It’s For YouWallace Langford was Alice’s senior by fifteen years, and even now that she was a wife to him and a mother to his son, she often couldn’t help but feel herself a child in his presence. She first met him the summer before her senior year of college, when she’d taken a part-time position as book-keeping assistant at Wallace’s Discount Wines and Spirits—a warehouse liquor store Wally would in time develop into a franchise spanning the northeast—and that September, instead of returning to school, she married him.
The decision had been made for her, more or less, by the baby she learned was growing inside her only weeks before the start of fall semester. When she informed Wally, and Wally in turn—and much to her surprise—proposed, she’d felt her life narrowing in a way she wanted, but ultimately failed, to be disappointed by. She had long considered herself, in some indefinable way, an unconventional person—convention being exemplified by her mother’s woefully unremarkable example—so that she was fairly astonished at the ease with which she settled into the notion of her new life. To know what was expected of her from day to day, and what she might expect for herself, was a welcome alternative to the bewilderment she’d foreseen after graduation. Even her parents, distressed initially by the disparity in age and the haste of the proceedings, were quickly won over, just as Alice had been, by Wally’s easy charm, ready smile, and the snow-white hair he claimed had turned on him in his late teens. The effect of that hair framing his unlined face was particularly striking, suggesting a maturity seldom seen in a man not yet forty.
Nonetheless, in the months since the birth of her son, Alice had found herself increasingly preoccupied by the idea that Wally, after less than a year of marriage, was involved with another woman. There were no particular grounds for her fears—no unexplained absences, no strange expenditures, no unusual scents clinging to his clothing—only a certain vague foreboding, which had first presented itself to her in the hospital as, cradling the newborn Owen in her arms, she’d gazed uncertainly into the child’s wide, uncomprehending eyes.
Often now, while the baby napped in the afternoons, she would search the relative privacy of Wally’s study, hoping to find some scrap of evidence, though she could hardly bring herself to imagine what form this might take. In any event, nothing she came across was of any help to her, which, far from alleviating her doubts, convinced her instead that the man she’d married possessed a nearly diabolical cunning.
All the while that she indulged her suspicions, Alice inevitably returned in her mind to the pitiful attempts at lovemaking she and Wally had engaged in of late. On both occasions, her husband—hardly able to achieve an erection much less maintain one—had ended their brief, unsatisfactory encounter by turning away from her in disgrace, muttering apologies as he inched toward the edge of the mattress. And just as troubling, if not more so, was the awkward and fumbling nature of his attentions: during that summer which seemed already a lifetime ago, he’d been so gentle, so expert, so utterly in control, that Alice had wondered, with a vaguely illicit shiver of excitement, just how many girls he’d seduced before her.
Now, as their first anniversary approached, Alice’s vague intuitions had hardened into conviction, and Wally, under the watchful eyes of his young wife, gave way in turn to a harassed indifference, not only towards Alice, but the baby as well. Fatherly duties, when performed at all, were done so mechanically, without apparent affection, and were carried out only under duress. To Alice it seemed that any day now he might announce his intention of leaving: neither custody nor alimony was likely to be an issue, as she had little doubt that Wally would pay any price, gladly, to wash his hands of them. In the hours she lay awake each night, longing for sleep, she often imagined him with a suitcase in his hand, pausing for a moment on his way out of the house to offer some last feeble apology. “You ruined my life!” she would shout at him, hot tears streaming down her face at the injustice of his stranding her here with this baby, while upstairs the baby wailed on and on at the injustice of being stranded with such a mother as herself.
And then one night, as Alice and Wally ate a meal of pan-blackened flounder left too long on the stove, the telephone rang. Alice thought little enough of it at first, and yet when she moved to answer, Wally, lifting his fork in a gesture of restraint, said, “Let the machine get it.”
“And why would I do that?” asked Alice, studying him from across the table with sudden, sharp-eyed attention.
Irritably, Wally said, “We’re eating dinner, aren’t we?” though he’d done little more than poke and prod at the charred portion of flounder on his plate. “And besides,” he said, “only some idiot selling something would call at this hour.”
“Maybe it’s important,” said Alice, following through with her original intention.
“Hello?” she said when she’d reached the phone.
But there was no answer.
Pressing the receiver more firmly to her ear, she heard what she believed to be the faint exhalation of a woman—a girl, really, younger even than Alice herself—breathing quietly through small, pink nostrils.
“It’s for you,” she said, handing the phone to Wally, who took the receiver with reluctance, the affability of his usual countenance distorted now by puzzlement.
“Hello,” he said, his gaze focused all the while on Alice. After a moment, however, relief eased the downward cast of his features. “Dial tone,” he said, handing back the phone. “Who was it?”
