Derwood Trexler drove his SUV along the busy two-lane road, occasionally glancing into his rear view mirror at the trail of cars behind him. The pain in is right shoulder stabbed at his chest whenever he took a breath; his injury was much worse than a simple dislocation. He'd tried to prevent the fall by grabbing hold of the banister, but the force behind the push was too great. His body lurched backward while he clutched the railing, inducing an anguished howl that echoed in the space behind his eyes.
He steadied the steering wheel with his knee while activating the turn signal with his left hand. As he eked his way off the road and into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, the driver of the car behind him laid on his horn for a good five seconds. He'd flip the idiot the bird if he could figure out how.
He wound around the parked cars and angled for the corner where he remembered having seen a pay phone. Funny how the cellphone had caused the coin-operated boxes to become invisible. He eased himself out of the vehicle and walked to the canopied booth, his right arm hanging by his side, lifeless and raw. He had no idea how much a call cost these days. '35¢' was embossed in the metal casing above the coin slot; his loose change was in the right pocket of his chinos. He contorted his body and fished a handful of coins out with his left hand, dropped in a quarter and two nickels and punched in the seven-digit number.
"Denise, it's Woody. Is Manny home?"
"Yeah, hold on."
He steadied himself against the left edge of the canopy. His head hurt like he'd been in one of those anvil-dropping scenes in a Road Runner cartoon.
"Hey, Woody. What's up?"
"I need your help."
Manny sighed through his nose and said, "What'd she do this time?"
"Pushed me down the stairs. I grabbed hold of the banister to stop the fall and - "
"Where are you?"
"The Piggly Wiggly on Jameson Road."
"How'd you get there?"
"I drove. But I can't make it to the hospital, Man. Can you come get me?
His friend wheeled into the parking lot in his late model Silverado pick-up. The pain had enervated Woody to the point that he couldn't open the car door. Manny faltered at the sight of him and said, "Je-sus H. Christ."
When they left the emergency room, Woody was high on Oxycodone but the pain was under control; he was calm.
"What do you wanna do now?" Manny asked.
"Get my car and go home."
"What, are you crazy? First of all, you can't drive."
"Sure I can," Woody said. His voice bellowed in his head. "It's barely half a mile from the store to the condo. You can follow me if you want."
"And then what are you gonna do when you get there?"
"Go inside and tell her I'm sorry."
Manny said nothing for a couple of blocks but kept pounding the heel of his hand on the steering wheel.
Woody finally looked at him and said, "Don't break your truck, Man. It's not worth it."
"Back at the hospital, you told me that this morning you took your Explorer to Jiffy Lube to be serviced, then went through the car wash and then came home. When you got inside, she argued with you about where you'd been, lunged at you and knocked you backwards down the stairs, tore the hell outta your shoulder and you banged your head on the wall. What are you apologizing for? The woman is outta control, Woody. This is the third time in five months that I've had to take you in to get patched up. And that doesn't count the times you patched yourself up."
"I told her I'd be back in an hour but I had to wait a while at the Jiffy Lube and I was gone closer to two. That gets her crazy and I know it. I shoulda called her but I left my phone upstairs by the treadmill."
"Two hours instead of one? Really?" Manny pulled off the road into a gas station and parked in front of a mini-mart. He put the truck in park but left it running and said, "What's it gonna take for you to accept that you're an abused husband?"
Woody leaned back against the padded headrest, closed his eyes and said, "There's no such thing, Manny. We've been through this a hundred freakin' times."
"If the roles were reversed and you were beating on her and throwing her down stairs and burning her clothes and God knows what all else, wouldn't she have a great case against you for abuse? She'd probably have left you - might even be holed up in some shelter by now."
"How, Woody? How's it different?"
He winced in discomfort as he tried to angle his body toward Manny. "Men aren't supposed to hit women. Men are supposed to take care of their wives and then look out for themselves. What kinda man gets beat up by a woman? A weak-ass one. A lily-livered weak-ass one."
Manny stared at him and then opened his door and said, "I'll be right back. You want anything?"
