Gambler

by Meghan Engelhardt

The street lamp shone against the windshield; the light splattered on the raindrops and smeared against the still wiper in the middle of the glass. It cast shadows on my clenched hand. My knuckles glowed white, even in the shadow. Opening my fingers, I stared at the crumpled white paper. I smoothed it out and cursed at the black marks. She should have won today. Today, the odds were in my favor; she should have won. I squeezed the paper between my fingers and shoved it into my pocket. My palms were wet. A car drove by and water splashed again on the windshield, dripping crookedly against the wiper. It reminded me of those paintings by . . . Meg would remember the name. Those big, crazy patterns that took up a whole wall in the Museum of Modern Art. After our honeymoon, Meg took me there during our layover at La Guardia. She said those crazy, out of control slashes of paint were “brilliant.” I didn’t think so.

The walkway was dark and the tulips were closed. Meg told our daughter Aubrey once that without the sun, the tulips didn’t have much to open for. Meg weeds every Saturday morning, wearing her overalls and her faded blue-and-black plaid shirt, rolled to her elbows.

“It’s the one my dad gave me,” she tells me every time I tell her to buy another one. It comes down to her knees when she wears it. She almost trips on it when she rolls it around her waist. “It was my dad’s,” and then she hangs it on a hanger, two shirts away from her favorite blue skirt.

The house was dark. Aubrey should be asleep by now. Hopefully Meg, too. I checked the mailbox and cringed as it clanged shut. Habit. I turned the knob but it wouldn’t budge. Habit again.

I shoved back my overcoat and took out the key from my pocket. I clutched the doorknob and twisted slowly, clenching my jaw. The door didn’t squeal.

The living room was dark. Was this room always this dark at night? Where was the moon? I swiped the wall for the light but the light switch wasn’t there. My fingers trailed against the wall as I walked through the room.

The wood creaked beneath my feet as if it knew where I’d been. I think Meg’s right about ghosts in this house. She told me about her grandmother’s stories, that there was a ghost in the house she left in Oregon, the one on the river. But she didn’t know it was there until—

“Matt.”

My breath caught, my hand flattened against the wall. It left a dark mark on the green wallpaper. Meg was sitting on the steps, her face in her hands and staring at me between her fingers. She looked gray; I couldn’t see her eyes in the shadow. She almost looked like a ghost.

I laughed a little but the sound caught in my throat and I coughed.

“I didn’t see you,” I said.

“Obviously. Matt, where have you been?” She stood up. The clouds shifted, light passing over her face—then it was gray again. Why wasn’t she asleep?

“Just working late. I haven’t quite caught up yet since Aubrey’s T-ball game.”

She was standing in front of me in my college sweatshirt, the one with the baseball on the left breast, and her snowflake pajama pants. The shadows gathered beneath her eyes when she narrowed them.

“How much work really backs up when you leave two hours early? Honestly, Matt—”

“A lot, Meg.” Why wouldn’t she believe me? “Trust me. Look, I’m tired. Sorry I’m late, all right?” I walked by her. “Just trying to make you money.”

I heard her footsteps behind me. She touched my arm. I stopped but didn’t turn.

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just—” she said.

I stared at the ground, my calves tightening.

“Never mind,” she said. I turned around and she smiled. “Good night. I’m glad you’re home.” She kissed my cheek then went upstairs.

I flipped on the dining room light. Meg had left the mail on the table unopened. Bills. They stuck out on the dark wood—almost glowing. I turned away but only saw Meg and me on our wall in a photograph from our honeymoon. Her eyes were almost squinted shut, she was laughing so hard. She was on my back in a bright yellow moomoo and my head was turned around so my face was in her shadow. I was laughing and my eyes were closed. When Meg had hung the photograph in the dining room, I shook my head.

“No Meg, not in the dining room. Not here. We can put this one upstairs.”

She looked at me with her eyebrows down.

“Who cares, Matt? Really? I like this one.”

Later she mumbled, “You’re scared to be different. Just scared.”

Meg and her ideals. I’m not scared. But sometimes I wonder whether she knows who I really am or not. I didn’t want to look at Meg in that laughing picture but I didn’t want to look at the table either. The last thing I was was scared—about anything. Everything would work out—it had to. It would—somehow. I turned back to the table and picked up the first white bill, then I put it back. There was no money. I felt the crumpled racing schedule in my pocket. I hadn’t even realized I’d put my hand back in there. I squeezed it in my fist. My palms were sweaty and the paper scratched my skin. Why was the house so warm? It bothered me how warm Meg always kept it. She wore the quilt in the middle of the summer and the way she kept up the heat all winter, no wonder the bills came. My forehead was wet. I turned down the heat and shut off the light so the table disappeared, swallowing the bills in the blackness.

