There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a man wearing just an undershirt, all vulnerable and exposed like a child. I found him in the bathroom that way one night. He had been too sick to care for himself but had made it that far. He fought me at first, but I cleaned him up and took care of him. The sun rose to find me wrapped protectively around him, having shushed him to sleep.
That had been early in our marriage when we were still polite to each other like strangers. After that night, I’d seen him at his weakest, and he had no more secrets from me.
I stretch awake and pat his side of the bed, but it’s cold and still made.
I want to slide my arm around him and hug his warmth close to me. He usually pushes me away or rolls me over so he can be the big, strong spoon. I want to whisper how much I love him into his ear, how safe and loved he is.
Instead, I dress and set out breakfast. He works so hard, but I can’t complain about my comfortable life. Other girls have to work as secretaries or typists to help make ends meet and live in cramped apartments or houses they hate.
I retrieve the paper, and the headline is: THE HERO IS DEAD. A grainy photograph shows fiery objects trailing smoke through the sky.
The world is in mourning as the man known only as The Hero has died.
Yesterday, The Hero fought with the notorious international crime lord O Vilão in the skies above Quito, Ecuador.
Local authorities have reported several rocket flights over the past months, and amateur astronomers have seen a large structure under construction in low orbit. There is speculation that O Vilão was building an orbital platform, but its purpose is unknown.
An explosion was visible from the structure at approximately 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Not long after, the remnants reentered Earth’s atmosphere.
No bodies have been recovered, and it appears that whatever was left of the structure disintegrated upon reentry.
President Eisenhower has called a press conference for this afternoon. Many of the world’s leaders are also expected to speak.
The rest of the paper is a full retrospective on The Hero, starting with the first article in the small town Sentinel about him lifting a car above his head to save a woman. After that, the journalist Lea Inslo became just as much a household name, following his exploits around the world and rising to fame at the big city Courier Journal.
There are no pictures of The Hero, of course, just smiling photos of pig-tailed little girls, kittens, old ladies, puppies, the crew of The Intrepid, construction workers, nurses, doctors, and soldiers with their testimonials beneath.
Inslo had first surmised The Hero to be an alien, what with the strength, speed, and flight. No one ever gave a better explanation. Eyewitness accounts only describe a man in dungarees and work boots with a hood and bandana covering his face. That was before he started wearing his iconic mask, obviously. And there it is, an artist’s reproduction. The image sends a thrill right through me.
He wasn’t all golden, though. The middle page of the paper gives a brief account of the incident with the Japanese whaling flotilla. Almost a hundred dead before other boats arrived to fish out the survivors. The blood-tinged water makes quite an image.
He killed bad guys sometimes. Good riddance.
Above all, he was a mystery. Only Lea Inslo had credible accounts of actually speaking to him and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
I fold the paper neatly and scoot it next to the plate of cold food. The time surprises me. I was engrossed by the paper for most of the morning and no Theo. He usually comes home at least for a fresh suit and a cup of coffee.
I decide to call and check on him. He’ll fuss at being interrupted, but it’ll make me feel better.
“Hi, Linda, it’s me, Dorothy.”
“Oh, hi, Dorothy. What can I do for you?”
I frown. “Why, I’m calling to check on Theo. May I speak with him?”
“Oh.” She pauses. “I’m sorry, but Theo’s not here.”
He must have stepped out for cigarettes or to wash up in the men’s room. “Oh, alright. Please have him call me.”
Linda lowers her voice. “Dorothy, Theo hasn’t been to work in a while.”
“I don’t understand.” Before that morning, Theo had been like clockwork, up and out to work by eight, home around six.
“Let me transfer you to Mr. Thompson.” There is a click, then nothing but the hum of the telephone.
I jump. “Uh. Hi, Mr. Thompson. This is Dorothy Otte. I was calling to check on my husband, Theo.”
“Theo? He hasn’t been in for days. Are you telling me he hasn’t been home either?” he shouted.
