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Michelle Rick

Next Time

I'm crying, I'm crying, I'm crying in my peas and carrots because the T.V is broken again and I didn't lose weight on my Hollywood juice diet and Martin's sperm didn't take and I drank by myself this afternoon. Kahlua and whole milk. I swore I wouldn't do that anymore.

"Next time," he says, swallowing a forkful.

He is talking about the baby of course, the one that won't come. I'm crying in my peas and carrots and getting fat on Kahlua and he's telling me about next time. He pats my hand which is lying flat and cold on the Formica table top. I know he means well, him and his optimism. But it's hard to find solace in a man with white cream sauce in the corner of his mouth.

"You have white cream sauce in the corner of your mouth."

He wipes the wrong corner.

"Gone?" he asks.

"Yes," I say, and he goes on eating, forkful after forkful.

I am watching him, the man I married, with his back to the door leading out to the yard, which leads out to the wild field beyond his line of vision; I am watching him and wondering how he goes on. I am wondering how he goes on when the door slams open. My insides drop to the floor as I jump up and push my plate away. Martin swings around.

"What the hell?"

A slight, bony shouldered man wearing a black ski mask, black turtleneck, black pants, black rubber soled basketball shoes stands before us. It is hard to tell what he is thinking because of the ski mask, but since he hesitates, I imagine he is confused, that he did not expect to find a husband with cream sauce on his mouth sitting across from an overweight housewife crying into her peas and carrots.

"Your phone!" he shouts.

"Over there," I point at the phone.

"Damn it," he says. "It's attached to the wall."

"Yes," I say.

"It's a rotary," he says.

"I know."

"Everyone's gone cordless, cordless and touch-tone," he says.

"Not us."

"Nobody even makes these rotary wall phones anymore."

"I'm sorry," I say.

"What are you, what are you doing apologizing to this, this hoodlum?" Martin asks.

The hoodlum reaches in his jacket, pulls out a pistol and waves it at Martin.

"Watch how you talk to the lady," the criminal says.

I fall back into my chair, in front of the peas and carrots. That chair feels like the only steady thing in this room, maybe even in the world.

"Hey, hey. Watch it now," Martin says, rising halfway from his seat. To himself, I'll bet he even sounds forceful and tough; he, my salvation, me, his damsel under duress.

"I don't think you are in a position to be making demands."

The strange man approaches Martin and holds the gun to his temple. Martin blanches. I imagine how cold that barrel must feel on his forehead, how like a cannon instead of the small weapon it is.

"It's just that, just that, your weapon could discharge." Martin's face muscles twitch, and the twitching escalates into spasms, small ones at first, then bigger through his neck and his shoulders, until his whole body is racked with them. Finally, unable to hold himself up anymore, Martin drops to the floor and crawls into the closest corner. I think this is my cue to go to him. Christ, I'll bet he's pooped his pants even, but he should have known better and kept his mouth shut in the first place.

The intruder turns to me. "Who is this fool?"

"My husband, Martin."

"Tell Martin I know how to handle my weapon and then tell him he's got cream sauce on his mouth."

"Alright," I say.

"You a good wife?" the masked man asks.

"I hope so."

"Because you should tell your husband 'bout things like that, not let him embarass himself in front of strangers."

"We weren't expecting anyone."

"Didn't your mother always tell you to be ready to welcome unexpected guests into your home?"

"Not criminals," Martin whispers.

"You shut up," the masked man says, swerving the gun in Martin's direction again.

Martin shuts up.

The masked man picks up the phone and dials just three numbers.

"I'm the man you're looking for," he says into the receiver.

He pauses. "What do you mean which one? How many men you looking for who just robbed the only bank in this one bank town?"

Another pause.

"Yes, I'll hold," he says. He turns to me, waves the gun at the fridge, "You got something to drink? A beer?"

"We have beer," I say.

I jump up too fast and get that dizzy feeling like the floor is rushing at me. The masked man grabs my elbow to steady me. The decency in the gesture, his touch, so unexpected, calms me, warms me.

