O. Henry Prize Winner: Christopher Merkner’s ‘Cabins’

Originally Appeared in 'Subtropics'

May 21, 2015  By Christopher Merkner
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1.

Presuming he was still well married, I told one of my friends I could not imagine living near my wife in divorce. I’ve always imagined, I said, that if I got divorced I would live alone in the wilderness. I have a cabin. I have a boat. I can see my little cabin from where I sit in the boat. The water is slapping the boat. I’m on an elevated chair whipping lures that race across the surface of the water as I reel them back in. My wife is not nearby. In my cabin, as in my entire life in divorce, she’s not anywhere to be found or heard or smelled.

And I miss her. I am morose and I am broken without her in my cabin. If I cannot have her, I can have no one and nothing except my cabin and my boat. The idea of having her part-time, it’s unthinkable. It is the galling grotesque of sitcom television. I walk and drink a lot. Sometimes I walk drunk down the road to the bar just to get more drunk. Sometimes the local girls at the bar hit on me, but I’ve been there long enough, rejected their advances so often and so sadly, that they mostly just stand back at the bar and call me by the name they’ve made up for me, Deer Eyes, which I for years believe is actually Dear Eyes, and they feel for me as one tends to feel for roadkill. I stumble back to my cabin drunk, I cry, I sleep, I fish. Where I get the money I live off I have no idea.

I’m sorry, I said to my friend, I’m just making this shit up.

 

2.

A different friend had called me shortly before this and invited me to a part of town I’d never even considered visiting. That night, cruising in the right lane, I spotted through the passenger window the address he’d given me. It was a hookah bar. I pulled over and went inside. He was sitting in a booth by himself. I slid in across from him.

I have news, he said.

You’re dying, I said.

A little, he said.

This is a nice place, I said.

He looked around the room. He said, Yeah, man. Then he said that going to places like this was part of his new life philosophy. He put a black rubber hose in his mouth. He inhaled, I waited, he coughed. He handed me the hose. I just held it. I looked around while he cleared his lungs. I had not seen so many young people in the same room since college. I felt very old, very ridiculous holding my hose. I gave it back to my friend. He said he was divorcing. Then he put the hose in his mouth again and closed his eyes.

I fought the urge to call my wife. I had my hand on my phone. Instead, I got up and ordered a festive piece of cake. My wife and I had talked about these two a lot. They were not a pleasant couple to be friends with. We desired to be rid of them. They seemed to love each other in a way that nauseated us. He always told her what to do; she always told him to fuck himself. And then they would laugh. We assumed they’d be together forever like this.

I returned to the table and watched my cake ooze lard. My friend detailed his wife’s affair, or what he called the pin that had popped their balloon. His wife had apparently known this other man for decades. They were friends in grade school. They had not spoken in years and then, for reasons that no one but God could understand, they “ran into their souls” at a nearby car dealership on a Saturday evening. After decades of each having been married to another person, my friend told me, his wife and this guy bumped into each other?

Not their “soul mates,” he clarified. Their “souls.”

Ah, I said.

Anyway, he added, pulling his mouth away from the hose just as he’d brought it to his lips, you just hope for this kind of thing for everyone. Then he inhaled, released, and coughed.

I said, Okay.

He went on to explain that his wife and her new man had each thought often of the other over the years. They did not realize they’d lived in the same city all of this time. Apparently, my friend said, straight-faced, the guy made a birthday cake for my wife every year to commemorate her birthday—and then he’d go and dump it in a fire pit in his garden and burn it.

What about your daughters? I asked.

My folks are divorced, he answered.

I nodded. So you’ve told them about all this?

They know.

I nodded again. He took another long drag from his hose and looked up at me.

Single parent, he said, short of air. There’s a lot of street cred in that these days.

You are kind of blowing my mind right now, I said.

He exhaled. Yeah, he said. He didn’t cough. He began studying the hookah, like he hadn’t realized this artifact had been there between us the whole time. Well, he said, I basically just want to kill myself.

 

3.

