The summer nights were ending. They weren’t yet ending but the fact that they would end clearly suggested they were ending. The process of ending had begun when the summer had. Nothing of any consequence had been done with any of the nights, still they didn't want them to end. What ending meant to both of them was years in the future—into a death beyond space and into a thought experiment so without merit that the very thinking of it seemed to race them more speedily towards it. And it was it. And this mid August, barely mid-August, really early-mid August evening, meant “summer will end” and “summer will end” meant life will end—though even that they didn't do much with.
Marjorie said, “I think Mark M is really dishonest.”
Bill said, “Why do you say ‘Mark M’ when we don't know any other Marks anyway?”
Marjorie said she didn't know and how him saying that was kind of a dishonest reply in a way. “The dishonesty called evasion, though the kind of ‘dishonest’ I am thinking about is a lot more damaging and a lot less obvious.”
Bill said how he thought Marjorie’s need of honesty or fear of dishonesty was a little childish, like she couldn’t stand the fact that she couldn't know other people in any real meaningful way anyway and dishonesty is just a big flag showing as much, a big sign saying SEE YOU ARE TOTALLY ALONE.
This made Marjorie feel hot and she got up from the table and went to sit in the half-full kiddie pool. She felt like Bill went a little too far with that last bit about TOTALLY ALONE and, well, of course that was the reason why she didn't like dishonesty and, of course, he knew that and knew she knew and the whole TOTALLY ALONE thing was an unnecessary rubbing-in-her-face. So for whatever reason Bill was angry and she was going to have to look for another topic. That’s what a relationship was sometimes. Finding conversational spots on the other person that didn't irritate.
“Did you look at the upstairs sink?”
The way Bill glared at Marjorie made her realize that tack wasn’t going to hold either.
“I have so many questions about plants sometimes,” she started after a pause so long it felt like the water she was sitting in had turned into the blood inside her body. The liquids had become the same temperature and moved with the same speed. She pulled at some clover growing next to the pool.
“Sometimes I can’t believe the way plants have evolved alongside animals. How different their whole approach to life is.”
Bill didn’t snap, he just raised his eyebrows as if to say “well, that is something that you said.” Not “something” like “well, that is really something,” but “something” like “some thing.” Like “you said something,” all flat and evident and Icelandic.
Finally Marjorie said, “Let’s see what the Hand is doing.”
The Hand was their friend Rich Handie who lived a few blocks over on Coruth and came by once or twice a week and drank with Marjorie and Bill, or else they would all go to one of the bars that was in walking distance of their house. A lot of times it was The Hand and Ky Mike, but Ky Mike had been dating someone for the last month and was less readily available these days.
That was the way The Hand put it, he was less readily available, just like if there was a spoken equivalent to italics. Everybody knew The Hand was funny. Bill and Marjorie were funny too, but because they were a couple they needed someone to be funny around. They had begun to cancel each other out the way sometimes couple’s humor cancels itself out. They don't sit around in the back yard cracking each other up anymore but if they get around a friend it becomes a worthy show.
When The Hand came by Bill was pretty tight, Marjorie was too, but in a more containable way. Marjorie was still sitting in the kiddie pool and The Hand walked right into the back yard and right into the kiddie pool in his pants and button-down shirt. The Hand wore glasses. Just like everybody in the entire world.
Marjorie said, “The Hand just wet his nice slacks,” and Bill said, “Yeah, why are you wearing such nice slacks?” The Hand said he's “been making an effort.”
Bill said, “Marjorie, The Hand has been making an effort.” They all laughed and then Marjorie told a story about the time she was on line to see a movie and the couple behind her were clearly making an effort to impress each other.
“They were talking too loudly and just being strange and witty with each other and then when it was their turn to buy tickets they jacked the place with a tiny gun pointed at the teller.”
Marjorie said “jacked the place” like she said “jacked the place” all the time.
“They got about $780 dollars and never got caught. I remember thinking ‘this human pairing will not stick’. Like that, like I was observing an experiment about incompatible molecules.”
“Lie,” said Bill.
“But maybe they weren’t even a couple at all. Who knows.”
The Hand said, “Why do think that story’s a lie? Why make up a boring story?”
Marjorie said, “You lie.”
Bill said, “I do.”
Marjorie thought about whatever day it was that she and Bill got married. How that “I do” sounded so different. She thought that one was also about lying. Bill, though, didn’t really lie—what he did that was so terrible, it was the opposite of lying. He truthed to a hurtful degree and even this was somehow dishonest.
“Marjorie thinks Mark M is a liar.” Bill declared this in a revelatory way after about three minutes of a comfortable, tight silence each of them had lapsed into.
“No, I don’t. I said I thought he was dishonest, by which I meant something a lot subtler than you can even comprehend.”