Woody shook his head and closed his eyes. He needed to lie down and he had to make sure that he didn't let the round pink pill wear off completely before taking another one. He also knew that his wife would be a wreck when she saw him and realized what she'd done. After he calmed her down, she would put him to bed and sit by his side and make one of her Campbell's soup casseroles and they'd never mention what happened again. Except this time, his recovery would take several weeks and he'd have to miss work for a few days and then figure out how he was going to carry out his duties at the dealership. He'd eventually have to see an orthopedic surgeon to determine whether or not he'd need surgery to completely repair the damage. It crossed his mind that that fact alone could get her going. But he could deal with the verbal abuse. And it usually helped her get whatever demons were crowding in on her out and she'd eventually feel better and it would be kinda normal for a while.
Manny got back in the truck, popped the top on a can of Coke and handed it to Woody.
"Thought you might be thirsty."
"Thanks, but I could use a beer."
"Not with that powerful shit in your system." Woody took a sip of the drink. Manny said, "I talked to Denise. She called while I was in the john wanting to know what was going on."
"What'd you tell her?"
"Pretty much what happened. She said she was awfully sorry but - ."
"I probably deserved it, right?"
"I don't think she really believes that." He put the truck in reverse and headed back on the road.
"Had she heard from Sondra?"
"Would she tell you if she had?"
Manny nodded and said, "She's got no reason to lie to me. Believe it or not, we don't take sides with you guys. Denise wishes she could do more to help Sondra. She's tried talking to her and we both know she needs professional help that she just won't accept."
"She doesn't like taking antidepressants. They make her crazy."
"And not taking them doesn't?"
"You know what I mean - they make her anxious and moody. She's just not herself."
"And that's a bad thing because..."
"Look, Manny. I don't like seeing her unhappy. You know what she's like when she's good. She's beautiful and witty and the life of the party. Thankfully, very few people ever see her like this."
"She's gonna kill you one day."
Woody sniggered. "Little too much drama, Man."
They drove in silence for a while before Manny said, "I'm not letting you behind the wheel. I'm taking you home now. We'll get your car later."
"But you can't come inside."
"I bet I can."
"Bad idea, Manny. Trust me."
Manny turned into the entrance of the condominium complex and followed the drive around to the right. As they neared his unit, Woody spotted his wife's car in its usual parking space and said, "Can I use your phone?" He dialled the landline in his condo. It rang and rang. She didn't answer and the machine didn't pick up. "That's strange. Her car is here but she doesn't answer."
"Maybe she see's my name on caller ID. Do you have to speak to her before you go in?"
"I don't want to frighten her. I want to let her know that I'm back and that everything is okay."
Manny parked the truck and said, "But, dude, everything's not okay."
Woody tried to open the door with his left hand. "Can you help me outta here, please?"
Manny went around to the passenger side, opened the door and said, "This is insane. I'm going in with you."
"Let me go in first. If she's in there, she's in a bad place and seeing you will only make it worse."
"If she's in there, then why doesn't she answer the phone?"
Woody shrugged with his good shoulder and said, "I don't know. Just wait here."
"I'll give you fifteen minutes and then I'm coming in."
Woody walked away, waving his good arm. He turned the key in the front door and opened it wide enough to see inside. The condo was situated on three levels and the ground level was the entry foyer and an ell-shaped staircase to the main floor. He climbed the stairs slowly, with difficulty. "Sondra? Are you here?" He could hear the television in the bedroom on the top floor that they'd converted to an office slash workout room.
He landed on the main floor, called out to her again, and then stood still to catch his breath and to listen. He walked around to the kitchen, which had been scrubbed clean after breakfast. He went back into the main room and then checked out the back deck. No sign of her. His upper body ached; the sensation of a hot poker pressed against his chest. He reached the top of the next staircase, edged slowly toward their son's bedroom and breathlessly said, "Sondra? Honey, you up here?"
From the television, he heard Horatio Cain instructing one of the Crime Scene Investigators to gather evidence from a South Beach residence. Woody focused on the bedroom and inched closer spotting her bare legs and feet on the bed. She was lying down, still as a cadaver. His stomach lurched. He feared she'd done something crazy. He called her name again and then stood in the doorway to watch her. The lamp on the side table blocked her face. If he wanted to see what condition she was in, he'd have to go inside the room.
