Elaine Slater

This short mystery from “Sweet Mysteries of Life”, a compilation of short stories by Elaine Slater, first appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in November of 1960. At the time, Anthony Bouchard described it as, “...a curious and subtle story, with a surprisingly sharp bite.” Purchase your copy here.

The Way It Is Now

     When they were first married right after graduation from college, he had never been able to spend enough time with her. They bought a cabin in Lake Country with no communication to the outside world, and spent every weekend there, walking hand in hand, sitting by a roaring fire, listening to the lonely call of the loons, lost in each other - that is when they weren’t chopping wood or hauling water from the
lake, huffing and laughing at the unaccustomed exercise.

     But lately things had changed. Business commitments kept him occupied on Saturdays. He could no longer find the time to escape to the cabin. When she spoke to him, he was never quite there. His reading moved gradually from Margaret Lawrence and Robertson Davies to the Financial Post and endless market reports. He still sat through the arty movies - Fellini, Bergman - but when she tried to probe their murky depths he never contributed a word.

     “Where are you?” she would ask in exasperation. “Am I talking to a stone?”

     “I heard you,” he would reply, jumping slightly as though she caught him at the cookie jar. “Your last words were precisely ‘...and the dog, of course, symbolizes the eternal evil in man.’”

     She would sigh. He was listening evidently, but still...he wasn’t all
there. His mind was on other things, and all the newly acquired luxuries that his business success brought them could not compensate for the loss of her young, playful, loving husband. His sense of humor now seemed reserved for his business associates, who told her how he broke them up at the Board meetings. He worked long into the night
several times a week and came home bone-weary. How could a man that tired exercise a sense of humor, or talk, or for that matter, make love?

     They bought a house in Rosedale and hired a housekeeper. Now she had more time than ever to feel lonely. She scanned the magazine advertisements and decided that perhaps she was doing it all wrong. She bathed at twilight, donned an expensive pink dressing gown, made a mixer of ice-cold martinis and decided to eat by candlelight. When he arrived home, their favorite Mozart concerto was playing. He looked mildly surprised at her outfit, commented that she smelled good, said he preferred a bourbon on the rocks to a martini which gave him indigestion, suggested more lighting over dinner because he couldn’t see what he was eating, picked up the latest Barrons Report and fell asleep on the sofa. His own snoring woke him up and he stumbled up to the bedroom.

     If she had suspected another woman she would have had a better
idea of how to fight back. But how does one fight an addiction to
business? She bought self-help books and even furtively read How to Get and Keep a Man, a national best seller. Most of her friends now had jobs and she decided that perhaps she ought to be out in the marketplace working. She found a job editing a small literary magazine. But even that didn’t fill the gaping void in her life. It kept her occupied during the day, but she still had to come home often to an empty house, or perhaps worse still, to a husband who never looked up from his papers or who stayed on the phone all evening talking to his business colleagues.

     She thought about taking a lover, and had lunch with one of the young men with whom she worked. He showed an extraordinary
interest in her husband’s stock portfolio, and shuddering at the thought of a preoccupied lover, she decided she hated all men. She began to brood. Her friends had children on whom they could vent their frustrations. She had no one. She mulled over the idea of suicide, but her other self kept calling out rebelliously,”Why should I die? I’m perfectly capable of laughter, of love! It is he who is dead already. It’s not fair for you to kill me.”

      The Malahat Review slipped from her lap as she stared for a long time at her hands. When he came home that night she made no attempt to share with him the boring day’s activities. He didn’t seem to notice the deathly silence, although the housekeeper became so nervous that she broke a rare Minton plate. When the telephone rang just as they were having their coffee, he jumped up to answer it. His suddenly animated voice rang through the dining room, “Harry! How did it go in Vancouver? I’ve thought of nothing else all evening...” She walked thoughtfully upstairs.

      When he came into their bedroom, he was jubilant. He caught her around the waist and shouted, “The Pannoil deal is going through! Can you beat that? After two years of negotiating, it’s finally going through. Bigness! That’s the only thing that talks these days, and we’re going to be BIG! I wish Harry were here right now, I’ve got to hear all the details. I’d...”

     She interrupted him quietly. “Let’s celebrate. Let’s go to the cabin
this weekend. We haven’t been there in years. The road will soon be
impassable and we won’t be able to go again ‘til spring.”

     “This weekend?” He looked dubious.

     “Yes - we’ll have a second honeymoon. We could find each other

     “Have you lost me? Or have I lost you?” he asked in his old teasing voice. “Okay, honey, if you want a second honeymoon you’ll have it. But I’ll have to cancel two meetings on Saturday. How about putting it off for a week or two?”

     “No,” she said firmly. He was too triumphant at the thought of the successful Vancouver deal to want to break the mood, so he did not argue. On Friday they drove up to the cabin.

     It was just as they had left it. No one ever came near the place except for the field mice. There were signs of them everywhere in the house, but everything else seemed the same. There had already been a light premonitory sprinkling of snow in the area, but the woodpile and the ax were sheltered somewhat under the eaves. The wood was not too wet and they quickly made a smoky fire to warm the little room.

     She bounced on the squeaky brass bed a few times and gazed about her happily. Far away, down at the lake, a loon called. As night fell, a cold bright quarter moon shone brilliantly through the pine trees.

     She set about cleaning and sweeping while he fiddled with his old short wave radio. Finally, flushed, tired and happy she collapsed into
the old slip-covered easy chair by the fire. All the old warmth and affection began to return. Perhaps here they would find what they
had lost. Perhaps here he would look at her again and not through her. Perhaps here he would be interested, if only for a weekend, in her, in her life, in her love - and forget the business world, which consumed him. Yes, she was ready to settle for just a weekend.

     He sat opposite her by the fire, gazing into its crackling blue and
orange flames. She did not light the kerosene lamp but the light from
the fire brought his face into relief. The moon, shining through the
windows, traced a pattern on the wood plank floor. She watched him
tenderly, feeling the old love for that now tired, worn face. There was a distant, even a wistful look on his face. She settled back opposite him in the shabby old chair that they bought in a country junk shop when they were first married. They had loaded it together onto the pick-up that he had driven in those days, laughing hysterically as they struggled to hoist it onto the truck. The front seat was so loaded with their gear, that she had ridden the whole way to the cabin seated on that chair in the back of the truck amid a clutter of second-hand household goods.

     How funny that had been! Everyone on the road had turned to look, laugh and wave. And when they arrived at the cabin after an unbelievably bumpy trip over miles of isolated dirt roads with low, overhanging branches that clawed at her face and battered the sides of the truck she had jumped into his waiting arms. Happily he had carried her to the threshold, where he discovered he had to drop her unceremoniously in order to get at the key that was hanging on a rusty nail. They had laughed together until they couldn’t stand up. They had clung to each other for support. Yes, clung to each other.

     She was deep in nostalgia. He lifted his head and gazed at her. She gazed back into his eyes, trying to guess his thoughts. Were they as far away as hers? Were they as full of love and the possibilities of love as hers were? He started to speak, and she leaned forward, a slight smile on her lips.

     “You know,” he began wistfully.

     “What should I know?” she interposed softly and flirtatiously.

     It had begun to snow outside and a rising wind was rattling the windowpanes, but inside everything was warm and cozy. The heat from the fire was making her drowsy and her lids were heavy as she smiled across at him.

     “Central American Tobacco has just merged with Amalgamated Biscuit.”

      She buried the bloodstained ax in the snow and went back to sit by the fire - to lose herself in nostalgia again before she had to go look for the shovel.