By Nancy Whetstone

"Sorry, Honey. I'll be home late again tonight," Bill had cooed in his placating voice. "Maybe an hour, maybe two."

Cora wondered what would happen if he came home tonight, and found her gone. Would he search the house, calling "Cora! Cora!" in the same demanding tone he used to call the dog? Would he grumpily turn on the TV, wondering why the hell she couldn't leave a note? Later, would he go into the bedroom, check the dresser; her two top drawers, find them empty? Would he see that the big green Samsonite suitcase was gone, and Cora's red coat missing? Or would he doze off watching TV and panic when he awoke in the morning, stiff and disoriented, and realize it was tomorrow, and still no wife?

She wondered these things, while scrubbing Mrs. White's tub with cleanser and a scrub-brush, the scratch-scratch sounds becoming the beat of a song that had been running through her head lately: "Beast of Burden." She wondered these things as she worked; as sweat dampened the curly brown ponytail at the nape of her thick neck, and ran in rivulets down the canal of her thick back, to soak the cotton briefs that encased her thick behind. She wondered these things while she sat, alone, with the last empty beer can staring accusingly at her, crunching the last crumb of tortilla chips between her molars, sucking the last drop of cheese and picante sauce from her neatly trimmed fingernails.

Once, Cora had been an enchantress. Her hair blew glossily over her soft pale shoulders, her pink lips were moist and full by design. Now, her lips were chapped and bled where she chewed them.

In the beginning, Bill had thought she was glamorous, voluptuous, like a movie star. He used to love to brush her hair, to wind it around his slim fingers. He used to love to touch her, her breasts, her thighs, her butt, her crotch. He used to make her burn. The young newlyweds made love in every room of their small apartment, they kept the doors closed and the shades drawn and the air-conditioner running 24/7. Their utility bills were staggering. So was their sex.

Now, when it happened, it happened with the lights off, quietly, quickly. It was over before it had begun, Cora alone on her side of the bed, curled into a fetal position, tasting the salt from his shoulders on her painful lips. The last time was two months ago.

Cora had accidentally got pregnant within the second month of the marriage, but it had been okay. Bill had good insurance at his new job as a maintenance man at the Burgess Hotel. And he said he had wanted a baby, anyway. It was Cora who wasn't too sure. She'd gained 60 pounds by the time Amanda was born, and 75 more, two years later, with Thomas. She'd never had much trouble controlling her weight before. But after the children, it was much harder. She'd lost 20 pounds initially, through strict discipline, but within the next five years, had gained it all back again. She tried not to think about it too much.

And Bill had become a sullen lump, no longer willing to chase her around the house or rock the children on his lap, softly crooning Doobie Brothers tunes. If he was good for anything, he was a good provider. At least, Mandy and Tommy didn't want for clothes or the latest cartoon merchandising gimmick toy or their favorite high-dollar sugarcoated breakfast treats. They loved their Daddy immensely, when he was around. Mostly, it was just Cora and the kids. Cora liked to imagine herself as a single mother, taking her kids to school and going off to a real career, not the part-time housekeeping job she dragged herself to three days a week. Maybe she'd lose weight, and wear skirts and blouses and neat low-heeled pumps. She'd get her hair cut into a more professional style. She'd get an apartment, a phone in her name; she'd call Bill and harass him about child-support payments. She'd get a boyfriend, and go dancing again. She used to love to dance. Maybe she'd forget about dieting, and find a man who likes his women soft and plump.

But late in the evenings, Bill would come on home, looking tired and handsome, with dirty hair and grease under his fingernails. He'd call her into the bathroom to scrub his back, and she'd go willingly, smile, and ask him about his day. Sometimes, he'd be crabby, and start a litany of complaint regarding his boss, the jerk, his supervisor, the asshole, and his boss's secretary, the stupid bitch. He'd describe the Hotel's electrical outage in great detail, and his argument with the electrician. He'd become so animated that she would grow impatient with him, and finish scrubbing him in a hurry, mumbling that she'd better get started on dinner or they'd never eat.

Sometimes, at dinner, she would go back for seconds, and he would ask, "Do you really need that?" so she would eat her seconds from the pans in the kitchen while he watched TV in the living room with the kids. Sometimes, while she was eating this way, she would cry a little, although she was careful to wipe her mouth and eyes with a paper towel before she rejoined her family.

At five o'clock, the phone rang. She knew who it was, and let the answering machine take the call. She grimaced when she heard her own, flat voice giving the announcement, and again when she heard the soft, cajoling voice of her husband, saying he'd be late again. Sorry, Honey.

It was Friday. Tommy and Mandy were staying with her mother for the weekend, as planned, and the roast was thawed and seasoned and waiting, wet and red and white, in the roasting pan. A freshly baked apple pie graced the counter top. As she changed from her best blue dress and control-top panty-hose to a pair of gray sweats and a T-shirt bearing the bright screen-printed caption World's Greatest Mom, Cora considered eating it. She imagined getting a fork, spearing it right into the center of the flaky, golden crust, and raising a huge, gelatinous glob of apples and pastry and sugar and cinnamon to her open mouth. She visualized herself getting a suitcase, packing a bra and some panties and a sensible, wrinkle-free outfit, something suitable for job hunting.

The suitcase was heavier than she'd expected, after she'd added her nightgown and robe, her makeup and curling iron and blow-dryer, her copy of Women Who Love Too Much, and her good red coat. The pie was difficult to eat in the car. She held the pan carefully in her ample lap, dipping the fork in at stop-lights. Apple filling oozed from her wounded lips and dripped onto the cheerful logo on her T-shirt.

Cora wondered what would happen when he came home tonight, and found her gone. She couldn't help but laugh out loud, alone in her Buick, her mouth full of apple pie.

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