by Paula Whyman
“Statute of Limitations” first appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Bethesda Magazine.
Ginny was making dinner for Mike’s friends, Pogo and Ann. They’d never been to the new house before. They were practically the last ones to be invited, even though Ginny was eager to show it off. Really it was an old house, and small, or as the real estate agent said, cozy. A red brick colonial with black shutters and a black front door that had three square windows cut out of the top. At a certain time of day, long rectangles of light would shine through those windows and splash onto the oak floor in the entryway. Ginny would stop and stare at the floor, as if she expected to see something she’d thought was lost.
She had noticed how bright the house was right away. That, and the plasterwork around the fireplace in the little parlor, made her want to live there. A bright house with a warm fire in the first room you came to, big American boxwoods outside; tricycles and soccer balls on the front lawn, strollers parked by the screen door: This was the right kind of place for them. This was clean and wholesome and normal and fine.
When they walked in the front door, Ann cooed at James, who hid behind his mother’s legs. Pogo approved the house and the neighborhood. Ginny could see him mentally calculating the value of their tiny piece of real estate; appraising was his day job, when he could hold onto one. Pogo and Ann were changed—thinner, healthier. Mike had said they’d broken up for six months; maybe the time apart improved them. Ginny was relieved that Ann didn’t ask to smoke.
She poured white wine, using the good crystal, and served a nice bruschetta in the parlor. They never lit a fire in the fireplace, because with James running around it would be too dangerous, so she had arranged some logs there to make it look homey. When Mike took their guests on the grand tour, Ginny stayed behind to do the last-minute cooking. She sautéed mushrooms in garlic and oil. She turned the heat up too high, and the oil started to pop. This is your brain, she thought.
Ginny heard Pogo and Ann from James’s room above her, “You like Mike more than you like me,” said Pogo. “Admit it.” Then came Ann’s high-pitched laugh.
“How does this work?” Ann asked. And the side of James’s crib went up and down. Ginny smiled to herself. Women who aspired to having children always wanted to try out the crib side, as if that was the key to mastery: If only you could move the side up and down smoothly, everything else would fall into place.
Ginny’s pregnancy had been a difficult one. Near the end, she went on bed rest, weeks of solitary confinement in the hospital. She had to leave her job. Then came the C-section, which was a foregone conclusion because her pelvis was simply too narrow, like a boy’s. It struck her as ironic that the doctors spent months trying to keep the baby inside her, only to cut her open and tear him away from her in the end.
Meanwhile, Mike filled his time by taking on more work than ever at the firm, and by doing the things he’d agreed not to do: sitting in with his old band for a couple of sets, coming home late and restless, with red-rimmed eyes. She always knew; she knew because he came to see her at the hospital early in the evening, and he could barely contain his energy, his anticipation of what was to come. She could see it in the way he tapped his foot while she was talking, and fingered his visitor’s badge. He always said he was going back to the office after he saw her. But she never called to check up on him. She wasn’t his mother. She hated being the bad guy, but Mike had to grow up and stop fooling around (she had told him), if they were going to have kids.
At first, when she had baby James, she mentally locked the doors and boarded up the windows. Mike withdrew alongside her, newly in love with his son and caught in a tight three-way embrace: No more late nights, no more lies. This was what it meant to be a family.
If it weren’t for Pogo and Ann, there might have been no trouble at all. They were part of Mike’s old life, which Ginny had loved when she first met him back in college, but when they married, she outgrew it and waited for Mike to do the same.
Ann was only a good-time girl; maybe on her own she’d be harmless. But Pogo was the devil. He even looked the part, with his dark bangs brushing across cocked eyebrows, his casual smirk, his swagger as he walked into a room and took it over. He had an amiable way of talking people into things so they forgot themselves, so that later they almost couldn’t figure out whose idea it was to begin with. She knew people, fine people from good families— Pogo got them to do things they’d never do on their own, things they never wanted to think about again. But then, people only let themselves get talked into things they secretly wanted to do all along. Sometimes they just didn’t know they wanted to until Pogo told them they did. Ginny imagined him answering Mike’s protests with relentless persistence and a reassuring hand on the shoulder. His tone would be soothing, confidential, slightly dismissive. “Come on, Champ. Have some fun. I love Ginny, I really do. She’s the best. She’ll be fine. Can’t hurt to have just one.”
