Snow fell from a gray sky onto the Grand Hotel Niagara. Chet slowed his truck around the traffic circle and parked on an empty side street. He’d never heard of anyone from town staying at the Grand. He didn’t think it would look right to leave the delivery truck overnight in the lot. Lena had chosen the place and she’d made a point of telling him about Marilyn Monroe and DiMaggio staying there in fifty-two, back when she was a girl and her mother ran the hotel switchboard. He’d said it sounded great, sure. Downtown, right next to the falls.
Chet shut the lobby door hard and entered with his head bowed, the carpet thick beneath his thin loafers. Lena walked towards him from the fireplace, her narrow hips squeezing between a pair of leather wingback chairs. Chet swallowed once and couldn’t think of a thing to say. She kept her hair long, braided and coiled like silver cable. The soft fuzz by her ears, backlit by the fire, shone white as his own. Her dress was buttoned down the front like a man’s shirt, and over it she wore a coarse cable-knit sweater that opened in the front. It was the kind of thing a fisherman would wear, and he smiled like a fool, pleased at how sensible she was, how warm.
The last time he’d seen her was the night of Audrey’s funeral. They’d met at an all-night diner in Buffalo. She hadn’t attended the service. He’d come to her dry-eyed, seeking comfort. Lena had ordered tea and kept herself apart from him, not even an elbow within reach as he walked her to her car. It seemed almost an afterthought when she turned to him before unlocking her sedan: the name of the hotel and a suggestion to meet in three weeks’ time.
Now, she pushed a folded newspaper at him with both hands.
“Chet, here. The key’s inside,” she said. “Seventh floor.”
The elevator ride up was slow and the mirrored walls trembled. He ran a hand over his face and wondered what Lena would think of him when they were finally alone. When he was a younger man and newly married, Audrey had been crazy for his face; she’d stroked it like a pet. His skin was coarser now from decades of cold and work and alcohol, but his chin and nose were still strong. Overall, he thought he’d held up.
The room key was a metal skeleton key, long and slender and tarnished, and he was glad. A card, a little rectangle of plastic, wouldn’t look right in a place this old. He had a key like this at home for the door to the crawlspace by the kitchen, still full with Audrey’s photo albums and knitting projects. His daughter Maggie had called him last summer from her honeymoon in Ireland sounding like a little girl again: all the B&Bs have skelly keys, like the one for Mommy’s room. She’d sent a postcard every day. He’d lined them up on the dining room table, pleased that the months of trailing Maggie to the bridal shop had resulted in a beautiful party, and then ten picture postcards of sheep and rocks and sea. He’d felt so embarrassed in the bridal shop, he and Maggie wandering the racks of lace and satin, the smell of Audrey’s antiseptic hospital room clinging to them both. But Lena had welcomed them to the shop warmly and did what Audrey could not: guided Maggie toward a dress that made Chet’s breath catch in his throat.
Chet didn’t want to think of Audrey and Maggie; he didn’t want to be alone in the elevator at all. But Lena was careful. She always was. It had taken him months to convince her to join him for coffee. The second afternoon in the bridal shop, he’d lingered with Lena near the register while Maggie and her friends snapped pictures of trains and trims. Lena stood apart from him, her careful gaze on the girls.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know who he was. Lena and Audrey had finished at LaSalle in the same class—sixty-five—and Lena’s husband was just a year younger than Chet. Everyone said it was a shame that he’d passed so young. Chet had always wondered why Lena hadn’t remarried. She’d been beautiful then; she was handsome now and seemed to know a thing or two about endurance.
By the fourth visit to the bridal shop with Maggie, Chet could distinguish the scent of Lena’s perfume beneath the layers of too-sweet potpourri. He’d brought a business card from the liquor store, underlined his name next to the word “owner,” and added his home number to the back. He still wore his wedding band (he’d worn it until the day after Audrey’s funeral) but he thought his visits to the shop alone with the girls made his situation obvious. Lena eventually agreed to coffee, an occasional movie, and once, a touring musical matinee downtown. But she’d never been to his home, not once, and he’d never been permitted inside the upper half of the bridal shop that housed her apartment. Chet knew that his interest in Lena had begun as curiosity; he wondered how she’d learned, so successfully, to be alone. She was always meticulously groomed and dressed; she dictated their meetings with the same level of exactitude and an almost professional detachment. And now, this. A hotel and the line about DiMaggio. Like they were slummers doing something wrong, instead of two good old-fashioned people.
