Shirley B. Phillips

A Man’s Home Is His Castle

When Ted got off the GO-Train and realized his car was not where he’d left it, he checked to be sure he was at the right stop. Clarkson Station. Maybe there’d been a water main break or an accident of some sort? But the pavement was dry. There were no shards of glass. Other cars he recognized were in their usual spots. He went back inside and popped a dime into the pay phone, but got the answering machine – his own deep voice saying “The Taits are tied up, but we’ll get back to you as soon as someone releases us.” That was Ted. Always yucking it up. A real card. The bane of his daughters’ existence, but in a good way. He considered walking, but decided to taxi home. He was already late. Joann would have dinner waiting, and he was hungry now. She’d told him it was lasagne tonight – his favourite – and she made a good one.

As the taxi pulled onto the cul de sac, Ted could see in the distance that there was something unusual on his front lawn. Theirs was the tidiest yard on the street, with manicured grass and tidy hedges, fronted by lemon-yellow tulips all in a row. Not a leaf on ground. No weeds or wayward branches. For him, it was a real source of pride. But there, just ahead, as the car pulled up, Ted could see clothes strewn everywhere. It was too early for Hallowe’en decorating. Maybe one of Joann’s Goodwill bags had blown over in the wind? But there was no wind. The evening sun was shining, the air still. No. It was as if something – his clothes closet, to be precise – had exploded. Suit jackets, shirts, trousers, socks, even his Fruit-of-the-Looms. Everywhere. But why? What the hell was happening?

He quickly paid the cab driver without tipping. The guy had taken the slow route, presumably to get a bigger fare, and it had irritated Ted to no end. He got out, briefcase in hand, and went to the front door. When he turned the handle, as he’d done for the past twenty-two years, it didn’t budge. He tried again, jiggling the handsome brushed nickel knob he’d installed himself just last summer. Still nothing. He rang the doorbell repeatedly while fishing for his keys in his coat pocket. Joann always left the door unlocked for him. No one locked their doors on this street. He could see their cat, Snowball, stretched out on the sill of the bay window. It looked lazily over at him, bored, and blinked once before falling back to sleep.

Ted went to the side door to retrieve the spare key from under their coir welcome mat, but the key was gone. He went round to the back and crossed the long yard to the shed where they kept a backup key in a box of nails, but it, too, was locked. He stood and stared at the sturdy shed door, scratching his head. For a moment, he thought he was in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Was this even his place? Was someone playing tricks on him? Of course he was home.

He turned and walked back toward the house, stepping on the terra cotta paving stones he himself had laid. He knew every inch of this place like the back of his hand. After all, he’d planned and laboured over every detail. A man’s home is his castle, he always said. There was the patio he’d built with the help of his neighbours, Rich and Gunnar, the fence he and his brother Pete had mended, the cement planters he’d hauled on his own from the garden centre, throwing out his back, the water feature whose pump he fixed year after year. He’d go across the road to Gunnar and Ingrid’s for their emergency key. They’d know what was going on.

But, as he retraced his steps and got close enough to the back door to see in, he stopped in his tracks. For there was Joann – right there – standing at the kitchen window, one arm folded across her slim waist, a steaming mug of coffee in the other hand, poised at her lips. Watching.

Ted stared at his wife a moment. Then waved to her. Then motioned for her to open the door. And then the penny dropped. He realized she wasn’t about to budge. Ted started banging like a madman on the double-hung kitchen windows, making them rattle in a way the installer had said they never would, sending the stained-glass ornaments which he bought Joann every Christmas flying off their clear plastic suction cups. He tried to force the sliding doors open, but saw the broom handle he used to block intruders was firmly in place. He thought about getting a shovel or his weedwhacker to break through a pane, but when he went to the garage, it was locked too. All he had was his briefcase, the one Joann and the girls had given him when he’d finally become a manager at the accounting firm. Leather-bound, with his initials, TJT, in tasteful gold lettering at the top. He was proud of that briefcase and its discreet combination locks. He returned to the kitchen window, but Joann was gone.

