Joseph - 1940
Joseph and Lillian are caught in a moment.
And something is about to happen. A decision about to be made. The warm summer breeze wafting through the open window of their tiny office is suggestive of their stirring emotions. Reckless passions.
Lillian waits. Waits to pick up the paper she’s dropped. Waits for Joseph to justify himself or them.
Joseph affects studying a claim made by Willard Norbert whose wife died leaving Willard with three children under the age of seven. It seemed a good risk at the time. Mrs. Norbert being so damn young.
Management will be less than pleased about the loss.
How do you insure someone against their fate, Joseph wonders? Against whatever happens next between himself and Lillian?
Outside the window, Topeka, Kansas, is in the soft embrace of evening. Its hustle and bustle tempered by night. Folks have drifted home just as other like-minded creatures seeking their nests, burrows, dens. Seeking safety. Comfort.
Joseph and Lillian remain afield despite the danger. Even though Joseph lives minutes away. On Arlington Street with his wife of eleven years—Martha, and two children ages ten and eight. A girl and a boy. And, of course, a mutt named Roscoe.
One would think that’s enough.
Lillian is Martha’s younger sister by three years. Martha insisted Joseph hire her to be his secretary though there was little enough work and even less pay.
“She needs stability, Joe. You can give her that.” Martha encouraged him.
That was three months ago. Through a long hot summer where much was revealed and little, finally, kept secret.
Like Lillian’s dress, which clings to her as if an admission of guilt. There’s more here than meets the eye, it says. More than Joseph found comfortable. More than he could altogether ignore.
“Thanks for taking me on,” Lillian told him—their first day working together. “I know it’s a favour, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make it worth your while.” The coquettish and instinctive grin.
Lillian had recently returned from LA where she had been fondled and forgotten by the gatekeepers of every major and minor movie studio. One among many. A body and nobody at countless cattle calls.
“A dime a dozen,” a pie-faced executive producer told Lillian, “and not even worth that much.” His pants down round his knees at the time.
“How’s Lillian managing?” Martha asked at breakfast one week after her sister’s employment.
“Better than I thought,” Joseph replied. “I mean she can actually type.”
“We MacClures aren’t just pretty faces, you know.” Martha slipped two pancakes onto Joseph’s plate.
“No, you’re magnificent bodies as well.”
Joseph extended an arm around his wife’s waist. Pulled her near. “Body, then,” he said and nuzzled her breast.
“Your breakfast is getting cold, Romeo.” She smiled. Indulgent. And stroked Joseph’s straw-coloured hair. Love lingered in the gesture. A love she professed as a seventeen-year-old and yet today.
“Got a kiss for me?” Joseph asked and sat Martha on his lap.
“And more,” Martha murmured into his ear.
They kissed. It was practiced, but not practical. And who knows what might have happened next if ten-year-old Emily hadn’t rushed into the kitchen?
Martha left Joseph to his pancakes. And his conflicted thoughts. Some for his wife. Others for her sister.
Emily switched on the radio. She wanted music. But outside their still arcadian household, outside Topeka—outside the United States—the world roiled in turmoil, and all Emily got was news.
Today pronouncements of the French surrender to Hitler’s goose-stepping army.
Those and other Nazi desecrations troubled Joseph, but they took place over four thousand miles away.
Close at hand, Joseph faced a more immediate and escalating problem. He and Lillian’s proximity, forced by the size of the office, threatened the equilibrium of their lives. Crossing the room became a dance rife with possible indiscretions. Perfume comingling with aftershave. An ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ would be called for and a quick aversion of Joseph’s eyes—Lillian’s décolletage calling attention to itself. Triggering imagination. Her legs sheathed with nylon stockings, which had become all the rage, seemed to invite touch.
Over time, proximity led to familiarity: The straightening of a tie. The brushing of a cookie crumb from scarlet lips. The pushing back of stray hair. Hands incidentally grazing and holding there longer than necessary. An accumulation of gestures that apart could be laughed away, but all together wanted their voice.
