When Mrs. Wedgeford’s husband passed—well, killed himself—she carried on with life as usual. Mrs. Wedgeford was honest with herself, even if she wasn’t honest with anyone else, and the simple fact was that her marriage had been languishing for quite a while. All of her friends smiled their heartsick smiles, patted her on the back, and said she was so brave. ‘Not really,’ she said, ‘I do it for Barry.’ It was astounding how consumed Barry had become by his father’s death, grieving to the point of debilitation. However, she would not go around keening and wailing. That would make her a terrible hypocrite. A hypocrite was one thing Mrs. Wedgeford could not abide.
On the anniversary of her husband’s death, Mrs. Wedgeford resolved to stay inside all day. She suspected that all of her morbid, dreary friends would be haunting the streets for the opportunity to ask her how she was holding up, and ‘oh, how she must miss poor Harry.’
It would take her a minute to catch on that they were alluding to Mr. Wedgeford, as she’d long since stopped regarding him as “Harry.” Not the portrait of their marriage she wished to paint.
She first woke that morning at half past seven. She hadn’t let herself have a lie in since becoming Mrs. Wedgeford. It was luxurious; the cool, crisp sheets hovered for a moment over her body as she raised and lowered her legs. Even the sunrise brightening the borders of the room could not encourage her to life.
The phone rang at 10:30. She rolled her back to the window. It rang again at 10:33, 10:43 and 11:07. She answered the last one, but the connection was broken before she said hello. Since she was already in the kitchen, she put the electric kettle on to boil, and slipped a piece of fresh baked sourdough into the toaster. A knock at the door interrupted her first bite, causing her to drip honey down the front of her dressing gown. Phones were one thing, Mrs. Wedgeford maintained, but a home without drawn curtains, that was another story.
There were two police officers there, looking distracted and ashamed.
“Mrs. Wedgeford, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your son, Barry-”
“What now?” Mrs. Wedgeford sighed.
“What are you accusing him of now? I have half a mind to file a harassment complaint.”
“No, Ma’am. He’s done nothing wrong,” the flustered officer said.
“Not this time at least,” the other mumbled.
Mrs. Wedgeford tried to close the door.
“Mrs. Wedgeford, this is about your son,” the other officer started. “Is there anyone with you? Would you like to call someone? I mean-”
The rude cop jumped in. “Mrs. Wedgeford, your son was found this morning. I’m very sorry. It appears to have been a suicide.”
“No, I’m afraid you’re wrong,” she said. “He’s coming to dinner this Sunday.”
“Ma’am, I’m very sorry. They will need you to come to the morgue. To identify his body. Here is a number to call.” He handed her a business card. “Is there someone you can call, Mrs. Wedgeford? Someone who could stay with you. I can wait until they get here if you like.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Mrs. Wedgeford pushed the door, but something was preventing it from closing. She stared down at the officer’s too solid foot. “Excuse me,” she said, and waited for him to step back before securing her house against further annoyance.
The police must have been on their way to another house to deliver the grim news, but they had plagued the Wedgefords so often over the years that they had, by habit, gravitated to her door. True, there had been a few mishaps with law enforcement in Barry’s youth, but nothing in the last six months. They arrested him once, when he was twenty-five, some kind of assault. However, that had been a misunderstanding. She trusted that the officers would recognize the error soon and would notify the correct mother. She empathized with her; she knew what it was to be blinded by truth and tragedy.
When Mr. Wedgeford killed himself, she had been the one to call the police. She had discovered him in her bedroom closet, no letter, no indication of a plan or purpose. That’s the way it happens, Mrs. Wedgeford thought. You tell people when your loved one dies- well, kills himself, not the other way around.
"Just a careless mistake," she muttered while rummaging through the refrigerator for Sunday’s dinner. It was Friday now, but she maintained that it was never too early to plan significant dinners. A man from the morgue kept calling. Should she be obligated to answer and explain when the police were at fault? Perhaps she would have Barry call when he arrived Sunday night. Mrs. Wedgeford chuckled at the idea. Barry loathed phones; he felt that they had brought about the erosion of authentic conversation.
“No one listens anymore,” he’d said, “they don’t have to look at you, so they’re just waiting on the other end for you to stop talking, thinking up what they’re going to say next.”
“I’m sure they just want to be courteous and hold up their end of the conversation,” Mrs. Wedgeford had said.
“You’re the worst one,” Barry directed back at her.
“Well, I am sure that is why you don’t call. Now I know.”
