Fiction by Bill Roorbach

The Savage Wheel

Bill Roorbach

Margo is a big one for notes — notes on my dresser, notes on the fridge, notes on the dashboard of the car (Get fucking Gas!), so I’m not surprised to find a note next to my face on the pillow when I wake,yellow-lined paper, her generous script and signature green ink. The surprise is that she’s gotten up early and gone. Vaguely I recall blinking to the sound of her tires crunching the seashells of our driveway. I can’t remember any plans for an early work day or shopping trip to the Hub, but. The first line of the note is “Leo, I’m sorry.” I don’t read further, and why would I? She’s got nothing to be sorry about, wife of twenty-one satisfactory years.

In the bathroom under the toilet seat, an undeniably original setting, there’s a sticky-note, can’t miss it, first line: “Problem: you are so predictable.” I smile at that, but can’t read further as the little purple slip falls into the toilet under a stream of hostility, she might say, and floats upside down, only to be flushed in a whirlpool of indifference, again quoting the unspoken, flushed unread to the year-old, bond-funded sewers of this sweet beach town, once a rural resort, now a suburb, overrun.

I love her, my Margo. She’s funny, amuses me. I get my cereal, a product called Life, and the next note falls from the box in the cascade of crunchies, just two words on a scrap of envelope: “So predictable.”

At this, I can laugh: I eat Life for breakfast, Margo, count on it!

I check the temperature outdoors, choose the porch table based on that information, sit on the wicker out there, shovel the dripping cereal squares into my pie-hole, already missing her. Predictable, am I? Complaint or compliment, is my query for you, darling Margo.

The cereal’s finished but I’m not getting up in my accustomed hurry — I’m thinking about Margo at twenty, how I spied her through a street-side window up the square from Faneuil Hall, a working kid at her desk, serious and maybe a little afraid for her job, typing away, so pretty that I sucked my breath in too fast and choked. I was with one of my frat brothers — a fine fellow called Francie — I mention him only because he knocked me down patting my back, that kind of guy, huge, ungainly, not a friend, a story I’ve told a million times while Margo looks on impassive. Be that as it may, when I looked back in the window the young woman was gone.

Next day, walking blocks out of my way, I found her window again, watched her bang on the keys of that state-of-the-art Selectric II, watched her answer the dial-faced phone, watched her file a sheaf of papers one by one at lightning speed in the drawers of ten cabinets, watched her pull her raincoat on and don a smart little rain-hat bright red, watched her rush out the door into a corridor headed where? I scurried to the building’s famously grand lobby, waited for another glimpse, but that wasn’t her exit of choice, apparently. Next day after that, again, this time closer, my nose on the glass, I made goofy faces till she deigned to turn and look: disdain. I stayed away a few days then, but came back with a plan exemplified by a double bouquet of red roses on long stems — a week’s pay, as I recall — stepped unchallenged into her building in those days before armed guards and metal detectors, found my way to her door through warren and maze, knocked, entered, presented the flowers. “Oh!” she said. “Oh!” Blushing. “From whom?” she said, good grammar always, looking for a card, sucker for blooms, standing so close that I scented her: work sweat and Shalimar, all amid my redolent roses, intoxicating. “From yours truly,” I said. Long story short: the roses got us to lunch, and lunch to a rather chaste kiss, and that kiss via a very long sequence of pleasant events to the present juncture.

I drop my cereal bowl in the sink and hurry to the shelf in the playroom, where I pull down one of our dozens of photo albums. I turn quickly to a certain page, photo of Margo in her swimsuit outside the library at Vineyard Haven — always in her swimsuit back then, modest two-piece, strong shoulders. But it’s not her bod I examine. It’s her face, always her face. She’s about to make a joke. I’m behind the camera forever, see. And right at that page, there’s a piece of paper tucked in, neatly folded. It’s Margo’s good stationery. I look at that face, that smile about to bloom, unfold the letter. At the top of the page there’s a neat number four, then:

Leo, I’m sorry. And since I know you didn’t read past those words in note number one, I’ll repeat myself to some extent. I know you’ll get back to the note on the pillow (and I know it’s still lying there, just as I know what became of the note I left on the porcelain — I thought you’d appreciate that particular placement), get back to it tonight, just as I know you’ll go to work shortly, if not quite as usual, and just as I know that you’ve just eaten your breakfast on the porch, since the temperature is safely between sixty-five and seventy degrees.