I walked up the back stairs. They were darker than the front room stairs because there were doors at the top and the bottom Meg always kept shut. She says she doesn’t want Aubrey to wander over and trip down them. They’re not carpeted. Aubrey is eight years old; but Meg still closes both doors. I’ve heard Meg clobber up these stairs and slam the door at the top behind her, like she doesn’t trust them, like something’s going to grab her before she gets to the top and drag her down screaming.

I climbed the steps hearing my own breathing. I shivered and skipped the last step and opened the door. It shut behind me—like something had been waiting there.

I leaned against the door. My breathing was louder and I saw my shirt twitching on my chest. My throat began to close. I had to tell her. My neck itched. It was so hot. Why did Meg like it so hot?

Aubrey was curled on the floor in the doorway of her room. Her shoulders moved slightly as she breathed. Her long t-shirt bunched around her waist and her legs almost touched her chin. A dark spot stained her pillow where her cheek and open mouth squished against it. She always moves from her bed to the doorway before she goes to sleep. I think she’s scared and goes towards the light of our bedroom. What’s she got to be scared of? Does she think something’s going to grab her too? How did she learn to be scared? Aubrey doesn’t use the back stairs. I think Meg has scared her from them.

I picked her up. She was heavier than she used to be. Her body hung in my arms, her shirt pulling up against her stomach. She wore her favorite underwear—Wonderwoman. Maybe it gave her protection.

When she was born, all wrinkled, she looked like one of those white raisins, the kind that are almost transparent. Really small, so that even if you wanted to see through them, there just isn’t enough to see. But I thought I could see through her when I held her the first time. I thought I could see her heart beating, neurons shooting back and forth, the genes that told me she was part of me. And then she opened her eyes and I forgot she was transparent because then it was she who saw me, with her pupils getting larger and contracting in her dark blue eyes. She saw through me then—and she wasn’t a part of me. I was a part of her.

She didn’t open her eyes when I tucked her in, but her mouth curled up and she grunted as she snuggled into her bed. My breath rattled. My temples throbbed against my skin. I clenched my teeth and squinted my eyes. My skin bunched on my forehead, pulling tighter across my temples.

“Daddy.” Aubrey rolled towards me. Her eyes were half-open. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or awake. I touched her cheek and my fingers slipped to her chin. I couldn’t keep them still. I hugged her.

“I’m sorry honey,” I whispered in her hair. It tickled my cheek as she shook in my trembling arms. I clutched her tighter.

“I’m so sorry.” My cheeks were wet, my teeth chattered. Aubrey whined and moved a little. I put her back against her pillow. She grunted again and turned over.

I looked out the window. The oak outside her bedroom swept the shadows across the wall in crooked-finger scratches. I sat against the bed and pulled my knees against my chest. The collar of my overcoat scraped against my chin, my tie fell between my legs and dangled there. It hurt my neck. I loosened it but still couldn’t breathe. I pulled the schedule from my pocket. I could hardly see the black scrawls. It blurred in my wet fingers. They were black and crooked against the floor. I hated the paper. I hated the races. I wanted to stop. My fingers shook more. I couldn’t tell one from the other. I gripped the paper and saw the smear of my white fingertips, squeezing, trying to break the paper. Crush the habit. Smother the thing that was coming up to grab me and strangle my family. It didn’t tear. I couldn’t tear the measly pamphlet. I coughed and spit out the salty liquid gathering on my lips. It splattered on my overcoat, crazy and spackled against my grey sleeve. The words were still written on the white paper, clear and ordered and black. It wouldn’t tear. My stomach turned. I closed my eyes and I coughed. My eyes burned, my face was wet I shook. I shook until the paper dropped from my fingers, hitting the floor softly, curling in its wrinkles. I walked slowly into my bedroom and pulled off my overcoat. It was heavy. I almost dropped it as I hung it over a chair. The blinds were open, and the wind swirled patterns on the bed. Meg would have liked it; it was like a painting. I tried to unbutton my shirt but my fingers slipped—they wouldn’t move. My pockets were empty. I wiped my hands against my legs. I had to tell her. Meg shuddered in her sleep. I wanted to. I had to.

My clothes were hot against my body as they twisted under the sheet. I put my face against the pillow.

“Meg?”

I didn’t recognize my voice. She shifted and her eyes half opened. I stroked her hair from her face, strands sticking to my fingers.

“Meg, I—” My heart began to thud. I could hardly hear my words. I swallowed.

My body began to shake.

“I love you, Matt.”

She rolled against me and closed her eyes again. I felt my old sweatshirt against my chest, the one I used to wear in college with a baseball and bat on the left breast. It came down to her knees when she wore it. I didn’t want her to throw it out. I wasn’t scared. I just didn’t want her to hide. Nothing would grab her. Everything would work out. Everything. I couldn’t lose her. I was still shaking. It would all be fine.

“I love you, too.”