In the room, Chet hung his coat in the closet, lumped his gloves over a hanger to dry, and wished for a minibar. The water from the tap was cold and tasted of bleach. He dried the glass and put it back, lining it up with the others and replacing the paper seal.
Her knock was light, but he opened it before she was through, her fist still up at chest level.
Lena’s lips parted in surprise, but no sound came out.
“Are you going to hit me?” he teased, then took her clenched hand to his lips.
She glanced right and left, her mouth frozen in a silent shh. A door opened down the hall and she pressed inside the room, freeing her hand to shut the door.
It was over in fifteen minutes, and afterwards Chet rolled away, his breathing labored and his body flushed.
Lena had been quiet, her sounds more like surprise than pleasure, a little questioning, “Oh?” in his ear. He couldn’t even remember it feeling good; he felt numb still, and embarrassed. It had been a kind of release, like a day’s piss held in too long. She deserved something different from him after all this time, after all those long looks and chaste coffeshop conversations. He closed his eyes to gather his thoughts, and then it was dark and the blanket was on, his eyes gummy with sleep and Lena awake beside him.
“I’m sorry, I must have dozed off.” Chet’s voice was thick and he moved to roll towards her.
Lena pulled the blanket higher. “Chet—”
“Easy,” he whispered. His eyes sought hers in the darkness.
“Chet, I’d like to be alone.”
Chet opened his mouth, but nothing came. During his good years with Audrey, he could never keep quiet. They would lay in their narrow bed and Chet would talk to the creases of her neck, her knees, his words alive in the wet cleft of her. He shook his head, gradients of gray and white and black bringing the room into dim focus.
“I must have fallen right asleep.” Chet bent to pull off one sock, then the other, ignoring Lena’s high sigh behind him.
“Chet? Listen, I mean I want you to leave. I’ll take a taxi home in the morning. I’m sorry.”
Chet navigated the space between the bed and the wall and felt his way to the bathroom. He returned with two glasses of water and placed them on the small table that sat between the two queen beds. Chet pulled back the covers on the second bed as Lena moved to switch on the light.
Lena pressed at her neck. “If you don’t mind, Chet. I could use some time alone.” Her mouth dropped open in a yawn, strands of saliva stretching at the corners. He blushed at the sudden candor of her body and nodded.
“I get it. I’ll stay right over here, out of your hair. You get some rest now.” He lay down without waiting for her to respond. He felt more awake, having gone against her wishes. It was foolish, just as foolish as her insistence to go to the movies in Buffalo or Lewiston, where they wouldn’t see anyone they knew, so afraid was Lena of shaming a dead woman she hadn’t spoken to in thirty years. He would just as soon walk those three snowy blocks to his car as Audrey would appear now in the room, full of life and giving Lena whatever it was she seemed to think that she deserved. “Take a drive tomorrow,” Chet murmured, acting sleepier than he felt. He rolled over, his back to her. “Niagara-on-the-Lake. Real nice lunches.”
If Audrey had ever … he thought, but that wasn’t a thought worth thinking. Audrey hadn’t needed to kick him out of bed. Chet slept in Maggie’s old room willingly those last few years before Audrey got sick. He’d lain there in the dark some nights listening for her. She wouldn’t have had to say a thing, just come and stand by the bed. That would have been enough. But they’d turned away from each other, and there was no going back.
Lena clicked off the light without another word. Chet rolled his head on the pillow, eyes closed. He wasn’t a brute and he wasn’t a bad man. He and Audrey never let other people know about their troubles, especially not Maggie, although having her so late might have been what changed things. He could see that now. Chet could never rightly tell who started it, though he’d tried to place the blame over and over in his mind. It didn’t much matter either way; his silence and her distance became two bears sharing the same dark hole. These were old thoughts, tired thoughts, and it felt strange to wonder them with Lena there in the dark, just beyond his reach.
