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Mars


by James Robison



                                                          MARS  

            Charlie says, “I don't know, Denise, you know- I mean, you know- I don't know.”  He shrugs. “Basically, it's just, I don't know. You know- I mean it.”
           “Hey, Charlie-” she says.
            “I  know,” he says and sighs. 
            “I know. You're inarticulate,” says Denise.
            “Melancholy or something like.”
            “Um-hm.”
             “Because before- Whew!  Remember-”
             “I know, Charlie,”  she says, in accord, in sympathy.
             “Before!  I was like, Wha-ha-ha!”
             “That was before though, Charlie.”
             “Whereas now, I  don't know. With all the stuff and everything—“
             They are in the kitchen, Denise seated in the breakfast nook, Charlie propped aslant  the counter. Wind driven snow spumes off the ridge of the housetop across the gray street.  The frozen yards blow snow and the tree branches are glazed with ice. In the kitchen the light is blond from the knotty pine paneling.
             Charlie says, “You know-”
            “You mean on Evening Street-”
            “There and even on whatwasitcalled.”
            Denise nods sadly, acknowledgingly. “Times gone by, you know- I'll remember Evening Street and the den and coconut drinks.”
            He says, “Right.” 
           “I'll remember not just Evening Street—“
           ”Right.”
           “But whateveritwas street with that tree.”
           Charlie laughs and says,  “I always forget we were there first. Morning Street.”
           “It had to be a hundred years old.”
           Charlie says, “Yes yes yes yes yes, I think they said a hundred and ten. If I remember. Basically, a banyan tree.“
          ”Old tree basically anyway, um-hm,” Denise says. “And there was so much rum. What were we, pirates-  Bacardi- That little bat- And looking at that tree- Hungover-  With this centuries old Banyan tree-” 
          “I know. That was when  that girl called.”
          “Rockets-”
          “Yeah.  She's like, ‘Charlie, this country has the best rockets!'”
          “I  know.” Denise laughs musically. The quality of the music is warm and sonorous, not croaky or hoarse, not dark or charred, not trilling nor operatic.  A genuine laugh.
          “Coffee-”
          She says no.  No more.
          Charlie pours coffee from an enameled red percolator into a white cup and the coffee is black.  A colossal dragonfly, a canted helicopter, drifts left to right across the window view over the yard, making loud chugging noises, churning up snow dervishes.  The aircraft is white against the dark sky and has a blood red cross painted on its side.
          “Hospital,” Charlie says.  “Medivac.”
          The house is in a neighborhood of like houses.  Ranch styles. Big trees.  Two car garages.  The area  has been suffering a vicious winter.  
          “Maria-what-was-her-name-   She's, like, Oh, Charlie...well, you remember.'”
          “You told me, “ Denise says.  Her laugh is musical and she is a stunner. She is a beautiful forty-seven year-old woman with the figure of a teenager—it is freakish how she has stayed so youthful in her form and figure—but she clouds over often and has a lightning strike temper.
          “She was basically telling me about our rockets in the USA and saying like, we pretty much have the best rockets. Like she was talking about plums or what  has the best cookies.  She'd been working for the Defense Department.”
         “Don't go into her leather jeans. I mean, if I have to hear. I'm warning you. Big deal!  I got news for you. Men are stupid.”
         Denise looks angry.
         He says,  “I wasn't.  Who said jeans-”
        “Anybody can buy red leather jeans.”
        “I never said.”  His voice goes falsetto on the word “never.”
        “Oh, you're so impressed by that.  Give me a break.” Denise looks at the back of her hand. “So what-  Maria Pizzatory.”
         Charlie looks stunned as he does whenever the course of their talk veers from lovely shared things to ugly things; from reminiscence to attack.  He looks shaken by injustice.
         “A,” he says, “It was Maria Pascatori not pizzeria as you well know and I'm not saying, B, that I didn't say  once upon a time about the jeans.  At one time.  But not now.  This was about the  rockets.“