Pogo would grin his naughty boy grin, and elbow Mike in the ribs, and Ann would clink her glass against his, and one drink would bleed into five, and a few minutes would bleed into an hour, and an hour would collapse into an evening. By the time Pogo’s BMW lurched into the driveway with Ann behind the wheel, all the porch lights along the street would’ve gone out and the suicidal lunging of the moths would’ve ceased. And Ginny would shut her eyes against the dark as Mike made an exaggerated and vain effort to ascend the stairs without stumbling.
If it were only drinks she could live with it now and then, but as soon as Mike got drunk, there was only one thing he wanted, and when he was with Pogo, he got it. A year ago was the last time she knew it had happened. She took baby James to visit her mother in Leesburg, and Mike couldn’t go because he had a big project to wrap up. She felt bad leaving him, but she knew he’d work all weekend, and let’s face it, he wouldn’t miss seeing her mother. When she came home, he was out. She called his office, and he wasn’t there. He got home after two, drunk and chewing his lips, the nervous signature of his coke high. He tried to tell her about his big plans for opening his own architectural firm, the big plans that seemed not only possible but probable when he was stoned. Ginny didn’t listen; she’d heard it all before. She put James in the car and drove back to Leesburg, left Mike pacing the front stoop, jiggling the coins in his pocket, too keyed up even to cry.
But that was a year ago, and now she was feeling like Lady Bountiful, armed with generosity. Now, James was eighteen months old, Mike was reliable, and Ginny was ready to let people in. Even Pogo and Ann. As if the first thirty or so guests had been warm-ups, she now felt that she could handle them. She would be so damn nice they wouldn’t dare mess with her. Her kindness was an impervious shield.
Ginny was making the dressing for the Caesar salad, whisking in the anchovy paste, when Mike leaned into the kitchen and grabbed the open bottle of chardonnay.
“I’ll take them downstairs, show them the workbench, the plasma TV. I’ve got James,” he added. When the two of them were in the house together, they passed James back and forth like a hot potato: “I need to check the casserole. Have you got James?” “I need to go over these blueprints. Can you take James?” “Can you watch James while I run to the store?” “I’m upstairs. Do you see him?”
When Mike took James downstairs to play, she knew it was a good sign. He wanted to show off his son. James could walk now, and listen to how he said “Da!” with such confidence.
Ginny smiled and squirted some lemon on the salad. She felt that she had finally reached a kind of synergy with the house; she knew its unique sounds and could instantly pinpoint the location of a random footfall. She heard snatches of their talk in the basement and the plastic tires of James’s dump truck clattering back and forth on the linoleum. She even heard the squeak of someone turning the crank on the vise, and then someone else taking a turn, and Ann’s laugh.
Mike never used the tools to make anything, although he said he wanted to build James a chair. He was probably showing them how he used the vise to hold the wine bottle.
The tick tick of Ann’s heels moved from the workroom to the TV room. She was saying, “Oh, I had one just like this. I can’t believe they still make them,” and playing with James’s pull toy, the dog with the back legs that move up and down and the head that bobs up with a bark that sounds more like a squeal.
“Da!” said James, from the workroom. “Da” could mean Dad or dog, or even duck.
“Come see,” said Ann. Tick tick, squeal. Clatter clatter, the dump truck moved closer. “Here, you try it.”
And then, there was an ever so quiet “thump,” and Ginny’s hands paused above the salad bowl in mid-toss. She stared straight ahead, not really seeing the distressed plate rack, the one they bought at a flea market, the one their heirloom dinner plates didn’t quite fit on.
“Squeal,” said the dog.
“Da!” said James.
