On a bright Tuesday in September, Richard de Witte discovered a pile of sand at the base of his driveway. He stepped outside with the dog for their afternoon walk, and there it was. Richard didn’t know the proper way to assess a quantity of sand, but there was a lot of it, in the shape of a pyramid, as tall as he was and as wide as a car. While Heidi squatted and peed in the grass, Richard poked his finger into the side of the pile twice, creating eyes, and imagined a crude sphinx staring back at him.
Whose sand was it? Not Richard’s. He didn’t think so, anyway. Couldn’t remember ordering it, although certainly he had thought about buying a large quantity of sand. Who hadn’t? Sand had its many uses; he knew this from watching home improvement videos on YouTube. A person could fill a wooden frame with sand to form a little Zen garden, with a wooden rake and smooth black river stones. He could visit it from time to time in the backyard, raking furrows into the sand, and rearranging the stones, thinking his thoughts. Or escaping his thoughts – probably that was the purpose of the Zen garden. He thought it would be a nice little retirement project, but his wife Maria expressed concern about neighborhood cats treating the garden like a litter box.
The matter of whose sand it was – this was something he could think about on his walk around the block with Heidi. This was the sort of thing that could fill an afternoon. As he strolled past each house in the neighborhood, he peered into the yards, looking for evidence of landscaping or construction work. At the Gupta family’s house, Richard let Heidi take her time nosing through their red-gold chrysanthemums. The flowers spilled out of a rustic wooden barrel that must have been covered in dog urine, because Heidi stayed put, splaying all four of her legs to brace herself when Richard tugged the leash to move on. But there was nothing indicating a need for a gigantic quantity of sand: no construction, no visible landscaping projects.
The next house, the Cohen house, was his favorite on the street. There was always something new to admire in their garden: the thick green ivy that wound its way up the wrought iron gate, the way the plants overflowed from terra cotta pots and raised wooden beds. The stone path that snaked among the beds, leading from the curb to the crimson front door of their house. The flowers seemed to bloom with the seasons, moving in swaths of color like some kind of confused rainbow – starting off yellow in the spring with forsythia blossoms exploding on their slender, sloping branches, and daffodils rising up out of the earth, and then moving into pink cherry blossoms, the purple irises, the violets dotting the grass and now, finally, hydrangeas emerging from their bushes in the late summer.
Cupping the blossoms in his hand, he stretched his neck to see if anyone was there; he wasn’t doing anything illicit, but he’d be embarrassed if one of the Cohens caught him fondling their flowers. How he loved those hydrangeas! Their rich, saturated color. He’d looked them up online – searched “purple flowers that grow on bushes” – to find out what they were called, and once he knew their name he saw them everywhere, even in his own yard. The ones at home were tidy little bushes, tucked around the side of the house in neatly mulched beds, creamy pink blossoms clipped into symmetry by the monthly landscaping service. Muriel Cohen’s were a deep blue, almost indigo, and they spilled out and over around the edge of her yard.
“You can pee on them,” said a voice from behind the bush. He hadn’t seen her in the yard but there was Muriel, kneeling, with a trowel in her hand. Her wild curls were pulled back into a loose, messy bun and her forehead gleamed with sweat. A glossy green hose lay at her side in loose coils. Richard released the hydrangea blossom and stumbled backward.
Muriel laughed, sat back on her calves and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. “The hydrangeas, I mean. That’s how you get the blue color. I’m kidding, though. I mean, you can pee on them for the same effect, but we use coffee grounds instead. Saul thinks it’s a bit more civilized.” She rose to her feet, steadying herself with one hand pressed to the grass, and then picked up the nozzle of the hose before walking toward him. She began to spray the roots of the bushes, careful not to get the toes of Richard’s sneakers though she stood only a few feet away.
Up close he could see the creases on the sides of her eyes and the gap between her front teeth. Her skin was deep brown with sun, her shoulders and chest and cheeks dappled with freckles and moles. The skin under her upper arms sagged, but her forearms were taut with muscle, her tanned wrists tapering into rough, square hands. She smelled like earth and fresh tomato and, surprising himself, he imagined the garden she must have in the backyard, the orderly rows of beans, the squash, the plants all heaving with ripe vegetables. Even as he thought that this was the longest conversation he’d had and probably would ever have with Muriel Cohen, he worked up the nerve to ask her how she did it.