And there’s the very thing, Leo: I’m tired of the routine. Words you’ve heard before, I realize. So here are some new words: Leo, I am leaving. I want no more rote kisses, I want no more absent hugs, I want no more of the script, the daily repetition, life’s savage wheel. You, and me, and we, are too predictable, dear. How you always go to the photo when I’m absent. Sweet of yout but sentiment doesn’t excuse the expected, does it.

But I bet you didn’t expect this letter. Don’t you feel better already? Something new? I do, just writing these words. Well, then, up early and much to do. I love you.

Like all the rest, that hasn’t changed.


I fold the letter, such as it is, return it to the photo album precisely as I found it, close the book on it, put the book in its place on the shelf, match the mark its spine has made on the shelf in dust, and it’s as good as if Margo’s little outburst never happened.

I hear her voice: please don’t leave your cereal bowl in the sink, and I’m back to the kitchen, where I retrieve my all-too-predictable bowl and open the unpredictable dishwasher with a flourish no one, not even Margo, could anticipate. But inside a note hangs, this one written on the clean cardboard of a cracker box nipped from the recycling bin, its flap folded so as to grip the coated wire of the upper rack, large letters in felt-tip-marker black, the number five printed neatly at top: “Predictable,” it says, spelled correctly, and then:

Bowl in the dishwasher, is it? You’re thinking that such a gesture after so few will carry the day. But Leo? Put your damn bowl wherever you want. I’ve collected my things. I’m gone. And don’t think I don’t know you saw the note in the photo album.

Not without love, Margo. P.S. How’s my spelling, Mr. Predictable?

My heart isn’t sinking or anything: Despite the jabs I’m pretty sure this can’t be more than a warning shot across my miserable bow. And in any case there’s little time for reflection. I’ve got to shower and shave before I make my way to the T, the usual commuter train at the usual time — but no. Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m not going to play it straight today, no ma’am. That there’s a note in the shower, I have no doubt, and that’s a note I’d rather not see. Instead I’ll climb in the Celica (the twelfth I’ve owned in a satisfactory series) and race to the gym — I never go there on Wednesdays, never — but no and once again, lest there be a note numbered how-some-ever in that predictable car, I’ll walk it — two miles, nice morning. And so I do, puffing pleasantly, brisk pace. Janie at the desk in front of that grand glass-block wall greets me with her usual smile, and this: “Oh, a note for you.” And hands over number six, this digit on the outside of the envelope writ large in steady hand the better to point out that there are no misplaced notes — Margo, somehow, has followed me here in advance. I snatch the note from Janie with such unaccustomed vehemence (and shaking fingers) that her normally frozen lineaments register a perceptible note of surprise: her pretty eyebrows go up a millimeter, her kissable mouth opens barely, just enough to admit a brief, sharp intake of air.

The note:

To the gym under pressure, comme toujours, eh, Leo? And quit goggling--you don’t have a ghost of a chance with Janie, Bub. And no further chance with me, I’m afraid.

Number seven, taped to one of forty treadmills in the big place:

Always the treadmill, Leo? Always this particular treadmill?

Quite so, and what of it? I crank the pace till I’m fairly sprinting, pound my feet to the rhythm of unaccustomed existential pain, this familiar run to nowhere, thinking of all the trips we’ve not taken, all the somewheres I’ve promised — Europe, Asia, Africa, the various lands down under — thinking of how resolutely I’ve ridden out Margo’s periods of restlessness, as if they were disease. I’ll ride this one out, too, goes the thought through my head.