“How cute!” said Ann. Tick tick tick, she walked back across the floor to the workroom, opened the door with a soft, sucking whish. That’s what the thump had been, of course, the door closing between the workroom and the TV room. And Ann went back into the workroom, tick, and the door quietly thumped again, but not before the clump clump clump of Pogo’s shoes crossed the threshold into the TV room. Ann was in the workroom with Mike, and Pogo was in the TV room with James. Ginny wasn’t sure what disturbed her more, Ann alone with her husband, or Pogo alone with her son. Why had they closed the door?
“How ya doin’, Champ?” Pogo asked James. “Let’s fill that up, shall we? Get a regular construction project going here.” And she heard the sound of blocks dropping into the back of James’s dump truck, and still she stood poised with the wooden fork and spoon above the salad. Then the scuff of the door opening, and the tick tick of Ann, and the pad pad of her own husband’s mocs following into the TV room.
Was now the time for her to call them upstairs?
And then the voices of Madden-Summerall blotted out all other sounds. It was such a sudden blot, and she’d been listening so hard, that when it happened she jumped. They’d put the game on. She felt some relief, though she wasn’t sure why, and she didn’t hear the clump clump until it was over the threshold into the kitchen, as if a heavy snowfall had muffled Pogo’s footsteps. “Hey, Champ. Came up for a refill. Don’t open the fancy stuff. We’re fine with beer. Don’t do anything special for us.” He put on a look of mock hurt.
“Whatever you want. It’s all in the fridge.” She felt self-conscious suddenly, alone with him.
He tousled her hair. She cringed. He didn’t seem to notice. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen you, Ginny.” He opened a beer for himself and held it out to her. “One for you?”
“No thanks.” She was taking sips from her second glass of wine while she cooked.
“What’re you making there? Smells great. Can I try? Just a taste?” And he picked up a fork to spear one of the mushrooms from the pan. “That’s delicious,” he said chewing. He stabbed another one, ate it. He finished his beer in a few swallows. “I’ve missed you so, Ginny. Let me look at you.” He said it like a stage actor, consciously theatrical. It was all part of the package. Even his name: Pogo, rather than Porter Gottschalk, which he hated. He grabbed her chin, and she rolled her eyes at him. Christ. This is just the kind of bullshit she couldn’t stand, even though he pretended to be nice and funny, he was so pushy.
“You’ve always had such pretty blue eyes, deep as a fjord.” She blushed, despite herself. “Mike says that’s one of the things he loves about your face.”
That was true; Mike did say that. And he’d never seen a fjord. She had, though. Pogo still held onto her chin, staring into her eyes with a puppyish expression, and then he leaned close to her. “How about a little kiss, just between friends, a little peck?” He said it quietly and almost shyly, like a kid asking for another cookie when he’d already been told he couldn’t have one. But she knew it was an act.
She shoved him away, making light of it. “Give me a break, Po.”
He opened another beer. She drank her wine a little faster and took down the dinner plates.
“Let me help you. Is it almost ready? I’m in no rush. I could look at you all night. Mike’s a lucky man. That face. Do you remember—”
“I’ve got this under control, Pogo. Go watch the game.”
“Okay, okay. I know when I’m not wanted. But not until I get that kiss. Just one on the cheek, right about there.”
He wore her down was what happened. That was his talent. She turned her cheek toward him, and he kissed it fast, like he said he would, but as he came up, he put his lips next to her ear, kissed her again, this time with a slight lingering, and said, “That night was so sweet, so nice, the nicest, ever. Remember?” Ginny sucked in her breath and turned away.
“Go. I’ll call you when it’s ready,” she said.
He stayed behind her, talking into her hair, breathing on her neck. “I hate football, don’t you? They’re watching like zombies. I could stay here with you. No one would miss me. Ann likes Mike better than me, anyway. She always talks about him. ‘I wonder what Mike’s doing? Where’s Mike been hiding?’”
Ginny wondered if that was true.
“You’re running low. Let me pour you some.” He had a new bottle open before she could protest. “Cheers.”
She nodded. She wished he would go away now. She half thought to go down to the basement herself, but something stopped her. What would she find? The TV was so loud. But James was down there. James was the safety net. James.
She opened the broiler and cut into one of the steaks. It was bloody. “I think it’s done,” she said. “Why don’t you tell them.”
