Richard K. Weems

The Book of Roger

Of course, near this tale’s end, the Book of Roger—that nar­ra­tive of third per­son lim­it­ed omniscience—is suf­fer­ing an unex­pect­ed twist, isn’t it, Roger?  Thus far, the tale of hard­work­ing, bring-home-the-bacon Roger and his dar­ling, qui­et Rhonda, who expe­ri­enced loss and more than their fair share of tur­bu­lent times in their ini­tial stages when their first child gave up the ghost while still in his mother’s womb.  But then came a suc­cess­ful birth and then anoth­er, a decade apart from each oth­er, and at long last there were lit­tle ones to fill the vacant crib and jig­gle the rat­tles from their pack­ag­ing.  Roger spent months on the road to ship cola; Rhonda kept house in Quakertown and worked short hours at Walgreen’s while Herman and Darrell went to school.  Roger sent cards and gifts on impor­tant hol­i­days.  Herman went straight into the Air Force after grad­u­a­tion (Mountain Home, ID), and hasn’t vis­it­ed once.  When Darrell was a senior in high school, Roger retired and used Rhonda’s sav­ings to close on a lit­tle house plopped into the cen­ter of an apple orchard in Beckett, NJ.  With Darrell now a frosh at Rutger’s, wasn’t the Book of Roger sup­posed to fade off into an unex­cit­ing res­o­lu­tion?: Roger rais­ing apples, Rhonda churn­ing apple but­ter, apple turnovers, baked apples with cin­na­mon, poached apple in a reduced port sauce, apple stuff­ing, etc., that the two would devour togeth­er in their kitchen and give to neigh­bors, Roger and Rhonda find­ing some rest and peace in their retire­ment and admir­ing the sun­set from their adja­cent rock­ers on the porch.  Even the tent cater­pil­lar infes­ta­tion didn’t present a hard­ship at first.  Sure, Roger fought a los­ing bat­tle: the hordes of sex lure traps over­flowed in sec­onds, as did the Vaseline-smeared tape gir­dles around all the trunks.  He emp­tied out at least a dozen tanks of Super BT as the ver­min wrig­gled through one slow, bile-filled death at a time, but the light rain of lar­vae drop­pings remained per­sis­tent and unabat­ed.  No rock­er-time to be had in that kind of rain.  So Roger called the local dis­trib­u­tor for a Sevin drop.  He gave them his Visa num­ber and sched­uled the duster for just after dawn on the 24th. The dis­trib­u­tor sent pam­phlets full of thanks and instructions—evacuation of the premis­es for 48 hours, includ­ing house­hold pets.  The day before those blessed chem­i­cals would come and wipe the orchard free of ver­min, Roger taped the win­dows shut and made reser­va­tions for two at the Highlander Inn.

And then Rhonda’s bomb, revis­ing the Book of Roger from its begin­ning.

Rhonda announced over din­ner the night before that she was leav­ing for her sister’s in Ohio and not com­ing back.  Rhonda explained in four hours of mono­logue while Roger stewed in con­fu­sion and silence that from her point of view this mar­riage end­ed when the first child was lost.  Herman and Darrell helped soft­en the blow, but the two of them were free, and the time had come for her to do the same.

This orchard nev­er inspired an ounce of hope or even a faint cor­re­la­tion to Eden in her, Roger. The gala apples came out sour and under­sized and went untouched, even when left for noth­ing in bas­kets by the road.  Rhonda went along with the loss of her sav­ings and the move to anoth­er state because Darrell had enough loss in leav­ing long­time friends behind, but she saw no rea­son to put up with her hus­band any longer.  She spoke at length in hopes that her hus­band would offer some expla­na­tions of his own and give her some insight into this man that she has seen as lit­tle more than a self-sus­tain­ing pack­age.  She nev­er delud­ed her­self into think­ing that her dear Roger was absent of emo­tion, but she spoke at length to give him one last chance to reveal those emo­tions to her, to pro­vide some kind of emo­tion­al “Hello, it’s me” and expose what he’d hid­den from her since she first knew him.  But that effort was a dis­mal fail­ure, and she has noth­ing left to offer now on the night that she is leav­ing except an occa­sion­al “Excuse me” when her (now) ex-hus­band hap­pens to be in her path while she and Darrell haul box­es out to her Volvo.  Roger, that hus­band of hers could offer some­thing more of a response than a dumb ges­ture dur­ing those uncom­fort­able moments.

