Jim clutched the phone and clinched his jaw.
His instinct to hang up was only overpowered by the realization that Linda would simply call back.
So, he chose to sit there in stubborn silence.
Five, awkward ass seconds went by.
“Jim,” Linda said. “I know you’re still there.”
His outburst on the chair fresh on his mind, his silence turned to rage again in an instant.
“You have some nerve Linda. Calling me like this, days after Donna’s death. What the fuck is the matter with you,” he attacked.
Like a small, protesting child attempting to beat up his old man, it was a fool’s errand for him to continue in his resistance.
It was Linda’s turn to sit in silence while Jim whipped himself into a frenzy.
“Do you have any idea what you’re asking, Linda? You are going to ruin both of our lives. I can’t meet you. And I won’t,” he said.
At this point, Linda whispered the truth Jim had avoided for decades.
“Jim, both of our lives have already been ruined by this secret. It’s time to face it,” she said.
Realizing he couldn’t talk her out of telling the truth, he surrendered.
“OK, when are you thinking,” he asked.
“I’ll be there in three minutes,” she said.
“Uh, no, how about next week sometime,” he said.
“Jim, I’ll be there in three minutes,” she said.
Linda and Jerry Davis lived two blocks from Jim and Donna. Their three children, two girls and one boy, were staggered in between the four Barnes boys.
The two families went to church together. Jim and Jerry were on the school board at the same time for a stretch. And Linda and Donna were endless reservoirs of potluck planning, youth group chaperoning, and high school fundraising.
Their families vacationed together a time or two, and spent many weekend nights after football or basketball games in each other’s living rooms. The men drinking whiskey. The women, wine. Playing a game of Hearts on the kitchen table and talking about the ongoings and the can-you-believe-its in Oakland.
Jim was still sitting in a pile on the floor, the receiver still in his hand when Linda rang the bell.
She was always the formal type, and a knock at the door, especially in these circumstances, felt too casual for her.
Jim leaned his head back against the sheetrock, and then banged the back of it twice before he gathered himself and stood up.
He slammed the receiver back to its home, hung his head, and walked to the door.
Out of his protective habits, he pulled back the curtain that draped over the four-paned window on the yellow-painted door, to see who he was letting in his home.
It was Linda.
The association was surreal.
In an instant, he remembered those few times all those years ago, when he’d made the same motion, though it was in the veil of night.
With Donna home seeing her parents in Western Kentucky, and Jerry away on business in Atlanta, it was the only time Jim and Linda could carry out their undercover life.
When the kids were asleep.
And the darkness could contain their secrets.
Jim cracked the door, knowing he was about to let the light flood in on a past he hoped had been buried.
He opened the door wide enough for his once broad shoulders to stand in the gap, and then with his left hand, held the storm door open for her to enter his home.
He didn’t say a word, but she did.
It had been too long to remember when they’d seen each other last, and Linda’s once jet black hair was now a dark shade of gray.
She was still petite, and while Donna carried spunk and feistiness, Jim always appreciated Linda’s calm and collected demeanor.
There was never any conflict with Linda, just comfort and ease.
To Jim, Linda was as familiar as a well-worn baseball mitt or the perfect Saturday night on the front porch.
Until there was loads of it.
“May I sit down,” Linda asked the still silent Jim, as she headed straight for the dining room table.
She hung her handbag over the chair, and began removing her coat before he responded, revealing her slender frame even further.
She examined Donna’s chair, laying on the floor, and chose one on the side of the table.
She sat down.
Jim stood at the door, still spinning and reeling from his last 20 minutes of unraveling.
The words finally came to him, kind of.
He moped her direction and slouched into the chair directly across from the one she’d chosen.
His shoulders slumped, his head hung, eye contact avoided.
Her posture was the exact opposite.
Her deep, dark eyes told the story, without having to say a word. She stared with a relentless focus, that Jim could feel the force of despite his valiant, but not courageous, avoidant efforts.
“Jim, I told Jerry everything,” she said.
Jim’s mind, already a trainwreck, crashed into the ravine.
“Holy shit, there’s no way she told him. I have to find him. Tell him it’s not true. That she’s crazy. I should kill her now. I should kill myself. Fuck.”
His fearful synapses fired in milliseconds, running the gamut of possible next steps before his mouth uttered a word.
But his body wouldn’t agree with his mind.
“Like, everything,” he asked her out loud.
“Yes, Jim. Everything.”
The weight of Linda’s simple sentence hit Jim like a ton of bricks. How could it not?
Buried in decades of old emotional concrete, he thought, and sure hoped and prayed, that the memories of his demands and decisions had lost their breath.
But here they were, screaming and gasping in his dining room, making a roaring comeback to reality.
And the reality floored Jim.
He wanted to crawl into that concrete himself, and die. His body language said as much.
His forehead went to the table top. His arms flopped to his side. His body was lifeless.
The seconds felt like hours, and Linda committed to let Jim flounder.
Years ago, she was his rescue and respite. Jumping into his emotional turmoil and eventually, into his bed. But on this day, she sat, experiencing her own sense of peace and clarity that she set her own secrets free.
After a few heavy minutes, Jim raised his head ever so slightly.
“Linda, please tell me you didn’t tell him everything.”
Unthreatened, Linda stuck to her script.
“Yes, Jim. Everything. Even the abortion.”
Jim’s head struck the table top again so hard that Linda thought he knocked himself unconscious.