“Well, this is what it is. I'm going to lay it out for us right here before this evening goes any further. I'm going to outline this evening’s agenda. Marjorie thinks everyone is dishonest.
The Hand is trying to make an effort ever since Ky Mike started dating that teenager—”
“She is the same age as Ky Mike,” Marjorie cut in.
The Hand said, “She’s actually a few years older than Ky Mike.”
“God, she’s such a drag, I thought she was a child. This makes it worse. Why is Ky Mike dating a grown woman who acts like a child? Marjorie don’t you think it is dishonest to be that dumb? Or dishonest to pass off your blandness as youth when it is really inexcusable blandness?”
The Hand crawled his hands out of the kiddie pool and walked them towards the six pack of beers he had brought over. He kept his feet in the pool and stretched himself out almost onto his stomach, unwilling to move his feet from their spot in the pool. He managed to bring the bag of beers into the pool with him and Marjorie, pushing himself back up and dragging the bag along in a protracted backwards worm. He opened a beer for himself, aware of the grandeur of the moment and his athletic non-display. Finally he said, “Mark M is not dishonest enough.”
Bill laughed. “Yeah, you’re right—he’s not dishonest enough for me either.”
Marjorie said, "Yeah, yeah, I know where you guys are going, but I mean he is not honest in this core way—he has no idea who or what he is, or what he’s doing. It’s really scary.”
Bill got up from the picnic table and went over and drunkenly rubbed Marjorie's head and then sat back down. "Everything scares you, Margie."
"Not everything. Everyone."
The Hand went on for a while about how once Mark M was trying to talk to this lady DJ (lady DJ) and kept accidentally spilling beers on her albums—how it was so tedious that it could have been dishonest somehow. It was the type of logic you don’t want to pin to a Styrofoam board.
“Really Margie, it’s not funny to be afraid of everything.”
“Well maybe I'm not trying to be funny.”
“But why not? What are you going to be?”
“Bill gets afraid that I’ll become crazier than him and then he’ll have to take care of himself,” Marjorie said to the Hand.
“If you stop being funny, I guess crazy will do.”
“Crazy is a drag, Bill. You don’t want her to get crazy.”
“Okay, what if she can be a little crazy, sometimes funny—and fine, okay, a bit boring too?"
“Alright Bill, Let’s say a little crazy, sometimes funny, a bit boring and also sexually depraved.”
“No. Margie, The Hand wants to throw in a little sexual depravity. Do you think you should be sitting wet next to him?”
“No,” Marjorie said, getting out of the kiddie pool.
Marjorie walked away from the picnic table and the kiddie pool and the big oak tree that covered, like a laughing hyena, the whole backyard scene. She went into the kitchen and looked at some plates on the counter. Each plate was a different pattern and color and shape. They were stacked up uneasily due to their design discrepancies. Marjorie wasn’t thinking about the plates or the dishonest or the TOTALLY ALONE.
She was thinking about how her father had had a habit of repeating the last few words a person had said but intoning it as a question. A conversational style which is easy to fall for and totally without value. So if her mother had said to him that they were expected at her parent’s house, he would say “parent’s house?” or if she told her father that her home room teacher was a sadist with pants that sat too high on his hips, he would say “high on the hips?” And then it was “yes Dad, they are up above his waist.” “Above his waist?” “Yes, Dad, and I am not interested at all in current events.” “Current events?” and it would go on until whoever was speaking with him realized they had been duped yet again into believing they were conversing and gave up. As a kid Marjorie would sometimes count the exchanges one would engage in with her father before they became confused and gave up. For the most part he could deflect questions almost as handily with an “I suppose,” spoken either as a complete phrase or with a slowing down on the final “pose” and followed by a long pause suggesting that an answer would be forthcoming.
Bill never met her father. He was like cardboard or a Ford Taurus. Nobody knew what he was. He died when Marjorie was 25, too young to really have gained the compassion one gets from viewing their parent as simply another person. But maybe that was better. Marjorie was distinctly depressed by the mature act of viewing her mother as a person.
“Margie, come back out. The Hand has a kitten.”
Marjorie went outside to see The Hand holding a small kitten. It had immediately curled itself into the crook of his arm and fell asleep. Bill and The Hand looked like they were frozen. They were looking so lovingly at the small kitten.
After a few minutes Bill said, “You ought to call it Marjorie.”
And The Hand said, “No, I’m gonna call it Bill.” It was so tiny and it was named Bill.
The Hand said it again, directing this saying towards Marjorie who was standing between the kitchen door and the picnic table. “I'm gonna call it Bill.”
Marjorie said, “call it Bill?” and the falseness of the flat cheap joke made her feel like a cockatoo in a Holocaust survivor's New York City apartment.
Stephanie Barber is a writer and artist living in Baltimore.