The surprise

A westerly breeze blew in just as Tom finished the last strokes of the starry scene he had painted on the side of their new mailbox. He had been working on the project for several weeks, sneaking into the garage to paint while Sara and the kids were busy. Painting the mailbox had been a welcome distraction from the stress of a new school year. He could not have guessed that going from assistant principal to principal of Berkshire County High would be such a large leap requiring so many answers he did not have on a daily basis. Today he’d had 10 calls from parents, 150 emails, a fight that resulted in a black eye at lunchtime, and two calls from the superintendent.

He couldn’t wait until Sara got home. For years she had been coveting a lovely scenic mailbox like those of so many neighbors in Sunnybrook Meadows. Mr. and Mrs. Preineke had a different mailbox for every season – one painted with purple pansies, another featuring a river snaking through the mountains, a fall mailbox adorned with red and golden leaves, and a winter box all decorated with snowmen.

Sara pulled up in her pink hybrid, which Tom disliked immensely. It was unusually selfish of Sara to choose a car barely big enough to accommodate her family. A car that he was embarrassed to drive. Tom shuddered as he imagined himself pulling into the school parking lot in Sara’s car.

But hadn’t Sara been doing lots of selfish things lately? Like going back to work full-time during the biggest transition of his career.

Tom looked at his watch. It was 6:45 p.m. Sara was late, as usual. He watched her park the car and walk inside.

“Hi,” Tom said petulantly, following her in.

“Hi, Tom,” she said, not looking back at him as she continued into the dining room, where she slung several bags onto a chair. She went into the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and sat down at the table.

“Where have you been? I tried to call you,” he said.

“Murder trial,” she replied. “I wrote 900 words in 45 minutes. I hope I spelled everyone’s name right.”

Sara could be such a resentful witch. Of course it would be all his fault if she had made a mistake because she was rushing to get home to help him. Not that he needed any help. Over the years he’d worked hard to support her so-called career, serving fish sticks to toddlers while she interviewed an octogenarian about his stamp collection. At times it had seemed to him more like a very inconvenient hobby. But this murder trial stuff was really ridiculous. Why would a 38-year-old woman who loved blue hydrangeas want to spend her days surrounded by thugs and convicts and cops and lawyers?

“I don’t suppose you had time to pick up Hailey’s prescription?”

“Yes,” Sara replied. “I did.”

“I have to meet with Fred Hodges tomorrow after school. I need those tax forms I told you to find,” Tom said.

“I don’t know where they are, Tom, and I don’t care. You don’t even need them. You’re just being a paranoid maniac.”

“This is exactly why we never have any money. It’s because you don’t pay any attention to details. You don’t keep records. You are completely disorganized. You are just like your mother,” Tom said.

Sara had already gotten up from the table and started walking up the stairs.

“You wouldn’t last a day in my job,” he continued until Sara slammed the door.

Sara wilted back on the bed and thought about where she might have put the forms. Her head was pounding. She thought of the women standing outside the courthouse with their signs.

She hated Tom. If ever she believed in herself for five minutes he was there to tear her down with what Dr. Phil called character assassination. At work people said “thank you” when she did things correctly even though she was being paid. At home no one noticed what she did correctly, only what she did not do. Later, she thought, I’ll look at the classified ads and see how much apartments cost.

For the rest of the evening Tom and Sara avoided eye contact with one another, putting Hailey and Kyle to bed separately. Sara read to Kyle; Tom to Hailey.

After the children were asleep, Tom opened a beer and sat in front of the television watching two grown men punch each other. He thought briefly how odd it was that the same act that had caused his blood pressure to skyrocket at 1:30 p.m. was helping him relax at 10:30 p.m. Finally he finished his beer and went to bed.

In the basement, Sara folded laundry. Hailey was supposed to wear something blue tomorrow and bring a toy that started with the letter ‘B.’

Tom had forgotten to take his pants out of the dryer again. She got them out and folded them carefully, stacking them on top of the ironing board. Then she noticed the shirt and tie he had hung meticulously by the stairs. Surely he planned to wear them tomorrow, for as much grief as he gave her about not planning, he was the one always washing his clothes the night before he wanted to wear them. If he washed his own clothing at all.

She looked closely at the tie, a fraying orange and brown hand-me-down circa 1976 bestowed upon Tom by his father. This probably had something to do with Spirit Day. She took the tie off the hanger, walked upstairs, put it in the trash, and replaced it with the blue silk one she had gotten him last year for Christmas. There was no way she was letting that self-important tyrant show up at work tomorrow looking like a sad clown who just been laid off from the circus.


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