Nervous Condition
Mary Miller

There are three men in her backyard. One of the men has tattoos covering his face and body. The other two have tattoos on their bodies only.

They sit at the picnic table, eating lunch. The men are building a screened porch, a place where she will serve elaborate meals, a string of Christmas lights up year-round. It is another thing she imagines will make her different from the person she is.

She watches them from her kitchen window while washing a bowl. It's only the man with the tattooed face who interests her. She would like to watch him build and eat and cook and laugh.

She sets the bowl on the rack and picks up a cookie sheet. There's a dishwasher, but it starts to smell before she can fill it, and she prefers to wash the dishes by hand. It's how she did it at her husband's house. It was an old house and they hadn't had a dishwasher—they hadn't had a lot of things, though they'd had the money to buy them. When she thinks of her husband now, she thinks of the basement where they spent so many hours waiting out tornadoes. It was always the middle of the night and they had padded down the stairs in their slippers. The radio between them. The siren that said at any moment it could all be over.

There are no tornadoes where she lives now, no hurricanes or fault lines. There is only drought, unexciting and tedious. She can't wash her car or water her lawn. The trees are falling. She has begun to leave her pee in the bowl.

During the time she lived with her husband, she developed a nervous condition in which nothing could ever, under any circumstances, be left in the sink. Her husband would try to help her with cognitive behavioral therapy he'd picked up on television. He'd put a fork in the sink and make her look at it and walk away. Then he'd add knives and plates and coffee mugs until it was full of clean dishes. His therapy had not been successful.

The man with the tattooed face catches her staring at him and smiles—an open, generous smile—the kind she never gives to those caught staring at her. She looks away, but when she looks back he is still there, waiting.

She only remembers to be lonely when she tells herself, I am lonely, when it seems like everyone in the world has paired up and some of these couples are actually happy. But she can't imagine being married again—seeing someone every day, sleeping with him every night, their bodies pooling in the center of the mattress. When she sleeps with a man now, she puts a pillow between them, a barrier he cannot cross.

Mary Miller's debut collection of stories is BIG WORLD, from Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

Read more of her work in the archive.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of J.J. Verhoef.

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