He stepped uneasily toward the bed. She turned her head to him and said, "What took you so long to come upstairs?" Her eyes were unfocused, vacant and he didn't have the physical strength to do more than stand there. Sweat from his brow ran down his face. She looked at him again and said, "What the hell's the matter with you?"
"You don't know?" He took another step closer but remained an arm's length from the bed. She wore a pink button-down, oxford cloth shirt over her underwear; her ears were missing the simple gold hoops. Her face was pale, make-up free and completely devoid of emotion until she twisted her mouth into a hideous moue as she said, "I know that you were out screwing some whore this morning when you told me that you were going to get the oil changed. Do you think I'm a complete fool, Derwood? Do you think that I would ever believe that it could take two hours to change the oil in any automobile?"
It was pointless to try to reason with her. She'd buried the facts in that place from where she functioned much of the time. Saying anything more would push her to the brink of violence. And even if he wanted to, he was in no condition to defend himself. "Why don't you come downstairs with me," he said. "Let's have some coffee."
"I don't want coffee."
His shirt was completely drenched now. He needed another painkiller and he didn't want to leave her alone. "Can I get you something else?"
She lay still, staring at the ceiling. "You can get the gun out from under the bed. I'm not going to need it today."
The pain stabbed at his chest. "What gun?" His temples throbbed; he felt that he could pass out.
Her laugh was more like a growl as she said, "My gun. I was going to use it a little earlier."
He struggled to speak. "You're talking nonsense. You don't own a gun." He leaned down to look under the bed and saw the handle of a small revolver. Ignoring the intense pain in his chest, he pulled the gun out and slowly stood up. "Where'd you get this?"
She said nothing and closed her eyes. He took the gun into the other room and put it in a desk drawer. When he returned, she appeared not to have moved -- her breathing deep and even as if she were asleep.
He searched the room for evidence of her drugs. But none of the child-proof-capped bottles were in view. Had he been inside fifteen minutes? He imagined Manny in a stealth movement up the carpeted staircase - one step at a time so as not to make a noise. Had he gotten close enough to hear this conversation or at least know that she was there and that there was a gun involved?
Woody watched Sondra for a few seconds. After another moment of silence, he backed away slowly and crept down the stairs. The aggregate pain had debilitated him and he realized that he'd left his painkillers in Manny's truck. He stood in the middle of the living room, fearful that the slightest sound would startle her. At that moment he wasn't sure who needed help more - him or his wife.
He sat down on the sofa and closed his eyes. He started to panic. Did his friend go off and leave him there with this half-crazed woman and no drugs? He willed himself to pass out - anything to lessen the pain. His body felt weighted to the sofa like he'd been filled with cement. His mind blurred and he drifted in and out of patches of cold darkness occasionally hearing bursts of laughter or echoes of his own terrified scream.
The sensation of an icy substance flowing through his veins nudged him from unconsciousness; the sound of a high-pitched whistle awakened him. Male and female voices blared nonsensically around him while their footsteps crunched as if walking on tiny glass needles. His senses had become bizarrely heightened to a point of misery but he couldn't open his eyes nor could he speak.
"Dad." The voice was muted but unmistakable. "Dad, it's Nate. Can you hear me?"
Woody opened his eyes to a blurry vision of his son standing over him. "Where am I," he said.
"You're in St. Mark's Hospital."
He tried to move and felt the pinch of a needle sticking out of the back of his hand. He was groggy; his tongue felt three times the size it should. He swallowed with difficulty and then looked at his son and said, "What happened? Why am I here?"
Nate lightly rested his hand on his father's arm and said, "You fell down the stairs. You have a concussion, a few broken ribs, a punctured lung and a messed up shoulder. But you're gonna be fine."
Woody closed his eyes and thought hard to dredge up his last memory. It was Saturday. He remembered going out; he remembered coming home and he remembered his wife's face when she greeted him. He looked at his son and said, "Where's your mother?"
"She went to get some lunch. She'll be right back. She's been here with you since they brought you in. She's very worried about you."
"She pushed me."
Nate removed his hand from his father's arm. "What'd you say?"
