Erin Armstrong

How We Conserve

Richard Todd’s wife wasn’t the same woman he had mar­ried by the time he was forty-sev­en. She was changed in so many small, and large, ways that he wasn’t sure what he lived with. The lat­est change was her sud­den desire that they both save water—“No show­ers unless nec­es­sary, Richard. Think of the plan­et a lit­tle bit.” He was lis­ten­ing to her now, try­ing to wash her hair in the kitchen sink, cussing at the hose that wouldn’t stretch as far as she want­ed it to.

Richard!” she called out, voice break­ing at the end of his name, “Help me, please.”

He cracked his knuck­les as he stood and felt the var­i­ous pops of age make them­selves known. He had thought they were too old for this kind of change by now.

Maybe if you’d just take a show­er like a nor­mal per­son this wouldn’t hap­pen every oth­er damn day.” He said as he leaned against the doorway.

Donna had suds trail­ing to her elbows, shirt shucked off to avoid soak­ing it. Her white cot­ton bra was almost sheer over her left breast, red nip­ple strain­ing against the soft mate­r­i­al, where water ran from her sop­ping hair, down her neck and chest, to the top of her pants. Her gray­ing blonde curls were gath­ered in her fists, and she looked so aggra­vat­ed Richard smiled before he could stop it.

Stop stand­ing over there like a fool and help me.” Her brows were drawn down and the wrin­kle between them seemed deep­er, more than last week. A trail of soap slid down her fore­head and set­tled in the curves of her creases.

Hurry up before it gets in my eye.”

Richard moved close to her and wiped the suds away with his thumb, smil­ing. “Lean over, sweet­heart,” he said, still rub­bing her skin, “let’s get you sort­ed out.”

He took the mass of her hair from her hands, his fin­gers brush­ing hers as her hands fell away, and began to let the warm water wash away the white that could disappear.

I’ve always loved your hair.” He said in a low voice, not sure if she would be able to hear him, not sure if he want­ed her to.

Donna said noth­ing and Richard let the moment stretch. He remem­bered the first time he saw her, her blonde curls had been piled on top of her hair in a bun, and she had a cig­a­rette between her lips, shoot­ing pool in a hazy bar.

Was it Rudy’s? He couldn’t remem­ber, but he remem­bered her. She was pret­ty in a good-girl sort of way, which was why he talked to her in the first place. The sur­round­ings didn’t match her look.

Leaned over the sink didn’t real­ly seem to fit her either, but Donna still snuck a smoke after a few glass­es of wine, so maybe he was wrong again.

She shift­ed, rub­bing her bot­tom against him as she did, and he watched the small of her back dip. They hadn’t had sex in almost a year. He rest­ed a hand along the crest of a hip and rubbed the soft skin with fad­ed stretch marks.

Don’t even think about it.” Donna said, spit­ting out water, still hid­den by her wet hair.

Richard sighed and pat­ted her side.

Yeah, yeah.”

Donna surged up and hit Richard in the face with her hair as she turned.

Why is it always about sex? Why does it always have to be about sex?”

Richard bit back a snap. He didn’t want to fight, and it seemed she did. Another one of the ways she had changed. Quick to anger, quick to fight, quick to tell him, “Well if that’s how you real­ly feel then why don’t you just leave?”

Here,” he said, mov­ing towards his wife with his hands up, “You’ve still got some suds on your cheek.”

Donna wrung out her hair and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.

No wor­ries.” She said, grab­bing her tow­el and wrap­ping it around her head. She left the kitchen and Richard stood there for a few moments.


There was a pic­ture of their daugh­ter, Deirdre, when she was six in the box beneath the TV stand. Donna threw her a birth­day par­ty at the zoo. She was stand­ing on the rail­ing of the seal enclo­sure look­ing too con­tem­pla­tive for her age. Dee had choco­late around her mouth, peel­ing off at the corners.

Daddy,” she’d said, “The polar bear was green.”

He had laughed and told her it was some­thing that hap­pens when it’s too warm.

She’d just leaned her elbows against the rail­ing and stared at the seals swim­ming around.

You know every­thing.” She said a few min­utes later.


Richard walked down the hall­way towards their bed­room. When he got to the door he heard Donna’s rough exhale and the mur­mur of her chest as she let out an ugly cry. He rest­ed his fore­head against the door and grasped the han­dle. He wasn’t sure he would be wel­come right now, and he didn’t know what he would say any­ways. He opened his mouth and closed it, then his eyes, shoul­ders sagging.