Barry had always been an insightful child. “The foundation of the problem,” he had always said, “without exception lies in one ordinary item: the internet, water bottles, microwaves, parking meters.” Mrs. Wedgeford disconnected the phone.
She occupied her Saturday by weeding the herb garden. That evening she prepared the marinade for the flank steaks she’d purchased Wednesday. She judged flank to be a very gristly cut, but found that if she marinated it a night in advance, it was quite tolerable. Barry wouldn’t object as his vegetarian affectation had passed with adolescence. Sunday morning she baked a pumpkin loaf, Barry’s favorite, and a quiche as well. Barry might take a notion to stay overnight. He never did, and she understood, but he had a fondness for quiche.
She had completed the meal by early evening, so she settled on the settee for a Lawrence Welk rerun; Barry was always there by the closing song. Tanya Falan was warbling a rendition of “Walking the Floors Over You.” She didn’t enjoy her, and wasn’t partial to the song, but what annoyed her above all was that the song did not suit the motif of the episode, which was “A Celebration of Transportation.” Nevertheless, she continued to watch; it passed the time waiting for dinner.
The cast came out to sing the finale.
Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you. Here’s a wish and prayer that every dream comes true.
They appeared to be singing in double-time. The show must have run over.
And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part. I know you’ll always remain in my heart.
She squinted through the drapes.
And now ‘til we meet again.
Mrs. Wedgeford turned off the television and went up to her room. She wasn’t sure when this had become a ritual for her, but she made sure that Barry left every dinner at her home with some remembrance of his childhood. In scouting her closet, she always found keepsakes she’d long considered lost. Once, she’d uncovered a choker that her mother had passed down to her on her sixteenth birthday. She didn’t care for the style. In truth, she had never worn it, but lighting upon it by such a fortuitous accident was cause for celebration.
The cleaning company had made short work of her closet. No one would ever suspect what she had found in there a year ago. Even she couldn’t picture it now. The prizes she had unearthed in these weekly treasure hunts had replaced those other images. Her shock replaced by the pleasure of finding the heel that had wrenched off her favorite mauve pumps. The stains and marks on the carpet obscured by a scattering of unpaid parking tickets.
She pulled down a stack of shoeboxes. This was Mr. Wedgeford’s practice, stockpiling all of her discarded shoeboxes for storage. She could never fathom what she might find buried inside these boxes. Before she could examine the contents of the first box, she heard a noise at the front door. She scuttled down the stairs to the den.
There were fluorescent yellow footprints leading across the rug to the icebox.
“Get out of the Frigidaire. You know I’ve made a huge dinner.” Her son stood up. He had never been a tall boy, just like his father. Not a dwarf by any means, but short for a man. However, behind the fridge door, he struck her as almost lanky, and Mrs. Wedgeford questioned her previous judgment of him.
She let her focus drift back to the footprints.
“Barry, for Christ’s sake! What did you do to the carpet?”
“Oh, that, yeah,” Barry peered over the door, salami dangling from his lips. “I took the commuter rail out of North Station and they were touching up the caution strip. Waste of paint if you ask me.”
“Thank Heavens I was blessed with only one child!”
The Wedgefords had expected to have a modest family, but they found themselves well into their forties and still childless. Mr. Wedgeford’s faculty holiday parties were dreadful. His colleagues always asked, and the Wedgefords had a slew of responses that they pulled out and dusted off each year. “Oh, when the time is right.” Or, “Once we pay off the new washer and dryer.” Most would claim to be jealous of the free time and spare income. Some would complement Mrs. Wedgeford’s figure. After one too many cocktails, Mr. Wedgeford would announce that their missing children were not for lack of trying. Then Mrs. Wedgeford would escort him home.
“Enough is enough,’ he’d said. “The money is just going to waste.” They would turn their nest egg into a down payment on a fishing cabin near Denison Lake. Mr. Wedgeford was a passionate angler, and had won several county tournaments.
Of course, she consented and was relieved, more or less. If anyone questioned her at the party this year, she would sidestep the subject and talk about the cabin. Mrs. Wedgeford had always prided herself on her ability to steer the course of a conversation.
Two days before the party, Mrs. Wedgeford came down with an unbearable flu. She wallowed in bed for an entire day. Her husband instructed her to see Dr. Mumpower.
“I don’t want to have to go alone,” he’d said. “Get some pills.”