Followed by something new, unaccustomed synapses firing:

No you won’t.

Exercised, showered, un-refreshed, I head for the office, full strolling gait along the streets of Boston, finding myself despite the present accusations full of life, full of variation, adaptable, even mysterious. All that to say one thing: unpredictable, which I repeat in my head to the rhythm of my stride. The alleys and byways and distant-stretching streets I normally pass beckon me. But even on such a day as this, a day of change, one must go to work.

At the office, the same old office, I greet the doorman with a barking hello. He jumps, startled, says, “Rightbackatcha,” wryly. I’m a different man. In the elevator I poke the button for twenty-five, which is the highest floor, elevation itself being one of my attainments (no light under a bushel here). In my office sanctuary I relax. I’ve beaten the game, it seems — there is no envelope number eight. I run a quick check through my doors and drawers and shelves. Envelope number eight is not to be found. Envelope eight is somewhere else, somewhere I am not: unpredictable me! I ask the ancient, efficient, predictable Mrs. Berger if there are calls: none. I concentrate on the GoGo Athletics figures, no problem, and by noontime I’ve worked out an algorithm that will save my underlings thousands of hours of guesswork as they study the market for GoGo’s new line of sneaks, perfect concentration, half the time I’ve allotted, and I’m done.

But after, I can’t bear it any longer. I dial home in some heat. My voice, is the message I expect, but instead it’s Margo, for all the world to hear: “Number eight,” she says, clearly, formally, with irony for my ear alone, and then, for those others who might call: “Please leave a message that I won’t get, for I live here no longer.”

In lieu of lunch, my heart starting to break, I walk in the park, walk a long way, clear down to the river where I watch the tugs, watch the Boston College crew team at its noontime punishment workouts, walk north a mile, walk west, walk south, walk east, random turns that form a big, unpremeditated trapezoid. At each corner of which, tacked to the low boughs of trees I’ve never noticed before, I spy huge sheets of poster board, bright pink with the number nine scrawled in dark crayon, no other note, but the message is clear enough: I’m predictable. That I have to think about how she’s done it is indictment enough, but at length, scratching my head, I do solve the puzzle: the route I’ve taken isn’t random at all, but my usual preoccupied lunch-hour walk, forty-five minutes precisely.

I sit on a handsome steel bench — why have I never seen it before? — stopping everything before the next reminder can assault me. And I take stock: am I? I mean, to the point that Margo might be moved to push me away? That predictable?

I’ve known the woman over thirty years. Our courting, excuse me, dear, but was that so predictable? No, it was not. Though I guess six months on Eurail Passes isn’t exactly six months on Ellesmere Island, Arctic Circle, studying lichens, which is how Margo’s new friends the Morriseys met. And told us at a very unpredictable dinner the other night that they had fought the whole time, as Margo and I decidedly never did. Is anger the only passion? We dampened the upholstery of the cheaper compartments of those trains; we complimented ourselves not only on our compatibility but on our spontaneity.

Or was that hers?

On my steel bench dark thoughts descend. That Jack jerk she talks about from the community garden: is she? The rest I can’t get into words, but only grim images — so fresh, athletic, lubricious, noisy, no move rehearsed. How many years since I’ve seen Margo thus transported, even in my thoughts of her? My mind races to the dentist’s office — all those women’s magazines, full of instructions: revitalize sex! Wear this, say that, thumbs here, elbows there, satin ropes! Letter to the editor: Biology reigns; boredom gains a toe-hold even if you are trying toe-holds for the first time, those same old toes, you know what I’m saying? Yet couples stay together — why not Margo and Leo?

