Sunday, November 23, 2008


Elliot Jameson laid his 160 pounds gratefully on the mattress. Jane, his wife, was already in bed. He fit himself to the curve of her back and nuzzled her ear. Her hair smelled faintly like the back of the couch where her head had rested all evening while she watched television.
Elliot smelled faintly of turpentine and linseed oil. His fingernails were edged with a stain of mixed hues.

“My painting is going well,” he volunteered. “I’m really pleased with the changes in the background.”

“That’s nice,” Jane answered. “Now go to sleep, or at least lie still.”

“I have to work a closing shift tomorrow,” he said. “I won’t be home for dinner.”

“Did you ask about a raise yet?”

“It’s retail, dear. That never pays much.”

“Are you even looking for a better job, or do you keep forgetting?”

“Why don’t we just sell everything and move to the woods somewhere?” he asked.

“Sell everything? We just got most of it. What about the microwave? I’m not selling the DVD–“

”Hush,” Elliott interrupted softly. “It was just a thought.”

“You never think these things through” she said. “You just need a better job. If I didn’t have to worry about money I’d be a lot nicer to you.”

He pressed himself against her back and slid his hand around her.

“Stop that,” she said. “I’m tired.” She let those stressed syllables hang in the air as she curled her head back, kissed him quickly and rolled away onto her stomach with her face toward the window.

Elliot rolled toward his side of the bed and bunched his pillow up under his head. Slow breathing was interrupted only by the mysterious noises houses make at night.

The next morning, Jane woke up next to a large gold brick. There was no mistaking the dull luster of the precious metal. Elliott was not in the bed.

“Elliot?” Jane called. Then, louder, “Elliot!”

Sun streamed in the open curtains, but the only sound was Jane’s voice. She looked at the gold bar and touched it lightly. It did not disappear.

“Elliot!” she called again. She got out of bed.

Automatically she slid her feet into dingy slippers and pulled on a frayed robe.

His clothes were all present, in his closet, his dresser, or draped over various furniture and the tops of doors.

She peeked into the kitchen. Elliot was not there. She went to his studio. His latest painting sat on the easel, presumably no nearer completion than he had left it at bedtime. She stared into the pleasant landscape of his imagination for a few moments before continuing her search.

Her exploration brought her back to the bedroom and the gold. She worked her fingers under the edge of it and heaved with a ladylike grunt. It didn’t budge.

She sat beside it and wondered what to do next. She felt that she should report the find to the government or some association of rich people who would tell her the rules and customs she should follow. What was the first step? And what did all this have to do with Elliot?

She and Elliot had been scraping along for years. Every once in a while he would sell a painting, but not consistently enough to call it a career. Meanwhile, he worked in shoe stores, sporting goods stores and other jobs she considered kid’s work, because all he ever thought about was his painting.

Jane had worked her way to office manager at a small engineering firm, but her salary didn’t bridge the gap between his meager income and her modest ambitions for home and status. He seemed to her more child than man, fascinated by clouds and sun sparkles and color and light. She had to make sure they had a lawn to mow and all the latest appliances, because he only cared if they had a stove, refrigerator, shower and toilet.

They had never hired a lawyer for anything. Jane didn’t know how to pick one or how to protect herself if the lawyer tried to get control of her wealth.

She felt she deserved the gold after years of tight budgeting, but she knew she couldn’t tell where she had gotten it. She had an idea the government would tax it hugely, if not cause her even greater trouble. She should invest it, but how? She guessed the gold would let her live out her life never having to work again, but only if she were careful now, in the beginning.

She went to the living room and looked in the financial section of the paper for the closing price of gold the day before. Her heart beat fast and hollowly at the amount a single ounce would bring. In that moment she came up with her plan.

She knew gold was soft. She fetched a small saw from the tool drawer in the kitchen. In the bedroom she was easily able to saw off a section of gold and cut it into irregular lumps. She could sell one or two in town now, and sell others on trips, keeping up a steady cash flow. There must be 160 pounds of gold on the bed. A few ounces at a time, she could upholster her life nicely without interesting lawyers or the government.

She wondered why she sensed the finality of Elliot’s departure. Or was it his removal? Mentally she inventoried his possessions. If he had left her, he’d gone naked.