He wiped his face and moved back towards the den.

He was try­ing to think of how to describe the dust par­ti­cles to his wife lat­er but he couldn’t think of any­thing oth­er than dance, and he doubt­ed she’d be very impressed with that. He wasn’t sure she’d care if he found a bet­ter way to describe it.

He grabbed his fore­head and rest­ed his elbows on his crossed legs.

They were over–– he knew this–– he just couldn’t fig­ure out why. He had a feel­ing it had to do with Dee. Everyone knew, he thinks at least.

These things happen.
            1 in 3, Richard. 1 in 3.
            Just let her cry it out.
            Give it time. Time heals all wounds. Even Donna’s.
I’ll pray for you both. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:13.
I know this is hard on you both, but you’ll get through.
No one knows why God works like this, just trust him.
You need to be strong for her.
How is Donna doing? Is she any better?
Is she eating? Tell her I’m bringing her by a casserole.
I haven’t seen you both in a while, are you two coping?
We missed Donna at Vegas Night, tell her we’re thinking of her.
Maybe you should go see someone.
Deirdre was a lovely girl, Richard. I know Donna is heartbroken.
You’ve lost some weight. It looks good.

Donna had all the sym­pa­thy cards lined up on the fire­place, hid­den behind Christmas gar­land with big, per­fect, red bows and one small lop­sided one in the mid­dle. Richard hasn’t tak­en it down. He’s not sure Donna could han­dle it. He isn’t sure.


Richard was fry­ing pork chops when Donna final­ly came out of her room. Her hair was dry now, but he could see where her hands had been run­ning through it while it was still wet. Her eyes weren’t puffy any­more, but they were still pink, like her nose and cheeks and lips. He looked away after that, at the elec­tric green num­bers on the stove. Three hours today, bet­ter than last week. The oil kept pop­ping, and it was loud in their silence.

I’m try­ing.”

Donna’s voice broke the qui­et. Richard nod­ded and flipped the cook­ing meat with a fork.

I know you are, sweetheart.”

He knew she was stand­ing in the door­way still, wait­ing for him to say some­thing else. He didn’t know how to speak to her any­more. It was worse than when they were dat­ing. At least then he’d been pret­ty cer­tain that she liked him. He was pret­ty cer­tain it wasn’t that anymore.

Supper will be ready shortly.”

Donna came up and wrapped her arms around his waist, push­ing her face into his t‑shirt. Richard could feel the push of her breasts against his back and clasped onto one of her arms. She was trem­bling and he could hear it in her breath.

I love you.” She whis­pered as she turned her head, press­ing her cheek to his shoul­der blades.

Richard gripped her arm tighter for a moment and rubbed small cir­cles inside her wrist. He cleared his throat and moved out of her embrace.

I’m going to go check on the gar­den, check the fences. You know, deer have been get­ting all of our water­mel­ons this year.”

He looked at her in their tiny kitchen, stand­ing there in a night­gown with stains from a decade ago.

He moved for­wards and pressed his lips to her fore­head for a long moment.

Thank you.”

Donna’s hands came up, one grip­ping his shoul­der, the oth­er in his hair.

Richard pulled her to his chest and kissed her fore­head three more times, but didn’t move down.

We can get through this, can’t we?”

He was just think­ing that, and she said it. He didn’t know, maybe they could. He wasn’t going to answer.


Dee was in the gar­den with Richard, pulling weeds from around the small patch she declared was hers.

Daddy, what’s Mom doing?” She had dirt cov­er­ing her face, smudged into mud with the sweat on her face from the July sun.

Richard wiped his neck with his ban­dana and tucked it in the back of his pocket.

Your mom has a headache, she’s inside tak­ing a nap.”

Dee nod­ded and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand, hands com­ing to rest on her hips.

I’m going to grow strawberries.”

Richard smiled and leaned against his shovel.

That sounds like an excel­lent plan, can I give you some advice though?”

Dee tilt­ed her head and pursed her lips. She stared at his face for a few sec­onds and then nod­ded slow­ly. Richard crouched down in front of her and point­ed up.

Strawberries like a lot of direct sun, and we’re in the mid­dle of the woods.”

Dee rubbed her chin and Richard knew she didn’t real­ly get it, visions of straw­ber­ry fields were still in her eyes.

How about this, how about we plant some corn in the rest of the gar­den and talk more about it. What do you say?”