“You know what, if he’s not coming in today, just do me a favor and come clean out his office. I’m not putting up with this anymore. He’s fired.” He hangs up.
I stand with the receiver still in my hand until it starts beeping that it’s off the hook. That droning, obnoxious sound scrapes against the pit in my stomach, threatening to dredge up ideas I don’t want to consider.
I let the phone hang, the sound a fog around me as I fall into my regular routine — making my half of the bed to match Theo’s, cleaning up after breakfast. As I stand in front of the washing machine, I suddenly fall back into myself as if from a great height. I’m surprised the windows don’t shatter with the force of my revival.
I slam the receiver down to cut off the noise now clawing against my skin like a physical thing, then think better of it and call the police.
“Ma’am, give it 24 to 48 hours. Try not to get hysterical.”
“Yes, but—” He’s hung up.
The anger scratching at the back of my throat gives me something to focus on. If they won’t do anything, I’ll do it myself. I go looking.
I grab my coat and check the mirror on my way out the door. The simple dress is fine for housework and errands, but Theo prefers more flashy things. I at least take off the kerchief and run my hands through my hair. Theo likes it down.
Through the windows of the bus to downtown, the clouds compete with the sun for control of the sky. The sun warms my face as it wins out.
I start at his office but stay on the sidewalk, looking up at the building in the chill of its shadow. It’d cause a lot of trouble for Theo if I went up there and made a stink. Instead I peer down the street and recall the places he goes outside of work.
The weaselly kid at the hotel front desk shakes his head when I give him Theo’s description. I was thinking maybe Theo had been too worn out to make it home and overslept.
The woman at the dry cleaner says the same thing. Theo isn’t waiting in his shorts for a coffee stain to come out.
The drunks flinch and squint at the daylight when I kick the door to the bar open. The barman knows Theo, of course he does. Any hardworking man stops off for a drink before heading home. But Theo hasn’t been in lately.
I find myself back on the bus, shivering as the sun disappears behind clouds.
I call friends and coworkers, and all tell the same story as Linda and Mr. Thompson.
The phone howls to be put back on its cradle, and the sound bleeds from the walls and the floors and the ceiling, the rapid pulse constricting into one long tone that I can lean against and wrap around myself.
I wake, I think I eat something, then I go check on the fliers. I either go a block farther than the day previous or retrace my steps and replace the ones that are torn, wet, or faded. The telephone poles are peppered with rusty nails and staples, torn papers selling used guitars or looking for lost pets.
Theo smiles at the neighborhood, looking all handsome in his uniform. His photo is a bright spot among all the ugliness.
I try to sleep but mostly lay in the buzzing that makes me numb. I wake, I think I eat something, then I go check on the fliers.
“No, Mrs. Otte, we have no new information at this time,” the officer sighs on the other end of the line.
I hang up, but the phone still shrieks at me.
The knock on the door shatters my world, and I catch myself from falling out of the chair. My muscles are like lead, and I realize I’ve been a taut string stretched just short of breaking.
Mrs. Saunier’s smile fades to concern when I open the door. My whole body contracts with disappointment. I have nothing in me to resist when she guides me across the hall into her apartment.
I have a cup of tea in my hand and sit on a plastic-covered loveseat. The tea tastes like industrial solvent disguised as peppermint.
“Such a shame,” she says, and it rings in my ears like she’s been saying the same thing for hours.
Social norms come back to me in fits. I sit up straight and drag the muscles of my face into a rictus smile. I pull another sip of chemicals and nod in politeness.
Mrs. Saunier refills her cup from the tea service on the table between us and launches into the story of how it’s the only possession to have survived her flight from Europe. I know the story by heart but am glad for it so I don’t have to talk. What a ridiculous thing to bring with you when you’re running for your life.
“Such a shame,” she says again, shaking her head.
