Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Silver Spring, MD
"How d'you handle that, man?" his brother said, the third or fourth or tenth trip out to a classified location with no knowing when she was coming home.
Ben Falkner shifted the receiver from his right hand to his left. He was in the kitchen, stirring canned soup in a saucepan for a Saturday lunch. In the living room, the girls were playing: tentative, still. Rebekah's voice rose and fell, and every so often plastic bricks clattered against the side of a Rubbermaid tub. The social worker said Deborah was integrating well into the family, but it was better if both parents were home. It was better for refugee children if they could keep track of their new families every day.
Ben Falkner wiped his brow, pinched the phone firmly between ear and shoulder, took a deep breath and said, "It's no big deal."
Ben and his brother Avi are close, but there is no explaining his marriage to Avi. Avi's wife Miriam is a tax accountant who works strict nine-to-five hours. She wears soft skirts and pins her hair up with green butterfly clips and has round, uncallused hands. She does not know how to aim or fire a gun. She is the primary caregiver for Ben Falkner's niece and two nephews, and Avi does not know how to separate laundry, or bake muffins for a seven-year old's birthday party, or wait.
Eight years later, Ben is good at waiting by the phone.
His wife calls every night by nine, come hell or high water, when she is on the road. Up to her ears in police or profiles or corpses, overtired or overworked, she has never missed a goodnight call to her husband and daughters.
Ben Falkner spends the hour and a half after dinner and before the evening phone call in a variety of ways. He reads carpentry magazines or balances the books. He watches movies with the girls. He runs laundry, white on white on white, and watches it tumble in the sleek and fancy dryer they bought with Esther's year-end bonus last winter.
For a while, during a bad patch mid-2005 when Deborah was tantruming and inconsolable and Rebekah sullen and Ben and Esther fighting all the time, he spent the hours before the nine p.m. call drifting surreptitiously through dating sites; just to look, not to touch, he told himself.
A thirty-something bank teller in Idaho wrote him a few e-mails. He wrote a few back. He sent the last one just as the phone rang.
Cooking, cleaning, and cheating. All the things bored housewives do, he thought, and the disgust was so sharp and abrupt that he blocked the site and refused to touch the computer for a week.
He told her when she came home. He looked her right in the eye and told her. I'm having trouble, he said. I don't know if I can do this.
Her face closed off like a desk drawer shutting. The next day, she found them a therapist.
The phone rings at eight-fifty-five. Ben Falkner is reading the last few pages of a Raymond Chandler novel. I'm tired, the girl says to Marlowe. You'll have to carry me this time.
He picks up the phone. The line is crackly, faraway. Beyond it, the sound of highway traffic. "Es?"
"Ben?" she says. There's a burst of static. "I can't talk long." She sounds worn out, weary. Beaten.
He closes his eyes. Puts a smile into his voice. "That's okay," he says.
"The problem," Dr. Mashriki says - a solo session this time; Esther has been called away to Omaha and it was too late for Ben to cancel - "isn't the marriage per se. It's about how you're defining masculinity."
Ben's hands are on his knees. He sits very still; this is how he was taught to sit in school, and this is still how he sits when the spotlight of an authority figure is fixed firm upon him.
"What is it men do?" Dr. Mashriki says, when it comes clear that Ben isn't going to answer. "Provide for the family. Bring home the bacon."
"Protect their wives," he blurts.
The doctor leans forward, elbows on his knees, notepad between his hands. "And you can't," he says, soft and blunt. "How does that make you feel?"
Helpless. Reduced. Unmanned.
Ben Falkner shrugs.
"Do you love her?" the doctor asks. Not looking at the wall or the notepad or his glasses this time. Looking Ben in the eye. Man to man.
Ben swallows. A pulse beats in his palm; he's clenched his fists tight. "Yeah," he says, quiet.
Mashriki sits back. The fight, the challenge is out of his face. "All right," he says. "So let's talk about it."
Still safe, Ben thinks when he picks up the phone between the second and third ring. It's eight-forty-nine in the evening. Still alive.
"Hello?" he says, even though he knows who it'll be. The Falkners' friends and family, their daughters' friends, know not to call the house until after nine o'clock.
"Ben," she says, miles away, in the Midwest or Florida or the icy north, and it's a sigh unwinding. "Girls still up?"
This too is part of the ritual. She talks to the girls first: asks about their days and homework, gives them a flattened, telephonic kiss goodnight. And then the grownups talk. "I'll get them," he says, and takes the phone into Deborah's room.
He gives them their privacy. Deborah chatters into the phone to her mother - the only way she has ever known a mother, as something that sometimes goes away - and Ben returns to his sketching. He is drafting a desk chair for his wife; something with a curve just so in the back, so she can lean her strained and beaten spine against it without pain. He doesn't work on it during shop hours. Only in the evenings, when he's waiting for her to call.
Rebekah brings the phone in to him when she's finished. She hands it off silently, hair already braided for bed. "Thank you," he says, solemn, and she nods a little and wanders back to her room.
"Hey," he says, when his eldest is gone. "How's it going?"
"Hey," Es says back. "Not good. You?"
He puts the smile into his voice. He wraps it around that tiredness, those four words bruised and aching. "Finally tracked down that power bill," he says. "They didn't mail it after all." And then: "Don't worry. I took care of it."
Her breath gusts and crackles across the line. "Thank you. I don't know what I'd do."
He puts down his pencil. It rolls across the drafting pad. "No problem," he says, solid and dependable and strong. When she first started with the job, he'd ask: When do you think you're coming home? He knows better than to ask it now; now he just waits.
The brief silence tells him everything.
"Well," he says. Everloving. Forgiving. Steady like a rock. "I'll talk to you tomorrow night, then."
"I love you," she says. She means it, he knows. She's always meant it.
"Goodnight," Ben Falkner replies, perched on the side of his cold and solitary bed. Outside the window, the moon lights up the swingset he built for his daughters with his own two hands, the fences he's carefully mended, the branches of their tall oak tree. The faint, scratched lines on his drafting pad. "Goodnight. I love you too."