A month and more passed. Joseph began leaving for work early. In anticipation. In pursuit of something already his. Selling whole and term life insurance policies became more and more superfluous. And strangely easier. But, finally, not the reason Joseph went to the office anymore.
Commissions and his circumstances be damned.
Alone with his thoughts, he wondered at his growing obsession—imagined himself a character in a book. For it seemed to Joseph the course of his life had been taken from his hands. He was at the wheel, but somehow losing control. Why didn’t he put a stop to it? Why didn’t he yield, give way? If he had choices, why did it feel inevitable?
Primal will pulled at him. Guilt transformed his character. He became less attentive and more unresponsive to his wife and children.
September. Eating cold cereal for breakfast, Joseph sat at the kitchen table reading the sport pages. Martha brewed coffee.
And her growing resentment.
“What’s the score?’ Martha demanded.
“The score, Joe. What is the score?”
“Baseball? College? Pros?”
“Between us, damn it.” There sounded fury in Martha’s voice and nascent desperation.
“Sorry. Didn’t think—.“
“I’m using language you might appreciate. Might respond to.”
Joseph took care folding the paper and setting it aside. He understood it as a delicate moment.
“Didn’t know we were playing a game,” he countered.
“Hell, we’re not even on the same team these days.”
Joseph considered possible ways to respond. This time. Appraised the effect of each.
“Sorry,” he tried, “management is pressing us to write more business. It’s stressful-.”
Martha cut him off. “You’ve used that before.”
“Because it’s the truth.”
“Then to hell with life insurance!”
“You have seen my paychecks, Matty. That’s real money. It will get us out of debt and allow us to save for the kids’ education.”
“So we do have a future.”
“Of course.” Joseph’s declamation an affirmation without substance.
‘Then why don’t you act like it, Joe?! Why don’t you love me anymore?!” Hot tears brimmed over in Martha’s eyes. She didn’t mean to cry and wiped at their betrayal with clenched hands.
Joseph stood—instinctively—habitually. Took one step toward his wife, but no farther.
That will be remembered.
By both of them.
Emily rushed in.
“Guess what day it is today, Dad,” she exclaimed.
“Hey, kiddo.” Joseph swung his daughter around between himself and Martha—a shield—of sorts.
“Give us a guess,” Emily insisted.
“Let’s see. National Button Day.”
“Come on. You’re not even trying.”
“Labor Day,” David, Emily’s brother, chimed in from the living room.
“And you don’t have to go into work. Isn’t that funny? Dads don’t go to work on Labor Day.”
“I don’t get it,” David said joining his family. “What’s funny?”
Joseph sat and flicked a quick look at Martha who had turned away from the proceedings.
“Actually, I do have to go in. Got a couple of calls to make. Only time they agreed to see me,” he said more to Martha than the kids. “But, I’ll be back early and we’ll make some vanilla ice cream.”
David jumped into his father’s lap. Emily came alongside. Joseph hugged them close. His children. Bright and effusive. Pride and joy. Walking them to church on Sunday morning a sweet satisfaction. Hurting them, hurting himself.
But even that was no deterrence.
“And invite Aunt Lillian,” David demanded.
“Will do,” Joseph said giving his son a tickle. “I’ll see her today.”
Martha shut a drawer with a telling emphasis.
Husband and wife stuck each other with their eyes. A brief moment, but laden with provocation, accusation, denial and anger.
It marked them.
Another hairline crack in the foundation of their relationship.
Another grievance underscored with regret.
Still, some things propel us forward. The way clearly fraught with danger. The end surely untenable.
And Joseph went to work with Lillian on Labor Day.
And Lillian couldn’t help herself. She wore canary yellow and cobalt blue. Her full and insistent body radiating. Her ebony black hair swept away from the fine architecture of her face.
They drove out of town toward Howard Millford’s farm. The day clear and crisp as birdsong. Motored along in mutual silence. Lillian had forgotten their map. But never mind.
They both knew where they were headed.
“What do you think of my dress?” Lillian asked.
Joseph kept his eyes on the road. “It’s--bright. Suits you.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” She agreed and studied a fingernail. “I almost didn’t show up today.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“Sure. I’m not as successful without you.”