It wasn’t that he wanted to tell Lena these things. He’d said all he needed to in those last months in Audrey’s hospital room. Only when she was sick and silent and locked away inside herself could Chet begin to speak to her again. He sat and talked about everything: where they’d gone wrong, the ticking sound the thermostat kept making, even Lena. Lena in her bridal shop helping Maggie into the gown. Lena and the copied pages of poetry she carried in her purse. The nurses patted Chet’s arm when he left Audrey’s room, praising his patience, his devotion. It was shameful. All that praise for something he should have been doing all along.
Lena woke when the first stripe of morning appeared beneath the heavy cream valance. She lay a while longer, willing the drapes to part on their own, to flood the room with golden light. She allowed herself a moment to imagine how it could be: their skin soft and honeyed in the sun, a tray of fruit and toast between them, strong coffee in china cups. Look out the window at the noiseless snow. Chet’s willfulness had been a surprise, as had her reaction to his decision to stay. It was what she’d needed: a show of force, a glimpse of a different sort of man beneath the kind, grieving father. It disturbed her that she was excited by his refusal, by his casual disregard of her wishes. It was better, wasn’t it, to stay to one’s self, not to have to parse through the emotions in one’s own heart? She’d built much of her life around this belief, wrapped it in the guise of hard work and faith. Surely her prudence would lead to a kind of dignity.
She reached for the leather-bound menu on the nightstand, being careful to move without waking Chet or disturbing the full tumblers he’d placed there in the night. She would order for them. Something rich. Eggs Benedict, French toast, Croque-Madame. Forget the fruit for once. Lena stretched beneath the blankets, skimming her legs with the flat of her palm. She’d taken her time with her toilette, shaving her legs slowly and applying a cream one of the boys had given her for Christmas. She could smell it still on the sheets. Sweet almond. Made, Pat and Rob had told her, by fellow businesswomen in a small, war-torn part of the world. She felt like a good mother, a good citizen, just by virtue of using the cream and thinking about those women. They knew, as she did, how to go on after tragedy and provide something beautiful to the world.
Chet rolled once, but didn’t wake. Lena eased out of the bed and over to the small case she’d left in the room before meeting Chet in the lobby. Her satin robe was dark with wrinkles, but she felt like she belonged in a room with a sleeping man when she tied it beneath her breasts. She placed the phone on the edge of the bed, then moved into the bathroom, stretching the long cord as far as it would go and closing the door behind her. The girl on the line had a high, sweet voice, and Lena was reminded again of her mother, the way she would set her hair and dress each evening after dinner for her shift on the switchboard.
Lena had been the oldest. She’d known to bathe her brother and sister and put them to bed, to check on her father and give him the pills her mother left each night in a paper cup. At ten, she’d imagined herself a young Florence Nightingale. She liked the feeling of moving through the house and checking the locks and windows, turning off the lights the way her mother had taught her. Her mother was more like Lucille Ball, painted and pretty, her voice sugary when Lena called each night with her bedtime report. It wasn’t until Lena was in her teens that she questioned her mother’s decision to make a child responsible for an ailing adult and two small children. She realized then that most mothers didn’t put on makeup and go out to work in the evenings, or stay in their wrappers and drink coffee in the mornings while their children ate cold cereal and walked to the bus stop alone.
Lena ordered more than they could possibly eat. Afterward she stood for a moment in the bathroom, listening to the crackle and silence on the line. Chet would be startled to wake at the sound of the knock on the door; she knew she should wake him now, but was unprepared for such an intimate, domestic act. She didn’t want to see his face flicker into awareness. She didn’t want to talk. She wanted only to skip to the quiet of breakfast, the morning light, the promise of companionable hours behind a closed door on a Sunday.
Instead, she moved quietly through the room. She applied lipstick, threw the crumpled receipts and used tissues from her purse into the bin beside the window. The phone the boys had bought for her still seemed out of place, too large and efficient in the soft nest of mints and newspaper clippings she kept for times she needed to wait. They were good boys, men now, far away but diligent about sending pictures of their children and short, cheery notes; it seemed harder for them somehow to use the phone to hold a conversation, however brief. Lena was surprised then, to see a new voice message. It was Sunday; the shop was closed as it had been every Sunday for the past thirty years. Lena felt a quick pulse of guilt, imagining the explanations she would make next Sunday at mass. She’d gone to the four o’clock service at St. Mike’s the previous afternoon before coming to the Grand, but Saturday never seemed to count.
