Matthew Kowalski stood over the kitchen sink and ate bacon. He let the crumbs fall into the porcelain basin and turned on the faucet to wash them away. His wife, Karen, usually made a big breakfast Sunday mornings for him and their boy, Ruby, but three weeks ago they’d helped him move into his dorm room. It was new to Matt, their only kid all grown up, but he could tell Karen felt different. Right away, she’d signed up for Zumba classes at the rec center, and now she sat at the kitchen table with her department store catalog. Her hair was tied up in a bun like he’d never seen before and she was tapping her feet to the music in her headphones. He couldn’t imagine what she was listening to. All their marriage they’d only turned on Rush Limbaugh in the truck. It was the only thing on the presets.
This morning, he’d fried up the bacon himself while she cut out coupons for tennis shoes. “Those are nice,” he’d said when she circled the ones she liked. “What’s wrong with yours?”
“I cut grass with those.” she’d said. “They’re all green.”
He’d almost said how a stain doesn’t mean they’re through, but knew better.
Matt walked into the dining room, licked the grease from his fingers, and stared through the sliding door to the backyard. Before they’d set off to move Ruby, Karen had mowed the lawn too soon after the rain and snapped the drive cable. They’d taken the mower to the repair shop, but it wasn’t ready yet. It was busy season. And with the flood of summer thunderstorms, three weeks had been enough time for their yard to grow a whole foot.
Besides the general unruly look to their lawn, Matt’s collection of metal garden sculptures along the side of the house was hardly visible now behind the tall blades of grass. Not that anyone ever looked at them anyway, but he liked for them to show. He soldered the scrap metal together in such an abstract way he wondered if anyone could tell they were meant to look like two people embracing.
“Don’t it bother you none?” he asked Karen, who removed her left earbud and looked up at him.
“What, Matty? The crumbs on your shirt?”
“The grass,” he said and wiped his front. He felt a tightness in his chest. They looked outside together as Mr. Riley walked by. He was tall and well-built for a man in his seventies. He wore BluBlockers and a boonie hat and let his Dalmatian, Sandra Dee, go right there in their yard.
The grass would have bothered the old Karen, the one who’d scold Ruby if he so much as stepped on the grass running to catch the school bus.
“God, won’t he die already?” she said softly of Mr. Riley as Sandra-Dee dug her paws after her mess.
“He’s in pretty good shape, Karen. I think it’ll be a while.”
Matt stood behind her and put his hands on her shoulders and was taken by the thought of his own death. Surely he would die before her. He had a ridiculous scene in his head of her packing a gym bag to the funeral so that she could stop on the way back from the cemetery. God, he needed to do something.
“You know what? I’m going to call Gordy at the shop and check on the mower,” he said. He didn’t have any siding jobs for the day anyway. She reached back and patted his hand on her shoulder and returned the earbud to her ear.
Gordy had been Ruby’s high school football coach, and he owned the small engine repair shop. A man big on promises. When they’d dropped the mower off he’d promised it in a week. It had been three. Matt called now, determined. It was a clear day. The sun was shining. He didn’t want to waste it.
He was put on hold by a voice he didn’t recognize and tired of waiting in the uncomfortable space of his own home, the cuckoo clock ticking, Karen spooning out the last bit of her yogurt, he hung up. He took the two leftover slices of bacon that sat greasing a paper towel on the counter to go.
“Up to the shop?” Karen asked, earbuds in this time.
“See if Gordy can work something out,” he said.
She set down the scissors and tossed him the truck keys from the table.
Matt parked in the loading zone in front of the storefront’s wide double pane window. There were little puffs of fog between the glass panes, moisture from the night’s rain. A broken seal. He walked through the door and was announced by both the motion sensor beeping and the knot of bells on the door handle. Still, only the shop-dog looked up.
“Hey, Crankshaft,” Matt said and patted the mutt’s head.
A teenage girl came into the showroom with a mop and a bucket. “Anyone help you yet?” she asked. Gordy’s daughter, Brooke. Matt remembered the young girl when she was even younger, when Gordy had let him sell his metal garden sculptures at the shop a few years back. Nice old cotton-headed ladies waiting for the guys to load their cars would write checks for the boring ones. Ones shaped like birds or flowers, but not the others. He remembered Brooke back then, shining tractors in the showroom, using an upturned milk crate as a stepstool for the taller spots. She’d come over to watch him arrange his display. “You should put this one in front,” she’d said about his figures. He wanted to talk to her. Say, “Hey, remember when the office ladies smoked their cigarettes inside?” She’d grown so big in so little time.
Brooke came back and tapped his shoulder. “There’s just a few ahead of you,” she said. He adjusted the waistband of his jeans and was suddenly aware of how much his stomach jutted out. When he looked down he hardly saw his work boots.
“No rush,” he said. As she walked away he added, “Hey, stay in school,” with a wink. She smiled politely and darted into the office.
An old woman in the front of the line demanded a refund from the new guy. She waved a yellowing receipt as Matt took his place in line. “You can’t just let fuel sit in the machine forever. You ruin it that way.” The new guy leaned over the counter and softened his voice. “It’ll cost to flush out the junk,” he said. He motioned for the next customer. She flipped him the bird, turned slowly, and shuffled toward the exit.
There was one more person in front of him when Gordy emerged from the back carrying a box of parts. He dumped and sorted them on the table off to the side. Gordy looked up and nodded, and Matt dropped out of line.