“You’re more than that, Lillian.”
“How much more?”
And there they were. Three innocuous words that exposed them to their purposes. Everything to this point innuendo. Play. This excursion a test of their resolve—one way or another. Joseph exhaled as if exorcising ghosts. Lillian took his hand.
“I’m really confused, Joe. I want to be here, but shouldn’t be. I have these feelings. For Martha. The kids. But mostly for you.”
“I know what you mean. I do.”
“What can we do about it?”
“Damned if I could say.”
“But something must be said, Joe. About us.”
“You’re my sister-in-law,” Joseph declared in an attempt to forestall their unhappy destiny.
“So you’re telling me no.”
“How can I?”
Joseph swung the Ford well off the road and brought it to a stop. He faced Lillian. “You’re a beautiful woman, Lilly,” he told her and meant something more.
“Beautiful in ways that you could love me?” she asked.
And the answer was yes.
And the kiss bruising. A fierce expression of a passion that both wants itself and is distraught by the wanting.
And it couldn’t be undone.
Later, leaving Howard Millford to examine his life-expectancy charts, they played out the script of so many other errant couples and checked into a seedy roadside inn. Everything was revealed then. The exclamations of their coupling—their rush to consummation guttural and unrestrained. Fierce and unrelenting. What the flesh wants it must have.
Exhaustion followed. Physical and emotional. And regret.
It waited in the wings.
They drove back to Topeka in silence. Both tallying up the cost of their trip. What was paid out. What was their return. Trying to balance the ledger. Calculate ways to conceal the debt.
Joseph and his family made vanilla ice cream that afternoon. Lillian had a headache. Sent her regards.
Joseph regaled Martha and his children with a story of Millford’s bull.
“We were standing just off his front porch sealing the deal, when I felt this hot breath blowing on the back of my neck. I spun around to see what in heaven’s name--and there I was eye-to-eye with a king-sized, roan-colored bull. I froze in place. ‘Oh, don’t worry about Burt,’ Millford said, ‘he just wanted to say howdy.’ “
“Burt the Bull. Burt the Bull,” David shouted and galloped around the yard. Roscoe chasing after him.
Martha offered a bemused smile for David’s performance.
That evening Joseph and Martha lay together and apart.
Martha knew. Joseph could sense it. Read it in the contours of her face. In the strain of her voice. She wept softly as he lay awake beside her. Gnawing at his guilt. Wrestling with finding fault. Cursing the capriciousness of life. The gods or—whatever—caring not a whit for a person’s petty schemes and plans. Insinuating temptations and trials at every turn. They have no mercy. Mercy and forgiveness are the province of humanity, he thought. If we don’t engage them, they won’t exist.
He for himself. Martha for him.
For what has happened and whatever will happen next.
It’s evening of the following day. Lillian waits at the file cabinet. The door to the office is open, but she ignores it. For now.
Joseph feels the weight of the moment on his shoulders. In his gut. A decision must be made.
Perhaps if he simply sits there, it will be made for him.
Perhaps Lillian will gather her things and walk out that door.
But then what? Hasn’t Joseph already abandoned his wife and children?
And what good is his pledge to love and cherish—to anyone—anymore?
Something’s been broken.
There was no way to insure against it.
No matter binding claims to be made.
Relationships come into flower and necessarily fall into seed. Isn’t that the way of things?
Still, there’s a phone at Joseph’s elbow. He could call Martha and begin mending fences.
He could turn to Lillian and say-.
And it’s 1940. Paris has fallen to the Nazis. In Topeka love is being made and forsaken all over the city.
Joseph notes that it cost Willard Norbert $1.30 a month for his wife’s $20,000 term life insurance policy.
Strange, but Joseph has no policy for himself.
Nothing for Martha if—when he leaves.
Gavin Kayner's prose, poems and plays have won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications. These include best one act play - Chameleon Circle Theater, first award for poetry - Arizona Commission on the Arts, and publications in Cricket Magazine, Heuer Publishing, UNC Charlotte Press, Passager and so forth.
The Ekphrastic Review
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