Something in me wants to throw the formaldehyde in my cup into her face and burn the look of pity right off it, but then I notice she’s looking out the window.
Black banners hang from windows ringing the courtyard where the flag flies at half mast. She tells me the story of when she saw The Hero, flying above Warsaw. I don’t tell her he never left contrails and she probably just saw a plane.
“You know…” she says.
“Oh, it’s silly,” she waves her hand and takes a sip.
I shrug. It probably is. Then I remember the polite thing and goad her on.
“Well, the timing…” She glances at me and smiles.
I try not to frown.
“It’s all a little coincidental, you know?”
“Well, what if Theo was The Hero?” She smiles like she’s waiting for the punchline to land.
Everything stops. A spark of rage catches in my chest and blooms to my fingertips. It’s with the greatest of care I set the tea cup down instead of crushing it. “I don’t think that’s funny. And I don’t appreciate being made fun of.”
I leave the old bag alone in her apartment.
I find myself with the broom in my hand, going over the kitchen floor with enough force to peel away the linoleum. Realizing the absurdity of the routine I’ve fallen to, the broom handle clatters to the floor, and I wrap my arms around myself, shaking with anger and shame at the tears streaming down my face.
Though the phone rests on its cradle, I can almost hear it, screaming, but I push it aside and stay mindful. I should have thrown that military grade tea in the old lady’s face for making fun of us. Theo as The Hero. It almost makes me laugh. Then I remember something awful might have happened to him, something real, and the anger shrieks anew.
It swoops back on me with great black wings.
Why hadn’t I waited up for him? Did I miss his call? I should have called the police earlier or had someone from the office call. Maybe they’d have taken Mr. Thompson more seriously. What did I do to drive him away? If only I’d gotten pregnant right away or been a better wife. I don’t deserve someone like Theo.
I fall, spiraling deeper, past all the times I could have, no, should have done something different.
The phone rings, and I claw my way back.
It’s Linda, and I can only listen. She wants me to come clean out Theo’s office. My mouth moves but my voice is a silent creak in reply, then the line is empty. I replace the handset before it can cry at me.
Dressing and getting to the bus gives me a distraction. I let that part of my brain take over, and I’m a passenger watching through the rain. When I get to his office, the pity on Linda’s face makes me bristle and I’m awake again.
I snatch the box from her hands, saying as I pass by, “This is just ridiculous. He’ll be back.”
I’m alone in his office, the door closed behind me. It’s modest but speaks to his status at the company: the window overlooks the river, the chairs are rich leather, the desk fills most of the space. I sit behind it and swivel idly, disturbing the air. And there Theo is on the breeze, sandalwood and his skin. I take him in and he is plain as day, handsome and smiling.
I don’t bother looking through his things. I just grab everything in the drawers and put them in the box though I smile with a hint of pride when I count four pictures of me on the desktop.
I ignore Linda as I shoulder through the door. It’s cloudy on the bus ride home.
The box is heavier at the second landing, and by the time I’m climbing the last set of stairs, I’m struggling. The box slips, but I catch it. Then I miss a step and bark my shin and lose the whole thing. Glass shatters and papers go everywhere as I spill the box right in front of our door.
Mrs. Saunier whips her door open, her eyes wide at the racket. Embarrassment and frustration curdle to fury, and I make an inhuman noise, sending her running.
I’m breathing heavy, looking down at the mess. Something makes me kick the banister, chipping the paint and making my toe numb. An animal growls, and I realize it’s me.
This whole mess is because of Linda. No, it’s that brute Mr. Thompson. Hadn’t Theo earned some latitude, a little professional courtesy?
I sigh. No, it’s my fault for being clumsy and distracted.
I kneel and separate the frames from the broken glass, making a little pile. Then I scoop papers back into their folders or straight into the box. I stop when they’re not what I expect. There are heaps of newspapers.
I put them on top and finish cleaning up, tired of kneeling in the hall. Inside, I flip through the clippings. They’re all about The Hero, going all the way back to his first appearance. There must be hundreds.
