Three o’clock. Merrill stares at the fragmented red numbers on the digital alarm clock. Two hours until it’s time to get up, and he hasn’t slept but maybe an hour, between the end of Frasier and the beginning of paid advertising.
Sherrie rolls onto her back and grunts, inhaling a gulp of air that sounds like it will choke her. A Breathe-Right strip dangles from the bridge of her nose. She closes her mouth, smacks her lips, and rolls onto her side. Merrill wonders how he will tell her.
The ceiling fan wobbles in uneven, squeaky rotations. Merrill sighs and watches as its dust-covered blades make the same circular movement over and over again. “This is it,” Merrill could say. “I can’t do this another day. Another hour. Another minute.” Sherrie would call him a coward. She would remind him of his pension. And that her insurance already covers the kids.
Porterhouse’s legs kick in a running motion. His eyes twitch; his lip curls into a snarl. Merrill decides dogs dream about real or imagined adventures-chasing neighborhood cats, bouncing up and down on the furniture, being fed treats. Merrill envies the dog.
Sherrie snorts and coughs and rolls onto her other side. Merrill never sleeps when she goes to bed first. He thinks about what he’ll do, how he’ll say it. He envisions himself leaving home, walking out the door with his half of their economy class luggage. But he couldn’t abandon the kids, and he doesn’t want to leave Sherrie, even though he’s thought about it. He’s thought about it a lot. Merrill knows he can’t because after their last big fight when Sherrie went to stay with her sister he dreamed about her all night and woke up crying.
Merrill toys with the solid band encircling his finger, turning it around and around in sync with the ceiling fan’s wobbling rotations. He sits up and decides to get a drink of water. Plus he read once that it’s better to get out of bed when you can’t sleep than to lie in bed thinking of not sleeping. Or something. He wonders how he’ll make it through another day.
Four o’clock. Merrill sits on the sofa with his feet on the coffee table flipping through eighty channels of infomercials. He thinks he wouldn’t miss the cable, if they had to make that sacrifice. The kids only watch the same Spongebob DVD’s all the time. Sherrie spends more time at work than home. Losing cable seems an insignificant forfeiture.
Sherrie would still need her phone for work, and Merrill doesn’t want to give his up for a cheap, boring one. He thinks with time he’d become accustomed to not having it, though. But the mortgage isn’t going anywhere, and even after making ten years of payments, the principle has barely decreased. Damned interest, thinks Merrill. Damned banks.
Merrill knows a lot of people, friends, out of work. He should be grateful. But he decides it isn’t normal for a man to want to drive into the lake everyday during his morning commute, so he feels it’s for the best. He could find another job. Even though he didn’t finish college because it became too expensive after Sherrie had Alexis. Then came Isabelle, then Daniel. And his is a good job. Decent pay. Benefits. What kind of man would give up reasonable employment?
“The kind who drive their cars into lakes during their morning commutes,” Merrill says to himself.
Four-thirty. Merrill lies on the sofa, arm crooked over his eyes, just another hour to close them and he’ll be all right. But he’s had too much water, and he has to pee. Merrill watches his stream create bubbles in the water and he thinks about what he’ll say. He imagines going out with a grand farewell. Telling them all how he feels. Then he thinks he should be more realistic. As if it’s not enough he’s going to do it. He is this time. And he could have the last laugh even without going down in Sumbalinx history as the guy who finally told Fat Larry to go fuck himself. He could.
Water splashes out of the steel basin and onto the granite countertop. Merrill dries his hands and opens the mirrored medicine cabinet door. He observes Sherrie’s bottle of Xanax, a brand new prescription. To the left of it is an old bottle of Vicodin from when Merrill had his tooth pulled last year, and to the right is a bottle of Tylenol P.M. Merrill picks up all three bottles and contemplates the outcome, but his life insurance wouldn’t pay out, so Merrill puts the bottles back and closes the mirrored door. Merrill’s reflection smirks at him. Wouldn’t it be a hoot, though, when Sherrie found him prostrate in the bed, maybe in a puddle of puke like after that one Super Bowl when she got so pissed off because he was on her stupid decorative throw pillows?
Five o’clock. Merrill jumps in his sleep when he hears his alarm clock bleating from the bedroom. Sherrie glares at him as he trips over his shoes and his face nearly lands on the corner of the nightstand. Merrill slaps the snooze button and apologizes to his wife. It’s time to get up anyway, she tells him. She asks him to get the kids out of bed.
Alexis and Isabelle’s sleepy eyes roll open, and they groan as light from the hallway creates long rectangular shapes across their beds. Alexis wants five more minutes.
“No now,” says her father. “Your mother is getting your breakfast ready.”
Alexis sits up from her pillow, auburn curls mashed to one side of her head. Isabelle stretches and pushes back her covers revealing pink and green Tinkerbell pajamas. Merrill thinks of their last vacation to Disney World. He thinks about explaining to them why there won’t be another one.
“Get up,” he says.
He remembers Daniel during that trip, just turned one, his face a permanent mask of excitement. Before the hospital, the nebulizer, the constant trips to the pediatrician.
Daniel lets out a sigh and rolls on his side. “Hi,” smiles the boy.
“Hey, buddy, you ready to get up?”
“Yeah,” says Daniel nodding his tiny head.
“I love you so much,” says Merrill into the rolls of his son’s chubby neck.
“I yuv you,” says Daniel.
Five-twenty. Alexis and Isabelle sit at the kitchen table scooping Fruit Loops into their mouths, tinged globules of milk drip from their spoons. A few of the multi-colored rings have fallen on the floor. Sherrie curses when she crushes one through the fabric of her pantyhose. Daniel mimics her in his high chair. Merrill raises an eyebrow at Sherrie who wipes her heel with a damp dishtowel and tells her toddler not to repeat after Mommy.
Six o’clock. Sherrie hustles the kids out the door. They’re all encumbered with their own respective loads. Sherrie with Daniel on her hip carries her briefcase, purse, and Daniel’s diaper bag while the girls both struggle with too-full book bags, lunch boxes, and thick coats. Sherrie asks Merrill why he isn’t ready for work. He tells her he will be.
“You have to leave by at least six-thirty,” she reminds him.
He knows. He can’t forget. It takes approximately fifteen minutes from the house to the interstate. Then it takes approximately fifteen more minutes to drive from the on-ramp to the bridge. Every morning at approximately seven o’clock a.m. Merrill Steppler imagines plunging his red Nissan Sentra into Lake Pontchartrain. But it probably wouldn’t even break the concrete rail, he thinks.
Seven-o-five. Merrill sits on the couch still in his pajamas sipping coffee from the Father’s Day mug Sherrie bought him the first year after Alexis was born. He stares at his cell phone sitting on the table. He’s running out of time.
“Larry Berginger’s office.”
Fuck you, you smelly fat fuck! Merrill thinks. “Hey, Lare? Yeah. I’m not going to make it in today,” he says.
“Why? What’s the matter?”
Merrill hates Fat Larry’s questions. Why couldn’t he just assume Merrill was sick and shut the hell up?
“Not feeling well. I was up all night . . . not feeling well.”
“All right then. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” says Merrill. “See you tomorrow.”
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