Dee looked towards her lit­tle plot and then back at him. She chewed her fin­ger­nail and nodded.


Richard hand­ed her the seeds and watched her face scrunch up. The lit­tle red seeds weren’t what she was expect­ing. He laughed when she noticed her stained fin­gers and wiped them on her pants.

Your mom is going to kill me.”

Dee grinned and dug anoth­er hole the depth of her first lit­tle finger.


We have a pret­ty good gar­den, huh?” Dee said lat­er, stand­ing next to him in the car­port, star­ing out across the yard to the garden.

Richard laid his arm across her shoul­ders and pulled her to his side.

It’s not half bad.”


He stood in the mid­dle of the gar­den, arms clasped behind his neck. The deer had got­ten the water­mel­ons. The rab­bits ate all the col­lards. He closed his eyes and breathed in, out, in, out, in

FUCK!” He threw his shov­el into the emp­ty water­mel­on vines.

He start­ed pulling the emp­ty vines out of the ground throw­ing them to the side, yelling every swear he knew, and “please” kept com­ing out but he wasn’t sure what he meant.

Fuck.” He cov­ered his face and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, hard.


What are you doing out here?” Donna called out. She was stand­ing on the car­port, lean­ing against one of the poles on the edge.


Richard spit on the ground and wiped his eyes between his thumb and pointer.

Don’t wor­ry about it, sweet­heart. Damn deer just got all the water­mel­ons this season.”


Donna stared at him for a while with her arms across her chest and head tilt­ed. She looked so much like Dee he had the urge to hit something.

Okay. Come inside soon, you look crazy and sup­per is get­ting cold.”

Richard laughed and clasped his hands across his neck again.

Well, you knew that already. I mar­ried you after all.”

Donna flicked him her mid­dle fin­ger and turned to go back inside.

Richard leaned his head back and breathed in. Honeysuckle. Late wis­te­ria. Magnolia.

Dee knew Magnolia’s were Donna’s favorite. She tried to pick one every year with­out let­ting it go brown.

She nev­er did.


Richard walked inside and shucked his gar­den shoes off by the back­door. The tele­vi­sion was on in the den and Donna was perched on the edge of the couch, pick­ing at her food and watch­ing crime shows.

It’s the broth­er.” He said, head­ing into the kitchen to fix his plate. The smell of fried pork fat was turn­ing his stom­ach in a way that made his mouth water half an hour ago.

You don’t even know what’s hap­pen­ing!” Donna called back from the oth­er room.

Richard set his plate down and went to sit with his wife and her hor­ri­ble television.

You’re right about that, but it’s always the brother.”

Donna threw a pil­low in his direction.

You’re think­ing of the but­ler.”

Richard shrugged, “Him too.”


They watched tele­vi­sion for a while, and Donna made a few com­ments every now and then, but oth­er­wise, they were qui­et. Richard watched the way her fin­gers played with the clasp of her neck­lace and how stray pieces of hair were com­ing down from her bun.


Donna caught him star­ing and gave him a smile he hadn’t seen in near­ly a year. He leaned toward her and grabbed her jaw with his hand, kiss­ing her.


Donna pushed him away, and cov­ered her face.

God!” She cried, “It’s always about sex with you. Everything is sex!”

Richard held up his hands and stood up.

You know, when you decide you remem­ber what you want, let me know.”

Donna laughed, the sound gur­gling in her chest.

Real nice, Richard. Turn this back around on me.”

He didn’t have a response for that.


Dee was on the phone with Donna, yelling at her about some beach trip.

I don’t see why you’re mak­ing a big deal about this! Hannah’s mom will be there. Dad already told me I could go.”

Richard glared at his daugh­ter and she mouthed ‘sor­ry’ to him and rolled her eyes at the phone.

Sure,” she said into the phone and hand­ed it over to him, “here. Mom wants to talk to you.”

Hey, sweet­heart.”

Donna began scream­ing about the news sto­ries of girls going miss­ing and every worst case sce­nario she could come up with.

I know. I know. Yes, I know. Listen, she’s eigh­teen years old. She’s going to do what she wants.”


When he hung up the phone Dee was star­ing at him expectantly.

Your mom says she needs to speak with Hannah’s mom, but you can go.”

Dee smiled and flung her arms around his neck.

Thank you! Thank you! I have to go call Hannah!”

Richard shook his head and called out, “I need the inter­net in a lit­tle while so don’t stay on for too long.”

Dee yelled her okay from her bedroom.


