Sarah Layden

1.   Marv, through the doorway, over the aluminum strip of flooring that divides the kitchen from the living room (designed to prevent tripping on uneven layers, but upon which Marv regularly tripped), heading to the kitchen, the fridge, for another beer—toe to aluminum, he re-crosses the threshold again without a bride, unless you count one of the cans as a sort of partner.

2.   Where else is he supposed to go? Marv had showed up on Sheila’s stoop despite her warnings, he’d walked right up to the red door and rang the bell. Sheila said he was “darkening her doorstep,” even though there was no sun, no shadow, no light from anywhere but inside the apartment at 3 a.m., just the light she’d turned on for herself. She told Marv to leave and he’d stood still, not taking a single step away, even when Sheila hissed that she’d smelled him coming, and always would.

3.   Listen—there are places and there are places. Marv went to the newsstand like it was church. He sidestepped the litter and the pigeon-detritus and hedged along the shelves, then back again. He read every newspaper headline, scanned each magazine cover, read the articles that he thought were worth reading, which weren’t many. Daily he paced this sidewalk, a short Marv-sized path worn into the cement; at least that’s how the newsstand owner, Burt, must have seen it. Burt didn’t seem to mind Marv—the guy maybe could buy something a little more often, not just Newsweek but maybe one of the fancy-ass rags, the ones that cost Burt a fortune to carry—but hey, everybody needs a routine, and this guy Marv has to have to have a couple.

4.   The Renegade Bar’s jukebox played that same song every night. “Gimme three steps, gimme three steps, Mister, gimme three steps toward the door.” The bartender put the machine on shuffle and out came the song, like magic. Didn’t matter if it was Sonja or Pete behind the bar pouring drinks, the song played. Or maybe it just seemed that way? No. Every night. And each time the chorus asked for that three-step head-start, with every cheerful pleading of the lead singer and his backups, Marv would resettle himself on the stool and clasp whatever type of glass that happened to be in his hand and answer them, “Nah, I’m staying right here. I think I’ll stay right here.”

5.   At the hospital, Marv had run so fast down the corridor that he’d left a rubber tread from his sneaker. When Marv finally got to the room, Sheila was curled up on one side. Marv was still laughing, giddy. “Where’s the baby?” he had asked. And all Sheila said was, “Gone.” He railed, “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you call?” She pleaded, “I did, I already told you on the phone, Marv.... It was a girl.” His sneakers squeaked as he ran out, leaving another mark for somebody else to clean up.

6.   Unless he was working, Marv would rise from the chair in his apartment to walk the couple steps to the bathroom, but that was it. The rest of many days, he spent in the ratty recliner, wearing a terrycloth robe, a stack of magazines on his lap. The New Yorker, Atlantic, Time, Esquire. He read every word. He slept. He read some more, returning to the same articles. Some of it he’d remember. He shuffled across the room in slippers, sometimes plucking Kleenex from the box. “If Sheila were here...,” Marv thought, longing and hate and love all confused together like something thrown up from his own stomach.

7.   There are only so many ways to say you’re sorry—Marv knows that chocolates are a cliché, so he goes for enormous mall-cookies with vaguely contrite messages he orders up in frosting. “I am a first-class dick.” “Somebody should have stopped me.” The teenage girl behind the cookie-counter giggles nervously, painting blue words. Marv promises this is “just between us.” He asks the girl if she’s old enough to get into bars. When she ignores him, he just hums to himself and rocks back and forth on his heels. The frosting smudges when she places the finished dessert in wax paper. “Sorry,” she says, a word Marv understands even if he really doesn’t know how to say such a thing. “Don’t worry about it,” Marv insists.

8.   Late, late at night—so late it is almost light, almost not night—Marv steps to the faint glow of the window and thinks about making coffee, thinks about getting help, thinks about the sleep that eludes him on nights like this. He then thinks about Sheila and all her self-help books, the counseling, the admission into programs where he was forced to admit his weakness. “Weakness,” his father used to tell him over the rims of his glasses, “is the worst sin there is. Stop your crying,” he’d said. “Stop it now. That’s better. How’d you like for someone to see you? You might as well go ahead and die. But die strong, boy. If you do nothing else for me in this life, do that.” Marv still wondered over his father’s command, words following him like an echo, like a bottle-cap rolling down the street, like an industrial scent in a factory-town wind.

9.   “Happy Fucking Anniversary”—then, “Happy Goddamn Shit-Eating Motherfucking Anniversary!”: these are the cards he would buy if anybody made them. There is no reason for that kind of cruelty; besides, it has been many years since they’d celebrated anything together, and it is not even the anniversary of their now long-dissolved marriage. It is the anniversary of that day in the hospital, the day Sheila should have had the baby and didn’t. He finds a card that wishes “A Very Special Eight-Year-Old” a Happy Birthday, spelled out in colorful balloons. Marv scrawls his name on it and licks the envelope shut. He walks down to the corner and drops the card in the mailbox. Days later the envelope returns through the slot of his own door with the red-inked stamp of a pointed “Return” finger. He’d forgotten postage; the envelope flap still smells faintly of whiskey.

10.   Marv’s first dates are barely distinguishable from second and third dates. He meets women at the Renegade, until eventually they learn they should be anywhere else. “We never go places,” complained one girl on their third date—Emily, barely twenty-one, who has shown promise by accompanying him home on the first date and every one since. “Oh yeah?” Marv challenged. He grabbed Emily by the upper arm, marched her outside the bar onto the sidewalk, then wheeled her around back into the bar, to the same cracked leather stools they’d been keeping warm on and off for the past couple weeks. Her biceps shone red through the next two rounds of drinks. “Don’t ever say I don’t take you anywhere,” Marv said to her.

11.   Years before, as a joke, somebody’d affixed dance-step patterns along the Renegade’s empty dance floor. The rumba, the cha-cha. Now Marv leads Emily out onto the floor. The jukebox is playing a song he doesn’t know; it has a beat slow enough that he can shuffle Emily around, breathe in the scent of her herbal shampoo. He sighs Sheila’s name into Emily’s hair. She doesn’t correct him, nor does she answer to it—do they share more than they know? But even if they each want to be other people, with other people, and somewhere else, here and now there is music; music and someone, their feet stepping in the same cracked pattern.

Sarah Layden's fiction appears or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe, The Evansville Review, Artful Dodge, Vestal Review, Zone 3, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere. Excerpts from her first novel, Sleeping Woman, can be found in Freight Stories, Cantaraville and the Dia de los Muertos anthology. Her poetry appears in Margie, Blood Orange Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and the anthology Just Like a Girl, and one poem recently was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets 2009. Find her online at .

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