At the front of the house, Ted threw his fists at the fire-engine-red door, shouting “Joann!! Let me in for Christ’s sake!! You’re making a spectacle!!” But he could see her seated in one of their two matching wing-back chairs, Snowball in her lap, stroking the cat between its ears, just where it liked to be scratched.

Ted turned and looked at the houses on his street and saw a few blinds snap shut, several curtains fall closed. His friends and neighbours were watching. Of course they were. It was past the dinner hour. There were all home. He went down to the end of his driveway and sat on the grass, beside the little black wrought iron jockey holding out a miniature red lantern with one hand. Forlorn, and at a complete loss about what to do, he put his head in his hands and sobbed till the sky turned navy blue.

At around nine, when the garbage bins had to go out, Gunnar emerged from his side door wearing a cardigan and slippers as he usually did when he took out the trash. He shuffled across the street to Ted carrying a ham sandwich which Ingrid had rolled in wax paper and three heavy-duty green garbage bags with drawstring tops.

“You can put your things in here,” he said, handing him the bags. “You’ll want to get them off the lawn, I imagine.”

“Gunnar – ” Ted said, looking up.

“No. I do not want to talk to you tonight. Here is a sandwich from Ingrid, in case you’re hungry.”

“But, Gunnar. Can’t I at least – ?” Ted tried.

“No,” Gunnar said firmly. “I said NO. I cannot talk to you and you cannot come over to our house. I’m very sorry, Theodore. It wouldn’t be fair to Joann. This is all I can do.”

“So, you’re just going to – ”

“Ya,” he interrupted. “I’m going to take out my garbage and go indoors, Ted. That’s what I’m going to do. You’ll need to find some place to stay the night. Let me know if you need some cash for one of the motels on Trafalgar.”

“I have cash, Gunnar, but – ”

“No,” he said, holding up his palm to Ted. “You’d better go. You knew this could happen, Ted. Go find a place to sleep. Think on it. Cooler heads prevail. You’ll know what to do. Good night.”

Ted couldn’t believe his ears, but then again, he could. “Good night, Gunnar. Thank you. For the bags. And thank Ingrid for the sandwich. It was…thoughtful of her.”

Ted watched Gunnar slowly cross the street, shoulders slumped, and carry out his bins. That couldn’t have been easy for him, Ted thought…but, really? They’d been friends since their kids were small. If anyone could understand, he thought, it would be Gunnar and Ingrid. They had an open marriage. They talked about it freely. Sure, as they aged, it featured less and less in their lives, but still, it was always an option. Why was Gunnar acting this way?

Ted stuffed as many of his clothes as he could into the bags, stashed them out of sight against the back shed, urinated into the hydrangeas at the far corner of the garden and began the walk back to the highway. Cars whizzed by as he stood, one thumb sticking out, craning with each passing vehicle to see if someone would take pity on him and slow down. He didn’t want to use what little cash he had left on yet another cab.

At the Quality Inn, Ted asked for a double room and as soon as he was inside, he removed his shoes, placed his briefcase on the bureau and drank down four mini bottles from the bar fridge – vodka, gin, rum and whiskey. He dialled Joann over and over from the phone beside his bed. He got out the phone book and leafed through the thin pages looking for the girls’ universities until he remembered they were in different cities. He called Directory Assistance and asked for numbers – Western and McMaster student residences, Registrar’s Offices, Emergency lines – anything. No one was answering. He didn’t know how to reach their dorms. Joann usually handled all that when they had their Sunday evening chats.

Ted called his boss – better to leave a message on the machine than reach him live in the morning. He said he had a family emergency and would not be in the next day.

He did not call Lenore. There would be no point.

When they’d driven Alexis to London two years back, Ted had insisted on waiting to meet her roommate, just to be sure. Lexi had pleaded with him to please just go, she’d be fine, but he said he wanted to see for himself. When Stephanie Hamlin – a pretty blonde thing – and her parents, Wade and Lenore, walked in, they all hit it off immediately and, at the spur of the moment, Ted invited the Hamlins to join them for dinner. Wade begged off, saying he had to head back to Toronto. He had a big meeting to prep for the next day. But they’d come in separate cars – Steph had so much stuff to bring – and Lenore said she and Stephanie would love to join the Taits.