He grabbed her wrist, gently. “You used to like me. Don’t you still like me? You used to think I was awfully cute. I’m still cute, aren’t I? Sometimes I think, it could be me and not Mike here.”
“That would never happen.”
“I’m wounded. I bleed. Stick me in the broiler.”
Then Mike stepped into the kitchen, and that was when Ginny noticed she didn’t hear the TV anymore. His face was mottled, like meat. She could see he was struggling with something. Pogo still held her wrist.
“Ginny won’t run away with me,” Pogo said.
Mike smiled, his shoulders jerked, a shrug like a marionette. “Ann and I were betting that James would make a good running back. You should see how fast he moves. Nothing gets in his way for long.” He bit his bottom lip, and when he let it go, it quivered. “Think how fast he’ll be by 18.”He took a beer from the fridge and drank it to camouflage the shaky lip. Ginny wasn’t fooled.
“You know that guy, that guy who owns Cue Bar? He’s a big donor at State.” Mike talked fast, like he couldn’t keep up with himself. “One call, and he’d make ’em look at James. Gotta keep up the acquaintance. Never know what can happen. You still have his number, Po?”
“Sure, Champ. We’re playing there next week. You oughta come by, sit in on the keys for a set. If it’s okay with you, Ginny.”
“Why would we want him to play football?” Ginny asked, but neither man was listening.
“Look what I’ve got.” Ann was carrying James in one arm, his dump truck in the other, and he was smiling big, his hands tangled in her frizzy blonde hair.
“Now look who’s trying to steal my baby,” said Pogo. “Already a ladies’ man. You’re in big trouble, Bub.”
James never went to anyone that easily, Ginny thought.
They sat down to dinner, while James carried toys in and out of the room in adherence to some organizational logic only he understood. Even though the steaks were perfect, the meal was a bit of a bust. Mike, Pogo and Ann drank more wine and picked at their food. Couldn’t they have waited until after dinner to do their drugs? A good meal wasted. Halfway through, Mike produced a bottle of vodka at Pogo’s prodding, and Ann drank screwdrivers while the men drank it straight. Ginny ate everything on her plate, mostly because she couldn’t get a word in. Every now and then, one of them would get up and chase James around the room. Near the end, Mike was bouncing James on his knee at the table, when James picked up Mike’s steak knife and happily banged it on the dinner plate. “Da!” said James. A drop of saliva clung to his lower lip.
“Look at that,” said Pogo. “I think we found our new drummer.” Ann laughed loudly. Mike laughed, too, but his laugh went on too long and ended in a thin wheeze. Ginny leaned across the table and plucked the serrated knife from James’s hand. He was surprised and began to wail, but Ginny was ready and handed him a breadstick, which he banged on the plate once, found the sound quality lacking, and pitched across the room.
“It’s okay little man. It’s okay.” Mike sang, “‘If your breadstick goes and breaks, Papa’s gonna buy you a real drum set.’ Mommy’s looking out for you,” he said, “even though Daddy’s sitting right here and wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you in a million years.” He glared across the table at Ginny, his jaw grinding away on some imaginary wad of gum.
“I should put him to bed,” said Ginny.
“I’ll take him up,” said Mike. Now it was a competition.
“Why don’t you stay here and keep your friends company.” The ‘your’ came out without a thought. She wasn’t fooling anyone. She disengaged James from Mike’s grip and went upstairs. In James’s room, she sat down heavily on the rocker. James snuggled against her shoulder, having already forgotten the insult, and sucked calmly on a pacifier. Ginny was relieved to be away from them, from Pogo especially. She heard a burst of laughter, then quiet, then more laughter. She wondered how long she needed to stay upstairs before Pogo and Ann would leave.
That night, she tried to sleep while Mike paced the living room and drank Scotch to bring himself down. She remembered Pogo’s breath on her neck and shuddered. Even she could do something stupid. But wasn’t there a statute of limitations on stupidity? Why couldn’t he be polite and forget about it? There were certain things she would never forget: The thin mattress with no box spring, so she could feel the wood frame underneath. The foul smell of his sweat afterward, like licorice. The awful feeling, which she could summon up at any time even now, years later, the yoke of self-loathing hanging around her neck, stooping her shoulders. She and Mike had just become engaged. She always wondered if Mike knew. Sometimes she didn’t see how he could not know, but other times she didn’t see how he could.
