A Lost Ashtray
Macalister’s wife pulled up at the pump across from him while he was just topping off his own tank. They got in an argument about whether or not, when he’d left her a month earlier, he’d taken with him a certain ceramic ashtray she’d once bought at a flea market and which she now claimed was of sentimental value. Macalister said he had indeed, not because he remembered any such ashtray but because, still loving her yet not understanding why, he wanted to antagonize her in any way possible, regardless of the rationale. He said the ashtray was on the coffee table in his apartment and that if she wanted it back she’d have to come get it, which he both meant and didn’t mean, and which he wouldn’t have said if his girlfriend, a woman ten years younger, had not presently been inside the gas station.
“Maybe I will,” said Macalister’s wife, who by now had the nozzle inside the tank and was letting it dispense automatically.
In reality there was no ashtray. Macalister’s wife, a slender woman with a remarkably passive face, had simply accused him of the first thing she could think of in order to forget her grief and maintain a semblance of dignity. That her husband had jumped at the bait not only surprised her but gave her a sense of her own authority and independence, the effect of which was a sudden coolness in her disposition that Macalister didn’t perceive.
“If I was to say,” Macalister now mused, moving casually around the gas pumps, “that this ashtray meant something to me too, emotionally I mean, would you be willing to let me keep it?”
Macalister’s wife laughed without looking at him because she wanted him to keep his distance, though at the same time she didn’t want to lose his attention, which came less frequently these days, from him or from any man. In the back seat of her minivan was their five-year-old daughter, a girl she hoped would one day embark on a life completely different from her own, one that would take her far from this town and whatever it was that tied a person to it. She’d never said this aloud, of course, because doing so would amount to an admission she was not yet ready to make.
Macalister said, “Do you remember when we went to that flea market in Iowa? I found you that necklace with the funny-looking beads on it and you lost it before we even got to the car.”
“You lost it,” said his wife. “I tried to put it on, and when you were messing with the clasp even though I told you it would work just fine, you dropped it in the river.”
“Bah,” said Macalister. He looked at the summer evening clouds above the swaying shelter of the gas station. They were moving slowly, and they made him think of a time when he’d had fewer worries, though he knew no such time had ever existed. “How’s Ray-Ray?” he asked, believing their daughter still linked them in spite of what he’d done.
“Why don’t you ask her yourself,” said Macalister’s wife.
She didn’t say this in a mean way, though she knew there was no other way it could sound. She wanted two lives, neither of which allowed for the possibility of the other.
“Ray-Ray,” called Macalister, now advancing toward his daughter’s side of the minivan. He returned a moment later, slowly and somewhat aimlessly, saying in a disappointed voice, “She’s either asleep, or pretending to be asleep,” which disarmed his wife in a way she was unprepared for.
The gas had quit dispensing now, clicking off abruptly and, it might have been said, without any sense of propriety. But Macalister’s wife didn’t move. She was leaning against the back of her vehicle with her arms folded and her eyes closed, her chin tilted skyward as if awaiting divine guidance. It did not occur to her that her life would always be unhappy. She simply felt an unbearable desire for the moment to go on without ceasing. Had she known that the woman who’d stolen her husband was about to appear, she might have forced herself to stand up straight, to move quickly and with purpose, to harden both her face and her spirit so that, if she were spoken to, no one could determine whether her replies were sincere or sarcastic. But Macalister’s wife forgot as easily as anyone did that the people you loved without wanting to rarely surprised you in a good way. So now, when her husband touched her elbow, stopping beside her with a presence so familiar she didn’t need to open her eyes, she felt no rush to speak, and even when she did it was only to murmur, “Why?” which Macalister heard but didn’t know how to respond to.
“Hey?” he asked dully, feeling helpless in the way of those who’ve made other people suffer.
This time his wife didn’t answer, though perhaps she would have if given more time. Macalister’s girlfriend, who for some reason had bought a new pair of sunglasses, was hurrying out of the gas station with the tireless enthusiasm peculiar to some thirty-something blondes. Macalister actually heard the sound of her voice before he saw her. In that moment that passes between recognition and action, he wondered whether, if he had his life to live over again, the mistakes he made would be different or fewer, or if, aware only of his present existence, he’d repeat every one of them, believing his wife to be one type of person only to find out she was another. He didn’t have time to answer this question, because his wife opened her eyes, stirring quickly, like a mother bear when her cub is in danger. She sized up his girlfriend, whom she’d nicknamed Bo-Bo, and said, “That’s close enough,” which stopped the girlfriend in her tracks, though only for a second. Bo-Bo sidled up to Macalister with a sort of unintelligent daring and said, “I have every right to be here,” which was true, even if none of them believed it.
At this point they all heard the minivan’s door slide open. Ray-Ray, who’d neither been asleep nor pretending to be, but rather listening to everything with her eyes closed, appeared at the back of the vehicle in a long T-shirt and bare feet, her hair still matted wet from an afternoon at the public swimming pool. What she saw was three adults standing in the evening sunlight, not looking at each other but at her, Ray-Ray, as if she had the answer to some question they hadn’t yet asked.