The doctor confirmed that Mr. Wedgeford would have to retract his bid on the cabin. She was pleased with the turn of events, but could tell that her husband already felt entitled to his getaway. It was going to take more than a confirmed pregnancy to sway him.
“Either way,” she’d said, “the money won’t be wasted.”
When people asked that evening, she dropped hints while her husband ambled around, babbling about the cabin.
“It’ll be a real bachelor’s pad, I’m telling you.” He winked at the new Anthropology professor. “The wife doesn’t care about fishing; she’s got her own thing to keep her occupied.”
Mrs. Wedgeford weaved through the crowd, and whispered to him, “I’m a little woozy.” No response. “I can see myself home,” she said and fished the keys from his jacket pocket.
“Nice night for a stroll,” she said aloud. As she slinked away, one of the professors offered his congratulations. She beamed at her husband.
“Thank you,” she said, resting her hand on her stomach. “We think mid-September.”
“Wedgeford! I thought you said we could go fishing next month?”
“True to my word,” Mr. Wedgeford replied. “Signing papers tomorrow.”
“Either way,” the professor directed back to Mrs. Wedgeford, “it’ll be really great to get rid of this guy. Even if it is only for a weekend here and there.”
“I’ve always thought so,” Mrs. Wedgeford said.
Mr. Wedgeford relocated to the guest room soon after Barry was born. He was a colicky baby and couldn’t rest unless he curled next to his mother. Her husband promised that the guest room was where he would remain until she put the baby ‘back where he belonged.’ It was a sensible move. Each night he retreated to his own room, often as she placed dinner on the table. On the weekends, he would come out for breakfast and lunch. She eventually moved Barry to the nursery, but Mr. Wedgeford had put down roots. It seemed that having his own room was agreeing with him.
It wasn’t until she was alone that she noticed the silence. The trains no longer blew their horns at night; some noise ordinance passed to preserve the peace. She was accustomed to waking twice every night to soothe Mr. Wedgeford through the disturbance, rocking and shushing to keep him asleep. Once awake, he would spend the rest of night prowling the house. Her first night alone in the room, she woke in a panic at 9:59 and 11:04, bracing for the sound. Nothing. No sounds at all. Every night, even after his death, she would wake at 9:59 and 11:04, without fail, and feel the shudder of the house as the trains passed.
“I know what’s different,” Mrs. Wedgeford said to Barry. “You’ve shaved your goatee. So handsome.” She brought the pans of food out from under the warmer and placed them on the counter. “Why on earth did you do that?”
Barry paused with a slice of cheese halfway to his mouth. “Are you screwing with me? You’ve been giving me shit for years to get rid of it and now you’re upset?”
“I never! I just said you would be so good-looking with a chin.” Mrs. Wedgeford had once overheard Francine Baker gossiping with a new neighbor.
“Most people here are pretty nice,” Francine said. “But if I were you I would stay away from Mrs. Wedgeford’s son, especially with your young daughter. I heard he got a girl pregnant. A girl from Ayer. Nevertheless, even if that isn’t true, which I’m sure it is, at the very least he’s a thief. Stole the hood ornament off our new Honda.”
“I haven’t met the Wedgefords,” the new woman said.
“Oh, you’ll know him. Scraggly facial hair. Looks like a criminal.”
Mrs. Wedgeford never spoke of the disparagement to Francine. She wasn’t the kind of woman who would draw attention to an acquaintance’s gossipy nature. However, she did instruct her husband to purchase a suitable shaving kit as Christmas present for their son.
“You buy it for him if you’re so gung-ho,” Mr. Wedgeford had said.
“It isn’t an appropriate present from a mother.”
Barry was mistaken. They had never discussed his shaving.
Mrs. Wedgeford was ravenous, but Barry just nudged his food around.
“See,” Mrs. Wedgeford said, “you’ve ruined dinner with all your picking at the fridge.”
“On the train today,” he said. “I was talking to the conductor. You have to hear this. Amazing stuff.”
Train stories did not excite Mrs. Wedgeford. That had been something that Barry had shared with his father, a love of trains. A model, led by a Chesapeake and Ohio Allegheny steam locomotive, wound its way through Mr. Wedgeford’s room. He ate dinner by the side of the tracks, varying the routes and junctions while he chewed. One night, Barry saw the C&O running and rushed in to watch it chug around. His father wasted no time in buying a smaller version for his son.
“This is the Fast Flying Virginian. This train would run clear across the Blue Ridge.” His son didn’t seem impressed. No tracks. No towns to barrel through. “This is for kids. The others aren’t for you, understand?”