They went to the Olive Garden and, as they tucked into chef’s salads and garlic breadsticks, Ted said over and over how thrilled he was that Alexis would be bunking with such a good girl from such a nice family. Joann nudged him under the table to make him stop, to spare Alexis any more humiliation. The parents exchanged phone numbers – only to be used for emergencies, they assured their daughters with dramatic nudges and winks – and Ted gallantly picked up the bill, offering to drop both Steph and Lexi back to the dorm so Lenore could get on the highway home. As they filed out of the restaurant, ladies first, Ted couldn’t help notice Lenore’s tight little bum and curvy legs. He felt a rush of blood to his head.

Several weeks later, Ted found an excuse to call Lenore and things started up pretty quickly. Her husband was never home. They were empty-nesters now. Wade worked down on King, not far from their condo, in the financial district. Lenore invited Ted up to their penthouse – she didn’t want to have dinner out or be seen anywhere in public, which made it easy – and within weeks they’d settled into a regular routine. He’d go twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, after work. Wade played squash with colleagues and clients most evenings after work, so was never home before eight. Lenore wanted Ted out by six thirty latest, which got him to the train right on time.

Their sex was good, nothing like the hushed, dark-room fumbling he was used to with Joann when they had relations to cap off the week – a Saturday-night tradition started when the girls began partying with friends after supper on weekends. That was the one night of the week they shared a glass of wine. A bottle would last them upward of a month. Although both daughters were gone off to school now, it’d been hit and miss for a while.

Not that Joann wasn’t a looker. She was the prettiest woman on their block by a longshot. But Ted wished she would dress more like Lenore did, glamorous and sexy, instead of in her practical slacks and twin sets. He liked it when she put on her tennis whites for her lessons on Tuesdays. The little pleated skirts showed off her lean legs, but he knew none of it was for him. She was serious about her game. During sex, Joann never told him how she wanted it or cried out in ecstasy the way Lenore did. And all they ever talked about was the girls, the house, their budget, the grocery list, sometimes even in bed. It was all so predictable. When he was with Lenore, it was uncharted and electric.

They did it every which way in broad daylight, curtains open, blinds up, in Lenore and Wade’s bedroom. They were so high up no one could see in. Before they started, she’d pour him a cocktail and turn the photo of her husband on the side table to the wall. She didn’t let Ted stop till she got what she wanted. They never talked about their lives, their kids, their partners. She never tried to coddle Ted, amuse him, feed him. She just wanted skin contact and a good time, she said, that’s all.

Lenore was cool as a cucumber, aloof yet intense, detached but friendly. She laughed easily – sparkled, really. And afterward, Ted loved the way she sat naked, unabashedly, in the gray velvet chair, one muscular leg thrown over the rivet-studded arm, smoking.

He had no idea if she cooked dinner for Wade and didn’t dare ask. He could never smell food in the apartment, just fresh-cut flowers in tall vases, pot pourri in cut-glass bowls on occasional tables, Lenore’s perfume. She never allowed him to shower or use the phone, so he’d call a cab from the guest phone in the lobby and take the train home standing under a vent or by a door, hoping to get the smell of her off him before he got home.

He told Joann he had late meetings, which she never questioned, so he assumed everything was just fine.

Joann got the call from Wade early on, a couple of months after Lexi moved into residence. He was matter-of-fact. It wasn’t the first time. He and Lenore had an understanding now. But Wade said he could tell when he met them on campus that this was not likely routine for Joann. He thought she should know. He’d despised that feeling of being duped – treated like an idiot – the first time Lenore had been unfaithful. Since then, they’d both had their flings. They really lived quite separate lives. She was good for his business. The partners liked her – and she threw a hell of a cocktail party.

“How’d you find out?” Joann asked, meaning the first lover.

“He left his thermos by mistake,” Wade said. “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was him. He was awfully proud of the matching flask he’d given your daughter as a going-away gift that day at the dorm. Red plaid. I remembered that.”

“I see,” said Joann.

“Lenore will get bored soon,” he continued. “She usually does. If you force him to end it, she’ll be just fine. The Ice Queen. But I’d wager your hubby’s pretty smitten. Ted seems to be a novice, and she’s a bit of an acrobat, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I thought you should know. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Over to you – do with it what you will.”