“How do I do what?” She stopped spraying and looked at him, her head tilted to the side.
“Just – all of this. It’s incredible, the way everything works together. The way something is always blooming.”
Muriel was quiet for a moment, thinking. She held the hose in one hand and her thumb fiddled with the switch on the nozzle. “Well,” she said. “I guess it took shape over time. But what I do is, I think about abundance. Just the notion of it, and I try to plant things that bloom throughout the year so it always feels like that. Does that make sense?”
It made sense to Richard. He thought about it all the way around the block, looking at all the other lawns with their manicured green grass, the tidy bushes spaced apart in their beds of edged mulch. It made so much sense to Richard that when he got back to his own house, his yard looked not just boring but empty. He had never noticed the sameness of it, or if he had, he’d noticed it in an appreciative way – the way he’d sometimes glance over at the other men at the golf course to ensure they were dressed more or less the way he was, or how he’d upgrade his car when he realized it was older than the other ones on the street. It wasn’t until later, when he was slicing zucchini to grill for dinner, that he realized he’d forgotten to ask Muriel if she knew anything about the sand.
Maria came home from the gym just as he was moving the marinated chicken to the grill outside on the patio. Under her arm she had a padded manila envelope, and she kept it tucked there while she opened the door to the refrigerator and she pulled out a mason jar full of farmer’s market pickles, entire little cucumbers suspended in brine. From behind, Richard could admire her ass, high and tight and firm, her waist and hips smooth beneath stretchy yoga pants. The little triangle of light that formed where her thighs didn’t quite meet. He knew without looking that tiny beads of sweat would be quivering on the curve of her upper lip and gathering between her small breasts, bound down tight by her sports bra. She turned around to place the jar of pickles on the countertop, still with the envelope tucked under her toned bicep. He leaned down to kiss her and could taste the salt of clean sweat on her upper lip.
“I was just about to call this a record day,” he said. “No Amazon packages.”
Maria turned away with a half laugh. “Maybe tomorrow. But check this out.” She pulled from the envelope what appeared to be a wooden stick with a metal knob on one end and a claw on the other. Richard looked at the claw, then at the jar of pickles. “What is it?”
“It’s a pickle picker!” Her smile broadened as she demonstrated. “I used to have one when I was a kid, and I was thinking, now that I’m trying to eat more fermented food, you know, for gut health? It would be easier to have one of these to get the pickles out of the jar. Look.”
She pushed down on the knob at the top of the wooden stick and the claw opened; she dipped the device down into the jar of pickles and released, letting the claw sink its talons into one of the pickles. She pulled it out and dropped the pickle into her hand, then took a big bite. The briny smell of cucumber and garlic and vinegar filled the air.
“Neat,” said Richard. He left her crunching the pickle and went outside to grill the chicken.
Maria didn’t bring up the sand until after her shower, when they were all seated around the dinner table: Cooper shoveling grilled chicken and couscous into his mouth because he was late for band practice; the twins Callie and Corinne, smelling like crushed grass and sweat, still in their shin guards from a field hockey match. Maria’s dark hair was loose and damp around her shoulders, and she’d changed into a soft crew neck sweatshirt the color of cranberries. On her plate: a small pile of couscous, a larger serving of chicken, three slivers of grilled zucchini and a heap of] sauerkraut. She forked a piece of grilled chicken, then scooped up some sauerkraut before bringing it to her lips. “Oh hey,” she said, after chewing. “What’s with the dirt pile?”
Richard took a bite of zucchini, which he had marinated in teriyaki sauce before grilling. It was tender and sweet. “I think it’s sand,” he said. “No known provenance.”
Maria placed her fork and knife on her plate with a clink and leaned back. “You didn’t order it?” Richard shook his head and kept eating. Callie looked at Corinne, then back at her food. Maria crossed her arms. “You’re absolutely sure?”
