Retirement (excerpt)

(opening excerpt from a short story)
By Rachel Thomas

Caroline and Tom Canning had been married for forty-three years, that spring. They had been living for fifteen years on Shepherd's Island in northern Maine. Before that they had lived in a house in Chicago, before that a condo shared between two teaching families at a boarding school in Oklahoma, and even before that, when they were still in their twenties, in a tiny pest-infested apartment in Maryland. They had been living together since Caroline was twenty-four and Tom was twenty-seven, and there had been times when they had slept with windows open to let in the faint stirring of a breeze, entwined and near-naked under the sheets together. Those times were distant now, fuzzy memories with no root in their wrinkles.

The house in Maine was their "dream house". They had been one of the first families to move to the island, across the short one-lane causeway from the mainland and along the rutted dirt road to a plot of land facing out to the Atlantic. In the mornings, when there wasn't fog, two islands were visible in the distance. Sometimes an oil tanker was visible beyond that, a black smeared line that dragged across the edge of the horizon and vanished behind the Earth.

The island was now a very posh location, something that Tom viewed with pride and Caroline didn't think much about. The houses that grew up to surround Tom and Caroline's were expansive, covered in great panes of glass and surrounded by neat green lawns that stretched to the rocks of the shore. None of these houses looked like the Canning place, which had been built within the constraints of economics. Caroline and Tom were not poor. By modern standards, they were upper middle class. But Caroline could remember the time during the Second World War when she only had one piece of gum for days, how she would take it out of her mouth at night and stick it to her bedstead, and chew it from hard wood-flavored paste back into snapping softness every morning. Tom could remember when he first married Caroline, living in that apartment in Maryland that always had shiny black cockroaches under the fridge and ants in the stained space behind the gas stove. There had been a child on the way, their first daughter, and student loans still looming over him.

So when they built the house, even though they had over thirty years of savings and stock market successes to pull from, they built frugally. The house was two stories and an attic, one master bedroom, two full bathrooms and a half-bath, a kitchen, a living room, a dining room overlooking the ocean. Caroline got the attic, filled it with sewing supplies and an ancient desktop. Tom had an office, a new laptop every two years, and an exercise room. There was a floor or wall between them for most of every day, starting in that first year on Shepherd's Island and continuing through the next fourteen. Tom bought a satellite dish for his sixtieth birthday, and a wide screen TV, one for that sixtieth, in the fifth year on Shepherd's Island, and then a better one for his sixty-ninth, so that he could the Masters while peddling away on his stationary bicycle. Caroline bought a sewing machine, and then bought an older one at a garage sale, because the new plastic ones broke down much faster.

Tom began to run in the morning during their first year on Shepherd's Island. He had an image in his mind of old men with rolls of fat around their middles, and the image followed behind him as he worked his way through two-mile jogs, five-mile jogs, six miles and two hours on the stationary bike. He had always been thin but he became thinner and wiry, the wrinkles struggling to fold the few inches of excess skin around his long nose and elbows, and they found only one place to nest in force, around the crook in his spine where he had broken his back in a car accident. That had been during his first year of marriage to Caroline. She could still remember sitting in the hospital in Maryland two months before their daughter was born, clutching her round stomach with hands already calloused from typing. She had prayed that she wasn't going to become a widow.

Caroline used to massage the crooked place before they went to bed, but by the time they reached the house on Shepherd's Island she was usually asleep before Tom left the papers on his desk, first paperwork for his company and later, after he retired, papers from one of his many charitable committees. Caroline was sometimes vaguely aware of him humming to himself as he climbed into the bed beside her, but she never woke completely.

Tom and Caroline loved to sing. They used to sing to each other in the mornings, when they were driving to work or over breakfast. Even on Shepherd's Island they would sometimes listen to a favorite soundtrack and sing along, though more quietly then they once had. They loved singing showtunes best. Tom could remember all the words to all the songs, but Caroline could only remember the choruses in the later years on Shepherd's Island. When Tom sang his favorites from Gypsy or their favorite song "Shall We Dance?" from The King and I, she could feel the words floating in the spreading murky portions of her mind, just there beyond her grasp. She didn't mind that she couldn't remember the words, but Tom's face would go red and his tenor would become harsh and crooked when he skipped a verse or forgot a line.

They had taught their children to sing, but only their eldest daughter inherited the full force of their talent. Their son's sweet bird voice cracked when he hit puberty and his subsequent tenor sounded false. Their second daughter had always had a dusky voice; she had spent much of her youth in Oklahoma and had developed the drawling, blurring accent of the South so that when she sang she sounded like a country star hopeful.

But their first daughter had had a beautiful voice, so high and clear that not even Caroline, who was a soprano, could match her note for note. She had performed in one musical, a high school showing of The King and I, as the female lead Anna. This had been in Chicago. Tom and Caroline made time in their schedules and went to the show. They sat in the front row, in unpadded red plastic seats. They watched their daughter glide across the stage in a bell-shaped Victorian skirt, and raise her voice out of the mold-scented school auditorium and into the darkening sky above. Caroline had cried, and Tom's mind had filled with images of a Broadway star, the Canning name in lights.

The morning after the performance they slept late, as was their habit. The eldest daughter got her siblings out of bed and made them breakfast. Her brown hair frizzed out from a sensible braid, nothing like the high, gleaming bun she had worn the night before. Without makeup to hide them her eyes were weighed down with dark pouches as she tried to watch the sizzling pan, the clock, and her siblings. Caroline got up just in time to wave to them over her coffee as they left for school. Her son and younger daughter had waved back, but the eldest had been busy holding her siblings' hands. She never performed in another musical, filling her afternoons instead with a job at the local Dairy Queen and saving for college, even though the Dairy Queen uniform hung off her frame where the bell-shaped Victorian skirt had accentuated.

When Tom demanded to know why she never went to auditions, why she was wasting her talent, she'd said, "I'm too busy. You understand that."

Tom still dreamed about those words sometimes. They felt like a space, a void between his daughter and him, and the tone of them grew colder and more alien with each remembering.