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Fiction: "The Bricklemeyers" by Barbara Taylor

Nelson Bricklemeyer mowed the lawn for the second time in three days. He hated an unkempt yard and checked every evening for problems. Inevitably, he found them. Drooping hosta leaves, dust on the mailbox, weeds. Trash tossed out of car windows incensed him most. He kept an eye out, not only for the condition of his property but the neighbors’ as well, some of whom favored the “natural” look that offended Nelson’s aesthetic sensibility. Especially that woman across the street—Sylvia—who had no husband. Just a yardman who didn’t, as far as he could tell, follow a regular schedule, and he kept careful track of these kinds of things.
Nelson retired early from an undistinguished career as a claims adjuster—not of his own accord, but the company’s. Another source of aggravation: the damn company. He’d been a loyal, hardworking employee, and what thanks did he get? To top that off, wife Carolyn started volunteering—without consulting him, by the way—at the neighborhood elementary school, leaving Nelson to fend for himself after thirty-five years of marriage. Something to do with computers. They didn’t talk about that or much of anything, really, except the list for their Saturday trips to the grocery.
“Do you want bananas for your corn flakes?” Carolyn asked on Friday nights, pencil in hand.
“I always eat bananas with my corn flakes,” Nelson answered as if he didn’t say the same thing every week.
“I thought you might like to try blueberries for a change,” replied Carolyn.
“I don’t like change,” Nelson muttered under his breath.
The truth was, he’d never been a contented man, even before the layoff. It was one thing when Nelson was employed, but Carolyn Bricklemeyer couldn’t have predicted how stifling this retirement business would be. The reality that it was a permanent condition was almost too much to contemplate. She took up birdwatching from the sun porch in all kinds of weather just to fill her lungs with air she didn’t have to share with Nelson. She counted the hours ‘til Monday when she returned to work at the school office and ate lunch at the cafeteria, which was free of charge in consideration of her volunteer service. Happy to eat whatever was on the menu since she didn’t have to prepare it, she requested extra helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy because Nelson wasn’t there to scrutinize every bite she took. She’d gained a few pounds, but so what? Just when her children were out of the house and on their own, Nelson was underfoot, his angst like a heavy suitcase he refused to put down. Carolyn had solved Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. by escaping to the school. That left only evenings and weekends to get through, and Nelson was thankfully often wrapped up in yard work. The yard wasn’t big enough, in Carolyn’s opinion.
“My husband has time on his hands,” she commented to the school secretary when he called to complain they had run out of tomato soup or cheese. Nelson’s regular lunch was a cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup, and he made sure to alert Carolyn if these items were lacking. But you go to the store with me, Carolyn would say in her own defense. He didn’t like to hear this, and Carolyn didn’t like the fact that Nelson was always there. Hovering. Criticizing. Blaming. Or running the lawnmower or electric trimmer or blower until she had to stuff cotton in her ears. But rainy days were the very worst, since Nelson couldn’t work outdoors and the television was on.
“Can’t you turn down the volume?” Carolyn called from the sun porch. “You’re scaring the birds away.”
“What?” yelled Nelson, as he switched channels yet again to a sporting event with a cheering mob.
Still, television kept the man occupied and in one place. When he tried to fix something, he got into trouble. He had never been particularly handy. When the freezer door stuck, he spread out every tool on the kitchen floor and fiddled for two hours to no avail. While he was rattling around in the garage, Caroline found a wire coat hanger and had the door closing smoothly in seconds. His wife’s easy fix caused Nelson to seethe when he finally appeared clutching a giant wrench. He grabbed up the rest of his tools and disappeared. In a way, this was a good thing, as Carolyn didn’t see hide nor hair of him for the rest of the day and almost felt she was alone in the house. A delightful feeling.
The Bricklemeyers had little in the way of a social life. Carolyn’s idea of a good time was reduced to curling up in bed with a book and a package of low-fat chocolate cookies. Nelson didn’t read beyond the newspaper, and the only people he spoke to were the paper boy (if he was late) and the man in back who had also been laid off. They both trimmed their shrubbery into rectangles and watched The Cheap Life religiously, but other than that they had nothing in common.
