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“A Period of Silence”

In Sex & Chocolate, Paycock Press, 2006

"The Fulbrights know all about siding now," Bobby Renfrew said to his wife Jean.

"Yes," she answered drily, playing with him, "you’re a teacher, too."

"I am," he said solemnly, playing right back. "Not as good as you, though. Mrs. Fulbright says you made their kids the stars of kindergarten." Jean laughed, and then Bobby told her he got the job. She laughed again and ruffled his hair. It was a big sale, a rambling house in a nice neighborhood Bobby wanted to get into. "We covered soffit, rakeboards, and wall vents," Bobby said, "and they decided to trim it out."

Jean poured Bobby a bourbon. Then she poured herself one, too, something she rarely did. Bobby watched Jean and thought of her teetotal Baptist grandmother toasting their wedding. Blue-black and bent-over, in a bright purple flag of a dress, Granny hoisted a beer-mug with both skinny hands and said to Jean and Denise, "Y’all watch out, now! Las’ drink I took was the night I brought you girls’ mama in this world."

Bobby smiled at the memory, but something in Jean’s face stopped him before he could mention it. Then she told about that afternoon, when the technician took extra pictures. "They said call tomorrow." Jean taught preschool three mornings a week, but not tomorrow. "Bobby? Could you stay back?" It was April 13, 1998, three months before their thirty-third anniversary. Bobby got up in the dark the next day and rearranged his schedule.

At nine, they sat at the kitchen table on their second round of coffee. After busy signals, beeps, and choices, Jean cut on the speaker: "You will experience a period of silence," the recording said. "Please continue to hold." Then Jean hung up.

"Now, honey. They said to hold."

"I know," she said, turning off the speaker to redial. "Let’s talk to a person."

After twenty minutes, or nine periods of silence and three repeating messages, the nurse finally picked up. "Doctor isn’t in. Emergency." Jean told Bobby this, muffling the phone by mistake against the breast under suspicion, the one she’d already started thinking of as the bad breast.

She wanted to explain to the nurse about Bobby missing work in his busiest season, wanted to ask why the doctor took that other emergency and ignored the emergency lurking in herself. Jean remembered her grandmother. And her mother. Her sister. Granny was just the first. This was how it started. A bump egglike and calm beneath the soft unsunned skin. A space before it starts: that’s your life. A space after. The bump breaks everything, but not right away.

"Ask when to try back," Bobby said; he worked phones every morning. "I’ll continue to hold," he added, smiling like it was an ordinary day. Jean herself showed him this, that seeming calm gives others strength. He freshened their coffee and put his hand over hers, a hand years of sun had darkened almost to the color of Jean’s own.

Strength was not what you thought of when you looked at Bobby. You saw a guy weathered like a sunbleached boulder, his thinning hair scorched blond, white lines around his eyes from squinting into the sun so hard the wrinkles can’t tan up. Still broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, Bobby was fifty-one now, and packing a little paunch. He seemed smaller than he really was, and quick instead of tough, but he was both.

Bobby made something of himself. Or Jean did.

They’ve been together since high school, when Bobby’s dad, who worked construction, moved Bobby and his mom down here to Georgia from Connecticut. Bobby came into the county high school as a senior, small and tetchy and talking funny, a Yankee who had to stand up for himself, a white kid who paid the price, in this fight or that, for who he was, even before crossing the color-line to date Jean.

Bobby finished fighting on a steamy spring night in 1965. Bobby and Jean couldn’t park at the usual high-school places, so they were off in a field in Bobby’s creaky old Ford. That was another April, unseasonably hot and damp, loud with early gnats and pulsing peepfrogs. When Bobby remembers those nights, he thinks about which liberties Jean allowed and disallowed. Unlike the ample Italian girls back in Bridgeport, all trying to prove they were Gina Lollobrigida, Jean never would let him undress her. He didn’t know why and doesn’t know now. She probably couldn’t tell him.

Jean’s delicious magnetic body was still the same, solid, determined, and warm, and her thoughts and feelings were still hidden and infinitely complicated. "You," she’d said on their second date the fall before, at the harvest dance in the darkened gymnasium. "It’s you. We’re in trouble, baby." That sticky night in the field, they decided that they’d marry after graduation and Bobby’d join the Air Force. "They’ll make their peace," Jean said about their families. Then the heat between them ended talk.

Until shouts shattered their trance and blows shook the car. The Ford rocked sharply. Once. Again. Fierce pale faces pressed against the fogged windows. "C’mon out, nigger-lover!" a hoarse voice hollered, "or I’ll bust yer damn windows."

"Bust ’em anyhow!" urged another voice. Inside, Bobby pulled Jean close, tucked her head into his chest, and folded around her. The next wallop webbed the windshield, making the shouts and catcalls sound louder. A face peered into the star-shaped hole, shouted, and spat. Slime crawled down Bobby’s cheek. He wanted like hell to wipe it away, but something said not to move. He tightened his grip on Jean. . . .