the contractor sent by the insurance company said looks were deceiving. It would need a lot of work to restore it, from foundation up. We were advised not to stay there, but we did anyway.