I know Theo’s a fan, I mean who isn’t, but this… This borders on obsession.
I separate the office papers from the newspaper. The newspaper stack teeters so I have to split it in two, then three. Something flutters to the carpet, a white slip of paper. I kneel to get it, and it’s like ice water is dumped down my back.
I hold the note, that’s what it is, between two trembling fingers. “Call me! – Lea,” it says in delicate handwriting. There is a number on the reverse.
What kind of woman, what kind of whore, gives their phone number to a married man? Something big and dark barrels down on me, but I dodge aside and try to think of any Leas in Theo’s life. None at work or from his past that I know of. But would I know of this woman?
I duck the question and look closer. It fell from one of the yellowed clippings, so it must be old, but the note is not newsprint so shows no age.
A sliver of light from the window falls on the desktop calendar jutting from the box. I snatch it and hold it in my lap. Theo’s scribbles are all over it in dark ink. Behind this month, more stretch back for years. He never did like to throw away this kind of thing, something about not forgetting the past. I rub my fingers along the writing, feeling the grooves of his pen. I search for any appointments or notes about Lea or Ls or anything like that.
I realize it’s gotten dark when I have to turn on a lamp to see. I’ve barely made it through this year. Then I wake up having nodded off, and the sun is rising outside.
I toss the calendar onto the table, disturbing the stacks and sending clippings all over the floor. As I gather them up, the same name is under all the headlines: Lea Inslo, famed journalist, renowned for following The Hero from the start and coining his name.
Is that the same Lea from the note? What possible connection could Theo have to her? No professional ties, that’s for sure. There is one symbol on many of the dates in his calendar: two parallel lines that could be L.I. written the peculiar way he writes his Ls and Is.
I let go of something, and green jealousy fills my eyes like water, turning into red anger at this woman and at Theo for keeping the note instead of crumpling it up and throwing it back in her face.
The taste in the back of my throat reminds me of the grease in Mrs. Saunier’s porcelain tea cups and what she had said. Theo… The Hero?
And then I’m alone for the first time. Wind whistles through the hollow in my chest, and I sob, empty.
It is one thing to be abandoned, another to be teased.
Exhaustion takes me back to bed, unable to face another day of waiting and trying to fill the time. I dream of faces split in laughter, lipstick-smudged teeth sharpening to points, and feral eyes. Then I am flying, held in a warm embrace, above the lights of the city, the people below like ants. It is a joyous feeling, a lightness without worry. I throw my arms around the man carrying me, and it’s Theo.
His hands are on me the way they are at night when I have stripped off my nightie and my skin burning where each of his fingertips touch me. I grind my hands in his hair, pressing him against me, inside me, and the heat bursts through me from the tips of my toes and out with a gasp.
I lay awake, my nightdress drawn up over my hips, my fingertips still prickling. The dream leaves me breathless and without thought or emotion for one gentle moment.
Before I can hear the phone off the hook, I am at the table, Theo’s calendar before me along with the newspaper articles. Without letting the reason coalesce, I start looking at the dates of each article. For almost every one, that square of the calendar has two parallel lines in the corner. Above meetings and appointments, there they are. Theo was tracking something…
Was he following Lea or The Hero?
Then I come across a clipping that has nothing to do with The Hero. It was a bus crash where all the school children had died. Rescuers hadn’t been able to get to them because of a fire. It was awful, and rereading it, I feel sick to my stomach.
Then I remember.
Theo had been sick that day. The night before I found him standing in the bathroom wearing only his shirt. He had been so helpless, so innocent, embarrassed. He had been sick everywhere and too weak and dumbfounded at his body’s failings to care for himself.
I had never felt so protective of a person before. If another person had done that to Theo, I might have killed them. Instead, I nursed him and cleaned him and got him back to bed where I stood watch all the next day.