“I’m ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent sure I didn’t order it.”
“Because I thought we agreed about the zen garden -”
Richard couldn’t let her finish. “We agreed. I’ll figure it out.”
Maria tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and bit her lip. “Cooper, didn’t you email the neighborhood over the summer, when you were mowing lawns? Maybe you can send the address over to Dad later.”
Cooper nodded and took the last bite of chicken from his plate. Outside there was the sound of a landscaping crew cleaning up a neighbor’s lawn. The whine of a ride-on lawn mower, the grating whir of a leaf blower.
“It’s just kind of funny,” Maria continued. “The pile is right where I was going to put up those signs Sarah Schwartz dropped off. The Mackadew Beach signs.” She forked another piece of chicken, speared another mound of sauerkraut.
Callie went pale. “You are NOT putting one of those signs up.”
Maria looked up, fork poised in front of her mouth. “What? Why not?”
“The ‘Our Town, Our Beach’ signs? Mom. Come on.”
“What’s wrong with wanting to protect the beaches?”
“You mean protect them from people who don’t look like you?” Cooper was pushing away from the table, carrying his plate to the sink. “That campaign is hella racist, Mom.”
Corinne rolled her eyes. “Since when do you say ‘hella,’ Coop?”
Maria placed her loaded fork back on the plate and crossed her arms again. “Excuse me. I don’t think it’s racist to want the beaches I pay for with my tax dollars to stay clean. You guys saw them this summer. They were so crowded you had to get there practically before dawn to get a spot. Trash everywhere.”
Cooper raised his arms in the air, shaking his palms, and widened his eyes. “It’s almost as if. . . there are a lot of entitled people in Morningside who don’t pick up their trash!”
Maria had her hands on the edge of the table, gripping it. Her eyes were closed and she was taking deep breaths. Richard put his fork down on the table.
“Kids,” he said. “Stop attacking your mother.”
Corinne kept her eyes on her plate and kept chewing, but Callie laughed and continued. “Mom, you might as well hang a confederate flag on the front porch.”
“It’s not even our beach,” said Cooper. He stood by the back door and pulled a hoodie over his head. “We’re all living on unceded Unquowa land. Gotta go. Love you guys.”
Later that night, in bed, with the lights off, Maria turned on her side and faced Richard.
“It’s that class he’s taking.” Moonlight streamed through the curtains and illuminated the curve of her cheek.
“The one about multiculturalism or whatever. The one Muriel fucking Cohen teaches.”
Richard said nothing, thinking about Muriel, the scent of earth and sweat rising from her skin.
“I’m not a racist,” she said. Her voice was quiet.
Maria reached for his face with her hands in the dark, her fingers patting the his ear, his jaw, the stubble of his cheek. She found his lips and drew him toward her for a kiss.
Richard’s phone buzzed with a message from Cooper: the email address for the neighborhood association. On the slippery glass of his new iPhone screen, Richard typed an email to the neighborhood about the sand, hit send, and fell asleep.
The next morning he jolted awake at 6:03am, heart pounding, adrenaline thrumming in his eardrums. Even after all these months, his body was certain he’d overslept. Next to him in bed, Maria groaned and reached for her phone. “I had seven minutes left before my alarm,” she said. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, rubbing her eyes, and shuffled into the shower.
Richard missed waking up sandy-eyed a few minutes before his alarm. He missed the commute. He missed the familiar faces of the other men on the 6:05 train, the silent acknowledgement never to speak between the Morningside station and Grand Central. He missed the acrid stink of their coffee breath and the way they elbowed his ribs when they opened up their newspapers. He missed the way U2’s Pop album lasted exactly as long as the express train from Morningside to Grand Central; how the eerie guitar solo in “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” would play just as the train rolled through Harlem and dove underground into darkness. He missed the way Bob Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” lasted exactly as long the walk from the train platform to Lexington, where he’d be greeted by the smell of exhaust and hot dogs and cigarette smoke and stale piss on the walk from the train station to his office. He missed drinking a paper-bag beer and doing Sudoku puzzles on the train home.
