First rule, he makes sure to look in the lady’s eyes when he smiles. Second, he crinkles his like Clint Eastwood. Tonight, many nights, he practices his smile in the tri-fold mirror, locks the bathroom door so his four-year-old can’t get in. He thinks of that Eastwood who could swagger about with a rifle in hand, but could also touch a lady, tender, at the small of her back. Who could work rugged days, eyes creased by the sun, but also meet you with a word, warm and measured. Eastwood once said, manhood is really a quiet thing.
He meets a lady now and then. A new clerk at the burger joint, the one close enough for morning break. Or at the liquor mart, there always seems to be a different set of hands stocking his rolling paper. Then there’s the drug tech. Transferred from the next county, now she’s the one who measures out his wife’s monthly dose of meds. Last month, when the tech turned away to retrieve the pills, he could see a scar on her cheek, a tiny furrow where a scratch once healed.
When he talks to a lady, he touches the table or the counter where she stands—as if the surface were made of hardwood oak and his fingertip traces the grains. He favors the ring finger. Of the five digits, the ring finger has the gentlest touch. Reed-like and gentle. He heard Della say that once. His wife. In her brief Mary Kay venture, advising homemakers on how to dab and daub, all with the softest of touches.
From the living room comes the sound of a sitcom laugh-track, the repeated rumbling like a hungry belly. He knows the scene well. His wife and two daughters lounge on the floor, their faces close to the TV screen, heads propped up by their hands. Della refuses to open the curtains, and she has stripped all of the bulbs from the living room lamps; he can’t find where she’s put them. And now, all the cigarette smoke that she’s exhaled through the day—it collects, catching in the brightness of the television. A foggy-blue palette shades the room, and there, his daughters and Della lie, their heads of dark-hair dimpled with plastic curlers.
Later, when they’ve turned in for the night, he looks in on them sleeping—Della, the two girls—all three piled together in the twin bed. They still wear the rollers in their hair. Plastic the color of cornflowers.
As for himself, he will settle into the living room couch. The infomercials have begun, with a deal you just won’t believe. He presses the mute button and lets his eyes grow heavy. Even as he drifts, he can see the light of the TV flashing quickly. It flickers along his eyelids, like sunlight through a canopy of leaves.
The next day, the pharmacy is awash with fluorescence. He allows several people to go ahead of him in line, trying to wangle a quiet meeting with the drug tech. When he reaches the counter, he smiles; he looks in her eyes, and she lets him. It’s been a month— exactly thirty days—but, he thinks, couldn’t she remember him?
“What was the name?” she asks.
It’s the standard greeting, the line she’s used for every customer so far. But maybe, given the chance, she’ll remember his eyes.
“I’m here for Della,” he tells her. Smile again, crinkle the eyes. “Della Lee.”
The tech nods and turns away, disappearing into the rows of ordered pills.
In front of him, the counter is pure white, but he commences his tracing as if it were oak. Those furrows of the wood grains, he can almost feel them. How many rings wound around its trunk? His fingertip traces, traces. His knuckle flexes. And, glinting with each move, his gold wedding band.
“Sir?” The tech is looking at him expectantly.
She passes him a white paper sack, the pills inside shifting and rattling, and as he pays, his hand grazes her skin. Accidental, imprecise, his touch lands—was that her finger, her palm? A small and soft collision. But he can feel the kickback. It travels up his arm, into his chest.
As a boy, he used to trek with his father along the woods’ edge, where the ashes and oak grow heavy. Their rifles were close at hand. The ammo inside its pack shifted and rattled.
In the long, quiet stretches when there were no bucks, sometimes a doe would whisper past, her coat flickering with the sunlight as it slanted through the canopy. He and his father just watched, and her muscles would tighten then soften, tighten then soften as she moved.
His father taught: some lines are sacred. The does were on one side, the men on the other. Most seasons, his father would say, you can’t hold fast to a doe. She raises the young. She’s protected. All you can do is to tip your hat to her. And his father would touch the brim of his cap. Let her slow-dance right past.
He and his father, they always brought home more mottos and ammo, than meat.
That night. Della’s white paper sack delivered. The bathroom door locked. He goes through the motions. Smile again, crinkle the eyes.
Pink Mary Kay bottles, unsold, line up along bathtub ledge, and he pours a drop of lotion on his left wrist, smoothing the pale cream up his hand. When he reaches his fingers, he takes care around his ring, pays close attention to the fleshy lines at his knuckles. He works the cream into his skin until all that remains is a slight oily sheen. Then he does the right hand.
His wife dabs lotion daily. He’s watched her. She stands in this spot, where he does now, and gazes into the tri-fold mirror. Dabbing at the cream, dabbing at her skin. She uses only her ring finger.
Behind the mirror, tucked away, sits a small notebook. Inside, the scribbles of her cosmetic training. He used to open the pages, hoping to find some clue to Della’s state of mind. The pages stayed bare, except for the first few, where the paper is rumpled from moisture and wear.
Ring finger, she wrote in her slanted script. The ring finger – long & delicate like a reed. It is the weakest and has the gentlest touch. Try using it. You might have to try over & over. Might be hard to manage at first. Weakness allows it to be gentle. Gentle & wild – both.
In the living room, he sits on the couch, rolls several cigarettes before lighting one for himself. All through the evening, tobacco smoke trails from Della’s mouth; ash falls from her fingertips. He and Della and their girls eat dinner by blue-gray light.
At midnight, the plates still lie on the rug, caked in grease, and in the silver fog, the wife and girls start gathering for good nights. There are no kisses, just the three of them filing past him. They murmur and sigh, and he lifts his hand in a sort of a wave. As with every bedtime, he watches them make their way down the hall, hair all rolled up in those matching curlers. And tonight, he smiles to himself. Just smiles. Because it looks to him that Della, his girls—atop each of their heads sits a crown made of petals. Cornflower blue. Yes, for a moment, against the darkness of the hallway, he can see those blue flowers and can see them flicker, then glow.
Printed with permission from Leigh Claire Schmidli, copyrighted by Leigh Claire Schmidli @ 2015. This piece, winner of the Fall 2015 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction and selected by Finalist Judge Megan Abbott, originally appeared in Issue No. 19 of the Los Angeles Review.