"She pushed me down the stairs."
Nate left the room and returned a few minutes later with the duty nurse who checked his vital statistics before saying, "Mr Trexler, how does your head feel?"
"Like someone's sitting on it."
The nurse nodded and said, "That's to be expected considering what you've been through but are you in any pain?"
He closed his eyes and concentrated on the various parts his body. "Just uncomfortable."
"Well, it's my job to make you comfortable. I'm going to give you a little something to help you relax - maybe get some more sleep. You'll feel good as goose bumps when you've had some rest." She plunged the contents of a syringe into the IV lead that he was connected to. He wanted to finish the conversation with his son but the cool liquid shut him down.
As he awoke from the drug-induced sleep, a sweet, flowery scent overpowered the medicinal smells. He started to panic; the machine next to his head beeped frenetically and bodies scurried around him. A muted voice said, "Everyone out of the room."
He couldn't move his head; someone had hold of his hand. He squirmed on the inside and then heard her voice: "Derwood, are you awake? Nate's here. Wake up, Derwood, and talk to us."
He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead; the light seemed exceptionally bright. She stood up and leaned over him and the sweet, flowery scent filled his nostrils again. His pulse started to race; his son appeared by his other side. He looked at Nate and said, "Get her out of here."
"Dad, it's Mom."
"Are you hallucinating, Derwood?" Sondra said. "Are you having another one of your spells?
Woody looked at his son again and said, "Please, Nate. Get her out of here."
His wife let go of his hand and said, "I'll get the nurse."
When she'd left the room Nate said, "Dad, you've got to get a grip or they're never going to let you out of here. They'll put you in the psych ward."
His scalp hurt where the follicles anchored his hair. "What do you mean?"
"You seem to be going in and out of some sort of delirium. And you think that Mom pushed you down the stairs."
Woody looked at his son. Why couldn't Nate see how frightened he was to be left alone with his mother? He gripped his hand and said, "Call Manny. He knows what happened."
"Dad, Manny's been here several times. He's tried talking to you but you've been babbling and incoherent. Everyone's really worried about you."
Woody closed his eyes and tried to remember the events of that day. But the facts were slipping away and he was no longer sure of the details. Manny would remember. He needed to speak with Manny. He looked at Nate and said, "Ask him to come see me. Tell him it's important."
Four days later, Sondra helped Woody put on his shirt, draping it around his right arm, which was now secured in a sling. "How's that?" she said and fastened the bottom two buttons.
"Fine," Woody said. "I just want to get out of here."
Manny and Denise entered the hospital room. "Hey, big guy," Manny said. "You're lookin'
pretty good there. How're the ribs feeling?"
"Everything's under control, Man. Why are you two here?"
Denise walked over to help Sondra pack up the various bits and pieces that had accumulated over the previous two weeks. Manny approached the bed and said, "Nate has classes this morning. He says he can't miss any more. We thought Sondra could use some help getting you home and settled in. Denise made you guys a couple of casseroles and a blackberry cobbler." Manny looked over at the women and then turned back to Woody, lowered his voice and said, "Just so you know, I asked Sondra about the gun. She told me she'd never allow a gun in her house and that she certainly doesn't own one."
Woody had had enough conversation about his mis-recollection of the events surrounding his "accident". Concussions can do that to a person, you know. Trauma reveals itself in the strangest of ways. He looked at Manny and said, "Good to know."
The nurse came in and spoke to Sondra. From what Woody could hear, she was giving her instructions on how to care for his injuries and how to administer his meds to manage the pain while Manny prattled on about something to do with a baseball game the day before. Woody silently begged the hospital to let him go.
Eventually his ribcage stopped aching. The lung and concussion had pretty much healed by the time he left the hospital. The shoulder didn't need surgery but the physical therapy would take a couple of months if he were to recover full use of his arm. He diligently followed the doctor's instructions, regained his strength within a few weeks and went back to his daily routine.
On the Saturday after he'd been given the all clear by the physical therapist, they finished breakfast and Woody went upstairs to the office slash workout room, turned on the television and watched a recorded episode of CSI Miami while he ran two miles on the treadmill. He pushed himself as much as he could and it felt good. But his lower back was tight and an ache spread across his shoulders - nothing that a good rubdown with a deep heating ointment wouldn't alleviate.