He reached for his phone and saw there was a new email message. From Muriel! It read: Did you mean sandwiches, or sand?
Sandwiches? He scrolled down to re-read the email he’d sent to the neighborhood.
Hi, neighbors. Has anyone ordered sandwiches for a masonry project? A big pile for delivered to us at #79 and, while I do sometimes buy things online after two many glasses os Scotch, I’m pretty sure I didn’t order this.
Oh, god. Richard’s face flushed. He read it again and again. He had emailed his entire neighborhood asking about a pile of goddamn sandwiches. Not to mention the email was riddled with typos. Oh, good god. Richard’s face flushed, and then he began to giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Maria came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, and leaned over his shoulder to peer at his phone. Her hair dripped water droplets onto the shoulder of his flannel pajamas.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that I – well, just read this.” He handed the phone to Maria. She squinted at the phone, furrowing her brow, then handed it back with a neutral expression. “I don’t get it,” she said.
“I accidentally told the whole neighborhood there was a pile of sandwiches on our driveway,” he said. “I don’t know, I think it’s pretty funny.”
“That is funny,” she said, but didn’t laugh. She rubbed her wet hair with the towel. “Did anyone write back to claim the dirt pile?”
“Did anyone write back to claim the sand pile?”
“Not yet. Just Muriel Cohen, generously informing me of my typo.”
“She would,” said Maria, and went back into the bathroom to blow dry her hair. Richard didn’t ask what she meant by that. Instead he opened up Muriel’s email and tapped on the button to reply. Oh god, he typed. Thanks for catching that! Yes, I meant sand, not sandwiches, although I could definitely go for one right about now. Bacon, egg, and cheese on a Portuguese roll. The kind you get at one of those bodegas in midtown, wrapped in foil. God, I miss those.
Then he replied to the rest of the neighborhood clarifying his mistake and apologizing for any misunderstanding. “Had there been a pile of sandwiches on my driveway,” he wrote, “you can rest assured I would have shared the bounty.”
With those emails out of the way, Richard sat at the edge of his bed and rubbed the back of his head. Now what? Since his last day of work his whole life felt like it was softening and sagging, the days losing their structure, everything just a bit out of place. Not just the days; his body, too. When he’d noticed his polo shirts starting to cling to his midsection he’d accused their cleaning lady of shrinking them. Not to the cleaning lady directly, but to Maria, who turned away to hide her smile. He attributed most of it to his early retirement. What he called retirement, anyway, to everyone else, even to Maria, who knew better. It wasn’t that his days, now, were empty. All the things he’d done before in his limited free time expanded, like magic, to fill the space he now had — playing golf and paying bills and reading presidential biographies and tweaking his portfolio. Fucking around on the old electric bass guitar that he’d never really learned to play. But sometimes the word “lonely” would float through Richard’s mind.
His mind wandered back to the idea of the egg sandwich from a bodega. Yes, he could get one from the corner store in downtown Morningside. But wouldn’t it be nice – just this once – wouldn’t it be nice to get one from the Gold Star Deli? The one across the street from his old office on Fifty-Third. He couldn’t see a reason not to. So he showered and shaved and, for the hell of it, got into his best blue suit – the pants still buttoned but he had to concede to a new hole on his leather belt. He got into his car and drove down to the Morningside Train station, and picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal and a cup of watered-down coffee from the news stand. And when he boarded the train, even though it was a much later train than he normally took, his usual seat was open. When he sat down, when the train started chugging forward – well, it felt like going home.
On the 2:23pm train from Grand Central back to Morningside, Richard sat with his paper bag beer and tried to focus on the Sudoku puzzle on his phone, but couldn’t. He didn’t remember having this much difficulty balancing the beer in one hand while completing the puzzle one-handed with the other. In his past life, did he drink the beer first, then do the puzzle? Or did he finish the puzzle, then drink the beer? He could grip the beer between his knees while typing with both hands but then, of course, he couldn’t drink it. Finally, Richard gave up, chugged the beer and tucked the empty tallboy in its paper bag behind his back.