         ”I'm so sick of her fat backside.”
         “Plus this was how long ago-  One hundred ten years- ”
          He blows on his coffee. There are thin blinds over the sink and the morning sun is sliced into stripes. Stripes pour over the edge of the counter and make parallel blades of light on the doors under the sink. On the counter is a bag of butter lettuce and a Bermuda onion.
          “C,” he says,  “this was in the morning of our own marriage, so to speak—“
          ”Our own marriage- Our own- As opposed to yours with Bloofus-Doofus-”
          “Be literal! Christ on the throne! I  was trying to address the subject of  Evening Street.”
          “Our own marriage.”
          “You brought up the red leather jeans. I was just basically dwelling on Evening Street. And that occasioned mention of the Banyan tree.“
          ”You know what, I don't care!”
          “When she said that about our American missile defense system, you know-  On the phone-  With this hangover I was  looking out at the branches of the banyan tree.  I was looking at the tree and that's why.”
          “I'm sick.”
          “Well,  I'm also sick.”
          “I'm sick of you.”
          “You think you're the one whose sick of the other one!”
           Denise in her white shirt and black jeans, sighs. “This can't go on,” says Denise. “Abjection, failure, humiliation, losing,  embarrassment, debt.”
           “Say the word, and bye-bye baby,” says  Charlie.
           His coffee cup is a heavy white mug. Denise's coffee cup, empty, and her saucer are so thin as to be translucent and from a China pattern  registered by brides-to-be, called the Devonshire Platinum. But Denise had wanted, and bought from the Saks 5th Avenue department store at the Deerfield Mall, only a bone China cup and saucer, just one of each, white with platinum trim.  Her purchase caused a  stir.  One woman who sold wedding things had said, loudly, “Wait. She wants just the Devonshire cup and saucer- Just one of each-”  She had said this loudly and as if Denise were an insane woman to want a coffee cup and saucer and not gravy boats and salad and soup bowls and place settings for sixteen or something.
            Denise had reported all back to Charlie.  This silly wedding planner woman had made Denise furious.  For days.  She fumed.  After a week of stewing and insomnia, Denise had returned to the store and asked to speak to the manager.
           Charlie had said,  “What did you say to him-”
          “Her. I said to her, I was a bride once too.”
          Charlie had started to say something but stopped himself.
          Charlie and Denise had married at the Anne Arundel City Hall, in a room with linoleum floors and florescent strip lighting. They stood on a scrap of Astro Turf grass under a plastic trellis wound with plastic flowers  with a city employee for a witness. But when the marrying official had read off the generic vows Charlie heard Denise swallow hard as if moved.
          After all that, the Devonshire coffee cup, beautifully made, translucent, wafer thin, didn't keep Denise's coffee hot for longer than a two minutes. She seldom used it.  
         Denise says, “You've got—what is that-”
        “Where-”
        “There!” She points, stabbing her finger. “Crumbs. Or something. Slob. Lower. Lower.  Left. There.”
         Charlie is going off to work.
         “All right,”  Denise says. “We 've gotta—“
         Big pause. Stove clock clucks, ticking.
        “We've gotta cut some of this tomato.  It's organic. It'd be a shame.  This is like day three.”
         Charlie sips coffee and says, “Did you see in the paper-”
        “I've asked you not to tell me anything.”
        “No, I wasn't gonna tell you.”
        “Yes you were.”
        “You don't even know what!”
        “But keep it to yourself. I like the paper to read for myself. I'm grown up.”
        “This wasn't a thing you would read or I would ruin.”
        “Give me a sip please.  Is it hot-”
        “This was a picture. Of Mars. That's all I was asking.”
         She takes his mug in both hands. By sharing his coffee, Charlie knows that he has earned the right to pursue the interrogation, painful as Denise seems to find it, about whether or not she has seen the photograph taken sixty three million miles away.

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