Lena thumbed the screen. Her boys were preoccupied with their own families and besides, the number was unfamiliar. Lena settled on the ottoman by the window and pressed the phone to her ear. She played the recording twice and then a third time.
It was a policeman, young enough to mumble his name when he should have slowed down and stated it plain. An explosion on the street. Gas leak. The policeman left a number to call, but Lena was already buttoning up the front of her dress. Your property has suffered significant damage.
Her hands shook against her chest like a pair of small animals she was trying to hold. Pat had taken home the class gerbil once when he was seven. Rob was only five, and Lena was still keeping the shop closed until noon and staying in bed with the blinds drawn most mornings. The sound of the thing scratching at the cage had driven her crazy until she released it in the yard and placed the cage upside down on the floor with the door flung ajar. Staged a crime scene and blamed the boys when they came in from play, their negligence. Rob had wailed but Patrick said nothing, and Lena had felt judgment in his silence.
Your property. No one remembered that it had been his too, theirs. Lena clasped her fingers to her mouth and bit down to still herself. She put on her sweater and scarf and reached for the coat on the rack before she realized she was still barefoot.
“Lena?” Chet sat up in a series of small, grunting movements.
She’d entirely forgotten he was there. It carved her up, this willingness to forget about others in the presence of her own, more compelling emotions.
“I have to go.” She hated that she had to sit and stoop to pull on her socks and boots.
“No,” Chet said. “No, pet.” She looked up at the name. She’d warned him. They weren’t children.
“The shop,” she said.
“No,” she said. “There’s been an accident.”
Chet did not tell her to wait, did not ask questions. She watched him without wanting to, the way he stood from the bed and moved to and then past her, reaching for his coat and gloves and sliding into his own shoes without socks, despite the cold. She was the one to pause, to call after him.
He turned just before he reached the door, his eyes still hooded with sleep. “You can tell me on the way. We’ll take the truck.”
“Let me,” Lena said.
“Let me take the truck. You stay.”
“Here?” Chet unzipped his coat and came towards her again. “What’s going on? Is this some kind of fib to get me out of here?” He reached for her.
Lena let him take her in his arms. His coat smelled like smoke and the cold old smell of the liquor store’s walk-in cooler, where he kept cases of beer and champagne. Taking a taxi to the Grand had been foolish. She wanted to push past Chet to her own car, but it was at home, parked in front of the shop. And what? Destroyed now? She couldn’t very well pull up alone in his delivery truck, but it would be worse still if Chet drove her there. She couldn’t trust herself not to do what she was doing now, crumpling into him and crying in front of the police and who knows who else. Her neighbors. What if someone was hurt? She imagined blood on the snow and stood up straight again and wiped her eyes.
“We never should have come here.” Chet held her elbows.
“Lena, for God’s sake. What is it, a fire? Busted water pipe? Come on. I’ll drive and you call your insurance.”
“This was a mistake,” Lena said. “I should have been there.”
Chet pulled her to the door and she let him, scuffing her boots on the carpet as if she was a child. He didn’t let her go when he reached for the security bolt, and this is how the boy with the weighted cart of silver trays saw them; the door opened before he had a chance to knock. Lena patted her fingers beneath her eyes and smiled like nothing was wrong. The boy looked away. He seemed to make himself a little smaller and pulled the cart to the side to allow them to pass.
“We decided to dine out after all,” Lena called. The elevator made its sour creaking sounds. She fluffed her hair and smiled again at the boy, who was gazing stupidly towards them. “Charge the meal to the room and be sure to take care of your tip, dear.” Lena watched the boy looking at them, then followed his gaze to the sight of Chet’s ankles, bony and bare beneath the salt-stained hem of his slacks.
The police determined that the blast originated in the kitchen of the house directly behind Lena’s, one street over. Something to do with fumes and harmful chemicals, powerful enough to send pieces of a stranger’s bathroom through the double-block windows of the bridal shop.