When he picked up the phone to attempt the sudoku again, there was another message from Muriel. Glad we cleared that up, she’d written. I ended up making myself an egg sandwich today, on challah. But it wasn’t the same as the one I used to get from the corner store when I lived on the Upper West Side. Any leads on the sand pile?
Richard smiled and tapped the button to reply. You’re going to think I’m crazy, he typed. But I got on the train and came all the way into the city today just to get one of those sandwiches. Couldn’t stop thinking about it! And you know what? It was just – fine. Good, but fine. Stavros at the counter didn’t remember me. I dripped egg yolk on my shirt. And then I ran into my nemesis outside the bodega. You might have had the right idea with your challah sandwich. I think next time I won’t spoil nostalgia with reality.
P.S. No – nobody has claimed the sand pile. Cowards!
He tucked the phone into his jacket pocket, still smiling, and pulled the remaining sections of the Wall Street Journal, the ones he hadn’t read yet, out of his briefcase. When he did, his right arm bumped into the shoulder of the young woman sitting next to him. She wore a knit hat and a puffy blue vest and had headphones in; she turned her head to glare at him, and he cringed in apology. While he attempted to read about whether the FCC was going to allow a merger between some telecommunications company and some media company, his mind wandered to Muriel again. He imagined it was her next to him on the train, her ample thigh pressing up against his. And if it were Muriel, at the end of a long day in the city – maybe she was in the flower district shopping for tiger lilies and peonies, maybe there would be a fresh bouquet on her lap – maybe she would doze off, and her head with its copper and silver curls might rest just so on his shoulder. He felt pressure growing against the seam of his pants and realized he was fully erect, there on the afternoon train. He blushed, hurrying to fold the remaining sections of the paper on his lap until the erection subsided.
It was still daylight when the train pulled into Morningside Station, and somehow that made it worse when he found his car with a parking ticket across the windshield. Of course. He didn’t have a parking pass for the train station anymore. He stuffed the ticket into the car’s cup holder and thought about driving the long way home, past Maria’s office. Maybe stop by to bring her a cup of coffee. She worked out of a renovated Victorian on Main Street that served as one of the local realty offices; Maria was a junior member of the team, having joined only a few months earlier, but she’d already closed two big sales and a few rentals. A natural, said her manager. A natural.
Just as he was about to start the car, his phone buzzed. He fumbled to pick it up, hoping for another email from Muriel, but it was just a text, in all caps, from Maria.
Shit. With nobody claiming the pile, Richard had to consider that perhaps he had ordered the sand after all. Which meant tracking down whoever had delivered the sand, and calling them, and asking them to come pick it up again, which would potentially mean not just paying them to remove sand he had already, potentially, paid for, but admitting that he had made a mistake and could not use the sand after all. This series of tasks was too much. Even figuring out which sand company he might have ordered from – he had looked into so many, browsing their websites to understand the different types of sand and which one would be best for the zen garden – even the thought of looking up those sand companies again was too much. And so, when he got home, Richard leashed Heidi and took her for another walk around the block. This time he did not pause at the sand pile. He went past Ed St. John’s house, where, Richard recalled, there had been a large pile of sand a few years earlier, when they were doing the outdoor kitchen in back. But there was no sign of it now; only the lush green grass cropped close to the ground, the green bushes in front of the house trimmed into tidy spheres.
His palms dampened as he approached Muriel’s house, thinking that she might be outside watering the plants. The air was so clear it tricked him into thinking his vision was better than it was. He could make out every leaf against the bright blue sky, though half the branches were bare already. There was the smell of someone’s bonfire in the air.
As he rounded the corner, there she was: not crouched behind the bushes but standing out front in a pink visor, pushing the metal legs of a yard sign into the grass. The sign read “Makadewà is for everyone,” in dark blue text. The text was superimposed on an illustration of happy families with varying skin tones all sitting on a sandy beach. Muriel stood up and stepped back, hands on her hips, to regard the sign. When she heard him coming, she looked over her shoulder and her face creased into a smile. “How’s it look?”