He walked to the landing of the upper staircase and called out, "Sondra, do we have any Bengay?"
"Yeah. I think it's in a desk drawer. You need my help?"
"Maybe." The desk seemed an odd place for medication. But then most of their aches and pains were linked to that room. He opened the top drawer on the right hand side and froze at the sight of its sole content. As he reached in to remove it, Sondra appeared at the door and said, "Can I help you?"
He removed the object from the drawer, turned to face her and said, "Is this your gun?"
She didn't flinch and calmly said, "Derwood, put that down."
He wrapped his hand around the small polished wood grip and aimed it at his wife.
"Derwood, you should never aim a loaded gun at anyone."
He looked at the pistol, the words Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum etched on the short barrel; Lady Smith on the side. "How do you know it's loaded?"
Her cheeks tinged pink and she slightly stuttered as she said, "I'm just assuming."
"It's not because you loaded it?"
"I've never seen that gun before in my life. I've always been dead against having one in the house. You know that."
He kept the gun pointed at her and said, "I don't know anything any more, Sondra. I don't know you or my son or my best friend. You've all turned me into a pathetic victim."
"That's not true. We care about you, Derwood. You've been through a terrible ordeal. We just want to help you."
"You want to help me by abusing me? You want to help me by pushing me down the stairs and then trying to convince me and everyone around me that I'm mentally unbalanced?" He took at couple of steps closer to her and said, "This is your gun, Sondra. I found it under Nate's bed after you told me that you'd intended to use it that day. I took it from his room and put it in this drawer." She appeared calm and uninterested to deny his accusation. "You were going to use this gun after you knocked me down the stairs and left me to fend for myself. What? The fall didn't kill me - you were going to finish the job?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Derwood. I love you. You're my husband, my son's father. I could never do anything to hurt you."
His hand started to shake and he pulled the gun down to his side. "But you did hurt me, Sondra. You do hurt me. I don't know how you can possibly say you love me."
"Come on, honey. You need to rest." She walked closer to him and said, "Let me have the gun. I'll get rid of it and you'll never have to worry again."
Her smile was soft, her demeanor gentle. This was the woman that he'd fallen in love with in college, had married over twenty years ago and still loved to be with. But this woman rarely came around any more. This woman had been overtaken by a beast and had become someone that he didn't want to be with and that he knew he couldn't trust. He put the gun behind his back and said, "I'll take care of it."
"All right. If that's the way you want it." He pushed past her and started down the stairs as she called out, "At least let me give you a rubdown."
"When I get back." He jogged over to his SUV and put the gun in the glove box. He'd actually gotten away this time without a terrible scene or bloodshed. And this time he wasn't going back. He drove along in silence - his head full of thoughts about his immediate future. He'd fantasized many times about what it would be like to be free of her tyranny - to be allowed to exist as a normal human being and say and do the things that other men did. But he'd never really considered what he would do when he became free - where he would go or how he would ultimately divest himself of his life with her. She'd never consent to a simple divorce. The mere thought of what she'd most likely put him through made him twitch.
As he pulled into the gas station and parked at the closest available pump, his cell phone rang. It was her. He'd only been gone ten minutes and she was already trying to track him down.
"Just checking to see what you want for dinner."
He felt his pulse in his temples. She should believe that he was coming back -- that he'd be home for dinner as usual. "I don't know. Why don't you surprise me?"
"Do you feel like grilling some steaks? With baked potato and salad?"
He took a deep breath and said, "Yeah. That sounds good."
"Then could you stop on your way home and pick up a couple of potatoes and a head of lettuce?"
"Derwood? Are you still there?"
"I'm here. I'm at a gas pump and people are lining up. Let me call you back." He clicked off before she could speak and got out to pump the gas and then pulled away and returned her call.
The tone of her voice made his skin crawl. He glanced at the glove box, put the SUV in gear and said, "I'm on my way to the Piggly Wiggly. Do you need anything else besides potatoes and lettuce?"
"No, that's all," she said. "Just don't be gone too long."