"I'm all right," I say.

Hanging onto the table for support, I edge toward the refrigerator.

"Domestic or import?" I ask.

"Why, now we're talking. I'll take the import," he says.

But now I'm hanging onto the refrigerator door, not moving, my face immersed in the fluorescent glow, and I can't tell the milk from the cola from the devil's food cake from the ham sandwich from yesterday's meatloaf, and for the life of me I can't make out which of these abstract shapes is a beer bottle, import or not, but I won't cry, I won't cry.

"Why is she crying?" the masked man asks my husband.

I look at Martin. He is like a shriveled up raisin, frightened, a nobody, a nothing. He shrugs his shriveled shoulders.

"Don't you care why your own wife's crying?"

But Martin doesn't get a chance to answer because someone is on the line now talking to our visitor. I watch his hand grip the receiver tighter, the veins and tendons swelling with his speech, strong, terse.

"Hello, Officer. There is an armed intruder holding two people hostage at 555 Dale Drive. I believe he might be dangerous... Yes, I am that very gentleman." He smiles mischievously at me, like the clever boys I knew in high school. It's impossible not to return the smile. I remember Martin and turn to him. He has look of a man who just caught his wife doing unspeakable things with another man.

As the stranger continues to talk I snap to, find the beer, the bottle opener in the silverware drawer, pop the bottle open, drop the cap in the recycling bin and hand it to him.

"What a nice lady," he says, slugging from the bottle. The beer's half gone by the time he pulls it away from his lips. "Would be a damn shame if something bad happened to her."

As he continues to talk the sound of sirens approaches. I peek out the front window curtain. Police cars are grinding to a halt on our lawn, willy-nilly across the azaelia beds and freshly mown grass, and officers in hard vests are pouring out, their guns trained on us. The police lights cast a swirling, ceaseless glow across the kitchen walls. Static hisses from walkie-talkies, inaudible, jumbled voices crying commands, dispatched from some safe place where they don't want to mess up from because a thing like this doesn't happen every day, because a thing like this, if it goes wrong, could cost them their jobs. It could get grisly.

Our neighbors pour out of their houses and congregate on the blocked off street, whispering--Mrs. Annie Ardley, whose divorce papers came through yesterday, whispering to the Gradys, who just had their twins, whispering to little Thomas, fourteen now, who broke his sister's arm last week when she aggravated him over a misplaced shirt. There are more, many more, crawling out of their homes like aliens from pods, glad they're not us, but glad to be here to see it. A thing like this doesn't happen every day. It could get grisly.

A more official looking man than the other officers emerges from a car with his loudspeaker in hand. It's clear he's their leader because he's got the look of a guy who doesn't give a hoot. I let the curtain drop back into place.

"Mr. Urchin," he says at the house. "Wick Urchin."

"Is that your name?" I ask. "Wick Urchin?"

"No," he says. "But you can call me Urchin. That's what people sometimes call me."

"Okay, Urchin."

"It's not so bad yet, Mr. Urchin," the man outside says. "All you did was attempt--I stress, attempt-- to rob First Nationwide. It's a felony. I won't lie to you, but I can see here on your record, you're pretty clean. You can walk away from this."

"Don't believe him," Urchin says to me. "I've got a rap sheet longer.. I was gonna say longer than your husband's spine, but I can see..." He doesn't need to say the rest. He laughs.

I whirl around. Indeed, Martin has retreated to the kitchen corner by the stove, where he sits, arms wrapped around his knees rocking back and forth like he just got sprung from Sweet Meadows Asylum a month too soon.

"I'm Elizabeth," I tell Urchin.

"Elizabeth," he says, and I can see his eyes crinkling in a smile. "Like the queen."