“A little crooked,” he replied. He walked up to the sign and pushed his weight onto the left side of the sign, then stepped back next to Muriel. “Better?”
“Better. Thanks. Hey, who’s your nemesis?”
“My nemesis?” Richard blinked.
“From your email. You said you ran into your nemesis today in the city.”
“Oh! God, Neil Blasberg. What an asshole. Yeah, after my mediocre breakfast sandwich I literally bumped into him on Fifty-First Street. He used to work for me. Made my life a living hell.”
“In what way?”
Richard paused. The real answer: Neil was younger, he worked harder, he made Richard feel old and slow and stupid. He made Richard look old and slow and stupid. Neil was the reason, Richard was sure of it, for the firm’s pushing him into early retirement before he was ready.
“He stole my top client.” This was true, technically.
“Rat,” said Muriel, shaking her head.
“He’s a prick. The funny thing is, when he saw me, he was like, what are you doing in the city? All buddy-buddy, you know? And I just lied and said I had a consulting gig. I don’t have a consulting gig! I’m retired. I don’t know why I did that.”
“I think I understand,” said Muriel. She placed a hand on the beach sign and squinted at him from under her visor. “You want some lemonade?”
It wasn’t hot outside, but it was bright, and the way Muriel said the word lemonade made him want lemonade very much. When she walked inside to get it he watched her thick behind sway from side to side and felt another inconvenient erection rising. Shit, he thought. He hurried over to the wrought iron bench in Muriel’s front yard, facing the street, and sat down and crossed his legs and thought about golf but it didn’t work; when she came back outside, she handed him the sweating glass and sat down next to him on the bench. He kept his knees crossed and tried not to grimace. “It’s homemade,” she said. “From my lemon tree.” She nodded over her shoulder and there it was, growing from a red ceramic pot, its glossy dark leaves glinting in the afternoon sun.
Richard laughed. “Of course it is.” He sipped; it was delicious, tart and sweet. At home they drank Crystal Light. “I still haven’t figured out where the damn sand came from, by the way. It’s driving me nuts. I keep thinking I must have ordered it myself, but I really think I would remember if I had.”
She nodded. “Maybe there’s another version of you out there somewhere in the multiverse, wondering where his damn sand delivery is.”
Richard was afraid if he tried to keep the joke going he’d ruin it, but he didn’t want the conversation to end, and it still wasn’t safe for him to stand up. He tried his best. “The manager of the alternate universe sand company is like, whaddaya mean? We dropped it right in your driveway!” At this, Muriel threw back her head in laughter. She slapped her knee and her thigh brushed up against his.
“Some poor sand delivery guy in another dimension got fired because of you, Richard. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Richard slapped his own knee a little too hard. The sound of it seemed to echo in the quiet of their sleepy street. The erection subsided. “Well,” he said. “I’m off. I have to call every quarry in the tri-state area to track down the culprit. Good to see you, Muriel. Thanks for the lemonade.” He handed her the empty glass.
On the way home, when the street curved so he could see his house, Maria’s hulking black SUV was slowly, carefully backing out around the sand pile. Richard was powerless to stop it when the rear fender bumped into the mailbox. The car jerked to a halt and Richard ran up to it. When the driver side window rolled down, he saw Cooper’s stricken face. “I’m so sorry, Dad – I didn’t see it -”
“It’s OK, bud. But wow, you really did a number on that thing.” Richard tilted his head to the side to examine the damage. The black mailbox sat on a simple white wooden post, which now tilted halfway to the ground, the mailbox having spilled its contents onto the driveway. Bills and postcards and letters and brightly colored catalogs and one padded manila envelope.
The passenger door slammed and Maria came storming around the front of the car. “I swear to God, Richard, if you don’t get rid of that goddamn sand pile! Cooper just knocked over the mailbox because of it.”
“Cooper knocked over the mailbox because he’s seventeen and doesn’t even have his learner’s permit, Maria. No offense, Coop.”
“None taken.” Cooper’s dark brows were still knitted with worry. He took off his frayed Whaler’s hat and ran a hand through his curls, then put the hat back on.