Here is the full truth, Roger—Rhonda is tired of being the sole mem­ber of this mar­riage who is still upset over what was, in the Book of Roger, but an unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stance ages ago.  In the Book of Roger, the first child wasn’t worth all of Rhonda’s tears because it was nev­er even born and so could not have died.  According to the doc­tors, the fetus had been lost, like a pair of glass­es, so Roger nev­er both­ered to notice how much Rhonda had recon­struct­ed her life around the expec­ta­tion of hav­ing a child to care for.  Rhonda had even named him, Roger, and she had named the child after his father, so imag­ine how she felt when Roger, Jr. was buried and Roger, Sr. nev­er vis­it­ed the site.  Roger, Sr. nev­er rec­og­nized his title or his duties of father­hood to his name­sake and instead went back on the road and thought that doing so was pro­vid­ing for his wife, since there were hos­pi­tal bills and funer­al expens­es to make good on.  And Rhonda had to deal with her grief and aban­don­ment and vac­u­ous home all on her own.  Face it, Roger—Roger, Sr. has been too much a wan­der­er in his own life.  Might as well call him Ishmael—a naïve man look­ing for a ship to sail, not notic­ing the dan­gers of the crew around him, or the use­less­ness of his mis­sion.

Put the evi­dence togeth­er, Roger: Rhonda’s aloof­ness, both in con­ver­sa­tion and bed, for a decade and a half before she would agree to get preg­nant again; her tears when she looked at lit­tle, squirm­ing Herman; her insis­tence that the child sleep in bed with mom and dad, even when dad was fresh off the road and hadn’t been with his wife in months.  The chil­dren became per­fect excus­es to avoid all rela­tions with her hus­band.  Wasn’t it obvi­ous that she was more ani­mat­ed with Herman and Darrell than she ever was when alone with the man she had mar­ried?  She has been more at ease with that grave­stone than at home—of course she has vis­it­ed it, Roger.  Even when Roger, Sr. blew Rhonda’s sav­ings on a house and orchard to fol­low some sud­den wish to be an apple-farmer, shut­tling Rhonda and Darrell out there with him, Rhonda crossed the riv­er and up 276 to vis­it that grave when she said that she was going down the shore on a bus with oth­er retirees to feed quar­ters into slot machines.  She con­fid­ed in her unshared unhap­pi­ness to that chis­eled slab of mar­ble, and soon she found anoth­er will­ing audi­ence mem­ber in the third fruit of her womb, blonde and bright-faced Darrell.  While Roger, Sr. labored in the orchard, Rhonda told her son about his lost old­er broth­er and the empti­ness of her mar­riage, and when Darrell left for col­lege, he knew bet­ter than his own dad about the future of this mar­riage, and he knew whose side he was going to stand on.  Now back to help his moth­er move out her things, he takes plea­sure in his father’s bro­ken-back stance and loss for words when­ev­er he finds him­self in Rhonda’s path.  Herman is as much a lost cause as Roger, Jr. for support—he request­ed assign­ment in Idaho because he want­ed a good excuse to nev­er come home again and to avoid keep­ing in touch with a sin­gle soul who shared his sur­name.  Roger, Sr. cre­at­ed kin that are as dis­tant from him as galax­ies, rela­tions that bar­rel down­riv­er from him as fast as the laws of momen­tum will allow.

So it goes, Roger.  This is how the books ends.  Rhonda leaves with Darrell and a trun­k­load of her things (all that she would ever want to remind her of her mar­ried life), and when the night starts eas­ing up in the east, Roger, Sr. finds him­self alone, all alone.  He tears open all the win­dows that he had tak­en such time to seal and mans his rock­er on the front porch, the front door wide open.  He is not going to leave.  This house, this orchard, was to be his gift to his wife and chil­dren, and even if none of them want anoth­er thing to do with him for the rest of their lives, he is going to cleanse it of this plague for them.  When he sees the duster zoom past to case the drop area, he notes with what glare it reflects the morn­ing beams.  The sin­gle-prop craft shines with as much bril­liance as the DDT truck did, the one that used to dri­ve through lit­tle Roger, Sr.’s neigh­bor­hood, its rear appa­ra­tus atom­iz­ing that pre­cious chem­i­cal that was at the time the sav­ior of mankind, able to kill all the mali­cious insects and germs in the whole world.  Little Roger, Sr. and his friends ran behind the truck and breathed in lung­fuls of the stuff.  It was the clean­est smell in the world, wasn’t it, Roger?   And when the duster lets loose its goods, the cloud of Sevin hangs in the air like an amor­phous para­troop­er.  Imagine being in the midst of that cloud, Roger.  Imagine waft­ing down to oblit­er­ate the infes­ta­tion in those trees.  That cloud is the shape of a last stab at hope, Roger, and it is as lethal as hope has proven.  Wish for no sud­den change of wind speed or cur­rent.  Let the cloud go where it has to.  Continue this course.  Accept this dread­ful end.

~

Richard K. Weems (www.weemsnet.net) is the author of Anything He Wants, win­ner of the Spire Fiction Award and final­ist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, as well as the Cheap Stories eBook series, avail­able at AmazonBarnes & Noble and iBooks.  He is a reg­u­lar fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway (www.wintergetaway.com).  Thanks go to Melissa Loewinger for mak­ing this sto­ry hap­pen.