When he awoke, he was himself again. A shadow of humiliation crossed his face, and I fell on him with all the love I could muster. He never had to be ashamed of himself with me or afraid to show weakness. I’d never betray him. It became our foundation.
Then I thought I lost him all over again. That evening, news of the bus tragedy came over the radio, and Theo crumpled. It was awful, sure, but we had no children and didn’t know any that had died. He brushed me away, saying he had forgotten about a big presentation at work that day, but I had never seen him so angry, so ashamed.
I look to that day on his calendar. It is scratched out, and I can see Theo holding the pen in his fist, gouging a hole in the paper as he clawed at it. His rage and disgrace come through the black ink, eradicating the day from memory. I hold it up to the light and can see a reflection of words beneath the blackout. Whatever he had scheduled that day, a presentation or any number of things, was obliterated.
Here I was congratulating myself for being such a good wife and taking care of him when he was sick. I should have done more to help him. Maybe if I’d done more, he’d still be here…
I can hear the note from Lea laughing at me. The dainty loops and swirls of the two simple words form a cruel, mocking mouth.
A wicked idea comes to me, and I’m dialing before I know what I’m doing. I hold my breath while the other end rings, caught between hope she answers and hope she doesn’t. I almost blackout, the phone rings so long.
A man answers, “Courier-Journal.”
I gasp and set the handset down.
I’m almost happy when the phone cries to be hung up, and I let the noise fill the air. The routine takes over, and I live as a taut, vibrating cord, a held breath.
As I pack up our belongings, I find myself knocking on walls and tapping my foot on the floors, listening for hollow spaces. I have Theo’s clothes in boxes ready for the men’s shelter on the corner. I have found no masks or alien garments.
Mrs. Saunier peeks from her door as I follow my parents into the hall. Dad has a suitcase in each hand, I never did find the third in the matched luggage set, and Mom is holding a hat box. The movers will come later to put the furniture in storage.
For some reason, the money in our account ran out a month early. Theo always did the books, and I imagine I just miscounted.
I ignore the look of pity on Mrs. Saunier’s face as I pass by and descend the stairs. I feel sorry for her, living and dying alone without having had a partner like Theo.
I stay with my parents for a time. Dad gets me a job at his company in the typing pool. I’m not very good at it, but the other girls are nice enough with their mundane lives. I try to be happy for them and their simple pleasures.
It takes time to track Lea Inslo down. I call the number again and find the man who has taken over her desk. She is out on a field report, very hard to contact.
Finally, it is her on the other end. Something roars in the distance and what sounds like helicopters thump by.
“My name is Dorothy Otte,” I say.
“That’s right. Theo was my husband.”
“Theo?” She sounds like the breath has been taken from her, and I smile.
“Yes. I just want to know if your relationship with him was personal or professional.”
“Well,” she hesitates. “It was a little bit of both.”
“I thought so. And you don’t have any idea where he is now, do you?”
Her voice is steady when she answers like she’s on firmer ground. “No, Mrs. Otte, I honestly don’t.”
“Thank you. Theo was a remarkable man.”
“Yes, he was,” she says.
“We were both lucky to have had him in our lives.”
“Yes, we were,” she says.
I hang up.
My birthday and our anniversary come and go. The mayor dedicates an enormous monument downtown to The Hero.
I have to declare him legally dead to maintain appearances. It’s what any abandoned housewife does. The insurance policy that comes through from his work lets me get my own apartment. I often think of the insurance company’s investigators. What did they find when they went looking for Theo?
Through the windows of the bus, sometimes I see one of the flyers still clinging to a telephone pole. Sun-faded or rain-soaked, he’s still handsome.
Nights are hard. Though there are two closed doors between my bed and the phone, I think I can hear it off the hook. The sound brings with it that awful duality, my love and hate entwined in a numb space.
He has another family somewhere. He died afraid and alone.
It’s impossible for him to be two things at once.
The impossible is what The Hero did.