“You tell me,” said Alice.
“You answered,” Wally said, his eyes flickering over her face now as though tracing the nervous flight of a mosquito. “Didn’t they say?”
“They didn’t say anything,” said Alice.
“You’re in a strange mood these days,” Wally said, shaking his head as he took knife and fork in hand again. “And I have to tell you that I, for one, am not enjoying it.”
He resumed eating with a composure so infuriating that Alice, hardly aware of herself, picked up the butter dish and launched it spinning across the table. The oblong missile sailed within inches of her husband’s seemingly oblivious white-haired head before smashing on the floor with a sound suggestive of broken bones. For a moment, all was quiet. Then, as if on cue, the baby commenced to cry from upstairs.
Unwilling, it seemed, to grant Alice the satisfaction of surprise, Wally, without having so much as flinched—and in spite of his oft-remarked aversion to seafood—cut a piece of flounder finally and brought it to his mouth. Turning his eyes toward the ceiling, he said, “Do you see? Do you see what happens?”
Then, after chewing for what seemed to Alice an interminable period—the workings of his jaw, she thought, resembled those of a masticating cow—Wally swallowed with some difficulty. His face reddened as the muscles of his neck labored. As his eyes began to tear, he reached for his water glass and drained it at once. “Your imagination is running away with you,” he said when he’d recovered, though his exertions had left him damp-eyed and breathless. “It’s not healthy.”
Alice only stared.
“Don’t look at me that way,” said Wally.
“What way is that?” asked Alice.
“You know,” said Wally. “You know exactly what way.”
“Tell me,” Alice said.
“All right,” said Wally, pushing aside his plate. “If you’ve got something on your mind, then say it. Let it out and be done with it.”
“I have to see to the baby,” Alice said.
“Tell me what’s got you in such a state,” Wally insisted. “Otherwise you can just put it out of your head before you do any more damage.” “I’m going,” said Alice, rising from the table. On the floor, the butter, flanked by jagged porcelain pieces, melted slowly over the white tiles. “Your mess will be waiting for you,” Wally said, and the offhandedness of his manner, affected or not, rendered her unable even to look at him, for fear that she might hurl whatever plates and cutlery remained within her reach.
In the nursery, Alice attempted to soothe the baby’s shattered nerves with gently pleading whispers. The infant Owen’s only response, however, was to carry on all the louder, his tiny fingers balled into fists and his open mouth contorted terribly. Alice tried to lift him, but the apparent invasion of her reaching hands resulted in such paroxysms of red-faced, limb-flailing misery, that she feared something inside the child might burst. “Please,” she said. “Please.” She thought of Wally in the kitchen, calmly finishing his dinner, and felt desperate.
“Shut up!” she hissed, thrusting her face into the crib. “Do you hear me? Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
But the baby, still unmoved, continued with baleful obstinacy to voice his discontent.
It was then that Alice experienced the sudden, painful cramping in her fingers which lead to her discovery of the pillow clutched fiercely in both her hands. A person looking in from the hall might have surmised that she’d been seized by some unspeakable impulse, and perhaps she had: her feelings seemed to exist at a remove from her thoughts so extensive that she had more than once considered the possibility that she might be going mad. Was she really such a stranger to herself? she wondered, horrified. She felt the blood draining from her face, the sight of which seemed to stun the baby into silence at last. Now he only stared, toothless mouth gaping, as if confronted by some curious phenomenon from which he couldn’t look away.
Late that night, Alice was awakened by plaintive sobbing from the baby’s room. Its tone seemed more forlorn to her than indicative of any particular distress, and she was reminded of a dog howling in an empty field, far from home. But as she struggled to break through the thin layer of sleep that had only just begun to settle over her, she felt the mattress shift as Wally rolled stiffly out of bed. She listened as his large, flat feet hit the floor, followed by the lumbering rhythm of his heavy gait as he went out to the nursery across the hall. No sooner had the footsteps ceased than the baby quieted: the mere sight of the hulking figure seemed to inspire whatever reassurance or fear was necessary to afford the house some measure of peace. Soon, Alice began to drift again, dreaming of a darkened interstate on which she sped anxiously along. Squinting myopically while flashing her high beams—though in her waking life she had perfect vision—she tried in vain to make out the contents of the various road signs and markers until, quite suddenly, her headlights lit upon what appeared to be an enormous yellow-white slab blocking her way. She tried to brake, but there was no time: all she could do was wrench the wheel to the left, her eyes shut tight as the skidding tires squealed…
She woke abruptly to the sound of Wally’s voice crying out from the stairwell, followed immediately by a series of sickening thumps, and then silence. For a moment she only stared at the glowing digits of the alarm clock, waiting for some further sound to distinguish what was real from what was merely dreamt.