Holding the soft weight of a chunk of gold in her hand, she squeezed it and slid her thumb and fingers over it as she thought of Elliot naked. He was a slender man, smoothly muscled. When he remembered to stand up straight, he was graceful. When he wasn’t twisting his face absent-mindedly while he contemplated some new illusion of depth or trick of light, he was handsome. At worst he simply looked like he was put together out of spare cousins. On the whole, Jane had been attracted to him when she was attracted to anyone.

As long as she thought about the gold, her mood stayed benign. Gold meant freedom. She could relax. Whatever happened, she could pay. She could buy a house, plant a garden, feed the birds. She could make love.

She leaned over and smelled Elliot’s pillow. The scent of him filled her as she closed her eyes. Why did he have to disappear just when they didn’t have to worry anymore?

She had met him just when she had decided she would finish her life alone. His pursuit of her had been single-minded and insistent. He had acted as if lovemaking was as important to everyone as eating, and had presented himself as tasty. Curious and lonely, though not especially aroused, she had given him what he asked for so that they could get on to friendship. But he had been satisfying and his desire never wore out.

Hers wore out, or at least wore thin. The constant struggle to pay bills and furnish the house nicely in the face of Elliot’s disinterest left her dry and sleepy by day’s end. Lovemaking was too much trouble when life was a dismal round of chores and she had to wear the same old clothes day after day.

She occasionally bought lottery tickets. She knew the odds were dismal, but years of herding dollars for other people had made her want her own. Elliot certainly wasn’t producing it. She would read newspaper accounts of lottery winners with envy and resentment, but also with compassion, because she knew what relief and disbelief those instant millionaires would feel.

Elliot simply smiled and tipped his head to the side in a gesture that was not quite a shrug, as if to indicate that they were always destined to contribute to the jackpot, never to hit it.

“My odds are better of getting a painting in the Louvre,” he said. “It’s a sucker’s game.”

“But it’s only a dollar,” Jane had answered. “You never know.”

“You keep at it, then, love.” He had kissed her and given her a squeeze. She had felt her eyes get warm, because he understood her. Little things meant more than big things from a man. Elliot’s modesty was not false. Her desires weren’t extravagant. Why couldn’t they get a little lucky?

Many times she lost patience. She snapped at Elliot when he didn’t have her dinner ready or if he spent his day off in his studio instead of cleaning the house. She kept after him to get a raise, so the store owners wouldn’t exploit him. He was so easy to exploit. He was too understanding.

He was basically reliable, too. She smiled at this thought, because he was as likely to come home form the store with half the things on the list and a dozen things they didn’t need. But he was loyal. If he was late coming home, it was because the sunset was beautiful or the moonlight made strange shadows for him to watch, or the kids in the park were sailing their boats.

Now she had won a lottery she didn’t know she’d entered and the price of the ticket seemed to be Elliot. She was too nonplussed to cry. It was not like he had been run over by a bus or had run away with a ballroom dancing instructor. He had simply whiffed out of existence like a soap bubble. Jane felt a curious compound of feelings.

Like anyone who has pledged to spend her life with someone else, she wished at least once a day that he would change or go away. To have those urges suddenly consummated left her feeling free and guilty. She thought of everything she could do now and was excited, thought of doing it alone and was depressed. The wave action was making her nauseated.

Her nausea was well-timed. The jangle of the phone jolted her. It was her employer calling to find out why she had not appeared for work yet. She sounded dazed as she told him she was sick. He wished her well. She thanked him. When she hung up the phone, the whole exchange could have been imaginary.

She bathed and dressed as she emerged from her reverie. She had to go sell the first lumps of gold so she could pick up a few things for her wardrobe and see about getting the car fixed. She should probably move to another town and get a different job, too. Fortunately, Elliot had no close family. She would store his things for a while.

She went out into the sunshine to walk to the little shop she’d seen with a sign that said “top prices paid for gold and silver.” They would probably rip her off a bit, but they wouldn’t ask too many questions, either.

The breeze had brought the children to the park with their boats. A man stood among them, smiling and laughing, suggesting races and explaining the wind. Another lay on his back, staring up at cumulus dragons and galleons, while a third sketched from a bench. She avoided their eyes as she passed them, because they were strangers and she lived alone.