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Peggy Townsend

Fall Together

  I’d written, “order firewood” and “heartworm medicine 4 Dante” on my calendar, but I didn’t do either of those things.  Instead, I got Dante’s leash and we headed out for a walk. I was nauseous and full of some kind of weird energy from standing up to Keith.  If I sat still, I thought, I just might throw up.
   The air was crisp after the rain and Dante tugged me forward on his leash the way he wasn’t supposed to do. He’d been a D+ student in obedience class and I was supposed to say, “Dante, heel,” but I didn’t feel like correcting him. Besides what did it matter if I had an obedient dog and a husband who went out of his way to do the opposite of what I asked?
   Our street was wide and empty, the houses silent and pretentious. The only traffic came from neighbors going off to work and the grocery store and who knew where else. The truth was, I hardly knew the people who lived in the homes I was passing. Our street was a place where minding your own business was the equivalent of bringing over a plate of homemade cookies: polite. That’s not the way it had been growing up. Maybe it was because all the houses on our block were so small, but on weekends, the neighbors would just spread out into each other’s homes. I’d come in the kitchen to find a half-dozen women sitting around our Formica table drinking coffee with Mom, the smoke from their cigarettes twirling upward like pale, exotic genies. Across the street, my Dad and three or four other men would be leaning their heads into the engine of a pickup truck, talking about carburetors and cracked hoses and jobs they’d lost because times were always tough for men like them. At 6 o’clock, the moms would sort out all the kids who had gathered in their backyards, keeping their own to feed and sending the rest back to their respective houses.
   But in this neighborhood everyone stayed inside and nobody but me had seemed to think it strange that they got in their cars and drove their children to play dates when there had been five or six kids on our block.
   Dante dragged me past the Bergmans with their imposing hedge, past the Fowlers with their Jaguar in the garage and the Gilberts who put up their Christmas lights on Dec. 15 and took them down without fail on Jan. 2.
   I wondered what they thought about Keith and me? Did they say, “Oh, there’s the Manchesters. What does he see in her?” Or the slightly more positive: “the Manchesters? I guess opposites attract.” And what would they say when found out Keith and I had divorced? “We knew it was coming,” I guessed.
   My stomach gave a squeeze when I thought about divorce because this morning was the first time it had seemed real. Before, I could pretend Keith might come back because he still lived in the house — although on the other side of it — and I didn’t know about his girlfriend with her long blond hair. But after what I’d said this morning, divorce was now staring me in the face the way those gigantic blue eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg had stared out at poor old George Wilson. Like I couldn’t escape no matter where I sent my imagination. And even though I knew it was what I should do, in my mind, divorce had all these ugly strings attached. Part of it was growing up Catholic with the priests telling people if they didn’t stay married they would go straight to hell. Of course, those unmarried priests didn’t have a clue about how tough marriage was and that sometimes the very act of staying in the institution they so admired constituted its own kind of hell. But the idea of eternal damnation had stuck in my mind anyhow.
   The other, secular part of it was that divorce seemed like such an admission of failure. As if you were proclaiming: Look, I’m not even good enough to have someone love me.  So, even though Keith had said those horrible things and I’d threatened divorce, I wasn’t 100 percent sure I could go through with something that would not only make me feel worse than I already did, but could possibly send me to hell.
   I was thinking those thoughts when Dante saw the squirrel and I blame it for why I was a second too late when I shouted, “Dante, STOP!” and why he took off like a heat-seeking missile, sending me stumbling forward down the street. And this was where having big feet like mine held no advantage. Once they started tangling up, there was no easy way to get them sorted out before you were falling.
   My knees smacked the ground, my hands scraped across asphalt and the hit of my stomach on the road made me say, “oomph.” Dante jerked backward at the sudden dead weight at the end of his leash and then reared up, barking wildly. The squirrel scampered up an elm tree, scolding us for our bad manners or maybe laughing at the sight we presented: A woman sprawled on the road and a big, red dog leaping and falling back against his leash like one of those paddle-ball games.
   “Dante, no,” I shouted from facedown on the ground. Tears burned my eyes and I wanted to howl in shock. Dante gave a last leap, maybe to say to the squirrel, “I could get you if I there wasn’t this lump of human at the end of my leash.” Then he came back and began to sniff my face, his breath warm and kibble-scented, his tail wagging happily as if this might be the start of a new game.
   “Oh,” I moaned and tried to stand up, but my legs and feet wouldn’t obey. I pushed myself onto my side and then plopped cross-legged into a sitting position. There was a small rip in my sweats above the knee and bits of brown leaves and grey gravel stuck to my jacket. There was a smear of something red. Blood?
   Dante whined and began to pace in front of me and the pain came now. My knees burned, my stomach ached and the palms of my hands felt like they were being poked by hundreds of tiny needles. The neighborhood blurred and I leaned my head back, sending a tear straight for my ear.
   “Oh, oh,” I moaned as what began as a dribble turned into a torrent and I began to cry. I mean, really cry. Great glottal sobs squeezed up from my chest and came out my mouth, making me feel like I was being turned inside out. Dante whined and sat right next to me, a rigid and perfect obedience-school sit, and if any one of our uptight, car-in-the-garage, invisible-kid, trimmed-hedge neighbors had been home or had bothered to look out their windows, they would have seen a dog and a woman sitting on the pavement, her raw and bleeding hands held upward on her knees like some monk in meditation, her howls like a wild animal.
   What they wouldn’t have seen was how my crying disintegrated from being about my skinned hands into being about my life. I’d spent a lot of my years trying not to cry, holding in the bad feelings, the hurt and the disappointment, so I could soldier on. “The strongest note comes from a Southern belle,” Mom always said and I’d believed her.
   But now that everything was pouring out of me, I knew how wrong she’d been. Crying was more like chemotherapy. It was something that made you whole by destroying everything in its path. Because crying was letting things pour out of me I hadn’t even realized were inside. There was anger right next to hurt and resolve right next to disappointment and strength right next to loss. It was as if the bad things had flooded my life and it was only now, when they were being washed out, that I could see the tips of the good things peeking above them. I let myself go until the sobs quieted to manageable crying and finally to sniffles. Then, I pushed myself to my feet.
   As I walked slowly back home with Dante heeling perfectly beside me, I felt light. Like I’d lost five pounds, not from my hips or my butt. But from my soul.

— Excerpt from “Safe Landings” by Peggy Townsend

Peggy Townsend

Peggy Townsend is a journalist who worked for the Santa Cruz Sentinel before turning to fiction. She has won numerous state and national awards for her stories, including a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. The award-winning documentary “This Dust of Words” was based, in part, on one of her stories. Her novel, “Safe Landings,” was recently published on Kindle by Curtis Brown Digital of New York and will soon be released as an audio book on She loves skiing, running, and a really good book.

Winter 2013

Peggy Townsend
Jill Wolfson

Arthur Streshly

Barbara Bloom
Lisa Ortiz
David Sullivan

Tribute to Don Rothman
read by Julie Minnis

FloodLight Feature
Stephen Kessler

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