The day Mr. Wedgeford caught Barry in his room he gave the boy a fat lip. Mrs. Wedgeford had heard the commotion from downstairs. She reached the doorway in an instant, just in time to hear her husband tell Barry that “he wasn’t worth as much as these trains.” The room felt crowded, so Mrs. Wedgeford slipped away. She hadn’t witnessed Barry smashing his father’s engine, so she couldn’t say for sure how the accident occurred, but Mr. Wedgeford spent weeks gluing the pieces back together.
Neither of them came down to dinner that night, so Mrs. Wedgeford permitted herself to eat in front of the television, something she never allowed. All would be forgotten by morning. A night’s rest would do them good.
When she opened the door to her room, she saw Mr. Wedgeford perched on the edge of her bed. She flicked on the light, just to confirm that he wasn’t a shadow, but there he was, in the flesh. She was afraid to speak or breathe; he had been crying.
“He hates me, I know he does.” Mrs. Wedgeford sat next to him and placed her hand on his. It was thinner than she remembered. She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t true, but since she had never been a very good liar, she said nothing. He lingered that way, letting her hold his hand, for what couldn’t have been more than five minutes, but to Mrs. Wedgeford it felt like an entire night had passed before her husband made his way back down the hall to his room.
She should have known. Though it was years later when he began cramming all of his train tracks, collector’s models, and miniature whistles into shoeboxes labeled, “For Barry,” she should have realized. Then again, Mrs. Wedgeford had never put any faith in her intuition and couldn’t blame herself in hindsight.
“So if you ask me,” Barry said, “the whole problem centers on shoes.”
“I’m sorry, dear, what problem?”
“The suicide rate around the holidays.”
The holidays? Mrs. Wedgeford startled. It’s nowhere near the holidays. Of course it isn’t. So, there’s no need to concern ourselves with this matter. That satisfied her, and her sense of unease lifted.
“What are your plans for the holidays, Barry? Do you want to open gifts on Christmas Eve or the actual day?” Her son raced with his hypothesis.
“A lot of hard times get associated with shoes: not having any, not having the right ones, buying them for your kids, shining up before the big meeting, feeling comfortable in them. Huh? That one’s both physical and symbolic. So at the holidays, shoes, a constant worry- well- it’s just one more thing you can’t afford.”
“Why are we talking about this?” she asked.
“You really never listen, do you? The one shoe. I was telling you about the one shoe.”
“The one you got covered in paint.” She nodded toward the hallway. “Don’t worry; I’m sure I can get it out.”
“The conductor told me that when someone jumps in front of the train, when they find them, they’re always missing one shoe. It just substantiated my theory.”
“Are you ready for dessert?” she asked and began slicing the pumpkin loaf.
“Why do you think it’s just one?” Barry asked. “Cherokees would probably think it was the soul. They attend the deathbed, to bear witness to the soul’s escape, through the top of the head, I think. Huh? Maybe with the train’s impact the soul gets knocked out,” he slapped his palm on the counter in front of Mrs. Wedgeford, “instead of gracefully floating skyward.”
Mrs. Wedgeford couldn’t see the bread she was cutting; she was conjuring an image of her closet. An image of her closet with her husband slumped in it. She was trying to see his shoes. She couldn’t. For all she knew, he’d knotted them around his neck, or arranged them against the back wall, hidden behind her loafers and mules. Or, maybe one had been blown off, clear across the room. She could be vacuuming under the bed someday, and there it will be, one more image to rub out of her mind. More evidence of what only her son understood.
“What do you think?” Barry asked.
“I don’t think about these things,” Mrs. Wedgeford mumbled.
Mr. Wedgeford had worn the same pair of tan boat shoes for their entire marriage, so obstinate. He’d have them resoled whenever it was required and the grommets replaced every two years. She had told him that shoes weren’t that precious. She had even laughed. But he persisted, year after year, in taking them to the same cobbler, having them wrenched apart and stitched back together.
And why hadn’t he used his own closet? He had his closet, in his own room, where he kept his one pair of shoes that he loved so much that no amount of wear could convince him to let them go. Of course, that’s where they were. He wouldn’t have worn them. He wouldn’t have been able to have them there to witness his demise, knowing that the shoes had outlasted him.
She would give the shoes to Barry. She hesitated in her slicing for only a second. The knife slipped and cut her finger. “Damn,” she said. Something she never said. She wrapped a dishtowel around her hand.
