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The Throwing



What a summer. In the span of two months Peg’s mom dies, I get a speeding ticket, the comments on Teddy’s report card advise holding him back, and then the market tanks and we sell when we should buy more. Other couples, maybe this strengthens them. They find comfort in the outstretched hand across the table, the whispered endearment, a back rub. “When it rains, it pours,” one of them probably says, and together they laugh. I guess I had always hoped, if push came to shove, we would be like that. 

It begins on Father’s Day, a week after the funeral. I go out early for bagels and come home with a dozen everything and six points on my license. I tell her how the speed trap at the bottom of 143 is completely unfair, located where the posted speed limit has just changed to 35 from 50—I tell her this and she says, very casually, “Everyone knows cops love that spot.” Really, I say? Everyone? And we’re off.

We’d never done much arguing, and so for a while—perhaps into July—our nightly engagements are scary, and yet sort of thrilling, like visiting a foreign country with a history of violence and incredible views.

At some point we start throwing things at each other. I can’t remember who is first, probably her, if I’m being honest. We’re talking, what, vacation plans for August? Some absurd disagreement.  Standing at the sink, her eyes become wild, searching, like birds flushed from cover, and she picks up a fistful of almonds and hurls them at me. They hit me in the shoulder, the face; on the floor they find a new plane and velocity. I spend the better part of the afternoon extracting them from beneath the cabinetry, because if I don’t, the termites will come back. I bark at Teddy, who is six, when he tries to help me. This occasions, hours later, an entirely new fight, and I end up (End up: I understand how such phrasing distances me from culpability, and yet those words most closely capture the fatalism I felt, I feel) throwing my keys at her. “Fine, you fucking drive,” one of those deals. She’s not looking, though, and the house key rakes her cheek. The line is so thin and pink it might have been drawn there by Teddy’s sister. The line’s gone in the morning, or practically so. 

We apologize through routine. We make lists, buy groceries, pay bills, watch tv, even laugh. Everything is familiar, repeated, comfortable, and at the same time not, as though we are struggling to trace our past selves on paper. For example, there’s an unrestricted quality to what we do, a carelessness I have always associated with people whose lives are coming apart and so what does it matter? We drive places at night while the kids are sleeping, have sex in the car. Where does she get the cocaine? I don’t ask and then the next morning we don’t talk about it.

One night we are in the kitchen and I make a remark she takes the wrong way. No, I’ll be honest, she takes it exactly the right way. It’s one of those remarks you can only make after six or seven years of marriage. By that I mean it’s at this point that you know, with the precision of a surgeon, exactly where to cut. 

She’s been drinking a gin and tonic from a heavy glass. Stupidly, I make the remark and then open my phone. I feel the breeze of it at my temple, the wet of it on the back of my neck. Only then do I hear it explode on the wall behind me. 

“Can I make you another?”

“I’ve always hated you.”

I set my bottle of beer on the counter and think about that. While I’m thinking, I hear footsteps.

“Dad? Is everything ok?”

I bring him upstairs and tuck him in again.

He protests. 

“It’s nighttime,” I say. “After eight.”

“But it’s still light. So, it’s not nighttime.”

He cocks his head like a prosecutor. What can I say?

“Come here,” I say, and a strange impulse guides me to the window. “We’re both wrong. It’s not day, and it’s not night. It’s dusk.”

“Dusk,” he says. “Dust. Dusty dusk.”

We look down at the backyard, a half-acre of mown lawn that ends in woods. Fireflies wink in and out. A black squirrel, thirty yards from the treeline, forages suddenly, twitchingly, as if propelled by a joystick and low RAM.

Teddy yawns and drags his finger across the window pane. I want to ask him what he is thinking because I worry about what he heard. My wife’s comment, that is. 

“Dusk is when the animals come out,” he says.

I smile, relieved. “That’s—”

And just then there’s a flash at the treeline, a blur of color. A fox. The squirrel, reacting on instinct, and in any event too late, moves toward the house before changing course. There’s a brief, zig-zagging chase that ends ten or so yards from the trees. Slowly, and looking once back over its shoulder, the fox carries the squirrel into the woods.

“Wow,” Teddy says, ecstatic. “Right when I said it about the animals, an animal comes out.”

“A fox.”

“A fox. Wow. Maybe it will happen again. Do you think so?”

“It’s unlikely,” I say. But I give him some time. After a moment of standing and watching, he turns and climbs into bed.

“Goodnight, Dad.”

There are stars in his eyes. It’s a night to remember. “Goodnight, Teddy.”

The kitchen is nearly dark when I enter. Bits of glass crunch under my soles. 

“There was a fox,” I say, picking up my beer.

“Oh?” She doesn’t turn from the sink, but I can see her. In the reflection off the window her face is something I don’t recognize. 

“In the yard,” I say, holding tight to the bottle. “It killed a squirrel. It was really something to see.”

“Yes,” she says, and slowly faces me. “I imagine it was.”


 

Cullen McMahon received a BA from Yale University and completed graduate degrees at Brooklyn College and the Bread Loaf School of English. His fiction has been published in The Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. His novel, To Aspen, is represented by the Kathryn Green Literary Agency.

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