I took him to my car. I acted cool. I called my car a name. He laughed. He seemed fine. In the car, however, as I drove through his neighborhood, he began knocking his head against the passenger window. I studied him from my periphery. I began talking about my heart attack the previous fall. He said he had heard about it. He was sorry. He was obviously not interested, but it seemed right to continue talking about myself. I believed I was offering us both some greater context for our rather narrow sorrow. I told him in detail what I could remember about the catheter. When I pulled up to his house, I extended my hand. Thanks, I said.

He didn’t move. He didn’t take my hand. He just stared straight ahead.

You still living together? I asked.

He nodded.

That hurts, I said.

You would think so, he said. Then he invited me in. He said he had some beer in the fridge.

I said I needed to call my wife first.

He clicked his teeth. Ah, he said. He wagged his finger in my face.

I know, I said, I know. I forced a light laugh. I looked at my phone.

He didn’t move.

I’ll be up there in just a minute, I said. You can leave the door open.

I don’t want to be left in that house alone with her anymore.

I dialed my wife. She did not pick up. The machine came through. I left a vague message about being “on my way” and withheld the expression of love I would have ordinarily voiced, were there not a divorced friend of mine sitting right beside me.

We walked up to his house and went inside. It was dark.

I can’t see anything, I said.

She’s in here somewhere, he said.

 

4.

In bed the night I made the remarks on my divorce cabin, I rolled over to look at my wife. She was reading a book on the history of crochet and needlework. I said, If we divorce, who gets the baby?

 

5.

The next morning, I played basketball with a third friend I’d presumed married. I told him about my recently discovered divorced friends. I told him that I could not understand people divorcing. It seemed, I said, an incredible amount of work. Then I shot a layup.

My friend was silent until he told me that he’d always believed marriage was for the brainwashed dickheads of a Hallmark psychological takeover. I passed him the ball and said, I think Maya Angelou’s cards are actually pretty cool.

That’s because you are gay, he said.

I let this slide. He had not gone to school, this particular friend. I had always thought him to be a rough but decent sort of person—a simple man with values and priorities that approximated my own. But I didn’t really know this to be true. I said, Aren’t we all?

He drained a left-hander from the short corner and looked at me. He shook his head. No, he said.

I bet your wife loves your marriage, I said.

Not unless she’s fucking it, he said. Then he said, We tanked it last year.

No way, I said. He was dribbling the ball between his legs. I was like Helen Keller on drugs in that marriage, he said. I beat the shit out of everything in that house. That marriage was costing us both a fortune. I broke like ten thousand dollars in walls.

He drove the lane. I did not contest this. He rolled the ball over the rim. I’d met this guy at that same gym about the time of my heart attack. The first time we shot together, he brought beer to the court and made me try to finish the case with him. We might have pulled it off, had he not broken his leg trying to grab a rebound before it went into the small set of aluminum bleachers near the emergency exits. I had to drive him to the hospital. Both of us were drunk. For a while I sat there in the waiting room with his wife, a cool woman. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, she was gone. I was just sitting alone and I was in the hospital lobby. I thought she had perhaps gone off for coffee. I sat there for two hours. I checked the nurse’s station. My friend had already been released.

I shot from about six feet. The ball hit the rim and came right back to me. I shot again. What do you do now? I asked my friend. Are you dating?

He told me he was doing my mother. He snapped the ball off the glass and ran the length of the court. He ran back. He stood in front of me. He told me to take that look off my face. He told me I made him sick. Marriage, he said, made him sick. Then he walked off the court, taking the ball with him.

 

6.

It’s a good cabin. I think about it a lot. I go there a lot. When I’m there, I live off berries and perch. In the winter, however, the average temperature is ten. I eat very little, but I drink a lot. I work on insulating the walls of the cabin while drinking. Sometimes I will fall asleep with a tool in my chopper mitten. I do not dream. I often get up and have another drink, and then I leave the cabin to walk to the bar in town. I talk to no one there. Sometimes, people talk to me and suggest I shower. Also, that I have my cheeks and nose looked at by a professional, since the frostbite seems to be blackening my exposed flesh. Have you insulated that place, they say, and that’s usually when I return to the cabin, where a Nordic woman is washing the kitchen counter with a white cloth. The room is glowing in candlelight. She has made a fire in a fireplace I have no memory of building into the planked walls. She has decorated the cabin with lovely red and blue fabrics and floral tapestries. She has an apron on. She wears a scarf on her head from which long blonde hair spills. She brings me a cup of hot cocoa. She says she is the Swiss Miss girl all grown up and has come from the hills to be my wife and make ruddy children. She is in love with me, she knows it’s sudden. She says, Oh, Dear Eyes, and she kisses my eyes, and though the planks of the cabin have caught on fire and are burning down around us, I say nothing because inside my body I am so, so cold.

