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FICTION AT MERCY / Tess Gallagher IN HIS OVER-SIZED V-necked sweater, sitting in front of the cold fireplace, he looked, she thought, like a bleak husband. She reaUzed she had never thought ofhim as a husband at all, until the phone call that morning. It had been one of his students calling to say her couch was for sale. That call had changed everything. It seemed right to her now that he should be stranded on the hard bricks with the mound of ashes to one side. "Mrs. Rolland?" the voice had asked that morning, and although she couldn't abide a lie under the most innocent of circumstances, she had said, "Yes?" After all, she did not want to confuse professional people who were only trying to do their jobs. She had thought the call was from the furniture people concerning delivery of the new table. For that one moment, she had been Mrs. Robert Rolland. "I think I met you," the voice said. "Last week at the ballet." "Oh, I don't think so," Esther had said quickly, then, unbelievably, "What did I look like?" Her heart had begun to quaver. The voice on the other end of the line brightened. "You were tall and you hair's reddish. Professor Rolland introduced you as his wife," the voice said. Esther had seen pictures. Robert's wife was tall and a redhead. The rest of the day Esther had gone around the house as though it belonged to someone else. Maybe the wife had not been in town. But if she had come all the way from Idaho to Texas, certainly things were a lot less settled than Esther had imagined or than Robert had let her know. She walked through the rooms of the house. She tried to see things with the wife's eyes. It was a big house. Certainly the wife would have known he was not planning to live there alone. She looked at the bed. She opened and closed her eyes. She could see them sleeping there under the patchwork quilt made by the wife's mother. She could see how, waking the last morning of the visit, the wife musthave felt saddened to move out toward suitcases and the airport. Maybe they had reached an understanding . She had heard of such things. Or maybe the twenty-three years of Robert's marriage were not over after all, as he had assured her. Even twenty-three years driving a bulldozer, she thought, would seem devotion. True, she had been alive those years, so it wasn't that she'd lived any less life than the two of them, only her path had been less steadfast. If anything, she had wanted too strongly for things to last, but when a trust was marred, she had quickly ended the relationships. She was trying now to understand, to be understanding, thinking of Robert The Missouri Review ยท 67 too and even of the wife. In the few months they had known each other, she had only thought the best of Robert, but now that they were finally living together and he was no longer the man on the telephone who loved her, she had been trying to accomodate herself to his habits: his smoking, the way he left food on his plate, his abruptness at meals in getting up and clearing his place before she had finished. She had tried not to notice. She did little things like opening the windows and airing the rooms after he left them, pouring left-over milk from his glass back into the carton and taking even longer with her food at meals, making a point of enjoying her time alone at the table. But he was good to her. The house was the biggest and most convenient house she had lived in. She had never had a dishwasher and now as she portioned out the bluish soap granules into the two small niches in the door of the machine, then closed, locked and pressed "Full Cycle," she felt privileged and in touch with forces beyond her, forces in full control of themselves. It was a good safe feeling. She looked...


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