I’m going to go away for a few days.” Donna announced the next morning.

Richard stared at her and sipped his coffee.

With the girls?” He final­ly asked. Donna nod­ded and pulled her bag’s strap high­er up on her shoulder.

I just,” she began and cov­ered her mouth with her hand. “I just can’t deal with this house right now.”

You mean me, Richard want­ed to say. Instead, he stood and moved towards her with his arms open.

She looked like she was about to object, but then moved to him.

He cra­dled her to his chest and kissed the top of her head.

Make sure you take a real show­er when you get to where you’re going.”

Donna hit him light­ly in the stom­ach with the back of her hand.

Jerk.” Her lips moved for a moment in a way that would have been a smile. “I’ll be back in a few days.”

She looked like want­ed to say some­thing else, but she didn’t.


When she was gone, Richard cracked his knuck­les and got anoth­er cup of cof­fee. He watched the news, cleaned the kitchen, worked in the gar­den. He didn’t notice the difference.


When he came in from the gar­den he smelled like a man who hadn’t show­ered in a week. It was pret­ty close.

I can show­er, he thought. I can take a shower.


He let the water go as hot as it could, until his skin was pink, and then red, and then he let it run over his hair and face. Donna would kill him.

He spit out a mouth­ful of water and soaped up his body. He grabbed a hand­ful of con­di­tion­er and wrapped his fist around himself.

Donna was wrong. Everything wasn’t about sex, but some of it was. He leaned his head against his arm on the wall and tried to think about his wife. The only Donna he could pic­ture that lin­gered in his mind was smok­ing in a shit­ty lit­tle pool hall. He came with a grunt, surprised.

He soaped up again and washed off, watch­ing the water cir­cle the drain. He almost want­ed to stay in there even longer. His fin­gers had pruned now, though.


He pulled the tow­el around his waist and wiped his face with the hand tow­el Donna said was for decoration.

When he looked up he saw some­thing on the win­dow through the steam he hadn’t before. On the glass, in hand­writ­ing that made his intestines give a lurch, was a mes­sage from Dee.


<3 you mom and dad


It was fad­ing. There were drips of con­den­sa­tion already eras­ing the heart.

Richard cov­ered his face with his tow­el and sat on the edge of the toi­let seat.


He could cov­er it with his own fin­gers if he want­ed to. He could re-write the mes­sage. Theoretically, he could make it last forever.

Donna would nev­er for­give him. This mes­sage is from Dee, from Dee’s fin­gers. It wouldn’t be the same.


Richard real­izes he’s shak­ing his head and stops.

Those words will be gone by December.

Donna will be gone by December.

He’s not sure how he knows it, but Richard knows his wife well enough to know. She’ll take it as a sign.


He sat there for a while longer, until the drops on his skin went icy, then dried.


He turns the show­er back on as hot as it will go when he can’t see ‘dad’ scrawled in her quick, play­ful swirls anymore.


The room fills with more steam and he watch­es as her lit­tle love note reappears.


Maybe, he lets out some kind of ani­mal noise, maybe he should erase it.


Donna is gone. Donna will be gone. The mes­sage will be gone.


Dee was vis­it­ing for Christmas. Donna had gone all out in a way she hadn’t in years, since Dee had been small.

Dee!” Donna yelled from the porch and ran to hug their daughter.

Dee had a bag strapped to her back and raised a tired hand in greet­ing to Richard while Donna squeezed her.

Richard gave her a hug when she final­ly walked up the porch steps.

Merry Christmas, wel­come home.”

Dee smiled and ran a hand through her hair.

Ugh. Sorry. Airplane skin. I’m going to go take a show­er. We’ll watch a movie after.”

Sounds good. Go scrub up.”

Dee laughed, “God, I’ve missed this place.”

Donna had her arm around Richard’s back, lean­ing against his shoulder.

It’s not half bad, I guess.”


He’s not sure he could han­dle it. He isn’t sure.

He sees a girl with a Marlboro hang­ing out one side of her mouth.

What’s your name?” He asks, mes­mer­ized by the blonde curls piled on top of her head. She’s wear­ing blood red lip­stick that splits to reveal small white teeth.

What’s it to you?”

Richard shrugs, “Don’t know yet.”

The girl laughs and puts out her cigarette.


Erin Armstrong is an MFA can­di­date at CU-Boulder. Her works are upcom­ing in or have been pub­lished in Haunted Waters Press, SmokeLong Quarterly, A‑Minor, and Banango Street.