And as he says it, I suddenly feel regal, and beautiful, the way I felt when I drank my Kahlua today and put on the Johnny Mathis record and my black lace bustier, the one with the imitation pearl decolletage, and ran my hands over my breasts as I watched myself, luxurious and spilling over, in the standing mirror. For a moment I'd thought maybe I'd fallen in love with myself. I was beautiful, but there hadn't been anyone there to see it.

"Like the queen," I say, falling in love with myself all over again, this time with someone here to see it.

The phone rings. Urchin picks it up.

"It's for you," he says, holding it out to Martin. But Martin simply shakes his head, unable to speak. I take the receiver.

"We're fine," I say in response to the policeman on the other end of the line. "But he's got a gun."

"I'm not frightened," I say, and again Urchin smiles. Somehow his approval fills me. I remember a line I read in the Bible, I think, a line so beautiful and poetic and unfathomable until now:

I am replete with the very thee.

I want him to feel as I do.

He fills me.

I return the phone to Urchin and wander into the pantry, with its narrow glassed-in shelves. My hand, I notice, is only trembling slightly now as I open the delicately frosted cabinet door, wisteria etching framing it. I am going to cook. A huge pot of soup. I've got chicken stock, and boullion cubes for flavor, and corn starch, and flour and potatoes to thicken it, and in the fridge there are nearly fresh vegetables from the green market--celery stalks--I'll still have to trim the leaves, and carrots, which need peeling, and scallions and sweet vidalia onions, and clove upon clove of garlic which need mincing. I'll make us a pot of soup, and fill the house with the smell of it, and watch it simmer with Urchin when he is not taking calls. When it's finished I'll pour a big bowl for him, and he can have as many more as he wants. And I will sit across from him as he eats my soup.

"What did I tell you?" Urchin booms from the kitchen, his voice escalating.

"It's true. I was born at night. But not last night, you incompetent---"

I hurry back toward the kitchen, my arms full with the bag of flour and boullion cubes and garlic vines and chicken stock but before I get there, there is a crack, like the world coming to an end, and the shattering of glass from the back window, and a thud, a thud so heavy and definite it must be true. And I see the sniper who's been lying in wait like a snake in the field out back, maybe waiting for me to get out of his eye-line--slithering out of the weeds, as a jumble of blue men flood my kitchen, their guns waving wildly in case they still have a target to shoot at. And then I see him, Urchin, on the floor, bleeding through the black turtleneck, his eyes still open, but no longer smiling.

I drop the food and the flour poofs across the front of my dress as it hits the floor. Urchin is still wearing his mask, but I don't wait to see what he looks like when they take it off.

An officer has thrown a blanket over Martin's shoulders. He is shaking, but not because he is cold. He opens his mouth as if he has something important to tell me. His words are nearly inaudible.

"Next time," he says.

But I barely hear him. All I hear is the crack of a gun, the thud of Urchin's body as it falls to the floor, the shattering of glass, the crush of policemen pushing through the door and scattering through this house, no longer my own, a legion of strangers splitting and dividing like cancerous cells. I don't know them, but I know what the crack of a gun sounds like, and I know how it sounds when a man gets killed. This is what they have given me.

I step over the spilled groceries and leave through the door Urchin came in from, out to the field, away from the commotion, the camera crews, and flashing lights, and neighbors, away from Martin who is probably too shaken up to notice that I've gone. I walk and I walk away from the smell of gunpowder and white cream sauce and the wind rises up and blows the flour off my dress like sand across dunes, and as I continue to walk west, wading through the knee high weeds, I notice that my abdomen is swelling, too subtle at first to be certain, and too obvious then not to be, and I notice, placing my hand on the firm, warm swell, that I just happen to be walking in the direction of the setting sun.

Michelle Rick was born and raised in Greenwich Village. She has a BA in fiction writing and literature from Northwestern and will begin her MFA courses in the fall. Her fiction will appear in an upcoming anthology entitled Summer's Love, Winter's Discontent, and until recently she worked as a story analyst covering books for various film companies including Jersey Films, Fine Line, Fox 2000, and Scott Rudin.


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