“Take care of it,” he said, not looking up from his newspaper. At the sink, her hands loose in the steaming dishwater, she had not known she would accuse him. It had never happened before. “You could at least be there.” When he stood, he didn’t look in her direction; instead he rolled down each sleeve and rebuttoned the cuffs of his work shirt, precision and luxury, like a surgeon. Allen on the patch sewn to his pocket, right below Jiffylube, and she remembered hanging all five of his shirts Sunday morning, on the line he had rigged between the back step and the garage. Her grandmother had tried to teach her the importance of hanging a “good wash.” Essentials: match socks, gather colors near one another, all dishcloths together. Caroline had never paid attention, tossing the wet mess of shirts across the rope and moving on, assuming she brought other talents, other precision to relationships. But she suspected her grandmother, dead almost ten years, would disagree.
Allen returned after two. She was awake and unsure if it felt better with him again in the house, but he did not step down the hall to their room. In the morning she found hundred dollar bills on the table without a note; he knew she would follow through, end it like she had two times before. But the money was untouched that evening when he returned, expecting dinner.
“I made myself clear.”
She closed the refrigerator door, held onto the handle a moment before she turned.
“I know. I just can’t.” If he had lunged, she would have known how to react, but he walked around the table like he was coming to hug her or catch her for dance steps as he had done so many nights before. When his hands reached her throat and she felt her head hit the refrigerator door, it was a surprise. The calluses on his palms scratched the skin of her neck. She could see lines of tension across his forehead, down the sides of his mouth, but his eyes were glassed, distant, how he looked when they made love. Shoving her knee into his groin, she tried to search his eyes, finding only empty puddles. He went down with a small scream. And she ran. Two steps away she heard the noise of the hamburgers she had been frying and reached back to click off the burner. He was still on the linoleum, huddled and moaning with a quiet, steady cadence. She ran to the lettuce field. Her breathing slowed as she started down a row with the smell of earth and all those small, growing heads of green. This had been a place for her to walk from the first night they lived in the small house near the edge of Brewer’s Farm. Allen had warned her she was trespassing, but nobody had ever bothered with her, a woman moving slowly between the rows of growing things; she never stole anything or touched the plants, just watched as they worked their way up through the soil and grew until their leaves brushed her ankles as she passed.
Dark was near and the harvesting trucks were only a hundred feet away when she looked up from her feet and the endless spots of fading green in measured space around her. A truck larger than a pick-up with wooden slats for sides moved slowly down her row. She heard the dusty footfalls of men ending their workday. They shuffled on either side of the truck, the sheen of their knives barely visible, a silver flash in the small space of moon, like the snapping of a photo, then black again and the smack of a lettuce head dropped on the pile. Watching the silhouette of their movements, the space of their bodies a slight twist darker than the night, she thought of a puppet show, marionettes on the strings of God. How she hated the sense of everyone dancing, always dancing to some tune that could change in an instant. And then she tripped.
Smashing into the ground, she smelled earth, wet like raw meat. Her ankle hurt. She did not cry out, but patted the ground around her in a circle, searching for whatever made her fall. It was cool and round; she felt ridges as she grasped it, pulled herself to sitting and then cradled it in her arms. Iceberg lettuce, the size of a baby’s head; it must have fallen from the truck and been left behind. Brushing the dirt away, she worked her careful fingers along each wrinkle until she found the stem where it once connected to its roots and the earth.
Allen was not coming after her. It was the first thought of him she had allowed herself since moving into the rows. The tears no longer mattered, and she did not try to control her blurred vision as she sat rocking in the middle of the field. It would only have taken him a few minutes to stow his things. While she was too far away to hear the slam of his trunk, she imagined it, along with the red certainty of tail lights. Had he glanced in the rear view mirror? Was she worth that much after the four years they had shared? Being left was a thing she knew, a familiar pulse: one side of the bed undisturbed, a stillness leading to endless time in her head. Once the first days of paralysis passed, she would eat tomato soup at the stove or tuna fish straight from the can, no more evening meals of baked chicken and steamed broccoli, no more vegetables at all. She knew about meals for one.
Now the dirt felt cool as she dug into its thick, royal composition, its stillness and trust. She shifted onto her knees, urgent, afraid to stop; she flung the clumps behind her, then placed the head of lettuce in the hole her hands had made. She scrambled dirt up and around it, mounding, desperate. It was important to leave this tiny head safely back in the dirt, no matter what else happened. It belonged there; she felt comforted by this rescue. A clunk of metal and the creak of wheels sounded on her left. Voices too, calling near the end of the row. With a sputter, then steady swoosh, the sprinklers kicked on. Water tapped down rows, roving over leaves not yet ready to harvest. The lights of the truck blinked again, the brake released, the men continued on down the row in the dark she would pull herself through alone, for now.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with her husband and two teenage children. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including: Story, Mid-American Review, New Delta Review and The Baltimore Review. Her chapbook of poetry, "Noticing the Splash" was published by BoneWorld Press in 2010. She has work forthcoming in Gargoyle, Saranac Review, Split Lip Magazine, and other print and on-line journals. Samples of her work can be found at www.beth.konkoski.com.