 

7.

The fourth well-married friend I discovered divorced was my for­mer neighbor. He was driving by his old house, as he often did, and he’d seen me weeding in my front yard and pulled his car over. He rolled down his window. He told me he was on his way to the state penitentiary. He told me he had started a therapy group for inmates who were, had been, or feared they would soon be divorced by their partners or spouses. He said, You should come.

I went over to his car. I laughed. I said, You are the fourth person to talk to me about divorce in the past few days. What is up with that?

You should come with me, he said.

Why would I do that? I said.

Empathy, he said.

My friend is not a therapist. He is a veterinary surgeon with a specialty in genetic eye diseases. He and his wife were our neigh­bors for several years. They divorced just before they moved out. They were extraordinarily public about their divorce. They fought brutally in their house with the windows open, and they made love brutally in their house with the windows open. Even the discreetest neighbors in the area talked about them. They often shouted the word divorce at one another. You could hear that word on the wind so often it became a sort of third party in their arguments and lovemaking sessions.

Listen, I said. When did you guys know it was time to get divorced? When we first got married, he answered.

 

8.

That night, I tell my wife about all my friends who are suddenly divorcing. I tell her about our former neighbors and the afternoon I spent at the state penitentiary. I tell her about the dude at the gym. I have my head in her lap. I look up at her, and she is sleep­ing.

She is very pregnant. She is deep into our pregnancy. She is sleeping even when she is not asleep. I keep talking. I tell her about the first guy to tell me he was soon to be divorcing, and how he was still living with his wife. I tell her that the first thing I wanted to do, when I heard this, was to tell her. I tell her that I didn’t know, at first, what to say to a person in his position. I tell her that I didn’t realize so many people were divorcing in the world. I tell her I do not know what I would do if we were divorced.

I let these remarks flitter away into the silence of our living room, and I look up again at my wife. She is a pretty sleeper. Any­way, I say, I tried to call you. You didn’t pick up. So I went with him into his house. He asked me to follow him into the kitchen to get a beer. And I did. I asked him if I should take my shoes off. He laughed. I asked if we should turn on the lights. We went into the kitchen and stood across from each other at his center island. We kept the lights off. The moonlight from outside lit his face. He just stared at me, or he seemed to. You all right? I asked.

Sad, he said.

Then he turned around, flung open the moon-bright refrig­erator, took out a bottle of beer, and wrenched it open with his hands. He drank back on it and then slid it over to me. I looked at it. He said, You want one of your own. He went back to the fridge, pulled out another beer, palmed the bottle, then stopped and stood stock-still.

I said, What?

He whispered, Listen.

I said, I hear the house fan.

I hear her breathing, he said.

I said, Okay.

I hear her breath, he said.

Then I heard something too. I heard footfalls on the stair­case. At first they were quiet, and then his daughters pattered into the kitchen. Suddenly it became very noisy. We flung on a light. There were his girls, beaming. They looked at me and talked to him. They were so happy he was home. They were so happy that they could have breakfast in the dark. They asked him why we smelled like smoke.

 

9.

I got into his car. I asked him how he got hooked up with this therapy group, and he told me he’d decided to do it all on his own. He said he was just driving past the prison one day shortly after he and his wife had ended their marriage and had thought, You know, there are probably a lot of single guys in there feeling just like me. He told me he went up to the front gate, and asked to see the warden, and, when the warden appeared, asked if he thought anyone inside might be interested in getting together to talk informally about love and its absences. The warden laughed and said that he doubted it, but that my friend could get a day pass and sit down in the field during a thirty-minute outdoor lunch to see if anyone came over.

And now guess who joins my little group of forty-five inmates every week?

The warden?

That fucker, my friend said. He looked wistful. I love that fat fucker.