Joann called Ingrid immediately after she hung up and went over. They gave her a strong drink and told her about their own arrangement – how it had helped them, enriched their sex lives, the times they’d each felt jealousy. They encouraged Joann to confront Ted, maybe even to try it as a lifestyle. Go with the flow. She didn’t work and didn’t want to give up everything they’d built for themselves and their girls, did she? But Joann knew she just wasn’t hard-wired that way. Gunnar and Ingrid were artists, and Danish to boot. They had different sensibilities, more worldly and open. They walked around naked most of the time and had a sauna in their house for goodness’ sake. Gunnar told her to think on it. That was always his advice.

Joann decided to leave it alone for a while, to wait it out. When they had their Saturday night ‘wine and snuggles,’ as Ted called it, she tried to change things up, wear a negligée to bed, or makeup and perfume. Ted never seemed to notice. She watched for differences, but he still kissed her with too much spit, mounted her methodically and was done. No new tricks in his bag.

Life carried on. They upgraded their appliances to newer models, redecorated the powder room, went to potlucks together, always bringing their famous layered Mexican dip or sweet ‘n sour meatballs. Alexis and Ashley came home for turkey at Thanksgiving, prime rib at Christmas, spiral ham at Easter, Joann fixing her pumpkin pies, filling stockings, hiding waxy chocolate easter eggs the way she always did. Ted continued to come home late twice a week and Joann kept his dinner warm, waiting to eat when he got home.

Then she found the lump. And instead of curling up in a ball under the eiderdown Ingrid had given her for her fiftieth birthday, or feeling relieved she still had Ted by her side, stolid and comforting like a hot water bottle, instead of succumbing to grief, Joann suddenly – shockingly, even to herself – decided she’d had enough.

She called the girls, told them everything, and listened patiently to their outraged wailing for hours. She told Ingrid and Gunnar what she was doing and they nodded, quietly, feeding her a lovely raclette. She called a lawyer to inquire about her rights, which were many. And after they radiated the hell out of her over-active cells, she got herself a part-time job. She knocked items off a long to-do list – ending with Change the Locks – and waited. And now, here they were.

Ted begged her to take him back for the longest time, but eventually gave up. For quite a while, she froze him out, but the girls soon got over their fury and, predictably, felt sorry for Dear Old Dad, wanting to see him back on his feet, back at home, their collective lives patched up. They wanted everything they’d come to expect to be intact again. Surely you can forgive him one mistake, Mom? Joann humoured all of them just to keep them off her back.

Ted settled for being allowed back to putter in the garden, doing yard work and outdoor repairs, raking leaves, cleaning troughs. He didn’t want to see things go to pot after all the work he’d done to keep things just so. In exchange, Joann gave him access to the tools in the shed, and on weekends, even let him do his own woodworking projects out back. Occasionally, she’d serve him some lemonade or a beer before he went back to his little apartment.

She never let him in. Not even to use the washroom.

If she had, she might have seen that he’d started pissing blood, since he always forgot to flush and never once put the seat down the entire time they’d been married.

And if he’d crossed the threshold, he might have seen the tasteful nude portrait she’d commissioned hanging in their bedroom where their wedding picture had been.

Gunnar had painted her posed on a divan looking proud and dignified – pearlescent skin glowing, wavy chestnut hair falling onto squared shoulders, hands strategically placed to partially cover the dark triangle at the top of her crossed legs. Her pale white breasts were in full view, drooping ever-so-slightly, but lovely nonetheless, with round, rosy nipples that matched her softly smiling lips.

And there, on her left breast, a noticeable divot was cut out of the flesh, leaving a thin, puckered scar where an unwanted mass had once been.

Shirley B. Phillips was born in India and immigrated with her family to Canada in the mid-1960s. She received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Toronto and also studied at l’Université d’Aix-Marseille, France. After a successful thirty-year career in government, during which she served as a Deputy Minister, she is pursuing a lifelong interest in writing. Her work has been published in the Globe and Mail, shortlisted in The Fiddlehead and longlisted in The New Quarterly. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Toronto.