I leap from my bench with a cry. She’s right. It’s all my fault. How I have failed her! I fairly trot to Minky’s House of Hair. Minky himself takes both my hands, seeing my anguish, foregoes his lunch hour (bitchy Minky, being compassionate?), flings me into one of his pink thrones. “I need a change,” I say. “Honey!” he says soulfully, agreeing. “Do what you will,” I tell him. “Color,” says he. He says, “I see black roots, blond streaks, red accents!” “Rainbows,” says I. His assistant washes my hair arousingly, her breasts in my face as my thoughts fly to further changes. Minky’s scissors flail, then the two of them work potions and oils and fragrant color washes onto my head.

“Now just sit, doll,” says Minky, pushing my head back. “Oh, and there’s a note for you. I nearly forgot!”

Number ten, of course, which figure, by way of gloating reminder, is typed neatly at the top of the page:

A haircut? Wild dye job? Leo, nice try, but isn’t that a little, um, external?

No, no, no — it’s not external, it’s merely the flowering body of a deep-growing … fungus.

Seeing my stricken face all Minky can say is “is this dye-prep burning you?” He adjusts the blotting papers, wipes my forehead, reassures me: “Only twenty minutes to go.”

And after exactly that much time, and after writing yet another large check to my man, and after looking in the mirror long and hard, I realize I’ll have to wear a baseball cap to go back to work.

But who says I have to go back to work? I’m upper management, I can do what I want, not that until now I’ve ever wanted anything but work.

At Sunrise Yoga I’m taken by surprise. It’s taped to the shoe shelves, just a number, spelled out, no note:


I flee. Twelve is on the phone booth wall at Maple Avenue, an envelope, clearly numbered. Inside there’s a slip of purple paper, that green ink again:

How am I doing?

Is all she’s written, and that’s all she wrote.

I call Mrs. Berger and let her know I’m indisposed. She clucks pityingly, says, “Call from your wife. She says you’ll understand the message.”

“Thirteen?” I say.

“Thirteen,” says Mrs. Berger, patiently. She knows she can be patient. An explanation will come. It always does.

Fourteen’s at Tiffany’s, clever lipstick on the lowest corner of the glass door where she knows I’ll check the reflection of my shoes. So much for that expensive gift — better to get flowers. I scurry onward.

Fifteen’s at the O’Leary Saloon, the door of which I haven’t darkened for more than a week. Fifteen, just that, scrawled on a thick manila envelope handing to me by jaunty Jerome, the bartender who’s made my second-Monday-of-the-month martinis for going on twenty years. “We growing old together, mon,” says he. How has his English remained so Caribbean all these years?

“Growing old,” I tell him, as always, and we nod our heads the same old way.

The envelope contains papers appropriate to several kinds of divorce. I’m to pick, is my guess. No-fault state. Uncontested. Division of Property. Is the language of the lawyer she’s hired. The third Martini is unaccustomed, catches the interest of Jerome. I throw him an extra five by way of hush money. “Nice haircut,” he says, emboldened. “I couldn’t be striping my hair like that, mon.”

“I’d recommend it,” I say lugubriously, mouth full of olives.

Sixteen’s at the company garage, note on a floral postcard on the concrete between the lines of my parking space.

You walked.

Is all it says, a nice reminder. Seventeen’s at the flower shop on Madison, and though it says not to bother, I buy the dozen roses. Mr. Grace always dates his blooms, and the date is always today — great shop — and the date, by God, looks friendly and familiar, then takes me aback: it’s Margo’s and my anniversary, twenty-one years today! Note eighteen is in my wallet, of all places, taped minutely to the back of the Gold Card. “Happy last anniversary,” is all it says.

