Thomas has said nothing the entire session. He leans back in the metal folding chair that he prefers. A year ago, for Thomas’s first appointment, Dr. Lena Novak borrowed the chair from a colleague and family friend, Jim Merrill, whose office was down the hall. Thomas’s father and sister had also come. In that session Thomas struck his father. At the time, Lena thought she would no longer see Thomas, but
Dr. Merrill insisted she stick with it. He told her this while they were in bed at a Hilton hotel. It was the fifth time they’d slept together. In the evening after the seventh, Lena confessed the affair to her husband, Sidney, who forced her to reveal details that he then accused Lena of making up in order to hurt him. Their daughter, Ginny, overheard the conversation.
Directly behind Thomas is an old iron radiator. If he were to lose his balance and fall back, that’s what his head would hit. Lena breathes silently and glances at the clock on her desk. There are three minutes left. This is her last appointment of the week. Above them, a ceiling fan wobbles, the little metal chain ticking against the round glass lamp.
Thomas says, “I heard you lost a patient last week.”
“How did you know?”
“Psych patients are a hive mind,” he says, leaning farther back, the chair squeaking.
“Do you believe that?”
Lena counts the seconds in her head.
“You didn’t know I knew her, did you,” Thomas says. “You don’t look like you knew. Hard to tell with you though, Lena.”
“I didn’t know,” says Lena. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”
“Sometimes I want to smack you, robot.”
“It’s time to stop for today,” says Lena, sitting up straight and putting her hands on her knees, knowing she should have pointed out the inappropriateness of his remark, knowing she would terminate the relationship. She would do it next week by telephone. “Friday at four?”
Thomas lets the chair back down and stands up.
“No,” says Thomas, opening the tall oak door to Lena’s office. “I’m not coming back. You’re fucking fired.”
Thomas slams the heavy door behind him. The papers and computer and clock on Lena’s desk jump, the window rattles, and the old wobbly fan drops from the ceiling. It is stopped for an instant partway down by its own cords, then breaks free and crashes to the floor. A wooden blade snaps off, the ball of glass containing the bulb shatters, the bulb itself pops, throwing bits of glass all over the office.
Later, at the large home-improvement center near the mall, Lena guides her orange shopping cart through a catacomb of stacked washers and dryers until she reaches Home Lighting. Overhead the fans rotate perfectly, soundlessly. Lena combs her hair out of her eyes with her fingers and looks up.
A man in a dirty orange apron approaches her. He is short, with dark, almost semicircular eyebrows. The whites of his eyes completely surround the brown-black irises, as though he’s just encountered something chilling. He is not smiling. He reminds her faintly of her husband, except Sidney stands at average height, a condition that he told Lena he knows was a factor in her affair with Jim Merrill, who stands six two.
Lena points to a fan overhead that looks nothing like the one in her office. “I’d like to buy that.”
“That model comes as a do-it-yourselfer. It don’t come with bulbs, and you need a screwdriver, slot head, even though it don’t say so on the box.”
The employee slides a long box off a shelf and places it in Lena’s cart. Lena looks at the box, then at the man’s name tag: Tony.
“I see. Do I need anything else?”
“Nope,” says Tony. “Follow me to screwdrivers.”
In the large central corridor that bisects the store, a woman comes toward Lena and Tony. She pushes her cart with her arms crossed along the handle. Her head droops, as though she were half asleep at a school desk. Her hair is cut short and unevenly; a patch at the crown of her head is cropped so close her scalp reflects the light. Her thin legs stick out of cutoff jeans and seem to stab her black sneakers. A large roll of metallic duct tape, the kind people use to tape cardboard over broken car windows, sits alone in her cart.
“For wire work, ma’am,” says Tony. He hands Lena a screwdriver with a black, rubber-coated handle. “Just in case.”
“Bulbs thisaway,” says Tony. He looks back to see if Lena is still following him. The thin woman disappears around a corner.
Tony points down an aisle, salutes, then leaves.
At the register, Lena hands the cashier her debit card, but the cashier just points to a machine on a post at the end of the counter.
“Oh,” says Lena, staring at the diagram on the machine to determine which way to slide her card through.
“Fu-u-u-uck,” someone behind Lena says. Lena glances back; the thin woman slouches in line behind her. It is not clear what has annoyed her.
Lena slides her card through the machine.
“Debit credit,” says the cashier.
“Uh, debit, please,” says Lena.
The thin woman stands up straight and gazes at the high, corrugated ceiling. She yawns, her mouth a graveyard of carious teeth. She pulls on the tail of her loose T-shirt, revealing a tattoo inked across her chest in a rust-red copperplate: Tammy.
“Yes, please,” says Lena. “Is forty dollars all right?”
“Your money,” says the cashier.
“I just meant I didn’t want to empty your register.”
“Christ,” the thin woman mutters.
The cashier ignores Lena and the thin woman. She opens her register, hands Lena two twenties without looking at her, and at the same time takes the roll of silver duct tape out of the thin woman’s hand and shoots at it with a scanner gun. Then the thin woman hoists a coil of soft, red garden hose onto the counter. The cashier searches for the bar code and shoots it.
In the parking lot, Lena sits in her car, the engine idling. It is past six. The clouds look strange: gravid and rounded, like disembodied breasts hanging from a ceiling. Lena imagines a field of prostrate, martyred Agathas.
Her phone rings.
“Why do you say that? You know it’s me. Why can’t you look at your phone, answer it, and say ‘Hey, Sidney’ like a regular person?”
The thin woman comes out of the store. The wind picks up and catches her cart, pulling her off-balance.
“Where are you anyway, hal 9000?”
“I’m going to stay at the office for a while.”
The thin woman crosses the length of the parking lot to an old four-door pickup. She opens the door, tosses the hose and tape inside, climbs in, then slams the door with such ferocity that Lena flinches.
“Gonna give Rorschachs and blowjobs?”
“So, just blowjobs, then?”
“I have paperwork to do.”
“On your . . . client?”
“On May, yes.”
The truck is still parked.
“If you’re at the office, why didn’t you pick up the landline?”
Blue exhaust blurts from the truck’s tailpipe. Oil in the combustion chamber, a bad thing. Sidney had taught her that.
“Why did you call?” says Lena, watching the truck.
“Do I have to have a reason?”
The thin woman slips the truck into gear and heads for the south exit of the parking lot.
“You don’t seem to want to talk when I’m at home.”
“The only thing I want to hear from you is when your paramour relocates his practice like he promised he would.”
“Is he there now?”
“You’re not at the office, are you.”
“I’m in the car, heading to the office. I had to run an errand.”
“I detect prevarication. Well, I’m used to it. I’ll be home parenting the daughter for whose future well-being we’re bravely preserving our punch line of a marriage.”
Sidney hangs up. Lena follows the woman out of the parking lot and up onto the freeway.
The sun has dropped below the breast-hung clouds and shines harshly into Lena’s eyes. The freeway is busy. The wind is gusting strongly now, pushing the clog of semis halfway into neighboring lanes.
An hour later, the woman exits onto a rural highway. After a few miles, she turns down the deserted main street of a small town. At a blinking yellow light, she turns onto a residential street. Lena stops at the light and looks down the road just as the woman pulls into a driveway.
Sycamore and prairie oak line the street, guarding small, square bungalows. Plastic tricycles and blanched tennis balls sparsely populate the weedy yards. All the mailboxes are bent or decapitated. Fireflies spark in the blackening corners of the yards.