We were sitting in his car, staring at our houses. He had stopped talking. I had nothing more to say. It was interesting to just sit and look at the houses, actually. I took a deep breath.

You like the new owners? he asked me.

They’re fine, I said.

They’ll disappoint you, he said. That’s the way it is with neigh­bors.

We had very little in common, in fact, aside from our property lines. We drove in silence and when we arrived at the penitentiary I learned that its parking lot is a vast—just absolutely sweeping—dirt desert that goes out beyond view for miles. From any par­ticular spot in this desert, you have to walk about a quarter mile before getting to the prison’s tiny entryway, which is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. When they let you in, you pass through a maze of hallways of windowless cinder block, and you are pat­ted down and scanned at every steel-barred gate, of which there are more than five between the entry and the open field where selected inmates can take a thirty-minute outdoor lunch. My friend and I went every step of the way through this in silence.

Out on the lawn, many of the guys had already gathered, wait­ing for my friend and former neighbor. They were sitting folded-leg style in the grass. They eyed me as we approached. I sat down. My friend went to the front of them and stood. He lifted his hands and, when they’d quieted down completely, he thanked them for coming and for their willingness to “see the world beyond love.”

The men were nodding. My friend continued. He spoke for some time on “the intrinsic colossal disaster of seeing love that isn’t actually there,” and he used an example of two blind dogs he’d come to love when he was interning at a veterinarian clinic in North Carolina. The dogs had died. He’d discovered them dead one morning. Just gone, he said, his voice beginning to tremble. He snapped his fingers. He cleared his throat. He said he was devastated. He said he has never known devastation like this. No devastation has ever compared, he said. He said he imagined we knew what he was talking about.

The sun was exceptionally warm. I looked around again. One thing was clear from the expressions on the faces of the men in that group: It was not a good idea to talk about dead dogs. They did not like that. Some of the men got up. This agitated one of those still sitting. My neighbor continued talking as though the exchanges occurring among these men were trivial, subdued. Dead dogs, he said, were only a metaphor. But they were not. One man stood up, shoved another one from behind, and called him a bitch. The warden shifted and rolled up to his feet. I was trying to stand when three or four other men pushed me back down and jumped the warden and the guy who’d called the other man a bitch. They kicked him in the head. I saw the man’s head moving in horrible angles. Three or four men kicking a head is a gruesome thing. Then the shots came and the yard was filled with weaponry and shouting. I was on my stomach, pinned. I could see others pinned to the ground also.

 

10.

I look up at my wife. She’s still sound asleep. The baby is coming in the next few weeks, and she is sleeping so hard, for such short periods of time, in such odd contorted positions, I am amazed to see the way serenity can sometimes play across her face. We have been married six years. We have planned everything carefully, strategically, my anomalous heart attack and double bypass last year notwithstanding. We were ready, I had been thinking until this spate of divorces, to have this baby. I tell her that it makes me uneasy that everyone is getting divorced. It’s crazy, I say. What are divorces, anyway?

 

11.

Eventually my friend turned on a few more of the house lights and seemed to loosen up. He told silly stories to his girls, and I drank a second beer. The television was switched on. His daughters described their favorite late-night television show to me. They said Jimmy Kimmel was “kank,” but he was also a little bit “smunt.” Neither could have been more than six. My friend looked at me and shrugged.

Then I noticed that my friend’s wife had materialized in the kitchen, in a blue robe. She was holding a beer. She stood at the edge of the kitchen, just where the kitchen met the living room. She asked what time we’d gotten home. My friend didn’t answer, so I told her. I told her it was nice to see her again.

Yeah? she said.

Then she asked me about my wife. I asked her about her lawn. I complained about the housing market. She said she knew it was strange but she loved crabgrass. We went on like this for a few minutes, talking small, my friend playing with his daughters by the television. She had come over to me and sat on the arm of my chair. She seemed entirely easy. She only looked in her husband’s direction a few times.

Well, I said. I stood up to leave.

She looked surprised. Oh, she said. You don’t have to go any­where.

No, I said.

Have another beer, she said.

She got up and went to the fridge, even as I was saying I shouldn’t drink any more, and she opened that beer, twisting the cap off with her bare hands, and brought it back to me. Then she went back to the fridge, opened another bottle, and gave it to her husband. Then she told her husband, my friend, to sit on the sofa.