I’m desperate. My next act must be unprecedented, an act of heart. At the stairs to the T there’s the cheerful, beggarly fellow who’s always there in his well-tended wheelchair, empty pant leg displayed, distinct map of Vietnam tattooed on the back of his pale hand, great green coat hanging off his skin and bones in the heat, sweet visage of the blind. His sister brings him every day, I know, because Margo has told me so, she who stops to talk to the living dead. I turn on my heel in a rush of feeling, plunge into the street, brave the traffic, storm the Fleet Bank branch across the street, accost the young teller. “Withdrawal,” I shout, and take all the money from my discretionary account — not a dime could be considered Margos’ — clutch the results, almost six thousand dollars, a thick pile of crisp twenties. Cash in hand, expiation forthcoming, I wheel again and plunge, leap in the face of honking taxis, cross back to my own priest of a bum, greet him, pat his shoulder, tuck the wad into his voluminous coat pocket among the nickels and dimes and wadded bills.

“Nineteen,” he says.

“Nineteen?” I whisper back.

“Quite so,” he says. His head tilts, his blank eyes fix me.

I push away in shock, rush into the station, leap into the closing doors of the first train, ride it on its complete route, distraught, finding myself in its windows in tunnels: wild hair, wild eyes, a dozen roses clutched to my chest. In the glass, wiped with the faint grease of a fingertip, a figure resolves itself. How could it be? A big, handsome two followed by a great, round zero. Twenty. How possibly could she have done it? I bolt from the train next station, look neither right nor left, find my way to our neighborhood in growing dusk. She’ll be there, I’m thinking. She’ll be there, and be contrite. I, too. “You’ve changed,” she’ll say.

Home, a new man, I’m cautious. Home, alive to myself, I fling off my jacket, my shirt, my shoes, my familiar socks, my pants. All but naked, reborn, I case the yard, I check the carport. Nothing new.

In the house, nothing. Or rather half. Half of everything, gone. Margo, gone. Well, that’s something different.

I rush upstairs to find that first note on my pillow. It turns out to say it all, a fond farewell forever, signed with love. At the bottom, under her name, there’s the number I didn’t notice. Twenty-one, of course.

I hug that pillow to my face as if to smother myself, smother myself. This is going to be one empty house. I hug that pillow and smell nothing but Minky’s noxious shampoo and hug that pillow, alone. I’m not the man I was this morning.

Margo, please, I’ve changed!


Bill Roorbach was born in August, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois, to Jack and Reba Roorbach. In 1954 his family moved to suburban Boston, MA., where he attended kindergarten. In 1959 the family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, where Bill attended public schools from first grade on. He matriculated at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, in 1971, was graduated cum laude in August of 1976 with a B.A. in Individual and Interdisciplinary Studies. He played piano and sang in a succession of bands then, bartended, and traveled far and wide, working briefly on a cattle ranch and extensively as a carpenter, plumber, and handyman, always writing, often playing music, all over the country and a little in Europe, ending up in New York City, first a loft in Soho, then a loft in the Meat District, where at 33, in the winter of 1987, he decided to get down to grad school. In Columbia University’s writing program he won a School of the Arts Fellowship and a Fellowship of Distinction. A teaching assistantship made it possible to teach Logic and Rhetoric for two years in the English Department. In addition, he was a fiction editor of Columbia:A Magazine of Poetry and Prose. He was graduated with an MFA in Fiction Writing in May of 1990. He sold his first book, SUMMERS WITH JULIET, shortly thereafter, to Houghton Mifflin.

Bill was married to the painter Juliet Karelsen shortly thereafter: France, Montana, then Western Maine, where he took his first full time teaching job in September, 1991, at the University of Maine at Farmington, a small liberal arts college. Bill enjoyed four good years there, including first book publication, then took a job at Ohio State, where he taught in the MFA program and English Department, winning tenure in 1998. At OSU Bill edited the Sandstone Prize in Short Fiction.

In 2000, Juliet gave birth to a daughter, Elysia, and the family decided they wanted to live in Maine, and so returned to the house and town they’d never really left. In quick succession, he published five new books of fiction and nonfiction.

From 2004-2009 Bill commuted to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he held the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross.

Bill is now writing full time and enjoying life with his family and friends. in Maine. A new novel, LIFE AMONG GIANTS, will be published by Algonquin in August 2012.

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