You Get Used to Things

by Jane Meyerding

Published in Thema, Vol. 1, No.3 (Spring 1989)

Reginald stood too close to the edge. As usual. She'd given up telling him so, because it just didn't do any good. "Stuff and nonsense," he'd say. "Don't take on so, Emmy." And as long as she didn't say it, his standing there could be just his way, instead of a deliberate attempt to rile her. So she stood there silent, back a good distance, and looked out at the sky. It was blue. As usual.

"Would ya lookit that!" her husband exclaimed. "Ain't that somethin'! Can't say as how there's anything like that back in Marshfield, can you now, Emmy?"

She looked out and saw the sky. Blue, as usual in July. If she looked a bit to the left she saw her husband Reginald -- Reggie, to his friends back in Marshfield, Indiana -- wearing size 44W jeans and a white XXL Sears tee shirt. "This is gonna be a no-suit trip, Emmy," he'd declared. "In fact, now I'm retired I may never wear a suit and tie again till they plant me in the ground. A man my age's got a right to relax, after 45 years in Mr. Harry High-and-Mighty Tilson's new and used appliance store. Tell you what, old girl, if my suit don't fit me then," he threw it down on the bed, haw haw haw, "you just have 'em run me up one of those backless kind like undertakers do. Ain't nobody gonna mind a bare bottom where I'll be goin'." Haw haw haw.

"Can't hardly get that suit on you now, Reginald Stover," she told him silently. "Fat as you've got." And she did not see one blessed thing she couldn't of seen in Marshfield.

* *

You get used to things in 45 years. Even though they change as the years pass and the children grow, you get used to things and the way they change. Slowly and all of a piece, it seems. There's only one Fourth of July in a year, but out of the 45 of them there isn't much to choose. Sometimes you're pregnant, and then you fight down the sick in your throat as you pack the cold fried chicken legs and the potato salad for the picnic. Other times, a daughter is pregnant and you get to baby her again, shading her and saying, "No, you just stay quiet, honey, and let your momma make herself useful for once." And everybody smiles and you float on their appreciation like a leaf rocking in the little bit of breeze that can't quite ruffle the surface of the pond.

Life is good. Good neighbors, mostly, good children, and Reginald up every weekday at six, puts on his suit, eats his breakfast, goes off to work for Mr. Tilson. Every few years the suit gets a little bigger and his evenings out at the bowling alley or with the boys at Annie's Cafe get whittled down to two a week, or to one. He says he's tired, but he's no trouble with it, just sits with the television mostly, or falls asleep. Once or twice a year he gets the notion he'd like to get some project going in the basement again, like he used to do when Tim and Will were boys. That's kind of tiresome for a while; it always was. But, "a man can't work all the time," he'd say finally, sounding a touch puzzled, she thinks, as he sinks into his chair and lets go the idea of a new end table or the broken lamp so easily repaired. "A man's got to get some rest," he'd say. "A man's got to get some rest in this world."

* *

The week before he retired he said to her in the morning, "We're gonna take a trip, Emmy. Soon as I retire, we're gonna take a trip." The egg sat plump and greasy on the spatula for a few seconds while she took in what he'd said, and then it flipped face down in the hot frying pan for just no more than a minute, just to firm it up a bit. Just the way he likes it. When she turned to slide the egg onto the plate set in front of him at the table, she could see he was relieved to have said it.

"We could go over to Lafayette," she said, considering. "See Ellen and little Bobby." I could take her some of my strawberry jam, she thought, pleased with the idea. Her youngest daughter had a good marriage now, and the kids were coming along fine, really fine, but Ellen'd never been one to spend much time in the kitchen. And there's no two ways about it, storebought jam is never the same. It can't be. Stands to reason.

But, "No," said Reginald. "No, I mean a real trip, not a visit. A. . .you know, a trip somewheres else."

He sounded excited, and she looked at him in mild surprise as he forked a chunk of toast and egg into his mouth. When he glanced up at her as she stood there by the stove, spatula still in her hand, he ducked his head right down again and his ruddy face glowed a deeper red.

"A trip," she said, trying to understand.

He focused his eyes on the salt cellar. "I thought maybe" -- a deep breath -- "Wyoming." Again a quick peek at her face. "Or. . .Colorado. Or. . .oh, maybe New Mexico."

She leaned back against the stove. "What for?" she asked.

The salt cellar rocked back and forth in his hand as he said, "Well, to celebrate, I guess. To make a change. Not every day a guy retires after 45 years, fer Chrissake."

She frowned at his language and turned to carry the frying pan to the sink.

"Gotta run," he said. As usual. "We can talk about it this evenin'."

* *

Of course they didn't, though. Talking was something they'd never practiced much together. For both of them it came easier with other people, with friends, with the children and the grandchildren. Reginald brought home handfuls of maps from his buddy George down at the 76 station. Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. And the Monday after his last Friday he took the Chevy in for a tune-up. "Won't want to be fussin' with the car on the road," he said. "Never know what they might try to pull on you, some garage where they don't know you from Adam."