“Let me see,” Barry said and took the towel away. “I don’t think it’s deep enough for stitches, but we should clean and bandage it to stave off infection. Oh, I guess I haven’t told you. I’ve decided to study medicine. Does that make you happy?”
“Whatever makes you happy, makes me happy, you know that.” She slid down the front of the cabinet to rest on the chilly tile floor. “I think the sight of blood is making me woozy.”
“I might settle down. Meet a nice girl, have a couple of kids. I saw a house down the street that’s for sale. Would that make you happy?”
“Whatever makes you happy…” Mrs. Wedgeford’s kitchen was whirling around her. She wasn’t pushing her son to get married much less asking him to live near her. She had only wanted him to be happy, happier than she had been. Barry had always been eager to please, but anxious and uncertain. She had seen this all along. The teachers hadn’t, which was why he’d never liked school. The other kids didn’t even try; how could he make friends? It was obvious that his own father wasn’t capable of-
Mrs. Wedgeford stopped herself there.
“Are you happy now that dad’s gone?” Barry asked. “Now that you only have yourself to take care of?”
“I never had to take care of your father. I took care of you; I worried about you.”
“Now, Mrs. Wedgeford, you shouldn’t lie.”
“I should get some ointment,” Mrs. Wedgeford said. She grabbed a cabinet handle to boost herself up; Barry did not step forward to help.
“You should. You have to take care of yourself now. Is it possible to smother yourself? Suffocate yourself with attention?”
“I’m going to go upstairs. You can start on the pumpkin loaf.”
“No, thanks. I’ve never really liked pumpkin.”
Mrs. Wedgeford was aiming for the bathroom, but she drifted into her room instead. She sunk into the bed and squeezed her throbbing finger. The shoebox was resting on her pillow just where she had abandoned it when Barry had arrived. It frightened her. Did she really used to enjoy this? Just throwing off lids and opening doors, no guarantees, no assurance that what she found inside would be harmless, that the revelation would not be heartbreak.
“It could be anything, Barry,” she yelled downstairs. “It could be the shaving kit your father bought you. It could be plastic tracks, metal tracks; heaven knows; I find those tracks everywhere. It could be a gun, Barry; it could be a gun. Or-” she whispered, “it could be a shoe. After all, it’s a shoebox isn’t it? So it could be a shoe.” She screamed again, “It could be two shoes, Barry, what would that mean?” She couldn’t stop laughing at herself. Shoes. Shoeboxes in every nook and cranny, stuffed into every inch of her closet. She had more boxes than shoes.
Her laughing fit was so frenzied that she only heard the last chime of the doorbell. She knew Barry wouldn’t be hospitable; he hated greeting guests, so she rushed downstairs to answer.
There was an officer there, not one she recognized. She wiped her eyes; she would never be able to convince him that these were tears of laughter, and she couldn’t have a total stranger presuming that she was distressed, especially if she was going to have to fend off further allegations against her son.
“Mrs. Wedgeford. I need to escort you to the hospital.”
She didn’t flinch. “I’m afraid this isn’t a good time for me.”
“I know this isn’t what you want for him. To be there, unclaimed.”
“Barry is a good boy.”
“I have no doubt that he was.” But he did doubt it, she recognized the way he wouldn’t meet her eyes. Everyone avoided her eyes where Barry was concerned. She crossed her heart and vowed that after she did this one thing, just to be free, she swore that it would be a cold day in hell before she would speak his name to another living soul.
Mrs. Wedgeford stepped onto the porch to join the officer. There was a heaviness to her arms. I’m getting old she thought, old and weary. No, it wasn’t age. It was the shoebox. She had carried it with her in the scramble to the door. If she took it back into the house, she knew she would be annoyed all over again at the marks on her carpet. It didn’t matter one bit to her that there were no prints on the front stoop or within view of the door. She had seen Barry’s left footprint tracking a route across her rug. He had meant well, taking the train all the way out from the city.
However, there was no way she could carry the box with her into the police car. The officer would assume she was senile, and Mrs. Wedgeford would not permit anyone to suspect that she wasn’t in perfect possession of her faculties. She cradled the box against her stomach, shushing and rocking. She had never been good at decisions. Mr. Wedgeford had made the decisions.
She fell into a rhythm, swaying there on the porch. As she listed from side to side, she felt a tremble rise up from the foundation of the house, surging through the soles of her feet. The unheard force of the 9:59 passing.