And he did. He got up from the floor and threw himself onto the sofa. She sat on his lap. What else is new? she asked me.

I hear you’re getting divorced, I wanted to say.

Very little, I said.

My wife is still sleeping as I tell her this. I tell her that when I looked up again, I saw the two of them—my friend and his wife—kissing on the sofa and I presumed, at first, it was a quick and conciliatory kind of thing. I looked at their girls, who were also looking at my friend and his wife.

They kept kissing. I looked again at the girls. The TV went on commercial. I saw my friend’s wife’s tongue, and his hand slipped inside her robe. They were both still holding their beers. As soon as he dropped his beer on the carpet, I stood up. I patted the girls on the head. They took this as a sort of signal. They left the room with me, as if they were going to walk me to the door. Instead they went straight up the stairs to their bedrooms. Good night, I whispered to them, and they turned around.

 

12.

My cardiologist took particular care of me during my heart attack and subsequent surgery. He visited my room often. He said little, but he checked my stats with a sort of earnest determination, flipping papers, hammering things into his computer. The night before my surgery, after everyone had left, he came to my room and closed the door. He sat on the edge of my bed. He said, You know what you need?

A hug?

He looked at his watch. I find most heart patients, he said, need someone to scare the shit out of them.

Okay, I said.

If you are not going to change your lifestyle, he said. He looked at me, and then he produced a plastic model of the human heart from his coat pocket, and he stuck his fingers into the model and started pulling it apart. He scattered the rubber pieces across my bedsheets and left.

 

13.

C’mon, the older daughter said. She summoned me up. I fol­lowed. At the top of the stairs, we turned to the right and went into a room lit only by candles. Inside, the walls were lined with mounted game. I stared at a zebra head. Jesus, I said. The older daughter told me the zebra’s name was Beverly. The fox was Lenny, the pheasant Jennifer. And the wild turkey had no name at all, because they had just killed it that morning.

 

14.

I take my head off my wife’s lap and I sit up. I upset the sofa cushions a bit, bounce a little, so that she will wake up. I touch her shoulder. She wakes up. She smiles. She wipes her face. She reaches into a stretch, and she brings her hands to her stomach, to our bursting child inside there. She tells me she feels like hell, and I say I know what she means. She rolls her eyes. Take me upstairs, she says. I consider this. I consider carrying her. I consider her weight. C’mon, she says. I put my arm under her legs. I support her back. I lift her. Her eyes close. Her mouth sags. It’s chilly. The gravel path is lit only by dull moonlight. There’s a breeze. The crickets are calling. I hear the waves lapping at the shore. I hear my boat rubbing the wooden pier. The rope moorings are aching. The cabin is dark. I put my wife down on our creaking bed. I stand upright and look at her form. It’s no easy journey getting her here. I wish we lived closer.

 

Christopher Merkner reflects on writing “Cabins”

“Cabins” emerged from the experience of having a good friend—or someone I’d thought was a really close friend—very casually tell me over a pastry and coffee one afternoon that he and his wife were divorcing. I remember getting the chills, thinking, My God, I can’t believe this is happening to them, and I told him I was so sorry, and he dismissed my concerns and just continued on with the elaborate details of the divorce—his affair, his wife’s affair, etc.—all of which was a shocking explosion of new information for me to process—and though he reported this information with sincerity and detachment and objectivity, he was also making it clear to me that he’d already told this information to something like fifteen or so other people before me. And so once my mystification thinned out, I started thinking about that, about how the real divorce in our conversation was my divorce from this close friend’s personal reality. And also my divorce from the lives of these other fifteen people he’d already told, all of whom were mutual friends of ours, and none of whom mentioned a word of this to me. The problem of course, and the thing that most bothered me at the time, was that I’d foolishly assumed I had some sort of intimate arrangement with the details of these people’s personal lives. Obviously that wasn’t the case, and I remember thinking, as I was working through this story, just how many lives I find myself assuming I know but ultimately know nothing about at all, or just very tiny bits and pieces.

 




Christopher Merkner
Christopher Merkner
Christopher Merkner was born and raised in northern Illinois. He is the author of the story collection The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. He lives in Denver, Colorado.









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