By Friday of the first week, Emma had come to welcome the idea of leaving home. Anything had to be better than putting up with Reginald agitating around the house most all day every day. It just wasn't the same house at all anymore, not with him there. Why, when Martha dropped by on Wednesday morning with that new coffee cake recipe to trade for the marshmallow marble Bundt cake Emma'd got from Helen Connors, they couldn't hardly talk at all, what with Reginald coming in and going out and wanting to know where was this and where was that. And if a woman can't even give a neighbor a peaceful cup of coffee in her very own kitchen, well, she might just as well give up and leave home, that's all. "Maybe this trip'll settle him down," she said to Martha. "Goodness knows, something's got to. It's about to drive me crazy the way he's took over the house, and it's not like you can tell him, 'run along outside and play now,' because after all he's not a child. He's a grown man. And it can't be right for him to just be around the house all the time, can it."

So she breathed a sigh of resigned relief when she finally climbed in the car that Monday morning. "We'll be on the way by six," he'd said, but Emma would not, she simply would not leave dirty dishes in the sink, and it was close to 6:30 by the time they pulled out of the driveway and turned left onto Maple Street. "Can't start a trip like this without a good breakfast inside you," he announced when she pointed out that they could have been gone half an hour ago if he didn't insist on eggs every single morning of his life. "Who knows where we'll be, breakfast time tomorrow." And he started in to hum "Oh, Suzanna" with relish.

* *

"Two weeks," said Emma to herself. "Two blessed weeks, and I'll never bake a pie again if he hasn't found a cliff to stand on the edge of each and every day since the day we left home. Or a hill at least. A good, big hill." She sighed and stepped back closer to the car.

It wasn't so bad, riding. Nice and peaceful, mostly, and she could think about her friends back home, and the children, and picture to herself what all they were likely doing right now, so far away. Reginald mostly just hummed, or whistled softly for a bit, sometimes tapping his finger on the wheel, dum dum de-dum dum dum, as he looked eagerly forward, left, right, drinking in the passing countryside. In the evenings, too, she could get along just fine, already finished the sweater for Carrie's youngest and got the pattern started on the vest for Ellen's husband Bob. Blue, Ellen'd said; he wouldn't go for anything brighter than a nice medium blue.

Reginald, meantime, would be looking at his maps, plotting out the next day's drive. Or he'd be over at the office talking with the manager -- most likely the owner/manager, because they mostly stayed in small, inexpensive places, fading rooms with chipped edges, a tin shower stall and homemade curtains made many years ago. Sometimes there'd be other travelers who liked to visit, and then it could be downright homey for a while. Reginald and the other woman's husband with their maps and their cans of beer out under a tree by the parked cars, Emma and the other husband's wife talking sweater patterns and grandchildren in the Stover's room with the door open to let in some of the cooler evening air.

It was just those stops during the day that Emma couldn't tolerate. Seemed like he'd hunted out every single cliff edge from here to home, and every blessed time he stopped the car he'd make a beeline for the edge of it. The very edge of it.

"Don't stand so close, Reginald," she'd cried the first few times. "For goodness sake!"

* *

She took another step backwards and suddenly felt the ground fall away beneath her feet. Immediately she whirled around, she saw it was just a sort of pothole in the dusty, gravelled roadside, but for a split second she'd thought, "Oh my dear Lord, I've gone and backed myself off the other side of the cliff."

Back in the car again, Reginald humming beside her, she thought, "What a funny idea. There's only one edge to a cliff. Isn't there?" She looked at her husband's cheerful, eager face and suddenly heard herself say, "Why is it you always want to look out over the edge at things, Reginald?"

"Why?" he repeated, surprised. "Why, because you see more from up above, Emmy. You stand there where you are and see something one hunnerd percent different from anywheres you've ever been. Like a whole new world, you might say."

Emma wanted to ask if he dreamed about going to one of those other worlds, and how he'd go about doing it. Would he raise up his arms one day and fly on off one of those cliffs, dropping down out of her sight into a new life somewheres else and leaving her alone there by the roadside?

"We'll be to Rock Springs in half an hour," he said. "Fella last night told me you can get a good lunch for three dollars at a place in Rock Springs."

No more cliff edges, then, till after lunch, she thought, relieved, and maybe no more today at all. Tonight, she decided, she'd start the second color on Bob's vest, and that might help her think it through more clearly. Because if there is a second edge to a cliff, she just might decide to try standing close to that second edge herself. She just might. If she took a mind to.

She thought briefly of home, the house that had been her world for 45 years, and of how it was changed now, would never be the same. With Reginald there, it was different. It wasn't hers anymore, not the way it had been. She thought of Reginald standing too close to the edge. She saw him raise up his arms to fly, and she knew it wouldn't make things right for her again. With Reginald gone, the house would be no more her home than it was with Reginald there all the time. She needed him to begin and finish up the day every day, to be the man whose wife she was. With Reginald gone, she didn't quite see how the world she was used to would make any sense.

She'd think more about it this evening. And then if Reginald did up and fly away someday, why, she'd have a new world to go to, too. "There's more than one way, maybe," she said to herself, "a person can be standing too close to the edge."

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