Maria was bending over, examining the rear fender of the car. She sniffed. “Not a scratch. We got lucky. Cooper, honey, are you OK?”
“I’m fine, Mom -”
Still crouching by the car, she looked over her shoulder at Richard. “Go inside. Call the dirt company. NOW.”
“Maria, you need to calm down. It’s gonna take some time -”
She rose and turned around. Her body was still. Her eyes were cold.
“Do not, Richard, tell me to calm down.”
“Hey, Mom -” Cooper, still inside the car, lifted a hand, but neither Richard nor Maria noticed. Richard thrust his hands into his pockets and made them into fists.
“I already walked around the block and asked people about it. I emailed the neighborhood association, and I was just about to go inside to look up some of the local sand companies. Could you possibly, for once in your life, give me a break?”
Maria’s eyes widened. She looked at Richard, then to the ground, then back to Richard. She put her hands on her hips, and guffawed.
“Oh, you need a break? You think you need a break. OK. You sit around all day while I’m working my ass off, driving these kids around all over town and you need a break?”
“Mom.” Cooper’s voice, this time, was clear and strong.
Richard and Maria whirled around and, at the same time, said “What?!”
Maria put a hand to her forehead. “Oh, for crying out loud. Scoot over, I’ll drive.” Cooper shot a sympathetic look at Richard, then climbed over the armrest into the passenger seat. Maria climbed up into the car and pushed buttons to adjust the mirrors and the seat, inching herself closer to the steering wheel.
“Where are you guys going?”
“Band practice,” they said, in unison. Maria rolled up the window, glared at Richard, and backed out of the driveway.
The next day Richard tried to make himself useful. He did. He woke up before Maria and made hot breakfast for the family but then Maria made herself a shake and Cooper had a cold Pop-Tart and the girls each grabbed a banana on their way out the door. So Richard ate the entire meal himself, the whole pan full of scrambled eggs and the sausages and the toast. When he was done, his stomach hurt. He took a deep breath, rubbed his belly, then rose to go up to his office.
Richard sat down on the leather swivel chair at his desk. The desk was in the middle of the room, facing the door, the way it had been in his office at the law firm. Behind him was the window that faced the street, and the walls of the office were lined with bookshelves. The shelves were lined with old cloth-bound law textbooks with gold lettering, thick presidential biographies, World War II history books and John Grisham novels. In the corner, across from his desk, there was the old leather club chair his father had purchased him as a law school graduation present. Oxblood red, the leather slick and shiny and starting to crack with age. There were four unopened cardboard boxes on the floor next to his desk – items from his office the firm had shipped to his house. Awards, photos, old notebooks. Probably his diplomas were in there somewhere.
He opened up his laptop and typed in “sand company morningside.” The options appeared on the page, the first seven links all fuschia, evidence of his past clicking. He loaded them up, one two three four five six seven, seven tabs. They had names like M&R Gravel and Morningside Stone Co. He called them one by one, clearing his throat, asking if any of them had possibly dropped off a pile of sand at his address, possibly by mistake, and would they mind checking? No sir, nothing in the records, sorry about that, sir, nothing here for that address.
He couldn’t bring himself to ask if he could pay one of them to come collect the sand. Some part of him still hoped it had been a mistake, that someone would come get it, that the problem would miraculously disappear. He spent the rest of the day on the couch reading, and when the sky began to darken he sat up on the couch and texted Maria.
I know you think I don’t do anything all day, but I’ll have you know I just finished that Aaron Burr book. Spoiler alert: he dies at the end.
There were the three dots indicating Maria was typing, then nothing, then the dots again, then nothing. He stood up, got in the car, and drove to the florist Maria liked. The one that made the asymmetrical, avant-garde and comically huge bouquets that cost four hundred dollars and lasted three days. The place had a business preying on guilty husbands.
He drove home with the bouquet on the passenger seat, strapped in with a seatbelt like a person. It was practically the size of one. Some florist had stuck wild twisting branches into the bouquet that sprayed outward in a display that, to Richard, bordered on violence. On the way home, he drove past Muriel’s house and she was outside again. She waved, then gestured for him to roll down his window. He slowed down and obliged, and she walked up to the car. She bent down to look him in the eye. Her hair was pulled back into a frizzy ponytail and she was wearing a yellow Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
“I wanted to congratulate you!” she said. “On solving the mystery!”
