Katherine Ann Davis
The package arrives every year at this time. Your new wife has placed it beneath the desk lamp in your study, separate from the rest of the mail--magazines she skims, bills she pays, address labels from the disabled veterans’ organization she supports.
It’s a large white envelope stamped with the university crest, and bulky where the thank-you notes and photos have clustered. After they’ve returned from studying abroad, students send you these expressions of their gratitude for the small dent you’ve made in their debt. Gratitude is mandatory.
You know what the envelope contains: skewed shots of castles and cathedrals, group photos with the tops of people’s heads cut off, blurry nightscapes of unnamed cities--the discards. You’ll find attempts at formality: “Dear kind Sir,” “Your awesome generosity is appreciated muchly,” “I humbly offer my thanks.” But you’ll find no indication of how those months likely passed--no mention of drunken sex with local barflies, compulsive naps on the class tours, or half-assed final papers.
You sit and untie your shoes. Your new wife doesn’t comment on the late hour; she only says, “The children are ready for bed, if you’d like to see them.” You haven’t yet figured out whether she is passive-aggressive in these moments or just very invested in their routine. There are three children. The youngest is yours.
“One minute,” you say. You reach for the envelope, your fingers glowing red when they pass over the lamplight. As a child, you thought this was blood showing through the skin.
“In a minute they’ll be asleep,” she says. You leave the envelope unopened and go upstairs. She picks up your shoes and follows.
They stand in line like soldiers awaiting inspection. You can smell the shampoo in their damp hair, the fabric softener in their pajamas. The eldest boy is getting stocky, while the daughter (yours) remains a wisp. “I signed Franklin up for football camp,” says your wife, noting your glances.
You nod and ask your daughter if she finished her dinner. “I’ll eat tomorrow,” she says.
The children say goodnight. Your wife directs each child to a bed, distributes cups of water, tucks in blankets, and plugs in nightlights with frightening efficiency. You think about her riding you with this same dutiful vigor.
She closes their bedroom doors partway. Back in your study, she sits at the secretary near the door and double-checks bank statements with a calculator. She used to appraise properties. You wonder if she misses it.
You open the envelope. Postcard-like images of rivers and religious shrines dominate its contents. The only group photo is a candid shot of students viewing Picasso’s 1905 Seated Harlequin--all unaware that they are the true subjects in that moment. Their scribbled handwriting thanks you for experiences that remain undepicted. You hold the notes to the lamplight in turn and marvel at the thickness of their silences, the months of few sacrifices, their freedom to be a little reckless.
About the author:
Katherine Ann Davis's most recent work appears in Broad River Review, and she won Gigantic Sequins' 2014 Flash Fiction Contest. Currently, she is living in Wisconsin and completing her first novel.