Mike came to bed and draped his arm across her stomach. “Thanks for having them over, G. I know it wasn’t your first choice.” She mumbled something in response. His breath was sour. He would be useless tomorrow; she should try to sleep.
In a little while, Mike was snoring delicately. She rolled him over and got out of bed. There were so many nights since James was born when she couldn’t sleep, it was as if the reflex of getting up in the middle of the night was not his but hers. He slept through now, but she still didn’t. When she passed his room, instead of stopping and peering into his crib, she shuffled down the stairs in the dark. The corner streetlight illuminated the parlor. They’d forgotten to close the curtains. The bottle of Scotch was still on the table, Mike’s glass next to it. She usually drank nothing stronger than wine, but she poured herself some Scotch in his glass and took it down to the basement. She set the drink on the coffee table and told herself maybe she’d watch Charlie Rose, but she didn’t turn on the TV. She walked into the workroom and flipped on the light, the single bulb that hung from the unfinished ceiling. What did she expect to find?
There was an empty wine bottle in the vise. Her garden shears lay on the table instead of hanging on the peg board where they belonged. And there was a red straw, the kind that might come in a cocktail, cut in half. She threw the straw bits into the trash, picked up the shears and ran her finger along the cutting side, then hung them back on the hook. She almost tripped over James’s stacking rings. What would James remember from this time? Daddy, smiling, with a straw stuck in his nose? No, for a little while longer at least, he would be too young to remember any of it. Merciful how that worked. If only the mistakes could stop as soon as one began to remember.
She piled the stacking rings back on their pole in the proper order, brought them into the TV room, and put them away in the toy chest. When she lifted the glass of Scotch to take a sip, it left behind a sweaty ring. She thought to wipe it with her sleeve, what she would normally do, but let it go. She picked up James’s toy dog by the string and let it dangle and spin while she drank some more. The dog squealed in protest. Instead of putting it down, she held it and sank into the couch. The dog was made of wood, hard and angular, but she cradled it to her chest anyway, pressing it to her breast until it hurt.
Paula Whyman’s short fiction appeared in seven literary journals in 2014, including Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. In recent years, she was awarded residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and The Studios of Key West, and she was named a 2014 Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her humor writing has appeared in The Rumpus and The Washington Post, and her commentary has been broadcast on NPR. Paula teaches in writers-in-schools programs through the Pen/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC, and The Hudson Review in Harlem, NY. She lives in a suburb of Washington, DC, where she is working on a novel. Find out more at her website, PaulaWhyman.com.
Author Photo by Jo Eldredge Morrissey
About This Story
One thing I loved about how this story was originally published—it ran in a special “Parenting” issue of Bethesda Magazine, which shows that the publisher had a sense of humor about his content. But my favorite thing about this story by far is that it was acquired and edited by someone I didn’t know at the time, the novelist Susan Coll, then fiction editor at the Magazine and who has since become a dear friend.
“Statute of Limitations” had its genesis in a discussion that occurred in a writing group I was part of for many years. One of my colleagues brought in a story for critique that he referred to as a “bad friend” story. The idea being that once a couple gets married, the husband always has at least one friend the wife would rather not allow in the house, because she considers him a bad influence on her husband. (I hasten to add, this is not the case in my own house; all of my husband’s friends are nice people whose company I enjoy, and they’re welcome to pay us a visit.) Anyway. I decided it would be fun to write a “bad friend” story myself, so I came up with Pogo. After I wrote “Statute,” I realized Pogo was too much fun to leave alone, and I eventually wrote two more stories in which he’s a major player. Reading this story now it feels different from my more recent work, like I was still finding my “voice,” to use the cliché, but I can see the roots. The two newer Pogo stories, one of which was published in The Gettysburg Review and the other in The Weekly Rumpus, are included in my linked story collection, You May See A Stranger.