“The sand!” She tilted her head. “The sand pile is gone. I assumed you knew. A big truck just drove past my house all full of that sand.”
Richard leaned back in the car seat. He closed his eyes. Muriel remained crouched over, her hands on her thighs. She studied the floral arrangement in the front seat of the car.
“I guess it went back into another dimension,” she said.
“I guess we’ll never know,” said Richard. He smiled at her, sad already about the loss of his pile of sand. “Thanks for telling me.” When he pulled into the driveway of his house, the pile was gone. As if it had never been there at all. Richard thought how tedious that must have been, whoever had to clean up the sand. Shoveling it all back into the truck, and then, most likely, sweeping up the remains with a broom and a dust pan. The shame that person must have felt, first having delivered to the wrong address, then having to take time out of his day to clean up the mess.
He maneuvered through the door with the floral arrangement in front of him, peering around its display of murderous twisting twigs. He placed it on the marble kitchen island. Callie and Corinne were bent over the dining table, scribbling answers to their math homework. From the family room, he could hear Cooper and his girlfriend Jade laughing and getting competitive over some video game they were playing. Maria was making a stir-fry in their electric wok on the kitchen island, a jar of kimchi next to her on the counter. Her eyes were soft and damp. She looked at the bouquet on the table. She looked at the window, toward the front yard. She looked at Richard. “Thank you,” she mouthed.
He smiled at her and excused himself to go back outside. Dusk was settling on the neighborhood, over the stone walls and manicured lawns and rough-hewn wooden fences. He crept around to the side of the house, following the mulch to the patch of hydrangea bushes. The pink blooms were just starting to wilt with the onslaught of autumn. He glanced over his shoulder and was reasonably sure nobody could see him, or if they could, perhaps they’d think he was just looking at the flowers. Pruning them, maybe. He could prune bushes, if he wanted to. If he had pruning shears.
Richard unzipped his pants and peed all over the roots of the hydrangea bush, the urine sinking into the mulch and releasing steam in the chilly air. Then he went inside to help Maria with the stir fry.
Later that night, after they’d eaten with the kids, after Richard had helped Cooper with his trigonometry homework and Maria hounded the twins to finish their book reports, after the lunches were packed for the next day and the twins’ field hockey uniforms were put in the dryer; the finished homework slipped into the three backpacks and the backpacks hung on their hooks by the back door; the dog let out for one final pee; when, one by one, each of their children turned out their own bedroom lights, they trudged their way up the stairs to the bedroom. They brushed their teeth side by side and Maria lingered in the master bathroom, applying all the liquids and creams and oils in her particular and mystifying order. Richard got into bed and opened the Alexander Hamilton biography he’d been meaning to start. When Maria lifted the heavy duvet and climbed in beside him, Richard put his book down on the nightstand. She carried with her that familiar bedtime smell, like toothpaste and roses, and he pulled her toward him for a goodnight kiss.
Instead she climbed on top and straddled him, her small fists pressed to his chest, and when he looked at his hands around her narrow waist, almost spanning the width of it, he imagined the flesh above Muriel’s hips spilling over his fingers. He looked up at Maria’s pert round breasts and instead pictured Muriel’s, like pendulums, swinging over his face. No matter what he did or she did, no matter how she arched her slender back, no matter how he focused on the firm resilience of her ass beneath his grip, how easy it was to lift her up and down himself by the hips, he thought of Muriel, her body, the very notion of abundance, and when Maria cried out and trembled and collapsed on his chest and he finally let himself go inside her, he closed his eyes and pictured hydrangeas blooming all around them.
Natalie Ponte attended Boston University, where she majored in advertising, minored in English, and ate a lot of burritos. As a day job, Natalie works at the intersection of technology and media. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, where they are raising a bunch of chickens and a couple of human boys. She writes fiction and essays when everyone else is sleeping.