“Wally?” she said finally.
She waited several moments, not daring to so much as breathe. When there was still no answer, she leapt from the bed and hurried into the hall as if fleeing a fire. Switching on the light Wally had apparently not felt the need for, she saw him now at the bottom of the stairs, flat on his back and clad only in boxer shorts, the baby sprawled over his broad chest.
“Wally?” she called down to him. “Wally, are you all right?”
Again, no response was forthcoming, and only after several moments did she note the moving of her husband’s lips, which seemed to occur at a slight interval from the time his voice actually reached her.
“I’m okay,” he said.
Alice grasped the banister with the intention of going down to him, but found herself immobile, her legs trembling in a way she’d experienced only after her most trying bouts of morning sickness. “What about the baby?” she said, her voice made lifeless by her efforts to suppress her rising panic. “Wally, what about the baby?”
Wally lifted his snow-white head as if surprised to find that Owen had in fact accompanied him on his fall. Grunting, he brought his hands clumsily up around the infant’s torso and, lifting him slowly, studied the child at arms’ length a moment before declaring him unharmed. Indeed, Alice, from her place up above, could see Owen’s limbs waving contentedly in the air as though treading water. “I had hold of him the whole time,” Wally said.
Still unsteady, Alice navigated the stairs now with great care, all the while keeping a firm grip on the railing. When at last she reached the bottom, she plucked the child fretfully from Wally’s outstretched hands, as if, at any moment, some further calamity might occur. Turning little Owen from left to right, she saw that he did in fact appear untouched by the accident: his wide, unblinking eyes showed nothing in the way of pain or discomfort or alarm. It occurred to her that Wally might have staged the entire incident, simulating the noises of commotion and catastrophe before arranging himself hastily at the foot of the stairs. But who would do such a thing? And to what end?
“What happened?” said Alice.
Wally, with what appeared to be great difficulty, hoisted himself into a sitting position, his back resting against the wall. “I slipped,” he said.
“Maybe if you’d put on the light,” said Alice, “you could have seen what you were doing.”
“I didn’t want to startle the baby,” said Wally. “I was going to take him down to watch t.v. awhile. That always seems to calm him down.”
“You’ve done this before?” said Alice.
“A few times,” Wally said.
“And where was I?” asked Alice incredulously.
“Dead to the world, I guess,” said Wally.
Alice wondered how this could be, when it seemed to her that she hardly ever slept. “We’ll get you to the hospital,” she said. “You probably broke something.”
“Just scrapes and bruises,” said Wally, rolling his shoulders. “I think I’ll live.”
“Still,” said Alice.
“As long as the baby’s not hurt,” said Wally.
“He’s fine,” Alice said, stroking Owen’s sparse, silky hair. “He seems fine.”
“I held him clear,” said Wally.
“He’s your child,” Alice said, bristling at her husband’s tone, which to her ears verged on self-congratulation. “That’s what people do.”
With a pinched expression, Wally shook his head. “I’m a mess,” he said. “You’re angry with me, I get that. But can’t you tell me why?” He lifted his hands and let them drop again in his lap. “I can’t eat or sleep or work. I can’t function. And I haven’t even done anything wrong. I swear.”
Alice, a damp pressure building behind her eyes, lowered her head so that her hair fell like a veil around her face. “I know,” she said softly. “I know that.”
After all, it wasn’t Wally whose unhappiness threatened to poison and distort whatever it came in contact with, but Alice’s. Staring into the hurt, the sincerity, the pleading in that round face which now seemed no more capable of real guile than the baby in her arms, she knew that leaving him—only now was she truly aware of having wanted to do so—would be far more difficult than she’d previously imagined. This man, so bear-like in his physicality and jovial in his manner, could be hurt in ways that she, Alice, could never be.
“I love you,” Wally said huskily, laying his warm fleshy hand across the instep of her foot.
“I don’t think they’ll appreciate you showing up to the ER in those shorts,” Alice said, and true enough, his underwear was in so sad a state that little was left to the imagination. “We’d better get some clothes on you.”
“I told you,” said Wally, his fingers closing with mild insistence around her ankle. “I don’t need to go to any hospital.”
Despairingly, Alice said, “Oh, Wally.” Her throat, she realized, was extraordinarily parched, for her voice was like the creaking of a hinge, long disused and in need of oiling. Kneeling beside her husband, she clutched the baby to her in such a way that the child’s lips brushed her neck repeatedly in a series of brief, fluttering kisses. She rested her chin lightly upon the crown of Wally’s white-haired head as, sucking at her cheeks in an effort to introduce some moisture to her dry mouth, she worked up the nerve to say what must be said.