The rest of the neighbors annoyed Nelson no end. On one side was an above-ground pool, and he objected to it on principle (unsanitary) and the squealing fun-loving children who hung their towels on the deck rail in plain sight. The other side featured a family with teenagers and dogs. Cars constantly coming and going from the driveway. Too many parties with garish helium balloons tied to stair railings. He didn’t interact with any of them or the woman, Sylvia, across the way whose yardman sometimes piled debris by the curb a day early. Nelson fantasized about calling the city and demanding they send someone out immediately to issue a ticket to this Sylvia person, branding her a public nuisance. The possibility gave Nelson a secret thrill. Reporting the infraction was anonymous, which heightened the appeal, plus it required constant vigilance. As luck would have it, he had all the time in the world.
Carolyn decided her husband must be obsessed with Sylvia, an attractive—and apparently popular—woman she had only seen from a distance. Why else would he stand at the glass storm door for hours, staring at her house? For this reason, she decided not to cook dinner but instead to order out for pizza, a spontaneous decision Nelson strongly objected to. Didn’t he deserve a home cooked meal? This trend needed to be nipped in the bud before it spiraled out of control.
“I don’t want pizza,” he said, believing that settled the matter.
“Fine. More for me,” Carolyn said.
She’d never met Sylvia but resented her anyway. All that freedom and independence! It was so unfair. Sylvia, as far as Carolyn knew, did exactly as she pleased when she pleased. Evidently, she lived alone which meant the shopping got done without a man tagging along. No retired husband to trip over with his ear-splitting TV shows and machines and snits. Suddenly Carolyn didn’t care if Nelson ate peanut butter and stale crackers for dinner or, for that matter, if he ate at all.
“I’m calling the kids,” she said as if to herself. Nelson was opposed to this idea, too, because, to his way of thinking, their son and daughter didn’t call or visit frequently enough and needed to be taught a lesson. Unbeknownst to Carolyn, he had recently hung up on both of them. Too little too late. Where was their respect, for goodness sake? “I miss them, Nelson. We can go out for brunch this weekend.”
“To a restaurant, you mean?” Nelson’s voice grated. What in the Sam Hill was going on with Carolyn? It didn’t occur to him to inquire.
“C’est La Vie, with the champagne fountain. If you’d rather not go, stay home.” Carolyn picked up the phone to dial her daughter, who was thrilled to hear her mother’s voice. The lilting tone was a refreshing change. What brought it on? Nelson stamped out of the room. It was a mystery to him, after a life of self-control and sacrifice, that he had been saddled with inconsiderate, thankless people in every direction. His family, the neighbors, the company. Why only that morning Carolyn had run the dishwasher when it wasn’t completely full. As expected, he refused to go out for brunch, choosing instead to mow the lawn.
His wife and children had a lovely time. In fact, they couldn’t recall a more pleasurable or relaxed family get-together, but then Nelson was absent. When Carolyn arrived home, he was parked in a lawn chair aimed at Sylvia’s house. Refusing to acknowledge his wife or even to seek oblivion through the TV remote, Nelson remained in his vantage point. Maybe he’d stay there all night. Carolyn reveled in the welcome silence for the rest of the day. Before bed, she scribbled a note, which she taped to the refrigerator:
Nelson: Since I’m busy and you’re unemployed, you can go to the grocery store by yourself from now on. Buy whatever you want. I’ve lost interest in food. Carolyn
Monday arrived, and Carolyn chose a Weight Watchers meeting over a starchy lunch at the school cafeteria. By summer vacation, she’d lost fifteen pounds and won the school system’s Volunteer of the Year Award. She invited her children, but not her husband, to the ceremony downtown at the education center. In her acceptance speech, she acknowledged Sylvia as her inspiration for designing a new and ever-evolving life.
“Mom, who’s Sylvia?” her children asked at the reception. But Carolyn only smiled.
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