“Matty,” Gordy said. “How’s the wife?”
“Started those exercise classes. Hardly see her on the weekends now.”
Gordy adjusted the Oakleys resting atop his wavy hair that he had combed skillfully to hide the thinning. Even now, at fifty, he still thought of himself as a football star. He proudly displayed bar league plaques behind the counter. “Well, hey. You can watch the race without interruptions then,” he said.
“Yeah,” Matt said and stared at the small space between Gordy’s two front teeth. Matt wanted to be like the old woman waving her receipt, flipping the bird. Instead, he said, “It’s been three weeks.”
“Since you and Karen?” he said. “I mean, Matt, I never took you for that kind of guy, but you know I know some girls.”
Gordy was like that. He joked. Though it was true that he divorced his wife for a woman he’d met at the biker bar. “Come on,” Matt said. “The mower. Karen’s going to kill me if it’s not done yet.”
“Don’t know what to tell you,” Gordy said. “I can only push our guys so much. It’ll be done when it’s done. For sure by Friday.”
“Fine,” Matt said. “Let me see one of those.” He pointed past the plaques to the parts hanging in plastic bags on hooks.
“A mower belt?” Gordy asked.
“Yeah,” Matt said. He wasn’t going to walk out empty handed.
“The one we’re putting on your machine not good enough?”
“It’s for something else,” Matt insisted.
He surveyed the belts and decided to buy one he thought wouldn’t cost much. Something small. He guessed at a make and model. “Grab that Husqvarna for me,” he said, and Gordy took down a bag from the wall. It was forty dollars, more than he’d planned.
“For you, ten percent off,” Gordy said.
Matt slid a cash across the counter and tried again to be firm about the repair. “I’ll see you Friday then.”
“Or if you don’t want to hurt the bed of your truck, John will deliver it for twenty. Your choice.”
When he got home, he parked his truck in the driveway. He always backed in so that the neighbors could appreciate the face of it and the matte teal finish he’d paid for three years ago. Sometimes he even kept the hood open for people walking by to see the beauty of the insides.
“No luck,” he said when he walked through the sliding door, but Karen had already left for the rec center. He hadn’t noticed her car gone. He wished that he could make Karen jealous by going to the biker bar and talking to the girls with the shot trays, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Matt was best at. He went to the garage instead. He passed his junk metal pile and grabbed one of the last O’Doul’s from the fridge and a chocolate bar from the freezer that he hoped would be stocked with fresh venison once the season opened.
In the evening, Karen arrived home. Matt was in the recliner with a lasagna dinner from the Italian place up the road. He’d brought some home for the two of them, and had her portion and the cheesy garlic bread that she loved waiting for her on the dining room table. She set her shoebox next to it. “I stopped on my way home from class,” she said when she saw him eyeing it. She opened the bag with the garlic bread and crumpled it closed. “I think we should talk, Matty,” she said, and patted the dining room chair for him to sit down. She was still in her work out clothes, the small hairs surrounding her face were stuck to her skin. Despite the sweat, she looked refreshed, calm. Someone he’d surely never seen before.
He closed the foot of the recliner, stood to wash his hands, and stepped toward her. He knew what was coming, but his body wasn’t ready for it. In protest, it seared with heat as if he were being torn in two. Heavy pressure hit his chest, his jaw tightened, and then a release of pain. He put the heel of one calloused hand on the cap of the wainscotting and the other on his heart.
Karen’s eyes widened. She stood. “You’re not crying,” she said, and then suddenly, the blinders coming off, she realized. “Oh, fuck.”
“I can’t,” Matt said, and before he took another breath she was phoning for an ambulance. Matt was loaded onto a stretcher no more than five minutes later and Karen was there holding his hand while the siren blared.
“It’s all the damned red meat,” she said. She looked away from him to wipe her eyes.
When Matt arrived home from the hospital, he was to stay off of work putting up siding for a few days, which was fine. He didn’t have any jobs lined up anyway. The doctor had said the heart attack was a cumulative consequence of his diet, lack of physical activity, stress levels. “All manageable things,” he’d assured. Matt lingered on the word cumulative. It was a word he’d learned from Ruby cramming for his end of semester math test. Life is all cumulative, he thought. A collection of all experiences, everything welded together, inseparable. Unless you were Karen. Then you could just pick up a new course. He sat in his chair and watched some game shows. He had the mower delivered from the repair shop. He paid a neighbor boy to cut the grass. For ten dollars the boy did an okay job.
Karen wouldn’t leave him yet, but soon, he knew. They’d have to drive together to Ruby’s college to let him know. Gradually, it would happen. And then who would he be after all that he wondered.
He recalled the belt he bought from Gordy and went to fetch it from the garage. He unhooked a spade from the pegboard wall and stepped out into the sun in search of a patch of overgrown grass that spoke to him. Next to the mail post he dug a neat circle and uncovered cool and healthy dirt that he lined with the rubber mower belt. A new little garden, or “a new little thing to trim around,” Karen might say. But it was his lawn now. He meant to care for it. Tomorrow he would buy seeds and mulch.
KrisAnne Madaus is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by SpringGun Press, the Chicago Review of Books’ Arcturus, the National Book Critics’ Circle, and vanityfair.com. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program in creative writing and serves on the advisory board for WriteOn, a program that provides passionate writing teachers to underserved NYC schoolchildren. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her two cats. You can find her on Instagram @krisannemadaus.