Bolts of fine lace frothed over the shelves, pockmarked with fragments of mildewed tile. A lone claw foot from a rusty tub lay atop a crushed hatbox. Silvery dust from a shattered mirror haloed a gash in the wall like fireplace ash. The wind blew through the broken windows and needled tears from Lena’s eyes. She gripped the collar of her coat tighter.
What had Chet said? Some sort of drug lab? She’d tried to send him away once they arrived, but again he’d refused. He stood talking to the officers on the sidewalk, but she couldn’t listen and walked towards the shop, alone. She pictured young girls snorting powders with their legs spread on the filthy bathroom counter that lay upended in her store. She guessed at the form the drugs would take. Powder seemed explosive enough. Her thoughts buzzed like horseflies as she picked her way across the room. It must have been a fine, tiled counter once in a fine house, the kind you would rest a baby on before bathing it in the sink, cradling its head with a sturdy hand. Her brain was a loose net, trapping images. What was the next step? She placed a hand on her chest to feel the solid retort of her heart. And then she saw their bed.
It lay broken and twisted in the yard, the lovely cherry oak frame disappearing under the snow blowing in from the river. Lena could make out the shape of her pillow beneath the mess. A refrigerator door leaned against the remains of the headboard, the edges charred and crumbling. There were no magnets on it, no pictures. She opened her mouth and took in a long shuddery breath for what felt like the first time in many years.
The bed had been a wedding present, part of a custom set that had been trucked up from her relatives in Maryland. It still looked new that long ago morning when she’d found the bottle of pills on her husband’s nightstand.
His mouth had still been warm when she wiped the foam from his lips. She’d pressed her hands against his chest, like a woman in a play, knowing it wouldn’t help with what came next. She’d hid the bottle and called an ambulance. Later, she’d allowed a neighbor to help her dispose of the mattress, but Lena had kept the bed and the two twin nightstands. In those first years following his death, Lena had paced each night, making a circuit between Pat and Rob’s room and her own, then down to the shop to stare at silent rows of merchandise. She’d been waiting to find something amiss, something she could notice and prevent.
A handful of emergency workers in padded coats throbbed through the shop, snapping photographs and marking areas with yellow tape. Lena crossed her arms over her chest, unable to shake the feeling that the emergency workers would find whatever it was she’d missed in the rubble of the shop. She wondered, as she often did, how it would have been different if it happened today. People were kinder then, and trusting. No one questioned that a healthy man just over forty would die suddenly of a heart attack in the night. The medics had worn collared shirts and dark ties and they’d taken her statement with solemn faces and patted her hand. No one pushed her to request an autopsy. No one asked her much of anything at all.
She didn’t regret the lies, to their families, to the boys. Nor did she forget them. It was all to preserve what they thought they’d known about a good, sweet man. And she’d lied, happily, easily. She’d let him go with dignity, even though he’d refused her the same courtesy.
Lena heard Chet’s footsteps crunch in the snow. The wind gusted, raising a corner of eyelet trim from her bedspread. Chet stood behind her and held her in his arms. They stood in silence, ignoring the officers and the snow, the neighbors standing on the street in mittens and hats or peering from their windows. Chet spoke quietly, his mouth at her ear.
“That could have been us in there.” Lena huffed something close to a laugh.
“Well, me. It should have been me.” Chet released her and turned her body to face his.
“How can you say that? Don’t say that.”
“We all have our time. This was supposed to be mine.”
“This?” Chet swept his hand at the wreckage of her bed. “No.” He leaned in and held her again. He didn’t care who was watching. “You saved your life last night and you better believe you saved mine, too.” Chet took Lena’s chin in his hand, like he was someone who could get away with that sort of thing. His gloves were rough against her skin, but she didn’t move. His eyes moved across her face. She felt scrutinized, scanned, but it was not an entirely unwelcome feeling. She fluttered her eyelids against a gust of wind and willed him to ask her something, anything. She would tell him everything he wanted to know.
Caitlin Corrigan earned her MFA from Rutgers-Newark in 2014. Her fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, NANO Fiction, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and the Tin House “Flash Fridays” feature. Caitlin also writes essays, poetry, and reviews, and is at work on her first novel. Reach her at www.caitlincorrigan.com.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue (available for download as a PDF).